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.