Thursday, December 24, 2009

Waiting for a Miracle

Faith is hard, and I don’t think there is a way to make it easier. Truth be told, I’m not sure it is supposed to be easy; nothing worthwhile ever is. People who are in over their heads in debt, for instance, convince themselves that if there was just more money coming in, the financial problems would solve themselves, but we know this is not always true. It’s the same thing with school work and grades. A’s are nice to have, but getting an A without doing the work only dilutes the true value of the A. In either case, what is given (money or A’s) does not solve the real problem.

Everything we do and everything we endure is a journey, a means to an end. There are all kinds of means by which we accomplish certain incremental goals, but the end will not be until “The End”. So until that Day of the Lord comes, we have a journey to endure. And the journey is made more difficult and challenging for us not only because far too many choose to go it alone outside of the Body of Christ, apart from the Church, but also because we are primarily stimulated and guided by our physical senses. Faith issues can arise when we depend too heavily on these physical senses. Obviously we cannot ignore them; in fact, we’ve been given these senses to serve useful Kingdom purposes. But the journey itself often becomes more cumbersome to us when it seems apparent that all we can hear and see and feel is, quite literally, all there seems to be even as it seems equally clear that something much greater is missing.

We serve and worship a God whose ideals, whose principles, whose purposes, whose senses are much higher than our own. And these things of God cannot be attained or even accessed by physical means, which would help to explain why faith can sometimes seem so elusive, perhaps especially because we are so physically inclined.

The Church exists for this very thing, to serve as a sanctuary from the world, where the means of grace must be readily available and eagerly pursued for those who have faith issues as well as for those whose faith may need only a “topping off” after a long week so they can face the coming week. The high purpose of the Church is to “re-juice” those spiritual batteries so that when things get tough and our physical senses become overwhelmed to the point of overload, we have that enduring faith that will carry us long after we’ve reached the point of exhaustion.

That faith, however, that enduring faith, does not come easily, and I think it is because of a lack of higher expectation. And this is because church attendance itself has become more of an end itself rather than a means to an end, a much higher end. Too often folks go to church with little more than a mind toward what songs will be sung, what friends may be seen, and what the preacher may or may not say. These things require little or no spiritual preparation because these things will be primarily directed toward our physical senses.

We come with little, if any, anticipation because our “faith juice” has run dangerously low, but the internal spiritual gauge that warns us does not always work like it should. Maybe because faith is a divine gift, we simply expect it to come to us – on our own terms. We come into the sanctuary of the Lord, His House, but we don’t really expect to “see” Him, certainly not physically but, sadder still, not spiritually, either. We don’t prepare ourselves for worship because our expectations are so low. And our expectations are so low because faith is so lacking.

That very first Christmas so long ago had to have come at such a low point in the expectations of God’s people, in spite of the prophecies. They were overrun by Romans, and their religion was more often geared toward physical lawful obedience rather than spiritual fulfillment. And as it so often is expressed, the Messiah they likely expected was a physical warrior who would ultimately drive out the pagans and reestablish the Lord’s “physical” Kingdom. Everything they expected – actually, perhaps demanded – was geared toward their own immediate physical needs. So the answers to whatever problems they thought they had would have to be physical because that was the level of their expectations.

We gather for worship with every reason to expect a miracle, but do we really expect it? It’s easy to know of a physical healing or surviving a car crash or any number of physical examples and we would attribute such things to divine intervention, but do we really believe that? Or do we hope it to be so? Or do we cast it off as such because we are at a loss for any other rational, physical expectation? And if we do genuinely attribute it to divine intervention, do we evaluate that divine intervention to determine whether perhaps the Lord was speaking directly to us for something much greater than the moment?

We do truly desire an encounter with our Holy Father. We need to be assured not only that He is present but that everything is ok. We need to know that the Kingdom of Heaven is worth the trials and tribulations of this life, the hardships, the doubts, the tears, the sorrow, the pain. And I do truly believe that the people of that blessed day so long ago, epitomized in the Christmas Story by the shepherds, the lowest of the low in that society, got exactly what they needed and right when they needed it most, perhaps when they were near the end of their spiritual “rope”. Or maybe they were the ones most likely to not only see but also appreciate the glorious message announced by the Heavenly Hosts.

And that’s the thing about miracles and the high purposes they serve. But these miracles are not possible to us if we cannot, or will not believe not only in “a” god but THE Living God, the Loving God, OUR Holy Father, being confident in that abiding love by which we understand that He is not going to spoil us by giving us things we cannot possibly appreciate, things we don’t really need and cannot really use. But that which endures to the very end, that which humanity needed most of all then – and now - is that which we must come to expect whenever we enter into the sanctuary of the Lord. To come to worship expecting a miracle – because it is His very nature, the essence of who He is.

It is the very essence and spirit of Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's just Christmas

As usual I am contemplating what I preached yesterday and how it may have adversely affected some. I know there are the more mature Christians who can take it, but there are many who are struggling on one level or another and could be pushed one way or the other. And the struggle is often intensified during the Advent season when so many are running in too many different directions, young families struggling to have enough money to buy a lot of crap they don’t need for children who could not possibly appreciate it but will, instead, come to expect it.

All this came crashing down on me the other day as I was watching the US Senate on TV debating the health care bill. One senator called into question the “sustainability” of such massive government spending. Not trying to go off on a political diatribe but as I was listening to what he was saying, it occurred to me that where we are now in this economy and in this country and in this Christmas is “unsustainable”. That is to say, sooner or later limits will be hit; maybe we’ve already hit them. There is only so much money in the entire world without printing a lot of worthless paper, the government can only take so much from American taxpayers without actually cutting into bone and muscle (and they may already be doing so!), and parents can only spend so much on children and grandchildren before a limit is finally reached.

Back when I was growing up, my parents struggled often to make ends meet. At Christmas, though, you would have thought my parents had all the money in the world. My siblings and I got just about everything our little hearts could possibly desire – and yes, I was glad to get it but there was no way I could honestly appreciate any of it because it came to me without cost on my part. It was only years later when I would come to find out my parents likely took several months to pay off the credit card debt incurred from such a lavish Christmas. And each Christmas we expected more of the same. We would look through the giant JCPenney catalogue with eager anticipation AND expectation!

Fast forward a few years later when my wife and I had children and began our own tradition, borrowing from a tradition we once knew as children. We had been conditioned for Christmas to be a certain way, so we continued this lavish and very expensive Christmas. And like me, our children came to expect such extravagance each and every Christmas. Until one Christmas it was just no longer possible. So what happens? Christmas, as it is, is never the same. Someone always feels cheated or disappointed, and the spirit of Christmas is diminished.

And here is the thing. It cannot be that way. There is no such thing as a “bad” Christmas or a “good” Christmas because even though we define such by how much money we have to spend and how many presents are under the tree, it is still Christmas, the Christ Mass, the celebration of the birth of Messiah! How can this be “bad” on any level, and how can man possibly improve on that? Even with the best of intentions, Christians have become the ones who have removed “Christ” from Christmas. Watching us go at it, you might as well rename the holiday “Walmart-mas”. Or “Sears-mas”. Or “K-Mart-mas”. Know what I mean? It’s not the pagans or the agnostics or the atheists or the godless, pinko, liberals who are ruining Christmas … it is the CHRISTIANS who should know better who are ruining Christmas!

What is sadder still is that I get it, but I feel horrible every single year because of what I have allowed this Holy season, this Holy Day, to become to me and my family. Makes it very hard to preach and even harder still to be upbeat. It’s Christmas, a Holy Day in celebration of that incredible moment in human history when the Lord came to us in the flesh, in a way we could comprehend. The story of our rejection, of course, comes much later.

It’s just Christmas, and it’s all good all on its own merit. It is a Holy Day. You and I cannot make it better nor can we, thank God, make it worse except, of course, for ourselves and those we love by losing sight of what really matters. And whether one is in Baghdad, Kabul, or Magnolia, it will still be Christmas. And the Promise that came to all of mankind is the same Promise which today.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Rachel's Tears

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’” Matthew 2:16-18 NKJV

US Senator Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, true to form, ignored the voice of Arkansas and the “tears of Rachel” by voting with her beloved party to kill an amendment to the Senate health care bill that would have further restricted any federal funds to be used to finance, or provide insurance coverage with federal funds for, abortions (Arkansas’ other senator, Mark Pryor, D-AR, voted to allow the amendment). Oddly, the amendment was sponsored by US Senator Ben Nelson, D-NEB, who has vowed now to filibuster the entire Democratic bill because the possibility still exists that in the Democrats’ efforts to overhaul health “care”, destruction of unborn children is strangely considered “care”.

