Thursday, April 28, 2011

Birthers, Britain, and Charlie Sheen

I had taken a long hiatus from politics, believing such nonsense to be incredibly distracting to my theological studies, faithful preaching, and writing. Though I still keep up with and watch headlines, I shied away from reading too many political stories and analyses because I have felt rather impotent when it comes to politics. What I do and what I have to say does not seem to matter much. My blog is not widely read, I am a registered Republican and somewhat conservative, and all my political representation is moderate to liberal Democrat. The letters I write to these are usually answered, but none speak to my concerns or directly answer my direct questions. What I express is very delicately - but surely purposefully - dismissed as inconsequential. The bright side is that these politicians have never asked for money (I think they are pretty sure that is wasted postage!).

Maybe it is time to get back into the fray and take things as they come. Maybe it is time to be more direct and more focused on the things that seem to matter more to so many. Maybe by doing so, and encouraging others to do so, I can do my small part to help put a stop to the utter nonsense that has us all so distracted that we hardly notice how poorly we are being represented and how disgracefully we have cast aside the constitutional realities that threaten the foundation upon which this nation was founded.

Donald Trump is thumping his chest and telling all who will listen (including his media lap dogs who seem to drool at every word he speaks) that he single-handedly brought the Obama administration to its knees in getting the president to release his long-form birth certificate (or certificate of live birth, to those hair-splitters). This accomplishment, such as it is, may endear him to the so-called "birthers" out there, but surely we more rational citizens can see that this endeavor was the effort of a very wealthy man with political ambitions and entirely too much free time on his hands.

One's citizenship status is important in national politics since our constitution has mandated requirements (not suggestions to be brushed aside), but this is the task of each state's secretary of state to ensure that all candidates are properly certified and constitutionally qualified to be on a ballot. Enough is enough. Let us move from the "silliness" to tasks of far more substance. Let us take the "race card" out of the deck, if indeed this is the motivation of the birthers, and move along.

Prince William of Great Britain is about to tie the knot, and his intended bride seems lovely and of the same stuff of Diana; approachable, personable, and not given to much royalty protocol. How wonderful for them since William also seems to be a decent man of honor and integrity. However, I cannot understand the fascination so many Americans have with British royalty. This wedding has absolutely no impact, no substance, and no consequence for Americans. Send the happy couple a card (they will likely never see), offer a prayer for their well-being (that will surely be heard), but for pity's sake move along.

I am pleased that the glow of Charlie Sheen's star seems to have faded so much so that we are now worried about Lindsay Lohan's legal troubles, Christina Aguilera's weight gain, and Gwyneth Paltrow's apparent disdain for her maternal grandmother. I am also gratified that Hugh Hefner's upcoming (or already done) nuptials (or adoption) have not garnered as much attention as the cooties which apparently came from his unwashed pool, or grotto, or jet tub. One might suggest there are many who are "itching" to get past the garbage and find some semblance of relief from the madness that makes us who we are.

The south has just endured a horrific tornado outbreak that has destroyed hundreds of homes, has taken a few hundred lives, and has called us all to question our priorities. Surely these storms as realities of nature serve best to remind us that there is only One whom we can count on, only One who can save us, only One who is willing - quite literally - to bleed and to die for us. This is the One whom we as a nation have ignored - or taken for granted - for far too long and Who may well be demanding at least as much attention as birthers, Britain, and Charlie Sheen.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Linen Wrappings and the 'Real' Estate

Acts 10:34-43 Colossians 3:1-4 John 20:1-18

As Vice President, George [H.W.] Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Mr. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev's widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev's wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband's chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that the same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.

Gary Thomas, Christian Times, October 3, 1994, p. 26.

The hope that must have been within Mr. Brezhnev's widow is precisely the kind of hope that was imparted to an unbelieving world on that Glorious Day when the disciples discovered that death itself is NOT the end but is only a door through which we must all pass. This is the kind of hope that makes getting out of bed each morning worth the trouble. This is the kind of hope that makes attending Sunday school, Bible study, and worship worth the effort and time. This is the kind of hope that gives reason for denying oneself for the sake of another and expecting nothing in return. It is the hope that turns something ordinary into something extraordinary.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Easter for us today is not exclusively about what happened some 2000 years ago. Easter is the celebration of what is to be, so it is theological rather than historical! It is the acknowledgment of the Glorious Power that has finally and completely defeated sin and death in spite of evil's best efforts to destroy the very best Thing that ever happened to the human race! The reality of the Resurrection is the only comfort we can draw from when we stand at the edge of an open grave that is ready to receive the casket of our beloved. The theology of Easter is what draws us forward and out from the so-called "circle of life" that says we are born, we eat, we work, we reproduce, and then we die. For the secular humanist, this is how eternity is defined (and inherently restricted).

