Monday, July 30, 2012

A Thought

“Be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.”  Joshua 1:7

The people of Israel were on the border to Canaan, the land to which the Lord had promised to lead them.  Moses had passed away, so the mantle of leadership had been handed over to Joshua.  Joshua had been told by the Lord, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.  I will not leave you nor forsake you” (vs 5d). Then this certain promise of assurance was followed by the certain conditions to “observe the law” – “do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left” – that is, don’t add to it as you see fit, and don’t take away according to your own desires.  The Lord was speaking in no uncertain terms: follow Me on My path, not the path of your own choosing.

We Christians should not be so afraid of the Law that to observe it we are more afraid of what our neighbors may think of us.  And we must not get so bound up in St. Paul’s statement that “we are not under law” that we forget obedience to the Lord is about the Law.  This is how we are defined seven days a week, by how we live and how we work AND how we worship.

Christ is the Law and the prophets fulfilled; that is, “perfected”. The Law is not about what we “shalt not” do; it is about what we are honored to do for our God, for His Church, and for one another so that we may be all we are created to be: a freed people not bound to rules and regulations, not bound to sin and death; but bound to one another in our Holy Father so that all may prosper and live well.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mere Words

Leviticus 19:9-18
Matthew 5:17-20

Did you ever, as children, invoke "love" toward a friend, particularly a friend of the opposite gender, and rather than say "I love you" would instead say, "I love you in God's way"?  It was an innocent, child-like way of expressing the understanding that even if we did not "love" someone the way they may have preferred to be loved, say as a boyfriend or girlfriend, we as children nevertheless understood the fundamental commandment from our Lord to "love one another".  I don’t remember, however, whether we considered the spiritual compulsion to "love our neighbor as ourselves" because kids rarely think in terms of such selfless giving - especially toward the ones who break our stuff!  Surely the Lord could not have meant THAT mean kid!

Ah, but in fact He did mean “that” kid - especially “that” mean kid who broke our stuff.  This careless booger probably never had his own stuff and was likely jealous of our stuff - or so our parents may have said.  This kid may not have had as nice a home as we had, he may not have had supper waiting for him when he got home - well, you get the idea.  The mean kid who broke other people’s stuff may have been constantly reminded by our stuff that sometimes life just isn't fair and that his lack of respect for others was just a passive-aggressive manifestation.  This mean kid who broke stuff discovered over time, however, that it wasn't just that life was unfair; it was people who made life unfair.

It wasn't my fault the mean kid didn't have nice stuff, and it surely wasn't my fault that whatever stuff he had was already broken because he just didn't take care of his stuff - and it also wasn't my fault that maybe his stuff was broken and discarded long before he ever saw it ... but it was all his parents could afford.  Yes, it is true enough that life is not fair - but it is equally true that "fair" is relative because humans generally understand "fair" only within a personal context and boundary.  That is, if it works for "me", it's fair.  If it does not work for "you", well, that's just life - and life is not always fair.

Such a complacent and self-centered mindset does not fit AT ALL within the Divine Law, that same Law which revealed to us not only our Holy God and Creator but our Creator’s design for how His people must live with AND for one another, "mandated" rather than "recommended".  You know how some folks are fond of saying, "These are not the TEN 'SUGGESTIONS" - well, I assure you there are many more than just "TEN"; and they are indeed "commandments".  There is nothing within the Law that suggests even for a moment that "fate" or "destiny" plays a part in the unfairness of life.  Things happen as they do according to what we understand about our Lord - AND - according to what is most important to us as people of the Lord.

Love Dare© #11 says that "Love cherishes", which is to say that our understanding of "love" assigns value to the things and the persons in our lives.  To understand this lesson, then, requires we are first mindful that the "Greatest Commandment" as revealed to Moses and affirmed by Jesus is that we are to "love the Lord our God ... FIRST ... with all we are and with all we have".  And Jesus reminds us that our love for our Lord is expressed by our willingness to obey Him ... without question and without hesitation; "If you love Me, obey My commandments".  Our love for our Lord is not expressed by the ways and words we use to excuse ourselves from the obligations of the Divine Law; that Law which requires the people of the Lord to watch out for and protect the "least" among us; those for whom "life is not fair".

A careless rendering of Christian theology continually proclaims that "grace trumps everything".  Well, it is true enough that Divine Grace is by the Lord's hand.  It is equally true that the “merciful will be shown mercy” as it is true that “those who forgive will be forgiven”.  What is NOT TRUE is that Divine Grace is an excuse for Christians - a cheap word - by which we may excuse ourselves from the obligations of the Divine Law as revealed to Moses and affirmed by Christ.  Jesus Himself reminds us He IS "the Law and the prophets".  In other words, Jesus is THE WORD of the Holy and Almighty God -not just some of the words; the words we "like" or only the words that suit our own purposes.