It is still argued by the Democrats that the Hyde Amendment is still in force, which does restrict federal funding for abortion and seems to negate the need for additional legislation, but the whole health care debate seems to be going a little too far in providing for the poor more than they need and far more than many American Christians are willing to provide. And while we cannot argue as a “Christian nation”, we are no less a nation of Christians with a collective conscience.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, recently likened those who oppose his health care overhaul proposal – all 2000 pages of it! - namely Republicans and especially those opposed to the so-called public option, with the obstructionists from yesteryear who opposed “free states”. By such a lame proclamation, Mr. Reid has made it abundantly clear that he is all out of genuine, workable ideas or valid arguments and has now resorted to name-calling and baseless accusations. One cannot help but to wonder if Mr. Reid might like to have himself and his cohorts likened to the lynch mobs of yesteryear who destroyed innocent lives and were, if not legally sanctioned, certainly overlooked by the law enforcers of the Jim Crow era. Truth be told, such an accusation would hit a little too close to home in light of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents as recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

Civil rights and abortion advocates are already up in arms because of the Stupak Amendment which was attached to the House version of health care “reform”, which severely restricts federal funds not only from direct payment to abortion providers but also prohibits subsidized payments for insurance coverage for abortion. Such pro-life moves are seen as threats to one’s “right” to destroy unborn children, going so far as to argue that even the poor have rights even if they cannot afford the procedure. And heaven help those who argue about which is “cheaper” or more humane: destroying the unborn child, or bringing an unwanted child into the world. Pity the nation that actually debates such unconscionable premises.

The tabling of this amendment (to “table”, which essentially kills the measure, is to require only a simple majority vote rather than the 60 votes required to pass or fail an amendment) will be called by those senators up for reelection a simple “procedural” vote rather than a straight vote for or against. It will be the Democrats’ argument, as seems to be usually the case, that we peasants are simply too ignorant or misinformed to understand the complexities of parliamentarian procedure and that their experience will be our only saving grace. Especially in rural farm country, Arkansas, having Sen. Lincoln as chair of the Agriculture Committee, might be too great a risk to lose, but this is pretty much the essence of what politics has become. The blessings of true liberty have become our curse. The reign of incumbency has created a nation our founders would not recognize.

Politics aside, we must stand for a national moral conscience. It is “a poverty”, says the late Mother Teresa, that any nation would kill its own young ostensibly for the good of another. Let the churches fight the true battle from the pulpit, but demand that the government stay absolutely neutral. This means that if women want to have abortions, they better have the means to pay for one. There is no “right” to expect me or other like-minded taxpayers to foot the bill. And no, I am not morally obligated to adopt the children you produce but do not want or cannot support.

Shame on you, Blanche Lincoln. Shame on you, US Senate. On the positive side, however, you all may have finally awakened an otherwise complacent electorate, and you are about to get bitten by the hands that have, quite literally, fed you for so long.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ups and Downs

Sarah Palin’s national book tour appears to be at least a qualified success. Lots of crowds, lots of enthusiasm, lots of books sold. How long it may last remains to be seen. When Palin first came onto the national stage as John McCain’s VP pick in the 2008 presidential election, I freely admit I was caught up in the enthusiasm. Gov. Palin has something to offer, is exciting to hear, and is pretty easy on the eyes. In the end, though, she was found (in my humble opinion) to be of little more substance than the man this nation elected president. The difference between Gov. Palin and President Obama is ideology; neither has (or had) the experience or the background sufficient to prepare either for the presidency. Mr. Obama is exposed in such a light very nearly every time he opens his mouth. Gov. Palin is spending as much time speaking in platitudes grossly lacking in substance. Let us not make the same mistake twice by electing someone who looks good on camera and talks a good show. Been there, doin’ that, not likin’ it much – you betcha.

Just 38% of voters now favor the health care plan proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats. So says the latest Rasmussen poll. Just so we’re clear, though: President Obama never “proposed” anything. He left it to the Congress (his words) and has been excited or enthusiastic about every Democratic proposal that has been put forth (strangely silent or vaguely objecting to, if not downright dismissive of, Republican proposals. Each proposal from the House and the Senate comes with a $1 trillion (+ or – a few billion among friends) price tag. Not long ago President Obama made like he was ready to get serious about the nation’s colossal debt but has yet to propose anything there. So if he’s all about a $1 trillion health care bill and the government entities that will be required to administer it AND if he is equally all about debt reduction, this can mean only one thing: that which he will have the temerity to propose will be massive tax increases the likes of which we will not have seen to date. Thank you, Democrats. That’s your albatross to carry into 2010.

On that same note of appropriate congressional priorities, do you suppose the 62% who do not favor the health care plan (whichever plan they don’t like) are a part of the 17% who are out of work and have all but given up the search as futile or have settled for part-time jobs just to make ends meet? One might be inclined to think that those out of work would never stop looking, but reading labor reports in which hundreds of thousands of jobs are still being shed by the US economy each month give little hope that things are much better now than they were when the jobs were lost. Maybe these and their supporters believe the Congress has it completely backward. FIRST revamp the US tax code for corporations and small businesses so that they can afford to hire so that workers can afford to spend money AND pay taxes AND help deal with this outrageous deficit THEN start thinking again later about government spending money it does not have and, in the grand scheme, will not have in the foreseeable future.

US Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-RI, is in a public spitting match with his Catholic bishop over Kennedy’s support for abortion and the bishop’s insistence that Mr. Kennedy has effectively severed his Catholic ties and cannot receive Holy Communion in the Church. Each has made public comments and each has expressed “disappointment” or “surprise” that the other has gone public with the matter. Almost laughable except that Mr. Kennedy just does not get it. There are some things that are fundamental to religion and faith, particularly in Christianity. Supporting abortion in the first place just does not fit neatly into the Christian basket, no matter the emotion, and supporting federal measures by which we who are diametrically opposed to abortion would be forced to help finance abortion is just plain unfair and immoral. It is one thing to acknowledge the very ugly reality of abortion; it is another thing altogether to actively support it. It is unfortunate that the bishop and Mr. Kennedy cannot sit down behind a closed door, but why can’t the congressman just sit down with his own parish priest? Why does a Kennedy think a bishop must somehow give him a free pass? In the end, if Mr. Kennedy thinks he is somehow morally or biblically justified in his support of abortion, he needs to know that he’s just making it up as he goes to suit his personal beliefs. He must not get these personal beliefs, however, confused with the tenets of his religion which expressly support and defend the sanctity of human life.

Christmas is coming. Already there are expressions of regret and dread as well as eager anticipation. It is sad to know that a truly Holy Day has been reduced to a secular holiday of grief, pain, loss, depression, anxiety, and financial pressure. Season of Hope? More like “I hope I don’t go to the poorhouse this Christmas”. Why can we not simply allow Christmas to be Christmas and call Solstice what it is: a pagan ritual of self-indulgence that has nothing to do with the birth of the Christ? I wonder sometimes, however, if we were ever able to tell the difference. On this one, at least, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have the right idea.

We are still a nation at war. Let us not forget the men and women who have voluntarily stepped up to the front line of defense of this nation to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. Let us especially not forget that each of these brave souls have families back home who do not know if they will ever see their loved ones alive again. As we are a nation at war, may we soon become a nation at prayer in supporting all of them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Finding the Right Place

John 18:33-37

What kind of world would we be living in if we could know with absolute certainty when time will stand still? There has been a lot of buzz lately about the Mayan “long count” calendar that marks the end of an era on December 21, 2012. Discovery Channel and History Channel have both been busy broadcasting nearly everything they think they know about this alleged “count-down”, and there is a movie out called “2012” that is supposedly based on this Mayan calendar. But to know what kind of world we might envision with such certain knowledge, recall the actions of a few during the advent of Y2K, when food and other supplies – including ammunition - were stockpiled as a means of survival.

I don’t know whether or if “global warming” factors into any of this but to hear some “warm earth” theorists tell it, if we would pay more attention to global warming we could actually stop or at least slow this apocalyptic clock from ticking (my sincere apologies to those who earnestly take global warming more seriously than I). I am obviously oversimplifying what many consider to be a very serious problem, of course, but lacking academic or scientific credentials, I can do little else.
This is not to say that I take lightly our duty to responsible stewardship of the Lord’s created world, but there is something much more important that must first take place before we can think about adding yet another item to our plate of “things to worry about today”.

Imagine, then, an idealized world, a world in which the late Mother Teresa used to say so often that it is not the work itself that gives life and hope to the poor; it is the love that comes from the worker. She believed that the work was little more than work and a misguided expenditure of time and energy if we could not do such work with grateful hearts and love toward our fellow man. And she believed this because she believed the greatest poverty man can know – and I would suggest she probably knew this better than most – is that genuine poverty, which is the absence of companionship and love, the absence of knowing, not merely hoping, that someone actually cares, is what man lacks most because even many wealthy people lack this.

So if this lack of genuine, heartfelt love is what is truly lacking in the world, it is a deficiency we have created for ourselves because, while we may worry about global warming or a nuclear Iran or the state of the world or US economy and taxes and all those other things that have little to do with the Kingdom of Heaven, we may have been negligent in worrying about whether our neighbors know that we really care. And it would be in offering that “calling card” by which we would discover that even we are perhaps loved more than we know by people we don’t even know ... yet.

The prayer of the psalmist was: “I will not enter my house or get into my bed; I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord …” (132:3-5). And as Jesus faced His final hours on this earth in the presence of Pilate, He declared: “As it is, My kingdom is not from [this world] (John 18:36c). Is Jesus making a proclamation about the state of the world or the state of faith and religion by saying something as simple, and yet as profound, as “as it is”? Is He saying, “Well, considering how things are now, My kingdom is not here. Otherwise, Pilate, you would have your hands full”?

