Sunday, January 30, 2011

Means of Grace III: Scripture Study

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Every moment of every day we are teaching someone something, and every moment of every day we are learning something from someone - whether we are consciously aware or not. I think there can be no exception to this rule and I also think if there is an exception to this rule, there is a complete disconnect from reality. What we are teaching and what we are learning, however, is often the difference between what we know about our culture and the larger society in which we live - and what we know about the Lord. And what we know about the Lord is intimately and directly related to how much time and effort we invest in the study of Scripture.

Regardless of what we may think we know to be true, there is no one born "just knowing" anything. Those who have studied to become engineers, for instance, spent hours upon hours studying math and science. Those who studied to become attorneys invested at least as many hours studying the law. Those who study medicine invest a lifetime in the study, practice, and art of healing. This endeavor alone is, quite literally, the difference between life and death and requires mountains of books. These students and practitioners immerse themselves completely in these mountains of books in their devotion to preserving life and cheating death, the knowledge and faith in doing so coming from so many books and years of instruction.

There is one Book, however; actually a collection of books within one volume that teaches about Eternal Life and absolutely defeats death, the knowledge and faith coming from this one, single volume but also with years of instruction, a lifetime devotion. This collection of books is the single, most widely published volume in the entire world because it is the single, most widely purchased collection of books in the entire world. Ironically, it is also the single, most widely neglected collection of books in the entire world. This collection of books bound in a single volume is, of course, the Bible.

It is the Holy Scripture, the religious canon (or law), the very voice of the Living God. It is the divine Voice that tells the story of redemption from Genesis to The Revelation. It tells the many stories of human failure upon human failure, yet it also tells us the stories of how these same people - in spite of their failures - were able to reach far beyond their own human capacities. It teaches us through the failures of these same people throughout human history that in the midst of the most profound despair and the most colossal failures, we may still dare to have and to share hope.

Many contemporary interpretations have suggested that these books, written thousands of years ago, are little more than "antiquities" written specifically for people of "antiquity". There are suggestions that these books give us a glimpse of the past but have no real application for the present and no real use for the future.

Well, I happen to agree.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for all those who read it with preconceived expectations and personal demands.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for those who are not willing to read with an open mind and an open heart.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for those many who see no need to study the Scripture in fellowship as a supplement to private study and prayer.
• I agree that the Bible is useless for those who are interested in no opinions or perspectives other than their own.
• And I absolutely agree that the Bible as a tool and as a means for spiritual transformation is useless to those who see no need for personal, spiritual transformation.

So what is the Bible good for? It is good for "doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient and equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In the book, Mapping Christian Education, essayist and professor of educational ministry Elizabeth Caldwell, points to the process of Christian education as similar to that of "homemaking".
• The home is our sanctuary.
• It is our safe place.
• It is where we are most comfortable, where we are nurtured and corrected, where we are comforted and admonished.
• The home is where we are related, fed, and made whole.
• It is where we are intimately connected in spite of those things that may potentially separate us.
• The home is where we emphasize the connectedness rather than the divisiveness.
• The home is where guests are welcome and encouraged to make themselves "at home" as we strive to make them feel "at home" - that is "radical hospitality".
• Home is the place where "growing" is central and entirely dependent on the support structure and the values instilled.
• But the home is also the place in which habits are formed by experiential environments and learning models. This is to say, it must necessarily be where interaction - not pontification - is encouraged and practiced without fear and without reproach.
• Home is the place where every soul has a genuine stake in the nurture, support, and upkeep of the home.

It is by and through this process and environment of "homemaking" that the study of Scripture comes nearer to functioning as the "means of grace" disciples need most because this is where we should feel safe. We recognize our differences, but we also acknowledge that we are in the presence of our Master, our Teacher, and our Holy Father. We realize and appreciate His ultimate authority, but we also remember that Jesus loved to teach by parables. Why? Because He surely knew such parables would provoke questions but would also have real, practical application. He needed us to know that everyday living is everyday theology, that everything we do and everything we say is theological - that is, we are intimately connected with the Lord through His Word in daily living. Or we are not.

It is too bad that in efforts to "beat back" secular or liberal or humanist challenges to religious ideals and values, we have chosen to use the Bible as a "weapon" of force rather than as a "means of grace". While it is true enough, as written in 2 Timothy, that Scripture is divinely inspired specifically for "instruction and correction", it is equally true that the world is filled with people, Christians and non-Christians alike, who are victimized, mistreated, and oppressed - whether they are believers or not.

While Jesus seems to emphasize persecution for His followers at the hands of those who did then - and still do now - oppose Him, we should not overlook the many who suffer equally through oppression and loss. Clearly Jesus is teaching us something through these so-called "Beatitudes", and it is equally clear that as we are comforted by the Word we are also called forth by that same Word. The "inner" part of our being is being transformed by Scripture study, but the transformation must necessarily manifest itself in outward expression - to comfort those who mourn, to fill those who are thirsty and hungry, to be merciful toward those who do not know what mercy looks like.

It must necessarily be the same transformation which took place in the early Church after Pentecost when new believers "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts 2:42). In other words, new believers didn't just "make things up" as to whatever seemed best to suit their individual preferences - and as a result of this hunger and this faith, the Church flourished, and THOUSANDS were added to the ranks of the baptized faithful.

