Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Political Incumbency: the poisonous well

Many polls suggest the midterm election of 2010 may break all records and destroy all barriers toward that which had previously been thought impregnable: the relative safety of the incumbency. Over the years incumbents at virtually all levels of government were thought to be nearly untouchable due to several factors, not least of which is the complacency of the electorate. And this complacency has been shown to show a distinctive advantage to one single factor: name recognition inherent to the incumbent.

The sad fact is that many voters simply don't pay that much attention to government unless or until they are directly and adversely affected by public policy - or until they get a chain e-mail that is, at best, only half true and, at worst, blatantly false but nevertheless appeals to one's raw emotions such as President Obama "cancelling" National Prayer Day. This, however, does not stop these arm-chair politicians from resending this e-mail to every address they have. So when election season rolls around, we are treated (or inundated) with political ads that are as distasteful as they are useless to the discerning voter because experienced political advisers know that the general population of voters pays more attention to to sound bites than substance. They go for the easy feed, the quick snack, rather than the full meal. Senator Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, is up for reelection, and my TV is constantly showing a commercial surely endorsed by Sen. Lincoln and her crew doing nothing more than disparaging her Democratic opponent for the primary. Once in awhile we see a commercial for Lincoln showcasing her position as chair of the Agriculture Committee and touting her past, but there is no talk about what is in store for us henceforth. So we are left with this conclusion: the future with any incumbent means more of the same. Period. It has been true for years, and it will continue to be true.

Albert Einstein is quoted as having once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." Are we a nation gone mad? Have we truly lost our collective mind so much so that we will gripe and complain about the current situation, however we may be directly or indirectly affected, but then reelect the same politicians over and again? All indications are this is exactly what we do and, ultimately, who we really are. And why do we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot? Fear. Purely and simply, we are afraid of the unknown, so for good or bad we reward mediocrity. Incumbents convince us that we "need" their experience and that we will be utterly lost without them.

Lincoln is playing up her chair in the Agriculture Committee by coming dangerously close to suggesting Arkansas farmers will go under if she loses that chair. Small, family-owned and operated farms in Arkansas have been going under for years, and Mrs. Lincoln is asking for a third term. This means she is wrapping up twelve years in the US Senate before which she also served a couple of terms in the US House of Representatives.

Let me not put too much emphasis on Mrs. Lincoln, however, lest my entire point be lost because her incumbency alone is no more a problem than the competition she faces not only in the Democratic primary but in the general election should she win her party's nomination. In the Democratic primary, she faces Arkansas' lieutenant governor (another incumbent, just on another level), and among the Republicans seeking to unseat her is an entire field of state-level, though perhaps term-limited, incumbents. It may be a natural progression for idealistic and ambitious, career-minded politicians to move up from one level of government to the other, but is this experience any more useful than what we currently have?

I dare suggest that it is not Democrats or Republicans who are the problem in government even as I am not happy with either party though I lean toward one. Instead, I see a much bigger problem with career-minded politicians whose upward mobility is the primary driving factor behind their desire to continue such work (I hesitate to use the term "service"). In this vein, then, is the biggest problem I see in local, county, state, and national politics: expeditious and essentially lazy legislation designed only for the reelection of an incumbent while putting important work on the "back burner" until after the election.

May we remember that we owe no one such a seat of privilege of representing us merely because of their length of time on the public dole (again, note the absence of the term "service"). There are no inherent rewards due a professional politician, and we own them nothing. The only way this Congress, these state legislatures, these city and county councils and boards will ever understand who really is in charge is if/when they are "fired". But until such time as this ideal ever comes to fruition, expect more of the same regardless of the party in majority.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Going Somewhere?

Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

The festival of the Dedication, also called the festival of Lights, better known to us as Hanukkah, lasts 8 days in December which happens to correspond with the period of the Jewish month of Kislev though Kislev is not "another name" for December. Christians are not typically familiar with the Jewish calendar or the festival itself aside from its proximity to the Christmas holiday. Hanukkah is NOT, contrary to popular opinion, the "Jewish Christmas" (no such thing), but it is the celebration of a miracle when in about the 2nd century BCE the lights of the Temple menorah had only enough sanctified oil to last for a day and yet kept burning for 8 days.

Hanukkah has it origin as recorded in the books of the Maccabees, which is another reason why Christians typically are not familiar since Maccabees books are found among the books of the Apocrypha and not in the Jewish canon, the Old Testament we're more familiar with. The festival dates back to the time of Alexander the Great who brought Greek culture with him when he conquered Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. The real conflict with the Jews, however, came to a head under the reign of Antiochus IV in about 167 BCE, more than a century after the time of Alexander the Great.

The festival of the Dedication is also not a celebration of a war victory even though a war took place to rid the Jerusalem Temple of Hellenistic influences which had actually led to the desecration of the Temple by the sacrifice of pigs upon its altar, among other acts. To simplify the story, Alexander the Great allowed the Jews some sense of autonomy in their religion and culture even after his conquest of the region, but the Jews over time allowed themselves to be assimilated into a culture that was foreign to Jewish culture and religious practice (an oversimplified definition of "Hellenism").

Two Jewish groups sought to reclaim the Temple AND their religion and free it not only from further assimilation into the Hellenistic culture, but to restore the purity of their faith and religious practices. It probably did not help that Antiochus IV presented himself as of a divine nature as he also is said to have decreed the worship of Zeus as the supreme god. The penalty for disobedience was, of course, death, and many faithful Jews perished. All in all, it was a very dangerous time to be a Jew because the prevailing choice was to fall by the Greek sword or choose certain spiritual death by worshipping a false god.