I think a kingdom without royal subjects (that is, people) over which to rule is not much of a kingdom. So what Jesus may be expressing is not so much a denunciation of what His current reality is more than He may be lamenting about all that has gone wrong so much so that there is no one willing to stand with Him where He is. It is not a question of whether Jesus is right where He was prophesied to be; it is, rather, a matter of His utter loneliness at this very dark hour in His earthly life. The Bible is very clear that even though this Earth is the handiwork of the Lord Himself, it seems equally clear by the persecution of Jesus that His royal subjects (His Kingdom) have all but abandoned Him. The only “faithful” left for Him to rule over are those who are not of this world - because this world made a clear choice.

That’s pretty harsh and may not be altogether accurate, but it goes more toward the state of our existing world as well as the state of the Church as to whether or not the Lord has any sort of claim over what is currently before Him. Or it could be as simple as a rejection of the world as it is although that makes no sense considering what He is willfully preparing to endure and what will come of it in the end. Man seems intent on destroying the very Best Thing that has ever been offered and though Jesus’ enemies may have thought themselves to have been successful at the time, the only ones who discovered what ultimately took place three days later were those whom Jesus believed to be trustworthy, capable of handling, and willing to endure what lay ahead.

“Finding the Right Place” must be much more than a mere sermon title. Such a concept involves not only spiritual “forward motion” but also discovery along the path to righteousness. Sanctification itself is much more than a simple state of being or self-declaration. It is a state of perpetual spiritual growth, a state of conscious awareness in which we become more and more like Christ Himself. The “right place” means understanding where the Lord fits into our lives and where we fit into His calling, His creation, and His plan of salvation for all of humanity and not just a handful of self-righteous individuals.

Searching for that “right place” will not be comfortable nor will it necessarily be pleasing to our flesh by neatly fitting in with our other chosen priorities – unless, of course, we finally find that state of spiritual perfection by and through which we serve one another not with a sense of duty or obligation but out of a genuine sense of what it means to love and to be loved. And I say all this because the “right place” to be is at the Cross – not being grateful that Jesus is bleeding to death after having been beaten to within an inch of His life, but being actively and consciously aware of the indescribable Love that exists in that incredible moment in human history.

It seems to me that if we can find ourselves at that “Right Place” at the foot of the Cross, that place where the King’s “royal subjects” must necessarily gather, we can hear the declaration and prayer from Jesus Himself asking the Father to forgive us in spite of, or perhaps because of, what we have done and what we have become. There is an element of guilt associated with the Crucifixion of the Christ, of course, but we must resist the temptation to wallow in that guilt and shame, understanding that what is most evident in that moment and at that place is not guilt but Grace. Were it to be understood as only guilt, we might reasonably believe time would have stood still at that moment and judgment rendered for that unspeakable act of humanity.

That place, that state of being, that “kingdom” is yours and mine for the taking, but we must be willing not only to go there but also to offer not what we have taken but what we are willing to give as freely and as liberally as it was given.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Matter of Endurance

Mark 13:1-13

Imagining the size of the Great Temple of Jerusalem, the size of the stones it took to build and then rebuild the Temple and the sheer number of men it took to put it all together would surely have made for an awesome sight. And given that the majesty of YHWH was likely manifest in this huge complex and the Temple itself, at least in the eyes of the observers, it is easy to imagine the disciples being awestruck and conceiving that such a structure would be virtually indestructible as the Lord Himself is indestructible. When the people of the day looked upon the Temple, they may well have imagined they were gazing upon YHWH Himself. And because the sanctuary of the Holy of Holies was deep within the walls and access strictly limited to only the high priest and only once a year during the Day of Atonement, it surely must have added a mysterious and even mystical flavor to the whole thing. What great stones! What great buildings! What a great God!

Yet it’ll never last. According to Jesus, the begotten Son of this very God, all these things will fall. Jesus seems to suggest in an almost cavalier fashion that these walls, these buildings, these very stones (each estimated to weigh tons!) will not only fall but will be “thrown” down … and much more easily than they were built up. What took years to build up was completely and utterly destroyed, maybe in a matter of hours but more likely over the course of days; but days down rather than decades up. So man has a lot invested in the Temple. Whether the destruction of the Temple and the city was the will of the Lord or the determination of man is a matter of perspective, I suppose, but I also think what Jesus is talking about goes far beyond “these buildings” they were looking at.

Chapter 13 of Mark has a very dark and apocalyptic tone because Jesus seems to be talking about The End; the end of the Temple, the end of the apostles and perhaps the apostolic age, the end of time as man can conceive of it. All that will take place leading up to The End will be ugly and likely more a test of faith and intestinal fortitude than anything the disciples could possibly imagine. “Wars and rumors of wars” is a favorite among contemporary doomsday prophets, as well as natural disasters, because we cannot pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news without hearing about the current War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, or threats of war from North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.

Then there are tsunamis and earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Genocide is a weapon of choice in some countries in which innocent men, women and children are slaughtered because they are the wrong color, the wrong religion, or of the wrong tribe. How can one read an entire newspaper and not come away with the idea that it must all end soon? Indeed, how can we possibly, under the circumstances, endure one more day?

Well, here’s the thing. Man-made institutions and structures come and go just as surely as the tide and the seasons, and this is precisely what Jesus is talking about. While Jesus seems to make direct reference to the physical structure of the Temple itself, we would be cheating ourselves if we failed to listen a little more purposefully and consider more carefully all of Jesus’ words because it would then be impossible to come away believing Jesus is exclusively referring to The End of The World or merely the destruction of that great Temple.

In the midst of all this chaos, we also have to be mindful of this simple and yet profound statement Jesus makes in verse 8 (“the beginning of birth pangs”) as He moves more directly and deliberately into what will begin to take place and what will come as the result of this seeming madness. And lest we forget, we are 2000 years removed from this particular conversation, but since that time and up through today apparently no one took Jesus’ words very seriously. This seems to suggest that what Jesus is talking about is something not necessarily of the will of the Father but, in perpetuity, what we bring upon ourselves in what must surely be the results of the ongoing and constant struggle between good and evil which is inherent in a world in which both exist. And struggle we must, struggle we will – IF we belong to Him. And IF we take seriously the PROMISE that is manifest in the “birth pangs”.

The Methodist (& United Methodist) Church has been in a downward spiral since the 30’s – along with the American Church in general – and the reasons given for such decline are as varied as the people who offer their reasons and/or excuses. In the end, however, it must be acknowledged that there can only be ONE reason for decline just as surely as there can be only ONE Church and ONE Lord. The excuses for decline and the subsequent “trendy solutions” are man-made and destined to fail as they vainly try to outlast their given “seasons”. There is no endurance; these trends cannot last any longer than the human persons who conceive of them.

All these that amount to little more than “social experiments” will eventually and absolutely fail for one reason: there is no universal element. That is to say, a trendy solution that is geared toward and appeals exclusively to women or to men or to children or to youth or to divorced, gay, transgendered, bi, African-American, Native American, Italian American, Chinese American, the intellectual, the not-so-intellectual, the blue collar, the white collar … all these categories and their sub-categories lack a cohesive commonality; they are inherently at odds with one another because they all seek after their own “thing”. And we continually offer all these things to all these groups with a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good notion of “progress” in attempting to reach out to the marginalized or the disenfranchised.

We would reasonably ask: How can it be that programs and efforts to reach the marginalized or the disenfranchised in the name of the Lord can be “bad” in any way? These are, after all, the ones we need to be reaching out to as well as those who do not know the Lord at all. But there is one major difference I see between “saving souls”, which was the thrust of the early Methodist movement as it was the early Church, and worrying about the “marginalized” or the “disenfranchised”. It is a matter of what is offered, what is expected, and whether what is offered comes from man or from the Lord. The very endurance of what is offered will be solely determined by its origin. Nothing more, nothing less.

The difference between the two can be more easily defined in terms of recognition. As earlier stated, there can be only ONE Lord – and He is who He is - even as there are numerous human personalities to deal with, everyone at their own particular places and stations in life – without apology - but some choosing to be where they are and others being where they are through no fault of their own. In other words, there are individuals who do not want to know the Lord. They want to live in their own pride, they want to live in their own pursuit of personal happiness, they want to live in their own prejudices, they want to live in their own hatefulness, they want to live in their own hellish misery they’ve created for themselves. They desire and choose to live in ignorance, darkness, and vindictiveness because they are unwilling to make any sort of personal sacrifice. They desire not the Lord; rather, they desire a “genie in a bottle” who serves them at their whims and on their terms.

The mistake the Church has made, in my humble opinion, over the years is in playing up to these "whims" and "terms", the subtlety of trying to “recreate” the Eternal Lord God of All Creation into an image more pleasing to these individualized sub-categories. The Church has vainly attempted to make it so that “personal sacrifice” is not necessary, that faith not be too “hard”. Karl Barth, the early 20th-century theologian, called it “cheap grace”. The more theological, “clinical” term is “antinomianism”. What each term boils down to is “salvation without sacrifice”. Oh, we’re fine with the notion that Jesus died on a Cross for our sins, but we’re a little timid when it comes to spiritual obedience. We love that we are “saved by grace”, but we often express in our “programs” as well as in our personal lives an utter disdain, if spiritual ignorance, of and for the Mosaic Law. Our “programs” seem to have a tendency to help people to make peace with where they are rather than to encourage them to see and to move into where they could be. It is appeasement and surrender at its very worst.

