Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Thought

“You shall not make for yourselves a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them nor serve them.  For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6

Immediately we think of statues and other works of art when we read this commandment, but it is hard to say what is acceptable and what crosses the line.  Most Protestant churches have a cross, and Catholic churches have a crucifix.  Each serves as a reminder of the sacrifice our Lord was willing to make for our redemption, but even these have the potential of diverting our attention from the real presence of the Lord through His Spirit and the Holy Eucharist – and this, I think, is the point.

We should be aware of all things that can compromise our focus on the Lord, and we must never allow any sort of image to serve as a substitute for what we are called to do for our Lord and for our neighbor; for this is how we testify to what we know to be true.  It is a difference between what we see with our eyes, and what we hope for through faith.

Christ is our “substitute”; in other words, He did for us what was required for the sins of the world.  He paid the price in our place.  There is no need for us to search for any other “substitutes” or representations; that is who WE are for those who also need to “see”.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Thought

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods before Me.”  Exodus 20:2,3

A singular focus is always hard and is made even more difficult when we live in a society that places high value on multi-tasking.  We have bought into the myth that humans have a capacity for multi-tasking but have failed to realize that when we are focused on too many things at one time, something will be missed.  We cannot give 100% to anything because we are over-committed to too many things.

There is much more to this commandment that a dire warning to stay away from other gods.  As with all commandments, the terms of the Holy Covenant are not spelled out in “thou shalt not”; rather the terms of a good and honorable life are in the promises beyond “not”.  This one is no exception, for it offers more than we can possibly imagine if we will focus our attention, energy, and praise to the One, True, Living God who offers real and lasting life and uncompromised liberty.  Multi-tasking means our life is, in fact, compromised and our liberty at risk.

Faith calls us to let go of the many things we think we must do according to impossible and ever-changing standards, and challenges us to embrace the one thing we are called to do that will allow other things to fall into place according to His divine direction.  This does not mean we become mindless robots; it means we are truly children of the Holy God who will give us not “serpents and stones”, but “bread and fish” (Matthew 7:7-12) – that is, the things we need.

It is not easy to let go of the things we’ve learned to control, but we must for the sake of having and living the life that is so abundantly offered by the Holy Father through Messiah.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Thought

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the Truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, [the Lord] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  1 John 1:8-9

A little guilt goes a long way, so the saying goes.  And sometimes it seems guilt does little more than put us under an unnecessarily heavy burden that is counter-productive.  This is not true, of course, because it is guilt that drives our need for forgiveness and it is our need for forgiveness that drives us to our Lord.  This does not mean, however, that we may not have to pay an ugly, steep, worldly price for our sins because sin has real-life consequences.  It is the Divine Wisdom which exists in all those “thou shalt not’s”; the reasons why we “shalt not”.

This passage from John’s epistle is especially relevant for those who see baptism as the “cure-all” rather than the “first step”.  We do start with a clean slate when we confess our sins and get right with our Lord, but this confession does not cover all sins from that moment.  This is why deliberate Scripture study, prayer, fasting, worship, and attending to the Sacraments of the Church are important for discipleship; they aid our continued growth in the faith as we move “toward perfection”.  Discipleship is a marathon, not a sprint; it is a life-long commitment to the Journey, not a singular event.  It is the way of a genuine disciple, and there are no magic spells, magic prayers, or short-cuts to the Promised Land – where the faithful are headed.

Do not be deceived by feel-good religion that promises an easy way, for this is not the way of Christ in whose footsteps we are compelled to follow … He is the only One who knows the Way home!


Monday, August 27, 2012

A Thought

“Restore us, O God of hosts; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!”  Psalm 80:7

As a former political science major (what was I thinking??), I am still attracted to the political process.  I still believe very much in sound public policy as I believe it is our responsibility to carefully vet all political candidates for office regardless of their party affiliation, but we must not confuse our need for “leadership” between those who can only represent us (at best!) and the only One who can truly lead us where we need to go. 

Psalm 80 reads very much like the confession of a nation that has finally come to its senses and has come to realize that all which had been given and entrusted to the Israelite nation had been squandered by too many who had turned their backs on the Lord and maybe had put too much stock in “leaders” who are only a reflection of the people themselves.  All which the people of Israel had been given is beginning to crumble at the hands of other nations, and the protection of the Holy God has been removed from them because of their stubborn, independent streak!

It does not matter whom we support in this year’s election if we earnestly believe any one of these candidates can lead us to better days.  If we choose to follow any person with faith and with confidence, the only thing we can be sure of is that we will be led to the edge of the abyss; for they are as blind as we!  Vote responsibly, of course, and vote your conscience; but do not hand your faith over to those who are not worthy of anything less than our constant supervision.  They will not “save” us.

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock … stir up Your strength, and come and save us!


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Delightfully Faithful

Ecclesiastes 9:2-12
John 6:56-69

As we have continued to explore the perspective of the Love Dare© challenge that focuses primarily on married relationships, I continue to be amazed at the remarkable parallel of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman - and the covenant between Christ the Bridegroom and the Holy Church the Bride as well as the Covenant between Israel and the Holy Father.  We say it at the beginning of a wedding ceremony, but I don't think we give near enough attention in our day-to-day living to that parallel and what it means to us today - or what it should mean to us especially in a highly secularized culture such as ours that claims more "spiritual" - "emotional" - Christians and fewer intentional disciples who follow Christ with purpose, with focus, and with a willingness to work on protecting and maintaining the covenantal relationship - preferring instead for things to simply fall into place. 

Too many of these relationships have defaulted to an "auto pilot" setting that just goes with the flow, assumes too much, and often glosses over or ignores outright a potential problem and simply "hopes for the best" - until it is too late.  Spiritual, emotional Christians - typically among the younger set within the so-called "New Age" religion context - who seem to depend predominantly on whatever they happen to be "feeling" at any given time find themselves too often depending on mindless, effortless  "destiny" or "fate" as the determining factor of the success or failure of any relationship.  By and large we as a people have lost our way because we have lost - or outright surrendered - a significant component of what makes any relationship successful: effort.

The challenge of Love Dare© #14 says "Love takes (not "hopes for" or "waits for") delight"; intentionally and purposefully.  In this lesson we are reminded, as I shared previously, that disciples cannot - and must not - "follow their own hearts" lest we be proved the "fools" Scripture says such folks are.  We must not function purely according to instincts or impulses and personal desires, and certainly not according to our emotional state at any given time.  We are called to overcome our own human "conditioning" borne of a secular environment that too often treats our Lord and His lessons incidentally rather than purposefully! 