Yet sin, death, and suffering continue to abound virtually unchallenged. It is not hard to notice the overwhelming number of persons who wake each day with no apparent reason to do much more than to hope for a single meal. We can easily see that the Resurrection of the Lord did not solve our problems. Humanity even killed Him in the hopes of somehow making things better, and yet nothing really changed.

We can know from one day to the next that no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we give, and no matter how tirelessly we work there will continue to be pain and suffering in this world. Jesus Himself says as much; that evil and betrayal and poverty will always exist in this world, but there will be eternal WOE for the one who causes such evil and betrayal and poverty either by those acts of intention OR those moments of neglect.

It is an awesome thing to come before the Lord especially on Easter Sunday and offer Him our hearts, our minds, our souls, and our gifts; and it is even more so when we truly engage in the Easter story by thanking Him for "saving our souls" and offering to us the Hope of Eternal Life. But to be fully engaged in the Easter story is to go far beyond the "linen wrappings" we find lying in the empty tomb. From the moment that Mary Magdalene reported to the apostles all that the Resurrected Christ had told her to report, history began to unfold. A new story was to be told, yet this story is a continuation of a long-ago laid plan by a Holy and benevolent God whose greatest desire is to reconcile His creation to Himself.

However, nothing much has changed. He still has new generations, young and old alike, to whom the Gospel must be delivered; but we seem to be a little too busy with "real life" to get too bound up in evangelism and mission work. We are overwhelmed with an uncertain economy that threatens our financial well-being as well as our long hoped-for and planned-for retirement. We lament about the demise of the Church, and we groan about a society that seems bound and determined to go straight to "hell in a hand basket".

But we have our own problems, don't we? Our greatest hopes seem to be directly related to how well our investments are doing and whether or not the Congress will somehow preserve "my" Social Security. Our greatest and best hope is bound in the birth of a new child or grandchild and that he or she will be healthy. Our greatest and best hope is that we will win whatever tournaments we or our children and grandchildren will be playing in, and we will drop EVERYTHING to lend our support to this end.

We have virtually NO REAL HOPE invested in the Resurrection because we take it for granted that it "just is". It is just another Holy Day on the church calendar that marks some historic event. And while we have lived and based our lives on our hopes for worldly treasures and worldly pleasures, we wonder why our children, our grandchildren, our neighbors have decided that church life is simply another choice to make, another club to join. We wonder why they don't take our faith and our religion seriously. I'll tell you why they don't. It is because WE don't. It really is that simple.

We fail to recognize that our faith and our religion are much more than a simple moral code of conduct, though it is that ... and much more. We sat our children down and warned them of the dangers of drugs and alcohol and teen pregnancy. We sat down at the kitchen table with them and taught them how to manage their money. We worked to instill in them a work ethic we could be proud of, an ethic that would serve them well in school and in careers. We encouraged them to pursue vocations that would pay well ... but we never sat them down and told them the story of the Exodus. We sat by the fireplace and told them the story of Santa Claus and mentioned the birth of Christ incidentally. We taught them about the Easter Bunny who happens to come at about the same time as Easter.

We must surely see by now that church life, faith, hope, and enduring love are merely incidentals to the "real" stuff we must contend with. We worked hard to teach our children to be responsible and civic-minded citizens, "good Americans", but we failed them by "telling" them they should go to church but not telling them WHY they should be attending to worship, small group Bible studies, and Sunday school. And it is simply for this reason alone that we have failed them: the hope that is the Resurrection is no more real to us than it has ever been to them. And until we can embrace the One Certainty that is Absolute and Eternal and learn to put aside the things that are by their very nature temporary, things will only get worse. In fact, if we think it's "bad" out there now, we ain't seen nuthin' yet!

The story of the Resurrection does not end at the empty tomb and the linen wrappings; it has, in fact, only just begun in that one Shining Moment in Eternity! And therein lies our own hope; in the stories of the Bible, the story of the Exodus and how the Lord delivered a whole people from slavery. It is the same story that has actually revealed itself in American history when Martin Luther King led an entire nation by the Word of the Lord. He was telling the story of salvation and redemption, and that faithfulness bore fruit. Dr. King's hopes did not lie in political solutions. Rather his hope was entirely invested in the Word of the Lord; the political solutions themselves were incidental. The Eternal Word of our Redeeming God and Lord was never more alive for us than during this era, and we may have missed it.

Yet it is the hope that drives us forward from where we are to where we are to be. It is not about the Linen Wrappings which were left behind; it is about a Glorious Crown that lies ahead! It is not about the "real estate" of a cemetery where dead bodies are laid; it is about the "real" and glorious Estate to which we are called, that Glorious Estate that is yet to be but is most surely going to be!

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday 2011 - Is This Justice?

Psalm 22:1-11 Isaiah 52:13-53:12 John 18:28-36a

It is written: "You say, 'The LORD’s way is not fair!' [Hear Me, says the Lord]: Is it My way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life. Since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die." (Ezekiel 18:25-28)

It is a strange thing to observe the many churches and traditions that skip Holy Week observances, especially Good Friday, and seem to run straight from Christmas to Easter. It is strange to me primarily because I grew up in a tradition that observes these many holy days year after year. Good Friday seems dark and a little more sorrowful than a redeemed believer should have to endure especially within the context of the "future reality" of eternity, but we should also be aware that there can be no redemption if there is never any sorrow.

