Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Thought

“The Lord’s delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor His pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His steadfast love.”  Psalm 147:10-11

We often forget that within all that is contained in Scripture, including the rather harsh words of the prophets, the common theme throughout is the Lord’s love for His creation.  Within this common theme is this certain reality that is overlooked: Scripture is the greatest of equalizers.  It puts us all on a level playing field and reminds us that nothing we have in our possession, and nothing we can do with our own hands and feet can put us in a more favored status with our Lord.  The Lord’s pleasure is in our respect for Him and faith that He looks out for those who follow Him.

Maybe we can all do well to remember this the next time we look down on someone who does not act the way we think they should act, or dress the way we think they should dress … well, you get the idea.  We have nothing within our possessions or our abilities that puts us in better standing with the Lord than our neighbor who does not equal our possessions or our abilities.  His clear favor rests upon those who trust Him completely… period.

May we push aside those possessions and abilities we put so much stock in, those things we have come to believe make us better persons and better citizens – or “better” Christians; these things that have become barriers for us and have actually served to separate us from Him.


Monday, January 30, 2012

A Thought

Mark 9:14-29 tells the story of a man and his deaf-mute son who had been so afflicted since birth.  Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out this demon, but Jesus told the boy’s father that through faith, “all things are possible to him who believes” (vs 23).  The father’s prayers asks Jesus to “help my unbelief” (vs 24).  Jesus finally commanded the spirit to leave the boy’s body, and so it was done.  Finally Jesus’ disciples asked Him why it was they could not cast out that demon.  Jesus answered them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (vs 29). 

We often forget that what is asked of us takes much more than a desire to see something happen; there must be resolve to see it through.  Gifts from above are given to each of us according to the Lord’s own purposes, so it stands to reason that we should not expect to be so richly endowed unless we can show the Lord we can be trusted with such remarkable gifts – because with such gifts come also enormous responsibility.  It is a lot like what we do with our children or employees; before we trust them with something really big, they have to show us they can be trusted.  They must earn that trust.  And it will take much more than a simple word or a promise.  So it is with our heavenly Father.

This is not about being or getting “saved”.  It is about “sanctification”, the pursuit of holiness; spiritual perfection.  It is not a one-time shot; it is a lifelong resolve and commitment to something much greater than personal happiness or fulfillment.  It is entirely about service to the Lord and His Church.  It is about building up the kingdom of Heaven, not “making the most of what we have while we’re here”.  It is about learning to reorient our “desire” to match the will of our Lord, learning to live and love as Jesus lived and loved while on this earth, testified to in His mighty works and perfected in His willingness to lay down His life for His beloved Church.

This will only be accomplished, however, by “nothing but prayer and fasting”; not one or the other as our time time allows.  So we ask ourselves: what exactly are we committed to?


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Discerning a Prophet

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28

Should you trust me?  As the pastor of a church and a preacher, I have roles to fill; often more than one role depending on circumstance and need.  Some roles I think I do very well in; others, well, I just do the best I can - just as you do.  What should be clear in all circumstances, however, is that in every role and under every circumstance, I as a human being (like all of you!) am fallible; which is to say, I am quite capable of being wro ... *ahem* ... wrrrrrrrooooo ... well, you know.

Some consider me to be a little too "legalistic" - and to an extent I probably am because I am also somewhat of a traditionalist and a believer in "rules" and consistent standards instead of chaos!  I have a deep and abiding appreciation for traditions of the past; and I can appreciate rules that have value toward good order.  Rules can sometimes be cumbersome, I agree, but the ones who don't like rules are usually those who prefer to set and live by their very own rules.  When we participate in the life of the Holy Church, we celebrate the past in the joyful anticipation of what is to come; and rules help a body to coalesce as a single entity.  Both are good and both serve useful purposes, but it is also important to remember that both are means to an end and not the ends themselves. 

I know you can trust me to do my very best, but this is not nearly as important as you believing you can trust me - but never blindly especially when it comes to the Word of the Lord!  I hope you appreciate that when I bring the Word to you, I bring you what I earnestly believe to be a genuine and honest reflection of what is already written, even as I often try to "push the envelope".  I trust you will read and engage scripture for yourselves so you can measure what I offer in the true spirit of the Word.  If you do not read and study Scripture for yourselves, however, you can only - at best - take what I say with a grain of salt because you have nothing authoritative against which to measure.  And no, your opinion independent of scripture is not "authoritative".  Nor is mine.

It ultimately boils down to appropriate authority, and no preacher, pastor, prophet, or priest has authority unto himself or herself even as we are endowed with certain authority relative to the offices we serve.  This is not to suggest you are required on any level to agree with me - or with any preacher, for that matter.  Always agreeing with what is said by a preacher, priest, or prophet is not the point of preaching OR prophesyingIt is about engagement.  It is about listening with an open mind and considering what is before us within an appropriate context.  It is about "testing the spirit" [of a speaker] as expressed by 1 John 4: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit ..."  They are to be tested not according to what you or I THINK or what you or I would LIKE to hear but according to what you and I KNOW from Scripture.  