Jesus is making promises to those who will listen to Him but if we were to dare listen more carefully, we would hear Jesus saying that the time of fulfillment of these promises is much nearer than we might think - and that the point of fulfillment will come at the hands of the faithful whose outward expression of the inner transformation will burst forth! But if none of this comes about, if there is no inner transformation and no outward expression of such transformation, then the Bible is reduced to "ancient literature" and can be filed on a shelf near Plato's Republic ... useful and interesting, but not necessary.

I was recently trying to answer a theology question for an 11-year-old, and I have to say it was probably the hardest thing I've ever tried to do. Not only did I have to adjust my language, but I finally had to realize there is no way that important question can be answered in one or two statements. It was a loaded theological question with broad implications. I finally came to realize it is ok for me to stop at a particular point in order to be age-appropriate, but the lesson must not stop there ... for this child OR for me because while the answer was adequate for the moment and the stage of spiritual development, it must also be a moment that moves into the next ... perpetually.

In order for the study of Scripture to serve as the necessary "means of grace", we have to be fully engaged not only in receiving but in connecting beyond ourselves. Grace comes only from the Lord - not from any book, not even the Bible. But the Bible is His instruction, His Law, His unmistakable Voice. Thinking, speaking, and acting outside of what is written for our edification and for the building up of the Holy Church means we are left with little else than to listen to other voices, many voices, conflicting voices ... until we are finally left confused and alienated; fully connected to the vain wisdom of the world, but alienated from the divine Voice and source of all wisdom.

Holy Scripture is our connection to our past, our present, our future - because it is our connection to our Lord. It is necessary for spiritual growth. Like Holy Communion and Confirmation, it is most appropriately shared not only for building up the individual disciple but also for building up and uniting the Church as the Body of Christ. It is by experiential learning - that is, interaction - that discipleship begins to make sense. It is where the journey of faith begins - within the Church - and it is where the journey of faith is passed from one generation to the next. Absent this intimate connection, the Gospel of the Lord, the Word of the Living God, is but one generation from extinction.

Everyone needs someone. I may not agree with each of you on a particular point of doctrine but I need you in order to continue to grow, and you need me for the same reason. But above all else, the unbelieving world needs the INFORMED and UNIFORM Body of Christ. One God, One Lord, One Word, One Church. To the Glory of our Holy God and Father and to the "comfort of those who mourn", to "fill those who are hungry for righteousness", through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

To Confirm; to Live

Matthew 7:13-20

The first time I realized childhood was coming to an end was when there was no longer recess at school. Oh, what a sad day! What a cruel joke!! No one had warned us the year before that this time would come! The time for wide-eyed optimism was over, and we were about to be thrust into the "real" work of school. No more gold stars or hugs from the teacher; just "A's", "B's", and so on. We were still children, of course, but something had changed and would never be the same again.

In many cultures around the world, civilized and not-so-civilized, this is about the same stage of development when children make that awkward transition from childhood and take the first concrete steps toward adulthood. There is only one thing which still exists and which existed from the very beginning: we do not stop being members of our families. For good or bad, we are still who we were born to be and we are still identified by the families we were born into whether we are estranged from these families or not. For good or bad, we will always have that foundation from which we must necessarily grow. We began to take our own steps.

And these steps we take would have all the blessings - AND all the trappings - of our past. Even if we can look upon our childhood with regrets and certain bitterness as most of us can, we cannot escape the reality of where we presently are and where we will go from here. And we must also acknowledge the certain reality that at some point the journey stops being about our past but, rather, our future - which is to say, we make our own decisions, enjoy our own rewards, and suffer our own consequences.

Confirmation as a practice in many Christian traditions is typically reserved only for those children who had previously been baptized into the Covenant. Confirmation, in simple terms, is that time when children are supposed to take their first concrete steps toward declaring and living their own faith rather than the faith of their parents. And if the family, both biological and church, has done its job these children will be ready for such a colossal step. It is much like the bar or bat mitzvah of the Jewish tradition. Mitzvah being "commandment" and "bar" or "bat" being "son" or "daughter", the declaration being made is that one becomes a "son or daughter of the commandment" which means: I will be responsible for my actions to my God. In the Jewish tradition, parents are no longer accountable to the Lord for the sins of their children.

Confirmation is not typically associated with the "means of grace" we are more familiar with, and outside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches it is not considered a "sacrament" of the Church. However, if we understand "sacramental" as "divine encounter", we must understand confirmation as standing before the Lord and making our own declaration of faith and allegiance. At the time of confirmation we become responsible disciples accountable to the Lord for our own lives. What we choose to do from that moment is entirely up to us.

Is it a matter of being "saved", declaring the Lord as our very own "personal" Lord? No, it reaches far beyond and becomes a purposeful, intentional, life-time commitment to discipleship. At confirmation we have not been "saved" FROM anything - rather, we are committing TO something much greater than ourselves. It is at this moment when we come to realize it is no longer about "me" or "personal" salvation. It is when we come to realize this "personal" Lord and Savior is not our very "own" to be kept only to ourselves.

