Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Thought

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”  John 3:17

It is one thing to acknowledge that Jesus existed, which even secular historians can do with little effort; it is quite another to understand what Messiah stands for and how this Covenant works.  Simply calling on the name of Jesus for salvation but doing nothing toward discipleship (that is, living within the terms of the Covenant and the Covenant community) leaves a huge gap in what can become for us a wholesome and truly fulfilling life – AND a strong community to withstand the trials of the day.  It is not merely a matter of making a choice between heaven and hell; it is about being all we are called to be in this life – the life we are called to live until the Last Day.

It is important to remember that Jesus said, “Those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).  Warning His disciples about the persecutions that would surely come, it simply makes sense that we desperately need the support structure of community.  We need the support of one another if we are to endure this Journey, and we need to be reminded constantly of the Reward that awaits those “who endure to the end”.

There was only one “Lone Ranger”, and even he needed a “Tonto” – AND – he was fictional!  We need the community of faith so that we may continue to grow in faith.  Others need it, too; they are simply waiting on your invitation.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Love Is Selfless

Acts 3:1-10
Matthew 12:9-14

Jesus is drawing a clear line of distinction between what we think we are obligated to do, and what we are truly privileged to do.  He may even be trying to define for us the difference between what we might be tempted to call "work", and what simple daily living requires of us.  As it pertains to the Sabbath and acceptable practices of the day, there are earnest efforts to keep the faithful from running in too many different directions because according to what is written, the Lord claimed the Sabbath as His very own.  The Sabbath is when the faithful are called to put aside their differences and come together for the Lord.  Jesus does not challenge this, but He does challenge what Sabbath had become to the Lord's people: a burden rather than the gift it truly is.

Worship of the Lord, presenting ourselves to the Lord, giving of ourselves to the Lord in our time, our prayers, hymns of praise, and offerings, and giving freely of ourselves to our fellow Christians in worship and Bible study are all part of the package.  Jesus never excuses us from our duty to gather for worship of the Holy God (indeed why would the Son of God "excuse" us from worship?) - but - He is re-energizing the better component of the Sabbath in what a privilege it is for us to gather together in worship.  But when we allow such a Holy Day to become so burdensome or a gathering so self-oriented, we are attempting to change the terms of the Covenant.  The Covenant is no longer about the Lord; the Covenant is no longer even mutual.  It is only about "what's in it for me".  This is commonly referred to as "hedonism".

The same thing can be said of the marriage covenant when things begin to break down, when the shine is no longer on the apple, when the daily grind of reality begins to replace the "honeymoon"; you know, when we stop locking the bathroom door and remove that last vestige of "mystery"!  We stop worrying so much about our spouses and begin to think more about ourselves and what makes us happy.  We are more worried about what our golf buddies or other sports tournament partners and parents think of us than what our spouses or our God think of us.  What we DO NOT often appreciate or recognize in this dynamic shift is that the deterioration of the relationship at this point has already begun.  If this "break-down" is not confronted and respected for its destructive potential, disaster is never far behind.

In his 1943 “Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell”, Dietrich Bonheoffer offered these words of encouragement to the young couple for whom he wrote the address: “It is a sign of social disintegration when the wife’s service [to her husband] is felt to be degrading or beneath her dignity [as a person], and when the husband who is faithful to his wife is looked on as a weakling or even a fool.”   Sad to say, I think that ship has long sailed.

The same must be said of the relationship between the faithful who constitute the Church (which is the Bride) and Christ (who is the Bridegroom).  There is a level of disintegration evident in such a break-down when we are more concerned about what society thinks of us than what our Lord thinks of us.  That is, being more concerned with being “socially correct” than in being “righteous”.  The Covenant is thus in jeopardy.

"If you want to change the world, don't just give - invest." Heifer International

Challenge #3 in the Love Dare© takes us yet one more step away from self and more directly toward our God, our spouses and, yes, our community.  Let us be frank.  Every small town church has had its challenges in the past as many churches have, and the community is fully aware of these challenges mostly by way of gossip.  Whether the gossip (then AND now) is entirely true or not, that relationship between the church and the community has been damaged, so it is incumbent upon the church - the believing Body of Christ - to take decisive, deliberate steps to restore that relationship. 

It is not about being all things to all people or giving everyone their heart's desires – which is just not possible OR practical.  It’s not about trying to be “popular”, and it is not about allowing the church to be "used" and then tossed aside once used up.  It is entirely about acting within the integrity of the Holy Covenant to be precisely what the Lord has called this church forth to be and not what society or any individual wants the Church to be.  This is exactly how the Love Dare© pertains to the Church as a Body in her relationship to the Lord because we are NOT a “community organization”; we are the Body of Christ! 

Week 1 had to do with what we must "not do"; that is, "patiently endure" reality, stay quiet if we cannot say something nice, and don't respond impulsively.  Week 2 challenged us to "do", to offer an "unexpected gesture" of kindness not only toward our holy God and our spouses but toward others in our community to prove there is indeed life on this planet and especially in the Church.  Now Week 3 takes a more aggressive step and challenges more from us than merely "doing" a nice thing ... like at least CLOSING the bathroom door!  Week 3 requires that we "give" something.