In all this we are called to something I think few of us seriously consider: learning to embrace those things we must do for the sake of discipleship and purposefully seek "joy" and find "delight" in these things.  In other words, learn to appreciate the components of discipleship that only seem redundant and burdensome and discover them as potential sources of pure joy for the sake of our relationship with the Lord through His Church and the Covenant - AND with one another within the Body of Christ. 

It is the very same principle in working on a marriage between husband and wife.  Early in the relationship, everything is easy and exciting because our emotional cup runneth over!  We are infatuated with every single thing about our spouses, and learning new things makes it all the more exciting.  Young love is like that.  Young, idealistic love truly believes things will always just "automatically" be that way because in our happiness, we can imagine no other way - nor should we!  Soon, however, reality sets in.  What was once "cute" becomes incredibly "annoying", and what was once so "attractive" may one day seem downright "repulsive"!  

Now some counselors and advisors have suggested that if that which was once endearing has become irritating, then we owe it to our spouses and to the relationship to be honest and tell them this "thing", whatever it may be, is no longer so cute.  That way, the reasoning goes, we are "working" on the relationship, but what are we really "working" on?  The reasoning can make some sense for the sake of open communication, but is it our spouse who must change a certain "thing" that was always a part of who they are, a quality of the person we once could not get enough of?  It hardly seems fair to suddenly ask our spouses to be less than what they have always been - especially when this "thing", whatever it is, was always a part of what made them so cute and attractive in the first place!

In such a scenario, it cannot be said that the couple is "working" on the marriage.  The one who brings up the annoying "thing" that was always there in the first place is the one who is asking the other to do the "work".  So it is more accurate to say that the one who demands the change may be the one in need of a serious attitude adjustment because if that "thing" always existed in our spouse, it clearly is the demanding spouse who must make the adjustment - because she or he is the only one who is bothered! 

It is consistent not only with the Love Dare© challenge that says, "Love takes delight"; it is consistent with the whole Love Dare© premise in which the burden of effort is upon US - and not the one whom we would wish to change into something more suitable to our tastes.  We are called to take the initiative - purposefully - toward finding "delight"!  The burden is on US to find and rediscover why we loved that "thing" in the first place because clearly our spouse has not changed - WE HAVE.  The "new" wore off, but the very same person we loved in the beginning is still there with all his or her endearing, cute, delightful, annoying, irritating, nerve-grating "things"!  Surely we can see that who we loved in the beginning still exists.  The one demanding the change must rediscover - and TAKE back - the "delight" that was always there ... and still is.  We simply must be willing to put forth the effort and do the work to seek it out.

It is the very same thing in working on the relationship we need between ourselves and the Lord through the Church.  It is utterly unfair and unreasonable - and downright arrogant - for us to come into the historic Church, find a certain redundancy in the "thing" we once found so fascinating and fulfilling, and suddenly demand the Church change when in reality, WE are the ones who changed.  And our demands changed with us.  Once we were not so demanding because we were "in love", but our cultural conditioning and subsequent reordering of priorities has compelled us to demand something of the Church the Church is not equipped nor scripturally called to provide - or exclude.  Like the demanding spouse, we may be demanding something that simply is not there - or demanding the removal of something that has always been an essential part of its existence.

Consider the essence of Jesus' teaching in John's gospel: "whoever eats Me will live because of Me".  Many disciples who heard this teaching walked away and never returned.  We can give some credit to the scriptural prohibitions against cannibalism, of course, but the essence of Torah - that life-giving instruction that is as ageless as the Holy God who proclaimed it - exists within the teaching.  Jesus put a seemingly contrary and radical spin on the whole thing so in order to gain from Him all that is required, we are going to have to take from this teaching all that will certainly give us the "delight" to know; because it's STILL there - always was and always will be.  We just have to be willing to put forth the effort rather than "demand" someone else do the necessary work or make the changes. 

Understanding such passages as these in the spirit in which Jesus intends will require real effort, a lot of work, and a little faith (just the faith of a mustard seed!).  I see the effort paying off in Jesus' proclamation that "no one can come to Me unless it is granted by the Father".  Meaning what?  Perhaps meaning that we must prove to our Holy Father that what is there - what has always been there - will be willingly and earnestly engaged BY US for the sake of the relationship and NOT simply taken for granted or used like some cheap "magic trick".  In other words, we may need to prove to our Holy Father that we will not let it simply go to waste - or expect more from it than we are willing to invest in it.  Like the marriage relationship between husband and wife, "taking" more than we are willing to "give" only means that sooner or later all we "take" will soon be depleted ... until there is no more to "take", nothing more our spouses would be willing to "give".

 The "dare" of challenge #14 for the sake of restoring or strengthening the married relationship is this: "Purposefully neglect an activity you would normally do so you can spend quality time with your spouse.  Do something he or she would love to do or a project they'd really like to work on.  Just be together."

The Love Dare© challenge of our faith for the sake of restoring or strengthening the relationship with the Lord and His Church is the very same.  "Purposefully neglect an activity you would normally do so you can spend quality time with your [Lord and His Church].  Do something [the Lord] would love to do or a project [the Church] would really like to work on.  Just be together."

It is "together" in relationships by which True Life - and True Love - are found; for it is as St. Peter said: "Where else can we go?  You have the words of Eternal Life."  AMEN.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Thought

“If you will return, O Israel”, says the Lord, “return to Me; and if you will put away your abominations out of My sight, then you shall not be moved.  And you shall swear, ‘The Lord lives,’ in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness; the nations shall bless themselves in Him, and in Him they shall glory.”  Jeremiah 4:1-2

According to research psychologist Larry Rosen, multi-tasking is a myth.  We only think we are successfully multi-tasking because we are doing several things at one time, but efficiency is taking a major hit because we are doing no one thing as well as it needs to be done.  As it is often said: if it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.

The Lord is speaking to His beloved through the prophet Jeremiah, and it would appear Israel is doing some multi-tasking of its own by trying to have its cake and eat it, too.  They, like we, are trying to take all the things of life that appear to promise pleasure and prosperity, but they, like we, are being warned that anything outside of our Lord is fleeting at best.  They, like we, may think they can have the world AND the Lord; but the prophet is reminding them that nothing can have real meaning if we do not first focus on the Lord and our place in Him and His Covenant.

