Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Faith, football, the Media, and Tim Tebow

"The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God; for it is written, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.'  ... For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe."  1 Corinthians 1:18-19, 21

As a church pastor and lifelong Christian (and, sad to say, part-time disciple), I must freely admit that Tim Tebow's public displays of his affection for our Lord both inspire me and make me a little uncomfortable.  Tebow inspires me to be more vocal and more intentional about the faith that informs my actions and guides my thoughts.  At the same time, my cynical heart is waiting for the other shoe to drop.  You see, I grew up Roman Catholic.  Mine was a very small parish that shared a priest with two other area parishes, and one of the other parishes provided the housing for the pastor.  Needless to say, we did not see him quite as often as that one parish did.  One priest did try to generate interest in a youth group in my home parish, but I do not recall that it lasted long or even went beyond boxing.  And I never - NEVER - was made to feel uncomfortable in any way nor did our parish priests ever try to be alone with any of us kids.  They all did their priestly duties openly and faithfully.

Imagine, then, my utter disappointment when the scandals hit the media so many years later.  Imagine my extreme distress when these scandals were made public at about the time I was trying to reconcile myself with the Church after a long absence.  Imagine my broken heart and utter disgust when while attending Mass at a parish in New Mexico, the parish priest had announced to the congregation that their "portion" of a settlement made in one of the abuse cases came to $$$$ (I don't recall the exact amount - in fact, I think I had an out-of-body experience while this was being announced).  Though I have attended Mass here and there since that time, I had long ago aligned myself with another denomination and eventually became a pastor.

It is not for me to question Mr. Tebow's faith, and it is certainly not for me to decide whether his public displays are appropriate or genuine.  In fact, a recent response Mr. Tebow made to yet another critic drove home his very point: public people don't hesitate to pay homage to spouses, parents, or other men and women who have influenced them and continue to do so.  Why is it so strange to us for Tebow to devote such attention to his relationship with Lord of the Sabbath, the Savior of the world, the "Word made flesh"? Why do even church folk (or maybe it's just me) squirm a little when he makes such a public show of his faith?

Clearly the secular media do not get it.  Tebow gets headlines because he is also a talented athlete in addition to being a faithful Christian.  Listening to some "talking head" news show this morning, they were actually debating about whether Tebow needs to tone down his "religious rhetoric".  What they obviously cannot see - or will not see, according to St. Paul's words to the Corinthians - is that there is nothing rhetorical about what Tebow does and what he believes.  Thus is it not for us, the media, the NFL, or anyone else to decide whether he should "tone it down" anymore than it is anyone's business whether or not the Duggars should maybe tie some tubes and stop making babies.  Isn't it funny that such matters of faith are debated by persons who do not have such a dog in the fight?  Indeed are these really "issues" at all worthy of public debate?

We have to remember this is the same secular media which celebrates its freedom to slander public figures by quoting "unnamed" sources, thus avoiding the scrutiny that may likely bring them very close to charges of libel.  This is the same secular media that will violate your freedoms and mine in pursuit of their freedom of press by camping out on your front lawns and harassing you and your family for a headline or a sound bite, driving you to the point of insanity (ask any celebrity).  This is the same secular media which wants the world to know that a US senator might have been acting inappropriately in a men's room in an airport, but they want to make light of a professional athlete giving glory to the Lord for the success in his life.   

We should expect no less from the secular world.  The Cross is "foolishness", the birth of Jesus is a mythical "fairy tale", and the Day of the Lord when Christ will return is a means by which to keep the "sheeple" in line.  So says a world which lives in utter darkness and celebrates chaos as order.  The people of the Church, however, may look to Tebow not as a point of curiosity but as a man of faith who is excited about his love for our Lord!  The faith of the contemporary Church is tepid and lukewarm at best because church membership (in very general terms, of course) has more to do with hanging out with like-minded people in a common setting.  Genuine, heart-felt worship of the Lord is merely incidental to the gathering. 

This is why so many Christians feel free NOT to attend worship.  There is no spiritually compelling reason to be there.  It is socially respectable to be a member of a local church, but it is a social curiosity to actually put all else aside in favor of every opportunity to worship in community formally and with other believers.  Society would better understand our desire to fish, hunt, play golf, or watch a ball game rather than attend Sabbath worship.  Society, for too many of us, makes the rules and sets the standards; and people of faith fall within those standards and willingly abides by those rules, ironically, in the name of the very grace by which they claim to have been "saved".

The other shoe may well drop on Tebow sooner or later (he is still human, after all), and the "dark world" will only celebrate the hypocrisy of faith.  The people of the Church, however, would do well to remind one another that there is only One who is "good" (Matthew 19:17); and Goodness will always prevail for those who strive for it, embrace it, and actively engage in the relationship to which we are all called.  We are not perfect by any means and we should not try to convince the world of darkness that we are somehow better than they who play in their own waste; we need only remind them of where our hope comes from and why we continue to look heavenward.