Within the community of faith, St. Paul encourages the Romans to "give preference to one another" (12:10).  Week 3, then, asks us to look at what we might "give" to ourselves (that new fly reel or CD), and challenges us to "give" instead (not in addition to!) that same material consideration to another.  The Love Dare©, as I've pointed out, is specifically geared toward strengthening and, when necessary, restoring married relationships; but I think we can consider that in real life - especially for those of us who do not have spouses – none among the faithful can be excused from this certain challenge.  And "challenge" it is because we have been enculturated and indoctrinated to "go for it" as it pertains to our own desires and what makes us happy.  Even some segments within the Church universal have been guilty of actually helping the faithful blur the line of distinction between divine "blessing" and mindless "consumerism".  And this is what challenges us to move outside of our normal thought processes and helps us to deliberately learn to be more Christ-like in all our relationships.

It is also important to remember that in "giving" to our God, our spouses, and our community, we must be mindful of what is actually ours to give.  The "gift" must come from within - NOT from what is left over.  I'll grant you not many among us have much in the line of "left-overs" as it pertains to our resources, but this is also the point of what it means to give from within.  A genuine gift given from within requires sacrifice; that is, we do without to ensure that others have.  This, I think, is what St. Paul intended when he challenged the Romans to "give preference to one another".  To "give preference" means that we would see to the needs of others before we would mindlessly feed our own desires.  This type of giving, of course, is perfected in and by Christ Himself who preferred that "this cup be taken from Me" but seemed to understand that what was required of Him demanded that He put "self" aside for something much greater.

Within this entire context, we must remember the Bible and the Love Dare© both emphasize "covenant".  With the Lord it is the Eternal Covenant, the terms of which have been spelled out by our God and Father.  With our spouses it is the marriage covenant the terms of which, incidentally, are also spelled out in the Bible and within the Eternal Covenant.  We are protecting and defending those covenants because we understand each supports the other.

Still, we cannot always be sure that what we give will be appreciated for what it is.  It could be that we have been "doing" and "giving" for so long BUT with an ulterior motive that those who would receive our gift might suspect less-than-holy purposes.  But we are also reminded that "doing" and "giving" has nothing to do with what the other persons may or may not do.  Rather the "doing" and the "giving" are our efforts to correct and reform ourselves, getting back to doing what we really should have been doing all along but somehow lost our way.

There is only one "Way" to the Holy Father, and that "Way" is Christ our Lord; but we must remember, too, that even Jesus referred to the "Way" as bigger than even Himself.  It is the Covenant.  It is always the Covenant - with the Lord, the covenant we entered into with the Holy Church when we took our membership vows, and the covenant we entered into with our spouses before the Lord.  The common denominator in all these Promises is the Lord - because the Lord is the foundation.  The Lord is Life itself.  So let us choose to live and live well.  For our Lord ... and for one another.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Thought

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.  Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law; indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart.”  Psalm 119:33-34

The entire psalm is one that speaks praise of the Law, the Lord’s statutes and ordinances.  New Testament theology seems to focus on the “curse” of the law and what Christians don’t “have to” do rather than acknowledge the abundant blessings derived from total and unquestioned obedience to the Lord and His instruction.

I wonder if the psalmist cherry-picked which laws he deemed important enough to observe and which laws were just being “legalistic”?


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Thought

“[Jesus said], Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.  Assuredly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”  Mark 10:14, 15

Children have a special way about them.  Everything we want and everything we hope for is invested in our children (and not only our biological ones!).  As Jesus points out, the ideal – the very best of faith – is perfected in the praise of children because they have not been so tainted by the world that they learn to doubt and to suspect.  They simply believe.  They trust.  They are the very portrait of innocence.  I think this is why the sight and sound of a young one crying as if with a broken heart is what breaks the heart of even the hardest of men – because the beauty and perfection of that Divine image and innocence have been violated. 

This perfection of faith is the absolute standard in the Kingdom of Heaven and is the reason why Jesus obviously has a soft spot for the little ones.  We mistreat them or harm their innocence in any way, and we will stand before the Lord.  I don’t know that anything can save us at that point with that kind of stain because the One who will save us on the Last Day is the One who also said “it would be better if a millstone were tied to your neck and you were dropped into the depth of the sea”.

This is the reason why the Church must always pay attention to the community’s children.  If these little ones have need, the Church is on the hook; but we need not look to such a thing as a “threat” of judgment but rather as an opportunity to do something wonderful for the little ones and to fulfill that to which the Church is called.  It is a Divine Compliment that such an awesome task has been so entrusted to the Lord’s people.  It is the perfect portrait of the Body of Christ, the Church, to which the little children must never be forbidden to come and must never be withheld.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Love Dare #2: kindness

Galatians 5:22-26
Luke 6:27-36

"Kindness is love in action.  If patience is how love reacts in order to minimize a negative circumstance, kindness is how love acts to maximize a positive circumstance.  Patience avoids a problem; kindness creates a blessing.  One is preventive, the other is proactive."  excerpt from "Love Dare", Kendrick

If "kindness is love in action", we must understand "love" in its purest term as the sacrificial love expressed to all of humankind on the Cross.  It is not enough to simply refrain from doing harm and it is not enough to only offer a smile to everyone we meet, even though each of these are good starts just as “patience” is a good start.  It's all good stuff from Above in which we are reminded that being justified before the Lord goes far beyond simple acknowledgement or a "personal" relationship to be kept to oneself.

If it is hard to love those and do good for those who hate us, I think it may be even harder to accept Jesus' words in Luke's version of the "Sermon on the Mount": "[The Lord] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked."  Our Lord is "kind" to those who do not even acknowledge His goodness?  Our holy God and Father is "kind" - not merely tolerant but "proactively" kind?? - to those who are "wicked"??  How can we see a gracious God who would bless those who do not even acknowledge His goodness just as He blesses those who are thankful for every morsel of blessing, however great or small?  It comes dangerously close to suggesting that being a disciple of Christ and trying to emulate His life is an exercise in futility if those who are "ungrateful" and "wicked" get the same divine consideration!