Consider these words from the prophet Jeremiah (11:1-3); "The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, 'Hear the words of this covenant, and speak to the people ... and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God of Israel: Cursed is the one who does not obey the words of this covenant.'"  Or consider these rather ominous words from Christ Himself (Mt 6:1-15): "If you forgive others their trespasses (debt, sin), your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."  And I have to tell you these words fly in the face of "pop" Christianity.

Both are a prophetic voice; and even though both seem "predictive" of what may to come to pass, neither is a definitive look into the future.  Each message requires a response, and each response will determine what will be ahead.  So prophesy is not exclusively about seeing blindly into the future and predicting a particular outcome regardless of present circumstances.  A prophetic voice must necessarily reach into the past (for instance, to the Law of Moses which contains the terms of the "covenant" Jeremiah speaks of), use that past to speak to the present circumstance, and call the people of the Lord forward and into hopefully a positive response and out of a state of complacency.

Consider the Lord's word to the prophet Ezekiel (3:17-19, 21): "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me.  When I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die', and you give him no warning nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.  Yet if you warn the wicked and he does not turn from his wickedness nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul ... Nevertheless if you warn the righteous man that the righteous should not sin and he does not sin, he shall surely live because he took warning; also you will have delivered your soul."       

For those who do not bother with the Bible and / or do not feel a need to, there is little one can say because they have no basis upon which to engage discussion and spiritual consideration.  Biblical principles and secular social ideas mix like oil and water, and many are being led astray because they are forming an opinion based only on observation and what just "feels right".  It doesn't mean they are automatically "wrong", of course, but it is not unlike making a financial or investment decision without reading all available information so that an informed decision can be made.  We would not do such a thing with our money - SO - why on earth would we be so careless with our immortal souls??

There have been prophets, and there will be prophets until Kingdom comes.  Moses reminded the people of Israel that there will be a prophet "like him" who will be the important voice to keep Israel moving in the right direction, and the judgment will be fierce against those who refuse to listen to that prophet - AND - the judgment will be fierce against those prophets who remain silent in the face of evil or who choose a more "free lance" approach to preaching; going it alone and just making something up for less-than-holy objectives that may appeal to the masses, make people feel good about themselves, and may sell a lot of t-shirts and bumper stickers, but it will still leave the Lord's people substantially hungry, just as it is written in Ezekiel (34:2a, 3): "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves ... you eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings [for yourselves],but you do not feed the flock."

A thorough reading and study of Scripture will clearly indicate that the Lord is fiercely protective of His people, but living in willful ignorance of His will, His Laws, and His statutes means we will inevitably mislead others and will not even know to correct them when they go astray.  I have long maintained that prayer is the only way we can discern the will of our Holy Father, but such prayer must be carefully weighed in accordance with what is already written for our appropriate use, as we are instructed in 1 Timothy 3.  But we cannot use something about which we have no knowledge.

But what of this "new teaching" the people in the synagogue are marveling about (Mark 1:27)?  What are they hearing that they've not heard before?  Well, we don't really know.  We can see the encounter Jesus has with the unclean spirit, but the passage tells us before this conflict that the people were "astounded at [Jesus'] teaching" (Mark 1:22) because He spoke with "authority", unlike the scribes; but we are not told what a "new teaching" might be.  It could be a safe bet, however, that none of these who were present had ever seen a man exorcised of an unclean spirit!  It is likely, however, that what they are hearing is not "pop culture theology" but a genuine rendering of the Word of the Lord.  That would be new to them just as it is to us today.

What seems "new" to them, I think, is that perhaps this is the first time in memory that there has been a true "prophet" among them (yes, I know Jesus is much more than a prophet!).  When the Lord commissioned Ezekiel to prophesy to the people of Israel, He did not guarantee His prophet any success, but He did guarantee there will be no doubt about one thing: "As for [the people of Israel], whether they hear or whether they refuse - for they are a rebellious house - yet they will know that a prophet has been among them" (2:5).   

Whether I or any preacher occupying a pulpit is a divinely commissioned prophet is, again, not the point.  It is engagement.  It is the knowledge of a divine Covenant whose terms you and I are called to be familiar with.  It is a Covenant you and I are called to sign on to.  It is the Covenant of Life.  It is the Covenant of Christ.  AMEN.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Thought

“Do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you.  For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others.”  Ecclesiastes 7:21-22

It occurs to me that for all the praying we do and need to do, there can probably no more important element of our prayer time than self-examination; looking inward to find those dark spots within that prevent us from being all the Lord has created and called us to be.  Even the writer of Ecclesiastes acknowledges such: “There is not a just (righteous) person on earth who does good and does not sin” (7:20).

To overcome this, then, we must resolve within our hearts to hold ourselves accountable before we can put too much emphasis on holding others accountable.  And this is big because accountability is a significant component of church life!  Not just to be in someone else’s business but to help one another through this challenging journey called “life”!