A Thought

“He was in the world and the world was made through Him, and yet the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.”                   - John 1:10-11

The visions we have of the Day of the Lord, that Day when He will return to judge the world and call His own home, are big and grand and cataclysmic.  “Coming in clouds”, sending out the angels, and the other apocalyptic visions from The Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel seem to make it clear that those who did not believe will be fully, completely, and suddenly convinced; and those who believed in a concept but never fully embraced the Lord as Savior of the World will discover the Truth.  Advent teaches us to prepare always for that Day.

Yet Jesus also reminds us that He is already among us, and He very clearly tells us where He is and who best represents Him in the world even now: those who hunger, those who thirst, those who are naked, sick, and imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-36).  These will be the manner by which the faithful will be judged as “sheep” who followed the Great Shepherd, or “goats” who made their own way.  The Day of the Lord will finally and completely declare to the world those who did and did not receive Him not in a single moment but throughout our entire lives.

Remember today Whose you are.  You have been claimed, and a colossal price was paid for your redemption.  We must live to expect Him and so expect to live in Him.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Thought

“’Comfort, O comfort My people’, says your God.  ‘Speak tenderly to [My people], and cry to [them] that [they] have served [their] term, that [their] penalty is paid, that [they] have received from the Lord’s hand double for all [their] sins.’”  Isaiah 40:1-2

This was a message to the people who had endured the pain and humiliation of the Exile, that period when the people of Israel had been driven from their homeland, that period during which the Holy God had turned His back on His people after they had refused to live like His people but had chosen instead to live only for themselves.  They had been punished, they had repented of their rebellion against the Lord, and so they were being sent back home according to the Lord’s Covenant.

We are reminded of the weakness of our humanity and the strength of our desires according to the flesh in such passages, but we are also reminded of the Lord’s enduring affection for His people and – most importantly – His affection for His Covenant, the Lord’s intent to see His Word endure throughout the ages.  Many died in their sin, in their rebellion against the Lord.  That “remnant” of the faithful which was left after the period of the Exile were the penitent few who were allowed to return home and rebuild.

We must remember that the Lord is patient with us as we are with our own children, but even His patience has limits.  More than this, however, is the certain promise that His Word will endure.  Those who embrace this Eternal Word will live for as long as the Word endures!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Breaking Dawn, Part 1: Team Charlie - father of the bride

When the "Twilight" series hit the public by way of the books, my wife jumped in with both feet and has thoroughly enjoyed all of them.  The movies which came later she also enjoyed but like almost every movie based on a book, the movie is usually somewhat of a let-down because there is nuance in the written word that cannot always be adequately expressed otherwise.  This is not to say that all movies based on books are always bad, but it does usually seem to be the case that if the book really was so good the reader should not be in a big state of anticipation for the movie to "finally" come out.  No matter how you slice it, it just will not be the same.  The movie will never - NEVER - be better than the original book.

I have seen all the "Twilight" movies so far because my wife so enjoys them, but I am of the "old school" when it comes to vampires and werewolves.  You know the old vampire: fangs, sleeping during the day in coffins, and turning into bats as the preferred means of travel (rather than running at the speed of light).  And werewolves walked on their hind legs and did not completely take on the appearance of a dog; there was some element of humanness still left in them.  They also did not communicate telepathically nor did they run in packs.  Maybe it's evolution, maybe it's regional.  Who knows?  Just grant to the "Twilight" author a great deal of poetic license and latitude to tell her stories as she wishes.  Who can argue with success??

I believe it was the second installment of the movie series when "Team Edward" (the vampire) and "Team Jacob" (the werewolf) came into being since "Bella" was compelled to choose between the two as her love interest.  Personally I was signed on to "Team Alice" because she's cute, perky, and much friendlier than "Rosalie" (but I never got a t-shirt or a coffee mug to state my preference).  All this changed, however, when the latest movie installment in the series came out and I took my wife to see it.  I have since had a change of heart.  I'm still a fan of "Alice" (though "Rosalie" softened up quite a bit and is clearly pro-life!) but as the father of a bride myself, I am now more appropriately aligned with "Team Charlie".

Nearly every father sooner or later will be forced to let go of his daughter.  I have once and will again.  Some will give their daughters over to be brides of Christ through service in the Church as nuns.  Others may see their daughters hand their lives over to the Lord through missionary work as lay persons in dangerous parts of the world.  Still others, most perhaps, will hand their daughters over to husbands as both will vow in the presence of the Almighty and witnesses to "forsake all others".  Though they do not cease to be sons and daughters, the primary relationship necessarily shifts from parents to spouse.  Mothers usually have a hard time surrendering their sons, but I think fathers have a more difficult time handing over their daughters.  The reasons are many and are as specific and as coherent as the Occupy movement's beef with the 1-percenters (yes, you read sarcasm); we fathers cannot quite put our fingers on the objections, but we know they are there ... and they are real.  We fathers never quite expect, as our daughters enter into this new covenant, that they will be taken completely from us.  They are, though - and perhaps necessarily so.