But for the enduring mercy of the Holy God, it is very important for the faithful to remember always that the gruesome death we remember and witness each year at this time was, in fact, our own. It is the "death sentence" from which we have been spared, though the penalty itself still had to be paid. When we get this image of Jesus hanging as He did while His life slowly and painfully seeped from the stripes on His flesh and from His sacred head, we must recognize what is the senseless, unjust, and brutal nature of sin; and what it took to redeem us. When we remember the historic context of Jesus' crucifixion, we would acknowledge that the death sentence imposed upon this Innocent Man was the worst form of punishment reserved for the worst form of criminal. And as the thief on the cross has testified, Jesus did not deserve to be there though the thief had it coming. Yet there was Jesus right beside him.

Docetism is a strange thought system that was deemed heretical in the early Church, but it does offer an interesting perspective on the crucifixion itself. Very simply put, Jesus became the Christ at His baptism when the "Spirit descended as a dove". Then the divine nature of the Christ departed from Him at the moment we experience His anguish of having been forsaken. What is compelling about this moment in the Passion, according to Docetism, is that the divine Christ manifest from the Almighty and Holy God cannot be destroyed, much less by humans. Such a thought is inconceivable, so what Docetism claims at this moment makes sense - at least according to human intellect and reason.

So then in this moment of despair, Jesus the human person is literally feeling the full and crushing weight of the sins of the entire world upon His very soul. It is not unlike when we know we have truly failed the Father in our own lives and can feel every ounce of guilt and shame when we fully realize how we have let down the Only One we can always count on. We feel alone, we feel ashamed, we feel virtually naked and completely exposed. It is our conscience informed by faith that we by our own acts, our own conscious choices, our own failures have sinned. Persons of faith in these moments of despair are not "afraid" of what might come. Rather, it is purely by our faith and the love of our souls that convicts us of the pain we have caused our Holy Father. O, how we have let Him down when perhaps He counted on us the most!

So if we can imagine this kind of pain in our own lives, we can get but a small taste of the bruising despair and crushing anguish that was upon Jesus in this moment. There are a couple of significant problems with Docetism's concept: (1) Jesus' death becomes a human sacrifice, and this cannot be accepted because we remember that the Holy Lord declared such practices as "abominations", and (2) the blood spilled at Calvary was not divine blood - that is, "perfected" or "holy" - having come from an inherently imperfect human being. In Docetism there was no divine sacrifice; there was only a Man falsely accused by religious authorities and handed over to secular authorities so that the only punishment the religionists demanded - death - could be carried out.

I think we can see the comparisons in our own lives especially when we hear things we don't really want to hear, though I have a hard time believing we could become so overwhelmed with hatred that we could actually see to someone's torture and death. I have, however, spoken to pastors who felt "persecuted" and Sunday school teachers who felt "shunned". Though their bodies were not destroyed by the hatefulness of the "persecuting" or "shunning" crowd, their spirits were "crushed" which is, as we have surely all experienced to one degree or another, a fate worse than death itself.

It is easy to say we cannot imagine the pain the Lord endured for us because we cannot envision a culture that would do such a thing, but in fact it is a pain we inflict upon Him and upon others each time we neglect all Jesus taught us. It is a pain inflicted upon unbelievers when we fuss and fight amongst ourselves and defies the peace which has been imparted to us. It is despair and anguish upon all human souls, persons who don't look like us or act like us, who desperately NEED to know that such an unconditional love actually and truly exists, and that such divine pardon is not only possible but completely desired by our Lord, our Master, our King.

It is hardly fair to look upon the scourge of the Cross and know why it had to happen. It is not fair because it should have been us; it could have been us. But for the Lord's enduring and perfect Love, it was Him instead. AMEN.

Holy Thursday 2011 - Reasonable Expectations

Exodus 12:1-14 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 John 13:12-26a

It is not easy to draw parallels between the time of Jesus and His disciples then, and the time of the Risen Christ and His disciples today because we can easily say - and mean - that if we had witnessed what these guys had witnessed first-hand, there is no way we could possibly turn against Him. Yet as we encounter Palm Sunday each year and the subsequent holy days leading up to Good Friday, we are painfully reminded of how easily mobs - and weak hearts - can turn. It is not easy to admit, of course, but it is easy to see and feel ... IF we are truly honest with ourselves.

We can draw the parallel between the Israelites of the first Passover just before the Exodus, and the Christians who draw near to the Holy Eucharist to this day to partake of the Bread of Life and the Blood of the Holy Lamb of God. The comparisons are there, but we often overlook the significance of what has been done ... and what is still being done in our behalf as we continue the journey through our own wilderness and into our Future Reality.