Let us return to the Lord with our whole heart and discover that the only thing worth doing right is following Him.  We cannot have the Covenant of the Lord AND the false promises of the evil one or the world that does not know our Lord.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Thought

‎"The measure of a life, after all, is not its duration but its donation." ~ Corrie Ten Boom

I borrowed this quote from a Facebook page belonging to a writer (Missy Buchanan) who devotes much of her time, attention, and talent to ministry to the elderly.  I am constantly reminded that for all we wish to do for the young people of the Church, we must never forget where the knowledge, wisdom, and experience is stored.  Young children need guidance and instruction in the faith and youth need help navigating a crazy, mixed up world with questionable values; and all this comes from the Church.  Yet we must also be reminded that so much of what the Church has in terms of “donation” is a big part of its endurance.  And that substantial “donation” (from young and old alike) in terms of time, talent, and gifts of all kinds has served to remind us that faith always leads the way.

Let us give freely of ourselves to the whole ministry of the Church and remember that while there may be portions of the Church’s population that need extra attention from time to time, we must not get so caught up in trying to focus on one group that we neglect another.


Monday, August 20, 2012

The Scapegoat's Curse

What is there left to say of the 2012 presidential campaign?  Every four years we lament that we only thought the "last" campaign had finally hit bottom, as standards of civility go.  At least for those of us who pay attention to the media headlines (or for me, anyway), it appears the two major contenders have nothing left to say of substance; they are only waiting for the "other guy" to say something wrong.  I am inclined to support the Romney/Ryan ticket only because I've heard nothing of any third party candidates (Obama/Biden is not even on the radar).  I am a bit more enthused now that Paul Ryan is on the ticket, but I am quickly losing my enthusiasm because Romney and the Republicans seem intent on answering every ridiculous charge that rolls off a Democrat's tongue with a counter-charge.  The result?  The campaign is put on the defensive, the legitimate message is lost, and the voter is left only with this: "At least I'm not the other guy!"

How are we supposed to make informed choices when the information presented to us by the media is clearly skewed and incredibly bias?  VP Biden makes an off-the-cuff remark (among many, of course, but none worth repeating and not my point), and the Republicans jump on the "See?  That PROVES Obama and the Democrats are ______ (fill in the blank)!!" bandwagon.  Mr. Romney has refused to release the past ten years of his income tax returns (Did Mr. Obama ever release that much tax information prior to his election?), and the Democrats scream, "See?  That PROVES Romney and the Republicans are _____ (fill in this blank)!!"  It really does not matter which word is chosen for which "blank" because, you see, they are all interchangeable strictly for the purposes of trashing the "other guy". 

I would love to be able to tell all ten of my loyal readers (!!) there is something worth hanging onto in this election, but I also know I could have more than ten readers if I would only devote a little more time to trashing the "other guy".  I cannot do this AND share my sermons on the same blog and from the same heart.  I will not stoop to such a level for the sake of getting my stuff out there more, but I also think this is more to the point of my lament. 

We gravitate toward this news network or that one because somewhere in the dark recesses of our hearts is a genuine "need" to hear bad things.  We somehow "need" someone to blame for whatever thing may not be quite right in our lives.  It is the reason the Civil Rights Movement lasted for so long, and it is the reason why the Jews have successfully been portrayed over the centuries as the source of our misery (justifying their persecution).

What is this incessant "need" to have a scapegoat?  The Lord gave to Israel a "scapegoat" as a means of blame as part of the atonement sacrifice, but ultimately Israel was required to let the scapegoat "go" into the wilderness and away from the congregation of the people after the sins of the people had been "confessed" upon the head of the goat by the priest (Leviticus 16:21-22).  We certainly place plenty of blame upon those whom we deem to be sufficient scapegoats, but we rarely "let it go".  Instead, with the help of Republicans, Democrats, and the media in general (including amateurs who pass on information without first verifying the source!), we are constantly presented with new scapegoats - OR - old scapegoats on which to attach new sins.  O, that there were a goat big enough to carry the sins of this nation!

If there was ever a time in which the sins of this nation are most prominent, it is during presidential elections.  Candidates profess their faith in Christ but ultimately take the Name "in vain" as a means by which they justify themselves and, ironically, their manifest sins.  This would not be so bad in and of itself except that an entire nation buys into these cheap words heaped upon a scapegoat; only we don't let it go - we get on board.

A Thought

“Live joyfully with the [spouse] whom you love all the days of your vain life which [the Lord] has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 9:9

The Scriptures say ‘only a fool follows his own heart’ (Proverb 28:26a), and the Love Dare© challenge says the intentional Christian “leads” his own heart.  That is, we do not according to what seems right or feels right in the moment; rather we do according to what our dear Lord has taught us and continues to teach us through the written Word and by the witness of His Spirit (and by the way, they will not contradict one another!).  We control our impulses.

Our primary human relationship is that of the relationship between husband and wife.  It is through this relationship that others see the value and the nature of the relationship between Christ Jesus and the Holy Church.  The writer is reminding us that even though life is fleeting and much of what we do will produce little of any lasting value (the “legacy” many of us seek after), the one thing we do have that extends beyond itself is the sacred union between a husband and his wife; just as the sacred nature of the relationship between Christ and the Church by its very nature extends beyond itself as a witness to all things good and lasting.  It is how our children learn to love and to live.

Cherish your spouses.  “Live joyfully” with the one you vowed to the Holy God to love all the days of your life.  For there is not much more in this life worth holding onto.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fair Fight

Ephesians 5:15-20
Luke 12:49-15

'All is fair in love and war'.  I'm not sure where that phrase came from or what kind of philosophy or virtue it tries to express, but I don't think it can honestly be said that 'all is fair in love' in the same context as all being fair in war.  Mindless expressions as these are as careless and as condescending as advising our children to 'follow their hearts' knowing as we should that an undeveloped or underdeveloped spiritual heart can lead to more trouble - and ultimately more heart ACHE - if 'think first' is not part of that advice.  Let's face it; "if it feels good, do it" is NOT good advice!  It is horrible, it is senseless, it is heartless, it is irresponsible, it is downright ungodly dangerous, and it is incredibly self-serving - that is, it is ANTI-Christ!

When we are speaking in terms of Christian theology and what our Lord expects and commands of us for the sake of the Church and the Gospel, 'fair' will hardly ever enter into the picture!  At least, not "fair" on our own terms.  Love is not always fair.  War is never fair, and life in general is often extremely unfair especially if in each we do little more than follow our own hearts because as it is written in the Proverbs: "He who trusts in his own heart (that is, his own impulses, his own instincts, his own sense of pride and what is right) is a fool" (28:26a); probably the same "fool" who says there is no God. 