Yet they did.  And they do.  "Kindness" extended is the expression of grace personified in Christ, not only in His sacrifice on the Cross but also by the life He led.  He extended Himself even to those whom He knew would betray Him; we are reminded of this at the Last Supper as Jesus looked Judas in the eye, knew what was coming, had predicted Peter would deny knowing Him and others would cut and run, and STILL went through with it!  Why?  For the sake of the Lord's Covenant.  Not in the vain hope that "some" might choose to receive the gift of grace but for the sake of the Eternal Covenant.  Not only for the “faithful” but ALSO for the “ungrateful” and the “wicked”!  All for the sake of the Covenant - the ONLY thing that is eternal and unchangeable.

The book of Hosea is worth a re-read if we have forgotten that the Lord showed His fidelity time and again.  The prophet was commanded by the Lord to marry "an adulterous wife", a prostitute, so that the Lord could show His people in a real way what His love really looks like even in the face of infidelity.  Gomer, the prostitute, was given a home, gave birth to Hosea's children, and like Israel, she failed to see and appreciate the good she had at home - and so she left.  Like Israel, she departed from the Covenant.  "She said, 'I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink" (2:5).  Yet the Lord responded, "She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them.  Then she will say, 'I will go back to my husband at first, for then I was better off than now" (2:7)

In other words, she will seek that which seems to offer some sense of personal gratification and pleasure but in the end is just empty and meaningless – as Israel did.  She will earnestly seek, but she will never find "true love" because the world will only use her for its own purposes and then throw her back when she is used up.  Just as the world did to Israel then, and just as the world will do the Church today if the Church foolishly turns its back on the Lord and pursues the world and its lusts.  But due to the “kindness” of the Lord, "home" is never far away, again, for the sake of the Lord's Covenant and those who freely choose to abide by its terms.  And yes, dear friends, there are terms; unbendable, unchanging terms.

To illustrate His fidelity to His people, the Lord commanded Hosea: "Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress.  Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods ... "(3:1).  So just as surely as 1 John expresses that “God is love", we must surely see that the love which springs forth from the Lord is the same love expressed to the wicked as well as to the good; the same love expressed to the ungrateful as well as to the grateful.  If it were any less, it would not be "love" at all because such conditional affection offered only to those from whom we may expect something requires no heart at all, no real sacrifice.  It is only an "investment", a lust for what we expect to gain.

"'The mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed', says the Lord who has compassion on you" (Isaiah 54:10).  The prophet is reminded, as we are reminded, that the Lord's steadfast love is for the sake of something much greater than any individual, just as Peter was reminded that the Lord "shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34).  When we understand this, when we come to terms with this, we can more fully appreciate the Lord's "steadfast love" for those "in every nation"; even those who are “ungrateful” and those who are “wicked”.  

You and I are fickle.  More often than not, we are inclined to respond to that which appeals to us at any given moment.  Even though we are justified before the Lord by faith and baptized into His Covenant (not ours), we can still be easily distracted by things and persons who are sometimes "less than holy" pursuits and not worthy of our time and efforts – but we think they are … in the impulsive moment!  We are actually inclined to call these things "blessings"; not because they are but only because we want them!  These are the things we would pursue as relentlessly as Gomer pursued her own heart's desires and realized there was nothing there.  This is why such attention must be afforded the Lord's Covenant - because it is not a "moving" target that will only move when we get closer! 

"We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us - NOT because of any works of righteousness that we had done but according to His mercy ..." (Titus 3:3,4).  

It is this very "goodness and loving kindness" we are called, commanded, and commissioned to extend to others - not because they have or may do right things but because such "goodness and loving kindness" comes from something much more enduring than anything we can offer.  We offer fruit of the Covenant of the Lord because the Lord Himself is "kind to the ungrateful and the wicked".  Dare we choose to be or to do less than what was done for us ... in spite of our active "disobedience"?  When we looked more like "Gomer" than like Jesus?

"For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance (patience!), and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.  For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ; for anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins" (2 Peter 1:5-9).

For the disciple there is nothing benign about following Christ.  We are challenged by these and many other biblical examples to rise above ourselves and our own desires and impulses.  We are transformed by the Living Spirit of the Risen Lord for His sake and for the sake of His Covenant - and not our own purposes or pursuits - because it is the Covenant sealed with His Blood.  It is then that we are called in such a spirit of "kindness" toward not only one another but perhaps especially toward those from whom we will expect and probably receive nothing.    At least, nothing in this life except perhaps the satisfaction that as we continue to grow in faith and love and as we continue to faithfully endure the challenges we face, that we can look to the Lord with confidence and say, "I think I get it." 

Last week was a challenge to exercise "patience" by saying nothing negative and by not responding in anger to those things which easily anger us.  This week we are challenged to move a step further.  Not only shall we refrain from fits of anger by displaying the same patience our Lord displays to us by His grace, but this week must be marked by "unexpected gestures" as simple acts of kindness. 

We must do this especially with our spouses and our children but not ONLY our spouses and children - because all good knowledge and social stability springs forth from a home filled with and informed by grace.  We must do this with every single person we come into contact with; those who are desperate for some sign - ANY SIGN - of compassion as well as for those who actually deserve a fat lip!  The fat lip is not ours to give, but patience, mercy, compassion, and loving kindness ARE those things we have been given in abundance – to not only HAVE a good life but to SHARE that good life in abundance.

