Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Thought

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors … for if you forgive others, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”  Matthew 6:12, 14

Forgiving someone who has wronged us is probably the very hardest thing to do.  Jesus clearly teaches it is necessary, but there is surely more to it than to simply trade one blessing for another.  Surely His admonition is much more than just a warning.

I think because we often find ourselves often so hopelessly busy, we don’t have time to think – I mean really think, contemplate, pray, reflect.  Often when we sit still, we only allow ourselves to sit and stew about something or someone that did not quite go our way.  We are either stuck in the past when the offense took place, or we are stuck in the present by refusing to let go.  We are practical people, so we know what “is”; but because we do not allow ourselves real time to sit and reflect, we cannot comprehend what “will be” … or even what “can be”.  We are stuck in what “is”.  And for Kingdom people, this is unacceptable because where we are and what we are is NOT who we are!

Take time to reflect on what can be, and get unstuck from the hopeless rut of where we are because where we are is a truth but only a chapter in a yet-to-be-revealed story.  For a people redeemed, the best is yet to come!!

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Thought

“There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in - that we do it to God, to Christ, and that's why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.” Mother Teresa

This is part of an evaluation the Church as a whole – and each individual church – must undergo in evaluating the things it does. Whether it is music in worship, potlucks, or anything in between, each work as a ministry of the church must be evaluated according to what we intend to accomplish. Do we do it (whatever “it” is) because we’ve “always done it”? Do we do it because we don’t mind it so much? Do we do it because we enjoy doing it? Or do we earnestly do what we do with the greatest anticipation that what we do will be pleasing in the Lord’s own sight?

Maybe today we can deny a next step until we can honestly evaluate whether that step will reveal the glory of the Lord to our neighbor – or if the steps we may choose are even necessary in the first place.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Integrity: the Church's first - and last - Leg

Psalm 90:13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

"It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a "sign of contradiction" (Luke 2:34). She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.

Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of [humanity]."
Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae"; translated, "Of Human Life"

This encyclical was written in 1968 by then-Pope Paul VI who was answering the issue of artificial birth control and the Church's traditional stance and teaching which, incidentally goes back to the Didache believed to have been composed sometime between 50AD and 130AD. Didache is translated "Teaching" and is believed to be a reflection of the apostles' teachings if not their actual writings (scholars are in dispute). Needless to say, most Catholics probably did not read or even know about the encyclical unless they heard it referenced at Mass; and I think it safe to say many Catholics who did know of the encyclical disregarded the pope's - and ultimately the Church's - stance on artificial birth control. For Protestants, of course, the encyclical was not then nor now even an issue.

What caught my eye as I was reading the encyclical for a paper in one of my classes was the quoted reference to "a sign of contradiction". The pope used Luke 2:34 as his justification for the statement that is set to define the Church as the Body of Christ in a society that will largely reject Christ Himself by rejecting His Holy Church. And the Church is rejected when the Church's historic teachings, however difficult and counter-cultural they may be, are rejected. The Church was not called forth to be a friend to human culture, but rather to serve instead as a "sanctuary" and respite from human culture, as guardian of the Gospel, and as a reflection of the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Luke 2 is the story of Simeon's blessing of the Messiah when Jesus was presented to the Lord at the Temple by Joseph and Mary. Jesus is, as expressed by Simeon, the long-awaited "revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel" (vs 32). The rest reads as follows: "Joseph and [Mary] marveled at those things which were spoken of [Jesus]. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, 'Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed".

Of course Simeon was not talking about birth control; neither am I. His prophetic statement was much more profound than any single social issue we deal with today; social issues which have split the Church and society in general right down the middle. Yet we cannot ignore the far-reaching implication of Simeon's prophetic statement within the context of Paul VI's interpretation of what he meant when he referred to the Holy Child as a "sign which will be spoken against", "a sign of contradiction".

Yet for years people have walked away from the Church - in all denominations - for a variety of reasons, most of them probably personal disputes with religious teachings that interfered with cultural conditioning, personal choices, and personal preferences. True enough, it can be said that through the ages the Church as a whole has probably been a little more rigid that necessary, but we could not possibly know this except maybe on a case-by-case basis; but there again is a lack of consistent standard but plenty of opinion and individual preference and interpretation. Since such an evaluation is impossible by human standards, then, we have to look deeper and try to understand Simeon's reference, the pope's reference, and of course Jesus' own reference to the "greatest commandment" and what each of these can mean to us today.

Simeon's proclamation would not dare to be rejected out of hand by Christians in general because, as is so often said, "it's in the Bible", and thus considered to be sacrosanct and untouchable. Paul VI's statement must not be rejected by Protestants merely on the basis of his status as pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church because whether we know it or not, we continue today to embrace the beliefs and practices of the so-called Catholic "church fathers" because their teachings, in no small measure, inform Catholic and Protestant theology and doctrine today. It is no insignificant thing to realize that the writings of these men - and women - have endured and will endure beyond the centuries they have so far endured. These will still be referenced long after this world has forgotten about Joel Osteen, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, and Mike Daniel.