These days it seems everyone - inside and outside the Church - is in more of a fighting mood than in a loving mood.  Love seems only to get us hurt because to truly love as the Lord commands makes us vulnerable - but if we fight back, at least our adversaries will know where we stand and maybe they'll back off.  Well, they might - BUT - only to regroup! 

Life is getting even more complicated and we seem threatened from all sides, all of which has the appearance of general hostility toward Christians.  Several years ago prayer was removed from public schools, and that just was not fair - to Christians.  Courts have since ruled that prayer is not allowed at public school functions such as ball games, and that also does not seem fair - to Christians.  We forget, however, or do not know that the Courts have never said we "cannot" pray any time or anywhere; they only ruled we "cannot" compel others to participate such as through the use of a PA system owned by the public (aka, "state") school. 

In each of these and many other instances, we feel overpowered by the authority of the secular state which seems not impartial to religion but specifically hostile toward Christianity.  It's not fair, we say, because 'Christians founded this country on Christian principles' and/or 'Christians are in the majority; therefore Christians should make the rules and call the shots'.  It's a nice idea for some Christians, of course, and that Day will one day be upon us but it will not be "Christians" in charge - it will be the Lord and those He appoints upon His return (Luke 12:44)!  Until that Day, however, Christians cannot always get along or even agree on fundamental doctrine, and individual churches have been destroyed over the simplest of silly arguments such as the color of carpet, where to hang a picture, or where to place a table.  How have we come to believe we can - or even should - be trusted to run a whole country while the Church is itself in such decline??

St. Paul advises the Ephesians, "Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time because the days are evil.  So do not be foolish (remember the Proverb!), but understand what the will of the Lord is."  It is important for Christians to note - with jealous intensity, I might add - that St. Paul did NOT say, 'Be careful how others live.'  And when Jesus warns His disciples that the burden of making peace with an adversary is upon US, He is advising us that if we are only protecting our frail egos, our senseless pride, or our constitutional rights (no matter how "right" we may think we are!) and are not honestly assessing and measuring our part in the conflict according to "the will of the Lord", it could well be we who will be handed over to the judge and thrown into prison.  WE could be the ones under condemnation until "WE have paid the very last penny."  It doesn't seem fair, but "fair" does not factor into the Holy Standards by which the people of the Holy Church are held accountable and will be judged on the Day of the Lord!

I admit this is all a bitter pill to swallow sometimes, but Jesus and St. Paul are both offering remarkably sound advice within the very harsh reality that life is never fair, especially within the nature of conflict itself, because everything is subjective.  When human temperaments and human impulses begin to clash with Christian principles, if we are living faithfully, we should expect to get stepped on - and we should answer that violation by a sound understanding of "what the will of the Lord is", NOT according to what we think we are entitled to - because when we think in terms of "fair", we are only thinking in terms of what WE want and what WE think we are entitled to.

None of this is to say Christians do not have the means to fight back, but we are compelled by Scripture to fight with the understanding that even though "we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards ... we are ready to punish every disobedience WHEN OUR OBEDIENCE IS COMPLETE" (2 Corinthians 10:3, 6).  Remember the "log in our eye" verses the "speck in our brother's eye" thing?  Ouch.

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay', says the Lord ... do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17-19,21).

An evil act at the hands of a person who only thinks he is right according to his own standards and self-serving desire is still an evil act, and only puts us at war within ourselves in doing what we would prefer to do and neglecting the better part of what we are called to do.  So when Jesus says He came to bring "division rather than peace", is He only referring to the inherent conflict between those who will believe and choose to follow Him, and those who will not?  I think maybe there is much more to it than that because even though there are those obvious external conflicts, there is also that internal conflict between doing what we have been conditioned to do (impulses, instincts, and sense of entitlement), and what we are called to do by our Lord.  That, I think, is the worst conflict of all because when we drill down to the ultimate source of the conflict, we will almost always find "pride" at the core protecting the "ego". 

It all boils down to whom or what we trust and believe.  We call Christ our Lord, but are we prepared to obey Him as Lord?  If not, then we do not consider Him our "Lord".  We call Jesus the Savior, but are we prepared to trust Him fully to judge what is truly fair, truly right, truly just?  If not, then we do not seriously consider Him the "Savior of the world".  We might often rather call our own shots and be our own judge according to our own standards, those standards we sometimes arrogantly refer to as "common" sense.  Such is an impossible standard because all is not "common" to each and every human person.  "Common" sense arrogantly assumes everyone had the same background, the same upbringing, the same advantages, the same education, and the same experiences.  Such, also, is ultimately our understanding of what is "fair" - according to what WE know and what WE want. 

Leading up to our lesson from Luke's gospel, Jesus is asked, "Lord, are you telling this parable for us - or - for everyone?" (12:41).  The parable is of the master who has gone away and the faithful slave who lives as though the master will return anytime but certainly will return "at an unexpected hour" (12:40).  Jesus answers that the slave who lives faithfully and serves faithfully (that is, "obediently") "will be put in charge of all [the master's] possessions" upon his return, but the unfaithful slave who only did as he pleased and only for himself, perhaps according to his own perception of what is "fair", "will be cut to pieces and put with the unfaithful.  That slave who knew what his master wanted but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted (by the master; that is, "willful" disobedience) will receive a severe beating" (12:42-47).  Our Lord is clearly speaking to His own; the faithful, the ones who should know better, the ones "to whom much is given and from whom much will be required" (Luke 12:48).

Our Lord has so spoken, and His Church has embraced His words.  Let Him be the Judge of what is fair and right, and let us be found at His return faithfully serving at the "unexpected hour"; for being found and judged "faithful", we will NOT receive what is "fair" or what we truly deserve - thank GOD for Christ! - but we will receive from our Lord all He desires for His faithful, obedient servants: Eternal Life in the Kingdom to come.  Amen.          

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Where do we go from here?

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

I had an epiphany yesterday.  It occurred to me that for all St. Paul seemed to write "against" the Law, this Law we Christians have been somehow "freed" from, this Law Jesus came to fulfill rather than to abolish, this same Law Jesus says will not pass away until "heaven and earth pass away" (Mt 5:18) - meaning "never", we have done all we can - ironically in the name of this same Jesus - to side-step or disavow the Law if not outright disobey it with no apologies, no regrets, and no repentance -  based solely on the writings of some people we never knew! 