It won't be easy, but True Love as personified in Christ will never be easy for us, just as it surely was not easy for Him - but always worth the effort for the sake of the Eternal Covenant!

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

A Thought

“[The Lord] shall say to them, ‘The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under these heavens.’” Jeremiah 10:11

Earlier in the chapter is stated “a wooden idol is a worthless doctrine” (vs 8).  We can understand statues and other icons that seem to demand our primary focus and attention, but the inference that the “wooden idol” had already become a “doctrine” – that is, a practice of devotion – hits a little closer to home because even though we don’t have statues that demand our devotion, we can easily evaluate our workaday lives and see what does demand (and get!) our devotion; that which becomes our regular practice of devotion. 

In our society we have justified our materialism and lust for “stuff” as “blessings” or as “signs” from Above.  We have justified our consumerism without understanding that our devotion to the acquisition of such “stuff” has become our primary “doctrine”; that is, our practice that gets our full devotion and attention.  It is this improper focus and devotion that eventually brought Israel down because they ultimately became a nation with no God except those “gods” that could be acquired and owned to serve one’s own purposes.

Let us put away the idols that only serve to separate us from the Lord; the idols that “shall perish”.  Let us renew our commitment to the Lord and His Church, the Covenant that will not perish.  Let us renew our commitment to the knowledge of Christ our Lord who calls us “out” to share, not “in” to keep, acquire, and accumulate.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Thought

"I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know. God may call any one of us to respond to some far away problem or support those who have been so called. But we are finite and he will not call us everywhere or to support every worthy cause. And real needs are not far from us.”               - C. S. Lewis

Each individual church can only do so much, just as each individual Christian can only do so much – but “do” we must.  Even as the real strength of an individual church must be assessed, it must be done within a context not of what is practical but what is reasonable within its mission which is stated by Mr. Lewis: “real needs are not far from us”.  There are missions and missionaries to support as best we can, but we cannot overlook our own neighborhoods from which the next missionary may come!  It is the small things that make big differences in the life of the local church.  It is not about “marketing” or “market shares”; it is about the Gospel.  It is about giving others what we ourselves truly need and have been given by the local church.

The Lord will show us where He wants us to go but only if we ask with a heart truly devoted to His mission.  “Whom shall I send” is the perpetual and eternal question from Above.  This is the earnest invitation to the Church to step up and be all we are called to be.


Monday, May 14, 2012

A Thought

“Jesus stands out among the great moral teachers of history, a Truth that Lee Strobel finally become convinced of.  Strobel graduated from Yale Law and worked fourteen years in journalism; at one time he was the legal affairs editor of the Chicago Tribune.  In 1979 his wife, Leslie, came home and shared that she had become a Christian.  As an atheist, Strobel was shocked and dismayed.  Yet he became intrigued by the change in his wife’s character.  He had to admit he never seriously studied the unusual claims about Jesus – that He had risen from the dead and that He claimed to be the Son of God.  Strobel believe it was all nonsense, a legend others had concocted about Jesus for various reasons.  So, employing his investigative competencies and experience, he decided it was time to check out the evidence for the claims of Christianity and what the Bible taught about Jesus Christ.  After a two-year extensive study, ‘by November 8, 1981, my legend thesis, to which I had doggedly clung for so many years, had been thoroughly dismantled … The atheism I had embraced for so long buckled under the weight of historical truth.’”  Excerpt from “Living into the Life of Jesus”, Klaus Issler

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world”.  It is what we believe we, as a Church, have been called and commissioned and set apart for.  I don’t know if this man’s wife became a United Methodist, but it seems clear that her own transformation in faith was compelling enough to crack the hard shell of her husband’s atheism.  Her character alone was not, however, the deciding factor for Mr. Strobel; but it was her character that got his attention and led him to learn more, and this led him to Scripture and, ultimately, to Truth.

We cannot always know that our Christian character will compel others to such soul-searching or even faithful conclusions about our Lord, but we can be sure that the integrity of our witness will always bear fruit.  Like it or not, people are watching us especially if they know we are disciples of Christ.  It may seem they only are looking to find fault or to reveal our hypocrisy, but I am becoming more convinced the unbelieving world is looking for a reason to embrace our Lord.  And the only reason they may need could well come from your own witness or mine.

Be Christ today in someone’s life.  He matters.  His Church matters.  Our witness matters … to Him AND to them.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

What Rights?

If the incessant and persistent demand of the gay-rights movement within the United Methodist Church has done anything, it has made me more consciously aware of my own sins.  I am constantly reminded to remove the man "planks" from my own eye before I concern myself with the "speck" that is in the eyes of others.  It never has occurred to me, however, to demand that the Church affirm my refusal to rise above my carnal impulses (Romans 13:14).  Rather it is (thank God!) the task of the Church to correct me, admonish me, teach me, and encourage me to reach higher than my own base desires. 

I am a full-time, licensed local pastor working (albeit slowly) toward ordination.  Until that time when I finally reach that point in my vocation, I struggle with anxiety each year with the possibility that I may not be reappointed to the charge entrusted to my care - or any other charge, for that matter - and am thrown back out into an economy that is not producing jobs.  I am completely at the mercy of the Cabinet and the bishop.  In the wake of General Conference 2012, apparently elders in full connection are now in that same boat (although my guess is they will still and perhaps rightly get first and due consideration for appointments). 