So what we cherish - that is, what is of great value to us - has everything to do with how we understand our relationship with one another through the Lord and His Holy Church, biblically defined as “The Body of Christ”.  If life is not fair - and there are many who will attest to this reality - what does such a proclamation say to or about the Church, the Body of Christ? 

We have spoken before about "church language", things we say and words we use that make a little sense to those in the Church but that make virtually no sense to those outside the Church.  And the reason for this is simple: what we cherish, what is of great value to us, can often defy the language we use.  Our love of "our stuff" invalidates our "church language" because our love of "our stuff" is in fact our public testimony.  Those outside the Covenant, outside the Church might "hear" the “mere words”, but they will believe what they actually "see".

Now it would be easy for us to say if those outside want to know and understand what is going on inside the Church, they should just come.  They should bring themselves to worship, and they should join a Bible study class - IF - they really want to know.  If they would only give us a chance, they could discover for themselves what the fuss is all about, and they could eventually come to understand "our" language.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It would all depend on whether our "church language" matches our "real life" - you know, the life we have apart from the Church. 

Now we would - and should - welcome all who would join us for worship and fellowship, but we must “meditate upon the Law”, as the psalmist writes, to understand what the Lord means about "righteousness" - especially as an essential component of "commandment".  Like "love" and "grace", however, "righteousness" has become another of those $20-dollar "church words" that is carelessly tossed about, not clearly understood, and certainly not lived ... not to its fullest, God-given, and God-COMMANDED potential – especially if we acknowledge that “life is not always fair”. 

The short passage from Leviticus sums up and clearly states what Jesus Himself affirms: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself".  So if worship and Bible and fellowship are important to us as they should be, we should understand these things to be of equal importance to others.  And IF we "love neighbor as self", we would not simply wait for them to show up to get what we know they need - we would DELIVER!  Just as we would hope someone would deliver to us what we "need".

"Righteousness", then, as it comes from the mouth of the Almighty God and Father, means that life had better be fair!  And it better be fair BY THE HANDS OF those who claim themselves to be "righteous" before the Almighty God and Lord!  The proclamation is emphasized by the declaration, “I AM THE LORD”: "You shall not [deny the poor] their fundamental need for food; I AM THE LORD ... You shall not profane the name of your God; I AM THE LORD ... You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind; I AM THE LORD ... You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I AM THE LORD."

The emphasis “I AM THE LORD” is reminding the Lord’s people exactly who He is, and it means we better be paying attention because these are “commandments” of the Law.  More than this, however, we better be doing that "love thing" rather than just claiming it for ourselves because the two commandments - to love God and to love neighbor - are inseparable.  "Whoever does not love abides in death.  All who hate a brother or a sister are murderers ... we know love by this; that [Christ] laid down His life for us - and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" 1 John 3:14b-17  We must not make the mistake of believing this passage only applies to the so-called “One-percenters”, the super-wealthy who seem to have money to burn.  This word is for the Lord's people, rich and poor alike.

We are redeemed by the "Word made flesh", but discipleship - that is, life in Christ, "doing" for our Lord and His people - is far more than "mere words" and cheap talk.  We are called to something much greater, and we are expected to bring guests!  And we invite these guests by deeds of "righteousness", proclaiming and living faith that is perfected, sanctified - that is, justice; doing right things - making life "fair".  For our Holy Father.  For our neighbors.  For Christ’s Holy Church.  For the sake of our immortal souls.

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Thought

“Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”  Psalm 139:7-10

The psalmist expresses an assurance we often take for granted: no matter where we turn, the Lord is present.  There is nothing under the sun that gets by the Lord, and there is nothing to be done in darkness that the Lord cannot and will not shed light upon.  This is an important assurance especially during those times of distress and anxiety when we often feel nothing and sense nothing; when we think we are alone, abandoned, forsaken.

But we must also understand that when we slander our neighbor, the Lord is present.  When we withhold our gifts from the Lord’s Church, the Lord is there.  When we deny a hungry child food, the Lord is there.  Yet when we give our last dollar so the hungry child can eat, the Lord is there.  When we speak in favor of righteousness in the face of slander, the Lord is there.  When we offer our gifts to the Lord’s Church in spite of our fear about what may come “tomorrow”, the Lord is there – and will be “tomorrow” also.