It has been suggested by some that the Maccabean revolt was not so much a war with outside forces as it was a civil war between the more orthodox Jews who sought to reclaim their traditions and the Hellenist Jews who had allowed themselves to be overtaken by the Greek influences to the point that they were worshipping Zeus in the Temple of YHWH! Slowly and surely, however, over the course of more than a century the Jews had all but forgotten who they were and had voluntarily, if mindlessly, settled in and fell victim to what soon came to be the dominant culture that had little to do with YHWH. Does this in any way sound familiar?

Often we are faced with choices by which we feel more compelled to choose "the lesser of two evils" than to actually make a definitive choice for righteousness. The reason such choices seem so difficult for us is because for all intents and purposes we have become somewhat "hellenized" ourselves to the point that though we call ourselves "Christian", we are better suited for life in this world's more dominant culture than that of the world to come. This is a much generalized statement, to be sure, but it is not entirely off the mark because it is often hard - if impossible - to discern the difference between a Christian and anyone else except MAYBE on Sunday morning. MAYBE.

So Jesus, as Messiah, is standing right in front of the Jews, YHWH's chosen, and they don't recognize Him for what He is; they only see the carpenter's son. Perhaps they see a rabbi, a teacher, a preacher, maybe even a prophet, but they see Him strictly on human terms. They are demanding that their eyes and worldly minds be given some sign, some outward, physical evidence WITHIN THE REALM OF THEIR DOMINANT CULTURE that can appeal to them in worldly terms they are better able - and willing -to understand. They are not looking much deeper or farther than that. One may also wonder what sort of sign they had in mind beyond what they had already witnessed that would have convinced them not only of Messiah Jesus but also compel them to follow Him from that moment, to repent.

Though often infuriated or confused, I can eventually only be amused by the blindness of the great many so-called religious "progressives" who try to convince us that the Bible was written in an ancient time for an ancient people in an ancient culture and cannot - or will not - draw any reasonable parallels between the people of Jesus' time and the people of today! Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson suggests this: "The contemporary significance of any NT writing does not [come] from the fact that it was written expressly for our age but from the [belief] that a truth spoken to the first age of Christians can and does remain a truth for every age of believers." In other words, if it was true then, it must be true now. Modern Christians, however, tend to get tripped up when they mistakenly come to believe that Scripture was written exclusively for our own time - OR exclusively for a time long past.

Are we today any more or less narcissistic or self-serving than they were then? It is reasonable, I think, to believe the people who confronted Jesus were as concerned about their own little world and how Jesus' ministry would affect them personally as we are today. I have a hard time believing they were any less "what's in it for me" than we are today because we don't measure our lives according to Scripture. Instead, we justify our existing life by Scripture. What we have, what we do, and where we are comes first - THEN we fit Scripture in. This is exactly how the Jews became "Hellenized", and it is how contemporary Christians have also become "Hellenized", vainly attempting to blend the dominant worldly culture with the standards of the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

The distinction, however, is clearly revealed in Jesus' answer. He simply dismissed these who insisted upon a "sign" - a physical sign - because He knew that no matter what He did, no matter what He had already done, they were not going to buy into it because to buy into such a premise is to virtually surrender one's life, lifestyle, and autonomy, and become not so much an individual but a member of a "flock" that requires leadership, guidance, and divine protection. It means being as gentle as a lamb and just as vulnerable. It means the surrender of a certain amount of independence. It also means the beginning of an incredible spiritual journey in which nothing will ever be the same again.

Jesus' ministry on this earth was significant in so many ways and on so many levels, not least of which was the reality that He did not settle into a "church" or any sort of physical structure which would have signified a "coming to terms" with the existing world and fitting in with the dominant, hellenized culture. He was constantly on the go, moving from one place to another while blessing, healing, and teaching. To follow Jesus on this path was to put aside all else and, quite literally, FOLLOW Him, to fit in with HIS situation and HIS standards rather than to demand He fit into our own. To be willing to do so without demand but with only a willingness to be led, to be taught, is to become a part of His flock, His sheep. Anything less, and we will remain right where we are - going nowhere. The journey, such as it could have been, will end.

Where Christians choose to go from here is entirely up to us because even if we choose to become a part of the Lord's "sheep" and surrender that independence and autonomy, we do not completely surrender our minds or our wills. We certainly do not choose to settle between the "lesser of two evils" but choose instead between what is clearly wrong and what is clearly righteous.

Choosing righteousness for the sake of the Lamb is to be one day counted among the "great multitude" revealed in the Revelation, the ones "robed in white", the ones "who have come out of the great ordeal" which must surely mean this world and its inherent conflicts with the kingdom of Heaven, this "hellenization" of Christian teaching and faithful living. This "great ordeal" goes far beyond and requires much more than what is simply the "safe" choice that requires very little of us and allows us to stay right where we are, where we are most comfortable.

The ones who make the definitive and unmistakable choice for righteousness are indeed the ones who will "hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the Throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of the water of Life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev 7:16-17).

It is not about the preordained "elect". It is about the choices we make this day and each day to follow, to choose to stand still in a pasture in which the grass will last only so long or move forward behind the Great Shepherd in righteousness which leads to eternal life. This is the choice we have, and it is quite literally the choice between spiritual death and Eternal Life.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Restoring Eyesight

Psalm 30
Acts 9:1-20
John 21:1-19

Last week I shared my thoughts about the proper utilization of the “authority” granted to the apostles and its use as a means of restoring sinners to a proper and life-sustaining relationship with the Lord and His Church. Being mindful of the awesome nature of such authority, it is to be used not only generously and purposefully but also judiciously lest we find ourselves as much in need of restoration as those we propose to restore.

The readings shared in this week’s lectionary are as much about restoration – or more! – than the authority granted to the apostles and to the Church to forgive or bind sins because what is being revealed to us is not the awesome nature of a Divine Gift but, rather, the essence of the Divine Act, the mighty Hand of the Lord our God. What is further revealed in these readings is the purpose implicit in each of not only the Divine Intervention but also the intent behind each instance of restoration.