The Lord can only be Who and What He is and if He is eternal, He can never be “trendy” or “generational”. What He calls “good” is always good, whether we can see this or not. “I am the Lord; I do not change”, says the prophet (Malachi 3:6a), and man is in for a rude awakening. The “birth pangs” to which Jesus refers are those intensely painful things we must endure so that life can be renewed and become evident in the Church once again. We must be focused on “right things” and remain true to our calling as disciples. We must question, evaluate, and if necessary, resist the generational trends that challenge us and attempt to ensnare us into the so-called “rat race”, and we must remain faithful to the One who calls us to faithfulness … not to human ideals, institutions, and structures that are by their very nature temporary at best – but to Him who is, who was, and who is to come.

The Lord Himself will endure throughout the ages because of Who He is. The question from the time of Jesus and through the ages to come is who or what we will choose to follow, for “He who endures to the end shall be saved”.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Not Even Close

One of the primary elements missing in the continuing health care debate is defining “cost”, and this cost element is missing from the debate because the subject matter has shifted from debate about care to debate about providing insurance to help cover the cost of care. Care seems to have become incidental, or at least secondary, to the entire debate even while Republicans and Democrats each suggest that their respective plans will lower cost; what cost or whose they are referring to seems uncertain.

We as American voters who have a stake in the outcome of the debate must learn to differentiate between the price of something we purchase and that something’s actual cost, especially in terms of health care and even health insurance. The cost is what it takes to make that product or service available. Its price determines whether or not the prospective buyer can have it and whether the provider will turn a profit from its sale.

It is hard to see how giving everyone insurance is going to address the actual cost of health care, and it is disingenuous to suggest that one “cannot put a price on good health care” because it is the price of such care that has a significant portion of the total economy held hostage and determines who can and who cannot have it.

“PelosiCare”, “ObamaCare”, and “ReidCare” each come with significant price tags. What they will eventually cost this nation remains to be seen because the cost of health insurance is relative to the actual cost of health care only with the number and size of claims factored in. That is, an insurance company does not pay our claims out of the goodness of its corporate heart; it pays our claims out of the money pooled from other premiums paid by those who are not making claims. To simplify it even further, we are purchasing health insurance which determines the price the insurance company will charge for premiums based on actuarial tables. The actual cost of the care has yet to be addressed; it is only the price we and our insurance providers choose to pay.

I think the Congress has not come close to addressing health care cost and likely will not … EVER, and the reason is simple: what is primary to each member of Congress is his or her reelection. And the confusion and do-nothingness of the Congress will continue because we continue to fall for their lines, hence the exceedingly high incumbency rate. It is the price we pay for complacency, but its cost has yet to be measured.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Rights vs. right

I admit to sometimes being torn between doing what is right and defending rights. If this sounds confusing, you are in the midst of the struggle I and perhaps many endure on a regular basis when it comes to adoption and foster care in Arkansas within the boundaries of Initiated Act 1, which was adopted by Arkansas voters in 2008. Essentially the Act prohibits unmarried, co-habitating couples from adopting children or serving as foster families. I am torn between my understanding of what constitutes the Christian ideal of marriage between a man and a woman which does, in my humble estimation, better serve our society, but I am also torn against the needs of foster children in Arkansas, few of whom likely care as much about sexual politics as they care about being adopted into a family they can call their very own and finally enjoy the stability, safety, and security that such a home provides and which all children are entitled to. Add to this confusion the rights of adults to be who they are and do what they want – as long as these rights do not interfere with the rights of others, perhaps especially including the rights of children to be well cared for.

Though Initiated Act 1 does not seem to directly target homosexuals, it does seem equally clear that its intent was to prevent homosexuals from adopting children or serving as foster parents. Since homosexual marriage is not possible in Arkansas, “co-habitating” couples could be prevented from adopting or serving as foster parents, which would incidentally (or intentionally) prohibit homosexuals from being part of the process. Ironically, single persons regardless of sexual orientation can still adopt or serve as foster care givers as long as they meet the criteria. They just cannot “live in sin” while offering this care.

It is entirely a moral, if religious, issue for many, including myself, because while we can reasonably know that homosexuality does not “cause” homosexuality (they are or are not so inclined) and that homosexuals are not typically child molesters, we of certain religious traditions believe that traditional marriage between a man and a woman is a bedrock of social stability even in a society that suffers roughly half of its marriages ending in divorce. Our Creator, our God, for and about Whom we should never apologize, established the covenant of marriage long ago to serve a purpose. Even if we sometimes fail to fully understand that purpose, our tradition also requires that we fully and completely trust Him to know what is best. For us, this is not up for social debate for our God and Lord is without equal, and He does not require our opinion. He knows, and we believe that.

The ACLU has challenged the constitutionality of Initiated Act 1 because of its seeming discriminatory nature; it excludes certain segments of our society and violates the perceived rights of those certain segments. Whose rights, however, are ultimately at stake? Do mature adults have a right to adopt that precludes a child’s right to be received into a stable home environment? And exactly what harm is being done? There were 601 adoptions in Arkansas in fiscal 2009, up from 505 in 2008 and up from 404 in 2007. The arguments of opponents of Initiated Act 1 that suggest it is the children who ultimately suffer from such unconstitutional restrictions seem to fall flat when clearly adoptions seem consistently on the rise. Whether adoptions would rise even faster absent the Act’s restrictions is entirely subject to debate.

Sometimes it just seems that those who claim to be fighting for their own rights only want to know they can do something even if they never intend to. It’s sort of like folks who don’t really enjoy parties, but they do like being invited. The entire debate, however, cannot lose its focus over the core issue, which is all about the well-being and stability of children who have known nothing but instability. It is about their rights as human beings and as children who require nurturing and direction. It is not now, nor has it ever been, about adults who feel a need to be socially or legally affirmed in their chosen lifestyle. It is not about the rights of adults who can, to varying degrees, determine their own well-being.

It may be, however, that we must first firmly establish the primary issue before we can move to those issues which are secondary: the rights of adults who choose to live together outside of the bonds of marriage subordinate to whether they can provide a stable environment for children who will almost certainly require a little extra TLC. It would appear that doing what is right for the children will certainly supersede an adult’s right to do or to be.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Clear Revelation

John 11:32-44

In my high school days, I fancied myself something of an actor. Aside from trying to be a character in my other classes, I did one-act plays, readers theaters, duet plays, and school plays including a part as “Trapper John” in the play “M*A*S*H”. I loved drama and I loved knowing I had evoked some emotion, any emotion, from the audience, but I always had a hard time really “letting go” and fully expressing the characters I played. I always held back and felt silly if I ever thought I overplayed a part. When I could hear the audience laugh or when they came to me after a performance and told me how the character had “touched” them in some way, well, there was no better feeling.

After high school and as I struggled to find my place in life, I had flights of fancy about going to Hollywood to become an actor. I had it all worked out as to how I would go about it and how I would eventually get “discovered”, but I never really had the guts to take such a risk. How it would have turned out I’ll never know, but I’ve often wondered what sort of a person I would have become if I had become a successful movie star and had become obscenely wealthy and lived in a giant mansion and had the world at my beck and call, if I had allowed myself to be assimilated into that culture. As I walked the “red carpet” on my way to winning an Academy Award, people would swoon as I walked by. They would be begging for just a hand shake and would be willing to spill blood for a photo with me. See? Like I said, I had it all worked out and played out in my mind.

As I look at the direction of Hollywood, the movies and the TV shows that are far more explicit than I believe to be necessary, I sometimes wonder if I would have had the moral courage to draw a line between what I would or would not do for a good part in a blockbuster movie, maybe a leading role that would be good enough to warrant consideration for that coveted Academy Award. I would like to believe I would do as well as I needed to, but I’ve also had my doubts.

I doubt because even though I am painfully aware of my own faults and weaknesses, I know we humans also have a way of being conditioned by our environment. Regardless of what part of the country we hail from, no matter whether church or no church was a part of our upbringing, irrespective of whether we were raised rich or poor, conservative or liberal, we get used to certain things a certain way to the point that these things, whether questionable or not, soon become normal and, depending on whom we hang out and keep company with, perfectly and socially acceptable.

What I have observed over time is that we become trapped and enslaved to certain standards and practices as we become accustomed to them, more often than not without our willful – and informed - consent. Even, and perhaps especially, Christians get used to certain things a certain way or behaviors that don’t seem to hurt anyone else so much so that it becomes hard to see how destructive certain behavior can really be not only to the people around us but also to subsequent generations. And the longer such things endure, the more normal and generally acceptable they seem to become.

The one example that comes crashing to mind is our typical American Christmas practices. Out of one side of the mouth comes, “Christmas is all about family and friends.” Never mind that there is no, repeat NO, biblical standard by which to measure such a practice and belief. Yet we will defend that notion to the exclusion of just about anything or anyone else, including worship, as we teach our children and grandchildren to exercise their freedom to see to themselves first and foremost. And we continue to celebrate in such a gluttonous fashion because it is the “tradition” in which we were raised OR the “tradition” we have observed and adopted for ourselves.

Then out of the other side of our mouths, we will declare that age-old, yet very clever, “Jesus is the reason for the season”, and teach our children and grandchildren to hate and to despise those who do not agree with us. We also teach our children and grandchildren that it is not necessary to offer simple courtesy and basic respect to those who are standing in the same lines at the same stores and spending just as much money on toys they don’t need or food they cannot possibly eat – though they will give it a try because, after all, Christmas comes but once a year. But because these “strangers” will not wish us a “Merry Christmas” but would choose a more generic “Happy Holidays”, we write them off as inconsequential heathens unworthy of our respect and consideration. This is what Christmas comes to mean to our children and grandchildren because they are surrounded by it so much so that it soon becomes perfectly normal and acceptable. And HEAVEN HELP the preacher who says differently!!!