Look within.  Find a quiet space, pray through Scripture, and look deeply into what we are being told.  Though we all have different spiritual gifts according to our Lord’s own good purposes, His message to us will always be the same: I love you.  And when you doubt this, look to Calvary and see where you should have been but where I chose to go in your place.

We owe our Lord at least an honest evaluation.  From this, I think, He will grant to us peace like we’ve not known – when we come to terms with ourselves … long before we curse the sins of others.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Thought

“Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man in whom there is no help.” Psalm 146:3

There is probably no more fitting scripture to remember during a political election season than this one!  We choose those whom we believe will represent us well, but we often forget that our choices are a reflection of our values.  If we allow someone to step up and convince us that he (or she) alone has all the answers and will “save” us from all bad things so much so that we believe this person, we are in way too deep!

The day-to-day business of a representative government such as ours requires our involvement and participation.  If we neglect this privilege, the result will be as bad as if we had neglected our churches, our homes, our families, and other things that require attention and care.  Being involved in the political process, however, should not divide our allegiance between that which requires care – and that which demands devotion: our Holy Father.

There are no “messiahs” running for public office, try though some may to convince us otherwise.  One will not destroy us anymore than one will save us.  It is the Holy God alone who can “destroy both soul and body”, and it is His Covenant in Christ which has already saved us!


Monday, January 23, 2012

A Thought

“The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’.  They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.”  Psalm 53:1

You may have noticed by now that atheism seems to have become all the rage, the new thing to do.  For all the smoke these people blow about their absolute knowledge of nothingness, they seem more determined than ever to “prove” there is no God.  And their “proof”?  The believers’ inability to “prove” a case for God.

We don’t have to prove anything except by the way we live, the choices we make, and the words we speak.  These are evidence of the “hope that is within us”, but we do not have to “prove” anything except to the One who gives life and mercy and grace so abundantly.  And to Him we only prove that we trust Him to lead our next steps.

We do not have to take on more than we can handle; the Lord alone knows our limitations.  Our trust in Him, however, will be reflected in our belief in something much greater than the present moment.  For the unbeliever, this faith alone is more than they can handle, but this faith reflected in our lives is the compelling factor that causes many to draw nearer and learn more – or pull away altogether.  It is their choice, the choice they will be forced to live with; but if they are going to make an honest choice, let them choose according to the Truth that is revealed in us.  Let us be all He calls us to be.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Nothing to lose; Everything to gain

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

There is a video coursing its way across the Internet in which a young man shares a poem.  The poem is an expression of his apparent disdain for religion in general while he maintains his devotion to Jesus.  For this man and many others like him, Christianity has been “hijacked” (for lack of a better term) by religion and has been turned into something more burdensome than liberating. 

I will agree there is a “religionist” element in Christianity that has turned the missional Church into something more like a political movement that seeks not to “love our enemies” but rather to destroy them; not unlike the “religionists” of Jesus’ day.  Yet I cannot agree with the young man’s premise that religion itself is inherently dangerous.  Misunderstood and misappropriated, perhaps, but not dangerous.  In fact, I would come closer to suggesting this man’s expression comes up substantially short in understanding the true heart of religion.  More to the point, I see a very dangerous, spiritually risky short-sightedness that even now continues to undermine the Church and what the Body of Christ is called to do and to be in a “lost” world that cannot – or will not - find its way into the Light and Life that is the Covenant of God in Christ.   

The word “religion” itself has its root in the same Latin word that defines “ligament”.  That is to say, the basis of religion goes far beyond defining a particular set of beliefs or practices.  There is a connection that is inherent to religion, a connection that extends far beyond the individual, a connection this anti-religion concept fails to grasp; perhaps because of scriptural ignorance, but almost certainly because of pride and misguided independence that refuses to allow itself to be held accountable by others.  Religion is the “ligament” that connects the “members” to the greater Body of Christ, as expressed by St. Paul in his 1st letter to the Corinthians: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body; so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12).

To try and disconnect Jesus from the connective tissue that is religion altogether, then, is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.  This “movement” that has actually been around in some form or fashion for decades is a lot like the “house of sand” Jesus warns His disciples about in Matthew 7:26: “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house until it fell – and great was its fall!”

Jesus cannot be disconnected from His divine nature – IF – we believe He is the essence of the Holy God – IF – we believe He is “God in the flesh”.  At the risk of repeating myself, Jesus did not spring up from nothing.  He has His own “root” as the “vine” from which branches must grow (John 15:1-2) and for which the Holy Father serves as the “vine dresser” who prunes – or cuts away altogether – that which no longer has the life of connection; that is to say, “dead wood” that no longer bears fruit. 

To say we can love Jesus without being “religious” is to suggest we can follow Jesus without being connected to others; without being connected to the Greater Purpose to which we as “members of the Body” are called.  It would suggest Jesus follows US on our own chosen paths.  To suggest such a thing would suggest Jesus has no connection to the Creator God, the Jealous God, the Judging God, and yes, the Redeeming God who has a divine purpose and will of His very own – all coming from the so-called Old Testament.