The psalmist expresses his gratitude for having been “restored … from among those gone down to the Pit” (Psalm 30:3). Some suggest this was written during a time of severe illness, but it could also express the despair and exasperation we share when we feel overwhelmed and surrounded by less-than-godly influences or when we feel threatened in some way. The psalmist even argues for the uselessness of his death in asking, “Will the dust praise you?” (vs 9) In the end we should be able to see that the psalmist’s life was spared when “mourning” was turned into “dancing” (vs 11). Praise is in order for having been spared. The psalmist clearly believed his life had been spared so that he could continue proclaiming the glory of the Lord.

Saul the persecutor was struck blind by the Lord, but what is more significant in this instance than mere loss of physical eyesight is the spiritual blindness with which he operated, much like the Pharisees, in failing to see the work of YHWH in the continuing ministry of Christ through the apostles. His physical eyesight was restored, of course, but more importantly he was also endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit by which the eyes of his heart were opened and he was enabled to “proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20), at great personal risk, I might add.

Among these readings, however, the greatest story of restoration must be that Peter whose denial of the Lord during His time of trial must surely have weighed heavily on his mind and heart. Notice how the Scripture indicates that Peter eagerly jumped into the water to go to the Lord rather than work with his friends and get the boat ashore. We can reasonably deduce that they were not too far off shore because they were able to determine it was Jesus standing on the shore. Don't you wonder, though, why the heck Peter was naked in the first place?? Wouldn't you just love a fishing budding like this???

Or is there more to what is actually being "exposed" in this reading? Almost certainly Peter needed to be forgiven if for no other reason than that he betrayed a Dear Friend. Is there some underlying meaning to our knowledge of Peter's state of undress in this passage, or is it just incidental? Maybe the writer was too polite to simply say, 'Peter, being the uncouth animal he is, was nekkid when he realized it was Jesus standing on the shore ...' Either way, Peter found it somehow necessary - even in his rush to get to Jesus as quickly as he could - not to be so "exposed" even though he seemed to have no problem with such exposure on the boat. Think about it. If you're going to jump in a lake, would it not make more sense to REMOVE some clothing rather than to add some??

C.S. Lewis is quoted as having once said, " I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." That is to say, he was not exposed to a greater truth when the Lord finally came to Him and changed his life; rather, the greater truth imparted to him enabled him to see things not only as they are but as they could be - and not only through the Lord's eyes but by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is exposure in light just as there is exposure by the power of the Holy Spirit, but we are given such sight for a much greater cause than how quickly we think we can get in line for Heaven's Gate. There is more, much more than meets the eye.

Saul put his own well-being on the line by beginning his ministry in the synagogues after he had been so blessed with the power to "see" something that was always there but which he was not previously allowed or enabled to see, and it is not reasonable to think Saul was the ONLY Pharisee charged with persecuting Christians; hence the great danger. And just as Peter so eagerly ran to Jesus surely filled with joy and anticipation, he soon found himself confronted with that certain reality of faith because the restoration he was about to receive had very little to do with him personally.

Pushed to the point of distress by Jesus in being constantly questioned about the depth of his love for the Lord, Peter surely came to realize there was nothing "personal" at all. After all, it could well be that Peter assumed his willingness to jump from the boat and swim to the Lord was, in and of itself, "proof" of his love for Jesus. Peter was restored not for Peter's own sake but for the sake of the "lambs", the "sheep"; more specifically, the Lord's lambs and sheep. And in so doing, Peter was going to find himself in much more peril than he ever could have imagined than when he ran away from Jesus the first time.

So the question required an answer: Do you love Me? And by what followed in this series of questions, Jesus seemed to be making very clear to Peter that the love He was most interested in is the love that manifests itself in meaningful ways to those for whom the Gospel of Christ has yet to be revealed. It will be an unfortunate consequence for Peter and for so many others who would dare to follow in those footsteps that he will eventually be arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. This does in no way indicate a "personal relationship" for its own sake.

These many generations later, the same question is posed to us: DO YOU LOVE ME? The Lord wants to know because the Lord needs to know whom He can entrust to His flock. He needs to know who among us with failing sight can be trusted and is willing to see far more than we ever imagined before, even if what we will see by the power of the Holy Spirit was always there; we just could not see it. After all, authority is of little use if we cannot see where we are going.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rest in peace, dear classmate; Eternity's only just begun

Matthew 25:14-21

If memory serves, the class song of Dumas (AR) High School's class of 1977 was "We've Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters. It may sound kind of cheezy now, but I'm pretty sure it meant something to us then. Now that I reflect on it, such an ideal can actually be applied to the passing of a loved one - if faith is real.

No matter how much we spend on health care, no matter how much or how little money we have, no matter whether we are loved or have no love, no matter whether we are of the faith - Christian, Jewish, Islam, Buddhist, etc - no matter what kind of cars we drive or how many children we have; indeed, no matter how young or old, death will come to us all. Deep within the recesses of our minds we know this to be true, but we perhaps subconsciously trend toward the fond notion that we can somehow escape it, that it only happens to "someone else". We cannot - or will not - fathom this reality, and because of our subconscious denial we too readily curse the Almighty when death catches us by surprise.

Ours is an ordered society, and our laws help to maintain this order. We live, love, work, and play within this reality, this ordered society and we expect a certain order to follow. And it follows that we live to be 75 years of age, give or take, enjoy retirement with our beloved, and then our children bury us. We never anticipate burying our children, no matter what age. But we also become more consciously aware of our own mortality when someone we know, someone close to our own age, someone we've know all our lives is suddenly gone.