It does not take courage to be selfish, and there is no integrity in living only for self.  It takes courage and confidence in the assurances of the Lord to live by faith, and it inspires integrity to live according to the Lord’s standard rather than our own.  May we learn to live according to all that has been given us so we may find courage, integrity, and faith.  Only then may we discover the Love that is present with us always.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Thought

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  Matthew 16:24-25

A priest once said, “Imagine what the Church would look like if every Christian took this passage to heart!”  He was speaking, of course, to the many (like me) for whom “church” was only something we did on Sunday.  He had tried to plan a couple of events outside of worship to help build up the faith community, but there were few takers because everyone was just too busy.  He had spoken about tithing and giving but found the collection plate with very little beyond what people seemed to have in their pockets at the time or checks written for an amount that would not likely interfere with bigger plans.  Even in worship he could clearly see that most were just going through the motions, crossing themselves while looking around to see what everyone else was doing.  During the sermon he could see a sanctuary filled with folks who were already overwhelmed with their own problems and not really engaged with the lesson, not open to learning something new, certainly not willing to make any changes in their lives.  He saw a people who “did” all the right stuff and called it “good”.

It is no better in Protestant churches.  Christians show up for church most of the time but still are not engaged in the Scripture readings, the sermon, or even the Lord’s Supper.  While worship is ongoing, too many are planning the noon meal or wondering if church will end soon enough so that the buffet lines at the local restaurant are not too picked over. 

Even when we think we are “giving” the Lord our total self in that one hour out of an entire week merely by our presence, we seem incapable of or unwilling to disengage from the world around us.  And it may be even worse today than when I was a child because the electronic media has completely overtaken our lives, including the cell phones we refuse to leave in the car, so fearful are we that we might “miss something really important”.

So blinded and so distracted are we by all this, we fail to see we are missing something “really important”.  It is the Word being brought to us not for our pleasure nor for our entertainment, but for our edification.  We are being given an opportunity to put our petty nonsense aside for something much greater, much more enduring.  We are being given an opportunity to “lose our lives” in that moment to be filled with more than the best buffet can offer for a price that has already been paid!  We are being given an opportunity to give so that we can truly receive that which is everlasting.

None of this seems to matter, however, until we are reminded of how short a time we really have on this earth.  As the saying goes, we never really know what we had until we no longer have it.  Life is short, but the Word is Eternal.  The Lord does not want our “moments” or our empty religious practices; He wants us to give Him our lives so that He may give us Life.  We are not “incidental” to Him – why has He become “incidental” to us?


Monday, July 16, 2012

Soul Conditioning

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Matthew 22:34-40

What do we mean when we say, "Love is Unconditional"?  Whenever we speak of "love" in biblical terms as "unconditional", we must qualify that statement because in real, American-culture-speak, we generally understand "love" only in conditional terms because humans have little capacity - and virtually no desire - to love that which would not love us back or serve us well. 

If the object of our desire rejects or betrays us or does not serve us or suit us or please us in some way, it is hardly likely we would be willing to love - and this is the very essence of "unconditional love"; a willingness to "do" in spite of how we may feel ... even when we would rather not as we deem the object of our affection "unworthy" of our love - which is entirely beside the point of "unconditional".  Remember the whole point of the Love Dare© is not about what another may or may not do; it is about what we are called to do!  This includes our spouses, our Lord, our Lord's Church, and perhaps especially the Lord's people who are not our own kin and whom we don't even like!  If we get nothing tangible or useful from any of these persons for ourselves, it is very hard to honestly say our "love" is unconditional.  That kind of deep, abiding, enduring, sacrificial love requires divine conditioning of the soul - it is a Gift! - because it does not come naturally or easily for humans.

The reason for this double-speak is that "Love" is itself a loaded word that can mean anything (including a score of "zero" in tennis!).  There is nothing universal about the human capacity to understand "love".  I know a preacher (retired now) who would write "letters to the editor" of a local paper and say the most vile, hateful things imaginable against a former president (while that president was in office).  When I called him on it, he insisted he "loves" the president but is compelled to call him on his "ungodly" policies in such a public forum.  When I asked him what he considered the likelihood this president would ever read the local paper, see his admonishment, and spiritually benefit from that "love", his only reply was that I was being ridiculous.

Of course I was and I admit at the time I was picking a fight, but my question was also dead serious!  I personally found his words and public spectacle to be not only offensive to this Republican but embarrassing to the United Methodist Church and to the Church universal.  I also found his premise of "love" rather confusing because this man was a mentor, a college professor of religion, the pastor of a nearby church, and a teacher of Methodism whose classes I often enjoyed.  Though we were on opposite ends of the political (and sometimes theological) spectrum, I still found his perspective useful and instructive.  I counted on him as a teacher. 

So when he claimed his invective against the president to be in the name of "godly love" which I understand as "unconditional" and edifying rather than destructive, I was genuinely thrown off - as I suspect many outside (and inside) the Church are also rather confused by church language of which "love" is the most often-used and least understood word in our vocabulary.  In today's culture even within the Church, that word has become as cheap and as useless as the word "grace" because neither faithfully conveys a biblical truth; at least not in how we use these words as the means of self-justification.