So how have we come to understand the Law with such negative tones as if the Law somehow restricts us rather than liberates us?  This is the same liberation Israel enjoyed after being delivered from Egypt's bondage.  How has the Christian Church come to understand the Law as somehow equivalent to that same "bondage" from which Israel had been freed?  How is it we are somehow in that same "bondage" by the same Law which must surely be the "Word made flesh" and which "dwelt among us" and came to show us the Way?  How is it that even as Jesus teaches that a "house divided against itself cannot stand", we somehow pit Jesus AGAINST this same Law as a "house divided against itself"?

Someone once told me they didn't much care for the Law because it seems to convey the message that the Lord's love is "conditional"; that is, if you don't "do" this or if you fail to "do" that, the Lord won't love you.  Then, of course, is the favorite fall-back of many Christians: we are "saved" by grace through faith.  This is certainly what St. Paul says.  Cheaply and carelessly translated, all we have to "do" is believe Jesus is the Son of God.  All that other "stuff" is just confusing, overly burdensome, unnecessary, and not very realistic in today's world.  This same person told me he did not "have to" obey the Law because he was "already saved".  Really?  Did I also mention this person is homosexual?

Our favorite citations and examples (and his) of what seems overly burdensome are prohibitions against cross-breeding of animals, cross-breeding of produce in the field, and mixing natural wool with man-made linens as cited in Leviticus 19:19.  We've been casually familiar with this passage for years, and the best we've ever done with it is to try and use it as a prohibition against "race-mixing".  I agree it seems to be written as an afterthought and seems completely out of context as merely words written on a page.  If we do not honestly engage and study the Scripture as if we were having a heart-to-heart talk with our Lord, however, all they will ever be are mere words written on pages.

I think we've not honestly nor spiritually engaged this passage of Scripture and many others, quite frankly, because a literal reading (that is, just reading the words on the page) makes no sense to us.  We fail to see, for example, that we are tampering with Divine Creation in cross-breeding species and are saying to our Lord, 'What You made for us is not quite sufficient to our needs or to our liking; we can do it better.'  It is the same principle of disdain expressed in Numbers 11 when the people of Israel expressed pure "hatred" for the manna which kept them fed and sufficiently nourished.  It's not about things that don't go together, and it's not strictly about agriculture.  There should be no comparison to race-mixing unless we are willing to suggest some races of humanity are somehow less than human.  The passage, like the entire Law, is primarily about faith and what (or Whom) we choose to believe and depend on.

"The righteous shall live by faith."  If we were to suggest this sounds like a New Testament principle, we would only be partially correct.  It is indeed expressed by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians, but St. Paul was quoting the prophet Habakkuk through whom the Lord spoke these words: "There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right with them, but the righteous shall live by faith" (2:3-4).  So we should be able to see that faith as the foundational principle upon which our relationship with the Lord stands did not only enter into the world through Christ.  Faith was, like Christ Himself, "in the beginning with God" (John 1:2).

But this is about deciding "where we go from here".  The other night we were forced to confront the many facets of our being in trying to determine "who we really are", and last night we were forced to try and determine exactly "where we are" in our faith journey - or perhaps whether we are even on the faith journey.  But as I suggested to you last night, the Church as the Body of Christ is "dynamic"; it does not sit still because by its Divine Nature it is on the move.  We must decide whether we are moving with it.  It is not about making the Church move with us.  It is entirely about faith and whether we are willing to trust our Lord enough to follow Him.

We express disdain and genuine concern for the many inside and outside the Church who have suggested Jesus as "a way" but not "the way".  We have gotten our noses out of joint because even some bishops within the United Methodist Church have tried to tell us there are "many" ways, many religions by which we can express ourselves to our God and to our community.  And we should be concerned, I think, because if there are those who try to diminish or downplay Messiah's role in the Divine Journey, they should be watched and heard ... but with extreme caution

Can we not see, however, that when we start picking and choosing what portions of the Law we like, what portions of the Law "really mean what they say", and what portions of the Law are not applicable to us, we are telling the entire world that they can also take the Lord in part or in whole; that they can also pick and choose the parts they like and dismiss those parts they don't like - in the name of Grace and in the name of Jesus.  We are by our example showing the world that religion is no more or less important to us than a dinner buffet after church services.  We are "Sabbath" people, but we profane the Sabbath by these acts and so many others.  But it's ok, we say, because we are "saved".  All I can say to that is, we better hope so - but the Scriptures do not back us up in this very narrow vision of what living in and for Christ really means.

I think this is the conflict St. Paul tries to express in helping people to understand that the Law as the COVENANT of the Lord does not in and of itself "save" anyone.  That is, just claiming to be a Covenant people, a "chosen race" does nothing but to bring a curse upon those who claim it but do not live it.  This is like the "saved" people who claim the blood of Christ but do nothing but go on about their business as if Jesus is not a real part of their lives.

How can we claim to be "saved" by a "Savior" whom we do not believe nor trust enough to believe?  How can we even say we "believe" in Jesus as the Son of God if we dismiss Jesus as "the Word made flesh"?  How can what Jesus taught us mean anything if all we ever really wanted from Him was His liver on a stick - and His blood in a cup?

"The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."  True?  Of course it is true the Lord is THE Shepherd.  Jesus Himself says He is the "Great Shepherd" whose voice is well known by His sheep.  All of this is to say that sheep follow, and shepherds lead.  Where will we be led?  And by whom?  And according to whose terms?  As "THE" Great Shepherd (that is, the only legitimate shepherd), does it make sense that Jesus would lead some of us this way and some of us that way?  What did Jesus teach us about the "lost" sheep?  Did the Shepherd not go FIND that lost sheep and BRING HIM BACK rather than follow that "lost sheep"? 

We may know the right answers, but we seem afraid to ask the right questions for fear that we may learn something we didn't really want to know.  But what we fail to realize is that if Jesus is THE WAY - that is, the ONLY way - this means there can only be ONE path.  This is, believe it or not, the very Law Moses defends to the people of Israel.  One Standard.  One - and only one - God.  And this Standard - this Law - becomes so much a part of us that we live it, we work it, and we rest in it.  With integrity and, yes, with faith, we defend it and we teach it.  We are, indeed, COMMANDED to do so.  And though we may not always understand it, we are expected BY FAITH to abide in it.

I don't know where the Lord will take the Holy Church from this moment, from this place.  I can only know that if we abide in Him faithfully and fully, He will abide in us.  And He will show us the way.  The only question left is: are we willing?

Where are we?