It is noteworthy within such contexts, contrasts, and comparisons, however, that contemporary preachers, pastors, and bishops are busy trying to find ways to reconnect the Church to the secular social reality ostensibly without compromising the Church's moral principles, a nearly impossible task that would ultimately compromise the moral integrity and authority of the Church. And if integrity is in fact the "first and last leg" of the Church and this "leg" is taken away, the Church is left vulnerable to the whims and wiles of a fickle human culture that often cannot tell whether it is coming or going.

My guess is that Jesus threw the Pharisees and the Sadducees off by His answer to their very simple question. My guess is that they were expecting something along the lines of a "great" commandment being one of what we consider to be the more familiar "Ten", one of the "don'ts"; i.e., "don't do this", "don't do that". Instead they got the very broad and all-encompassing "love the Lord your God with everything you have and with everything you are". "This is the greatest and first commandment." (vs 38).

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Love the Lord first before anything and anyone. Indeed. However, contemporary human culture hasn't the first clue what "love" really means, not biblical love, not "agape" love. We know infatuation. We know fondness. We know reciprocity as in getting something for something - like bartering. We know what suits our personal preferences, and we know where to go to get whatever it is we want. And sometimes we will go out of our way and disregard everything else in favor of that thing, whatever it may be. And that, dear friends, is "love". That is what the Bible means, but we do not know "love" if our "fondness" or "infatuation" is directed only at something or someone from whom we expect something in return. The truth is we love what we can get, but we are unwilling to love if there is nothing in it for our own benefit.

Our children do not understand that our love for them, which is real, will sometimes require that we take a firm hand to them. We do not allow our children to run helter-skelter all over creation and do as they please when they please because we know to be so negligent is not "love" - it's laziness. We stand firm with our children in teaching them right from wrong, and we know there are some things that are always wrong, no matter what kind of spin we put on it.

Taking innocent human life is always going to be wrong. Abusing a child is always going to be wrong. Taking what does not belong to us is always going to be wrong. These are but a few of the "absolute" moral codes upon which the religious and non-religious alike will always agree. It's when the "spin" enters into the moral discussion that we then begin to take liberties in efforts to justify our personal beliefs in contradiction to centuries of historic Church teachings, centuries of consistent integrity that is challenged when we find ourselves in the unique position of personally disagreeing which may be, more often than not, a matter of not fully understanding why the Church teaches this or that. And we don't understand because we do not bother to ask nor study. It is much easier to make our own rules and establish our own boundaries and perhaps justify ourselves and our behavior by simply saying, "Well, at least I didn't kill anyone".

This is when we find ourselves dancing on the edge of a cliff within the context of the "greatest commandment". This is when we find ourselves hopelessly caught between two paradigms; that of the Church and that of the dominant secular culture. And we are hopelessly so trapped because Jesus is emphatic about another moral absolute: it is impossible to serve two masters. He does not suggest it may be "difficult" or "unlikely"; He says "impossible".

Jesus removed the conflict between these two standards and broke all ties in the very face of evil itself when He was challenged by the evil one: "You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve" (Mt 4:10). This paradigm, this standard is the one and only leg of integrity upon which the Church can - and must - stand. Everything we are and everything we do must necessarily be measured only in terms of whether the divine law of the Lord is foremost in our minds and hearts because of the choices we make - or - if the focus is only on us and what we love and choose for ourselves.

From the very beginning the Church - the Christ - has been set to be a "sign which will be spoken against", "a sign of contradiction" because the reality of this world and the future reality of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be reconciled except by complete submission of one to the other. So it is by the choices we make not as individual persons but as a people of faith "whom we will serve", whom we truly "love". There is no middle ground and there can be no compromise lest we jeopardize that "first love" which redeemed us and made us whole and holy. But if we find ourselves seeking to make a deal, searching for "middle ground", or seeking compromise, we will most likely find - as was shown to us in the wilderness - that the only one willing to "make a deal" ... is the devil himself.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Thought

“He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” 2 Corinthians 9:6

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is in reading such passages only in terms of dollars and cents because to put a financial price tag on such passages puts a limit on what even the poorest among us can “sow”; and this violates the universality of the Gospel of the Lord. Especially in this challenging economy, there are many who are afraid of losing their jobs or are still searching for a job. These and so many others come to believe they have little to spare and, thus, very little to offer. NOT TRUE! For the true gift comes from within.

Yes, those who have money should give freely and generously, “not grudgingly or of necessity” (2 Cor 9:7), but we must never come to believe we can “buy” our way into blessings or out of judgment. Our Lord is not for sale, and He does not negotiate! What we have is not what we possess; rather, what we have is who we are – and that is what our Lord wants: us. All of us. Rich and poor alike, we hold nothing back from His grace because He holds no grace back from His faithful.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Thought

“Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

“Oh, when will it all end???” We ask ourselves as we are pulled and pushed in so many different directions for so many different persons in our lives when there will ever be time for us to just sit quietly. When will someone do for us all that we’ve done for them?? When is it MY time??