The truth is we do not "love God because He first loved us"; we say we love God because we are supposed to say it.  Even as it is our language, in practice if we withhold anything - ANYTHING - of ourselves, our time, our treasures, or our talents in favor of something we would much rather do for ourselves or only for those we "like", we cannot say we "love" God "with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength".  Not even close.  Thus we find ourselves in the very uncomfortable position of being in direct violation of what Jesus clearly calls not only a "commandment" but "the greatest commandment", a "point of law", a "requirement", an "expectation" of the people of faith.  Non-negotiable and not subject to individual interpretation.     

We may be fond of the Lord and we may be fond of a concept of spending eternity in heaven by invoking a "magic prayer" that seems to compel the Lord to do our bidding but requires little else on our part - but - if that prayer does not come from a willful heart devoted to discipleship, there is no "love".  Of course our lack of will does not diminish Divine Love, but it does define OUR love (or the lack thereof) for the Lord.  We can call it anything else but if we are fond of something only in terms of how we may personally benefit from it, it is more appropriate to call it "lust".  And we hesitate to use that word because we have typically associated "lust" purely with behind-closed-doors fleshly desire.  It is true enough in that context, of course, but not exclusively so.

In translating from Greek to English (Greek being the original language of the NT), we can honestly say there are many different types of what we call "love".  There is "eros" which is primarily physical, there is "phileo" which is primarily emotional, there is "storge" which is more associated with family, and there is "agape" - the only true, unconditional and Divine (not human) attribute.  Each of these Greek terms conveys a different understanding or a different level of what we have reduced or marginalized (some say "corrupted") to "love", but the biblical concept of "love" as perfected by Christ Jesus is unquestionably "agape" - which is truly "sacrificial". 

It is only within this sacrificial context by which Love can be defined as "unconditional" because the Crucifixion took place even as most of Jesus' beloved disciples were headed for the hills for their own safety just as Jesus had predicted - including that same Peter who swore he would die for the Lord (the "phileo", or emotional, concept of love that is only in the moment but will certainly collapse out of fear or for the sake of self-preservation or self-satisfaction).  This sacrifice also took place in spite of that certain reality that there would be untold millions of souls who may never know ... or even care about what took place in their behalf; the "agape" that endured to the bitter end.

When Jesus was questioned about what must be the "greatest" commandment, those religion teachers may have been looking for a legal answer to affirm their own sense of righteousness.  Maybe they expected an answer from among the "Ten Commandments".  It's hard to say.  What is not hard to say is that these religion teachers were not likely looking for affirmation; they were trying once again to catch Jesus in a baited blasphemy trap (recall the penalty for blasphemy is death, Leviticus 24:16).  The last thing they expected to hear was that the Holy God laid claim to the totality of our being and that our only appropriate response is to offer back to the Lord our totality; all our heart, all our soul, all our strength!  All in what we "do" (agape) rather than in how we "feel" (phileo).

This is no easy task; in fact, "impossible" is the more appropriate word.  Literally, to give so much of ourselves and ask or expect nothing in return is next to impossible for a human being - except perhaps for a parent to a child, but Jesus did not even allow this as a substitute for righteousness ("Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" Matthew 5:46).  We are hard-wired and socially conditioned to survival rather than to sacrifice; such is what comes naturally to us!  So such an overbearing commandment makes our Lord seem more a burden than a blessing and leads many to question why we must give so much of ourselves and the treasures for which we worked so hard and endured ALL the risk and NOT expect something - anything! - in return. 

Well, here is the enduring truth.  We DO get something in return.  It is, in a word, "power".  Do we not see that in our willingness to give so freely of ourselves without question, holding nothing back, we are being endowed with genuine, divine "power"?  It is not the same "power" we can lord over another human being or expect to get our own way.  Rather it is the "power" to be called "children of the Most High God".  It is the "power" to find Order in chaos.  It is the "power" to forgive when vengeance seems more appropriate.  It is the "power" to find Light even in darkness.  It is the "power" to find Life even in the face of death; the threat of which we face every single day. 

But just as you and I do not delegate such power to our own children until we are sure they are ready - AND WILLING - to use it responsibly (like driving a car in public), our Holy Father will not grant such power to us unless or until we can AND WILL show Him we can be trusted with it just as the Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah; "So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish what I please and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (55:11).  His will - not our own.

There is only one thing that keeps us from being endowed with this kind of eternal, life-changing power: ourselves.  As the cartoon character, Pogo, once said: "We have met the enemy, and he am us!"  This power is not given easily nor in a moment of emotional weakness or excitedness.  It is given to those who will freely give of themselves to a life in and for Christ and the Holy Church.  It is the power by which we will be saved - "for those who endure to the very end" (Matthew 10:22).  And it is ours for the asking, ours for the devotion, ours for all eternity - for it is only in giving - as Christ our Lord gave - by which we may expect to receive - just as Christ our Lord received.  It is ours to claim only because it is His to give.

