Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rachel's Tears; Mary's Fears

Isaiah 63:7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2:10-18 Matthew 2:13-23

The day after Christmas is a bag of mixed emotions. It is when distant family members will see one another off after a nice visit. The packages and presents will have been opened and put away. Leftovers will be picked over, and there will be "wailing and gnashing of teeth" when we finally realize how much food we really did put away! The high of the season of Advent is sometimes met with a lull so deep and wide that we are often left to wonder if it is all worth the trouble. Next year, we resolve, will be much simpler, a lot less troublesome, maybe a lot less expensive.

Christmas is over, and it's time to get back to the real world. It's time to take down the decorations and repack them carefully enough so maybe they can be used again next year. The house gets put back in order, and very soon it seems over almost as quickly as it had begun. And in this way it may seem strange to suggest a parallel between the Christmas "high" and its corresponding "day-after" low, and the "high" of the birth of Messiah and the "day-after" of Herod's "reality check".

I am almost always caught off guard when confronted with Matthew's record of Herod's slaughter (2:13-23) in the lection reading cycle. Just as we are winding down the celebration of the birth of the Messiah and reminding all who will listen that "God is with us", we are forcefully - and sometimes violently - confronted with the real world and all its ugliness. Our feet are once again firmly planted on the ground, and we are reminded that the world we live in can often be very harsh in spite of the Good News.

Imagine, if you can, that you are among those who had been made aware of Messiah's birth. Surely there was a hope-filled mood among the many who were privy to this knowledge, even if as many as two years had passed, that the Lord God had finally visited His people in the midst of pagan Roman domination and had brought the Good News of salvation. It would have been reminiscent of the Exodus your ancestors had spoken of and had written about. You're sitting around with family and friends trying to take in what has happened, thinking of all the good that may finally come from this remarkable news; maybe even getting a little impatient, yet still hopeful. As these visits and conversations are happening in homes around the region, the children play and nurse as if there is not a care in the world.

Suddenly, and without much warning, the laughter of the children turns to screams of terror soon replaced by "loud lamentation" as the screams subside. What was once an occasion for reflection and hope has now become memorable not because of the Good News - which is quickly forgotten - but because of the horror visited upon you by a stark reminder of a certain reality. That which "might have been" suddenly gives way to the harsh reality of "what really is." Herod is still clearly in charge. Nothing much seems to have changed, certainly not for the better. In fact, for a mother who mourns things could not be worse. And Rachel weeps.

It doesn't seem fair that such an occasion for hope can turn so quickly and so violently, but I wonder if what Christmas means can be fully appreciated without some of the ugliness of the world we live in. Such evil is actually useful in helping us to gain a broader context in which to embrace the greater good, but it is difficult - if impossible - to imagine that the mothers of Bethlehem could have been so easily consoled. Jesus was still just a toddler being protected by His own parents as all the other children were, so this "greater good" is not yet realized by the mothers of Bethlehem. That Time is yet to be; and through Rachel's tears will come Mary's fears.

The question asked by writers, scholars, and theologians - how to reconcile Herod's senseless slaughter with the birth of Christ - is an unfair question even if we would logically reason that while the children were not "saved" then, they would certainly be "saved" later when Jesus would not be spared. It is, I think, a natural human response to try and make sense out of utter nonsense and try to bring order out of chaos. It is especially problematic for Americans because we cannot conceive of a government power so absolute as to allow such a thing to happen even as we read about such things happening at the hands of governments in other parts of the world.

We do know, however, that evil cares little about "greater" things even as "greater" things are ultimately exposed, ironically, in evil. We also know, even if we try to pretend otherwise, that we are surrounded by evil - and by good. We are often confronted with evil while it seems we have to search out the good. We read of evil in the papers and hear of it on TV. I noticed during Advent there seemed to have been an unusually high number of children who had gone missing and later turned up dead. How do we reconcile the evil of this reality with the good that is Christmas? How is Herod's heinous act associated with the Christmas Story at all?

Maybe in this way: the real - and whole - Christmas story must take everything into account, especially the current reality. We cannot escape or deny the bad just because we want only the good, and we cannot improve the Good that has already come to us though we do try! We cannot deny that the Good had to come in order to confront the bad. One cannot exist without the other, but it is a hard sell to a culture that has been oriented toward personal happiness and self-fulfillment. "The Cross is a very hard sell to the many who prefer the Crown" (Rev. Bud Reeves, "Marketing the Gospel", 27 Jan 08). Yet the manger story makes no sense and has no rightful place or appropriate context outside the certain reality of Herod's massacre.

We don't live in a perfect world; and because of human instincts and inclinations, we are incapable of creating - or at least are unwilling to create - let alone maintain, a "perfect world" because our notions of perfection have more to do with how personally pleasing things are to us as individuals; we will worry about "strangers" or "neighbors" or even the Church once our own business is settled. The merit and the True Spirit of Christmas are long forgotten - if they ever existed at all - because the order we seek to restore or maintain and protect - much like Herod - has more to do with our own comfort and the sense of well-being we desire, perhaps even at the expense of others. Our own "kingdom" that is, which can often be at odds with the Kingdom that is to come.

Still, it seems quite a stretch, and unfair, to compare our own self-interests to the same manner of "evil" that was ordered by Herod. After all, we will not order or even allow the slaughter of innocent children to a political end or for our personal comfort ... will we? Or can it be true, as some theologians have suggested, that there can be no reasonable distinction between what we might consider to be "profound" evil - such as Herod's slaughter or Hitler's Holocaust - and the simple pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfillment? That which denies St. Augustine's concept of the proper "created order" that always seeks the higher level when we deny self-indulgence for the sake of others who have need? This seems to be consistent with the biblical teaching of breaking the law in which one violation renders us guilty of the whole law - whether it is an intentional act of cruelty or the neglect of complacency.

Notice, however, that even in the midst of the evil perpetrated by Herod, the Lord is still moving in a world that clearly hates Him. It is the same world that does not even know Him but nevertheless displays its hatred of Him and His ideals by the relentless pursuit of its own ideals defined by a self-actualizing culture of individualism. It is a world that reacts violently, personified by Herod, to any perceived threat to what most consider to be a more "natural order", the fulfillment and care of self to the exclusion of - and sometimes direct harm to - others.

In the face of such harsh reality, however, we must always be mindful of the Divine Reality which is to come. It is a reality for which we are prepared daily as we navigate the cumbersome world around us, the world that challenges us to pursue our own, to "look out for #1", a culture that seeks to convince us that we are indeed "masters of our own universe". It is a world which teaches us to destroy anything that gets in the way of our personal happiness and sense of security. Herod's slaughter of the children in the midst of Rachel's tears reminds us that until the final trumpet sounds, Mary's fears may be realized: that her own beloved Son was brutally tortured and murdered ... and no one cared.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pat-down Smack-down

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."- Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers,
and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
violated; and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported
by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be
searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

- 4th Amendment to the US Constitution

Unreasonable search and seizure: "search of an individual or his/her premises (including an automobile) and/or seizure of evidence found in such a search by a law enforcement officer without a search warrant and without "probable cause" to believe evidence of a crime is present. Such a search and/or seizure is unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment (applied to the states by the 14th Amendment), and evidence obtained thereby may not be introduced in court."

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin

To fly, or not to fly. This is the question most on the minds of those who either have frequent-flyer miles or wish to. The government has decreed that all who wish to board an airplane are suspect and therefore guilty until such time as extreme measures of search of one's person can prove that person's innocence.

Ok, maybe that's a little over the top. I've not flown in a very long time (and I don't really miss it) but "back in the day", a search became necessary at the airport only if one could not pass through a metal detector without setting it off. Now, as the news reports indicate, everyone will either be put through a full-body scan OR a rather intrusive manual search of one's body that stops just shy of cavity breach.

These searches are being conducted by folks who are just carrying out the duties they've been instructed to perform, but there are some glaring problems. First, it could be reasoned that they have been trained to check for weapons, of course, as well as for items that cannot be picked up by a metal detector. Remember our good friend who ended up smoking his own "crack" on Christmas in Michigan? That powder would not be found by any means other than those currently employed. Having said this, however, these TSA folks - while searching for weapons and explosive devices - have apparently not been trained to respect the person whom they are subjecting to what many describe as "humiliating". "Groped" has been mentioned in more than one news story.

One cannot fault the TSA for what it believes to be doing for the greater good. One individual may not be afraid to die and insists upon his constitutional right not to be subject to an unreasonable search, especially without probable cause. The other folks flying on the same plane, perhaps with their children, feel a lot better, however, in knowing that the TSA is doing all it can reasonably or not so reasonably to keep as many safe as possible.

Can it really be as simple, as some have suggested, that one who would object to such searches simply drive or take a train or a bus? Do we have a "right" to fly without being "groped" or otherwise "humiliated"? Or is the smack-down more basic than this? We get it that it was Arab Muslims (or was it Muslim Arabs?) who committed the dastardly deeds on that fateful day in 2001. Subsequently it was the color of one's skin or the sound of one's name that made one suspicious and susceptible to a more concentrated search, but we cannot forget American Muslim (or is it Muslim American?) Richard Reid who tried to blow up a plane with his shoe. So can it be only Muslims who are suspect? Where would TSA draw the line without "profiling", which has become a dirty word? Who would be subject to the kind of search that might have revealed the shoes or the powder in the underwear?