My classmate and I shared what I recall to have been something of a "love-hate" relationship, though I seem to recall having a crush on her back in middle school. She and I lived a stone's throw from one another and saw each other often. In this "love-hate" relationship I perceived, there was enough love that she went out of her way to bring school work to me when I was in the hospital around jr. high school age. Of course I was a marginal student at best, so I hated it when she not only brought this school work to me but even offered to help me get caught up. She cared enough to do this thing, but there was something much deeper.

My classmate was an achiever. From elementary school, I remember her as one who was focused and always had a sound work ethic. She took her school work seriously, and I don't think she could comprehend someone who didn't. Now to write someone off as inconsequential is one thing, but my classmate went out of her way to do what she believed to be the right thing to do. In my mind, of course, she was only trying to annoy me by taking away a very good excuse for not doing any school work. After all, is there not a law that says you don't have to do homework if you're in the hospital? And she was taking my excuse away not merely by bringing me the work but offering to help! Hello! Have we met?? Don't you know me well enough by now??

Yes, she did. She knew me all too well so she knew I lacked focus, I lacked ambition, I lacked motivation. I could not see the forest for the trees, but she could see through and beyond the forest. She knew her hard work would one day pay off (it did), and she knew I was capable of doing as well, and it infuriated her that such gifts go to waste.

I've often wondered what happened after that. I don't really recall details of the event; only the event itself, but I've often wondered if my lack of gratitude was somehow displayed and that I seriously hurt her feelings. I do not recall saying "thank you", but I do recall her genuine enthusiasm in her offer to help me. And I think this was a turning point in whatever kind of relationship we shared. There was a distinctive distance that did not previously exist although there was that time when she found out I was smoking cigarettes. Well, that got me another face full of my classmate, but I think by then I was probably a little more direct in telling her to mind her own business and stop worrying about me. I don't know that she stopped worrying, but I do know she kept me at arm's length from that moment.

Clearly I blew it. Now I had friends. I had a best friend and I had drinking buddies but I do not recall any of these friends taking me to task like this classmate did. I always just thought she enjoyed looking down her nose at me, like she was somehow better than I, like I was somehow beneath her. Well, she didn't; she was, and I was. In spades! It did not occur to me then that she probably showed more care and concern for things that mattered and would matter in my life than most of my other friends even though she had no real stake in my well-being or my accomplishments, but she seemed to have a genuine concern for my lack of accomplishment. Go figure.

After high school I never saw her, never called her, never even tried to make contact. I was out the door and not necessarily ready to move on more than I was just ready to move out. My classmate, however, went directly to college and then to law school. She married her high school sweetheart who also attended law school. They settled back in our hometown and practiced law together in her father-in-law's firm. Life for them was good. They had prepared for it, they had planned for it, they had worked for it, and now they were reaping the rewards by a nice vacation in Italy. Suddenly it was all over.

Though I weep for her family, I am grateful that the last time she and I spoke at our 30-year high school reunion, I was able to finally thank her for the care and concern she tried to bestow on me all those many years before. I was finally able to tell her how much it all came to mean to me even some 30-plus years later. I was finally able to appreciate her gifts and her talents and her compassion, and I was finally able to comprehend that she displayed more friendship to me during those times than most others because the things she concerned herself with really did matter. And I think she could see that my gratitude and apology were from my heart. Truthfully, I don't even know if she really remembered it like I do.

Making the most of everything we've been given, utilizing fully all that is divinely imparted to us is the best life any of us can ever hope to achieve, however much or little it is. I don't think my classmate ever took such things for granted. Indeed, she clearly excelled at all she attempted because she was consciously aware of all her very good gifts, and she knew how to use them. But perhaps the greatest gift with which she had been blessed was that of compassion and care. And I am very glad that my last words to her were not "buzz off" but were, instead, "from the bottom of my heart, dear classmate, thank you". And in eternity in which passing from this life and into the next is not an ending but, rather, a new beginning, my classmate has now heard these immortal words: "Well done, my good and faithful servant. You were faithful with a few things; now I will make you a ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord." The ultimate achievement for the ultimate achiever.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Authority of Grace

John 20:19-31

“If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1-2

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18

We love authority, don’t we? I don’t mean the authority someone else has over us; I mean the authority we have or might have. We love to be the boss over those things we care about because it means we have some control. Being the boss over something means that if we don’t like what we see or do, we can change it because – we are the boss! Maybe more than simple control, I think we like having authority and power because these things make us feel important and needed, like we matter, like we have something useful and edifying to contribute. We like the idea that what we are and what we do can have a lasting impact in our own little part of the world.

The power that has been granted to us, however, is not exactly the kind of power most of us have in mind nor is it the kind of power by which we can gain something for ourselves. Soon enough we find that true and lasting power is not the kind that allows us to do as we wish but, rather, compels us to do as we have been entrusted, if commanded, to do because in the end we realize that no matter how much power we think we have, Someone else always has more! The root of the power which exists within us is granted to us, not earned by any means, and it is certainly not something we are entitled to.

By any definition, power in and of itself can either be edifying or it can be destructive. It all depends on how such power is used and for what purpose. And when we look around, we can see that power in the hands of the wrong person or entity is about as dangerous as a loaded weapon; handle it carelessly, and someone will get hurt and irreparable damage will be done. It is not a matter of if, but when, if care is not taken.

The gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus is empowering His disciples with can be construed to mean “power” or “authority”, but we must also know that the Lord knew what He was doing when He offered this overwhelming gift as an extension of His own ministry. We can also be sure the Lord means for His Holy Church to serve its divine purpose in a secular world: to make disciples, to baptize, to teach, to lift up, to redeem. Within this divine gift, however, is the authority to “retain sins” against someone. For many this is a tricky endeavor because we surely understand Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew: we will be judged as we judge, and we will be forgiven only as we forgive. So what kind of authority is being given by Jesus, and what is the extent of this implied authority that comes with the power to forgive sins or retain them?