We must embrace the inherent religious connection that displays itself in YHWH’s call to Jonah – a call that was in direct conflict with Jonah’s will!  Jonah was called to preach repentance and new life to the people of Nineveh; ENEMIES of Israel!  No Israelite in his right mind would offer hope to those who have brought nothing but fear and terror to Israel, and yet here is Israel’s GOD calling an Israelite forward to offer divine forgiveness and redemption to Israel’s enemies! 

We see the religious connection in St. Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthian church in which even as St. Paul calls the people of the Church to DIS-connect from that which binds them against divine will, he is still calling them to a religious connection that transcends “personal”.

We see the religion being restored when Jesus begins His ministry by calling forth those future apostles – BUILDERS OF THE CHURCH – who will get “religion” back on the right track.  We must understand these apostles are not being called into a “personal relationship” that is the end itself; we must understand their “personal relationship” – your “personal relationship”, my “personal relationship” - with Messiah as a MEANS to a much greater end than we can possibly fathom! 

It is the common Journey that connects us not only to one another but to Messiah and ultimately to the Holy Father!  It is the Journey that has its root in the Exodus when the shackles of bondage had been destroyed and the people of YHWH set free for that Journey.  Our religious connection takes us to the Table of the Holy Communion which has its root in the Passover, that incredible moment in eternity when Sin and Death received their own “death sentences”. 

It is the common Journey “members” can endure only by being connected to the “Body of Christ”; the connection that helps to ensure we survive this incredibly challenging Journey to the Promised Land.  It is a Journey fraught with danger as described in Matthew 24, the journey in which “many will fall away … and betray one another”.  It is the journey in which “many false prophets will rise and lead many astray”.  But it is the journey whose end alone will determine who will be “saved”, those who “endure to the end” (Matthew 24:9-14). 

You see, salvation lies not in the beginning, according to Jesus, but in the end.  The Journey must come first, and it must be endured; but this is only possible if we are connected – connected not only to one another but connected intimately to Jesus the Messiah … and connected ultimately to our Holy Father.  It is the Journey which will require much, a Journey that seems to ask much more than we can see to receive; but this is the entire point of “religious” faith. 

We have nothing to lose that will not be lost sooner or later – and everything yet to be seen to be gained!  It is the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is Eternal Life in the Holy Father’s Kingdom by the path set forth by the Holy Son.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What is the real issue?

Effective 1 August 2012, most healthcare plans will be required to provide coverage for contraceptives without co-pay or deductible expenses; in other words, “free” birth control for all who are covered under a health plan.  The idea is about “liberty”, according to DHHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius who believes “this proposal strikes a balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”

Churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are exempt from this requirement, according to “thehill.com”, but religious-affiliated hospitals and universities will only have a one-year delay in implementation before they will also be required to either provide this benefit or shut down altogether.

The question stands as to what “balance” between respecting religious denominations that stand opposed to artificial birth control and one’s inferred “right” to birth control will actually look like, and whether the rights of one group may supersede the rights of another.  The US Constitution directly and specifically addresses the protection of religious liberty in prohibiting the US government from “infringing” upon these rights while the matter of health care is not addressed at all.  There is also another standing question that would ask how, in a society in which birth control is readily available, this proposal somehow “protects” or enhances a right which evidently already exists. 

This new regulation is only a small part of what will incrementally roll down from so-called “Obamacare” that seeks to address a genuine health care crisis in this country, but there is a significant element of health care that still does not seem to have been sufficiently addressed: how to define “adequate” care.  More to the specific point and coverage of birth control pills, is this a component of health care that cannot be addressed in a more responsible and cost-effective way like, say, abstinence and focusing one’s attention on something a little more pressing like, say, getting a job or an education or otherwise living a fulfilling life? 

The tired argument has stood for quite some time that easier access to birth control will diminish the need for abortion services (a fight, incidentally, that remains to be settled in this debate!), but we must understand there will be a reduction in services once hospitals and universities withdraw from such programs altogether.  Whether these or any others will actually close their doors rather than submit to enforcement of such overbearing regulations remains to be seen.

Artificial birth control is itself an issue that has been addressed by the Roman Catholic Church; which stands consistently and officially opposed to the use of such contraceptives, believing and teaching that procreation is as much a matter of natural law as of religious doctrine.  However, the issue at hand is not birth control itself but whether entities, regardless of religious affiliation, should be expected or forced to provide birth control pills “free” of any charge. 

Subsequent to this issue, then, is the reality that insurance is a pool of funds into which members contribute to the pool to cover extraordinary expenses related to claims; meaning each participant will be paying for something they may find socially questionable or morally objectionable.  The point becomes even more acute if the courts decide the federal government can force everyone to purchase health insurance, a matter pending before the US Supreme Court.

So the issue at hand cannot be a matter of whether or not one is ok with birth control.  It certainly cannot be a matter of whether married persons are more entitled to birth control than single persons.  The issue at hand is a conflict between a perceived right and an enumerated right; that which may or may not be inferred by the Constitution and that which is spelled out.  The issue is whether the government is overreaching, trampling on an enumerated right in favor of a social or political demand.