Revelation 2:1-7
Ezekiel 20:33-38

Pope Benedict stated recently: "like those who doubt [the divinity of Christ] in today’s Gospel – His being the Living Bread from Heaven that gives eternal life - we too must ask ourselves if we really feel this hunger; hunger for the word of God, hunger to know the real meaning of life. Only those who are attracted by God the Father, who listen and allow themselves to be instructed by Him can believe in Christ, encounter Christ, and nourish themselves of Christ and thus find true life, the path of life; justice, truth and love”.

Last night we took a little trip down a hard road, a road on which at one time we were pretty sure we were doing ok and actually going somewhere; but we may have also found that for all the forward motion, all we got was a little older and not much wiser.  We may have lost our way because we lost our sense of who we really are.  And because we got so busy "going" and "doing" for ourselves and our families, we may have found ourselves in strange, unfamiliar territory, having strayed off the Lord's path.  When we finally stopped to catch our breath, we looked up, looked around, and were forced to say, "Where are we?"

It happens that way when we declare ourselves to be our own best authority, our own best guides to what is real and right.  It happened to Israel during the time of the Judges.  It happens that way when we choose to go off on our own and do our own thing; doing "what seems right in our own eyes", bucking the system of "organized religion" to do not what we are called to do but what we would rather do.  Worst of all, we have probably created for ourselves a 'church' that not only allows such individuality - but actually encourages it by such self-gratifying language as "personal" Lord and "personal" Savior absent a genuine biblical context; reducing our doctrine to a cheesy "bumper sticker" slogan that best describes our theology and sense of duty to the Church, to one another, and to our Lord to this: "EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF."

Of the letters to the seven churches in The Revelation, I have lately found the letter to the church at Ephesus to be the most troubling.  This letter touches a nerve because it describes almost to the last detail every church we know or have known that we would call "good" churches.  Churches that "do" all the right things.  Churches that "believe" all the right things.  Churches with preachers who "say" all the right things.  Churches that seem able to tell the difference between "good" and "evil", and churches that "persevere" in the faith.  Yet with all these positive attributes, we are still confronted with that "I have this against you" proclamation from our Lord: "You have forgotten your first love." 

By this statement alone, it is clear the Church at Ephesus was completely lost.  Israel was lost in the Exile.  I think we are, too, and probably for the same reason. 

It is hard to know exactly where we are because our sense of direction and sense of time and place within our human capacity are satisfied by a physical point of reference.  Where we "are", at least in our minds, is easy to pin down because clearly we "are" in church most Sundays and ideally also in Bible study groups as well.  We are clearly "doing" the right things (mostly, anyway!) - as Ephesus was also "doing" the right things.  So how can we be "lost" if we are right where we think we are supposed to be?

As the saying goes, 'the only constant in life is change'; so the only thing that is truly certain is that we are a Church in transition.  The Church has always been in transition and will always be in transition, the Lord willing - if the Church is doing "right things" - because the Church as the Body of Christ is by its divine nature dynamic rather than static.  That is to say, we are - or should be - constantly on the move just as Israel was during the time of the Exodus. 

On the way to "being" where the Lord intended for them to "be", they were in the process of "becoming" all the Lord intended for them to "become".  So, too, is the Church "going on to perfection", striving for the best of all our Holy Father has in store for us, "becoming" all we are called to "become" - for the sake of His Holy Name and for the sake of His Holy Church.

If we have really "forgotten our first love", if there is any parallel between the Church at Ephesus and the United Methodist Church - and I think there must be - then it is little wonder that we have lost our way; because it seems that from top to bottom we talk a good game about being a people of God and we grasp for the mantle of 'staying in love with God', but all hard evidence is to the contrary.  We clearly love ourselves more

We "do" what we do all too often out of sheer force of habit.  We reason among ourselves that we must not try to fix what isn't broken, but we fail to realize the only thing holding us together is duct tape!  It works well for us in the moment, of course, but such efforts fail to acknowledge - and depend on - the restorative nature of our Lord.  But we must surely see that duct tape is only an external fix, a temporary and man-made solution to what can become a permanent problem; hiding what is really wrong and fixing nothing.

In Ezekiel 20 "certain" elders of Israel had gathered with the prophet.  In the context of the writing, it appears that for all the prophet had been preaching to Israel in calling them back to the Lord's way, the Lord's statutes and ordinances, it seems the elders had every intention of trying to silence the prophet and maybe even advise him to "get with the program". 

Israel had determined for itself what was best for themselves - and in their stubbornness they had lost their way.  Rather than recheck and reorient themselves voluntarily according to WHO they were supposed to be and WHERE they were supposed to be, they seemed to be demanding of the prophet - and consequently the Almighty Lord! - that they were perfectly fine with the way things were.  So, too, do we seem to be telling the Lord we are perfectly ok with where we are.  And we'll stay right here, thank you very much!

The Lord had other ideas for Israel, however, just as the Lord clearly has other ideas for the Holy Church!  "As I live", says the Lord, "surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you.  I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered ... and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples; and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face.  As I entered into judgment with your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you.  I will make you pass under the staff, and I will bring you within the bond of the Covenant.  I will purge out the rebels among you and those who transgress against Me ...  Then you shall know that I am the Lord" (Ezekiel 20:33-38).

For their own good and for the sake of the Lord's Holy Name, it had become necessary for the Lord to "purge" and redirect Israel because Israel would not do it for itself.  They had learned nothing from their own past, their own history; and because of their stubbornness, they had lost all sense of who they were - subsequently they had lost their way.

There are remarkable and unsettling parallels between a stubborn Israel and an equally stubborn Church.  Because we have forgotten we are the "whole" Body of Christ rather than a bunch of disconnected arms and legs, we will also be gathered "in the wilderness".  We will also be "purged" and cleansed because our Holy God WILL NOT allow His Holy Name to be dragged through the mud of our stubbornness.  And because our Holy Father is also bound by the terms of His own Covenant - AND - His unfailing love for His people, He will PUT His Church back on the right path!  And you and I are invited to be a part of this Holy Restoration!!

This sense of redirection, this sense of community, this sense of purpose is all intimately connected to our "first love".  And whether we consider this "first love" in terms of the excitement and infatuation with all things new - OR - whether we consider "first love" in terms of the "Greatest Commandment" to "love the Lord our God first", we must in all cases find ourselves 'in love' with the Holy God who gave us Life, who gave us Truth, who showed us the Way; the Holy and Almighty God who gave us Christ Jesus to show us these things and so much more.

Whether we are standing "here" or sitting "there", we must in all cases and under all circumstances find ourselves 'in love' ... for such is not a "place"; it is a state of being, and it is a state of doing.  It is where Christ is, thus it is where we must also be.  Together.  The Church ... until the Kingdom comes.  AMEN.