The Roman Catholic Church has long held that the authority implied in this passage is unique not to all disciples but exclusively to the apostles themselves and their successors, those charged with specific priestly duties. We are familiar with the Roman Church’s sacrament of reconciliation in which an individual goes to a priest, confesses his or her sins, and is then granted absolution; that is, forgiveness for those sins. Usually the person seeking reconciliation is given a penance, such as a series of prayers to recite, and is then sent away in peace but with the condition that the penance be followed through. It is also understood that repentance is absolutely required.

The Protestant Reformation gave rise to the more expansive notion of the “priesthood of believers” spoken of in Hebrews 7 by which is implied that all believers, true followers of Christ, are also endowed with this special gift, this awesome authority to grant absolution – OR withhold such a blessing. If we find it necessary to withhold that blessing of absolution and find it necessary to retain the sin, then, what is happening and are we then subjecting ourselves to that same lack of grace we seem to be displaying to another?

It goes without saying that only the Lord can forgive sins. Whether this authority to forgive or retain is specific to a person or a category of persons, I think, is beside the point. It is truly a game of spiritual “Russian Roulette” that we would play if we were to take upon ourselves the authority that, though implied, is not completely surrendered – or even shared – with us. Clearly, however, the apostles are being given something awesome that extends far beyond themselves personally and is more representative of the duties and boundaries of the Church as a whole, as the Body of Christ, as the representation of the very presence and essence of Christ on this earth. So, as the old commercial saying went, “What Would Jesus Do”?

To withhold a blessing of absolution, something has to be amiss. And it must be remembered that we’re not be talking about someone’s transgression against us personally. It is, I think, much bigger and broader. Besides, Peter was told by the Lord that we as individuals are called to forgive “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22).

Back up to Matthew 18:15-18. There is a prescription for dealing with sin which begins first with the one who has been offended. That person is charged with the responsibility – the duty, in fact - to go to the offender one-on-one and seek to work it out, and the Lord says if the offender agrees with the accusation, it’s all good and “you have gained your brother”. Implicit in this formula at this point is, of course, repentance. The offender makes nice, honestly promises not to repeat the offense, offers perhaps to make amends if necessary, and all is well. As the Lord promises to forget our iniquities, so must we extend to others that same blessing – if they ask for it.

However, if the offender will not listen to one, then two or three witnesses become necessary so that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Mt 18:16). Gaining the perspective of others prevents an individual from grinding a personal ax against someone. The witnesses must agree to the charge and then the offender confronted with the intent that the offender will see his error and repent. Failure at this level, then, is the involvement of the ENTIRE CHURCH should the witnesses fail to restore the offender. The pattern begins to take shape. It is not about the accusation or the accuser nor is it about who is right and who is wrong – it is ultimately about the RESTORATION of the offender. But we must also be mindful that we are not talking about someone who is merely a jerk; we’re talking about that which serves to separate an individual from the Lord.

So what Jesus is charging His followers with is not the authority to “judge” by which we determine as individuals who is guilty and who is not nor are we charged with seeking out and finding sinners to judge as in a “witch hunt”. Rather, we have been granted the “Authority of Grace” by and through which transgressors can be restored by the power of the Gospel – not condemned by the personal opinions of individuals. They must be called out, but Paul also admonishes the Ephesians that this “calling out” must be that “truth spoken in love” which is to say that we earnestly feel a stake in the spiritual well-being of the individual who is being called out. It is never about us and our delicate or social sensibilities – it is always about the restoration of the offender to the Lord.

It is not about whether this person has upset us personally or our individual sense of right and wrong. All up, all in – it is about RESTORATION – by the authority of the Church. Having sin retained against someone is the unfortunate result of pride, malice, and a refusal to hear the call of the Church to turn away from sin, and it then becomes the authority – if duty – of the Church to turn away from the one who refuses the grace and then demand – if require - a separation lest that “rotten apple” spoil the entire basket.

It sounds harsh on its surface, but it is no less harsh than when parents finally make the decision to punish a child for repeat offenses. One must be corrected and put back onto the path of righteousness. But it must also be on the forefront of the Church’s mind as it renders such a judgment and decision to remember that “with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” As earlier stated, like a loaded weapon which must be handled with the utmost respect and care lest more harm than good comes as a result.

This is the authority granted to believers because it is the exercised authority of the Christ who “did not come to condemn the world but that the world would be saved through Him”. It is an awesome responsibility and a privileged duty of every true believer to understand that we are not called to do battle or to fight – but to love, to lead, to lift up, to heal; ultimately, to restore to the Kingdom of Heaven that offender who has placed himself or herself in danger of the judgment. It is indeed, my dear friends, an act of love.

May the Lord God grant to us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, not only the will to see to this awesome task faithfully and judiciously but also the wisdom and grace necessary to fulfill His charge and be that extension of HIS ministry of reconciliation and GOOD NEWS! It is our privilege; it is, indeed, our task.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Happy Easter! Now What?

Luke 24:1-12

It has been suggested by some theologians that, short of the Ascension of the Christ, this is the end of the story. The Resurrection has taken place, so life by the Father’s hand is without ending. The story itself “ends” here, according to these few, because judgment has been rendered; death has been defeated. This is the one and only time Messiah will appear on this earth, and those who failed to believe are still here. In case you were wondering, “here” is where you and I find ourselves now, according to these scholars: post-judgment.