This is when it is important to learn something from cultures different from our own. The Amish, for instance, don’t seem to have such problems as we have; and their world is not so overwhelmed that they cannot – or will not – stop and take time for sanctuary, for quiet, for respite, for Sabbath. And the entire community pitches in whenever a neighbor is in need of special care because it is not one person’s “job” – it is the community’s “privilege” to be able and willing to serve. It is what distinguishes the people of the Lord from the rest of the world that is running in too many different directions trying to please too many different people and trying to do too many different things. It is not unlike a dog that chases its own tail; he’s having a good time doing it, but in the end he’s the only one that gets bit! What is funnier still is that when the dog does finally catch his tail, he seems not to realize that he is the source of his own pain!

It is ok to enjoy the pleasures of the natural world and it is certainly ok to enjoy our loved ones; but not to the exclusion of those who need us. For our faith calls us to look beyond what is right in front of us, and our religion reminds us that we are even now in the midst of our eternity – for people of faith shall never taste death! So let us learn to focus on the things that matter, the things that endure. And let us learn to embrace our faith communities in which we all “bear one another’s burdens” so that no single person is so overwhelmed.

We are people of eternity. We endure because our faith sustains us beyond the moment … for we know the moment will pass into the next.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Place for everything ...

Deuteronomy 8:11-20
Matthew 22:15-22

"Everything we have is a gift from the Lord. What we do with what we have is our gift to the Lord."

I have no idea who coined this phrase, but it makes a good point. Whether we are given much or not-so-much by human standards and terms, we are equally entrusted with certain treasures and gifts that are useful for the Kingdom of Heaven to the same purpose for which Jesus called forth His disciples: "You did not choose Me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last" (John 15:16). In other words, fruit from good seed that will reproduce.

More to Jesus' point in Matthew's story, however, it might be more appropriate to say "everything we ARE is a gift" rather than to say "everything we have" because "to have" implies sole custody and personal ownership rather than "faithful stewardship". "To have" comes dangerously close to suggesting that the so-called "have-not's" are not so valuable in the eyes of our Lord. A disciple of Christ who recognizes that we are "nothing" apart from the Lord must surely realize that anything we "have" is at our disposal but to a much greater end than merely pleasure and comfort of self. The very same is equally true of those who have "not so much". The value, then, is in who we ARE - not in what we HAVE.

The question that is put upon Jesus, however, is a question we face daily not only in taxes we must pay on all levels but in choices we make each day toward what we do with what we "have" - or with who we "are" ... and for what reason; that is, what we expect to come from the choices we make. It is reasonable to suggest, then, that more often than not we make choices based not on what Scriptures teach us but rather based on our own human experiences and desires. We consider what we know to be true according to our experiences, what will likely work, what will come of the decision we make, and how such a decision will personally benefit us and further our own personal goals. It is what we do because, quite frankly, it better defines who we actually are ... and ignores or denies who we can be.

I've been asked before why the lectionary calendar does not appropriate this passage to be read on or about April 15, the drop-dead date the IRS puts on us to pay our taxes ... or else! It is a fair question, of course, but it completely misses the point Jesus needed to make beyond simply putting the Pharisees or their political allies, the Herodians, in their place. There is much more to this encounter than tax day or even money. It is entirely about "being" rather than "doing".

Everything we have and everything we are within the Covenant of the Lord has already been claimed and fully paid for in advance just as it is written in Psalm 24:1 - "The earth is the Lord's , and all its fullness" - but what we choose to do with who we are and what we have each day of our lives is not unlike the commitment we make at Confirmation or when we are baptized as older children and adults, assuming we were not baptized as infants. We make a statement each time we come forward to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, and we make a similar statement each time we are given an opportunity to offer our gifts to the Lord during the Offertory.

Where we tend to go wrong, however, is whenever we compartmentalize our faith according to religious and non-religious ideals. We fail to realize that the very same choice we make at Confirmation in church is the very same choice and statement we make in the check-out line at the store. We actually believe, judging by our actions, that there are parts of our lives we believe to be uniquely our own. And this, I think, is the point Jesus is making.

Of course the Pharisees and the Herodians are trying to trick Jesus with what they believed to be a trick question. There is also a more sinister element at play in this encounter; the very unholy alliance between the religious Pharisees and the secular Herodians. Up to this point I think it fair to say the Pharisees, the chief priests, the scribes, and the Sadducees have used every religious trick in the book they could think of to counter the overwhelming popularity of Jesus; popularity that threatens their perceived authority in what they believe to be their own unique territory; things they "have" for their own use. Having failed so miserably, then, they must try another angle. To do this, they needed a new ally, ironically an ally they actually despised: the Roman political authority.

Judah's king Ahaz faced a similar dilemma and made the same mistake (Isaiah 7). He was assured by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah that Ephraim's evil intent to invade and destroy Judah would not stand, and Ahaz was specifically warned to trust the Lord in this: "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all" (Is 7:9). Rather than to trust the Lord alone, Ahaz reached out to other military and political alliances with which to counter the threat from the north. Ahaz had a chance to save Judah "by faith". Instead, he became only one more stone in Judah's shoe that would hobble - rather than save - the nation of YHWH.