"Charlie's" frustration in the latest movie installment was as palpable as any emotion I have ever felt.  "Bella", as far as "Charlie" knew, had fallen ill on her honeymoon, and this illness had delayed her return because flying was not a good idea while "Bella" was sick.  So "Charlie" only knew his beloved daughter was not well.  Frustration #1: not being able to "rescue" his daughter in her time of need and being forced to trust the new husband to give her the care and consideration she requires.  However, complications set in for "Charlie" when "Bella" later called to inform him that she would be going to Switzerland to a clinic.  When "Charlie" blew a gasket and insisted on going to Switzerland to see about his child, "Bella" then told him it was more like a "spa" than a clinic in a vain effort to calm him down.  When that did not work, she then told her dad explicitly not to meet her in Switzerland.  Frustration #2 = heartbreak: daddy, you're out.

I am going to try to finish my thoughts without giving away too much of the movie (which I did NOT enjoy after that moment!).  Needless to say, it was in that moment when I became aligned by no choice of my own to Team Charlie; the father of the bride who was told in no uncertain terms that he was then, and would forevermore be, a secondary figure in the new family dynamic. 

It is a harsh fact of life that there can only be one primary relationship especially when it comes to married couples.  Even when children come into the picture, husband and wife must tend to their own relationship intentionally and purposefully even as the new and very dependent little ones vie for attention and much-needed care.  It is sad to say that if children (or any others) do become primary, the relationship between husband and wife is at risk.  Early on, such relationships become even more twisted, convoluted, and challenging when parents and in-laws become overly aggressive in inserting themselves into the married relationship of their children regardless of their noble intentions.  I allowed such an insertion early in my marriage almost to its detriment.  Once a line had been crossed, however, I was left with only one choice: my wife; "forsaking all others".  That is, if I intended to stay married to her. 

So I had been forced to tell my own mother where and when to step off, but the force did not come from my wife; it was the right thing to do.  It came from a situation that began to spin out of control because I tried to maintain two primary relationships.  It should not have come to that, but it did because I did not take my stand early on; and like most parents, my mom did not realize she was injecting herself into the relationship inappropriately.  Worse still, it was I who had allowed my mother so far into the relationship because perhaps I divulged much more information than she was entitled to.  After all, I was a married man who had freely entered into a new covenant of my own, and that life was entitled to substantial privacy.  I was the one compelled by Scripture to "leave father and mother and cling ONLY to his wife".  I had miserably failed at that but because I lacked the sufficient maturity to do the right thing at the time, I very nearly damaged not one but TWO relationships because I failed to embrace my wife as my life.  I failed to realize that two primary relationships are not possible just as Jesus teaches that it is not possible to serve two masters.  

To my knowledge, my married daughter has not become a vampire (I've seen her in sun light; she does not sparkle).  What I do know is that she has entered into a covenant with her husband - a covenant in which no parent is allowed.  So daddy's out.  I will always be the first man in her life who gave her a diamond, but I sincerely hope that in spite of all the mistakes I made that I managed to give her something much more enduring.  It is not easy to let go but as much as her mother and I were trying to prepare her to be an independent and self-sufficient woman, it surely must be that the Lord was also preparing me for the inevitable - that one day she would in some tangible and decisive way actually declare her independence and move on.   

So for as much as I thought I was backing out, apparently I was asserting too much.  So now, like "Charlie", I'll sit by the phone, take what I can get, and be happy with it.  Even when I know something may not be quite right, I have to fight the impulse to correct it for my daughter's sake because she is no longer daddy's girl; she is someone's wife.  Daddy's out.

A Thought

“In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: surely God has appointed the one as well as the other so that man can find out nothing that will come after him.”  Ecclesiastes 7:14

Each day, whether good or bad, is appointed by the Lord Himself for the Lord’s own purposes.  The author seems to suggest the days we are confronted with are intentionally designed with an element of divine mystery so that rather than getting caught up in trying to control our environments and our days as pleasing to ourselves, we might surrender a significant element of our lives and depend on the Lord for our tomorrow.

Does this mean the Lord micromanages our day-to-day, hour-to-hour activity?  I don’t think so because if this were true, hunger would not exist as the Lord would “force” those with abundance to share abundantly.  There would be no homelessness as the Lord would “force” the faithful to open our homes to strangers.  No, there is something bigger at stake, and it is our willingness to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Lord in our daily living and our day-to-day and hour-to-hour decision-making processes. 

Maybe there would be less hunger and less homelessness and fuller pews on days of worship if the people of the Lord were to truly and fully trust each day as “appointed” by the Lord, good or bad, for the Lord’s own purposes; “prosperity” so that we may have more to share rather than more to hoard or to spend for ourselves on things we do not need, and “adversity” when we get a little too full our ourselves so that we may be humbled back into the Lord’s own purposes.