It gives me something to think about, I suppose, but I am not quite able to grasp exactly how they could come to such a conclusion because we are taught, and Scripture bears it out, that Christ will return to render the “final” judgment. Get into the Revelation, and we find ourselves knee-deep in symbolism that is very difficult to understand. I would think it would all have to be lest we become too familiar, too “chummy” with the Lord our God, feebly try to put ourselves on a level equal to His own, lose our sense of reverence and awe, and forget that regardless of whether we would believe such things, we cannot escape the fact that we are alive now in a world that often makes no sense.

Such musings coming from “scholars” can be a little intimidating because we are hearing from people who have devoted their professional lives to theological study. These are the ones who know not only the Bible itself backwards and forwards AND in its ancient languages, but they are also well-versed in extrabiblical literature that did not make the “final cut” to compile the Bible we know today, those books that were dismissed by the early Church fathers as “Gnostic” or otherwise unorthodox.

Sometimes it is possible, however, to overthink religion to the point that faith itself gets lost in all the translations. We forget some of the very basic messages of Jesus Himself, that physically visible signs are not always the “proof” we think we need and that demand for such signs is actually a betrayal of faith itself.

Jesus said more than once that He would be killed but that He would be raised on the third day. For disciples of faith, this would translate to a “count-down” from the time He died on the Cross. In other words, faith would have compelled these disciples to perhaps sit at the tomb on Resurrection Watch, as it were, so as to ensure they would be present when the Lord returns, but this did not happen; most of them ran scared.

It cannot be said that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “in faith”; she and the others were clearly in mourning. Their beloved Friend had been falsely accused and ultimately murdered on the basis of those false charges; their world had been shattered. Surely it can be said that in all the chaos and confusion, what Jesus had said days, weeks, or months before would have been forgotten – at least for the time being.

Something amazing happened at the tomb. The stone that sealed the entrance, which is described as impossible to move without a small army of very strong men, has been moved. The body of Jesus the women had come to anoint was missing. Now if we overthink this passage, we might wonder how the women thought they were going to be able to anoint the body of Jesus if they were not going to be able to enter the tomb. Maybe they didn’t know the tomb had been sealed, but this would not be consistent with the story. Maybe they thought there would be friendly soldiers on hand guarding the tomb who might be willing to let them in, but there is no indication the women were even aware that Pilate had ordered the tomb guarded at the behest of the religious authorities. Again, though, this is overthinking the story. What you and I can clearly see on Mary’s part is devotion in spite of the profound tragedy that had occurred only a few days earlier. Clearly the theologians and scholars are wrong: according to Mary, this story is far from over!

There is a transitional period evident in the lives of the disciples at this point. There was a time when they followed Jesus faithfully, listening but not quite understanding, seeing but not quite believing. Yet it was easy enough to know that what is right before one’s eyes is hard to deny. The many miracles, the healings, and even the confrontations with the religious authorities in which Jesus clearly trumped them with their own flawed understanding of Scripture and the appropriate application of the Law in faith and in practice. The tangibles.

It all sounds easy enough just as so many of us would argue that if we had witnessed with our own eyes the awesome miracles of the Lord, there would be no doubt in our minds! Our hearts, however, may be an entirely different story because we are mindful of the masses of people in Jesus’ own day who clearly saw what they saw but were somehow unable – or perhaps unwilling – to embrace all that they saw.

But where are we now? “We are Easter people”, as the late John Paul II proclaimed, “and Hallelujah is our song!” We are compelled far beyond the tomb, we are called out of the misery of mourning, and we are encouraged by the story Mary tells. Suddenly, perhaps, the words begin to meld. Suddenly, perhaps, things begin to make a little sense in a world filled with nonsense. Suddenly, perhaps, we realize that all we’ve been told may be coming to fruition. But this is a Bible story for the disciples of the day. What about us here and now, the contemporary disciples who believed according to what we have been told by generations far removed from our own but have yet to see for ourselves?

We see, perhaps, the same thing Peter saw. Recall that it was Peter who not only ran for his life when Jesus was in trouble but had actually – and vehemently – denied even knowing Jesus at all. While the women’s story seemed to the several an “idle tale”, Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself. And he was, according to Luke, “amazed at what had happened.”

But was it reality that finally confronted Peter, or is there a profound hope in what he has discovered? Surely Peter loved Jesus deeply and surely Peter was carrying an intense weight of guilt upon his very soul for having betrayed Jesus in such a public way. I think maybe “hope” was within Peter’s heart that day, the same hope Peter encourages us to defend (1 Peter 3:15) with “meekness and fear”, recalling perhaps that day when he came to the realize that the Resurrection of the Christ is the absolute POWER OF THE LIVING GOD made manifest in a dying world!

We know what hope feels like, and sometimes hope is more than enough to lift us up. Hope is what gives us a reason to crawl out of bed in the morning! Hope gives us a reason for living life day-to-day, not looking back but always looking forward - excited at the possibilities tomorrow may bring! What other reason to bear children, in fact, than to express a joyous hope for the future??

So “now what”? We live like we hope. We work like we hope. We pray like we hope. We fast like we hope. We worship like we hope. We even play like we hope! We hope for the day when the Christ will come once and for all and call His people home! We live like we hope He is coming in the next hour or two, and we want everything just so – and we want to show to Him our friends, our neighbors, and all others to whom we bore witness – that Christ has died, that Christ IS RISEN, and that Christ WILL come again!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Glory to the Holy God of all Creation, the Father and Author of Eternal Life! Amen.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Thoughts on Good Friday 2010

Noticing some postings on Facebook, there are the several who would insist that “good” Friday be changed to “great” Friday because the death of Jesus gave life to the world, when darkness seemed to overshadow light, when evil seemed to triumph over good, when the devil was dancing in the street while the faithful moaned and wailed. In the grand scheme there is nothing wrong with what is being said except for this one tiny detail: it isn’t Easter yet.