I cannot say I was completely on board with the concept of "guaranteed" appointments (read "job security") nor could I find fault with such "guarantees".  In fact, a recent discussion on this very topic in addition to benefits, pensions, and what some have considered excessive salaries, one wonders how many among the clergy would stay with the United Methodist Church if pensions and paid health insurance and "excessive salaries" were no longer on the table.  One would wonder whether such moves would "thin the herd" to the detriment of the UMC - or - strengthen the church's hand in genuine and devoted pastoral leadership by forcing out those who are more concerned with pensions, pay, and perks.  It might also go directly to answer the fundamental question being asked of the homosexuals' demands: are there any "rights" related to appointment of clergy?

For the time being, all I can do is continue to forge ahead and challenge the congregation entrusted to my care to reach out and "be" the Body of Christ not strictly for the sake of the UMC or for the "numbers" (although we must always remember the "numbers" do represent souls).  For the sake of "job security", I get one more year to use my gifts and graces to the vocation to which I believe I am called.  And if my faults and failures (too numerous to list here!) are overlooked in favor of the "big picture", then I must say I am privileged to be offered yet another year to work for the Kingdom in the United Methodist Church.

I am painfully and anxiously aware that I do not share the same Conference standing as an elder in full connection, but mere membership in the Conference is not really the point of ordination.  Is it?  If it is, there is something much more fundamentally wrong than just a bad or inefficient structural church.  The flaw is inherent in the complex tension between what we think we are entitled to and what we are privileged to be entrusted with, and whether clergy confuse the two.  I think this tension must be examined and honestly dealt with before we can worry about restructure.  Indeed I wonder if we can even go about the business of ministry until this is settled.     

For the past nine years or more (four of which has been spent in full-time pastoral ministry), I have not known "job security" (my former secular employer made sure of that, "fear" being the motivational tool of choice).  Most of my parishioners in all charges I've served do not know "job security" in absolute terms.  In the real world in which we are called to minister, there is no security.  None.  Our charges are completely at the mercy of small-business and corporate profits in a challenging economy.  Surely these have certain "rights" to job security.  Perhaps.  But whether we think they do or do not, the real world says they have no "right" to work at "a" particular place; they merely have a right to work and earn their daily bread wherever they can find work.  Do we not, in our ministry to these who struggle with such anxieties, encourage our charges to be thankful ... instead of demanding?

So for those of you who have somehow come to the conclusion that you believe you have a "right" to serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, whether ordained or gay, you will hopefully forgive me for not sharing your sentiments or your tears even as you are now compelled to share my (and your own parishioners') anxiety.

Love Dare #1: patience

Romans 15:1-6
Matthew 18:21-35

I have admittedly been on a tear lately about my lack of patience for the "superstitions" of Christianity I have witnessed in others - AND - have even noticed in myself to an extent even though I don't think "superstition" is the appropriate word.  I still have my dogmatic religious practices I have long believed to be necessary components of worship, particularly Holy Communion.  I have shared my observations and perceptions of "magic prayers" by which we have reduced our Lord to a "genie" who does our bidding by granting the "desires of [our] hearts" (Psalm 37:4) even while we overlook or ignore the "deceitfulness" of our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).  We take, literally and personally, Jesus' own words: "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve" while we gloss over the prayerful words taught to us by Christ: "[The Lord's] will be done on earth as it is in heaven".

Humans are not a very patient lot when it comes to waiting for that which we desire most.  We are typically "get it done" types who see a need (or desire), and then go straight to whatever means necessary to achieve or acquire - to accomplish a goal strictly on our terms.  The "heart wants what the heart wants", right?  Right.  Except that we often forget Jeremiah’s warning of hearts that can and often will deceive us. 

"I ... beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love ..." (Ephesians 4:1-2 NRSV)

So if we are to understand St. Paul's admonition to the Ephesians, we must surely see Paul is not talking about trying to manipulate or force "what is" into something more pleasing to ourselves.  Instead we are being challenged to learn how to deal with reality in a righteous way - "patiently".  He expresses the same sentiment to the Romans: "We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak ..." (15:1)

We can see the many things we would change in our homes, our churches, and our society if we were rulers with absolute power.  Noble though such ambition may be, it is not realistic nor is it anywhere near what Jesus asks of us.  Nothing will change - including our own minds! - simply by making demands or expecting something.  The noble – and much higher path - begins with "patience" … and a very deep breath.  It's like the saying goes, "You get the chicken not by smashing the egg but by hatching it."

So in a manner of speaking, no one is going to do right by us because it is often that our expectations and demands are simply not realistic.  The truth of this statement is expressed in our lack of "patience" for things that do not work for us, things that seem to work against us, and things that personally offend us.  These lists are exhaustive not because we are so needy but because we have been conditioned to believe that because we want it, we somehow become entitled to it only by virtue of desire.  And if we "want" it, we must "need" it.  So when we don't get it, someone must be at fault and our "righteous" anger is aroused!  We become angry because we fail to realize the world does not function on our terms - and never will.  So our anger, righteous or not, will be counter-productive.  It will destroy rather than edify.  It will break down rather than build up. 

Jesus' parable about the 'unforgiving servant' (Matthew 18:21-35) is easily interpreted as a "forgive as you have been forgiven" story, and rightly so.  Yet there is much more to the story than this, and it has everything to do with what we can reasonably expect from others - perhaps particularly our spouses - especially if we have come to believe there is anyone on the face of this earth who "owes" us anything.  It has been my observation that as much as we may demand from other persons in our lives, we rarely believe we "owe" as much as we are "owed".  Because of this, the family suffers.  Marriages suffer.  Our children suffer.  The Church suffers, and ultimately society suffers - all from unrealistic expectations and demands.