Access to birth control is determined and hindered only by one’s personal preferences and choices.  Whether one’s right to such access is hindered by one’s inability or unwillingness to pay seems a matter of government regulation, forcing “me” to pay for “your” questionable claim.  Pity.       http://thehill.com/blogs/healthwatch/health-reform-implementation/205413-obama-administration-orders-health-plans-to-cover-birth-control-without-co-pays

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Thought

“As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and appear before God?  My tears have been my food day and night while they continually say to me, ‘Where is your God?’”  Psalm 42:1-3

It is easy to see that even the psalmist had his moments of doubt, and it seems these doubts left him spiritually drained and empty especially when those around him questioned the reality of his God in the midst of his misery.  I think what is revealed in this psalm of lamentation is also that of an inherent nature in humans we don’t often recognize: if we have a soul – and we surely must – it is not a part of our humanity but the divine part of us, the image of God.  Our doubts reveal a conflict between the very human part of our nature and our divine self, when we struggle to tell the difference between “want” and “need”, “vengeance” and “justice”. 

The human part of our being is very strong, but it is in the surrender of will when we are finally able to touch the Divine and discover our better selves.  Only then will doubts be cast aside.  Only then can we step forward into the unknown with confidence and in faith.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Thought

“’I know the thoughts I think toward you,’ says the Lord, ‘thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.’”  Jeremiah 29:11-13

In the context Jeremiah is writing to the people of Israel and making it known to them that their time of captivity in Babylon will come to an end, and they will be returned to their homeland.  It is also important to remember that the overall context is about the Lord’s Covenant, not the individual persons.  Their future is intrinsically connected with His divine purpose, so His promise is within that Covenant.  That is, the people of Israel must hold up their end in order to be part of the everlasting Covenant; they must make a choice.  Only those who “search with ALL their heart” will find Him; then they will find their place within His eternal Covenant.

This is a very important part of understanding what the Lord promises and why.  We must not remove ourselves from our part in the Covenant of Christ by coming to believe we get all the benefits but offer Him nothing in return.  We must be “seekers” and “searchers” … and not incidentally, but purposefully and intentionally; because His certain Promise is not incidental but is purposeful and intentional.

Enjoy the blessing of our Lord today.  Our futures in this crazy world with its economic uncertainties do not depend on humans; they depend on our response to His divine call.


Monday, January 16, 2012

A Thought

“Jesus said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’.  For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’”  Matthew 9:12-13

Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6 in telling the self-righteous crowd there is little He can do for them since they are already a little too full of themselves and their lineage to Abraham, Moses, and the Law.  The context of the Hosea passage says it best: “Your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away”. 

Declaring our own righteousness is, in a word, dangerous.  It is spiritually risky that we would on any level declare that we have already reached the pinnacle of our faith and have done all we need to do.  It is sort of like making the minimum payment due on a credit card.  An obligation has been fulfilled, but the debt still exists.  Simply “going to church” may meet the “minimum due”, but this act alone – like the ‘sacrifices’ (religious practices) disavowed by the Lord – does in no way fulfill all righteousness.  It’s a good start, but the journey must never end.  Not there, and certainly not in this lifetime.

Rather than to declare our own “wellness”, let us never find ourselves so “well” that we no longer feel a need for the Savior of the World.  Let us stay well and maintain our spiritual health by following the Great Physician’s orders; consistently and faithfully.  It is the “Way” (John 14:6) to which Jesus Himself testifies.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Catch and Release: a Mississippi governor now on trial in the court of public opinion

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is “comfortable” with his decision to pardon so many convicts on his way out of office, a decision that sparked an outcry recently when it was discovered that among these 215 pardons, some were convicted murderers.  Four of these convicted murderers were apparently trustees who worked in the Governor’s Mansion.  Gov. Barbour had stated in an earlier interview that it was a Mississippi “tradition” for governors to pardon trustees who worked in the Governor’s Mansion (he did not say if this tradition included convicted murderers).

The governor also stated of these 215 granted clemency, 189 were already released from prison.  He apparently pardoned them after the fact in one sweeping motion.

Being an Arkansas resident, I am hardly qualified to speak to Mississippi politics.  What I have always understood as it pertains to presidential or gubernatorial pardons, however, is that these pardons usually involve not personal preference or “Christian forgiveness”, as stated by the Mississippi governor, but by an element of doubt that may exist in a particular case.  Thus it is not supposed to be an arbitrary decision based on personal favor but a judicial one.  Just as a jury is charged with determining guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” based on evidence presented in court, so must a governor or president review trial records and court transcripts to ensure that one who is fairly convicted of murder serves her or his full term as required by a court of law.  It is a judge’s or a jury’s responsibility to mete out jail terms.  A governor or president should be able to prove (or be reasonably certain of) doubt as to guilt or innocence based only on evidence presented, not gut feelings.

Governors and presidents have lived to regret certain decisions made while in office, and pardons must surely be among these decisions.  Arkansas’ former governor Mike Huckabee pardoned a convict who was later convicted of murder.  Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis paid a high political price in his run for president against George H. W. Bush for a pardon by his hand that went wrong.  Surely there have been others.