Let the Lord have this day.  There is something powerful in surrender especially when we realize the Lord truly wants what is best not for “me” personally or “you” personally but for all His beloved, His Holy Church.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

1st Sunday of Advent - 2011

Mark 13:24-37

Advent, from the Latin “adventus” which means “coming”, can be an awkward time for worship planning because many of the Christmas hymns and songs we are familiar with and love to sing speak of the "baby" Jesus, His birth, and all the joyous and hopeful emotions that wondrous event should bring.  The Incarnation of the Christ is among the holiest of Holy Days on the Church's calendar - and rightly so.  We think of the Almighty God, King of all creation whose face even Moses was not allowed to see, and yet this same Almighty God humbled Himself to share in our humanity through Christ so that we may dare hope to one day share in His divinity.  Our journey of faith leads us to that Day.

That Day has yet to be, however.  That is the Day Advent calls us to prepare for.  Indeed, how much preparation do any of us put into getting ready for an event that has already taken place?  How much preparation is required, for instance, in getting ready for a junior prom when one is a senior in college?  How much preparation is necessary for a parade that has already passed by?  How much preparation does it take to get ready for a "sweet 16" birthday party for a child who is about to turn 25?  Advent compels us to remember a glorious past, of course, but Advent also calls us to something wonderful which is still ahead - and THIS, my dear friends, is what Advent calls us to prepare for - not only for the Holy Day of Christmas but far beyond! 

So none of this is to say we should not always - ALWAYS - be mindful of that Glorious Day of Incarnation when the Lord was revealed to us in such a humble way, but that event will not repeat itself except by how we reveal our own faith and joy to the world by what we do as a testament of what He did. 

So - we are called to look ahead for what is to come. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "... in every way you have been enriched in Him, in speech and knowledge of every kind - just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you - so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:5-8). 

The "Day of the Lord", clearly beyond the birth of the Holy Child, the Day which has yet to be revealed but is just beyond the horizon of our journey, an "end" we cannot see and cannot know - and yet we dare to hope as we are commanded by Christ to that "End" to "keep awake!"  In other words, WATCH FOR IT and EXPECT IT as if it will be tomorrow – because that time is imminent!

The speech Mark shares with us follows Jesus' departure from the Temple.  As Jesus and His disciples were leaving the Temple, we are told that "one of His disciples said to Him, 'Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!'  [This disciple was surely amazed at the sheer size of the stones themselves, not to mention the structures these stones created!  That, or he was trying to see how impressed Jesus might be.]  And Jesus answered and said to him, 'Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down" (Mark 13:1b-2).  In other words, as great and as magnificent as they were they would not last, so don’t get too attached – and don’t be too impressed.  But the Temple must also not be left standing as if it were a meaningless monument.  

It occurs to me that even as we look at what is right in front of us, we can often be trapped in the past by the accomplishment of what we see.  This particular disciple was awed by an accomplishment of man, but he seemed to be confused with the difference between “the end” and “the means” to an end.  We can only imagine the colossal structure the Temple must have been just as we see great buildings even today, including some really magnificent churches.  Sometimes when passing through Little Rock, I take a gander at that great, big, impressive Immanuel Baptist Church which sits right off the interstate in Little Rock or the equally impressive Pentecostal Church that sits right off the interstate in North Little Rock and wonder at the resources spent to make those churches possible as I marvel at the structures.  And yet “not one stone will be left upon another”. 

Like many who have expressed such sentiments, I also cannot help but to think of the hunger and homeless issues that could have been addressed with what was spent - and continues to be spent - for maintenance and utilities alone!  At the same time, our human minds can think of no better way to show the world the majesty of our Lord and create a place worthy of Him because when we enter into the sanctuary of the Lord, "awe" should be foremost in our minds and hearts.  Nothing less will do.

Yet Jesus seems to indicate there is a risk for us with such structures, these man-made monuments to our own desires and visions even if the intentions are noble; just as there is great risk when we continue to engage in such things and practices that celebrate the past instead of anticipating the future; seeing the past as “the end” rather than as a “means” to our future – learning from history so that we may continue to journey forward.  It is as Helen Keller once expressed so well: "When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look back so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened [ahead of] us."   

We tend to get stuck in “remembrance” in spite of Jesus Himself calling us forward into an active state of "anticipation"!  But how can we see and actively anticipate the future if we are stuck in the present?  Or worse - in the past?  How can we actively anticipate and celebrate the coming of the Lord - that Day which has yet to be - if we do nothing in preparation for that Great Day but instead choose to spend time in the moment, in the present while remembering the past?  How do we give due diligence to all that Advent calls us into if we allow it to end according to a date on a calendar? 