There is also a tricky manner of "patience" that is often overlooked or rejected outright, and that component of "patience" is directly connected to "suffering" which is directly connected to our concept of "grace", the “grace” we expect but do not always offer.  Because we do not understand the biblical context of "suffering" as we should, we fail to get what is being conveyed (not strictly because of careless interpretations but most often because of careless and inattentive reading and study of Scripture ... that is, if we bother at all!). 

To "suffer" does not always mean "to be miserable" or “unhappy” except in those cases in which we allow ourselves to be "miserable" or “unhappy”.  And this is usually attributed to our notion of what we think we are entitled to.  But if we "suffer" as to "allow" reality to have its place and learn to work "patiently" within that reality even if we don't like it, then we can take "what is" and work more diligently to build up rather than tear down. 

Jesus' lesson is clear as He had expressed to Peter: forgive "not seven times but SEVENTY-SEVEN times!"  That is, forgive as often as you are asked to (especially if you expect the same consideration!).  It is also clear that the master of the parable had already "patiently endured" the slave several times over in allowing such an enormous debt to accumulate in the first place (consider it "grace").  Each time more debt was incurred, the master was "suffering" (or "allowing") a loss he must surely have known could never possibly be repaid by a slave.  Even when it came time to settle the account, selling the slave and the slave's family would not likely recoup such a substantial amount of money.  For the mere sake of compassion, however, the master took a deep breath, acknowledged the reality, and gave the slave back his life. 

Remember I had previously spoken (written) about doing the Love Dare© and expecting or demanding nothing in return?  "Patience" is just that; doing the righteous thing under all circumstances.  It is not about demanding the right thing to be done by others - or - doing for the sake of what we might get in return.  The dynamic of the parable is not in what the master expected to receive in return for his grace.  Rather we see the story unfolding in what the master could reasonably hope for as "fruit" for his gracious suffering - that is, "allowing" the slave to walk away scot-free in the hope that the slave would remember to give as freely as he had been given.

None of this is to suggest we will never come out of a situation disappointed or with wounded pride because when it comes to human dynamics, we can never be sure how anyone - our spouses, our children, our brethren in the church, or our unbelieving neighbors - will respond or if they will even respond at all.  When we strive for the higher ideal, however, regardless of the hoped-for outcome, we can be confident that we have done the right thing - and the right thing will NEVER come back to bite us!  But a foul temper, an angry response, and hastily spoken words almost always will come back to haunt us somehow, some way!

In using the parable of the unforgiving servant, however, we must always remember Jesus is telling us about the Last Day with the “master” as the Holy God.  We must never attempt to insert ourselves into that role in some attempt to “right a wrong” that has been done, using that role as a way to excuse ourselves from “patient endurance”.  Those we deal with are as free to come and go as you and I are free to come and go.  They are as free to be human as you and I are to be human - and thus prone to make mistakes.

It also seems the impatient person does not have much to look forward to and is challenged to look beyond the end of one’s own nose.  No hope.  No sense of great anticipation, but there is an intense “need” or a “desire” for immediate satisfaction.  The impatient person would smash the egg rather than allow "what is" to develop ... on its own terms and not his own with just a little nurture and TLC.  The patient person, on the other hand, is not stuck "in the moment" but can endure the moment realistically as "evolving".  This means our spouses, our children, our fellow workers in the faith, and even our unbelieving neighbors can be as human - and as imperfect - as we already are but can be allowed to "evolve"! 

Above all else, we must not ignore what is written in the Psalms about the "patient endurance" of our Lord toward us: "You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Psalm 86:15) 

This is the message of the Gospel of our Lord, that He is "slow to anger" and "abounding in steadfast love".  It is the Good News we have been given; it is the Good News we are expected to give.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Thought

“The Love Dare takes courage.  If you accept the Dare, you must take the view that instead of following your heart, you are choosing to lead it.  The world says to follow your heart but if you are not leading it, then someone or something else is.  The Bible says that “the heart is more deceitful than all else” (Jeremiah 17:9), and it will always pursue that which feels right at the moment.”  Excerpt from “Love Dare”, Kendrick

Knowing the right thing from the wrong thing is not always as easy as it sounds because we have cultural conditioning and natural impulses that work against us.  It is so often said, especially by Christians who do not devote themselves to Scripture study, that whatever “feels” right must surely be a sign from God.  This can often be the “deceitfulness” Jeremiah warns us against.  To “love” in spite of our impulses, however, is the real challenge because it calls us to rise above our impulses and learn the difference with genuine discernment.  Think of how many you know personally who have abandoned hearth and home by “following” their hearts!

To love as Jesus commands we love requires a colossal act of the will.  It is a definitive decision and act of human consciousness to go “against the grain”.  This is precisely the path Jesus leads us on.  It’s not always pretty and it’s not always personally satisfying, but it will always be only one step behind Christ who leads us faithfully … if we will allow Him.


Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Of What Kind

I took a “quiz” on a religious website that is supposedly designed to tell the quiz taker “What kind of Christian” one is.  The questions were primarily directed toward how one views the Bible in general.  Like any quiz or survey, however, the answers (four from which to choose) were not always close to what I believe.  The more I delved into the questions and the choice of answers provided, the more I began to question exactly what I actually do believe.