A Thought

“When the king (David) was settled in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’”  2 Samuel 7:1-3

But the rest of the story goes like this.  The Lord came to Nathan with a word for David which was basically this: “Did I ever ask you to build Me a house?”

Often our intentions are good, even noble, as we seek to do our very best for the Lord and His kingdom.  Too often, however, we are choosing our own paths according to our own will (what we are willing to do) rather than submitting ourselves to the Lord’s path or the Lord’s will (what we might not be willing to do because it is not convenient for us); and we are working according to our own time rather than the Lord’s time (only willing to do as long as it does not interfere with our own personal lives when we have nothing better to do).

Nathan was correct in his basic assessment, “The Lord is with you” (Psalm 89:20), but he missed the mark in the actual timing of what will soon come to pass: the building of the temple.  David was finally given rest from Israel’s enemies, so it would have seemed the time was ripe.  Again, however, this was David’s own sense of timing, and not the Lord’s.

If we are truly servants of the Holy Father, we must be mindful of what may – or may not – be asked of us at any given time.  New programs at church designed to attract new people sounds good as we all desire our churches to grow, but the timing of a program may not be according to what the Lord would ask of us.  And we will not know unless – or until – we ask of Him.

So let us be diligent in asking.  As with every other good gift from Above, the Lord is not going to offer something that will only be wasted by us as we use His gifts only for our own pleasure (while attaching His Holy Name to it).  There is a profound difference in Divine will vs. noble human will.  Just because it seems right to us does not make it right to the Lord.  He will grant to us what He wills when He wills; no sooner, no later.  First, let us pray.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Thought

“Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.  The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.  I opened my mouth and panted, for I longed for Your commandments.  Look upon me and be merciful to me, as Your custom is toward those who love Your name.”  Psalm 119:129-132

It is important for Christians to look upon the Torah (the “law”) in a new light within what has become a seriously fractured Church that is far from “universal” and especially considering what many see as a “contrast” between St. Paul’s seeming insistence that the law “condemns” and the psalmist’s “panting for the commandments”.  It seems obvious the psalmist does not consider the Lord’s law burdensome; why, then, do we Christians?  The psalmist reads the Law in light of the Covenant, the eternal Promise of the Lord whose “merciful custom” is to bless those who abide by the Lord’s word which is, in fact, The Law.  In fact the Law is the terms of the Covenant, the agreement by which the people of faith are truly bound together as a “nation under God”.

It is easy and true enough to say we are saved by faith through grace just as it is written, but faith requires more than acknowledging a simple concept or surrendering to an emotional moment.  Faith requires a commitment that goes beyond the moment, and faith understands it is the Lord’s word that sustains us when, as the psalmist often laments, the world is against us.  It is the Law that reminds us who we are.  It is the Law that reminds us who the Lord is and what He expects from His people.  And it is the Law that gives the certain promise of divine protection even when we think the world is getting the best of us.

We must not dismiss the Law as “old”.  Rather we must rediscover the Law that “gives light … and understanding”.  And we must not stop searching and striving until, like the psalmist, we are “panting with longing” for the Lord’s commandments rather than looking for a way out.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Thought

“Deal with Your servant according to Your mercy, and teach me Your statutes.  I am Your servant; give me understanding, that I may know Your testimonies.” Psalm 119:124-125

By what seems to be expressed by the psalmist, the Law, the statutes, and the testimonies are much more than mere words written on a page.  It is not enough to “shalt not”; it requires Divine Wisdom from His mercy for us to understand WHY we “shalt not”.  The entire Torah (which, translated, actually means “directions” or “instructions” rather than “law”) is written not for our destruction or to keep us from having fun and enjoying our lives, but is rather revealed to us for the sake of building up a community of the faithful.  The Law teaches the Lord’s people how to live together and interact together as the Lord’s people.  The Law is the revelation of the Lord, too, so that the community can know who the Lord is and why He cares for them.

It is important for Christians to understand that Jesus as the “Word” cannot be separated from Torah.  The Gospels do not contradict what was already written but rather fulfill what was to come according to “the law and the prophets”.  Just as Jesus teaches that Satan cannot stand against himself (a house divided), neither can Jesus be separated from the Word (the law AND the prophecies).  But because we have taken to heart some fond sayings based on one or two small verses from the New Testament giving us excuse from the Law, the world cannot tell the difference between the Lord’s people and the evil one’s people.  A few cheesy blurbs on Facebook or other social media sites or e-mail really do not go far if we are profaning the Sabbath in the same breath and by the same hands.