In addition to being responsible for the proclamation of the Gospel, the Church is also charged with the awesome task and responsibility for continued support for these confirmands especially including those who have fallen away from the Church. It is indeed by grace we have been saved, but it is by commitment that we are strengthened each day for the next day's challenges. It is by baptism as a Sacrament of the Church that the Lord claims us; it is by confirmation that we claim the Lord and commit ourselves to His service in the Church and in the world. We can deny it, of course, but we cannot alter the spiritual reality.

But what of those who fall away from the discipline of the Church? There are many so-called "spiritual" Christians who have intentionally moved away because they reject the notion of "organized" religion as necessary to salvation, and they absolutely reject the concept of "discipline" that necessarily comes from the Church. What they fail to realize, however, is that "sanctification" - that is, the intentional pursuit of holiness - is a must, and discipline is a necessary component of the Church, particularly in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition by which we show genuine care and concern for one another and the necessary spiritual journey.

We have deliberately and with the most noble of intentions created a Membership Care Committee here at Asbury because we believe in Confirmation, we believe in accountability, we believe in the necessary discipline of the Church, and most importantly of all, we believe in each other and the strength that comes in numbers. We absolutely believe in this necessary action just as surely as we absolutely know that people who fall away from the Church and her discipline altogether are on a dangerous journey in choosing the "wide and broad way that leads to destruction".

Membership care teams, known as "discipling groups", will be making contact very soon with each and every active member of this church. As these groups expand and become even stronger - and I believe they will - they will be calling on members of this church who have fallen away, and these "fallen" will be lovingly challenged to account for their unfortunate and spiritually dangerous choice to go it alone. These "fallen" members will soon discover that "discipline" and "accountability" are not angry words with negative connotations. They will RE-discover, instead, that these very words were active in the loving care and concern they got from their parents not to punish them but to prepare them, to teach them, to correct them, of course, and to guide them.

There is no greater statement of neglect and lack of concern for one's well-being than to be left alone. Parents who neglect their children are in trouble with the law, and they should be! Should there be any less a punishable offense by the Lord's hands than to neglect members of our own church "family"? How is an unbelieving community to trust any "family" that cannot be trusted to care for its own??

A contact visit from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you are loved. An invitation from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you are missed. An invitation from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you are needed. Above all else, an invitation from these discipling groups will be "confirmation" that you ... are ... loved.

Confirmation as a "means of grace" must not be strictly limited to prepubescent boys and girls as a singular event, merely treated as a one-time-only bridge that must be crossed. Confirmation is, instead, a moment of accountability that will never end - for if it does actually cease to exist as a daily practice in the life of the Church, it will be the final nail in the coffin, the statement of the "confirmation" that the Church as the very Body of Christ no longer exists within us.

Play time is over. It is no longer "someone else's" responsibility to see to the business of discipleship. I believe life itself has been confirmed in so many ways but now that we have become the "good fruit" ourselves, it is time for us to being bearing "good fruit" for the Kingdom of Heaven. The Lord does not ask this of us - He requires it of His Holy Church, He commands it of those who call Him "Lord", and He promises everlasting Life to those who partake.

So let us partake. Amen.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Only One Thing

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

It was pointed out to me recently - and my wife affirmed it - that I have a bad habit of using a $20 word when a $2 word would work just as well. I have to admit that if I discover anything that will annoy my wife, it is not likely I'll give it up anytime soon! It's my "dignified" way of flirting with her! Still, as a preacher who does not always proclaim the word to Ph.d types, it is important that I am more careful in the words I choose to make the same point: that the Gospel of the Lord is Light and Life. Live the Gospel, share the Gospel, preach the Gospel; and live in Light and Life Eternal.

The other night my son-in-law told me that he and my daughter had recently had a visit from the local Mormon missionaries, so he began asking me questions about the Latter-Day Saints, the Book of Mormon, and Mormonism in general. I cannot say I can speak the lingo, but there are some unique features of the Mormon faith I'm at least familiar with. Whether I agree with these particular features, however, is another story and far beyond the point.

The last visit I had at my home from two young missionaries began as simply as it could possibly begin. They smiled, looked me in the eye, and asked if I was aware that Jesus had died for my sins. That's it. It really was that simple - and genuine, I think. There was earnestness about them, their facial expressions, and the way they stood, but it was not the earnestness of a "recruiter" who was trying to make a quota. It was the enthusiasm of a genuine disciple who really wanted to be sure I was aware of my redemption.

That opening line alone caught me off guard because the typical door visits I've gotten from other groups usually begins with asking me if I'm "saved" or if I'm aware that the world is coming to an end. The word "saved" seems simple enough and it is fairly common Protestant language most Christians understand, but there is a difference here that I had not really appreciated until the Mormons knocked me off my balance and out of my comfort zone.

We had a very nice visit. I invited them in to sit for awhile, and we talked about religion, faith, orthodox Christianity (a very general description of American Christianity), and Mormonism; and they were as inquisitive to me as a United Methodist pastor as I was to them as Mormon missionaries. Though there were obviously some finer points of doctrine we differed on, there was no real "disagreement" in that one tried to correct or persuade the other. Their message was simple and inarguable: Christ Jesus died for the sins of mankind.