It is important for the people of YHWH to remember and observe the Passover, the Lord's Supper, and His washing of His disciples' feet because Jesus Himself makes the clear observation - and command: "I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you."

What is not so easy is to draw the parallel between then and now because obviously the disciples did not see what was coming even though Jesus had warned them. They surely never quite expected that the crowds that had only days before joyously welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as some "conquering hero" would not only turn against the very "Son of David" but would also become a serious threat to the disciples themselves, as Peter discovered.

We never quite know what is ahead of us from day to day because there are always external factors that can change our preset course in the blink of an eye. We who drive to and from work and other activities are only one drunk or distracted driver away from Eternity. We obviously would not plan such a thing and in fact we cannot foresee such a thing, but we have all attended funerals to mourn the passing of so many who "never saw it coming".

And this, I think, is one of the significant and missing elements of Holy Week. While it is important to commemorate these things which were done before "as an example" to follow, we are not Christians of the past or even the present; we are disciples for the "future reality" of the Eternal Kingdom. We are the disciples called forth not for the sake of our own souls but for the sake of the Holy Church. We are the disciples who venture forth, faithfully in the footsteps of our Lord, and are unafraid of the certainty that what may or may not happen tomorrow is completely beyond our control. We are disciples who acknowledge the reality of "external forces" that may manipulate our present course, but have absolutely no power over our Eternity.

We remember, as we must and as St. Paul teaches, that "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." This is to say, it is not only about His death since He cannot - and will not - die again. "We are Kingdom People", as the late John Paul II proclaimed, "and hallelujah is our song!" It is as our Lord declared in the presence of Pontius Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world ..."

If He is our Eternal King, dear friends, then the hope of all our expectations must be forward into the Kingdom which is to come because that Kingdom is where our King resides. We must respect the present and acknowledge what is thrust upon us, but all that we are and all that we expect in faith is yet to be fully realized. There is nothing in this world that can offer anything beyond its own moment, including the Passover, and I think maybe this was Jesus' whole point to His disciples as they shared the meal and He taught them - in fact, accused them - about what was to come not only in the following day or two but far beyond time itself.

So we ask ourselves how this affects how and why we do this same Meal each Sunday and especially on this particular day in the Christian calendar. To remember His sacrifice? Of course. To "proclaim" His death? Absolutely. But we must necessarily move forward. We cannot be stuck in any moment, even in such biblical moments as these in spite of their significance, because our future, our Kingdom, is ahead of us ... as our Lord is ahead of us. We can take some measure of comfort in the certainty of the moment, but these moments pass - they always do. They die, never to return.

Jesus called His disciples forward into the meal and into His eternity through the meal. As they moved forward with Him, they encountered nothing like what they expected. And in spite of their best human efforts, they soon discovered that their future was already laid out for them. They just had to be willing to surrender to that Future. They had to be willing to embrace it and live for it as if their very lives depended on it. For indeed it did for them ... as it still does for us. Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday 2011 - Releasing the Tension

Isaiah 50:4-9a Philippians 2:5-11 Matthew 21:1-11

Sometimes the things we do seem a bad idea in the beginning but turn into good experiences with satisfying endings. Then sometimes we do things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but the end did not seem to justify the means. At the end of it all we take stock in what we do, what we hoped or meant to accomplish by doing so in the first place, and then try to determine if what we actually achieved was what we were shooting for in the first place.

In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes it is written, "What profit has a person from all labor in which is toil under the sun? One generation passes away and another generation comes ... All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full ... Is there anything of which it may be said, 'See, this is new'?" (1:3-4, 7a, 10a).

Nope. It's the same ol' same ol'. Nothing ever really changes. We simply shift emphases from one generation to the next but many teenagers continue to rebel as they discover their own passions and their own dreams, children still fight and fuss over toys, young couples focus almost exclusively on themselves and their new life together, humans for the most part continue to chase their own tails, and the local news will report new births and the latest deaths. And the list goes on. From one generation to the next, only the names really change. So Ecclesiastes can be tricky especially for the new convert and those who lack sufficient spiritual maturity because the book itself is filled with such statements throughout that virtually scream, "IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT WE DO BECAUSE IT IS ALL FOR NOTHING! Vanity of vanities!"

This is not entirely true, of course, because the wisdom of Ecclesiastes challenges the faithful to look deeper and harder ... at everything. It is a book of priorities because the book reminds us of the inherent tension which exists between what is (the physical) and what is to be (the spiritual). Reading it carelessly, it is almost as if we can be assured of only one thing in this life: death. So what's the point?

Every year it is the same ol' grind. Advent and Christmas. Lent. Palm Sunday ... or Passion Sunday. Holy Week. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, maybe a sunrise service, definitely an Easter service. It will be essentially the same Scripture readings but perhaps from a different Gospel account, the same hymns, the same crowds, probably the same sermon. Maybe some new children or new grandchildren will be shared with us, but more likely not since worship and church life are not exactly high on priority lists anymore.