I can honestly affirm what is professed in the Nicene Creed, but I wonder if those particular points – which are specific points of Christian orthodoxy – go far enough.  Can it be true that I am a “post evangelical” Christian, a term I am not even sure I fully understand?

It doesn’t sound all bad, of course.  A “post evangelical” (PE) is one who has moved beyond the fundamentals.  A  PE has not stopped believing in the Messiah who came in Jesus but has begun asking more questions and considering more in-depth applications of these fundamentals.  I had long ago begun asking and challenging fellow Christians to expound on exactly what they mean when they say they believe, simply, “in Jesus” and that they have been “saved”. 

That He is who He claimed to be has to mean more than a simple acknowledgement of His existence because Jesus was not Himself the Almighty – He never claimed to be.  That He claimed to represent something much larger than even Himself also does not seem to quite hit the mark because this requires an understanding of what He represents. What restricts us in our human capacity to comprehend is that strange sense that one must be either/or; that is, one must be a fundamentalist who believes the entire Bible literally, or a liberal who literally takes “liberty” with what is written to make it fit more neatly into one’s life.  I suppose this is what I find most disturbing because what I believe – or what I think I believe – does not fit so neatly into one category or another.

There are many statements attributed to Jesus that allude to what must take place in order to “fulfill what was written”, but I have had professors who suggested these statements were later inserted into the text so that a case could be made for such fulfillment.  In other words, the Gospel writers were “making an argument”.  The same can be said for the Qu’ran and the Book of Mormon.  Each is expressing principles, of course, but each also has substantial statements of justification not only for faith but also, more or less importantly, for what is actually written.

In making a case, then, could it not be as easily stated that the Gospel writers were “searching the Scriptures” for those prophecies they believed had been fulfilled in Jesus?  So it may not have been that they were trying to “make a case” more than they were trying to convince themselves and their intended audiences that all that had been witnessed in Jesus’ life was indeed fulfillment of prophecy.  To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that some ancient writers were trying to manipulate more than they were trying to inform.  This all still begs the question: does it all have to fit so neatly into one category or another?

None of these questions can be answered in absolute terms but there is one component of the PE movement I can embrace: there exists a foundation upon which one can build.  The Kingdom of Heaven cannot be so neatly categorized in human terms, and maybe it is this concept we must first embrace.  It does not mean a continuing search would be futile; it only means the search must continue.  For the moment, perhaps it is enough that I am simply a “church-going” Christian (in my case, a pastor and preacher) who refuses to settle. 

Jesus said, “Seek and you will find”.  Let us pray, then, that this is enough for the moment – and not nearly enough for the moments to come.   

Monday, May 07, 2012

A Thought

“Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness.  Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.”  Psalm 37:3-4

One must always remember that “desires of the heart” are necessarily linked to hearts devoted to the Lord and His own will.  Often our hearts can deceive us because our own desires are not always in sync with the will of the Lord.  It is very poetic and romantic to say “follow your heart”, but it is more realistic to say “the heart wants what the heart wants” regardless of the source of that desire.

But when we take “delight in the Lord”, we enjoin ourselves to Him in such a way that the “desires of our hearts” are His desires; not our own.  It is wisdom from Above that teaches us to tell the difference.


Sunday, May 06, 2012

Love: the other four-letter word

1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Though there will likely not be any Academy Award nominations forthcoming, the movie "Fireproof" is about as powerful and as inspirational as they come. 

The movie focuses on a young couple having marital problems, problems so profound and so long ignored that at the beginning of the movie there is virtually no "marriage" at all - and divorce is imminent.  The husband has real anger issues, inappropriate addictions, and misplaced priorities all of which cause him to focus inwardly.  The ironic thing is that the husband is a firefighter who gives selflessly, heroically on the job.  What he gives at home is an entirely different matter.  At home he "takes" and he "expects".  He enters his home with a sense of entitlement, and in this mindset his wife has been relegated to second-class status as only incidental to the husband’s expectations and personal desires.  For the paycheck, he "gives" fully of himself even at great risk to his personal safety.  For the home and for the sake of his marriage, he "gives" nothing and he "gets" nothing except a lot of heartache and frustration.

His father is aware of the marital problems, so he offers to pass on to his son the very thing that saved - and continues to preserve - his own marriage called the Love Dare©.  It is a Christ-centered, Bible-based study that helps participants to define AND appropriate "love" in their lives.  The book itself is only a tool that complements the Bible, but if done properly it will become the heaviest and perhaps most dangerous tool in the box because it demands the reader's full attention, respect, and commitment; and as the father pointed out to his son, it guarantees absolutely nothing - from the "other" person since its focus is not on one’s expectation of "others".  In fact, the "other" person is incidental to the Love Dare© itself, regardless of who that “other” person may be.  Reconciliation with the "other" person is the ultimate goal - in this case, one's spouse - but the Love Dare© does not consider how or even whether the "other" person will respond.  It is primarily about "fixing" oneself and learning to “love” unconditionally so one may learn to appreciate "love" for its own sake. 

That very idea is such a foreign concept to our culture that even as so many have watched the movie and exalted its virtuous message, it is clearly evident that in the end "it was only a movie", not applicable or practical to “my” situation.  This is because our culture has so perverted the essence of the word “love” itself that it has no meaning and only conditional value. 

Through the Church’s carelessness, "love" has been robbed of its legitimate power – because we fail to understand and respect that power and the context in which we use the word.  In the end we toss the word about so casually that we become so used to the word it no longer has any impact – a lot like what we have done with the Holy Name itself!  And because we are so casual with the word, it has no meaning except toward how we happen to feel at a particular time toward a particular thing or a particular person – conditionally, of course, on whether that thing or person is useful to us.

