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).