Who is the real enemy here? As it stands, apparently anyone with a plane ticket is a potential mass murderer, and the TSA has been charged with protecting the well-being of your dear old, wheel-chair-bound granny. Now if, heaven forbid, dear old granny dies in an explosion because a bomb somehow got past otherwise lax security measures, granny's family will have their day in court and will be seeking damages from here to kingdom come due to the government's, or the airline's, failure to keep granny reasonably safe. They failed to find "junk" in someone's "junk", and granny's life was cut short due to someone else's neglect. "Someone" should have "done something", the grieving family would wail at any reporter who would give them a microphone and a moment in the spotlight. Meantime, the TSA administrator would be standing tall before the Congress, being called every demonic name in the book, and his resignation would be virtually demanded.

Granny's fine, however, but she's a little disoriented, dismayed, and offended at having been so aggressively searched and made to feel like a criminal suspect for no reason other than that she wanted to fly out to see the grandkids. Now the TSA administrator is standing tall before the Congress, being called every demonic name in the book, and his resignation is being ... well, if not demanded, at least alluded to. And heaven forbid that one slips through, which is highly possible regardless of the extreme measures we take given the extreme nature of the very real enemy we do face. Mr. TSA and Ms. Homeland Security would not need to bother getting out of bed, for their lives or excuses will not be worth the skin they're wrapped in.

When we find ourselves held hostage by fear, real or imagined, we find little more than confusion and uncertainty. Life becomes no more than a series of doubts, and we will find no solace but plenty of demons. Living in fear is the worst kind of tyranny for which there are no measures of security, reasonable or otherwise. If one is ok with the measures the TSA has deemed necessary, one is ok with measured standards of liberty up for grabs only by those whose lives are controlled by fear. And as syndicated columnist Ann Coulter recently opined, what measures will be next if by chance an explosive device is actually found in an anal cavity? Or the other, more feminine, cavity?

Where would YOU draw the line?

The Paradox of Faith

Genesis 22:1-19
John 15:18-19

Faith is absurd. Faith makes no sense, cannot be explained, and thus cannot be appreciated, let alone embraced by a world that functions according to its own senses and perceptions and within a realm that requires - and then provides - its own explanations. In the world of physical reality, seeing is believing. That which cannot be seen or explained is irrelevant and without foundation because it comes from nothing the world can provide for itself. Faith is a radical departure from the social norms we are more familiar with.

Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th-century philosopher, writer, and Danish Lutheran as was virtually every other citizen of Denmark. He found a total disconnect between genuine Christian faith and whatever it was the Danish state church was putting out. He came to refer to this "empty shell" as 'Christendom', a social philosophy that only pretended to be Christianity by using the same language and making the same claims but without the same expectations and demands. Kierkegaard considered 'Christendom' to be an even greater threat to Christianity than outright paganism because it only pretended to be something it really was not ("Good Ideas", Wilken, 169). It was the "fear and trembling" faith of Abraham by which Kierkegaard judged genuine faith.

Reading more about his views of the apparent conflict which exists between genuine faith and social standards of conduct (ethics) has forced me to confront my own faith especially within Kierkegaard's assessment of what the story of Abraham and Isaac offers to us. Jesus' own words to His disciples in John's Gospel seem to shore up what Kierkegaard considers to be absolute when we struggle with what the world seems to expect from us and what Jesus actually requires of us. Faith calls us far and away from comfort and conformity, and even puts us at odds with those around us.

Consider faith to be the challenge by which we are standing at the edge of a cliff and looking down into a dark abyss. We cannot see the bottom; we can only see to the edge of the darkness, and we have no idea what is beyond that darkness. From within that darkness calls the Voice who says, "Jump. I'll catch you." Faith does not simply ask us to believe the Lord will catch us. Faith requires that we actually jump!

Not literally, of course, but this kind of faith would be what our social standards would consider to be "insane"; there is nothing apparent for the greater good of society that will come as a result of such a leap of faith. Even by the kind of comfortable, rational theology the American Church seems to push, the Lord would not even ask such a radical commitment from us because, the Church reasons, the Lord wants us to be "happy". He would not ask such a thing of us. According to Kierkegaard, however, the social norm actually serves as a temptation that keeps us from pursuing the life of faith on the Lord's own terms. Our more comfortable faith fits neatly into how we have ordered our lives in social conformity.

Kierkegaard justifies exactly this kind of radical action by his understanding of Abraham's challenge when he was called upon by the Lord to offer up Isaac's life. By social standards, any decent person with a conscience would not consider such a thing. In fact, we would reason that anyone who claims to receive such a charge is insane and listening to demons because our God would not ask such a thing of us. Maybe not exactly that, but we fail to remember that Abraham's God asked precisely this thing of him.

Especially today, we have rationalized and watered down Abraham's story by looking backward through New Testament theology and Israel's entry into Canaan where such human sacrifices were the practice of some. When we look backward through the Law's prohibition against such practices, we can clearly see the outcome. Our concept of faith thus becomes predictable according to our own terms, expectations, and demands. Abraham did not have the Law or any kind of religious system. He had ONLY faith, the moment at hand, the beloved son he had longed for, and a God whom he had followed out of his homeland to a destination unknown. For what was being asked of him, he had no way of knowing it was a "test" he was facing because the story had yet to be written.

Even the prophet Muhammad in his day saw a disturbing level of complacency and social conformity within watered-down Christianity and Hellenized Judaism that asked nothing of its practitioners except to "fit in" with the secular culture and brought nothing but misery and social injustice to those who did not "fit in". It was his intent - he believed it to be his calling - to return the "people of the Book" to the radical, absolute, and unquestioning faith that was personified and "perfected" in Abraham's willingness to "jump", to obey without question. It was this faith upon which Jesus was to establish His Church, His blessed Body, against the "gates of Hades" in a world that would seem to prefer those "gates" to the radical obedience that moved Jesus to the Cross - and moved Abraham to do something that even in his time and within his social structure was unthinkable.

Kierkegaard also challenges us to consider a couple of unsettling and personally destabilizing social factors in Abraham's story. First, consider the time. One's identity was substantially wrapped up on one's own country; it was a means of identification. Abraham was being called upon to depart from his identity, his heritage. Secondly, making babies was the measure of one's social worth. To be without a child was to be without honor, without purpose, to be under some curse - according to society's norms. At such an advanced age, Abraham was childless. It was completely reasonable to believe he would die without an heir.

Social standards of the dominant culture were safe, perfectly ethical within the cultural context, predictable, and comfortable. Following the call of the Lord, however, was anything but safe or comfortable; and as we will discover later in Abraham's life, faith and ethical behavior would come to be completely at odds.

We know what ethical behavior is. What we don't know is the root, or the absolute, of ethics. What I might consider to be unethical behavior as a pastor, for instance, would not necessarily be shared universally by all pastors. Any ethical standard is a moving target because while we might agree on certain fundamentals, it is highly unlikely we could narrow down the definition beyond certain cultural standards.

Kierkegaard offered the paradox of Abraham's circumstances and faith through a sense of ethics, or social standards, by which Abraham was willing to "murder" Isaac. By a sense of faith, on the other hand, Abraham was willing to "sacrifice", or give up, what meant the most to him in the entire world for no apparent reason other than that the Lord asked him to. Abraham did not know what would come of it, or why he was being asked to do such an unthinkable thing. He was peering into the darkness from the edge of the cliff, and the Lord was asking him to jump.

It could be argued, as it has, that Abraham already knew the outcome as he expressed to Isaac when he was questioned about the lack of an animal for the sacrifice. If this were true, there could be no faith. It is more reasonable to assume Abraham was trying to assuage Isaac. It is reasonable to believe that if Isaac had been clued into what was about to take place, he would have high-tailed it back to the safety of his mother. Biblically, there is no rationale for believing one thing over another except by hindsight as the words are clearly written. What is not so well known was Abraham's state of mind. One can only image the anguish.

I do think there is one clear thing we can ascertain from the story and Kierkegaard's analysis. Faith makes no sense. It does not compute. It does not fit so neatly into our ordered sense of ethical behavior because our social standards - the means by which we "fit in" with our ordered society - has the potential of actually serving as a barrier between ourselves and the Almighty who may well be calling US into such radical obedience. The Lord may well be looking toward a much greater good by calling us out to the edge and then asking us to "jump", but we will not know this if our minds are toward the social norms and contemporary ethical standards.

The Lord's calling WILL put us at odds with the world around us, including our families, and certainly our friends and acquaintances; Jesus guarantees it. The burden upon us is to choose the standard by which we will ultimately and finally be judged: ethical standards established by the norms of our society - or standards of faith that will take us to the very edge - and beyond.

Why Choose YOUR Church

Deuteronomy 7:7-15 Hebrews 4:1-11 Revelation 2:1-7

The final installment in this series is upon us, and I have to say I'm glad. I'm glad we took this journey together, of course, and I hope it gave us all something to think about and even more to share with others but doing any kind of sermon series can be a little binding. A good series can serve a useful purpose to a particular end, but there must also be a sense of freedom in all we do lest we lose our sense of gratitude, and our efforts become drudgery. We all have restrictions and limitations on some level, of course, but we still like the idea that no one and nothing binds us, that we are free to do because we choose to do - not because we have to.