It is an awesome responsibility for a governor or president to wield such power over the life of another human being – including signing an order of execution – but that power must not be made independent of existing law.  It may be “traditional”, but so are drunken fraternity parties.  Tradition does not always mean “right” … or just.

Beyond this, however, is the governor’s use of Christian theology as a way of justifying his decisions.  By his reasoning, all who are convicted by a criminal court in Mississippi should then immediately be forgiven of their transgressions and sent on their way because “Mississippians are Christians and believe in second chances”.  Surely there are many others within the corrections system in that state who are genuinely sorry for what they’ve done.  Surely there are many within that system who really, really will not repeat their mistakes. 

Here’s the thing, though.  Simon Wiesenthal was a survivor of the Holocaust.  As he wrote in his compelling book, “The Sunflower”, Mr. Wiesenthal related an experience when he, as a slave worker of the Nazi regime, was taken to a wounded German soldier whose only desire before his imminent death was to apologize to a Jew, any Jew, for his part in the slaughter.  Mr. Wiesenthal wrote that he bolted from the room after hearing the soldier’s story of remorse – without forgiving him (he later came to believe the soldier’s remorse was genuine). 

In the book, however, Mr. Wiesenthal was debating whether he even had a right – on behalf of all Jews – to forgive this soldier for his act.  He had believed (as did many of his Jewish compatriots) only those Jews who had been directly harmed by this particular soldier had a right to forgive him for his part (and incidentally, the family this soldier was sorry for killing did not survive the encounter.  They were all burned alive in a building they had been shut into).

So what do we think?  Can the governor of a state, or the president for that matter, arbitrarily “forgive” a convicted murderer in the name of Christian forgiveness?  Can executive clemency be construed as Christian forgiveness?  Does an elected executive have the right to “forgive” a murder without serious judicial consideration and/or input from the victims’ families?  Even if the law allows him or her that privilege, does a governor possess that “right”?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Thought

“Another of Jesus’ disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father [then I will follow You]’.  But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’”  Matthew 8:21-22

Scholars suggest this man’s father was not yet dead because the Law would have kept him from being out and about if his father had just died.  So it would seem the man was bound by another obligation he felt tied to, family and perhaps social obligations more important than getting on board with Christ.  Jesus returned with a rather sober reminder that, in essence, he would be choosing death in the world over life in Christ! 

It has been said Jesus calls disciples, but He has no use for stragglers; people who say they have other, more important obligations (the way of the world) to first deal with and answer before they can (or will) commit to the Lord (the way of the Cross and, ultimately to Life).  We have plenty of excuses that have more to do with a social orientation by which we have been conditioned, but these excuses – even with the best of intentions – only put us in the same category of this man who delayed his commitment in favor of other (more important to him) obligations and would be, according to Jesus’ words, choosing death.

If there is something holding us back, we must decide whether it is more important than a life of discipleship.  We must know if there is something that prevents us from fully embracing the life the Lord calls us to.  We must choose “this day whom we will serve”; not tomorrow.


Monday, January 09, 2012

A Thought

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life; there are few who find it.”  Matthew 7:13-14

In the continuing Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley believed Jesus was telling His followers about what we now know as Christian ethics; that way of behavior the Church (that’s you and me!) is called and expected to answer.  The choices we make we usually make for the sake of expediency or in consideration of how we will be affected.  In many ways these are probably good choices. 

However, this passage is set within a much broader context.  Verse 12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you …”, and in vss 15-20 we are told about the “tree and its fruit”.  This latter passage is speaking of false prophets “who come in sheep’s clothing but … are ravenous wolves”.  It might be more in keeping with the “wide gate” through which the easier choices can be found that do not build up the church … that ignore those around us who are suffering through no fault of their own or who are being misled through a so-called “prosperity gospel” that has everything to do with material gain and little to do with the path Christ Himself followed.  Those who follow these false promises are being virtually eaten alive by these “ravenous wolves”. 

The Bible teaches us to “bear one another’s burdens”.  I think maybe this is a reflection of Jesus’ Sermon that expounds on the expectations of the Law which is far more than a list of “do’s and don’ts”.  It is how the people of the Lord are distinguished from the rest of the world.  It is how to tell the difference between those who believe … and those who don’t.

Everything we do matters because every action we take – or don’t take – and every word we speak is a testament to our choice of gate.  We must choose wisely which gate to pass through.  It is the one Jesus chose for Himself.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

What Really Happened

Genesis 1:1-8 (NKJV)
Mark 1:4-11

“The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully, and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.”  Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong

This quote came to mind as I was reading the lection for this week along with another book, “Jesus Wars” (Philip Jenkins), that explores the early history of the Church and the various councils by which the doctrines we know today came to be developed such as expressed in the Nicene Creed from the 4th century Council of Nicaea.  The book examines how religion in the 21st century has evolved from those early days, and continues to evolve even now. 