In reading John’s Gospel and the story of Lazarus, what struck me most is when Mary first sees Jesus, comes to kneel at His feet and declares that had Jesus been present, Lazarus would surely not have died. It’s hard not to read such a passage in a more literal sense because Mary knows who and what Jesus is to them. She knows Him to be the Source of Life, and she also knows perhaps that Lazarus had a special place in Jesus’ heart to the point that He would not have allowed Lazarus to die. If only He had been there.

Jesus then has them roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb after which Lazarus is summoned out of the tomb by Jesus. Once Lazarus is out, what also struck me was that Scripture says Jesus ordered those around Him to “unbind” Lazarus from the strips of cloth in which he had been buried. The “death shroud” that “bound” Lazarus in the tomb, perhaps signifying the difference between death and sleeping.
What is so striking about the language of “binding”, “bound”, “death”, and “sleeping”, and the significance of Jesus’ presence is Lazarus’ own state during all this. It is told to us at the beginning of chapter 11 that Lazarus was “sick” even though Jesus uses the term “sleeping” to describe Lazarus’ state, which is the same language used to describe those who pass from this life and await the Day of the Lord throughout the Bible, particularly in Paul’s writings and in the Revelation. We can speculate as to exactly what takes place between this life and the Life after the Resurrection, but it is not exactly useful for us because that time in eternity is unknown to us and is clearly and completely within the realm of the Holy Father. We don’t need to figure it out. What we must be mindful of is the life we lead up until that point of departure.

Though we can sometimes recall our dreams, we are almost entirely unaware while sleeping. We have no control over what happens, how well or how poorly we sleep, how we dream, how we toss and turn. During that time of our sleep, our lives and our bodies no longer respond to our will. We are completely outside of ourselves and virtually “shut down” so that our bodies can recover from the toil of the day and be refreshed for the day to come. It is quite remarkable, really, to consider the very essence of the miracle in how our bodies work and function without our willful input.

Being aware, however, is part of the admonishment Jesus puts on Peter in Mark 14 at Gethsemane. Recall that moment in Jesus’ life when He was perfectly aware of what was about to take place but before He could move from that moment, He needed to know what the Holy Father would ask of Him. He had His own desire, but He was not about Himself. Prior to going into the garden to pray, Jesus had told Peter, James, and John that His “soul is extremely sorrowful …”, so they had to have known something was troubling Jesus even as it is clear they still do not appreciate the reality of what is about to happen. After His time of prayer, Jesus found Peter and the others sleeping. In verses 37 & 38 the significance of the necessity of being awake and aware is expressed by Jesus: “Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”
This is not a warning from Jesus; it is a statement of fact. He is acknowledging our human impulses and social tendencies. We cannot simply go through life on “auto pilot” and give ourselves over to fate or social standards as the means by which we determine what is in store for us or how we should live. The reality of “it is what it is” is no longer good enough for Christians who are called to think and pray through things, not simply become a part of it merely because we are surrounded by it.

In John’s account of Lazarus’ resurrection, clearly what we are being shown is the same thing those witnesses then were being shown: that Jesus is the Resurrection, the Life After Death. Simple enough. What we may be reading past, however, is the reality of Jesus’ presence in our lives NOW to determine whether we are truly alive or if we are little more than “the walking dead”; zombies relegated to wandering the earth and feeding off the lives of others, being completely unaware of anything other than what is right before us, operating on conditioned responses and impulses and focused entirely on our own needs and pleasures ... and little else.

Living for the Lord is anything but incidental beyond the moment of justification, that moment when we have received spiritual assurance of our Holy Adoption. It means being aware of the prevailing culture we are surrounded by and being aware of how our lives intersect and affect others, intentionally and prayerfully in a positive, spirit-filled way lest we forget who we really are and become merely another face in the crowd. It means “watching and praying, lest we fall into temptation”, as Jesus warned Peter, recognizing that though we have been set apart by our Holy Adoption, we are still very much human. And it means the difference between whether we are “bound by a death shroud” or freed by command of the Son of the Living God, the Risen Christ.

It is, quite literally, the difference between life and death.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Nature of the Commitment

Mark 10:35-45

“It's not bragging if you can back it up.”
“If you even dream of beating me, you'd better wake up and apologize.”
“I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
“I'll beat him so bad he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.”
“I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I'm in a world of my own.”
“When you are as great as I am, it is hard to be humble.”

But the same man who made these entertaining statements is also said to have made this one: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

And that epiphany must surely have come after this one: “If you view the world at 50 the same way you viewed the world at 20, you’ve wasted 30 years of your life.”

Muhammad Ali will arguably go down in history as the world’s greatest boxer, but it wasn’t until years after his retirement that the non-boxing world begrudgingly gave him his due. He was a great boxer, very hard to beat. But when he talked all his smack and rubbed everyone’s noses in his victories, it just made it hard to swallow and more difficult to accept him particularly on his terms. He was just noisy, too big for his britches, and folks just got tired of listening to him (except his fans, of course). And it didn’t help that he was coming into his own during the Civil Rights era when blacks were still expected to “know their place” and stay there. It also didn’t help that he converted to Islam, changed his name from Cassius Clay, and refused military service. That cost him his heavyweight title, which he would subsequently regain with very little trouble. At least, in the ring.

Throughout a great career in which Ali could just about have anything he wanted when he wanted it, he finally came to understand that the world does not revolve around any one individual, that there is a whole great world out there and a lot of folks who need help. He is said now to be generous almost to a fault and, absent his physical challenges due to Parkinson’s syndrome, merely a shell of the loud, boisterous, proud braggart he once was.

Though he was a great fighter and won most of his contests, there is nothing to say he has not taken a few beatings in and out of the ring and learned a thing or two within that span of “30 years” he apparently refused to waste. Like most of us, it takes some time to finally come to terms with the fact that we are no longer invincible, not that we ever were, but try telling that to a 16-year-old who’s feeling his oats! In fact, it is more likely that we have to get knocked upside the head more than once before we finally come to terms with the fact that we are no longer as young as we used to be! Only after we suffer some sort of trauma or sit in a chair with muscles so sore we can barely walk across the room do we finally come to realize that we have our limits. It is one of the curses of our humanity, but it is also one of our greatest blessings.

But this is not about Muhammad Ali. It is about being committed to something greater than self and the nature of that commitment. It is about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what, if any, ulterior motive there may be in making such a commitment. It is about a counter-measure against a pop culture in which the so-called “prosperity gospel” talks about the Good News in a very materialistic way, reward without work, salvation without suffering. It is about why we choose to follow Christ and whether or not we are doing it for our own sake – or for His glory. It is about looking upon the face of one we would consider to be an ungrateful wretch who would take from our hands without so much as a “thank you”, and realizing that but for the grace of God, we are looking at a mirror image of ourselves.

We’ve heard “those who are first will be last” so many times that it is almost treated as a cliché more than it is a warning about how we regard this life against the Life which is to come and which we value more. But Jesus has found himself in the big middle of an argument in which two of His disciples have come to either regard themselves as “great” among the disciples, entitled to a special place in the coming Kingdom (which, incidentally, they still do not fully understand) or they have determined for themselves that “greatness” is merely for the asking, or will come to those who are willing to pursue it as a worthy goal. So even though they may well be faithful followers of Christ, the nature of their commitment comes into question and their motives become highly suspect.

The challenge that comes to them from Jesus regarding the “baptism” with which He has been baptized and the “cup” from which He will drink is a nice idea and one they are willing to abide by … as long as they get what they want out of the deal. And even though they say they are able, even if only physically so, the “willingness” to endure that “baptism” and drink from that “cup” remains to be seen because all they are expressing in that moment is their own selfish desires and ambitions. They are clearly in the pursuit of “greatness”, not salvation. And certainly not service!

It reminds me a great deal of a point where I once was in my life. I had all kinds of delusions of grandeur when I was young, and I was cock-sure of the idea that I would one day be known as “great”, maybe in business or politics – or both. Money was pretty tight then, as well, and part of my “greatness” would be my ability to give more to the Lord – once the “greatness was achieved. Why, if I could make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year I would surely be generous to the Lord. I would have plenty of money to give to the Church. And if I were “great”, people would listen to me. People would follow me, and I would steer them onto the right and righteous path. They would only need to know that I am “great”.

I was as clueless then as the disciples were. I had no idea that when it comes to standards and measures of “greatness”, there are actually two – and one has nothing to do with the other. In fact, they are polar opposites and are in direct conflict with one another. “Greatness” in this life is achieved and acquired primarily if predominantly for self; “greatness” in the Kingdom that is to come is bestowed exclusively by those whom we serve. In Mark 10:43, the Greek term for “servant” is literally translated, “menial table server”. What this means is that what is considered the lowest and most menial in this world is considered “greatest” in the world which is to come. It means a total and complete emptying of self for the sake of others. It means that if we want to “get mine”, as is the mantra of extreme selfishness, we must be willing to see to it that others “get theirs” first.