The Greek offers to us four different kinds of what we have generalized as "love" in the New Testament, but each time the Greek words are expressed - regardless of the context - they are translated in English to simply "love".  The English translations themselves have in many cases virtually robbed the word of its genuine and transformative power!  The King James Version makes some references to "charity" in place of "love" such as in 1 Corinthians 13, but even “charity” has lost its truest meaning because we do not understand the biblical context in what it means in flowing FROM the Lord as “agape”, or “sacrificial, unconditional love”.

This is not, however, about learning to speak or read Greek.  This is about understanding and embracing the fullest and richest context of the biblical use of the word "love" and how it translates in our lives and in the witness of the Church.  This is so that when 1 John makes a general statement that "God is love", we can more fully understand what the writer means when he broadens the context: "as [the Lord] is [love], so are we [to love] in this world"; that is, those who are truly transformed.  But before we can “be” the kind of love the Lord is, we have to actually know what “love” really means – in AND outside the marital covenant.  The Love Dare© attempts to illustrate not only how to understand the word but how to biblically appropriate and express "love" in our lives.  It may even challenge us to choose our use of the word more carefully. 

It is unfortunate that "love" is no longer 'church language' as is 'sanctify' or 'justify' or 'salvation' or 'grace', but the only reason this is true is because the Church has allowed its language to be misappropriated by its own carelessness by using "love" as an "excuse", like "grace".  In other words, we cannot live "love" because we do not understand "love".  And even as we might be able to truthfully state that “God loves me”, we fail to understand that this kind of abiding love must necessarily be outwardly expressed not by what we say but by what we do – even for those who have hurt us – just as Jesus teaches!

Nowhere is this truer than in the cases of some churches and pastors using "physical intimacy" - within the context of marriage, of course - as a "tool" to help solidify and strengthen marriages.  And they're making a big splash - and big headlines! - about it and publicizing it and publishing books about it.  All the while, they continue to buy into and perpetuate the world's biggest lie about what "love" is truly all about – and its origin!  Now I am not naive nor am I a "babe in the woods", and I will not try to tell you this is not a big issue in the marital relationship because it is!  But if this one thing is THE thing holding the marriage together, that marriage - I dare say - is doomed.  DOOMED.  It is not a matter of “if” that marriage will fail … but “when”. 

That "behind closed doors" challenge (where, incidentally, it should stay!) is strictly defined according to one's physical capacity and it comes dangerously close to suggesting that if "this" does not sustain or strengthen your marriage, nothing will.  My dear friends, "this" has nothing to do with "love".  Nothing.  Except, of course, in the "eros" context - that "erotic love" which will "give" only as much as it expects to "gain".  This, of course, is not "love"; it is "lust".  At the very least, it is "infatuation" which will inevitably fade with time.  It will not last beyond the "newness" or the "novelty" unless or until "true love" is embraced - "love" for its own sake; not for what we might expect. 

The Love Dare© is focused primarily on the marital relationship, but it is useful outside that context because of its entire focus on “selflessness” and reconciling oneself to the Lord first; learning to live for the Lord FIRST, learning to love the Lord FIRST – just as it is written.  It is designed not only for marriages in distress but also for those couples who will dare to DEFY the world's generalizations and expectations - and choose to glorify our Lord in their relationship to one another; because it is the marriage covenant and relationship that best exemplifies that relationship between the Bridegroom who is Christ, and the Bride who is the Holy Church.  It would also be very useful for engaged couples to explore before they enter into the marital covenant so that they can know what really matters.  In fact, I may make it required reading before I will agree to marry another couple!

We must not worry about trying to go back and "unring" any bells, to vainly try to undo mistakes we’ve made in the past.  The past is passed; there is nothing useful about going backward where the anger and the hurt feelings are still fresh.  The Journey begins today.  Today is literally the first day of the rest of this church's life, and we must resolve to celebrate Renewed Life – or prepare for the wake! 

The Love Dare© is a 40-day challenge - not unlike the 40 days Jesus endured in the wilderness to prepare Himself for His ministry.  However, I submit to you that because of the importance of this challenge and all it entails, we will address each principle for the next 40 weeks as we will all be challenged to live that principle for an entire week - in AND outside the home.  For the sake of the Lord and His Holy Church, we must work diligently as a church to restore broken relationships, work tirelessly to mend relationships that stand on the edge of disaster, and work faithfully to strengthen existing relationships that will - and must - serve the Lord and His Church well and faithfully. 

It is time to RECLAIM and RECALIBRATE and RESTORE Godly love in our lives because our Lord who "is Love" has declared to us, "apart from Me you can do nothing".  And this is true because as the Lord says "apart from Me you can do nothing”, He also says, “[apart from Me] you are [only] the dust to which you will return."  We are ALIVE in the Spirit – OR – we are already DEAD in the flesh - so I propose this church “choose Life, that [we] (and this church!) may live” beyond our own time … eternally from this moment. 

Let today be the Day of Departure from excuses for failure or selfishness.  Let today be the beginning of renewed commitments to sanctification, that state of spiritual perfection IN THE LORD.  Let today be the first day of the renewed strength of Christ’s Holy Church … at Asbury, in our homes, and in our lives.  We will rise up together – OR – be destroyed individually.  It is time for genuine Transformation.  It is time for Revival that will only come if we resolve to learn to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

It begins – or ends - today.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.