St. Paul was obviously answering a question that had been put to him by the Corinthian church he had established. Paul's answer indicates that within the church in Corinth (more likely several church "houses") there were more points of division rather than points of unification - and misguided loyalties. It is not unlike the many churches of Magnolia AR in which one church may belong to Pope Benedict, others may belong to Martin Luther, while still others may belong to John Wesley or John Calvin.

The doctrines and practices we have embraced over the years - actually, over the centuries - came to us from one source or another and usually as various interpretations of the same scriptural text. Within any given text there is this opinion or that perspective, and we often mistakenly refer to someone in the historic past as the ultimate authoritative figure. Worse than this, we make demands of those who do not agree with us, causing further divisions and doing little more than alienating people from the Church.

Now there does not seem to be any real harm in such human, historical references. Over time we have pretty much insisted that our clergy be reasonably educated not only in the Bible and church doctrine but also in history and philosophy. All these disciplines combine with others to offer a perspective that can help to restore a soul to the Lord or to re-energize the complacent souls of the faithful. Either way will bear the same fruit - as long as we keep the main thing the Main Thing.

The missionaries who came to my door were not asking if I was aware of a generic religion that taught about and worshipped some generic "god"; these missionaries wanted to know specifically if I was actively and actually aware that it took the tortuous death of Jesus to make possible my spiritual reconciliation with the one, true, and living God of all creation. They wanted to know if I was aware not of their church but of OUR GOD and Holy Father. They wanted me to know that a Sacrifice had been made specifically in my behalf and in the behalf of so many others.

Even when I identified myself as a United Methodist pastor, they did not try to challenge Methodist doctrine or my personal beliefs. It was, purely and simply, only about Christ. And when it became clear there were points of doctrine in which we disagreed, they made sure the main thing remained the Main Thing: salvation through faith.

There is no more "eloquent" message that can be shared. Divisions, dissensions, and debate all have their proper places and can serve as useful tools to more fully engage non-believers in active conversations about the Lord, but if these points of doctrinal disagreement become the primary focus of the engagement, then it is as St. Paul fretted about with the Corinthians: "The cross of Christ might ... be emptied of its power".

It is the Good News, Life-giving power of the Gospel of the Lord that is - and must always remain - the Main Thing whether we are talking to fellow Christians from other denominations, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, or non-believers. It does not really matter much where we or they come from; it matters much more where we are all headed and whether we will choose to persevere together in one common purpose: "to proclaim the Gospel" - regardless of the cost.

It does not require an educated mind or "eloquent wisdom" to make sure people are aware of the Gospel, and I'm not so sure we are required to make sure folks "believe" the way we think they should "believe". We need only to help them to "knock" as Jesus tells us to "knock" so that the Holy Spirit will open the door for them. From there the Lord will make sure they know what He needs them to know - rather than what we think they ought to know. We need only to make the introduction, by way of His Gospel, to that which we do know to be true: that Christ has died, that Christ is risen, and that Christ will come again. To the glory of God the Father and for the sake of our immortal souls.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Baptism: pathway to the Cross

Matthew 3:7-17

In light of the renewed commitment to the Covenant we made to the Lord and to one another a couple of weeks ago, now is a good time to begin a new series to explore the Wesleyan understanding of grace, the "means of grace", and how grace translates through these means. By and through our Methodist heritage we grow in and explore the blessings of prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace - the Lord meeting us and speaking to us at various stages in our spiritual development as we learn to see the world through His eyes, becoming more and more Christ-like in our daily living, seeking wholeness in unity with the Holy Spirit.

We need to understand the nature of divine grace and what it means to us in terms of how we navigate an unbelieving world as filled with goodness and beauty as it is with evil and injustice. It is necessary for us to understand that coming into the Lord's grace does not mean problems will magically disappear, nor does it mean we are granted "excuses" for our un-Christ-like, immoral, and unrepentant behavior. Instead, we come to understand that through His grace we are assisted by the Holy Spirit who is imparted to us through covenant and continues to speak to us through diligent prayer, Scripture study, public worship, and other means of grace. By this grace we are empowered to resist evil and other temptations that serve only to separate us from the Lord; and by this grace to actively work toward justice for those to whom justice has been denied. These and other works of piety and mercy are the fruits of the Holy Spirit made manifest in the life of the Church through divine grace.

It all begins at baptism, the sign and mark of the New Covenant in Christ, the outward expression of an inward grace, the means by which we are symbolically yet spiritually washed cleaned, young and old alike. The power of the Lord to forgive sins through baptism is a mystery to us because there is obviously not enough water in the world to cleanse the soul, but we must also understand there is much more than water that comes into play when one is baptized into the Covenant and into the Church.

Baptism is one of the two "means of grace", or acts of piety, embraced by the United Methodist Church as sacramental (the other is Holy Communion), sacramental being understood as evidence of the Lord's giving of Himself by His actual presence. Through the Sacraments of the Church we celebrate these divine moments in eternity when the Lord touches the human soul in an unmistakable way. It is sad that these two practices of the Church universal are more often "flash points" of conflict and misunderstanding than they are moments and means of comfort and unity, but they are unmistakably biblical as practices of the Lord Jesus Himself; sanctioned, sanctified, and ordained in His Body the Church for all time and for all who would call Him "Lord".