Who Are We?

Matthew 5:1-16

So who are we?  We claim to be Christians and we attend worship at Christian churches (most of the time), but does this simple proclamation say anything that matters to our Lord?  Or to those outside the Covenant, outside the Church?  It doesn't seem to, judging by an overall and steady decline in worship attendance, Bible study, and church membership.  This is not always to say that the absence of so many is a direct testimony of our own imperfections, but we must always be willing to look more deeply within to determine whether we are truly being and doing all we are called and equipped to be and to do regardless of what "others" are being or doing. 

This inward reflection has nothing to do with those who choose not to attend worship - just as Divine Love is not predicated or conditional upon whether or not someone may respond in kind.  This necessary inward reflection is about us; "us" as individuals as well as "us" as the Body of Christ, individuals within a community of faith; disciples called forth and set apart for the mission of Christ's Holy Church.  This inward reflection is about breaking through the facade of our being, overcoming what we choose to be in public, and being honest with what is really there.  It is only by such efforts that the faithful are brought into that necessary period of repentance - when we find our profound need for the Lord in our lives as we come face-to-face with our shortcomings and our failures.

So who are we?  Some say we are what we eat.  If this is true, I would suggest maybe we don't eat enough cake; you know, the "sweet" stuff!  If it is true that we are what we eat, this concept may be disturbing according to the rules of Jewish Kosher law and the Law of Moses both of which, in simple terms, command that the Lord's people are NOT to eat animals that consume waste of any kind.  If we truly are what we eat, this should not sit well with Southerners whose diet consists substantially of "bottom dwelling", waste-consuming river critters or pigs that will eat what we would not dream of eating on our worst day!

Others say we are defined by our check book registers and bank statements that reflect our wasteful spending and hoarding habits.  Still others say who we really are is defined by how we act when we think no one is looking, or when we share gossip but "only" with a trusted friend who will in turn pass this malicious gossip on to their own trusted friend until we soon discover that our trusted friends can no more be trusted with good gossip than we!

Many of us tend to believe ourselves to be defined by our careers and vocations.  We are teachers and preachers, doctors and lawyers, contractors and laborers, wholesalers and retailers.  Our nation's economy continues to struggle as millions have not only lost jobs but seem unable to find new jobs.  While it may be easy to dismiss so many as just plain "lazy", we are not looking deeply enough to see that many who have lost jobs lost much more than just a pay-check; they lost a substantial part of who they came to believe themselves to be.  I am convinced through personal experience that what many are suffering has more to do with a crisis of identity than with a crisis of finance.

We may also be tempted to define ourselves according to the so-called "Great Commission" in which the Church is called forth to teach, to preach, and to baptize; that is, we are defined by what we are called to do as an institution.  This is a contributing factor to the whole of who we are, but there again is also that temptation to define ourselves strictly according to our vocations, what we do.  The downside of such a temptation, even with the best of intentions, is that what we do is still only a small part of who we truly are. 

The struggle for identity and purpose is not always a bad thing, however, lest we become a little too comfortable, complacent, and soon find ourselves running on "auto pilot"; "doing" what we do only because it is what we've always done.  A little discomfort can go a long way in helping us to finally find the ONE and ONLY foundation upon which we can stand with confidence.  Sometimes we have to get kicked in the head more than once before we finally realize there is a profound difference between who we truly are ... and what we do - just as there is a profound difference between being simply "Christian" by profession of faith and doing "discipleship" by continuing the journey of faith; "sanctifying grace" as we Methodists understand "going on to perfection", becoming more and more Christ-like as we grow in faith and in love.

In the Marine Corps, every recruit in boot camp must undergo an initial strength test before being assigned to a training platoon.  Each recruit must be able to do AT LEAST a bare minimum of pull-ups, stomach crunches, and run a certain distance within a specified time to ensure their bodies are up to the rigors of recruit training.  If they cannot pass the initial strength test, they are sent to a physical conditioning platoon where they will stay until they pass the initial strength test.  Once they pass the test, they are recycled to a training platoon - and then the real work of becoming Marines begins!

It has become necessary, I think, for the Church to undergo an "initial strength" test of its own because while we can make any number of claims about who we think we are or who we hope others believe us to be, the reality of who we are will be revealed only if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, with one another, and with our Holy Father.  If we continue to hide behind cheesy religious slogans that look good on a bumper sticker but fall short of biblical truth, we may soon discover that who we think we are can be as easily torn away as a cheap bumper sticker that never quite fully becomes an integral part of the car. 

So we must measure ourselves against the many who have gone before us, those blatantly imperfect men and women whom we read about in Scripture as well as those whom we read about in the newspapers and online and in books and magazines; prophets and martyrs, apostles and disciples, those who gave all they had for something much greater than they would ever become; at least, in this life.  It is this "cloud of witnesses" that has perfected the standards by which discipleship is truly measured, those who faltered in their humanity and yet never seemed to waver in their faith.    

The world calls us "old school" or "old fashioned", "out of touch" or "from another time", "living in the past", "backward", and "stone age prophets" (and these are just the terms I can say out loud in church!), but our Lord calls us "salt" and "light".  In spite of the challenges we face and the persecutions we endure (or maybe because of them), Jesus calls us "blessed" in our struggles - not in our possessions.  When we are "poor in spirit", we are rich in the Kingdom of Heaven.  When we "hunger and thirst for righteousness", we are filled with the goodness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  When we are merciful, we are shown mercy.  When we are "pure in heart", we are in the presence of the Almighty!  And when we seek and speak peace, we become children of the Most High God!

We are all these things and so much more NOT because we have earned these things, NOT because we think we are entitled to these things, NOT because we have laid claim to these things, NOT because we submitted ourselves to a single moment of intense emotional weakness. 

No, dear friends, we are these things and so much more by decree of our Lord purely by His mercy and His grace.  We respond out of profound gratitude EVERY - SINGLE - DAY - OF - OUR - BREATHING - LIFE.  We endure the trials of life because we see the "pillar of fire" in the darkness of our persecutions, and we persevere because we see the "cover of cloud" in the heat of our despair.  We do not always understand the challenges of the Journey that is faith, but we confront these challenges head-on NOT on a personal level to see if we can do better than the next guy - BUT - we endure these challenges because we have one another to help us to endure. 