Which goes to the heart of our third and final question: Why THIS Church? Well, there is obviously no reference to Asbury United Methodist Church of Magnolia to be found anywhere in Scripture, so this question will be a lot harder to answer biblically because the answers are found not in a book but in your own hearts. And you and I must be able to articulate our answers because we are not in competition with anyone nor are we "against" anyone. We are for Christ. If folks want to be Baptist, they should be encouraged to go be Baptists. Or Catholics. Or Lutherans. Or Episcopalians. Or Mormons.

If that is their inclination and they can go with their whole heart toward the Lord, they should go. But they should not go because the preacher is awesome or the choir is great or the potlucks are in abundance or the "entertainment" on any level is top-shelf. It is unfortunate, however, that this is what the Protestant Church in America has been reduced to. With the exception of our Catholic and Orthodox friends whose formal worship liturgy is going to be the same each time, Protestants in general seem to have fallen into a trap in which they lament the many who are searching for the BBD (bigger, better deal) as they continue to try and offer the BBD. It is a never-ending, unsustainable cycle that is entirely dependent on one's knowledge of a community's social structure. It misses the whole point of gathering for worship in the first place. It is also dependent on how much money and energy a congregation has and is willing to expend on such efforts. It is consumerism at its very worst, and it betrays the identity and integrity of the Body of Christ.

We all want our churches to grow, and we want our churches to mean as much to others as it does to us. Church growth is evidence of spiritual fruit being put to good use, folks finding Christ for the first time or renewing their commitment to the Lord. Growth is an indicator that the community of faith is offering something others wants to be a part of. Whether such growth can be sustained over time, however, is a matter of whether or not the WHOLE CHURCH shares in the outreach efforts and common vision or leaves it to a few. It is a question of whether a common vision even exists, how that vision has come to be, and how that vision will come to fruition. It is, as in all things Church, a question of sacrificial love, love that is committed to something greater than self.

The existence and purpose of the Body of Christ within a community must not be reduced to trying to "guilt" people into participation and membership. I realize this is often perceived as coming from the pulpit, but the truth is one can only be made to feel guilty if guilt actually exists, "for godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted ..." (2 Corinthians 7:10). This is to say, the guilt one may feel is guilt that comes from Above, a spiritual stirring in the heart of one who is "incomplete". Further simplified, no preacher can make one feel guilty without one's permission.

Being an active part of the Body of Christ within a particular community of faith does not define the difference between a "good" Christian and a "bad" Christian. Rather, it marks the difference between one who is intentionally and purposefully "going on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1) and one who is not - and doesn't care. In other words, it is the difference between being "complete" and being "incomplete"; that is, "something lacking". And make no mistake; those outside the Body of Christ are "incomplete" not because they are "bad" but because they have deliberately detached themselves from the "True Vine" as Jesus expresses in John 15; "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me".

To answer the question, "Why THIS Church", then, is not a matter of making this particular church "bigger" or "better" but is in how we fulfill our mission as the Body of Christ in helping others toward becoming more "perfect", more "complete". It is in the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, and it is in the meaningful social issues that speak to people on a very real, very personal level. It is about patient endurance in all things. But before we can answer the question to the community we serve, we must first answer the question for ourselves by answering the "love letter" that comes to us from The Revelation.

I shared in a radio message recently that we demand political reform on virtually all levels, recognizing that before any meaningful reform can take place, the US Congress must first reform itself. Go back to the basics of constitutional government. The Holy Church is no different. Before the Church can hope to transform the society it seeks to serve, she must first be transformed herself. And before the Church can be transformed, you and I must first be transformed. The transformation of the Body of Christ, however, cannot AND MUST NOT be measured according to what we think the world expects or demands of us. Rather, we must be transformed by the "first love" we once knew; that moment of justification when nothing else on earth mattered, when our lives had been touched from above and we were told in no uncertain terms: I love you. And I am willing to forgive you.

What a burden that had been lifted from our very souls! What a joy we once knew that even though the world, our friends, even our own families somehow still try and "keep score" against us, the Lord above is willing to absolve us of all wrong-doing NOT by what we had done - but IN SPITE of what we had done! The Glory of the Lord is shown in a human soul made pure once again, and we fell in love with that moment and with Him. We wanted that moment to last forever, and we lament those days when that moment, that promise, that glimpse into eternity, seems so far away. So far away, and so long ago.

As told to us in The Revelation, however, it is not He who moved; it is not the Lord who blinked. The Lord reveals to the Church - the WHOLE church - that it is "[we who] have left [our] first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen ..." (Rev 2:4-5) And it is important for the Church - the WHOLE church - to note that for all the good and the faithfulness that is in abundance for which the Lord offers His compliments and praise, He still says, "Nevertheless, I have this against you ..."

He does not call us "bad"; He calls us "incomplete". There is a lot of good to celebrate and be thankful for. There is much within the Church AND this church in our little corner of the community for which the Lord is glad. You and I can see it. You and I can appreciate it and even be moved to pat ourselves on the back for our "accomplishments" even as we acknowledge that much more needs to be done. And we can work our fingers to the bone rushing to "do" for the community what WE think the community needs and we can even tell the community by our works that we "love" them. Yet in spite of all this, the Lamb calls upon us to be aware that something is missing. And it is no small thing, dear friends. It's not even the "main" thing or the "big" thing. It is THE THING! Without it, we are "incomplete". Without it, we are "detached" from the Vine.

The Lord knows it, but apparently the Church - the WHOLE church - does not. The Church has busied itself in trying to be all things to all people - and all for good causes - but the Church has broken away from the "True Vine". We have forgotten who we really are, and who we really belong to. We are not here to serve the world; we are here to serve the Lord in the world. And there is a difference.

Why this church? Believe it or not, it was you who reminded me of how much of myself was missing, how incomplete I really was. I suspect you can do the same for so many others not so as to make them feel "bad" about themselves, but to make them feel good about the Lord and what He has done for His beloved Bride, the Church, and what He intends to continue to do WITH and THROUGH His beloved and faithful Bride!

It will be His beloved Bride who will be called forth in the Last Days, just as it is written in Scripture and the Church will be made "complete" by Him alone - IF the Church - the WHOLE Church - will return to that FIRST LOVE by which we were declared "whole" and holy. It is the Church - the WHOLE Church - that will be called forth to "eat from the Tree of Life which is in the midst of the Paradise of God."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Looking Deeper

Matthew 12:38-42
Exodus 20:1-17
Galatians 4:22-26

St. Augustine: "The Church is a harlot, but She is your mother."

Exodus 20:12: "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you."

Jesus: "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign ..." (Matthew 12:39)
Exodus 20:14: "You shall not commit adultery."

Referring to Augustine's rather strong words toward the Church earlier made me begin to rethink the so-called "Ten Commandments" and how the contemporary Church has come dangerously close to marginalizing the more profound meaning implied in each one, reducing the "preamble" to the Law to little more than a list of rules by which we are inclined to justify our own sense of righteousness.

There can be little doubt that several of the commandments refer to the relationships we have with one another in the Lord's effort to teach us how to live in community with one another and be "set apart" from the dominant culture, but I cannot say I've heard much of a reference to any of these commandments within a much broader application.

But what if we were to look closer and deeper? What if we considered Jesus' rather strong words to the scribes and Pharisees, and the many biblical references to "adultery", on a much broader scale? We cannot reasonably say Jesus was simply referring to the scribes and Pharisees - indeed an entire "generation" - as just a bunch of "cheaters" who were all being unfaithful to their spouses. The accusation goes deeper - much deeper than mere "flesh". It can actually be tied to our status as members of the Body of Christ; in fact, it has to be - or some of the deeper meaning gets lost in the "flesh".

Even in the case of honoring one's parents, we should consider how one can "honor" a parent who has abandoned them. What is there to honor, first, if there is no honor at all in the life of the one we are compelled to honor? And secondly, how can we honor someone we don't even know? There are children who have been in foster care all their cognitive lives and are moved from home to home on a semi-consistent basis. These children know no "home" to call their own, and many don't even know a "mother" or "father" worthy of the kind of honor the Lord God compels. So what?

In order for the Law to have real meaning, it has to be universal; which is to say, the Law must be equally applicable across the board. Roman Catholic priests and nuns are not married, but it is not reasonable to say the prohibition against adultery does not apply to them - or it applies to them but in a way that is "different" from how it applies to you or me. This makes the Law - the whole Law - exclusive only to particular classes or categories of persons, or even individuals. Clearly the Law is applicable to all who seek to be in community with the people of the Lord. However, it cannot mean "more" to those within the Church, and it does not mean "less" to those outside the Church.

We have a common "Father" as human beings, the immortal "seed" by which we came to be. Likewise, we all have a common "Mother" who nurtures us, sustains us, disciplines us, comforts us, and protects us. It is unfair and inconsistent within the language of faith that those of us who were blessed to be have been born into what we would call "normal" homes to "normal" parents have more of a rightful claim - or a heavier burden - than those whose very birth feels like a curse only because they do not have "parents" as you and I have or had, or did not grow up in the same "home" as you and I did.

Universally we are all "married" to the same Bridegroom and live under the same universal Promise. By His Blood He has a rightful claim. What is not universal is the level of acceptance among us. Some enter into the Covenant as equal partners with the Lord in His Body the Church - while others are eager to proclaim "salvation" for themselves as sure as the Eternal Promise proclaims but who also live well outside of the Covenant of Community.