In order to explore the sacramental nature of baptism, is it necessary to compare and evaluate the various practices and traditions in order to find the one we like and dismiss those we don't? Not really; the reason being that the nature of such evaluation puts way too much stock in the doctrines and individual beliefs of man. It is much more helpful to consider the theology and commonalities of the various practices and, ultimately, the common denominator; that element of baptism which finally and completely acknowledges the Lord Himself as the only means by which one is washed clean and made new. We also understand that, like Holy Communion, there can be nothing "private" about it because the whole congregation takes part. Baptism is a public declaration indeed, but the greater question to us might be: who is making the declaration?

John's baptism was one of repentance as a means by which to prepare for the presence of the Lord's Anointed, as it is written, and we can clearly see the many who came to John to receive this baptism of repentance in preparation for the Lord's actual presence. It is a mistake, however, to believe that what John was doing was somehow new. It is not reasonable to suggest John the Baptist just "made it up" solely for the coming of Jesus anymore than it is reasonable to suggest that small children were not also part of "all Judea" who came to present themselves. The practice of baptism as a means of purification is not strictly a New Testament idea, nor is its practice strictly reserved for the River Jordan - or any river, for that matter.

There are many OT references to the Lord's command to be "sanctified" (washed, purified) before entering into His presence on the holy mountain, in the Tent of Meeting, or in the Temple itself. Yet Jesus, the One who was without sin and had no need to repent, also presented Himself to be baptized, to be "sanctified", to be "purified"? Why? The answer, of course, is recorded for us: "to fulfill all righteousness". Fair enough, but what does this really mean? And how is such a statement translated to us here and now in the 21st-century Church when and where Christianity is not exactly new?

And here is where we get stuck in the past. In the context in which Matthew's account is written, Christianity has yet to be born as a religion. A Jewish culture with Jewish practices which means all the little boys are likely already "marked" with the sign of Abraham's covenant is the contextual setting. This means a covenant is already established, and children are already being raised in households marked and identified as households of faith within that covenant. That same context does not apply in the 21st century because Christianity is not new.

In Matthew's account there are two important elements involved. One is the obvious common act of "Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan" who presented themselves for sanctification: repentance; "to prepare the way of the Lord, to make His path straight", to make one worthy of the divine Presence. The other element that is clearly present is the Holy Spirit "descending like a dove", but it is a mistake to believe it took an act or even the faith of man to make that moment possible or even likely.

The Lord was at work in Jeremiah's life before he was born, even before he was "formed in the womb" (Jeremiah 1:5). This is what Wesleyan Methodism teaches about "prevenient grace". The Lord is already and perpetually at work in every single life that is formed in the womb - without exception. It so happens Jeremiah was "ordained as a prophet". Obviously we are not all prophets, but we are all unmistakably "ordained"; set apart for the Lord's good purposes long before we are even aware of His presence. It is in this vein that United Methodism, like many other traditions, has retained the practice of infant baptism for centuries. It is in that divine moment when new life, young AND old, is proclaimed by the Church and given to the Lord through His Covenant.

As it pertains to human practices, we must acknowledge there is no way - NO WAY - humans will ever "get it right" or "do it right" because it is not ours to "do" or to "get". It is ours only to respond. And because we are admonished that "it is impossible to please the Lord [without faith]" (Hebrews 11:6), it necessarily falls to us to respond "in faith" without holding anything or anyone back, especially our children, because the Covenant belongs to the Lord alone. It is His eternal Promise that ALL are invited into His Household, but the invitation must be answered in and on His terms. It is parallel to the reality of the Cross; we cannot have Christ without the Cross - nor can we have part in His Covenant without actually being in the Covenant. It is not unlike the terms of a contract. The contract's owner sets forth the terms of the contract, and other parties must enter into that contract ON ITS TERMS as set forth ... or not at all. The contract does not apply to any who are outside that contract.

This is a Promise you and I can surely embrace only if we can put aside the inconsistent practices of humanity and give it all over to the Lord where it belongs. How dare any human suggest that a child - or ANYONE who lacks the capacity to speak or otherwise communicate in his or her own behalf - cannot be baptized into the Lord's Covenant; such a declaration presumes that the Lord cannot or will not act until or unless He is cued or summoned by man! Baptism as a sacrament is an act of the Lord, not the will of man. Jesus Himself said, "You did not choose Me; I chose you" (John 15:16).

The Baptists are not "right", the Catholics are not "right", nor are the Methodists "right". It is the Lord alone who is "right" and Righteous, and it is that divine righteousness we are being baptized into! It is the Lord's Promise to give and to give freely. It is the prevenient act of the Lord to bring Light into darkness, to bring order from chaos as He has from the beginning - all without man's permission! It is a Promise we must necessarily affirm often and be always mindful of - as the Body of Christ and as disciples, for we are covenanted with Him to follow Him all the days of our lives ... all the way to the Cross. And beyond.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Revolutionary Gene Pool: it's who we are

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable - a most sacred - right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world." - Abraham Lincoln

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." - US Declaration of Independence

Though it is hard to imagine such foresight, we now have exactly the kind of society envisioned by the founders of this republic. The government, however, may be another story. What was a tragedy and a criminal act in the Tucson AZ shootings has become a political flash point. Democrats and Republicans, news media and bloggers, and just about everyone in between has tried to capture this horrendous moment and use it as an opportunity to do little more than to advance a political agenda. Even worse, there are actually members of Congress who have dared to suggest the need for federal regulations to curb "hate speech", failing to realize that by their very rhetoric they are only adding fuel to an already out-of-control fire.

US Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, according to, made reference to former Senate candidate Sharron Angle's call to employ "2nd amendment remedies" in suggesting a change in the "nation's political dialogue - by will or by law". Since the congresswoman's comments indicate a lack of "will" on her part, it seems clear she is suggesting the law as a remedy to control ... what? Free speech? There is, even now, a free speech decision pending before the US Supreme Court involving one of the most hateful crews in the United States - the Westboro Baptist Church folks who have made a name for themselves in picketing the funerals of service members killed in action and who will be picketing funerals in Arizona. Does this congresswoman even read the news?

If it is true that the Republican-controlled US House will require that all bills meet a constitutional standards and citation requirement, it would be interesting to see how a member of this same Congress would attempt to side-step that requirement or justify the need to ignore such constitutional mandates. Like it or not, our constitution requires that this congresswoman - and every member of the US Congress - as per her oath of office, to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America". This Constitution is, in fact, THE rule of law especially as it pertains to the limits of power within the federal government, limits this Congress has clearly exceeded for many years now.

Further federal restrictions on the purchase of guns will also fall short given that gun ownership has been deemed a "right" by the US Supreme Court as specifically outlined in this same Constitution. It is ironic that the militia to which the 2nd amendment refers has its grounding and reasoning in the need for a militia to help protect the community from an overbearing government, and it is an existing overbearing government that would move to take these guns from their lawful owners.

This nation was founded not on principle but on revolution. This nation traded one tax for another, one king for another, one set of laws for another, and it was done with the full knowledge that the Crown of England would not let the Declaration go unanswered. So we fought; and with the aid of the French, we won our coveted independence from England - and immediately moved to surrender our independence a little at a time to what is now a government that has far exceeded King George's reach.

There was a day, as Sarah Palin recently mentioned, when political disputes were settled by dueling pistols. We have grown a little since then and have become a little more civilized, but not by much. The Tea Party influence has been a continuing thorn in the side of the Democrats and others who believe the federal government can solve all problems by regulation and it has been accused of enflaming political rhetoric, but it might be more appropriate to suggest that this overbearing government that is far from "the people" has earned the challenge that goes back to the principles of this nation's founding: "exercising their right ... their duty to throw off such government" not by armed insurrection but by the ballot box.

This nation can be said to have come full-circle from its founding. A need for less government intrusion has been identified, and "revolution" has been justified. For the time being, it is only the means by which revolution is employed that has changed. The end has become necessary.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Can a Nation Repent?

"The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance."- Psalm 33:10-12

The psalmist was clearly referring to Israel as the "nation whose God is the Lord", and those "nations" and "peoples" who are brought to "nothing" and "of no effect" as those who stood in opposition to Israel. The prayer and sentiment expressed in the psalm, however, has been brought forward and used in reference to the "beacon of hope" that is the United States. It is the evangelical Christian's raised banner in expressions of hope for this nation and all she stands for - or once stood for. Yet this nation's "Christian heritage" is questionable as a matter of history not because of the many Christians who did come to the "new world" in search of religious liberty and mission opportunities nor the many Christians who were major players in this nation's founding and heritage; but because this nation's founding document is unspecific toward a particular deity beyond "nature's God" or humanity's "Creator", and this nation's legal foundation and document is completely bereft of a specific religion, faith, or deity. None of this is to suggest there is no foundation for "Christian heritage". Rather, it is to suggest that the Jeffersonian concept of the separation of Church and state either went too far or not far enough.

Patrick Henry is quoted as having said: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here."

The people of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka KS continue to insist that "for this very reason" (diversity, I mean) the nation that is America is doomed unless we repent. Speaking strictly for myself, there is hardly a day which passes that I am not reminded of my desperate need to continue the work of "sanctification", that spiritual process by which I am enabled to grow a little more faithful each day and strengthened to put aside the things that separate me from the Lord much in the way we raise our own children a little at a time. It is utterly unfair to ignore our children during their formative years and then suddenly expect them to know or understanding anything. When it comes to genuine wisdom there is no such thing as "common sense", much as we would like to believe our individual beliefs should be shared by all.

The question is asked, then: can a nation repent? And how would one define the nation? Is it the people that make a nation? Is it the government "of the people" that constitutes a nation? In comparing Israel and the psalmist's prayer to today's practical applicability, can such a diversified United States be fairly compared to Israel; or would a more appropriate application be made toward the Church, especially in defining "the people He has chosen"?

Given the current state of this nation, its government (and the Church, for that matter), and the direction in which we seem to be headed, the need for repentance (that is, a change of direction and heart) is absolute. Christians would not disagree with this general premise, but Christians will obviously disagree (as we do already) on what new direction will serve humanity best. Clearly there are the liberal Christians who seem to suggest that if it feels good, go ahead and do it. Just be sure to "love" someone along the way (tongue firmly in cheek). Those of a more conservative bent would just as generally require a return to the Lord and the Bible; just be sure to "hate a sin" along the way (forked tongue firmly in both cheeks). The one thing I believe conservative and liberal Christians can agree upon, however, is that the folks of Westboro are just plain wrong to picket funerals. We might also agree there is no more effective means to get the most attention than this even as the means is highly questionable, and especially if it is the Gospel of the Lord one claims to profess! There was a time when the Gospel meant "Good News".