Still there are the same worries and the same joys, but these are all "vanity" because it will not matter whether we are joyous or nervous because it will all end just as quickly as it had begun. It is the same tension which exists between the routine of "sameness" and the excitement of anticipation. Yet for us there is no real anticipation because we know how the story turns out. We get it. Jesus wins. So what?

There is incredible tension in Matthew's Gospel between what Jesus actually knows and what the disciples probably were anticipating. When Jesus sent His disciples to get the donkey and her colt, He knew what was ahead and what He would be riding into. The disciples may have been unsure in the beginning of what was to take place, but the excitement seemed to build upon entry into Jerusalem as crowds began to gather and enthusiastically welcome the "Son of David", the "prophet Jesus". There was joy, eager anticipation, and great expectations of what was to come - even if no one really knew exactly what was coming, they knew what they WANTED to happen. Maybe the Romans' days in Jerusalem were finally numbered. Maybe the Kingdom and throne of David would be finally and completely restored. But these were not to be. Not then. And not now.

On the surface nothing changed for Israel, and what we do now is the same thing that has been done for centuries even if the form and manner have changed somewhat over the course of time. And next year we can already see what is going to happen: another Easter egg hunt, another sunrise service maybe, another Easter worship service but really not much more than a repeat of the same, centuries-old cycle. We lift up the name of Jesus, we remember His brutal and tortuous death, and we celebrate His resurrection. Yet among all the pomp and circumstance, nothing much else will change. We can hope, of course, and we can pray as we must, but what else is going to happen?

Clearly "Jesus is the answer" as attested to by so many billboards and bumper stickers, but what is not so clear is the nature of the question. "How to get saved" seems to be the driving force of just about any question, but that question never came up in Jerusalem so many centuries ago, at least not in the same context. They had heard of this "prophet" and many knew Jesus as the "Son of David", but I am going to jump out on a limb and suggest there was very little in the way of associating Jesus of Nazareth with YHWH. I am going to suggest that the Lord God of all creation did not factor into the anticipation much ... if at all!

Some may remember the angst of the 60's during the Vietnam era and the Civil Rights era; two huge events in the life of this nation. Because of the uncertainty of the times and because it appeared our government was being less than honest with us, authority came to be questioned. Life was chaotic for some, and answers were demanded; yet few answers were found because the right questions were not being asked. And I see this much happening today as well because people are still seeking answers to their own particular and unique dilemmas, but they also cannot quite pin down the right question. And what is an answer without a relevant question?

The tension which exists today is as palpable as it was in Jerusalem as Jesus rode into town on a donkey. I dare say EVERYONE saw Jesus in one particular way or another but with this one common question: what's MY life going to be like now that He's arrived? A very broad and yet incredibly narrow focus on the here-and-now; the inherent tension between what we are and what we are called to be. The crowd that welcomed Jesus had high expectations as to how they would be positively and personally affected by Jesus, but being available to Him on any level was not likely on their minds unless He would be willing to do what they thought He should do. And I think the same can be said of us today.

It does not have to be this way, but it will continue as long as our priorities push our worship life further and further down the list. It will continue for as long as we place our hopes in medical technology and public policies. It will continue for as long as our personal ambitions and carnal desires far outweigh and outrun the necessary means of grace that serve to release the incredible tension between our physical present and our spiritual future. It will continue for as long as we choose to live in and for the moment and not for the future of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Pray that our palms remind us not of what "was" so long ago in Jerusalem. Pray that our palms serve instead as our means of welcoming what "will be". Pray that we use these palm branches in our lives and in the pathways of our hearts to welcome the eagerly anticipated return of the Eternal King. Pray that He find us as eager to receive and welcome Him not as an interruption of our present moment, not as the fulfillment of a personal wish, but as the actively and eagerly anticipated reality of His eternity. Pray that He find us working with Him and not against Him.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Stumbling Block of Good Intentions

Ezekiel 7:16-19 Romans 14:5-13 Matthew 18:6-14

There is a particular, if peculiar, preacher in the news lately who has apparently taken upon himself the burden of judging - and condemning - Islam ... in the name of love and Jesus the Christ. You may know him as the man who once threatened to have a Koran-burning party but backed off at the offer of a new car. He accepted the new car, but he reportedly sold it and gave the proceeds to some charity; maybe his own. Be not misled, however. This preacher insisted that he backed down from his book-burning party after much prayer because the Spirit did not give him clear instructions.

Fast forward a few months later, and this same preacher is back in the news. This time, however, the Koran had been put on "trial" with a Muslim-turned-Christian "prosecutor" and an Islamic imam as "defense" counsel. The congregation as "jury" found the Koran guilty of crimes against humanity and ordered the "defendant" burned (wonder why the book of Numbers was not also put on trial?). The incident was filmed, placed on YouTube, and found its way around the world. Last report related to this incident was a mob attack in Afghanistan by angry protesters who killed several innocent persons some 10,000 miles away from Gainesville FL where the "trial" had been held, innocent persons who had absolutely nothing to do with the "trial" or the subsequent book burning.