They make up their own rules and refuse to surrender any part of their being. They are perhaps being faithful to their earthly spouses and honoring their earthly parents - and are therefore self-justified - but their hearts and loyalties are far and apart from the heart of Christ. They expect the Lord to "swing by" and pick them up as He is passing through when He returns, but they will not be found searching for Him. They fully expect the Lord to "come to them" - but until that Time comes, they want no part of Him or His Church. They deny the universality of the Law or the Lord.

These are the very ones Jesus refers to as the "adulterous" generation whose intentions are, according to St. Augustine, contrary to the "divine order" and thus "evil". They are not responding to a call to repentance and faith but choose instead to stand "justified" by their own actions, their own definitions, standards, and measures of "righteous". And the Gentiles who respond in faith to the call of the Gospel will stand in judgment of the self-described "faithful" for it is they who will be true "heirs to the Throne"; those who were faithful not to the "flesh" but to the Spirit.

It is a harsh idea especially when we do the best we can by our spouses and by our parents, but there is a substantial difference between our obedience to the "flesh" and our obedience to the Spirit.

There is ONLY One who will always be True to us, and we only have one "Father" and one "Mother" both of whom are truly worthy of Honor.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Church Happens

Isaiah 65:17-25 Acts 2:42-47 Matthew 16:13-18

It has been said there are countless reasons not to get up early on a Sunday morning to attend worship services, but there is only One Reason why we must. I think this is not in dispute - among the faithful. What does seem to be in dispute among the other, less-than-faithful is whether that One Reason is good enough - or whether that One Reason is merely an opinion held only by those who have varied social or professional or even financial interests in high attendance numbers.

There is also the dispute about whether or not a failure or outright refusal to attend to worship is a "sin" and whether the Lord will hold it against us if we choose to pursue our own pleasures and individual interests rather than bother to show Him and fellow disciples some love and a little devotion by giving Him one silly hour out of our entire week to hear the Word proclaimed, to attend to the Sacraments of the Church, to support the Church, His Blessed Body, and to show support for one another in fellowship in our common prayers and presence.

It is truly all about "love" and whether such sacrificial love (and, ultimately, the Lord Himself) exists within us; whether there exists a mere PROMISE from the Lord - OR - if we are entered into a COVENANT with the Lord - and make no mistake; there is a substantial difference. It is that same Divine Love that not only created us for a specific purpose but, ironically, also set us free; and by creation and redemption even made it possible for us to not only choose to come but also stay - or not. To enter into Covenant with Him - or simply accept the Promise as our own "personal" guarantee and run.

Clearly my bias is showing, and clearly the Arkansas Conference will determine the effectiveness of any pastor and the usefulness of any particular United Methodist Church at least in part by rising - or flat and declining - attendance numbers. Clearly the burden for each member is diminished when more contribute to the upkeep of the Church. It's ok to be honest about these things because these numbers do speak to the current state of the Church overall; not just this one. So it is within the context of the greater and whole Church, the Body of Christ, that the question must be answered: Why Church? What purpose does the Church serve? Is the Church merely an antiquated institution that is no longer relevant? Is the usefulness or effectiveness of the Church in a secular society determined only by the Church's ability to manipulate the political and social agenda?

Why Church? Where would civilization be without the Church? It is painfully ironic that the many so-called "spiritual" Christians would insist that one can be a faithful disciple and/or redeemed apart from the Church - because the Church, for all her human imperfections, is still the Body of Christ - and it is Christ who redeems! - expressed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians: "[The Lord God] put all things under [Christ's} feet and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (1:22-23).

Some questions we should ask of those who insist they do not need the Church or that the Church does not need them or that the Church is no longer needed at all:

• Who will proclaim the Gospel of Christ if not the Church?
• Who baptizes according to Christ's command (Mt 28:19) if not the Church?
• What is one baptized INTO if not the Body of Christ, the Holy Church?
• Who is the guardian and herald of the Covenant if not the Church?
• Throughout the Bible, to whom are most of the "letters" and epistles addressed if not to the Church (and in the O/T, to the nation of Israel) as a whole?
• The Lord commanded through Moses that "the redemption story" is to be told perpetually, throughout the generations. Who will tell the story if not the Church?
• What did St. Peter mean when his eyes were opened and he proclaimed, "In truth I perceive that the Lord God 'shows no partiality' (NRSV)", or in KJV, 'is no respecter of persons' (Acts 10:34)? In other words, no individual or "personal" favors?

Tony Campolo, in writing for Christianity Today, expresses some harsh criticism of the Church as a whole, and the evangelical church in general, in his article, "Letter to a young evangelical", while still defending the integrity of the Holy Church. He writes: "Think about the words of St. Augustine: "The Church is a [harlot], but she's my mother." You don't have to look too hard to see that the ... Church in America has a great propensity for reducing Christianity to a validation of our society's middle-class way of life. Unquestionably, the church too often has socialized our young people into adopting culturally established values of success, rather than calling them into the kind of countercultural nonconformity that Scripture requires of Christ's followers" (Romans 12:1-2 = "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed ...").

"Why, then, do I encourage you to participate in organized religion and commit yourself to a specific local congregation? Because, as Augustine made clear, "the church is still your mother". It is She who taught you about Jesus. I want you to remember that the Bible teaches that Christ loves the Church and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). That's a preeminent reason why you dare not decide that you don't need the Church. Christ's church is called His bride (2 Cor 11:2), and His love for her makes Him faithful to her even when she is not faithful to Him."

This argument goes back to a previous statement I made in which we are challenged to engage in Christ fully and completely, all aspects of His being, His Life as well as His death, in recognizing that we cannot have one without the other. It is utterly ridiculous, disingenuous, and unbiblical to believe one can be redeemed by His blood while simultaneously rejecting the relevance of His Life, the Presence of which continues in and through the Church.

It is important to remember and embrace the fidelity of the Lord regardless of our response - or lack thereof - because He is the one, single, solitary Constant and Certainty and Covenant in a world filled with inconsistencies, uncertainties, and broken promises. If we are making an argument "for" Church, the argument is empty without Christ - for the Church is empty without Christ. Without Christ as the divinely appointed Head, we may as well call ourselves the "Rotary" or "Optimists" or "Elks" or any number of other secular, civic organizations whose rules and standards of conduct are subject to majority vote of humans and their own cultural standards.

Tony Campolo, the same author mentioned earlier, tells of one of his earliest recollections of Holy Communion at the church where he grew up. As the bread was being passed around (the tiny crackers on a plate), a sobbing young woman seated in the pew just in front of him refused the plate when it was passed to her and then lowered her head, sobbing in despair. Tony's father leaned over the young woman's shoulder and whispered, "Take it, girl. It was meant for you."

"She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that [it was only the] Church that could offer Communion to hurting people as a special gift from God."

Where else, indeed, will such Good News be proclaimed? Clearly the elder gentleman was not so concerned about making the young woman feel good about herself by granting her a social "pass" for her mistakes, but was instead seeking to make the young, heart-broken woman feel good about her Lord - who gave Himself so completely for her IN SPITE of her sinful state. Where else would this happen but within the Body of Christ?

There is a saying: "We're not what we ought to be, but then we're not what we used to be."

The Holy Church, as the Body of Christ, is made up of her individual members, those members who choose to step forward and come into Union with Christ AND with one another in COVENANT. It is the Church called forward by the "Great Commission" to be Christ in and to the world. The Lord did not offer an "option" prior to His Glorious Ascension; He issued a directive, a command. And He put His Body the Church in place, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continue His ministry to those who cannot find their way. Who else but the Holy Church? And within the Holy Church herself, Christ's promises are sure: I will be with you ... And the gates of Hades shall not prevail.
In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Why Christ?

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Ephesians 1:11-23 Luke 6:20-31

Continuing an exploration into the Church's relationship with the Lord as the Body of Christ, the logical first question to settle is, "Why Christ?" since the New Covenant of the Holy God comes to us by way of Christ Jesus. Trying to answer this overly simplified question, however, raises even more questions than I had previously proposed:
• Why did Christ come?
• Why did Christ die?
• Why did Christ rise from the grave?
• Why will Christ come again?
• Why discipleship?
• Why does any of this matter to me now?

I have often been accused of "over-thinking" religion and faith, but these questions have to be answered by disciples for this reason: they help to lead us into equal parts of the total Christ experience, which is to say that Jesus' teaching ministry, His crucifixion, His resurrection, His return, and His relevance cannot be separated one from the other. To believe in Christ is to accept and embrace His totality WITHOUT making Him to be a "god" unto Himself and without separating His death from His life. It should be very difficult to believe one can be "saved" by His blood while removing oneself from the totality of His life.

Questions are inevitable. It is a mistake to believe asking questions is somehow sinful or foolish or that we express a lack of faith by daring to ask questions. To follow Jesus is to be fully engaged with Him and with all of creation THROUGH Him. Besides, we are surrounded by a sea of non-believers who would like to have relevant answers to their questions, but the Church - by way of her members - has relegated that position of responsibility to the world and its temporal responses to eternal questions.

Statistics indicate that over 90% of Americans at least acknowledge the existence of a "higher power" even though they do not call that "power" by any name. It is more inconceivable that the world simply came into existence from nothingness than that the world we know was divinely created, an order called into being.