It is the Lord’s wisdom that teaches us “why”, but it is our determination and willful desire to live in community as the Lord’s people (the pursuit of sanctification, of holiness) that drive the faithful to bother asking the questions.  If we do not care to know or if we prefer to make it up as we go along according to what pleases us, however, we will never know.


Sunday, July 08, 2012

Good Impressions

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Ephesians 6:14-18
Mark 6:1-13

It has been said that a first impression is probably closest to what truly is.  It is also said that "a first impression is a lasting impression".  Both speak to a profound truth: what people see in the very beginning is what will stick with them even if they just caught us on a bad day.  It happens that way sometimes.  But fair or not, we will be judged, just as we are inclined to judge, according to first impressions.  Smile at a first-time church guest, extend a friendly handshake, and the "new friend" will remember the "hospitality".  Look at the guest as though he or she has three heads, or don't look at them at all, and they will remember the "hostility" even if welcoming, though "scripted" words were offered.  Like you and I, people do not believe what they hear; they believe what they see. 

Jesus encouraged His disciples to enter a household offering peace as they were sent out to announce the coming Kingdom (I don't know why Matthew includes this "peace" detail that Mark omits).  The message, however, is consistent: make a good first impression because it is the impression that will last; it is also the impression that will preface AND frame whatever message is brought forth because this first impression will go a long way in determining whether or not one will be received favorably - regardless of the message! 

How Christians greet and treat one another in the public eye is also a telling sign of a deeper truth, not unlike the admonishment I would give our kids when they were young and just being brother and sisters, going at each other over the least little thing even with company in the house.  I would tell them, "If you mistreat your sibling in the presence of your friends, you are giving your friends permission to mistreat your siblings.  They will follow your lead." 

So how we treat one another in public is itself a public witness, a testament to our faith about the reality of our faith community.  Speak slander against a fellow member of your own church (yes, including the pastor), and people will eat it up and even help spread the malicious gossip - BUT - they will also note in the backs of their minds to stay clear of "that" church lest they one day fall into the hands of the same slanderer!  You see, people will always eagerly receive new gossip about someone else, but they will never trust us with their own lives, their own pains, their own challenges when they discover we cannot be trusted with the lives and the well-being of others.

Love Dare© #9 proclaims, "Love makes a lasting impression".  True, but so does hatefulness and bigotry and narrow-mindedness.  People notice more than we might give them credit for, and memories go a long way!  It is interesting to see how easily Jesus was dismissed as a teacher in His own hometown.  Obviously the people knew Him and His family.  It has been inferred by some ancient sources that Jesus, even having been born without sin, was nevertheless a mischievous boy, a typical kid; so it appears the people of the town preferred to hold on to what they remembered rather than what they were actually seeing and hearing. 

This "carpenter" who was maybe once a mischievous boy cannot also be a "prophet" or a teacher, can He?  Where is His credibility?  So perhaps one or two in the crowd begin to question Jesus' credentials, and so the crowd hears Jesus only within the context of what they are pretty sure they already know: this Man has no formal training as a teacher of the faith.  He was a carpenter, perhaps a mischievous boy.  Some have even suggested Jesus Himself may have been only a marginal carpenter, that Joseph was the real craftsman.  Then the people connect Jesus to His mother, His brothers, and His sisters.  Could it be some of them were less-than-stellar citizens whose context would further marginalize Jesus in the eyes of the townspeople; guilt by association?  It would seem so, according to Mark.

So maybe it is within the context of this certain social reality that Jesus gives his disciples a clear set of instructions before they go out on a teaching/preaching journey.  'Do nothing, say nothing, carry nothing that might distract people from what you are to offer to them'.  Humility is the key to everything Jesus is asking of His disciples even to the point of refusing to engage in religious "debate": "... if they refuse to hear you, as you leave shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them."  That is, leave that contentiousness and hard-headedness in the same home in which it was found, leave them to wallow in their own filth, and move along.  It is also noteworthy that while the disciples "proclaimed that all should repent", they spent most of their time "casting out demons and anointing with oil many who were sick and cured them."  They were not sent as "judges" but rather as "witnesses".  So, too, are we.

Notice also the twist in Mark's text.  At the point of Jesus telling His disciples that "prophets are not without honor except in their hometown and among their own kin and in their own house", Mark also adds that Jesus "could do no deed of power (not "would do no") except that He laid His hands on a few ... and cured them.  And He was amazed at their unbelief."

How is it is possible that the healing power of Messiah was somehow restricted only to a few?  Could this imposed restriction have influenced Jesus' instructions to His disciples before He sent them out?  I think maybe it is not that Jesus "learned" a lesson from this experience more than He used the experience to make His point; that whatever people know about you even from their earliest recollections and first impressions will influence how you will be received from then on.  I hear it from folks in my own hometown, friends of my parents who remember me as a "polite" kid but not a future preacher! 