Throughout this great lesson Mark records for us, Jesus does nothing to glorify the past – but He does use the past to challenge us to move forward!  And it should not escape our notice that He does not mention His birth as a festival of any kind - OR - an event to be embraced!  Yet we do celebrate that Glorious Day because we recognize the HOPE that has been given to all of humanity in His birth: "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:17).  So we were given that great gift of HOPE by the Incarnation, that time when we would actually come face-to-face with Heaven's Glorious Prince.  And as He walked among us and taught us and healed us and blessed us and fed us, He did so to strengthen and equip us for the Journey which is ahead – not exclusively as a remembrance or celebration of the past. 

If the theme of the first Sunday of Advent is “hope”, then our hope must extend beyond “hoping” this Christmas will be better than the last one.  Our “hope” must carry us beyond December 25 because Christ our Hope calls and leads us beyond December 25.  Our “hope”, dear friends”, is the “hope” of that which is yet to be revealed.  It is the “hope” that heals and encourages and feeds and teaches and motivates.  The Hope of the Holy Church is not behind us – God save us from our past!  He is ahead of us, leading the faithful to His Glorious Future … into Eternal Life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Thought

“I wept because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll, or to look at it.  But one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep.  Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.’” Revelation 5:4-5

Maybe it is that the vision of St. John serves to remind us not only that “these things must come to pass” but to also help us to remember where our hope truly is; that in spite of the world around us that seems to be coming apart at the seams as more and more people – perhaps including our own children – are walking away from the Lord and His Church, He alone is still the only One worthy to reveal the Last Day … and by His decree and His unwavering and uncompromising love for us will still step up in our place and do what we were – and are – unable to do for ourselves.

Our absence is not excused by any means!  Rather, we are shown that the Lord’s own purposes will prevail in spite of us … or perhaps because of us.  Make no mistake, however; the Lord will overcome and those who endure to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fear, Love, and Faith

Matthew 25:14-30

 John Wesley, in his sermon "The Nature of Enthusiasm", had this to say: "Beware of imagining you shall obtain the end without using the means conducive to it.  God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason to think He will.  Therefore constantly and carefully use all those means which he has appointed to be the ordinary channels of His grace.  Use every means which either reason or Scripture recommends, as conducive ... to the obtaining or the increasing any of the gifts of God.  Thus expect a daily growth in that pure and holy religion which is ... the 'wisdom' of God and the 'power' of God."

In patriotic American language, then, the saying is sure: "Freedom is not free".  There is always a 'cost' related to that which we receive whether it is the "blessings of liberty", "free" health care, or "free" samples of a particular product; there is always a 'price' to be paid - it is only a matter of who actually pays the price.  More than this, however, is the word "free" in absolute terms: we are a freed people, but I don't think we really understand what that means - AND - how it relates to our connection to our God.  I also think we are never truly "free" - I submit that we are now, always have been, and always will be beholden to something either imposed or freely - if absent-mindedly - entered into.

When John Wesley relates to the "wisdom of God" and the "power of God", he must surely use these terms in their appropriate biblical context: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;”  Psalm 111:10 ... and ... “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  Everything we have and everything we are is devoted to that love - OR - it is not.  There is no gray area, and there is no in-between.

In the 16th century Machiavelli asked this question in a piece he wrote that still is looked upon today in political philosophy and governing a people: "Is it better to be feared ... or to be loved?"  He was asking the question in terms of what it would take for a prince to govern effectively.  Italy was being overrun by barbarians; and popes, kings, and queens were battling for supremacy in the various regions.  Based on his political and military experiences and observations, he was writing about what it would take in order for a prince to gain control - AND - maintain control.  “A prince should wish for both [fear and love]”, he says, “but because it is difficult to reconcile [the two], I hold that it is much more secure to be feared than to be loved if one of them must be given up.”

This leads us to the Parable of the Talents ... and particularly the third slave who had what seemed to be the appropriate level of "fear".  In fact he says so: "I was afraid".  But what we can also see as clearly is that the third slave's "fear" of his lord all but paralyzed him so much so that he was unable to fully engage in a relationship with his master.  There was only one element of his master's being that he was familiar with: "Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed ..."  So because of his ignorance of his master's overall being, he failed to do with what little had been entrusted to his care what his master would have expected from him.

The first two slaves did not have that problem.  They took what was given to them - "each according to his ability" - and they made the most of it.  It should be notable, as well, that the second slave did not begrudge the reality that the first slave had been given more.  The second slave did not look around to see who had what or who had more; he was, like the first slave, entirely about the business of his master as it pertained to him and the master's expectations from him.  Because of his faithfulness, then, his reward was equal to that of the first slave: "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, so I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master."