I suppose it was as true for Ahaz then as it is for us now. There is a time and a place for religion. There is a time to pray, and there is a time to play. There is a time to trust, and there is a time to take action. All rational and perfectly logical. In our minds, our consciences inform us of what we should do and when we should do it. It all seems to come so easily, so instinctively - and it does because it is here where we are informed primarily by our experiences. But our consciences are also those places in which our sense of right and wrong are informed not only by our experiences but also by acquired knowledge; knowledge of moral standards, knowledge of civil law, and knowledge of the divine law. How we respond in any given situation, then, is going to depend in large part on what we devote to our experiences. And ultimately, how we respond and choose to act will define who we are - and Who is the better part of us.

It can be very confusing to try and determine what we will be or do - or should be or do - in any given situation. Each of us - without exception - has much to offer not because we've spent a lifetime acquiring and accumulating but because we are all created in that divine image of the Lord. Every opportunity we are faced with, however great or small, is an opportunity to make a confession of faith and do what we are each called to do within the perfection of that divine image ... OR ... respond instinctively, almost "animalistically" according to the "dust" from which we all come - and to which we will all return.

St. Paul expresses it best in 2 Corinthians 4; "We have this treasure (the Gospel of Christ) in earthen vessels (our bodies) that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair ... therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward person (our bodies) is perishing, yet the inward person (our souls) is being renewed day by day." I will add: by the choices we make.

So it falls to us to pay more attention to the much better and far-more-enduring part of ourselves, that part which is not "perishing" by nature but which is being "renewed day by day" - that is, each day we devote ourselves in totality to the sovereignty of our Lord; the Holy One who calls us to daily spiritual renewal; the Holy One who owns everything; the Eternal One who calls His faithful to eternal life in Christ Jesus. He is, in fact, our Emperor, our King. He is, indeed, our very Life.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hunger as Hope

Matthew 22:1-14

M*A*S*H is one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Though there are often some rather racy parts, the overall story lines were often pretty good lessons of the good that can still come in the midst of the tragedy and chaos of war.

There is one particular episode that occurred to me just this morning as I was still struggling with what to share with you, and I recalled a particular episode featuring the elitist Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. If you are not familiar with the character, Maj. Winchester was a snooty, though exceptional surgeon who thought himself to be above all those he worked with, but he often was faced with situations that challenged his high-brow attitude and brought him low, down with the rest of us.

In this episode set during Christmas, Maj. Winchester's family had sent to him boxes of high-dollar chocolates with which to share with the local orphans. The family tradition he was going to continue in Korea was one whose custom it was to leave the candy at the door of those less fortunate - and remain anonymous.

Maj. Winchester discovered later that the headmaster at the orphanage where he had delivered these chocolates had taken that expensive candy and sold it on the black market. When he confronted the headmaster and demanded that the candy be reacquired and given to the children as intended, the headmaster did not deny that he had sold the candy. But he also told the major that the candy brought good money on the black market and enabled him to buy enough rice and cabbage to feed the orphans for an entire month. The headmaster was humbled and apologetic for having spoiled Maj. Winchester's family tradition, but it was Maj. Winchester who had been truly humbled. He came to realize, as he stated, that "it is inappropriate to offer dessert to a child who's had no meal."

It occurred to me that the wedding robe in Jesus' parable could represent the "meal" the poor man had been lacking, for it is the lack of this robe that caused the king to put the man out from the banquet and cast him "into outer darkness". "For many are called, but few are chosen."

What makes such a contention awkward, however, is that the man is being put out of the banquet as a means of punishment; as judgment for having been found lacking in the one thing he would have needed in order to be allowed to stay. Scholars and theologians have questioned the meaning of the robe itself since the very early days of the Church. Some had suggested that the wedding robe represents the Covenant by baptism while others insisted the robe had to represent "charity", that form of love which gives of itself above and beyond one's own desires and preferences. More contemporary preachers have insisted that the robe itself, in order to make one worthy of one's presence at the banquet, must surely represent faith in Christ. That one does make sense, of course, because we cannot by any human standards or means make ourselves worthy to be in the presence of the "king". We are offered that grace, that unmerited favor, by the Lord alone.

Jesus said, "My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed" (John 6:55 NKJV), but surely there is still something that must come before this - not from the Lord's hand but from within each of us. We must have a reason to strive, to ask questions, to seek answers. We must have a reason to endure all the obstacles as well as opportunities that are put before us in this life. And we must understand that the call to come forward and embrace the Lord and His covenant is born of something deep within us that gives us a reason to answer that call, a reason to believe that call is worth answering: hope. "For many are called, but few are chosen."

How are we "chosen"? What can we do, what MUST we do so that we can even "hear", let alone "heed" that call? Very simple. We must deny ourselves "dessert" before we've had the "meal". With all respect due our vegetarian and vegan friends, we must first endure the "meat and potatoes" before we dare reach for the "fluffy cake". Surely we have discovered over time that which nourishes and strengthens our bodies ... and that which, while sweet and pleasing to the palate, adds nothing of substance to our bodies - except maybe a little more "body" than we need! Dessert only pleases the senses, but it adds nothing of lasting value to that which we truly need.

"Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day [of the Lord] come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch, therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:34-36).

Jesus does not make it easy. In Luke's gospel Jesus questions our allegiance to Him: "Why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord' and not do the things which I say" (6:46)? And we cannot ignore the parable of the talents (Mt 25:1-30) Jesus tells to make the point that even slaves or servants of the master, who clearly "believe" there is a master, cannot simply "sit" on or "bury" what has been entrusted to their care not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the master who will, inevitably and eventually, return and require an accounting.

So the robe cannot simply represent a vague "faith" in something or an empty proclamation in a Lord we never knew (by ignorance of scripture) nor can the robe be tied exclusively to a religious practice such as baptism or even Holy Communion, sacramental and necessary though these may be. I think maybe St. Augustine and St. Gregory were closer to the mark in suggesting the wedding robe must necessarily invest heavily in "charity", that sacrificial form of love that requires much of self but seems to offer little in the way of rewards we seem more inclined to desire.

Yet we know - or should know - by scriptural proclamation that such charity offers much. Love is all-encompassing and surpasses all else we may or may not do in this life. Love is indeed its own reward and for its own sake - and not for the sake of what we may intend to acquire for ourselves. But even love itself requires something. As demanding as love can often be, we have before us a reason to love, a reason to give of ourselves, a reason to invest in something that may or may not have an immediate return but which will benefit someone else.

We hope. We dare to hope. We have reason to hope. We follow Christ not because He leaves candy or money on the path by which to know His path. Instead He leaves bread; enough bread to sustain us but not enough by which we may overindulge. Enough bread to let us know it is good and that more is to be desired, but not so much that we stop following because we are full. Enough bread that we are satisfied but hungry enough to pursue its source. Enough bread to sustain the hope that there is more, but WE MUST PURSUE IT. We must follow His path. We must obey His Word and His teachings. We are "guaranteed" nothing so that we stop pursuing, but we are given enough that we dare to hope for more!

The path is not an easy one. Nothing worth pursuing ever is, but we continue in pursuit not because we "expect" anything to be handed to us on a silver platter but because we know the work that is to be done for Him gives others a reason to have hope. And when they hope, we hope.

The very reason why the precise meaning of the wedding robe is not readily made known by Jesus may be His reason to keep such a meaning shrouded in mystery. If He were to have stated very plainly what the robe represented, we might be inclined to say "Oh", and then remove ourselves from further inquiry. He could have chosen to make it easier for us to understand precisely what He meant - and what He means for us today - but should we not realize by now that we learn nothing until we have endured something? Do we not realize that in our own earthly goals and plans that we actively engage and pursue not because of a "guarantee" but because we can hope for something on the other end? Why would the path and the life Jesus calls us to be any different, any less engaging, any less challenging and difficult?

It is not so that our journey is made more difficult than it already is. It is so that upon the Day of the Lord, perhaps He will turn to see and count those who are following, those who are hungry and yet hopeful that He has a robe just for you ... and for me.

He does, you know. "Many are called", indeed, but perhaps those who are actually "chosen" are those who have been actively engaged in and with Him in the difficult journey we call "life". But we must follow HIM. Through Scripture. It is His revelation, it is His Word manifest in our lives today. It is our very hope, our reason to persevere, our reason to endure to the very end. Where our robe will be waiting.

A Thought

Of Silence
“Let us do what the Prophet saith: "I said, I will take heed of my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I have set a guard to my mouth, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence even from good things" (Ps 38[39]:2-3). Here the prophet showeth that, if at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.”

This is a piece of chapter 6 of “The Rule of St. Benedict”, written some 1500 years ago and still very much in use today as a means of regulating (for lack of a better word) behavior and conduct while living in such a community as a monastery. However, looking further at the Rule might reveal more than we are likely comfortable with. It is a strong discipline that requires much of those living in such a community, but is there less required of us who also live within a faith community? Like monks, are we not of one heart and one mind as it pertains to the Lord Himself?

This is not the vow of silence most of us believe monks live under. Rather it is a discipline to be more inclined to hear and to listen than to talk, for it is in silence and stillness when we can truly hear what our Lord has to say.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Thought

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Proverb 9:10

To acquire knowledge of the Holy One is to actively engage in the study of Scripture – there is no other way. Once this knowledge is acquired, we begin to understand the Lord and who He is. We learn human history through the eyes of the Lord, and we learn of human folly through the demands of humanity – all from Scripture. Once we make this distinction between our foolishness and His purposes and understand more about the Lord and how He has, throughout human history, repeatedly saved humanity from itself, then we can begin to acquire an intense respect (“fear”) of the Lord and His purposes. Once we begin to understand this divine purpose and finally figure out that it is not always about “me”, we can finally say we are only then at the threshold (“the beginning”) of wisdom.