It is love in the context of the Lord's grace, however, that makes not merely a "good" impression but the best and truest impression of an Eternal Reality; and it is this same love in which we as ambassadors of Christ are compelled to offer this same grace rather than judgment and condemnation.  Imagine the impression Jesus would have made if rather than teaching redemption, He preached only condemnation.  Imagine the impression if rather than casting out demons, He would cast out those who did not lead a perfect life!  How would the people then have received Him?  How would YOU have received Him in the beginning if "fear" were your only motivator?  Would we not eventually learn to resent Him and HATE Him and keep Him at a safe distance?  Could this be a significant, contributing factor to the continuing decline of the Church?    

For the sake of the Gospel of our Lord which we have been entrusted with, let us be found blameless before the Lord and before our fellow Magnolians, doing nothing and saying nothing and carrying nothing that will detract from the Gospel of Life!  Let us be the ambassadors of Peace and Grace, not condemnation!  Let us be the earnest faithful witnesses entrusted and equipped with the Divine Love that makes the best impression of all!  Our community is hungry for it, and our mission field is ripe for the harvest! 

Let the impression we leave with others be the impression made upon us that gave us hope for the future and peace for the day.

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

Thursday, July 05, 2012

A Thought

“Uphold me according to Your word, that I may live; and do not let me be ashamed of my hope.  Hold me up, and I shall be safe; and I shall observe Your statutes continually.  You reject all those who stray from Your statutes, for their deceit is falsehood.  You put away the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Your commandments.”  Psalm 119:116-119

It is most interesting that during an election year, there are giant clumps of Christians who get involved in the campaigns and come up with some of the most vile things one could ever expect to hear from someone who was in worship only a few days before.  Oh, wait.  I forgot.  Christians no longer “have to” go to worship; that’s just a legal thing, for Christians have been freed from the law.  Christians no longer “have to” refrain from evil; that’s just a legal thing, for Christians have been freed from the law.  Christians no longer “have to” refrain from gossip and slander and libel; that’s just a legal thing, for Christians have been freed from the law.  Christians no longer “have to” give of themselves, their treasures, or their talents to the Church; that’s just a legal thing, for Christians have been freed from the law.

Have a nice day.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A Thought

“I hate the double-minded, but I love Your law.  You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your word.  Depart from me, you evildoers, for I will keep the commandments of my God!” Psalm 119:113-115

Under the provisions of the Lord’s law, there are very few among us who can escape the accusation of being “double-minded” because we embrace those portions of the law that fit neatly into our own lives and our own sense of social order, but we reject what we do not like or understand under Paul’s proclamation that “You are not under the law …”  We live, more often, as we like rather than as we believe.

We would do better for ourselves to view the law of the Lord not as a series of restrictions against what we cannot do but rather as a way of life we are privileged and invited to partake in.  There is nothing easy about it, but Jesus never promised us “ease”.  In fact He warned His followers that righteous choices would guarantee divisions even within family structures, but He also promised that making the difficult choice in every circumstance to trust the Lord will lead us Home: “You will be hated by all (including some family members who choose evil and reject the Church!) for My name’s sake, but those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).

In this life there are blessings and curses, life and death; choices we must make each and every day.  Let us pray for the courage to make the Lord’s choice in all we say and all we do.  It will bring glory to the Lord even to the “evildoers”, and it will lead us into Eternal Life.


Sunday, July 01, 2012

Of Divine Jealousy and Destructive Envy

Exodus 34:10-14                                                                                                                          Matthew 5:43-48

It is a strange thing for Love Dare© #8 to maintain that "love is not jealous" when the perfection of Love - YHWH - proclaimed to Moses the Holy Name to be "Jealous" (Ex 34:14)!  It is hard (in fact, ill-advised) for us to ignore James' warning of what comes as a result of envy and then try to find a positive attribute of "jealously" connected to our Lord. James writes, "Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind" (3:16 NRSV) - and - "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your [personal] cravings that are at war within you?  You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.  And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts" (4:1-2a NRSV).

The word "jealously" comes from the root word for "zeal" and means "to burn with an intense fire".  This is as close to what the Exodus passage conveys as any can come, so we understand "jealously" in this context as "righteous" jealousy just as we can often understand the Lord's provoked anger as "righteous" anger.  The Lord is never angry without good and justifiable reasons, so it is reasonable to believe the Lord is not jealous without reason.  This is not typically a problem for believers because in very simple terms, the Lord is Holy and thus "perfect"; incapable of being irrational.  When it comes to human emotions and envy, however, the best that can be said about us is that we are perfectly imperfect!