So to repent as in changing direction, would we call the nation to run toward the Gospel or away from the Judgment? What is the determining factor, and how does a "nation" go about it? How do we all get on the same bus and go in the same direction with a common sense of purpose? The greater question, however, is toward deciding whether the Bible in any form or fashion is speaking to the extremely diversified nation of America or the Church to which Americans are called. One thing is clear; the human race itself cannot survive the current course.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Opened Door

So it has begun. A national tragedy involving the best - and the worst - of America has taken place, and the news media (if it can be called "news") have begun to make haste in trying to make more out of the Arizona shooting than there actually is. On the surface it seems simple: a person lost his mind, and others have been made to suffer for his instability ... or his ideology, depending on what one will draw from this senseless tragedy.

One particular commentary began as a decent piece about the need to refrain from "pointing fingers" in response to the "vitriolic politics" mentioned by the Pima County AZ sheriff, but the writer suddenly began pointing his own finger by subtly mentioning that such a toxic political atmosphere began during the Bush administration and has been ramped up by Republicans since the election of President Obama. How's that for not pointing fingers? And is he kidding? Can he or any other American seriously believe politics was in any way "nice" before President GW Bush? To quote former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "Are you serious? Are you serious?"

The AZ sheriff opened a door with his political commentary, but it may have seemed a natural progression since one among the wounded is a member of the US Congress and does seem to have been the intended target. However, does this necessarily change the nature of the shooting from "tragedy" and "criminal" to "political" or even "ideological", regardless of the shooter's intent? The question left for the news media (again, a loosely applied term of reference) and for thinking Americans is: do we go through that door? And if we do, what will we hope to accomplish?

Sadly, too many have virtually rushed through the door in an effort to blame Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other conservative commentators which has brought sharp responses from the more conservative side. It seems to me it is the media itself that have taken a criminal act perpetrated by a lone shooter and created for themselves an ideological jump-off point to make themselves and their insidious remarks seem plausible.

There is little doubt politicians make stupid and rash comments in an effort to be in the news, but notice, dear readers and thinkers, that it is the media perpetuating the toxicity. It's what we get when we go through the door left open.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Getting it Right

Matthew 25:14-30
A genuine commitment to anything is total, not trivial; and discipleship is demanding, yet not domineering. But discipleship is not "easy" by biblical or social standards and Jesus makes this abundantly clear, yet pastors and preachers and even many of the laity hold back for fear of creating yet another empty pew or being labeled as a "zealot", a "Jesus freak", a "holy roller", or a "narrow-minded bigot". Mature Christians need the "solid food" that is discipleship, but "milk" seems far more abundant, much easier to acquire, and easier still to digest by the many even as the Bible teaches Christians that "though by this time you ought to be teachers, [yet] you need someone to teach you again ... for everyone who lives on milk ... is unskilled in the word of righteousness ... solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrews 5:12-14). In other words, a committed life of discipleship.

Cheap grace, as the "milk" to which the writer of Hebrews may be referring, is defined by the 20th-century theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer as "the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, [in short] grace without Christ. It is to hear the Gospel preached as follows: Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness."

Conversely, Bonheoffer offers his definition and understanding of what is "costly" [yet genuine] grace: "It confronts us as a gracious call to follow Christ; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a [person] to submit to the yoke and follow [Christ]. [Yet] it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy, and My burden is light' ... our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which is holy to the scornful and unbelieving [in other words, excuses] ... but the call to follow Jesus in the 'narrow way' was hardly ever heard."

The restructuring, the rethinking, the reordering, the restoring of the United Methodist Church must necessarily go beyond making the organizational Church more efficient; it will require that the "movement" Methodism once was to become more effective in making disciples of Christ. It is - indeed it must be - about the reinvigoration of what it was about in the 18th century at its founding: saving souls, shaking Christians out of their spiritual complacency (i.e. 'making disciples'). The movement which began as a "Holy Club" and grew into arguably one of the greatest movements in the history of the Church was a movement within the Church that required but one thing for entry into membership: an earnest desire to 'flee from the wrath to come' (i.e., 'milk'). To maintain membership, however, went a step further: it required a willingness to be held accountable and a willingness to hold others accountable to the demands of discipleship (i.e., 'solid food').

What is unique about the Methodist movement, as opposed to the Protestant Reformation, is what it sought to achieve and what it hoped to recapture rather than "reform". The Methodist movement was based on the model of the 1st-century Church after Pentecost. It was not about finding a better church or a more pleasing pastor or an easier Gospel; rather, it was entirely about the disciple's total commitment to Christ through the Church. It was about "being" and "doing" Church; that is, "being" the Body of Christ and "doing" His will rather than one's own.