In the American heartland there is a congregation that calls itself Baptist led by another preacher who has apparently taken the entire burden of judging homosexuality upon himself. He and his followers have not put any books under the burn to my knowledge and I am not aware of their actions having incited mobs to physical violence, but the harm that has been done presumably in the name of the same Messiah cannot be fully measured although the offense they have invoked against Americans is incomprehensible, so disrespectful and offensive in its nature that decent people can think of no decent, printable language with which to describe it. And these have made it very clear that ... they ... do ... not ... care what you or I think.

Jesus Himself said, "These things I have spoken to you that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them." John 16:1-4

It is not important whether you or I personally or doctrinally or theologically agree or disagree with either of these preachers in principle or in practice. It matters not whether Muslims or homosexuals are offended by the actions of these very few (fewer than 100 between the two preachers), and it does not even matter that American families who have suffered the heartbreak of the loss of a loved one have been confronted at the very grave sites of their heroic beloved by the actions of these few, although we do have sensibilities that I dare say are offended on one level or another by these zealots who act more like hyperactive children in a solemn worship service. These few do not care that they are being disruptive or disrespectful, and they do not care whom they hurt in the process. They care even less about who must pay the price for their conduct and their freedom to do such harm - or so says the US Supreme Court. They care only that they get the attention they seem so desperately to need because, they reason, they have the "truth" on their side.

What does matter, what is at the very heart of the behavior and offense of these few, is the Holy and Blessed Name they besmirch and blaspheme, ironically the same Name they claim to serve. Why this matters is that these few get all the press and publicity they want by their sensational acts while very few outside of our own community have ever heard of Southern Christian Mission, Body and Soul Food Pantry, or the Stew Pot.

It is not strictly a matter of publicity, however. Rather it is a matter of what people outside of our little circles know about our Lord, our God, our Holy Father. These few persons who manage to carry headlines all over the globe do as much harm to Christianity as the few bomb-carrying murderers do to Islam. What people see or read with their own eyes is what they believe to be true. These few, unfortunately, are what so many see and come to believe about Christ our Lord.

Jesus seemed to have seen it all coming, but He does not merely dismiss such action as "just the way it is". He pulls out all the stops. He makes no idle threat, but He makes a solemn promise He surely intends to keep: "You hurt My little ones, and I will hurt you back." Within the context of Matthew's passage Jesus seems to specifically be referring to biological children since He had summoned a "little child" (Mt 18:2) to make His point. Peter says the Lord shows "no partiality" (Acts 10:34), but Jesus shows distinct favoritism when it comes to little children. He tells those who are listening (then and now) that if we ever hope to see the kingdom of Heaven, we WILL become "as little children".

But Jesus is not strictly speaking in biological terms because clearly we cannot become small children again anymore than we can enter back into a mother's womb as Nicodemus pointed out in John 3:4, but the key to the point Jesus is making here and to Nicodemus is in terms of "change" (or "conversion" in NKJV); the spiritual rebirth that brings us into a stage of infancy in faith. Like infants and small children, these "spiritual children" must be protected and defended at all costs because they are in a precarious state of discovery. They are open to new experiences, new ideas, new truths ... and new lies. And because the nature of a child is one of complete trust, they can be turned this way or that according to what they are told. And like small children, even "spiritual children" can be easily frightened within AND without reason.

Homosexuality and Islam are two very easy social and theological targets because both seem to violate the Judeo-Christian ethic, and they both are socially offensive to many. We don't typically understand either, so it is easy to make them targets of our self-righteousness - and our fears. And because they both seem to be rather confrontational in their nature and state of being, we respond rather strongly according to our fears. We blame Islam specifically for the attack on the World Trade Center, and we blame homosexuality for the continued attacks on the nuclear family and all that we consider sacred. Can we not say that women and African-Americans were treated much the same way with essentially the same arguments when their time came to be recognized as, quite simply, human beings?

It is one thing to believe in something enough to defend it. It is altogether a different thing to impose one's beliefs on another, especially in such a confrontational and overbearing way. We have every right to believe anything we want to believe, but we do not have a right to expect or demand others to believe it. Becoming overbearing with what we believe to the point of belittling those who do not share our beliefs threatens to cross the line from "faith" to "offensiveness" and will eventually do far more harm than any good that can be hoped for because people just don't respond appropriately to threats of any kind. They will surrender out of pure and unreasoned fear, they will fight back (think "Crusades" or "Inquisition"), or they will simply walk away. No matter the response, there is no "victory" to be claimed because nothing was "won". Quite the contrary, we could begin to count substantial losses for the kingdom of Heaven as perhaps we are even now.