Maybe I’m splitting a fine hair and maybe I need to lighten up a bit (as one writer suggested), but discipleship is a journey, I think. Not that I want to take anything away from those who look upon this very dark day as “good” or “great”, but going to the foot of the cross and watching Him suffer, groan, and bleed to death; watching his mother live a horror no parent would hope to endure is all necessary to the journey. Indeed, how can we understand the power of the Resurrection if we cannot comprehend – or refuse to acknowledge – the power of sin and death made manifest by the cruelty of the Crucifixion?

Like someone once said, I guess I am a “Good Friday” Christian. It is not easy for me to rejoice in the celebration of Easter when I am too stuck on Good Friday, but for me it boils down to this: I see myself too easily caught up in the crowd that demanded Jesus’ life, eager to accuse Him of blasphemy because of my traditionalist, conservative tendencies. Or I can just as easily be seen running away with Peter for the sake of my own skin. In other words, I see my imperfections all too clearly.

I have not refused the grace that comes to the world. I do indeed rejoice in the power of the Resurrection and what it means to all who will come forward to receive it, but I also see myself in the grand scheme as one with a hammer in my hand rather than with a halo around my head. I see all too often through my bad moods, foul temper, and quick judgments a man who could as easily believe as disbelieve.

Through my remorse and my tears, however, there is a cleansing, a purging of all that is within me that does as much to fight against the good as against the evil. And in that cleansing I can approach Easter Sunday with a wonderment still that, though not fully aware of exactly what is happening, is a little more appreciative of the certain spiritual reality that Good will always triumph over evil. It just is that on Good Friday, I feel compelled to find my own place in this Remarkable Story. I know where I would wish to be, but I am saddened by where I most likely fit in.

It is an annual pilgrimage, not unlike Yom Kippur or the Hajj, when I am reminded of the power of Grace over the unworthiness of my own soul. It is a spiritual quest to overcome my own sense of guilt and shame, to be mindful of my continued rebellion in the face of such magnificent Love. One day I may understand it, but until then: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Overpowered and Overwhelmed

The American Spectator recently published a piece by James Gannon entitled, “America’s Quiet Anger”, in which the author deftly captures the frustration I’ve experienced for quite some time, long before the health care debate but probably amplified during the course of these debates. My frustration reached a peak when the Democratic-controlled Congress circumvented parliamentary rules and procedures as their own available means to cram down the throat of a clearly resistant nation a new welfare bill that will vastly broaden the federal government’s reach. There was a time when our Congress seemed to work toward “empowering” citizens to reach for the stars in their quest for their own piece of the “American Dream” by leveling barriers and working to create a more level playing field. Now, rather than feeling empowered to pursue my own life’s work and ambitions, I feel completely “overpowered” by a federal government that seems intent on taking what little I have and redistributing as they see fit. My life, such as it is, seems no longer to be my own.

I am conflicted as well because as a Christian pastor, my life should clearly not be “my own” but devoted solely to the work and cause of Christ the Savior and His gospel of salvation. My conflict exists because my own denomination uses the “social justice” mantra as a call to ministry to an unbelieving world. It is not that I do not believe in social justice; it just is that my own social justice ideals do not seem to square with another’s. For instance, I do not believe it to be just on any level that government can take from one and give to another without “the consent of the governed”, yet this seems exactly to be what this current government is intent upon doing. But my conflict is more profound when I believe the Church should be calling sinners to repentance and grace, but the cry for “social justice” seems to be blowing the trumpet for the masses to come to the government trough and drink until filled. Social justice, indeed.

I am one of Mr. Gannon’s “angry Americans” who once wrote to his representatives and senators consistently but found, as evidenced by their answers (if answers came at all), that they clearly do not read the letters. Or maybe it’s just mine. They do not answer direct questions but choose instead to send a form letter packed with platitudes and clever “sound bites”, all of which lack any substance, go nowhere, and explain nothing. It is as if they are in perpetual reelection mode. Except for senators, of course, who are not up for reelection. They seem to count on Americans’ lack of long-term memory.

It is also frustrating that I am a Republican represented by Obama Democrats, though some seem to try and play themselves off as “Blue Dogs” or “Yellow Dogs” or whatever these niche Democrats try to pass themselves off as, sort of like trying to play on both sides of the road at the same time. I have rejoiced in voting for some Democrats in the past, and I have regretted voting for some Republicans in the past. Clearly, then, it is not the “party” itself to which I am affiliated but, rather, the principles that gave rise to the GOP and its first US president, Abraham Lincoln.

I also share the frustration with the many who believe the power Congress has granted to the government through this massive health care bill is power that is not enumerated in the US Constitution. And while some states will be challenging the bill in federal court for this very reason, I live in a state in which the governor and the attorney general are both Democrats. Even though our governor has expressed his opposition to the bill AFTER its passage (another frustration but for another time), he refuses to consider a federal court challenge because he believes it will do no good. Now our governor is a licensed attorney who served as this state’s attorney general before being elected as governor, and he seems not to understand that the federal courts exist for such conflicts as these, to settle the matter according to the terms set forth by the US Constitution. That he won’t even consider it speaks volumes about how he really feels, I think. And I am extremely frustrated with this lack of leadership, this voluminous attitude of defeatism in which the governor of a state feels powerless against the behemoth federal government. Maybe the Constitution should have something in it that specifies what the feds and the states can and cannot do. Oh, wait. IT ALREADY DOES!

More than anything, I am frustrated and somewhat angry that I have a voice and something constructive to say in my writing but because I try not to express my “anger” in a hateful way by calling names, my writing does not seem to get much traction. Maybe if I take up a bullhorn and start marching in the streets and call members of Congress “crooks” and “thieves” or threaten them in some way beyond my refusal to vote for them, someone will listen. Then again, these are the ones who are being given all the press and being played off as “kooks” or “fools”.