As “menial table servers”, our value to the Kingdom of Heaven in this life is in direct proportion to our willingness to serve. And if we are unwilling to serve, we cannot call ourselves “disciples of Christ”. We may be disciples of Ted Turner or Lee Iaccoa or any other number of “great” entrepreneurs of our time, but we are not disciples of Christ. It means our salvation was in vain; that is to say, for no useful purpose of the Kingdom, if we only concern ourselves with “what’s in it for me”.

It is a good and necessary thing for us to analyze the nature of our commitment to the cause of Christ – or whether there is any commitment at all. It is a foolish and vain thing to declare our own salvation or to call ourselves “saved” if the only thing we intend to gain from it is our own satisfaction and personal spiritual comfort. Jesus is very clear: if our faith does not cause some discomfort to us on at least some fundamental level, there is no faith at all because faith is not and cannot be self-serving. That’s just greed.

The Kingdom of Heaven is apparently filled with “menial table servers”, according to the words of Jesus, “table servers” who understood their primary purpose in this life as seeing to the well-being, care, and comfort of others. It may sound to some like a “works-righteousness” proposition, but how can faith be separated from our works when our works are done not to earn points for ourselves but are done instead as “an outward sign of an inward grace”? How can works to serve the One who came to serve be anything less than an expression of complete abandon of self and total trust in His Divine Providence?

The nature of our own commitment to Christ must be one of “radical discipleship”, as was expressed earlier. Because Jesus was nothing if not “radical” Himself. How else to describe the Passion of the Christ for no reason other than Love?

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Overloaded Backpacks

Mark 10:17-31

Having grown up in a small school, there was never a time when I could not get to my locker, switch books, and still make it to my next class in time. I was never compelled, by the sheer size of the school or by any other reason, to carry everything I own and every text book I had with me everywhere I went. Watching my own children progress through school while the backpacks became necessarily stronger and bigger, and then being inside the school as a substitute teacher, I have seen young people with backpacks stuffed to the gills with such a load that absent weapons, ammo, and body armor, might actually make a grunt sweat! Some kids don’t even bother with lockers because the lockers are not always conveniently located according to their class schedules and limited time between classes. And given that children seem to come home with more homework than I can recall having in my day, they might as well carry all the books since they will likely need them anyway.

The difference between these contemporary school children and the faithful to whom Jesus is directing His comments in Mark’s text is that the school children need the weight of their burdens in order to see to their daily task. We, on the other hand, seem to freely make a choice to burden ourselves with unnecessary baggage, effectively distracting ourselves from what should be, at least for the faithful, not merely “first things” but, rather, “only things”.

More than being distracted, we are also conflicted because, first, Jesus does not define “wealth” and secondly, Jesus says to “sell what you own” (Mark 10:21), inferring “all”, “everything”, keeping nothing. So when we consider what is being said, we can easily see ourselves walking away “grieving” as the rich man did because while we may not consider ourselves wealthy, at least not materially, we must surely recognize how well off we are compared to many others. How we have acquired our material wealth and how hard and fast we hold onto it must also be evaluated according to Jesus’ words.

Maybe I have spent too much time over-thinking this passage, but I have always struggled through what Jesus is trying to convey. It does not seem to make sense that everyone who has anything should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor because this would leave us not only destitute and merely redistribute the wealth, but would also simply shift the burden. Those who were once a burden on society would suddenly find themselves enriched, but a social burden would still exist. Little seems to be accomplished by such an oversimplification of charitable giving because the problem of poverty, for instance, has not been eradicated. It hasn’t even been seriously addressed.

On the other hand, there is a profound point Jesus is making in that our wealth, whether great or small, does more to separate us from the Kingdom of Heaven than anything else. Pride and vanity, two of the so-called ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, both require extraordinary financing. And so does fear. And without our conscious knowledge, we become imprisoned, as St. Augustine believed. The Bible points out on more than one occasion that we will serve one – and only one – master. Whether that master is the Lord or our possessions or any other thing or person is a matter of conscious, and even sometimes unconscious, choice and will determine whether we are freed or enslaved.

“Radical discipleship” is what is being proposed in this passage; this is not about poverty or charitable giving. Jesus has not only suggested that we be willing to part with our possessions but, that we actually part with our possessions. This is a concept that is as difficult to comprehend as the disciples wondering who, then, can be saved since perhaps even they and everyone they knew had some stuff, stuff that is not only pleasing but also useful! Boats! Think boats and fishermen!

I think what the disciples are missing is that when Jesus is talking about “wealth”, He may be referring to anything that is not absolutely necessary for living in the day, right in the moment. In other words, if we are hoarding anything, perhaps especially money, for a “rainy day” when we can easily see it raining cats and dogs on the poor, we are not living in the moment or in faith - but are living, instead, in fear. Fear of tomorrow … or in fear of any other unknown factor. We have been conditioned and programmed to think such hoarding to be “responsible”. Jesus is challenging His followers to completely, totally, unequivocally, and without reservation or hesitation, trust in Divine Providence and not in our own devices. For the sake of practical living and in the world of commerce in which we all live, it will not get to be more radical than this.

There is also another twist to what Jesus offers that may be easily overlooked but must also be evaluated within the story as a whole. The rich man asks what must be done so that he can inherit eternal life, and there is no apparent reason to think him to be less than sincere when he claims to be mindful and conscious of the requirements of the Law. But did he have more on his mind than simply asking a theological question? Did he understand, really understand, who he was talking to? Did the rich man simply want his own sense of self-righteousness publicly affirmed for the sake of all who were within earshot? Or was he just testing the waters, looking for an “out” or an easier way?

The rich man did not address “the Lord”; he addressed a “teacher”, albeit a “good” teacher, but a teacher nonetheless. And the heart of his question concerned only himself, with no regard for anyone else. In essence, he was being selfish. He wanted to “have his cake and eat it, too”. As a man of means, it is reasonable to assume this man to be one who plans, who takes notes, who does not suffer surprises, especially financial ones. He has amassed great wealth not by living in faith but by living according to rules … and not necessarily the rules of Torah. More likely, he knew the rules of commerce; he knew how to acquire and sustain wealth. Following rules, for this man, was not a problem nor a challenge … certainly not a sacrifice.

The “twist”? The unexpected “twist”? Was Jesus telling him that he could not follow Him unless or until he got rid of his worldly possessions? Christian theology makes clear that Jesus, as expressed by John, is “the Way”. The way to live, the way to worship, the way to love, and certainly the way to eternal life. And if it is that the rich man’s possessions or concern merely for himself would keep him, on any level, from fully committing himself to Christ, he had no other choice but to turn back. And so he made his choice. And he “grieved” because he could not be a disciple AND keep his wealth. He perhaps liked the idea of following Jesus, but clearly he loved his “stuff” more and was unwilling to part with it. He may also have been “grieved” to discover that faith in Christ to the point of being willing to follow Him was much bigger than just getting oneself “saved”.
Important? Absolutely. It is equally important, however, to recognize what the apostles were called to. Jesus did not say, “Come follow me, and I will save your spiritual skin”. Or, “Come follow me and get yours”.

Even though the disciples reminded Jesus that they had given up hearth and home, safety and security, to follow Him, it should be easy to see that they were also a little “grieved” by the teaching. Maybe they intended more for themselves later. Maybe they were still thinking of the “riches” of the Kingdom of heaven in more worldly terms and still did not get what Jesus was talking about.

Something was obviously bothering them because Jesus made it sound like salvation for man would be utterly hopeless because we all have “stuff” in our backpacks we would just as soon not be forced to part with. But how heavy is that “stuff”? And at what point does the weight of that “stuff” become a cumbersome burden, an obstacle to everlasting life? At what point does it begin to do more harm than good? We should all take a good, hard look at the children who carry these enormous backpacks and what the weight of these burdens is doing to their posture, because it is our spiritual posture that is at stake!

One of the early church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, expressed the question this way: “Let this teach the prosperous that they are not to neglect their own salvation, as if they had been already foredoomed, nor, on the other hand, to cast wealth into the sea, or condemn it as a traitor and an enemy to life, but learn in what way and how to use wealth and obtain life.”

Clement comes dangerously close to suggesting that heavenly favor may actually be purchased in some way by inferring that wealth can be “used … to obtain life” in such a way, but I don’t think this is where he is going. Rather, he is reflecting what Jesus said regarding wealth and entering into the Kingdom of heaven: it is “hard” but not “impossible”. It is simply a matter of what, or whom, we ultimately love and which one we would go out of our way for.

In the end, we must be mindful of whether we are trapped and enslaved in our prosperity or freed in our poverty. Regardless of how much or how little we have, we must always be mindful that the people of faith are stewards entrusted with a mission, and we are granted the means by which our missions are to be accomplished. Above all else, we must commit to the cause of Christ. And in that commitment, we must determine whether or how we can continue the journey with our overloaded backpacks … or just set them down and carry the Cross instead.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Who's With Us?

Numbers 11:27-29
Mark 9:38-41

Darkness can be deceptive. With just enough light, a jacket tossed haphazardly across the back of a chair in a dark room can come to look like a strange, menacing animal. If this jacket has shiny buttons, with just enough light – coupled with the wild imagination of a frightened child or even a nervous adult – and suddenly this “animal” has eyes! And because the mind can play incredible tricks on a child’s or an irrational adult’s psyche, if one is still long enough, one will swear the “animal” moved! And BLINKED!!