The 17th-century French writer and deist Voltaire was a product of, if not a contributor to, the Enlightenment, the age of religious reasoning. He expressed his personal theology in this way: "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."

This was deism, a belief only in that which is physically evident and from which logical conclusions can be reached. It is a good start from which questions will come, but it is incomplete. Voltaire, apparently like most Americans today, had no problem with a "supreme being", even insisting upon its necessity in order for creation to make sense, but he had a particular suspicion, if disdain, for Christianity and its seeming perpetual and generational metamorphoses based entirely on opinion and "hearsay" (his perception of Bible writings).

For Voltaire, and others like him before and since, Christianity is far beyond any sense of reason. That a Man was falsely accused, tortured, and murdered for His beliefs requires no faith; recorded history is filled with such stories. But to believe this same Man was three days dead in a sealed tomb and then resurrected - and all for a Divine purpose within the reasonable "created order" - goes far beyond reason. So we enter into the realm of faith and draw closer to an answer to our question; "why Christ?" In fact, we need to know why all these things even matter if Christ matters at all.

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). So faith is an evaluation of the present reality measured against the promises of the Kingdom of Heaven, an abstraction for most because the present reality can often be so overwhelming. Things of the Kingdom of Heaven are somewhat lofty especially for those who are currently - and perhaps perpetually - economically disadvantaged. Or are suffering marital and other family problems. or have just lost a job and the only thing on the horizon in real terms is the possible loss of one's home, that last bastion of safety and sanctuary. Why Christ for them?

Reality can be pretty harsh when things are not going the way we want them to go, so reality is a little hard to overcome with promises of "heaven". And if we are going to be theologically honest with those who are facing such calamities, we cannot promise them that reality is going to change anytime soon. Devoting one's life to Christ and choosing to become a disciple is not going to change reality, but faith will enable us to work through reality with a new perspective. But those who have come to equate Christ with cash or other financial "good luck", like the TV preachers seem to promise with carefully selected Scripture passages, are in for some severe disappointments.

The so-called "Beatitudes" are more focused on and directed to victims of religious persecution than on lofty promises of a better life such as a job, a home, a new car, or unearned wealth for everyone because for all that Jesus offers in terms of future blessings, He is rather demanding in challenging us to "love", to "bless", and to "pray for" those who seek to do us harm *IF* we are standing firm in and suffering for the faith especially when our impulses, our natural inclinations are to "strike back" when threatened or harmed in any way. So Jesus is speaking to the faithful, "His disciples" as stated in Luke 6:20. He has a specific audience. But He is also answering our question for us - IF - we are willing to listen carefully - AND - believe He is offering something far more substantial than what we can see in the moment.

St. Augustine believed in a created order of hierarchy. Within this created order is the need to reach "higher" rather than "lower". In other words, we move closer to "completion" - toward what we were created to do and to be - as long as we reach up rather than stoop down. So for all the gold we could possibly have, we are still lacking within this divine order because we have yet to reach higher. In fact, Augustine would maintain that if our goal in life is to acquire even more gold, for instance, we are always going to come up short because "we will ... be incapable of loving anything else properly since we will expect from these lesser things what they are unable to deliver" (Good Ideas, Wilkins, p 113).

St. Augustine maintains that the "created" order and what we might consider to be the "natural" order (the "food chain"), are in conflict with one another, we with our worldly ambitions, natural impulses, and strivings for a better life against the Lord's created order and the purposes for each level. When that divine order is distorted, evil occurs and a disconnect between the Divine and humanity exists. But Augustine maintains that "happiness is only discovered in a properly aligned life in which the HIGHER things are given priority" (Good Ideas, Wilkins, p 113).

Jesus came to realign the divine order by giving us a reason to reach higher rather than to settle for lower. It is, according to Augustine, the difference between "good" and "evil" (no middle ground!). Such disconnects from the divine order are evident when we react to a given situation according to how the world, our cultural standards, our society, and even our parents have conditioned us to react ("You don't have to take that stuff!!", "Fight back.").

Our level of perfection, the Divine Image in which we were created, is diminished when we pursue anything less than the very Face of God. The promises and blessings of the Beatitudes are contained in our willingness to settle for nothing less than the Lord, to settle for nothing less than the "perfection" of the human soul, recognizing there really is "more"; it just is that the "more" we think we need will not be found on this earth.

Faith substantially requires a certain disconnect from reality in that we realize that Jesus calls us to something much higher in the Eternal Kingdom rather than the temporal world. It is our measure of "completeness" by which we are identified by the condition of our souls rather than by the condition of our current predicament. Reality is what it is, but Christ is more. In Him, so are we.


Monday, November 01, 2010

The Morning Before

Politics is not easy. Candidates for public office are painfully aware of this, yet they choose to endure. Why? Are they really so convinced they (and/or their respective party) alone possess the magic pill that will save the nation/state/county/city and so are willing to take on the role of martyr? Or are they so delusional as to believe they alone possess that magic pill? The political TV ads, newspaper ads, radio ads, and incessant automated telephone calls try to convince us that our lives are either meaningless or hanging on the fringes without them and their particular brand of legislation or representation or leadership. These same ads and outreach efforts also try to convince us that their political opponents will cause the earth to stop spinning on its axis, ending life as we know it.

You and I know deep down they are all full of something substantially less-than-noble, but they don't seem to know or care that we know this much. I'm not even sure they know what we know at all. What they do know is how to play a crowd. They know which buttons to push, and they know most of us react emotionally even when confused with facts. They know what we are afraid of, and they know how to assign blame to those fears. What is becoming increasing clear, however, in listening to these unbelievable ads is that most of these people who are running for their respective offices do not know the functions and limitations of the offices they seek. One need only to consider some of the outlandish promises being made to know they are either clueless themselves - OR - they are counting on our cluelessness. In the end we reward them with that coveted office they are willing to go into debt for (they easily spend more than the job pays! There's our first clue, America!!), thereby solidifying their belief that negative, mean, hostile, disingenuous and less-than-honest ads, and downright falsehoods will win the day. This is how they become increasingly convinced that you and I are clueless and don't really want clues. "Please lie to us, Candidate X! We like it! And while you're at it, say something bad about your opponent's mama!"

We only want to be stroked, petted, and courted. We want to be convinced that our sorry lot in life is not our fault. We need to be convinced there really is a magic pill (cut spending/raise taxes). We don't want to believe (or even to know) that as easy as it was to get into the shape we are in (and like it or not, it began long before the current president, his predecessor and many others before them), it will be incredibly difficult to get out. We don't mind the idea of "cuts" in federal spending - in fact, we know cuts are a must - but we are not willing to personally endure those cuts. And this they know all too well. It is how they are able to get away with the sorry ads we are forced to endure for over a year. They do them because we seem to like them. And we obviously like them because we respond to them.

So here it is the day before Election Day, and I am so disgusted with the entire process and all the people involved that I am having a hard time convincing myself that I should even bother to vote. I feel like my participation will only encourage these nasty people, and yet I know every vote counts (or, at least, I hope so). The last time I voted I felt almost "dirty" because I did not like any of the choices. I was as disgusted then as I am now. I am at an impasse because no matter how I vote, the candidates who win the day will not know or even care about little ol' me. They will clearly care more about the party they represent, and they will care about those who can personally or politically benefit them in some way. They will begin to care about me when they come up for reelection. THEN they will answer my letters or take my phone calls.

What bothers me most, what really causes me great concern and distress is the unbelievably large number of Christians who believe politics is a useful theological tool (even as I am thoroughly disgusted with politicians who use theology as a useful political tool). Jesus and the apostles call us to be respectful of government and one another "for the sake of good order", yet we feel perfectly justified in cursing and judging one another according to political inclinations.

More than this, however; I am overwhelmingly disturbed at the large number of Christians who believe politics should define - or can define - our faith; can, in fact, subsidize and substantiate our very religion.

I have to say the Jehovah's Witnesses seem to have the right idea in removing themselves from the political process altogether. It must be said, however, that our republic is not ruled by a monarchy; we are self-governed. If we remove ourselves from the political process altogether, we them subject ourselves to whatever may come our way. We relinquish our role as part of the governing process and will be stuck with whatever comes.

So it sounds hopeless. From a purely political, social perspective there is no real hope. President Obama will not "save" us, and Congress cannot help us - not in the way we need to be "saved" or "helped". And the sooner we come to terms with this absolute reality, the sooner we can stop depending on and demanding so much from our government. But as long as we put so much of ourselves into the hands of man's political religion of self, there can be no hope within us. And as long as we reward liars and deceivers with virtually unlimited power and control over our lives and our society, we will get exactly what we asked for; exactly what we deserve but not at all what we would dare to hope for our children.


Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Serious questions require serious answers. Rev. Bob Crossman, the Arkansas Conference General Secretary, challenges United Methodist Christians to answer three (3) basic questions as part of our overall evangelistic mission to "make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world"; to act as the Body of Christ, to be Christ in the world:
• Why Christ?
• Why Church?
• Why this church?

To which I would respectfully add:
• Why worship?
• Why membership?

which will inevitably lead to other questions as well, which will include but not be limited to such questions as:
• Why baptism?
• Why Holy Communion?
• Why the Bible?