Comparing and contrasting the disputes that occurred during these early years - they were many and bloody! - I have concluded that we can no longer live responsibly as serious disciples of Christ in the blissful ignorance of believing any doctrine without a serious review of the Bible from which these doctrines are developed.  We must also not be reduced to searching the Bible for religious answers, to prove someone "wrong", or to justify our biblically questionable choices by taking a very small passage out of its appropriate context.  Rather we are to find what our Lord is calling us into.  In other words, we should be searching for "life answers".

The bishop’s article from which the quote came was part of a much broader article in which he explores several polls which reveal the general biblical ignorance especially among the faithful that is so pervasive in today’s Church.  We don’t often realize the difference between historical religion and what is actually “in the Bible”.  For instance, that Jesus is "fully human and fully God" may be suggested or implied with several passages of Scripture, but this did not actually become a full-fledged "doctrine" until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.  And we probably don't really want to know how many men were murdered or committed murder to make this doctrine possible - or to oppose it! 

When this confusion between "historical religion" and biblical knowledge occurs, then, we get caught up in doctrinal disputes that we mistakenly thought had been settled during the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  We continue today to defend “right” practices and beliefs – called "dogma" and “orthodoxy” – and condemn those who don’t do or believe correctly.  Worse, in our relative ignorance of what is actually "in the Bible", we are inclined to make things up as we go, most generally to justify our personal choices; ironically all in the name of "grace". 

Because of these disputes, many have found themselves separated from the Church – alienated, perhaps – because even the Church can appear to be somewhat confused about the difference between what is “right” and what is “righteous”.  Among common practices and beliefs we are familiar with today, we seem confused between what is “mystical” and what we have come to believe to be, for lack of a better word, “magical”; which is to suggest that over the years we have found or developed personally satisfying beliefs that cannot be biblically justified and don’t really require anything on our part; that which Mahatma Gandhi condemned as "worship without sacrifice"; one of his "seven deadly sins".

We seem to understand that Jesus, as the “beloved Son of God”, did not need to be baptized for He had nothing from which to repent; and even though we are offered a vision of “the Spirit descending like a dove”, we also remember that the time for the Holy Spirit will not be until the Day of Pentecost – after the Ascension when Jesus is lifted up into Heaven.  So with all these mysteries seemingly settled, what we often derive from this passage is, quite simply, a “prescription” of baptism, just something we are supposed to do only because Jesus did it.  And you know something?  I don't think that's good enough.  Mark offers little else beyond what we are reading from this passage - that a baptism took place - but Matthew fills in a gap for us as to the purpose of what we are witnessing: the baptism of the Christ is being done to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15), Jesus’ words to John when John objected to baptizing the Lord. 

Surely what we are invited to be a part of goes much deeper than mere “instruction” for a rite of passage or initiation into the Church.  If this were so, I would like to believe we would be given more details as to exactly how it should properly be done.  To this day we are involved in disputes as to the proper timing of the baptism as well as the means.  We seem more "superstitious" about the whole practice than we are concerned about righteous!  If this “instruction” were to be taken literally, we might surmise that “proper” baptism cannot come except in a river of moving water (perhaps specifically the Jordan itself) at the age of 30 years.  We even argue about the amount of water required to wash away sin and whether sprinkling or pouring will do in place of immersion.  We are not told exactly how much water was involved nor is the baptism itself described in any useful detail.  We just know Jesus “came out” of the water likely the same way He went in: by foot.  Nothing is inferred or implied, but we have added details over the course of a couple thousand years.  In other words, we've made things up as we go along and called it "right" - but we've not really concerned ourselves with "righteousness".

I think, then, we are not left with our own devices more than we are invited to look deeper and find something much more “theological” than man-made; that which defines the relationship between YHWH and humanity.  It is not about what we are called to do – rather, it is much more about what we are called to be in this incredible moment when, according to Russell Rathbun (“Cosmic Crossing”), “there is a tear in the firmament that [once] separated the realm of God from the realm of humanity … a parting that will never be repaired … when God will continue to be among His people in a way He has not been before.”

This is HUGE!  If this is so, we are far beyond a simple biblical "ordinance" because, unlike the very detailed worship instructions in Exodus and Leviticus, we are witnessing an incredible and intentional connection between Heaven and Earth, a purposeful and intimate connection between YHWH and humanity!  Like the temple veil which had been torn asunder upon Jesus' death on the Cross, a definitive disconnect between the Divine and the secular has suddenly found its meaningful connection in such a way that life as we know it must never be the same again!  This is why our United Methodist tradition considers it "sacramental".

How is this accomplished?  I think the answer lies in the Voice which came from Heaven after the Baptism of the Christ: "You are My Son, the Beloved.  With You I am well pleased."  What is it about this moment in eternity that so pleased our Holy Father?  Was He pleased that Jesus had the will to present Himself for baptism?  Was He pleased only with the very "being" of Jesus being Jesus?  Was He legitimizing Jesus as Messiah, the divinely anointed One?  Or was He - and is He - pleased with what has taken place NOT in the water itself but rather in the dynamic fusion that has taken place between Himself and His beloved creation - you and me?  This, my dear friends, is worthy of a response - AND - a commitment to know more.

