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.