We mean well and we do well when we stand for "family values" and Christianity, but we don't do well enough when we ourselves do not live up to the high standards we seem to demand of others. We are disciples ourselves, students of Christ in every sense of the word, continually striving for higher and higher standards, reaching for the spiritual perfection that will enable us to rise above these petty challenges that are truly beneath our calling as "witnesses". We betray our Lord who Himself "did not come to condemn the world" (John 3:17a) when we choose to condemn those who do not share our values or our beliefs.

In my humble opinion it is ok and perhaps preferable to call "sin" what it is, and it is life-affirming when we help unbelievers and "spiritual infants" to understand the raw power and destructive nature of sin. It is ok to protect and correct our children from sinful behavior, and it is ok to remove ourselves from the company of unrepentant sinners if the door to Christ has been slammed shut. It is not ok, however, to proclaim divine judgment lest we live under the very real threat of believing ourselves equal to the task reserved exclusively for the Holy One and exclusively on the Day of His choosing. He did not call forth "judges" in the New Covenant; He called forth "witnesses", "disciples", and "apostles".

It has been said by many that we Christians are better known for what we hate rather than for what we love. And WHOM we love ... because it is abundantly clear by the lives we live that there are many persons and many THINGS we obviously love before we will offer our love to the Lord. It is painfully and abundantly clear by the lives of far too many overly vocal and religious Christians that we uphold ideas, but reject the ideals we demand of others. It should be clear to us by now that our very "stumbling blocks" are the barriers we use to keep "outsiders" at bay by telling them that their spiritual destruction is assured. Such a proclamation is not only dangerous and foolish, it is also very much easier to do than to actually "love" those we choose to condemn.

Sin existed long before you and I came into this world, and sin will endure long after we are gone. We must be careful in the meantime that we don't get caught up in sinful acts or push others into sinful acts as we demand the eradication of sin from our world. We have been chosen, as Jesus reminded His disciples that they did not choose Him, to proclaim the Gospel of Life, the Good News that has come to us in Emmanuel and that will come again. He is our Way, He is our Truth, and He is our Life. Pray as though we depend on it. Live as though we believe it.

Visions of Eternity

1 Samuel 16:1-7 Psalm 23 Ephesians 5:8-14 John 9:1-7

"Reality bites".

So says a bumper sticker I see pop up from time to time that seems to express the angst of the hopeless, the ones who can only see what is right before them, the ones who have been blinded - or who choose to remain blinded - to the future reality that is the Kingdom of Heaven. Nothing is ever as it seems, but we have a hard time seeing beyond the moment because we are too often confronted by the ugliness of this world. We are also hopelessly buried up to the axle in the mud of human desire that keeps us inwardly focused and unconcerned about the world around us. We latch onto the current reality as "all there is" even though this mentality betrays the path laid for us in and by Christ Jesus.

When I began writing some thoughts Monday (3/28/11) afternoon, this was a random sampling of the headlines from various news sources:
• "More radioactive water spills at Japanese nuke plant"
• "Time short, tempers flare in budget showdown"
• "Syrian forces fire warning shots in Deraa"
• "Truck bomb explodes in Afghanistan, kills 20"
• "Israel deploys new missile defense"
• Doctors warn about 'Facebook Depression' in teens

We can read more details on these and other headlines and we can even watch these stories unfold, but there is always more that we cannot see except by faith. More thorough coverage and in-depth research will reveal a little more, but the "blinded" will never see beyond what is right before them because they cannot or will not see through hope and the Promise of the Coming Kingdom. Even if human ingenuity and technology were to stop the radioactive leaks in Japan today, there would still be something else tomorrow and it will continue like this for as long as the human condition continues - no matter how careful we are - as long as we continue to act like mortal humans with no future.

The Lord spoke to the prophet Samuel: "The Lord does not see as mortals see ..." (1 Sam 16:7b)

The context in which the Lord reminds the prophet Samuel that there is always more beyond human eye sight is that even the Lord Himself was not looking into the heart of the "present" David who was standing before Him. He was, instead, looking ahead toward the future of Israel within the heart of David. What the Lord is looking for is not a person who is full of integrity "at the moment" because nothing for the Lord is in the "moment". Samuel was only reacting within the present reality, but the Lord's future reality was yet to be seen. This is no less true today.

It is safe to say there are enormous and frightening challenges ahead with radiation in Japan, war in the Middle East, and economic uncertainty right here at home. Looking at the present reality and knowing the present cannot be ignored, however, does not give us the hope we truly need. Because there is no "promise" even though there is genuine "potential", but this potential only exists within our limited responses and set goals which can only produce "limited" hope. These are always good, of course, but they are never going to be quite good enough because they are human-inspired goals, human desires, and human expectations. In fact, I might suggest there is no such thing as "unlimited human potential" because humans are inherently limited.

What we and the rest of the world must come to terms with, then, is the limits of our own potential so that we can find within ourselves the need to follow Christ to the fruition of the Kingdom to come which is the future reality. If it is true that humanity was created in the image of the Lord God , then it must be within us the ability to realize this cannot be all there is; there must be more. We can deny it, of course, because of our limited potential, and we can deny the religion of the Holy Church while vainly trying to grab hold of so-called "spirituality" that seems to be all the rage for now, but we cannot reasonably deny that there must be more beyond mortal humanity and beyond the temporal moment.