So what?  We are not 'slaves'.  We are not 'owned' by anyone or anything.  Or are we?  Is the 'freedom' we perceive to be our own for real, or is it only a self-indulgent illusion?  And within this concept of 'freedom', be it spiritual or "Amur-kin", can we really appreciate "fear" in its truest sense - AND - can we embrace "love" in the fullness of its terms?  The short answer is - NO, we cannot; and the reason we cannot is because our knowledge of our Master tends to be one-dimensional.  That is to say, we can more reasonably appreciate only one attribute of the Master's being because we pick and choose what we will and will not do, think, or believe.  It doesn't seem to matter that it is written right before us in Scripture.  If "it" does not fit into our lives, personal preferences, and conditions of culture, we dismiss it in the name of "grace".

The same cannot be said of the Master's knowledge of us, and Jesus seems to make this point as well when He points out that before the master left on his journey he entrusted to his slaves what was precious to him - the talents - "to each according to his ability".  So the master knew these slaves well enough that he knew who could be entrusted with more and who should not be so overburdened.  There is no indication the master thought less of the slave who received only one talent; he only gave him what he was confident the third slave could handle.

Now in order to fully appreciate the utter failure of the third slave, we should understand the "talent" as a unit of currency.  It was said to be equal to roughly 6000 denarii; a single denarius was about equal to a day's wage for the typical worker.  So even though the third slave got only "one" talent, we need to appreciate the contextual reality of the enormous sum he had been entrusted with.  Though it was less than the others, the one talent nevertheless required the utmost "respect".

How does this translate to us?  Clearly we can see that Jesus is referring to His eventual Ascension into Heaven - and inevitable return.  Once He was to leave this earth, He would entrust to His followers - those who claimed to "love" Him - something of immeasurable value; something from which the Lord will expect a reasonable return ... and notice this in today's monetary terms.  If we could not somehow double our Master's investment according to what has been entrusted to our care, He would be ok with our handing it over to the bank where it would draw "interest".  Not much in terms of what we know today of a simple savings account return, but it is a return nonetheless.  It is certainly better than nothing!

We cannot forget Jesus' restoration of Peter as recorded in John 21.  Recall that Peter had failed Jesus in His final hours on this earth.  The last Jesus had seen of Peter involved Peter cursing and denying his relationship with Jesus, and the last Peter had seen of Jesus was His being handed over in shackles like a common criminal.  When perhaps Jesus needed Peter the most, Peter failed.  And then he fled.

So the Resurrected Christ is sitting on the shore after Peter and the others had had a bad night of fishing.  Jesus instructed them to cast the net on the "right side" of the boat, "and they were not able to draw the net in because of the multitude of fish".  Once they all realized Who this was standing on the shore, Peter jumped into the sea in his haste to hurry and get to Jesus!  The others, of course, brought the boat and the net full of fish in. 

After they ate, Jesus then posed His question to Peter: "Do you love Me?"  Peter says yes, of course, and Jesus instructs him to "feed My lambs", "tend My sheep", and the third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves the Lord, Jesus says, "feed My sheep".  Through this we can see the "rubber meeting the road"; that is, Peter is being handed his measure of "talent".  He is being told specifically - and yet in non-specific terms - what is to be expected of him in the Lord's absence. 

So it is not enough to merely say "I love you, Lord" and feel that love only in terms of what we can expect in return - Peter obviously needed to be absolved of his failure during Jesus' trial and was willing to do anything to assuage his guilt.  There is a necessary element of "fear" involved - by what "fear" compels us to do in terms of "respect".  He is the Lord, the Almighty.  He is the Prince of Heaven itself, and He will return one day to claim His own.  And when that Day comes - not "if" - there will be a reckoning.  And the simple account is going to be in terms of whether we "loved" the Lord enough to "respect" His command to "feed" and "tend" His sheep, His flock with the "talents" entrusted to our care.

Peter's accounting of what had been entrusted to him will be the Church itself.  What will be ours?    

Friday, November 11, 2011

Abortion: the moral poverty

"America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father's role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts -- a child -- as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners. Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being's entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign." (Mother Theresa -- "Notable and Quotable," Wall Street Journal, 2/25/94, p. A14)

As American society continues to crumble as it searches for its moral footing, as the Church struggles to be relevant within this disorder, and as we watch violence perpetuate itself in the streets amongst our young people, one cannot help but to wonder if perhaps we have imparted to the next generation the relative if questionable value of human life. Our culture has come to embrace the practice of abortion as a "choice", a "right", or even a "necessary evil" as seems implied in the United Methodist Book of Discipline: "The beginning and ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence ... Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion ..." (¶ 161J). In other words, the United Methodist Church advocates, by its own chosen language, that by human decree it sometimes becomes necessary to violate these “God-given boundaries” and intentionally and deliberately terminate the life of one in order to preserve the life of another.