Do you love your spouse? Do you attend to your spouse, to the exclusion of others, when he or she beckons? Then you can say you have love for your spouse. The same goes for children, friends, and other acquaintances. So why can we not offer to the Lord that same level of attention? I think if we were to begin rearranging our priorities and make more time for the study of Scripture (it will not just happen), we will find what we have spent a lifetime in search of.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A Thought

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” John 1:1-2

There are the many, mainly those who turn their noses up at the Church and the Bible, who insist there are too many conflicts within the Bible for it to be taken seriously. They fail to remember, as do many Christians, that (1) Jesus is not a “new” God but is in fact the very Word of God, (2) Jesus states very clearly that “the Father and I are one”, (3) Jesus also states that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”, and (4) the New Testament does not in any way disavow the Old.

There are troublesome passages and books, to be sure, but this only means we must be more forthright and intentional in our engagement in Bible study. It is probably the most important lesson I took from the Benedictines when I visited the monastery in Subiaco last week: don’t just read the words on the page; engage the Word – that is, Christ the Lord. St. Jerome said it very clearly in the early Church: “If you do not know Scripture, you do not know Christ.” Which is to say, if we do not know the Christ of the Scripture, we are in danger of creating for ourselves a “god” in our own image based only on what sounds good to us at a particular time. THAT “god” we create in our own personal image will surely die when we do.

The Word was “with God” from the very beginning. This is the Eternal Life we are offered in Him … and Him alone.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

A Thought

“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers them out of these afflictions.” Psalm 34:19

Afflictions of illness. Afflictions of persecution. Afflictions of doubt. Afflictions of debt. We are rarely without afflictions on one level or another, but we must never surrender to these afflictions as some curse of the Lord or an attempt by the evil one to “get us”. Often we bring afflictions onto ourselves one way or the other, but the divine test comes as we work our way through these challenges; a test to determine what (or Whom) we reach for in our distress. AND we do not often consider that deliverance from these afflictions will not always match what we have in mind for ourselves. It is surrendering to this reality that determines whether our trust is fully placed in the Lord and whether we will allow Him to deliver us from our afflictions on His terms, or whether we will demand our own terms.

Live today with the sure knowledge that the Lord is, in fact, with you. Believe that He will see you through your darkest hours. Know that His deliverance is at hand. Call out to the Lord in your distress – and in your abundance! – so as to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sequestered ... but not really

It is very strange - or ironic - that after my first visit to a monastery (Subiaco Abbey and Academy in Subiaco AR), I returned home with a severe case of pink eye in which one eye was so enflamed and swollen nearly shut. Yet I found my "inner" eye opened to a certain spiritual reality: rank-and-file Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, seem not nearly as attuned to our Lord as we like to believe ourselves to be. And unfairly compared with a Benedictine monastery, one might be inclined to suggest that no realistic comparison can be made. Benedictine monks, after all, are devoted to the religious life. It is, according to our cultural vernacular, their "job" to be religious while we on the outside have "real jobs" which as a matter of professional survival must be our primary focus.

Fair enough, but not really. In the more appropriate context of what is truly important in this life, we can take some very comforting - and radical, according to our contemporary society - lessons from the Benedictines that will serve us very well not only within our own family structures but, perhaps more importantly, within our church family structures as well. If it is true, as some have suggested, that undue stress is a precursor to poor health, it might be notable that what we are entirely too familiar with, as stress factors go, is virtually unknown in the monastic community.

None of this is to say that such a life is ideal or that anyone can simply choose such a life, of course, because even monks are human beings with the same inclinations. They live within a physical structure of flesh and bone just as we do. They work as we work, and they have conflicts among their own monastic families as we do in our biological families - and church families. Surely to goodness they have the same lustful inclinations toward the flesh as we do. What they also have, which most of us may be lacking, is a clear calling, spiritual gifts you and I cannot begin to imagine, and a sense of divine purpose equal to none.

The monastic movement came about in the early 6th century and is credited to St. Benedict of Nursia who, strangely enough, founded monasteries in Subiaco, Italy, about 40 miles to the east of Rome. St. Benedict was a child of nobility and could have easily found his life as one of privilege and leisure, but clearly the Lord had something else in mind. It is said by Pope St. Gregory who wrote a biography of sorts, however, that Benedict showed signs of piety in early adulthood and is believed to have been led away to what would become to this day an enduring 1500-year tradition of contemplative prayer and service, after surrendering his nobles rights and substantial estates.

Some sources suggest there is no evidence to support the idea that St. Benedict intended to found a religious order, that the Order of St. Benedict came much later than the man himself. What Benedict did do with consideration intention is to write The Rule of Benedict which endures to this day. In its English translation it is a mere 96 pages and is more inclined to guidance rather than to hard-and-fast rules for every situation that may arise. And while you and I may feel some "pity" for the monks who seem sequestered from the "real world" and "trapped" within a community governed by overbearing and unrealistic rules and regulations, one cannot help but to discover through The Rulethe incredible spiritual freedom that seems to come from a life totally devoted to the Lord, His will, and His way.