A fair comparison, then, can hardly be made between the biblical context of the "jealous" Lord and the often irrational human element of "envy" because the Divine element of jealousy wants what is best for creation for the sake of the Covenant - while the human element of envy only wants the best for oneself.  So human envy is destructive in its nature rather than constructive - and it is irrational rather than rational because we only consider what is at stake for ourselves with no regard for how others are affected.  Human envy bears very little resemblance to divine jealousy.

We must consider that element of human envy that is closely - and dangerously - related to "covetousness"; that is, virtually demanding something that is not ours to have, something for which we have no rightful claim, something that cannot be reasonably attained, or something we simply do not need in spite of the intensity of our personal desires.  In our irrational minds and unreasonable demands, we become "victims" with a false sense of entitlement searching for someone to blame for our irrational and unreasonable demands and deficiencies.  In this we defy Jesus' teaching not only in refusing to pray for or bless our enemies - BUT - we create for ourselves a whole new class of enemy defined only as "those who have what we want"!  And more often than not, all this "new enemy" ever did was to simply live their own lives. 

Now there are some favorable comparisons with the nature of our Lord's jealousy and our own jealousy toward our spouses, but the comparison can only be justified if we have earnestly given to our spouses the very best of ourselves.  It is not a matter of what we think we are entitled to - OR - how we think our spouses should just act "because the Bible says so".  When we give earnestly of ourselves (as the Lord has done) and are still shunned or disrespected (as the Lord was and still is), then we have a legitimate gripe (as the Lord does).  These are legitimate feelings of betrayal that, unfortunately, often give rise to illegitimate claims and sometimes criminal actions which is where we depart from any favorable comparison to the Lord and the Lord's jealousy.

 Israel betrayed the Lord by defying the terms of the Covenant which was established after the Exodus from Egypt; as a result of this betrayal, the people of Israel were driven from their new land to a foreign land.  They lost their homes, their friends, their families, and their national identity all of which was intimately connected to YHWH.  They lost everything because they had convinced themselves they can go it alone - without the Lord.  So the Lord left them to their own devices; He loved them that much.  It is as the saying goes, "If you love something, set it free.  If it does not return, it was never yours."  But Israel, through repentance, chose to return.

What survived the Exile, then, was not necessarily a favored and faithful few - but rather a remnant of the Eternal Covenant itself; the desire of the Holy God to give His people His very best: "I will make a new covenant with ... Israel ... not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, even though I was a husband to them ... I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they will be My people ... I will forgive their iniquity, and their sins I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The Lord had given Israel the very best of what they needed: freedom and life.  Therefore the Lord had a legitimate claim to the people of Israel within a covenant they had agreed to (the same legitimate claim He has today on those who freely enter into the covenant by baptism AND on those who are brought into the covenant by their parents or guardians), a covenant that involved terms and conditions that must be upheld (now as then!). 

The sacred nature of this covenant is the same sacred nature of the covenant we enter into when we become members of the Holy Church AND when we enter into the covenant of marriage.  So while we have a legitimate claim to a wayward spouse who may choose to seek happiness elsewhere in spite of our best efforts, this claim is not of the same nature as that of a tractor or a pig.  The nature of the covenant is not one of "ownership" but, rather, "partnership".

It has been suggested by some that envy is wanting what rightfully belongs to another, but we can only be jealous of what rightfully belongs to us.  It seems a fine line AND somewhat risky especially as it pertains to human relationships because our spouses, within the covenant of marriage, are NOT rightfully "ours" but are actually "us".  Within the covenant of marriage when a man and woman are joined together, the "two become one flesh"; a holy bond that cannot be torn asunder by human acts.  Our "rightful" claim cannot be about possessiveness, not legitimately, because we can never legitimately "possess" another human being.

The only way jealousy can be considered a positive and divine attribute of our human relationships is if we have given our very best for the well-being of our beloved and intend to continue giving our best even if they choose to walk away.  It is always within the context of divine love that continued to reach out to Israel for Israel’s well-being AND for the sake of the Covenant, warning them that their "envy" of the other nations was only covetous and gluttonous desire, self-serving and ultimately destructive.  The Lord's "jealousy" was "burning with intense fire" to save them and protect them from such destruction!

It is important for us to remember that the fundamental, underlying theme of the entire Love Dare© is NOT to try and control those we love or try to change them into something we prefer; rather the Love Dare© challenges us to control ourselves and always – ALWAYS – seek the best for our beloved.  This is important for the sake of our marriages, for the sake of the well-being of the Church, and most especially for the sake of giving our Redeemer the very best of what He has redeemed; our very souls!

If we are jealous, it must be within the Divine context of jealousy: “burning with intensity” to protect and to give our very best.  This is love, agape love, at its finest.  It is Life.  It is our Lord.