As best I can observe from those who claim to be "spiritual but not religious", this "spirituality" is one-dimensional, it is vain, and it is substantially arrogant. There seems to be a vague reference to a "higher power" that must surely exist but does little more than merely exist. This "spirituality" is not communal; there are no relationships, it is entirely self-centered, self-focused, self-indulgent, and worst of all self-justified. It is decidedly anti-Christ-like. It is utterly "blinding" to those who so indulge as to neglect the biblical and spiritual reality of the presence of Christ in His body, the Holy Church. And within the Holy Church, what defines the Holy Church, what constitutes the Holy Church is the proclamation AND receiving of the Gospel - the GOOD NEWS of that which is to come! - and the administration of the Sacraments by and through which we are baptized into the Covenant and continue to commune with Christ and with one another through the Lord's Supper.

When Israel was called out of the bondage of Egypt they knew then they had a future, uncertain though it may have seemed at the time. Jesus faced death on the Cross so willingly because He knew the Cross was not the "final" act! The apostles went forward from Pentecost and into the future without fear and with the certain knowledge that what "is" was not all there is because they saw the future reality in the Resurrection! Thousands upon thousands responded to the Gospel - and still do today - because the Gospel informs us that what "is" (what we think we see) is NOT real because it is not permanent. This is NOT the "final" act. The only thing that is real is that we must endure what "is" in order to get to the Final Act.

We do not know what the future holds on this earth, but we do know by faith that the future reality is always ahead of us even as we know - with or without faith - that our lives will sooner or later come to an end on this earth. In our human blindness, in our human condition, in our human limitations, we can hope for tomorrow. In the presence of the Holy Spirit, however, we can "know" beyond tomorrow - and know it with great joy and eager anticipation. We do not have to "settle" for or in the "moment"; for the Lord our God, through Christ His beloved Son who now sits at His Right Hand, gave us and still offers to us a future. There is but one catch: we have to be willing to follow the Lord into the Lord's future. There is no other way, and there are no short-cuts.

So what does it take to be willing to step into the unknown without fear? "Faith" is the easy answer, but faith is not so easy to come by. It is a gift divinely imparted from Above, but it is a gift which must be received on its own terms; willingly embraced, trusted, and BELIEVED. Receiving such a gift requires that human reason must be suspended because we cannot engage in divine faith by our human faculties. We must also know that faith and the Lord's path will almost certainly call us to go against our own desires, our own will, and perhaps even our own beliefs. A refusal to put aside self, then, is the greatest obstacle to genuine faith because a careless, so-called "prosperity" gospel has mistakenly led far too many to believe the Lord to be some kind of personal "genie" who grants wishes but is somehow angry with us - or is proved not to exist - when we do not get our own way or wish.

The future reality in the realm of eternity is in the hands of the Almighty, and Jesus clearly states His purpose for being with us in the first place: "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind" (John 9:39). In other words, He came to show us the way ... as well as the Truth and the Life, all three of which will almost certainly run contrary to what we personally desire for ourselves or what we have personally chosen to believe by our limited and flawed human reasoning- just like the Pharisees.

In this particular passage, Jesus is engaged in yet another confrontation with the Pharisees who think they have it all figured out. Sound familiar? It should because many of us are flirting with and dancing on the very edge of that "danger zone" of self-justification, self-righteousness. How is such a state of mind and soul evident? We can judge for ourselves as to our expectations if or when we show up for Bible study, Sunday school, or worship. Are we open to a new experience? Are we willing to learn something? Or do we come with our own agenda, and that Sunday school teacher or blankety-blank-blank preacher better say what I want to hear? But Jesus finishes this encounter with this statement to the Pharisees: "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see', your sin remains" (John 9:41).

Very simply stated, faith is the means by which the FORMERLY blinded are enabled to see ... and see beyond the moment and the current reality. It is this divinely imparted "sight" that gives us a reason to forge ahead, to persevere through and beyond the moment. The reality of the future kingdom, however, is the means by which those who only think they see are struck blind. Is this because the Lord means to bring these self-justified fools to weakness so they may ultimately be saved? Or is it in this blindness that the Lord has cast them finally and completely into "utter darkness"?

You and I need not be afraid of the doubts we may have, and no one - I mean NO ONE - is called to do "nothing" but sit and wait. The Holy Church exists for only one reason: to proclaim the Gospel and give all a reason to hope, to hang on, to believe that the Lord calls us to far greater and much greener pastures than we can create for ourselves. You and I must heed the call to build up the Church, to maintain the Church, and to minister through the Church - for it is through the Body of Christ Himself that we are granted the necessary visions of eternity. It is His Gift and great good pleasure that we find our way through Christ and Christ alone.