For instance, it was noted by author Kathleen Norris in her book, The Cloister Walk, that the Liturgy of the Hours, the Benedictines' devotional prayer time, is recognized as "the sanctification of time ... In our culture, time can seem like an enemy. It chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease. But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it." This liturgical time is "poetic time oriented toward PROCESS rather than PRODUCTIVITY. [It is time] willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than always pushing to get the job done." The "job", of course, being to cover a certain amount of biblical literature in a certain and predefined amount of time.

The main premise of the monastic life, however, is in learning to live an entirely Christ-centered existence within a communal setting. The Lord is not incidental to anything; He is primary to everything, but everything is within that communal context - that is, the absolute reality of living and dealing with all kinds of people. For instance, chapter one of The Rule states: "It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind is that of Cenobites, that is, the monastic, who live under a rule and an Abbot.
The second kind is that of Anchorites, or Hermits, that is, of those who, no longer in the first fervor of their conversion, but taught by long monastic practice and the help of many brethren, have already learned to fight against the devil; and going forth from the rank of their brethren well trained for single combat in the desert, they are able, with the help of God, to cope single-handed without the help of others, against the vices of the flesh and evil thoughts.
But a third and most vile class of monks is that of Sarabaites, who have been tried by no rule under the hand of a master, as gold is tried in the fire (cf Prov 27:21); but, soft as lead, and still keeping faith with the world by their works, they are known to belie God by their tonsure. Living in two's and three's, or even singly, without a shepherd, enclosed, not in the Lord's sheepfold, but in their own, the gratification of their desires is law unto them; because what they choose to do they call holy, but what they dislike they hold to be unlawful.
But the fourth class of monks is that called Landlopers, who keep going their whole life long from one province to another, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. It is better to pass all these over in silence than to speak of their most wretched life.
Therefore, passing these over, let us go on with the help of God to lay down a rule for that most valiant kind of monks, the Cenobites."

It would be easy to suggest Benedict is insisting that those who reject the monastic life are unworthy of spiritual consideration, but I think he was speaking much more broadly to the WHOLE CHURCH and not to any single monastery. Communal living is a reality for us all. Even as Benedict lived in a cave, he insisted in his Rule that hospitality to guests was of the utmost importance. Monks are not sequestered from the world. As was my observation at Subiaco, they are in fact praying for the world. In the most profound sense, they are truly and fully invoking the Lord's Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. After my first session with them in afternoon prayers, I was left with a keen sense that if these and other monks the world over were not stopping to pray and contemplate the Psalms, the devil would have already turned this world upside down. I was left with an incredible sense of well-being that these devoted men were themselves the "gatekeepers" against whom the very "gates of Hades shall not prevail" (Matthew 16:18).

The Benedictines are not miracle workers in any sense of the word even though there are miracles attributed to St. Benedict which led to his veneration. They pray, as Jesus commands all His faithful to pray, that the Father's will be done - "on earth as it is in heaven". They contemplate in silence, in the "poetry of time", to allow themselves to be permeated by the Holy Scripture rather than to brag that they've read the whole Bible in a year. They are most mindful of the little things even as we are reminded of the big things that threaten to overwhelm us. Above all else, they offer to us a "glimpse of who we can be when we remember to love" ... to love the Lord God first "with all we have and with all we are".

The Lord bless the Benedictines of Subiaco AR as they have surely blessed me and so many others.

In it to Win it for ...?

Exodus 20:1-20
Matthew 21:33-46

There was a business leadership study published in 2001 in Harvard Business Review ("Level 5 Leadership: triumph of humility and fierce resolve") that studied Fortune 500 companies and how "good" companies became "great" companies. The original intent of the study was to downplay top executives' roles and focus instead on the dynamics that played a role in the transitions from mediocrity to exceeding all reasonable expectations. The study intended to consider other factors to try and determine how ALL companies could share in the same success story - or write their very own.

It was finally determined, however, that there was a particular type of leader at the very top of the hierarchies of 11 of 1435 Fortune 500 companies that made the grade. These 11 were not a mere sampling; these 11 companies out of 1435 were the only ones that went from ho-hum "to the stars" - AND - sustained that phenomenal growth for 15 years or more.

The one common factor each of these 11 companies shared was what is called "level 5" leadership. Taking into consideration all other factors that contributed to these companies' "rags to riches" stories, it was found of the other 1424 companies in the Fortune 500 that this "level 5" leadership was distinctly absent.

Level 4 leadership, ironically, is what we are typically more familiar with and drawn to. These business leaders make headlines, write books; and are highly sought after for leadership seminars, business roundtable discussions - and other competitors. People in and outside the business world want to know what these leaders think and say, and we lay people are truly inspired by many of them. The problem, however, is that these "leaders" were not really "leaders" in the truest sense of the word. They are exceptional managers, of course, and they are very well educated and accomplished in their fields. They are also very focused and driven to succeed at all cost - but for their own personal accomplishment.