From our search for comprehensible answers, I think we must also be prepared for even more "why" questions than these which will likely arise from these discussions for the next few weeks as we continue to explore the Church's relationship with the Lord as His Body, as His presence in the world - and our parts as individuals within that dynamic.

I floated these questions some weeks ago during a Sunday evening service, but then I sort of left them hanging without much thought beyond posing the questions and challenging each of us to grapple with them, which some did. What I did not anticipate was how difficult it can be to answer these questions individually but within the greater context of how it applies to the Church as a whole, as the Body of the Risen Christ Himself - which must be done because this is who and what we are. We are not a church unto ourselves as individuals but as a body of believers; there is little that is "individualistic" about the mission of Christ's Holy Church even as we become aware of our individual gifts we are endowed with and expected and called to bring to the whole Body, the Church.

As we were reminded this Sunday evening past, however, most of us probably have the answers to these questions within us, but we think of our answers on a much more personal level. It must be said and acknowledged, then, that if we lack the confidence, the ability, or even the willingness to articulate these answers, our faith can become self-serving and our place in the Body of Christ irrelevant to the overall mission of the Church - irrelevant by our choosing, not His.

It becomes more and more about "me" as individuals and less and less about Christ the Lord who is Head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22). When we allow our faith to become that intensely "personal", it soon becomes "private" and not to be shared - or it becomes so rigid as to demand exclusive rights. The Body of Christ begins to crumble from within as more and more "parts" of the Body begin to fall away, the "eye saying to the hand, 'I have no need of you'" (1 Corinthians 12:21), to seek their own path and no other.

The Church Universal (which is to say, Christians of all persuasions and denominations, clergy and laity alike) must at least bear some responsibility for the many who are falling away or have already fallen away for several reasons, not least of which are what is commonly referred to as "cheap grace" (that is, salvation without sacrifice) in careless theology - AND/OR - practices of piety (means of grace) that have been either abandoned altogether or reduced to mere superstition with no spiritual discernment; in other words, no reason to embrace these practices except maybe to escape "bad luck".

In my humble opinion, the Church Universal has done a less-than-adequate job of helping seekers and the faithful to answer these compelling questions not only for themselves but for applicability within the greater context of the whole Church. And I say this because of the many, myself included, who attend worship to "feel good about themselves", to know they have fulfilled an obligation by doing their "part".

Few, if any, attend worship with the expectation of a Divine Encounter, and fewer still come with the understanding that Divine "marching orders" may be issued. In short, the Church Universal has encouraged and invited individuals to enter into the Presence of the Lord through His Body the Church and take their proper places within the Body - BUT - through careless theology has allowed these same "individuals" to walk out and away as the nine lepers in Luke 17:11-19 who were healed of their affliction but did not see fit to return. Nine of the ten who were healed got what they wanted out of it for themselves and went on their merry way, offering the Lord not so much as a "thank you". It was only the Samaritan, the social outcast, who returned to Jesus out of gratitude and awe. It was the Samaritan ALONE who became a part of the Body of Christ.

There is little to suggest Zacchaeus had any real expectations of an encounter with Jesus, but we can easily see that his curiosity got the best of him to the point that he climbed a tree to determine for himself "why" the big fuss. He was the chief tax collector AND a rich man; he obviously had all he needed to live as well and as contentedly as he would choose. Yet there was something within him that drove him to pull out all the stops just to see Jesus for himself, and it really does not matter what his intentions were. Little did he know that he would not only "see" but would also "be seen" AND called because of his relentless pursuit. He likely never imagined that for all his crooked ways, Jesus would actually want to sit down and break bread with him. And yet He did.

Yet even as much as the story itself seems to be all about Zacchaeus the individual, the reader must surely be able to see that the story is about repentance and salvation; not Zacchaeus. The story focuses not on any individual but on the grace and mercy that is Christ. The story is about putting aside the pursuit of one's own and seeking something much greater than self-fulfillment. Could Zacchaeus have kept all his money and simply professed Jesus as Lord? Could he not just simply "believe" and keep all his wealth besides? Could he not have the best of both "worlds"; the cash, wealth, and power his life surely afforded him - AND - be "saved", too?

Why question the story? Why ask questions that may make the story more complicated than it has to be? Why ask questions at all? Why not simply take the story at its face value: the Lord our God, through Christ the New Covenant, saves?

Why? Because our Lord is much bigger than Zacchaeus and He is infinitely bigger than Bro. Michael, but He cannot be bigger or larger or outside of Himself as His own Body, the Holy Church. The questions matter because discipleship matters. But before discipleship can matter or even have real meaning, we must answer the questions. We must know "why" the Church exists. We must know "why" Christ calls us forward in the Church, His Body. We must know "why" it matters to live within the Body of Christ rather than to choose to go it alone.

The Gospels are filled with stories of the disciples who followed Jesus faithfully and continually asked "why" questions. These were questions they needed answers to in order to follow more faithfully, to serve more faithfully, to become even more than they already were.

So shall we - TOGETHER as the Body of Christ - follow faithfully, ask relentlessly, and serve restlessly so that we may discover - TOGETHER - the fullness of Life that is Christ through His Holy Church.

So must we - in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Phelps v Snyder: a can of worms

How does one defend the Bill of Rights while demanding an end to the reprehensible behavior of the Phelps Klan - and Terry Jones and the developers of the proposed NYC Islamic Center and many others - without putting at risk the overall public activities of the Church as a whole? This case before the US Supreme Court (Phelps v Snyder) is about much more than free speech. Even though "hate speech" and defining a public persona as a target of such speech seem to be what the Supremes are trying to deal with, there are other issues lying just beneath the surface, issues that could adversely affect the Church's ability to work within the secular community, unapologetically in the name of Christ, without restrictions as a religious practice.

When Roe v Wade came onto the scene so many years ago as an issue of privacy, albeit with respect to abortion, I doubt many could have foreseen today's ethical dilemmas of the so-called "partial birth abortion" or euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research or even human cloning. It is both the curse and the majesty of a judicial system by which such issues must eventually be decided, especially issues with profound moral implications that strike at the heart of mainstream Judeo-Christian ethics. For the faithful it is not about the exercise of religion; it is about the practices that define religious faith.

The ramifications of Phelps v Snyder are no less profound within the realm of Christian practice, a religion that demands of believers to "go ... make disciples ... teach them" (Gospel of Matthew 28:19-20). Though the manner by which the Phelps Klan proposes to "teach" may be questionable, they seem nevertheless to be protected by the 1st Amendment not only in speech but in the practice of whatever religion they claim for themselves (ostensibly Christianity since they say they are Baptists). In the context of mainstream Christianity, their message (though troubling, to say the least) is not entirely unbiblical. The Lord does refer to homosexual conduct as an "abomination" (Leviticus 18:22), the practice of which is punishable by death. In this context, it is clearly a practice the Lord "hates". Not to get too theological or even literal here, but the basic message is fundamentally sound at least according to the standards of the Bible on a very basic level. The Bible, however, is not on trial here, nor is any Bible believer's interpretation. What is on trial is a Bible believer's - or a church's - public conduct while claiming to act within a biblical mandate.

Mainstream Christianity that is biblically grounded overwhelmingly finds the activities of the Phelps Klan to be, at the very least, shameful. Yet it cannot be denied that abortion protesters, however civil and right they may claim to be, are highly offensive to those who do not agree. Indeed the very message of "repentance" itself is offensive to a largely secular society that demands its "rights" to do as it pleases when it pleases. The Religious Right and its demands of a certain moral standard are offensive to all who don't agree. In short, we are all too easily offended, and the Supreme Court seems to be backed into a corner of being forced to decide who has a "right" to be offended, and who has a "right" to be offensive.

It is a rare thing indeed for the Supreme Court to deal with only one issue with one ruling. In this particular case of Phelps v Snyder, there will be no winner. Free speech or the free exercise of religion is about to take a hit in some form or fashion.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

A Member is a Member ... or not

Revelation 3:14-22
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
Luke 14:25-33

“Tell people where they are going and they may get there; inspire them with why they are going there and they will move mountains [to get there].”
~Christopher Novak

For the past several weeks I have shared with you only a few of the elements of the Church's call to mission which is not the "most" challenging aspect of church life: it is the lifeblood of the Church itself. It is the "Great Commission". Without a sense of mission, there is no Church. So if the Church is the Body of Christ, as St. Paul suggests to the Corinthians, it then stands to reason that the Body of Christ is the Heart of Christ and thus the Mission of Christ. So if all good things come from Christ and the Church is His Body, then for what we are called to do AS A CHURCH, all good things flow from Him THROUGH the Church. In this, then, we are compelled to ask: how can we profit on any level by consciously choosing NOT to be a part of the Body of Christ, the Holy Church?

The simple answer is: we cannot - and we can no longer afford to make excuses or exceptions for ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, or our neighbors. We can all agree that there is no profit in walking away from Christ; it is therefore reasonable that there is no profit in walking away from His Holy Church, His very Body. Yet many do. Why they do can be anyone's guess - and we do spend an awful lot of time guessing and speculating - but we do not typically spend a lot of time or expend a lot of energy trying to find out for ourselves firsthand exactly what set someone off to the point that they voluntarily remove themselves from the Church altogether - or move from one church to another.