We cannot make a moral claim to be “equally bound” to respect the mother’s life as well as the life of the unborn child if we would advocate for the willful destruction of that unborn child ostensibly for the sake of the mother. Yet few would reasonably presume to be in a woman's difficult emotional position who is experiencing a high-risk pregnancy and whose learned and trusted doctor has advised that termination of the pregnancy would be in her own best interests. We also must not neglect the reality of the cultural conditioning which has reduced the unborn child - since 1973 when Roe v Wade became the “law of the land” - to the clinical, less-than-human status of “fetus” which has successfully removed the human element from such profound moral decisions about the value of human life and places a higher value on “viability”; “usefulness”. This moral dilemma becomes even more acute when this same mother already has young children who are equally dependent upon her for their well-being.

The short and simple answer is, of course, that "the beginning and ending of life are ... [exclusively] God-given boundaries" (UMBoD, ¶161J), boundaries we dare not presume to cross. Yet we do not seem to recognize that “God-given” boundary in Protestant theology within the social and cultural context, and particularly in Methodism, when we allow for ourselves political and social solutions to moral if medical problems. We have not only violated these “God-given” boundaries, but we have also set up camp in a realm where we clearly do not belong and to which we have clearly not been appointed, in spite of our stated belief in such boundaries to the point of such a despicable act more commonly referred to as "partial birth abortion", sometimes deemed medically necessary, a “necessary evil” in some circles. In such enculturated practices we have approached new boundaries such as stem cell therapy, biomedical research, and human cloning to the point that we have diminished the "sanctity" and "sacred worth" of every human person and have made human life of no more value than what is relative to our own well-being, “convenience”, and affordability. In such morally questionable contexts, life becomes not as much a divine gift than a human commodity to be used and consequently discarded when no longer of any use to us. Mother Teresa’s words in 1994 could not have been more prophetic.

Such dilemmas have become problematic for the Protestant church when on the one hand life is proclaimed as “God-given” with its inherent “boundaries”, and then on the other hand the Church declares for itself its own circumstantial and ambiguous boundaries that are in direct contradiction to a stated if conflicted doctrine that is presumably set within a biblical and traditional context. Once the church departs from the divine law by which it is governed and seeks political solutions according to social demands, it enters into the very human and cultural context from which it is called to be set apart (Luke 2:34) and in so doing, surrenders its moral authority to speak on behalf of the divine law.

Rachels claims scriptural ambiguity in its “supposed” biblical prohibition against abortion and suggests only a conservative, rather than universal, argument could be made by such passages as the prophet Jeremiah’s commission within “God-given boundaries” (Rachels, ppg 58-59). Rachels argues that Jeremiah is only “asserting his authority as a prophet” and that “the sanctity of fetal life is not discussed” (pg 59). If the statement stands alone, Rachels has a point, albeit a narrow one. This argument falls apart in a much broader context however, when we consider the several biblical passages in which the Holy God does not show “partiality” (Acts 10:34). We also cannot proclaim a universal faith in which every life is of equally sacred value, assuming Rachels’ inference that Jeremiah was of greater value than any other who is not so divinely appointed in spite of the psalmist’s claim that even he was “knit together in [his] mother’s womb … fearfully and wonderfully made” by God (Psalm 139). Rachels’ contention places relative value on human life according to human perceptions of divine usefulness and ignores the broader claim of St. Paul that human beings are universally endowed with various gifts by which the Body of Christ itself is made whole (1 Corinthians 12:22-23).

Lovin attempts to do away with moral ambiguity by his use of extrabiblical writers as St. Augustine who maintained there are moral absolutes in the choices we make and the context in which we make them: “two cities created by two kinds of love; one in which is self-love and ultimately contempt for God, and the other driven by love of God to the point of contempt for one’s own life” (Lovin, pg 13). This extrabiblical reference leads us to a much broader understanding of Jesus’ teaching of which choice actually leads to enduring life rather than to death. St. Augustine and other church fathers did not claim their own unique authority to make up new rules or establish new standards; rather they claimed their own interpretations often as they were spiritually led but within a biblical and perhaps historic context (Augustine, sermon 93.5).

In this, then, we can reasonably use the Didache as extrabiblical literature and its specific prohibition against abortion and infanticide (Didache 2:2) as the Roman Catholic Church does. This literature has been dated as early as the first century and as late as the second century and has been traditionally attributed to the apostles and their teachings. We can reasonably embrace the validity of these writings within a consistent standard for the same reason we can reasonably embrace The Gospel according to St. Mark as having been actually penned by a disciple of St. Peter’s rather than written as a first-hand account. Scholars are divided on the authorship of many books of the Bible as well as the Didache, but such contemporary and perhaps enculturated division does not necessarily diminish the value or the validity of what is written. Tradition questions whether Moses actually “wrote” the Pentateuch, but we do not question the spiritual wisdom of those books traditionally attributed to Moses. We learn from generation to generation as Moses required, and we pass on what we have learned; not what we have made up to suit our own purposes (Deuteronomy 4:2).

Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humane Vitae, maintains this same general and traditional order in that the Church has a moral responsibility to “guard and interpret” rather than to “arbitrate” the moral and divine law since these laws were imparted by divine means rather than devised by human measure (II, para 18). St. Paul expresses the same concerns of liberty by which limits must be discerned between what is “right” and what is “lawful” (1 Corinthians 10:23). Humanity has within its grasp the power to lord over life and death, and the value of life cannot be determined by social or cultural standards which inevitably shift from generation to generation. All life is “of sacred worth” – or - of no value at all outside of cultural relativity, human standards being arbitrary and conditional at best. Rachels’ point is well taken: “Every generation reinterprets Scripture to support its favored moral views” (Rachels, pg 61), but such a statement only affirms the reality of St. Paul’s contention that just because we can legally do something does not grant to us the moral authority to do it.

Divine law as understood by the historical and traditional Church is difficult to define because of the obvious distinctions and seeming contradictions between the Old Testament and the New. The “old” law, for instance, prohibits homosexual conduct which the traditional Church continues to uphold. Yet this same “old” law also prohibits the consumption of pork, a staple at many a church potluck table! We can argue about the finer points of the kosher law and the Law in general; however, we should not make the same mistake in interpreting the moral, social, ethical, and sacred value of every human life. Nor should we find ourselves bound by the circular and impossible arguments of when an unborn child becomes a “person” or at what point in human development a “cluster of cells” becomes something worthy of divine respect.

In such fruitless arguments are contained those “boundaries” which exist for a unique and divine purpose, “boundaries” we dare not cross (but insist upon doing) lest we find ourselves trying to redefine impossible boundaries by human standards according to a fickle human race that cannot know from one generation to the next what is good except by what has been traditionally and universally upheld as good: human life. It is the one moral standard that is as well established as the divine law itself. It is when we become confused by the “two cities” of St. Augustine and our part in either that moral standards become ambiguous and our God and the divine law become more of a concept than a reality.

Though Roe v Wade was issued a ruling by which “the right to terminate a pregnancy is a matter of personal decision and is a privacy issue protected by the Constitution” (Hamilton, pg 114), the social upheaval at the time and the very public debate about the Court’s decision required the Church to take a stand. The Roman Catholic Church affirmed its teaching that life is divinely ordained and refused to “adjust” its doctrine to satisfy the “earthly city”, standing firm from the Didache and Holy Scripture to John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (1995). The Protestant Church has been less than vocal or consistent in its wavering social contexts by which it has attempted to assuage those who demanded such unfettered “freedom” to do with their bodies as they pleased and please God at the same time. The obvious result is a Church lacking any semblance of integrity, no moral foundation upon which to stand, and no doctrinal direction to follow – all because we by word and deed question the value of human life. If St. Augustine is correct in his spiritual assessment, we United Methodists have built a “summer home” in the city of God in which to relax and restore our souls. We live and work, however, in the other “city” and continue to struggle to be relevant both to God and to humanity.

Hamilton references Genesis 9:5-6 in making it “clear that ending a human life is not within our jurisdiction. This is God’s domain” (Hamilton, pg 119). Such a stance is consistent with historic Church teachings and consistent with what is written in our “Discipline” and other sources we neglect to our detriment. Before we can be a moral compass for the society we are called to witness to and lead, we must first decide for ourselves whether we believe what is written and exactly whom we serve. Once this is determined, then and only then can we decide by which moral standard we will stand.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Thought

“I know you are Abraham’s descendents, but you seek to kill Me because My word has no place in you.  I speak what I have seen from My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.”  John 8:37-38

In the text Jesus is speaking to “those Jews who believed Him” (John 8:31), but there is apparently an element of what Jesus is saying that is getting past them because they continue to maintain and defend their lineage to Abraham and their means of self-justification.  I think maybe there is a clue in verse 33 when the Jews said, in responding to Jesus’ statement that “the truth will set you free”: “We have never been in bondage to anyone.  How can you say, ‘You will be made free?’”

It is the curse of “cultural conditioning”.  Jesus was pointing out to the Jews that they are not acting as Abraham’s children: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham”.  Abraham’s “works” were in accordance with the Word of the Lord.  He obeyed and he had the faith sufficient to move when the Lord said to move.  Remember that Abraham left his home land strictly on the word of the Lord.  For humans, what Abraham did made no sense at all! 

Now Jesus is standing before the people as “the Word”, and they do not believe Him for this simple reason: Jesus is calling them to go against the current of “cultural conditioning”.  He is challenging us all to evaluate our words and deeds not in accordance with what we have been taught from generation to generation – or even according to what our neighbors do and think.  Jesus is challenging everyone – then and now – to measure life according to The Word; Holy Scripture, and not according to how we have been conditioned by a largely secular culture (which often even exists within the Church!) that seeks to justify itself only by its own moral and ethical standards due to willful ignorance of what is written in Scripture.

Scripture was written as the means by which the Lord has revealed Himself to us and continues to speak to us today.  We must not get lost in the culture, for it is not this culture that will be saved on the last Day.  It will be only those who endure to the very end.