There is one thing lacking in these 1424 Fortune 500 managers that is clearly evident in the other 11 accomplished leaders who took their companies to the top, beyond, and held them there: that one particular attribute is humility. For these genuine leaders, it was not about self-promotion or self-accomplishment. It was not about enhancing their own resumes for the next big thing that lay ahead for them. These 11 successful leaders were just as driven, just as focused, and just as educated and accomplished as all the others, but their drive was toward a different end that never really came to be, and their focus was entirely on the well-being of the companies they served - "served" being the operative word. The companies did not serve these leaders' purposes. And even as they were actively engaged in the leadership and management of their respective companies, they were simultaneously preparing their eventual successors so that when their time at the helm was up, the companies would not suffer during the transition. The strength and well-being of the companies these leaders served was the entire focus of their work. It was never about them personally or even professionally, and yet the rewards came incidentally.

We all want - and need - to believe we matter. We all want to know we have touched someone or something in such a profound way that inspires others to achievement. We need to know we did much more than to simply exist. So we can understand all these corporate executives and their drive to make their marks in the world. Though we may never aspire to such heights - and few of us will - we still would like to know that somehow, some way, long after we are gone from this world, that we will be remembered in a positive, uplifting way. It is unfortunate that too often, however, we confuse "personal achievement" with "bearing fruit" because we forget who we are - and Who we belong to - and why we as People of YHWH are set apart from the rest of the world in the first place.

The tenants in Jesus' parable (Mt 21:33-46) forgot why the vineyard was leased and entrusted to their care in the landowner's absence. They mistakenly came to believe the vineyard and its fruits were only for their consumption. They forgot that the vineyard belonged to Someone else and that no matter the length and depth of their efforts, ownership of that vineyard would never transfer to them. They had no rightful claim to it except by the terms of the lease which would surely include their own compensation and stake in the harvest of the vineyard. They decided the vineyard was theirs to do with as they pleased and when the landowner sent his own servants - and eventually his own son - to collect what was rightfully due him, they resisted to the point of destroying those who were sent by the landowner. They were willing to succeed in their evil endeavor AT ALL COST for their own personal benefit. As Jesus points out in the parable, however, the evil tenants - because they were focused on the vineyard and not the fruit - would eventually be destroyed themselves.

Jesus was obviously talking about Israel, the people of faith whose care had been entrusted to the religious leaders. The religious leaders, however, came to believe their esteemed positions were somehow deserved. Their favored status gave them a mistaken sense of "elitism" in which they came to believe all they had at their hands was rightfully theirs to claim, to own, and to do with as they pleased. They forgot that they had been "given" nothing and that their personal benefit or achievement would be incidental to what they were themselves willing to give to others. They had lost all sense of humility and sense of genuine - and divine - purpose.

Throughout Israel's history, we are well aware of the prophets - the "servants" - of the Landowner who were sent to Israel at "harvest time" to collect what was due the Landowner. Rather than give up their favored status, however, these "level 4" leaders were only interested in what they believed they had coming to them - what they believed they were "owed". They mistakenly came to believe the vineyard - Israel - was theirs for the taking and that they were entitled to any and all fruit that would come forth. They wanted to live only for themselves, and they believed Israel existed for their own benefit. So throughout Israel's history, prophets who were sent to call the whole of Israel to repentance were destroyed by the religious leaders and the people who were unwilling to concede anything that personally favored them and their own selfish purposes.

Remember previously, however, that I suggested that biblical interpretation must be read with an eye toward the past but not as a mere matter of determining who was at fault thousands of years ago. If we believe in the Holy Spirit as the essence of a benevolent God who continues to speak to His people today through Holy Scripture - that one true standard we have - then it is incumbent upon us to read and interpret Scripture not according to what we think Jesus MEANT 2000 years ago - but what He MEANS today to His beloved Bride the Church. The WHOLE Church.

So if it is true that believers are a "holy priesthood" called forth to "offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5), then we must necessarily believe Jesus is speaking through His parable to all believers who mistakenly claim a favored position in the Church and have come to believe the Church exists for them and their personal endeavors. We who are entirely focused on the Church as our personal "turf" and not on the fruit we are required to bear as "tenants" of the Landowner's rightful property are the ones who are being implicated and indicted. If we view the Church as our private chapel or "country club" that is to be used only for our personal desires - or only when it suits us - will either repent ... or be "crushed by the Chief Cornerstone" who is Christ our Lord - AND - our Judge.

We are required to be "level 5" leaders ourselves, and we are called forth and set apart from the rest of the world to be driven and focused on our Lord's purposes. We are required to be as well-educated in Holy Scripture as these business leaders were in management theory. And like these "level 5" leaders, we are to be all about the well-being of the CHURCH and have the faith to believe the rewards will come at the leisure and pleasure of our benevolent and Holy Father.

I have often been asked why I insist upon celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday "like the Catholics" instead of every month "like the Methodists". It is for this reason and this reason alone: we are to be constantly reminded of why we gather in the first place - AND - for Whom. It is not so we can walk away feeling good that we have perhaps accomplished something like feeling good about ourselves. It is entirely about feeling good about Him. The Landowner. The Master. The Savior. The Redeemer. And His SOLE purpose: to produce fruit. And when we do this, we will be aptly rewarded ... according to the terms set forth by the Landowner. And no other.