It is reasonable that when we think in terms of "mission" we think in terms of reaching out to the unchurched; we think in terms of "making disciples" of those who have yet to discover for themselves the saving grace of the Lord through Christ. It is unfortunate that we can become so overwhelmed with such an awesome task that we often forget how important it is that we are also in mission to one another; not only "making" disciples but also "sustaining" and "nurturing" and "supporting" disciples. This is, in fact, the essential foundation of the Methodist movement altogether; it is why we have come to exist in the first place - to strengthen the Church, not tear it down. Part of the cohesiveness of the Church, which is each individual church's strength, is in recognizing that when ONE of us is in trouble - regardless of the nature of that trouble - then we are ALL in trouble. And when we are ALL in trouble, the CHURCH itself is in trouble.

Relationships within the Body of Christ are human relationships and are too often defined by human standards (our personal likes and dislikes); and as such, they are fragile and must be handled with care. There are some among us with extremely weak constitutions. Others constantly struggle with faith. Some are so sensitive to the point that they require special handling. Some, as I've been accused more than once, are a little more "direct" than may be necessary. And this is good to know so that I may make necessary corrections and issue apologies. I am the pastor and I should be held accountable - but no more or less so than any among us should be held accountable.

None of this makes a person of any lesser value than the most faithful among us; it only makes one unique, as we are all unique - and special - and of equally sacred worth. But because these relationships are so fragile, it takes very little to set someone off to the point that they up and walk out without a word, never to return. What's worse is that these often leave angry. It could be what the pastor says in a sermon, it could be the way someone looked at them, or it could be something really wrong in their lives that is interfering with everything else; but we won't know unless or until we ask.

Jesus, according to Luke's Gospel, makes no bones about what being His follower entails and what He actually expects and demands: TOTAL COMMITMENT. To be sure, there is a spiritual and often emotional element that evokes an initial response, but to commit to a life of service to the Lord requires consideration before commitment. To "count the cost" before such a commitment - to see the potential AS WELL AS the challenges - seems to be exactly what Jesus is referring to; in fact, the early Church had a preparatory period in which people were prepared for membership. No one was accepted on a whim. They could not just jump up, claim a Pentecostal moment, and be immediately received as members. It was a good discipline whose practice has been all but lost over the centuries. Now some might suggest that a refusal to receive a new member without question is a failure on the part of the Church or its pastor, but the truth is people need to know what will be expected of them. To accept them without question, to me, is the foundation for failure. It is like making a disciple but excusing that disciple from discipleship. It is like buying a new car but never putting gas in the tank. It's still a car, but it does not serve its purpose - which is the spiritual journey we all share - IF we are totally committed to Christ. And being committed to Christ is being committed to the Journey of Christ.

Today the Church is in such a state that people typically raise an eyebrow if the pastor does not offer an invitation at the end of every service, but my experience - and the experiences of others before and with me - has been that it is never a good idea to receive a new member on the spur of the moment. There must necessarily be a preparatory period in which the potential new member is introduced to life in the Church - AND all it entails. And yes, dear friends, that includes committee assignments as called upon especially in smaller churches with limited personnel options. Not only that, but membership calls for a commitment through which a committee may call upon an individual or a group of persons for help and be reasonably assured of a positive, if eager, and willing response. Hearing "No" and with only the explanation that "I just don't want to" does not speak well of one's commitment to the Body of Christ. And after so many "no's", it just becomes tiresome and cumbersome - and often down-right degrading - to have to virtually beg a disciple - a church member - to help where help is needed. But then - it is in this moment when discipleship and membership are more clearly defined.

The Bible and the United Methodist Book of Discipline are not unambiguous about what commitment to Christ means, but both references also acknowledge that many among us need a little extra help, a little more encouragement, a little more face time with someone other than the pastor who is more often perceived of as "only doing the job" for which he or she is paid. Most appreciate the efforts, of course, but there is an element of loneliness when fellow members do not bother to inquire, when others feel "forgotten" or worse; dumped on when no one else will step up. There is no care, there is no concern, there is no fellowship; there is only the pastor whose primary concern is "numbers". The "body" of Christ, such as it is, ceases to exist when its own members do not hold one another accountable or even care for one another.

We like being members of a church. We like that we "belong" to something but when our sense of belonging is reduced only to what we can get out of it for ourselves or only what we feel like doing as it personally pleases us, something gets lost; that something is "sacrifice" which is the bedrock of the Church, our faith. It is the very essence of the Lord Jesus who calls upon us and reminds us that He already took care of the really hard part. He corrects us, He enlightens us, He feeds us, and He even chastises us - ominously - as in the Revelation. Yet even with all that is written for our edification, we still bristle at the notion that our membership calls for more than we are willing to put forth - even and especially when there is no apparent or immediate reward for our trouble.

These are all very generalized statements, of course. It would be utterly unfair to consider such things to be universal or equally applicable because you know and I know there are some who will work their fingers to the bone for the sake and the life of the Holy Church until the Lord calls them home. We are also aware that more couples both work outside the home and thus have little extra time to devote to the life of the Church, what with soccer, baseball, football, dance lessons, and so forth, up to and including Sunday tournaments. And they do all this without question, without hesitation, and without reservation, but they typically do not give the Church the same attention and devotion. And the reason is simple: there are few who truly care enough to hold us accountable - because there is no sense of urgency about what is really at stake.

We are overtaxed from almost every angle and it often seems that the more we give, the more they want, regardless of who "they" is! In all this confusion and conflict, however, what we also fail to appreciate is that there are never enough bodies to do the work that needs to be done because we have done very little to bring our missing brothers and sisters back into the fold. The idiot pastor keeps pushing and challenging for stupid things like evangelism and outreach and keeps asking more and more of the fewer and fewer to reach out to the unchurched, and yet we as a Church fail to realize the substantial number of unchurched there are among even our own "members". They have excuses, we give them a free pass to use those excuses, but we never really challenge them. So we fail them and thus fail the Church - and ultimately the Lord.

We are United Methodists - and regardless of what you think or of what you've perhaps heard, being a United Methodist means something. It means we believe in the one God and Lord of all creation. It means we believe in the redemptive love of the Lord our God through Christ Jesus. It means we believe in the Holy Spirit who teaches us, strengthens us, and corrects us when we need to be corrected - He cares enough to hold us accountable. He has NEVER offered us a "free pass". But being a United Methodist also means that we believe enough in our heritage and what we are called to do that we would care enough for one another to hold each other accountable to and for the faith - for the sake of the Holy Church AND their eternal souls.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation - more commonly referred to as Confession - in the Roman Catholic Church was the single most difficult thing I ever did, and there was never a time when I was comfortable with the idea of "coming clean" to a priest. One priest, however, sat me down, had me close my eyes, and imagine Jesus sitting across from me. "But", he said, "imagine our Lord with a single tear streaming down His face not only because our failures have offended Him but also because He KNOWS every ounce of pain we have endured. He wants to help, but we won't let Him in." And this, my dear friends, is what is at stake whether or not we choose to hold one another accountable for our vows of membership.

When we are willing to go beyond ourselves for the sake of another, it is an unmistakable sign that we care; clear evidence that the love of God exists within us. We are United Methodist Christians and we trust in the Lord our God - BUT - we also believe in one another. It is or it isn't. We do or we don't - but there is no in-between. We are members of the Body of Christ - or we are not.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where is the Love?

"Wookin pa nub en aw da wong pwaces, wookin pa nub ..."

For those not familiar with those lyrics, they are from a "Saturday Night Live" skit with Eddie Murphy playing the part of the old Little Rascals' "Buckwheat" pushing a compilation album in his later years. He used Buckwheat's accent and speech impediment to radically alter the lyrics of some familiar tunes of the day. It was a good skit and Eddie Murphy has since gone on from SNL to bigger and better things. The rest of the nation "wookin pa nub" (that's "looking for love" for those of you still trying to connect the dots); well, not so much. The digression of this nation's attitude and moral fiber is more than a little unsettling but before you begin to think I am about to go off on homosexuality, serial divorce and remarriage, teen sex, casual sex, adultery, or any of the other sex issues out there, think again. And read carefully.

"Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh ..." Romans 8:5a NKJV

Be honest. Do you wonder how many Christians believe this passage to be solely devoted to issues of sexual ethics? Do you yourself see this passage, read "flesh" (and "carnal" which comes a little later in the chapter in the NKJV) and immediately think "sex" but fail to more broadly consider what the Bible means when it warns against "the things of the flesh? My guess is that many, if not most, actually do think exclusively about sex issues though I have no data to support such a contention. What I do have is the intent of so many Christians who are up in arms about the proposed Islamic Center to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan and their very hate-filled words, but they're not homos or adulterers so they're good to go; still acting righteously. Right?

What I also have is a stale collection of Christians who are gathered in nearly every church setting cursing their "neighbor" for one thing or another, but at least these accusers are not up to no good in someone else's bed so they, too, are righteously good to go. Liberals are "too damned liberal", and conservatives are "too damned conservative" (I'm being kind, by the way) but as long as we are not straying or doing anything weird with someone else's body and bein' all nekkid, it's all good. Right? Remember that I am not talking about Washington DC and partisan politics; I am talking about the many churches of many denominations in many settings, rural or urban, who have somehow come to believe that righteousness is strictly defined by sexuality or nationalism.

"Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate toward one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another, not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord ..." Romans 12:9-10

I have discovered, much to my dismay, that proposing to be fair about the "Ground Zero Mosque", as it has come to be called, has gotten me cursed from both sides and from all angles of the issue, the curses coming from - you guessed it - Christians. And to defend the president's remarks "in all fairness"? Forget it. I wondered if I would be tarred and feathered first by the hateful Christians who demanded that the president and the Muslims (or is it our "closet Muslim" president? I forget) be cursed. From the more liberal Christians who think I was not strong enough in my defense of the president come equal wishes that I die! To say that I am profoundly disappointed would not quite touch on my feelings but to be perfectly honest, I am not even sure how to feel especially when it is suggested to me that perhaps I should worry more about what is "right" than what is "fair". I am such an idiot. I thought "fair" was "right".

Allow me to express that given the nature and source of the well-coordinated attacks on this nation that fateful day in 2001, a new Islamic "anything" in Manhattan is in extremely poor judgment and taste and will not play well now; maybe ever. It may even be, as some have insisted, an intense if deliberate lack of respect for the feelings of those who survived the attack or who lost loved ones. But let me also express that those who planned and executed that attack on the people of the United States that dreadful day were, and are, as clueless about Islam as Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist people are about Christianity. These international criminals may well have been shouting "Allah Akbar" as they hit their WTC and Pentagon targets, but those proclamations did not express Islam, faith, religion, or anything even closely resembling righteousness. These were expressions of intense anger and raw hatred by murderers and cowards, pure and simple. The damage these murderers caused, however, may not be as profound or as long-lasting as the damage that is continually done in the name of the Lord yet "with malice in my heart".

"Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things." Romans 14:1

The American Church has been in steady decline for the past 40-50 years, and church leaders - both laity and clergy - continue to scratch their heads and think through the persistent decline. Some try to think of new "bells and whistles" that might be attractive. Others are trying very expensive media ad campaigns that seek to reintroduce their churches to the general public but in relevant ways. Sometimes it is "about the numbers", but we must always be mindful that each "number" represents a soul that may be in distress and on the verge of collapse, a soul the Church is called in mission to reach out for. These absentee souls, however, are making a profound statement that reverberates throughout the Holy Church but does not seem to resonate well with church people. What are the absences telling us?

I think the Church may do much better by talking more to those who are outside rather than to those who are inside. Attending a "listening session" some months back with some of the lay leaders of the congregation I serve as pastor, we got an earful from many other church folks who were insisting that the Church must return to its biblical foundation and "preach the truth". I heard the words they spoke, but I felt the utter disdain they seemed to express not only toward those who sponsored the "listening session" but also toward those who would not agree with them. What they - and many others, myself included - seem to overlook is that one can be technically correct when it comes to expressing biblical philosophy or doctrinal truth while simultaneously being spiritually so far off the mark as to render the biblical Truth ineffective, at the very least.

People don't respond with love and gratitude to threats, and it must be noted that contempt breeds nothing but contempt. Many among those who are outside the Body of Christ feel they have been threatened one too many times with hell fire from self-righteous Christians who are painfully devoid of love and grace. The so-called "or else" theology does not carry a sound biblical message for lack of one simple element: "speaking the truth in love"; witnessing to this Truth by our actions rather than by our demands. The Christian message is no message at all if we use the Bible as a weapon to destroy rather than as a tool with which to build. The meaning of Holy Scripture is without context if we can quote chapter and verse but do not have the Word of the Lord written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

It may sound as though I am giving those who have left the Church and those who keep the Church at a safe distance an excuse for staying away. To the contrary, I am telling - and have told - these many absentee disciples that the Church is in its current state because self-righteousness is as much the harm and cause outside the Church as in. These missing souls have gained nothing in any sense by removing themselves from the corporate church, and they have placed themselves at grave risk by refusing to participate in fellowship with other believers - SINNERS ALL, mind you!! - and holding the many wayward and backward-thinking Christians accountable for their hatefulness and spite or downright complacency.

This accountability alone gave rise to the Methodist movement whose founder was intent not in creating a whole new church but to strengthen the existing Church. Such a philosophy is no less true of the first century Church that grew and spread so quickly because so many were eager to share this wondrous Good News! And the Church has continued to grow for some 2000 years even with us "hypocrites" at the pulpits and other "jerks" leading the Bible study schools.

Let's face it. We are all in desperate need of the Lord's grace for none among us is worthy. And we are not made more worthy by pointing out the faults of others. We are indeed heaping curses upon ourselves as we curse our neighbors. Where is the love in that?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dazed and Confused

A federal judge has struck down California's ban on same-gender marriage, and I have no real sense of how I should feel or what I should do. To say that I am troubled about the ruling would be an understatement because I am unequivocally opposed to same-gender marriage taking place in the Church (and more than a little resentful that I sometimes feel compelled to defend my stance against those who call me "hater" or "narrow-minded" or "bigot"), but I am a little lost when it comes to acts and demands of government because I am no longer the political animal I once was. I found it difficult to serve government functions and processes and the Lord simultaneously, so a choice had to be made. This is not to say that government workers, politicians, and lobbyists cannot be pious and faithful. And this is certainly not to say that church folk cannot practice faith and personal piety while in government service and lobbying efforts especially when it comes to issues of social justice; indeed they must. I only found it awkward for myself.

Those within the Church who claim to be fighting for social justice on behalf of homosexuals don't seem to have a problem incorporating their faith into the work they do, but I often find their arguments and understanding of Holy Scripture substantially flawed and their public conduct and behavior often reprehensible especially when they publicly claim to be acting in Christ's behalf. Often their own words are hateful; and contrary to Scripture, they answer what they perceive as "hateful" acts of mere opposition with hateful words and, often, hateful actions. Jesus and Paul both admonish the faithful NOT to fight fire with fire ("do not return evil for evil") but to "bless" those who hate. Now I do not for one moment believe that standing in opposition to such issues as homosexuality and abortion, for instance, are hateful acts in and of themselves anymore than I believe that advocacy for such things is hateful; not inherently so. Regardless of which side of the issues one stands, however, opposition is often perceived as hateful and antagonistic only because each side is already defensive and cocksure they are "right" and that whatever they choose to say or do in defense of their argument is "righteous".

An acquaintance of mine and fellow pastor is a GWB "hater" and was especially vocal during the previous administration especially in such public forums as in the op-ed sections of local newspapers. The "fruit" of his hatefulness was apparent in the vile comments, accusations, and innuendo he often made. His arguments were rarely of any substance. Though his opposition to the former president was fundamentally in opposition to the president's policies, the acquaintance's attacks were of a more personal and accusatory nature against the man George W. Bush and not the chief executive of the country. When questioned, he defended his choice of words because of the president's apparent "fruits" ("You will know them by their fruits" - by what they do - Jesus teaches). When I suggested to my acquaintance that his own "fruit" was somewhat bitter and poisonous, he attempted to defend his "righteous anger" but each accusation he leveled against President Bush was ultimately an accusation against himself for he was demanding to remove the "speck" from the former president's eye while ignoring the "plank" in his own eye. To varying degrees, there are few persons who can withstand such scrutiny, myself included!

All of this is to amplify the futile nature of such acts and arguments especially when human emotion and personal opinion are injected, facts are often overlooked, and respect for one's fellow man is painfully absent. Nothing is accomplished. In fact it would probably be more accurate to say that far more harm than good is done regardless of which side finally "wins" (if a victory can be claimed at all). As for what the federal ruling in California will finally mean for society in general and for the Holy Church, this has yet to be seen because the issue will be appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court because each side has promised such course of action regardless of the outcome of the appeals court ruling.

My personal sense of awkwardness is in recognizing that the Church must continue to function as the Body of Christ and not as a social agency within our secular society because I do believe the Church is called to serve as a sanctuary and as a means of redemption from the secular culture rather than as a catalyst for assimilation that is so obviously contrary to the Church's "Book", the Bible. The Church was a powerful voice for justice and social conscience during the Civil Rights era and continues to be so in the midst of ongoing immigration challenges - and rightly so on both counts - but can this truly be a fair comparison? No one can dispute that homosexuals are unjustly targeted by some in the form of so-called "hate crimes" and even in off-color and dehumanizing jokes, but the right to marry does not quite seem to compare with the right to be treated as a human being especially in terms of human exploitation. I freely admit that my own opinion and opposition prevent me from seeing such parallels. It is for me "apples and oranges" because the Civil Rights era, immigration issues, and even abortion are fundamentally about the dignity of the human person; the same-gender marriage thing is specific and exclusive. I am no more or less a human being because I am married. My marital status has nothing to do with my sacred worth or my dignity as a human being.

It is equally easy for me to say that even if states choose to offer marriage licenses without restrictions, it has little to do with the federal government which does not issue marriage licenses and nothing to do with the Church and her practices which must remain faithful to the Eternal Bridegroom and not succumb to secular social pressure. As for the call for "inclusiveness" within the Church, this much is true: all those who earnestly repent of their sins are to be included and incorporated into the Body of Christ.

In the final analysis, there is not much more that can be done since this issue is squarely in the hands of the federal court system whose players are appointed for life rather than elected for a term. All that is left to do is in the hands of the faithful prayer warriors to earnestly ask that the Lord's will be done. The will of politicians who will be left to respond after the court system does its duty will not extend much further than the ability to be reelected regardless of right or wrong, religious or secular.