We could explain that it is the branch of a tree outside the window gently bending and swaying in a breeze and interfering with the source of light that caused the “blink”, but how can an over-excited mind comprehend that which is perfectly rational, reasonable, and true especially if one thinks one’s “eyes” were wide open the whole time? The easy and obvious solution is to get up and turn on the light, but that might mean walking right past the “animal” that is obviously up to no good! Or putting one’s feet on the floor and being within easy reach of the troll hiding under the bed. Besides, who needs the “light” of truth when one’s mind is already made up?

Since the dawn of humanity, there has been religion in some form or fashion. As evidenced by archaeology and witnessed on the Discovery or History Channel, one can see that the pagan worship of multiple gods as well as the worship of fire, rocks, trees, birds, and other animals – and paychecks, check books, shiny cars, fancy jewelry, and fine homes - is as prolific now as it was when the Lord said, “Thou shalt not …” And since that time, there are still as many who insist there is no God in the first place, most certainly no God who would care about what we do with our time or other resources. And as long as all these things and persons have been in existence, there have been at least as many persons eager to shout from the mountaintops and rooftops as well as from the pulpits and the pews: YOU’RE WRONG!

Why do you suppose it is that someone must be “wrong” in order for us to be “right”, especially when it comes to abstract notions and concepts of religion or politics? And why do you suppose it is that we seem more intent on pointing out the faults and flaws of others and what they believe, reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, than we are about focusing on what we claim to be so right? In other words, why must we be so intensely focused on the “wrong” of Islam, for instance, that we cannot be equally focused on the “right” of Christianity … and with the same intensity and conviction?

I don’t think it is a matter of having the courage of conviction or the integrity of one’s faith to stand for what we believe, because we don’t point out what we believe, and we don’t share The Good News. We point out what we don’t believe, we seek out fault (and find conflict!), and we propagate The Bad News: brother, YOU AIN’T RIGHT. What’s worse, still, is that this is not merely a conflict between Christianity and Islam or a conflict between faith and no faith. Instead, most of the conflicts I see especially here in the US are the ongoing conflicts between Christian denominations. These conflicts are intensified when we seem to go out of our way to slander a fellow Christian for no other reason than that brother or sister is of another denomination. Christ is still the Center, but we lose focus, find fault, and highlight that fault, those differences, and virtually ignore the One who unites us.

Had you ever noticed before that as intently as Christian churches seem to be focused on a “recruiting” drive to get people in the doors, ostensibly under the guise of “saving souls”, there have been as many, if not more, Christians trying to keep others out? The Church has taken on the persona that is more like that of a country club than what the Bible clearly says to constitute the Body of Christ. We only want those who agree with us, those who believe “right” things, we only want those who are the same color, and we want to determine for ourselves who is “right” and who is “wrong”. And clearly if those who do not think exactly how we think and believe exactly as we believe are outside, well, they seem to be right where they need to be. And before they will be welcomed in to join the rest of us sinners, they must get right with US.

We focus on the things that separate us, things that enslave us, things that destroy us, and virtually ignore the One who saves us, preferring to engage one another not in fellowship and common purpose of mission and ministry but in spitting matches than should never be fought – and will never be won – by anyone, particularly people of faith. And worse still, those who are weak in the faith are the ones who get hurt and are ultimately driven away altogether.

The very worst of Christianity is that which I have witnessed and endured first hand since my childhood and, sadly, still see alive and well today. It is the eager willingness of Christians to slander other Christians, particularly those of other denominations. Sadder still, these libelous and slanderous “Christians” are the ones who would insist that this is a Christian nation, and the Ten Commandments (a uniquely Jewish thing, incidentally, and found in Exodus 34, not Exodus 20) would be posted on every government building and in every classroom … while they skim past #9: the prohibition against bearing false witness. These are the very same who would plea to the Lord God to bless America but would curse entire denominations – and pastors – who worship the same God and endure the same struggles … within the same country but somehow don’t do “it” correctly, whatever “it” may be.

The Body of Christ is seriously fractured, but the cause of separation is not due to the devil or the unbeliever; it is the willful pride of man. The moral authority of the Church has been compromised and continues to be compromised because of the misguided, though perhaps well-intentioned, efforts by many to focus not only on what separates one denomination from another but from also focusing on who can (or who should) be in church and what is expected of them before they are “allowed” in. The essence of this particular endeavor is most evident and notable among the so-called “liberals” vs. “conservatives”. Like the flag-waving American fundamentalist Christians whose greatest concern seems to be illegal immigration, we are too intently focused on who does NOT belong. Too often, without our having ever been aware – until it is too late, of course – we have refused angels our fellowship and hospitality (Hebrews 13:2).

Show me unity in Christ, a gathering in which Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and others are actively invited, encouraged to attend and participate in such gatherings as these, without precondition, free to be and to believe as they are and as they do, recognizing them as individuals from varying traditions who believe as intently and as earnestly and as honestly what they believe just as intently and as earnestly and as honestly as you and I believe, then I will show you the genuine – and whole - Body of Christ. When we are working for the edification of the Church Universal and not for the destruction of churches and/or individuals we just don’t happen to like or agree with, then I will show you the Body of Christ in action, properly focused on mission and ministry.

Until that time, let us at least act with integrity and stop pretending that we really mean to promote Christ and admit that we are only promoting our own churches and/or our own personal agendas, insisting that unity can only mean someone else’s complete and total submission to US and OUR WILL. Let us admit our prideful and sinful nature when we choose to determine for ourselves who can come in and who must be kept out. Jesus said Himself that He did not come to save the righteousness, that those who are well are not in need of a physician. Why must we choose to create for ourselves new criteria that are clearly contrary and antithetical to the call of Christ Himself?

Then again, why turn on the “light” when our minds are already made up? It would only create confusion.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Semper Fidelis

1 Corinthians 7:10-16
Mark 10:2-26

Jesus’ lesson to His disciples about divorce is almost as uncomfortable a topic to address as money. The pastor struggles to say the right things, and the congregation squirms in anticipation of hearing a wrong thing. No matter what the pastor says, however, someone is going to get stung, maybe the pastor. What cannot be ignored, however, is that each of these issues (divorce and money) shares something in common with the other: “infidelity” in either can be destructive, sometimes irreparably so. And the One who is betrayed in one is the same One betrayed in the other. I think that is what we believers fail to fully understand or appreciate because we think of marriage primarily in terms of human relationships. These two issues are both so intimately interconnected and intertwined in our daily living and thought processes that it is often impossible to tell who or what is the center and focal point of our lives.

It is not made any easier to deal with when we live in a society that values money, status, and above all else, the personal freedom to do as we please when we please (that never-ending yet illusive pursuit of “personal happiness”). And what I have also discovered along life’s very strange path is that whenever something good happens to us, it is the will of God but if something bad happens, Satan is out to get us. So we take it upon ourselves to change things around and manipulate our environment – and even compromise our personal beliefs - so that God is pleased yet again (and He must be, because we are). Isn’t that how American Christianity has come to understand the relationship between man and Lord? That if man is happy, it is reasonable that the Lord is happy? We go about ensuring our own personal happiness, sort of like human sacrifices of the past – because in our quest for “personal happiness”, we disregard how someone else may be adversely affected. We are going to hurt someone – and He will ultimately be the one betrayed.

Too many believers also think that “fate” somehow holds the key to happy marriages and financial success and if we feel cheated somehow on either, “fate” has played a dirty trick on us if wealth escapes us – OR - it just was not “meant to be” if we suddenly find ourselves less than happy with our marriages and become tempted to abandon, again in search of “personal happiness”. Then as if life were not cruel enough, we turn to Mark’s Gospel and find our Lord and Savior holding our feet to the fire in a very uncomfortable and conflicting way; conflicting because our culture obviously does not buy into what Jesus says, even more conflicting because the Church sometimes does not seem to believe Him, either.

Historically, the Church has not been kind to those who have suffered the pain of divorce. Over the years, however, the Church has tried to make amends to be in ministry to those who need the support of the Church almost to the point of an open invitation to “do it if it feels good”. Evidence of such a thing was shown a few years ago at a church in Arkansas I was familiar with. It involved a man who left his family and took up residence with another woman before he had even filed for divorce. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the divorce papers, he and his new woman had a wedding … IN CHURCH! What was clearly a hard-and-fast case of a completely inappropriate – adulterous – relationship, that church legitimized the relationship, at least in the eyes of those two persons … and the children who were involved in the previous marriages. They were first-hand witnesses of the church’s act of “infidelity”.

So throughout her history, the pendulum of the Church’s integrity has swung widely from one extreme to the other. In this particular case, that church betrayed the abandoned wife and immediately surrendered its own moral authority. There are, of course, a few more details, but that is pretty much the gist of what that particular church has done in a vain effort to be “culturally relevant” in a society that is begging – actually, insisting - for the Church as a whole to surrender itself to a society that values “personal”, a society which reasons that if one is not experiencing “personal” happiness and “personal” satisfaction, something is amiss, someone is at fault, and serious adjustments need to be made in order to ensure our “personal” happiness. In the midst of all this chaos, young people have been lied to and have bought into the lie because the Church, as a whole, is conflicted and has, in many cases, perpetuated the lie.