I think the Lord must surely be pleased that this "tear in the firmament" has finally taken place and that the Redemption Story now has Hands and Feet.  I think the Lord is well pleased that in Christ Jesus, the connection between the Holy and the unholy has finally diminished the gap that previously existed.  I think the Lord is well pleased that soon enough, the "diminished gap" will one day be finally and completely closed. It is that day of rejoicing when lost souls are found, and wayward souls are restored.  It is that glorious day when we will hear within ourselves that Blessed Voice which will affirm and justify even us; and through us, the unbelievers will say, "Christ the Lord is alive and well!"

But none of this will be accomplished in biblical ignorance.  None of this is possible without an active engagement with the Lord through His Word.  It is as John Wesley once expressed: "It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading; a reading people will always be a knowing people." 

It is the stark difference between what we "think" ... and what we "know" to be true.

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

Thursday, January 05, 2012

A Thought

“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading.  A reading people will always be a knowing people.  A people who talk much will know little.”  John Wesley

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, was talking about Scripture reading primarily though it seems clear he was as well versed in the classics as well as the writings of the early Church fathers and the Reformers.  For our purposes, however, we must be concerned with the reality of our Lord and what He has to say to the entire Church.  Spirituality is all well and good, but it cannot be said that the Spirit of the Lord will call us to go against what is clearly written in Scripture; and because the Bible itself is so readily accessible and available, we cannot use ignorance of what is written as an excuse.

The point of such focused and disciplined reading, as Wesley saw it, was to “grow in grace”; to learn more about our Lord (and ourselves!) and draw closer to Him as we grow in grace, love, and holiness.  In other words, to work harder to become more like Him while knowing what He is actually like – as opposed to making something up to suit our own fancy based only on what we “heard” from the preacher.  If we do not know Him because we do not read His Word, how can we claim to know anything about Him at all, let alone call Him a “personal” Savior?   Would you refer to any friend as a “personal” friend if you know nothing about them?

We not only need to know more about the Lord, we also desperately need the sanctuary of those moments spent with Him.  Clearly we do not do Sabbath as the Lord intended for us, so we need to reclaim these Sabbath moments; rest for the weary soul, and to learn to “test the spirits” who are very real and do seek to draw us away from the Lord.

Give yourselves the greatest gift you can give yourselves today and each day: a little peace, a little quiet, a little solitude … and more blessings than you can count!


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Thought

“Since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.  For our God is a consuming fire.”  Hebrews 12:28-29

The writer of Hebrews seemed to believe our Lord deserves far better than what we seem to offer him today.  He suggests “grace” is that means by which we may offer anything to the Lord “acceptably”, yet “grace” seems to have become our “alibi”, our “excuse” for not trying harder (or not trying at all) to serve Him in an acceptable way.

We must remember that the biblical language of “grace” is defined, very simply, as the Lord’s favor bestowed on us – favor for which we are not worthy, favor we cannot earn but given earnestly and purely from His own heart.  A gift we know we cannot reciprocate adequately.  Yet when someone gets us a gift we did not expect, do we not do the socially acceptable – and EXPECTED – thing and rush out to get a return gift so as to not look foolish or ungrateful?  Why, then, would we do any less if we know that such a grand gift has been freely offered to us from our Lord; the Lord we profess, the Lord we claim has “saved” us?

We have been given much in the way of “grace”, but we have not been excused from serving Him daily.  Indeed why would we even want to be excused from such?  For if we cannot or will not serve Him in this life, what makes us think we will want to serve Him in the Life which is to come? Compared to what our world demands from us in the form of bills and taxes and other requirements that cannot be neglected, our Lord really does not ask for much and yet offers so much.  This reality is worthy of a reverent and intensely respectful response.


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Thought

“I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  Revelation 21:2

I have never been one for New Year’s Resolutions because I never much saw the point.  We all have ideas for what we would like to see but if there is no plan of action or commitment to see resolutions to fruition, they are a lot like the pipe dreams we have for that day when we win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes!  It’s fun to dream.

The Revelation is a vision – NOT A DREAM! - granted to John for the sake of the Church; it is the Lord’s Plan of intent – not a dream of wishes!  We have to decide whether our church is adequately “prepared as a bride”.  Do we have a plan of our own?  Are we committed to this plan?  We must evaluate where we are and who we are, and then we must compare this reality with the vision.  Are we where we need to be?  Are we all we are called to be?  What must we do to fulfill this vision?  It is not enough to fall back on “grace” because “grace” is what the Lord has done; we must commit to what we will do in response to that “grace”.

My prayer is that 2012 will be a year of renewed commitment and not just wishes.  My prayer is that the people of the Lord will experience revival.  My hope is that our Lord will see fit to entrust to our care the preparation of His beloved bride, the Church, and not ultimately be disappointed by what we failed to do with what we already have.

All of His blessings for 2012 to you and yours,