I don’t know what it will take to be heard. I try to remember that I am a Christian first and foremost and that my Bible admonishes me to submit to civil authorities for the sake of good order. I must also remember that my status as an American citizen is secondary to this. My frustration, however, seems to be feeding upon this internal conflict I continue to have with trying to faithful to my calling while also being mindful of my civic duties and responsibilities as a US citizen. One day I hope to find the balance. Until then, I will continue to work through the conflicts, through the anger, and try to remember that certain reality that what we have before us in civil government – as a representative form of government – is exactly what we as voters have apparently asked for.

All Hail Caesar!

A group of United Methodist clergy, including the appointed pastor, announced recently they will be conducting same-sex unions at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington DC in clear defiance of United Methodist Church principles (splitting hairs over whether it is church “law”) and – in my humble opinion – what is clearly written in Scripture. The Church’s prohibition seems clear enough, but the DC city council voted to issue licenses to same-sex couples. It seems Dumbarton is responding more to Caesar’s call and lead and is, in effect, separating itself from union with the United Methodist Church by its clearly defiant, in-your-face act of … what? Civil disobedience? Can’t be that because the civil authorities have issued their own “ok”; hence, perhaps, the unfortunate clergy decision at Dumbarton.

Many would hope we can have a calm, reasonable discussion about such church and social matters, but it seems to have been made clear more than once over many a General Conference that such discourse is not possible and will not be possible because liberals clearly have a curious understanding of what it means to be “set apart” as a people of faith. There is too much name-calling, finger-pointing, slander, and downright blasphemy for there to be anything among so-called “united” Methodists to come close to “holy conferencing”.

So I sit here wondering where that leaves me as a United Methodist clergy. Should I waste time writing further objections that non-biblical, social Christians will dismiss as “antiquated” and narrow-minded anyway (acknowledging the certain death of “holy conferencing”), should I resolve to simply ignore it in the vain hope that it will pass soon enough, or shall I continue to march in faith AND in love in helping my own congregation deal with it?

It will be a little of all three. There are numerous biblical arguments against such worldly religion that speak not only to the disobedience but also speak as clearly to my chosen responses. Antiquated though the Scripture may be in terms of when they were written, the eternal lessons coming from the Eternal Father are still His – that is, IF the Holy Bible is the inspired word of the Lord and if the Lord has not somehow changed His mind. Ignoring something has never made it go away, and the Dumbarton decision is just one in a long line of several similar decisions all of which clearly indicate this is no isolated incident and that the battle for the soul of the United Methodist Church is raging still and will get worse. Finally, I serve a rather conservative congregation, most of whom have expressed concern over the direction of the United Methodist Church and continue to wonder about their own place within the Methodist Body of Christ. For these and for many others it is not a matter of who will be asked – or forced – to leave but, rather, when the departure must take place. Nothing seems clearer.

In more than one instance Jesus seems clear to His disciples that the world will hate us, beat us, persecute us for His name’s sake. Why? Because we must not be like them. This separation, this being “set apart” surely has its roots in the Exodus and in the Law. We must identify ourselves not by mere affiliation to an institution and certainly not a culture that is here today but will be gone tomorrow but by unmistakable submission to the Word of the Lord. He promises salvation to all who endure to the very end. So who is being hated and persecuted and beaten? The homosexuals? Because the Church does not – cannot - recognize a union between persons of the same gender without making up new ideas that are clearly not consistent with Scripture? Are these the persecuted ones? To hear our liberal brethren tell it, I and those who agree with me are the ones casting stones, passing judgment, and contributing to the hateful atmosphere that has done substantial physical harm to homosexuals. And these accusations come even as Scripture is being quoted with no commentary. Just plain words that seem abundantly clear but apparently only to some.

So where to start? Since direct scriptural quotes have made no dents and since very nearly all Christians can be accurately accused of “cafeteria” Christianity, quoting from Leviticus or St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has become redundant. Besides, what is really at stake here? I and countless others have long maintained that homosexuality is not the “mother of all sins” but is merely a symptom of a much greater spiritual sickness. The issue at stake goes much deeper than homosexual conduct. Truly, the matter at hand is much more sinister than many would like to believe. Indeed, the Church is under direct attack - from within.

In the very beginning, according to Christian tradition and as it is written, humanity was created by God for God – not the other way around. And in the very beginning man was created to commune with God. Along the natural course of events, that communion was violated by man’s willful act of disobedience. As a result of that willful disobedience, man could no longer exist in the same company as God. Since Paradise was God’s domain with humanity living there at God’s leisure, disobedient humanity had to go. Overly simplified, of course, but this is the so-called Fall.

Skip ahead to ancient Egypt. Israel has been overtaken and enslaved by the Pharaoh, and in their captivity they cry out. The Lord heard their cries and called Moses to shepherd His people out of the bonds of slavery, out of Egypt, out of that culture, out of that society. A key element of the story of the Exodus is the substantial component of leaving Egypt rather than staying, being called out and set apart as a “holy” and “priestly” nation. This component is not unlike what the scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests relative to the contemporary Church: The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act (The Prophetic Imagination, pg 1).

From the very beginning there has been a clear dividing line between holiness and worldliness. Now the United Methodist Church as well as the Episcopal and Lutheran churches are trying to have their cake and eat it by dismissing whole centuries of theological reality by flippantly suggesting, by human intellect rather than spiritual wisdom, that “it’s not really what it means”.

Once we cross that line and finally and utterly dismiss Holy Scripture as “irrelevant” or “antiquated” and decide for ourselves what is and is not “relevant” as we strive to be popular with the dominant culture, our base and foundation will have been lost and we will be as far separated from the Father – rather than “set apart” from the world – as we could possibly be.

The Church must still be a voice but a Divine Voice rather than a cultural one. I just hope it’s not too late.