Those broad statements are where the squirming begins both for the congregation and for the pastor. The statements need to be made, and Jesus cannot be ignored or written off simply because His words seem to be in direct conflict with our own contemporary society or our own personal lives. A closer look, however, will reveal much more than what simply appears on the surface. Something has to be known about Moses’ “certificate of divorce”, especially since Jesus forces us to go there. Paul’s words to the Corinthians must also be examined very carefully. It is utterly unfair to read Jesus’ words and then judge and dismiss an entire segment of our society, many of whom have been genuinely victimized not only by a careless and godless society but also, in some cases, by the Church. The honest examination will not be easy because it pits contemporary society, the only society and culture we’ve ever known, against a society – ancient though it may be - whose very existence and identity was intimately connected to YHWH.

Paul distinguishes between what he considered a “commandment” of the Lord and his own personal, yet considered, opinion, but what he offers has gone largely unnoticed by Protestant Christianity over the years because Jesus’ words seemed clear enough. A marriage cannot be “annulled” by the Church, as is the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in rare cases, if the Lord joined man and woman to create “one flesh”, inseparable by man. The more detailed consideration, such as what Matthew offers in 5:32, goes a little further and a little deeper. Varying translations go from “adultery” to “sexual immorality” to “unchastity”; what we call, simply, “cheating”, to justify a separation. What is involved in “cheating”, however, goes much deeper than a single incident or a purely physical act. Going deep determines exactly Who is being betrayed.

Maybe the question is purely theological rather than social if the Lord creates one flesh from two, but can there be a Holy Union if one party is not a believer? What about those who have no ties to the Church whatsoever but prefer a church wedding? Can there be a Holy Union between these two if the Lord is not even a small part of who they think they are? According to Paul, the believer is bound to the marriage regardless of the unbelieving partner … as long as the unbeliever stays. The believer is presumably being sincere in promising not the partner but the Holy Father Himself to love that partner until death parts them. So a covenant with the Lord has been entered into in good faith. This is where it gets tricky because we can reasonably say that a promise we make to the Lord cannot be declared void by an action by another person, regardless of the circumstances.

Even under the best of circumstances and high hopes, there is always the unexpected. Suddenly a partner is revealed as the snake he or she was all along, very adept at deception, not unlike the serpent in the Garden. Suddenly this person is revealed as a cheater, a gambler, a drinker, a drug user. Unexpectedly this person turns violent or is verbally abusive. Or just simply walks out. Of course there were likely tell-tale signs, but how can a person who is blinded by love be convinced that such signs exist? Or perhaps worst of all, this person is revealed as one who perhaps liked the idea of marrying a good Christian but lacks any sort of faith on any level and is incapable and unwilling to enter into a covenant with the Lord, those who make that blanket, “Yes, I believe in God,” statement but devote no time to worship and live as if there is no God. What then?

In the end, however, I’m not even sure Jesus and Paul are talking exclusively about human relationships in marriage in the first place, though the words seem clear enough. It is primarily about the covenant one enters into with the Lord God, and it is evidenced by the love that is primarily directed at Him. It has to be because you and I know that after a few years, it is imminent that there will be signs of stress within the marriage between two human beings so much to the point that they cannot stand the sight of one another! Mature and devoted persons will work through it, of course, and many do. Too many, however, read too much into the stress and the conflict and, over time, decide for themselves this must not be the Holy Union the Lord had in mind for them. Fate. So they walk. And because the Church has been unclear throughout the years about exactly what is involved, even Christians feel free to do so, justified in some way, failing to realize that the primary covenant was with the Lord, not with the other person.

The love we have for the Holy Father is manifest in many different ways, and sometimes expressing that First Love (as pointed out in the Revelation) is uncomfortable and seems to bring on conflict mainly because we are caught up in our own “personal” lives within a clearly secular culture. Above all else, however, our love for the Father is expressed in our willingness to be faithful, first, to Him by caring for and loving those whom we promised Him we would love – even when they become unlovable. And like Jesus, though we may wish for ourselves an “out” such as He at Gethsemane, we nevertheless persevere as we must - not according to what the world expects or demands or reasons but, rather, according to what brings glory to the Father, the same Father who “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16) because of the inevitable damage and destruction and unnecessary pain that comes with it. The Lord is not about “brokenness”; He is all about wholeness. And fidelity. To Him first.

There are two things we can be sure of in this life. One: with some exceptions, of course, man can usually be depended on to do what is in man’s own best interests. Two: the Lord is not man. He is “Semper Fidelis” – “always faithful”. And we are called to His life, and not our own.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Poison of Politics

After many days of sunshine, the clouds have moved in again and the threat (or promise) of rain is just beyond the horizon. Ever since a drought threatened a local drinking water supply a few short years ago to the point that officials were considering having the National Guard truck in water, I have vowed never to complain about rain again. Still, there is nothing quite like a crisp autumn day with a slight chill in the air and the sun shining brightly. Being prepared to receive rain with gratitude, however, does not change the foul mood that cloudy days can sometimes bring.

This morning’s news brought more information about the tsunami in Samoa, an earthquake in Indonesia, and a typhoon in Southeast Asia, each disaster claiming hundreds of lives and leveling entire villages. The United States government is still embroiled in debates about health care to the point that abortions may well be covered under some proposals. Americans are still losing jobs by the thousands, and Iran is still developing nuclear weapons. So I ask readers the same thing I am asking myself right now: how much should I care about politics?

I often ask people about their passions because I like to know what moves people, where their interests are, what excites them. Often these to whom I pose the question can get caught up in their lives and in describing their energies and true loves, so it is rare that they will turn the question back to me. And this is a good thing because it is hard for me to pin down anything I am genuinely passionate about. There are many things I just do because they need to be done or I do things because I certainly believe in them, but I often seem to lack a genuine passion for anything.

There is a young man who is currently incarcerated with whom I have been corresponding by mail, and he recently threw me a curve when, in a return letter, he posed the question to me that I had previously put to him: so, preacher, what excites you? What drives you? What stirs you up? There was no way I could simply put him off as I had so many others; it was time to face up to the one thing I can really get stirred up about, the one thing that can elevate my blood pressure and also give me a certain sense of satisfaction.

It is politics. I am passionate about politics. It is what excites me and infuriates me. It is what depresses me and enlivens me. And while I have plenty to say about almost any political issue one could possibly think of, I have found myself trapped in a prison from which escape has become necessary for the sake of ministry. I have found myself entirely too wrapped up in and focused on politics to the point that I spend much more time reading news than reading Scripture. And I have found myself far too often being tempted to interject politics into my sermons. While real-world stuff is often useful in trying to make a theological point, too much of such things can take away from the spirit and the heart of the message … and the point. It can direct entirely too much attention and too much emphasis on political players (and actors!) and not nearly enough on the Lord. And during such challenging times as these, we need the Lord far more than we need politics or politicians. We need spiritual leaders, not political leaders. It is time to make some adjustments.

How these adjustments might go from this point is anyone’s guess because there are certain political realities that cannot be ignored, spiritually or politically. In light of such political realities within the realm of the theological, though, the question becomes: who is the go-to? Within the political spectrum that is the health care debate, for instance, who are we as a nation relying on to provide for us or protect us? To whom do we go and direct our concerns and our fears and our anxieties? Obviously we are directing our concerns and our anger and our frustration toward our elected representatives because they are the ones trying to “reform” health care, and it is an issue that cannot be ignored. But what kind of reform is needed so that a dose of aspirin in a hospital does not cost more than a new personal computer for the home? What kind of reform is needed to ensure that a sick child can get the necessary care to prevent the spread of the illness and contribute to the child’s well-being without sending the parents to the poor house?

Many are saying that the health care delivery system in the US is just fine and does not need any sort of reform, but these many are much more likely to be of the more affluent class and/or with adequate health insurance. They are fine with the status quo because they are not forced to pay out-of-pocket for the entire cost of their health care or be forced to go without. But before I digress into an entirely political diatribe for or against government-sponsored health care, maybe I should step back and focus more on where the Lord needs me to go rather than to depend entirely on my own personal or ideological opinion.

Some have suggested that politics is my passion because the Lord is calling me to a career in public office. Such a notion might not be entirely false, but the fallacy of that argument can be found in something as obvious and as seemingly random as sexual attraction. Just because we can be excited about sexual intimacy does not mean we were all created to be porn stars. Just because we have a genuine passion for sports does not mean we are all meant to be star athletes. Or NASCAR drivers.

Passion most certainly drives us, but doing what we love involves no personal sacrifice. Within the realm and theology of Christianity, personal sacrifice is intimately connected to the genuine spirit of “agape”, that sure and certain love that puts self aside for the sake of something much greater. It has been said that if worship does not involve some sense of “work”, then we are giving nothing of ourselves.

For me, then, it may be time to pull back entirely from politics at least until I find some sort of balance. It is far more important that my parishioners understand their place within the Kingdom of Heaven especially in the midst of our secular culture and society. Certain realities cannot be ignored, of course, but within the realm of Christianity, there is much more to life than merely living for oneself and personal gain. I hope I can come to write and preach the things of inspiration, things that are uplifting and edifying to faith and the Church. There is nothing useful in provoking anger, which seems to be all that political discussion is good for these days.

I will attempt to leave the political discussions to the TV talking heads and ambitious politicians. As for me, I will “put away the foreign gods which are among [me], and incline [my] heart to the Lord God” (Joshua 24:23).