In the meantime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's voice continues to call from a time when the Nazi Party was rising to power and the Church was painfully silent in the face of one of the greatest tragedies of human history: the Holocaust. The destructive power of evil which was apparent in Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" had successfully silenced the complacent Church and had driven Her underground. The late Simon Wiesenthal, the "Nazi Hunter" and Holocaust survivor, posed this question in his book, "The Sunflower": Who is more guilty of this crime against humanity; the one who directly committed the crimes, or the one who witnessed it but stood by in silence?

During this dark period millions of innocent men, women, and children were enslaved and tortured, used as forced labor and as subjects of medical experiments that explored, for instance, the human threshold for pain by unspeakable means, or they were just plain exterminated. Sixty years later the Church apologized but did not quite repent because the deafening silence that comes from the Church even today is still apparent in failing or refusing to speak to that which matters above all else: the totality of our commitment to the Lord which is directly linked to how we will ultimately be judged, as illustrated by Jesus' Parable of the Talents - whether we as His servants will use what He entrusts us with in this life to His Glory in order to prove whether we can be trusted in the Life to Come. Or whether we take what He offers in that one brief moment in our lives ... and then bury it so that no one else can see ... thus denying the Lord a return on His "investment", a return He obviously expects and demands.

Yet being a Christian church member in the United States has become much easier than anything else we might undertake because we can "shop" around and find a more palpable Gospel that does not overwhelm us or ask more than we are willing to give. We can find a preacher who will tickle our ears and tell us all about being "saved", we can find a music leader who will entertain us, and we can find a church that will affirm what we have already convinced ourselves to be true: that commitment is to self-satisfaction, self-indulgence, and self-realization; to be the best "me" I can possibly be. "Sacrifice" in the context of what the Church is and WHO the Church is, is a foreign concept, merely a word that works well as it fills a gap in the sermon but rarely translates to what it means to be a disciple of Christ, what it means to follow Jesus all the way to the Cross.

We can say we already know what "commitment" means and what "commitment" requires. We are committed to our jobs, we are committed to our money, and we are committed to our families and friends; if we are not, we will lose them all. We are committed to and willing to sacrifice for most anything that offers to us a direct benefit of pleasure, happiness, comfort, and personally satisfactory (and immediate and tangible) results.

We define our lives by what is most satisfying according to our own standards as well as the standards imposed upon us by a secular society that knows less and less about the Bible and the demands of discipleship (and clearly does not care to know more) and yet continues to redefine - and often rewrite - the Gospel according to where we already are and who we have chosen to become. In the midst of such flagrant individualism, the Church as the Body of Christ is torn asunder because the commitment is "to each his own" rather than to the community, the Church which is the Body of Christ - not the several. In such individualism there is no commonality, no community, no sense of divine purpose ... no Church; maybe a chapel, but more likely a private chapel suitable only for those who neatly fit in - IF they bother to come in at all.

Submitting oneself to the Lordship of Christ and committing oneself to the life of discipleship is not simply a matter of escaping the Judgment, for the Bible tells us clearly the Judgment will come - we just don't know when the Master will return and demand an accounting. And because we cannot be sure of when He will return, we cannot be sure He will find us standing firmly with Him and working for and through Him when He does return; not if in our complacency we can take discipleship or leave it; whether we would choose "milk" or "solid food".

We all have problems and needs to one extent or another. There are those who do not have enough money just to get by, and there are those who have so much money they feel no need for Christ; they've become a little too comfortable. And then there are those "in-betweeners" who have a difficult time finding their footing because they are standing on the "shifting sands" of social secular standards, and the Church has been more a part of the problem rather than the Source of the solution.

Christians must be devoted and committed to Christ through His Body, the Holy Church. There are no short-cuts and there are no easy answers because the term "back-sliding" that Methodism is so familiar with is not simply a matter of turning to a life of evil; it is a term more appropriately applicable to complacency and delegation; that act by which we attempt to "delegate" discipleship responsibilities to "someone" who never seems to be around. But I am going to tell you what I used to tell those who worked for me in my previous life: when we become aware of a problem, that problem has become our own. It cannot be passed on to "someone" because "someone" is never around; "someone" always fades away especially when a problem presents itself.

This is no less true in discipleship and in matters of the Holy Church. We know there are problems out there and we obviously cannot solve them all, but we can no longer afford to ignore them because they always have a way of coming back to us. Always. And it is important to carefully read Matthew's account of the Parable of the Talents. "To each according to his ability"; it does not say "according to 'will' or 'desire'".

There is not one among us who can escape this clause because each of us has been spiritually equipped; young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. We are inherently connected by the common image in which we were all created. We do not all have the same abilities, obviously, but we each have some ability and we must all have the same sense of purpose: TO GROW THE CHURCH, to make disciples. To encourage one another, and to love our neighbors into the Body of Christ, not support or contribute to their useless excuses. To not only meet them where they are, but to lead them out of the darkness which has enveloped them and into the Light of Christ.

Before we can do this, however, we must embrace our commonality. We must embrace our abilities and appreciate what the Lord has given us ... FOR HIS GLORY rather than our own comfort and sense of personal assurance. I am begging you to wake up and realize the time is short and the End is unknown to us all. The Lord loves you - I hope you know this - but our commitment to Him through discipleship is our response to that Love. There is nothing else to "get right" until this "First Thing" comes First.