This is the Church, the Body of Christ.  And others will join us on our compelling Journey because even though they can see right through our imperfections and our less-than-honest facades, they can also see the "light" that is within us and they can taste the "salt" that is of us.  They can see the love that shines forth from a community that cares for one another and, yes, sometimes fusses and fights but always comes out the better for it because we are willing to hold one another accountable for the Journey that is just too much for any one person.  Impossible, actually.

We are United Methodist Christians following in a long, rich tradition; a tradition whose sole purpose was to call dead, lifeless, "almost"-Christians from a dead, lifeless church and affirm - and live - the "pure and undefiled" religion St. James called forth from the church in Jerusalem: "to care for the widow and the orphan (that is, the "oppressed" of our society) and to remain unspotted from the world".  We are not called to "over-theologize" doctrine and develop new rituals that make us feel good about ourselves and what we do but have little to do with the mission of Christ's Holy Church. 

We are called to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give comfort to those who are hurting, and provide salve for the wounds this world will thrust upon the innocent and the weak.  We are the conscience of a world gone mad, and we are the Light of Life which comes from the Gospel of our Lord.  We are the Lamp on the Table who refuses to be covered up!  We are the Reality of Grace itself when we forgive those who have harmed us.

WE - ARE - THE - CHURCH.  WE - ARE - THE - BODY - OF - CHRIST, redeemed by the Blood of the Everlasting Covenant.  Today in this world - and in the world to come.  AMEN.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Worship: a reflection of all that is within us

Hebrews 12:14-17, 25-29
John 4:7-15, 19-24

My wife and I were talking shortly after morning worship, and the topic of response to having received the Bread of the Eucharist came up.  As a child I was always taught that the proper - and only - response to having received Bread was "amen".  Then, of course, when the Cup was offered to the congregation after Vatican II, the same response was taught.  I had mentioned to my wife that one particular boy always says, "thank you" whenever he is offered the Bread; but there are only two adults who respond with "amen". 

Of course there is more to the Eucharist and worship than mere words spoken by the pastor or the congregation but having been raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, I have often wondered what truly constitutes "worship" for Protestants.  I often endured well-intentioned jokes about the "up and down" of the Catholic Mass of standing, kneeling, and sitting, responsorial readings, and scripted responses as part of the liturgy.  For me, of course, it was perfectly normal and, yes, "proper" because it is what I was raised in. 

So recalling my first experience at a Baptist church with a friend, I was completely out of my element because the best I can remember, all that was required of me was to sit quietly and listen.  I was not asked to "do" anything except to come "get saved".  Very strange experience.  And now sometimes I wonder if as a pastor I am not leading these same, "sit quietly and listen" services in which I once felt so out of place and virtually useless since my presence nor my participation seemed to make much of a difference one way or the other.

The textbook definition of "worship" is "reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object", "the ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed, and "ardent devotion and adoration" ("").

Ah.  Now we get to the heart of worship: "expression".  How we worship is an expression of ... what?  Adoration?   Reverence?  Love?  Devotion?  Respect?  And is our expression a "correct" or even an adequate one?  Can any expression, for that matter, be "wrong" if it is a genuine expression of what is in the soul and on the heart?

We live in an age of "spiritualism" and what one writer called "religi-tainment" that has nothing to do with "discipleship", the many self-proclaimed Christians who have distanced themselves from the fellowship - and discipline - and yes, the hypocrisy of the Church, and they have left for any number of stated reasons (most of them "your" fault or "mine"), but most of the excuses I have heard simply boil down to "it isn't necessary.  I don't need the Church to be saved."  And this, I think, is in part the biggest failure of the Reformation; its central question focusing purely on "what must I do to be saved".  Never - EVER - asking, "what can I do for you, Lord".  Offering "thanks" only when everything is going "my" way - but - always asking "why me" when it is not.

To those nay-sayers who insist religion and its corresponding worship are nothing more than a man-made system by which to control the masses with threats of eternal hellfire, we can only fall back on St. James' definition of "pure religion": "Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27).  So how must we "worship in Spirit and in Truth" in a manner not only pleasing to our Holy Father but which justifies and expresses the ongoing relationship that must surely define life in the Church with its requisite "fellowship" and "discipline" while distancing ourselves from the "hypocrisy"?  What is the "acceptable worship" the writer of Hebrews insists is necessary?

It is the dominant question on my mind each week as I look at the previous week's bulletin and plan the next week.  My greatest fear is that which may have already come to fruition: we are in a rut by doing the same things over and over again essentially for the same people week after week.  It is my great fear in offering Holy Communion every week; that once we begin doing something on such a regular basis that it becomes only "something we do" and is not necessarily or always a true expression of what is within us.  When we "receive" Communion, we should be making a statement of unity not only with our Lord but with His Church; that is, one another, and there should be an expressive response.  And when we "drop" a check in the offering plate, we are doing what is expected of us.  Even worse, the ushers have to "come and get it".  Is this "worshipful"?

I think if we were to truly study the history of worship, we would find regional and cultural reflections that are only universal in that what seems to work for "that" church may be worth trying at "this" church.  And I think if we were to critically assess our own worship today - that is, evaluate each element of each segment - we would likely find not "expressions" but mere "habits"; things we do only because it's what we've always done and have been somewhat programmed to do - that sure and certain sign of a church not in mission but in decline.

In the Marine Corps there is what is called an "initial strength inventory", a physical fitness test to determine whether a recruit is physically up to recruit training.  If this inventory is failed, the recruit is sent to a physical conditioning platoon where he or she stays until they can pass the test.  Once they pass the test, they are then recycled to a regular training platoon where the real work of becoming a "warrior" begins.  It is time for the Church - and perhaps particularly Asbury - to undergo an initial strength inventory of its own.  Rather than the many "kinda-sorta try and ultimately fail" programs that don't really get any traction because no one really is prepared or willing to invest in it, we must first determine exactly where we are.  Maybe then we can discover who we truly are and Who - or what - is really most important to us.

We can read all the reports and polls and assessments we want, but the strength or weakness of any congregation will be determined not by how well we please ourselves but how earnestly and honestly we please our Lord.  What do we do well?  What do we do only because we think we're supposed to?  What do we do only because we think we owe it to "Joe Blow" or "Nancy Pants"?  And how much of it do we do not for the Church or for one another - but - truly, earnestly, and honestly do for the Lord?

I believe the Lord is waiting, and I believe with every fiber of my being that Asbury is sitting on the edge of a great blessing.  The only remaining question is: do we want that blessing badly enough to actively reach for it?  Time will tell, "for indeed our God is a consuming fire".  So we must ask: will our Lord burn the place down once and for all ... or will our Lord fire us up for His Holy Name once and for all time?