Monday, September 24, 2012

A Thought

“Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.  No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”  1 Corinthians 10:12-13

You’ve no doubt heard the saying that ‘the Lord will not lead you to what the Lord will not lead you through’, or something to that effect.  St. Paul is referring to Old Testament examples of faith, people of the Bible who endured challenges and temptations but persevered with the knowledge and faith of the presence of the Lord – or fell into judgment by their own poor choices.  So we must also take note of the “temptation” and “the way of escape” to which St. Paul refers as the “temptation … as is common to man”.  In other words, we should not come to think the temptations we face are unique to us or our particular situations, but should rather understand what we endure “as is common”; that is, what everyone else has probably gone through or will face soon enough.  Whether these temptations are divine “tests” is not so easy to distinguish from “common temptations”.

Too many have come to believe that whatever they are confronted with, for good or for bad, must be a “sign” from the Lord, a direct assault by the evil one, or divine negligence.  Whether it is or it isn’t is not so much the concern as our obligation to discern through diligent prayer and fasting; that is, thinking before we respond.  Married persons, for instance, have been confronted with temptations to stray (a very ‘common’ thing) and always have the ‘way of escape’ before them, but some have actually convinced themselves that the illicit relationship is somehow ordained of the Lord because of the ease with which it came and the infatuation it can bring.  Convincing ourselves that the Lord has somehow blessed adultery in our case is simply wrong; we fail to acknowledge the “common” element of that temptation, and we choose not to see the greater “way of escape” that is always before us.  And this applies to any other thing we desire for ourselves but know we do not need.  Or the temptation to think the Lord has turned His back to us because a loved one is stricken with illness or dies unexpectedly.  In our grief we fail to realize people get sick every single day, and people die every single day.  It is “common”; but when it happens to us, it is not so “common” but very, very personal.

It comes down to whether we are of the flesh or of the Spirit (Romans 8:4).  The flesh will almost always give in to the “common” temptations (it’s why our society is in such a mess!), but the Spirit walks with the Word; that is, Christ.  Stand firm in the faith and by the Word!  The Lord will show us the way ‘through’ and the way ‘out’ – for we are not “common” people!


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda ... or maybe not

Galatians 5:1, 13-17, 6:1-2, 7-10

Freedom is a tricky business; and to be perfectly honest, I do not think I would care to be a court judge trying to decide what constitutes "hate speech", and what is constitutionally protected speech according to our First Amendment rights.  There is that very fine line between putting a muzzle on a guard dog to protect innocent persons, and letting that guard dog run free and unrestrained in order to serve the purpose for which it was trained and deployed.

In 1988 Salman Rushdie published a fiction novel entitled "Satanic Verses" whose premise was that the prophet Muhammad had been initially tricked by the devil to include verses in the Koran that should not have been included.  I've not read the book and cannot comment on whether or not it was disrespectful to Islam, but the ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a "fatwa" (death sentence) in 1989 against Mr. Rushdie because of his "blasphemy".  As a result of the attention the book gained, many who edited, published, or sold the book found themselves under attack from Muslims and in mortal danger.

In 2005 a Danish newspaper published a run of cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad in rather unflattering light, ostensibly as part of an overall debate on self-censorship vs. religious sensitivities ... especially Islam.  There was more property damage, and likely several persons who had nothing to do with the running of these cartoons found themselves caught in the cross-fire.

In 2010 Florida "pastor" Terry Jones made a big splash about burning copies of the Koran on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  There is speculation he was looking for publicity for his recently published book, "Islam is of the devil"; but there was also speculation that military injuries and deaths of innocent civilians in Afghanistan came as a result of this man's drive for attention.

In 2010 Fred Phelps was sued by a KIA Marine's father after the Phelps clan "protested" the Marine's funeral; Phelps lost the lawsuit.  However, the appeal in 2011 was not only decided in Fred Phelps' favor, but the Westboro Baptist "pastor" was awarded over $16,000 in legal fees incurred as a result of the lawsuit.

Recently there are conflicting stories about the causes of the fallout, but you've probably heard of the movie entitled "Innocence of Muslims" that was supposedly filmed and titled as a ruse to get Muslims to come watch and then hammer them with questionable history about the prophet Muhammad and Islam. Subsequently the US ambassador to Libya and other diplomats were killed, and there are protests scattered across the Middle East.  Some reports say there is no way that attack and others were spontaneously orchestrated because of the film, but this is not my point.

It must also be said before I go further that there is nothing - NOTHING - to support the passion required to murder another human being ... ESPECIALLY in the name of any religion, certainly not in the name of our Lord, and absolutely not for the sake of vengeance ("'Vengeance is Mine', says the Lord, 'and recompense; I will repay'")!!  Yet even though Terry Jones and Fred Phelps, et al,  can honestly say they have not committed murder in the purest sense, they cannot reasonably claim innocence to harm that came as a result of their actions.  The philosophical reality of Christ's teachings cannot be ignored that there is "good" and there is "evil"; there is no "kinda-sorta", and there is no gray area.  If we do something we can reasonably believe will cause harm directly or indirectly, we are compelled by Scripture to rethink our reasons for taking such action in the first place.

Nevertheless we are a freedom-loving nation.  Mr. Snyder (the KIA Marine's father) is probably proud of his son's service to this high ideal and abiding principle of the United States, but his perspective no doubt changed substantially when his beloved son's funeral became the target of the very freedom his son died for.  And I seriously doubt US Ambassador Christopher Stevens' family is ok with the very freedom that allowed a person called "Sam Bacile" (allegedly not his real name) to make a film under false pretenses (according to the actors who are now suing) and later "dubbing" anti-Islamic material in "voice-overs" (in the movie's trailer, this "dubbing" can be clearly seen).  It should also be noted that this guy "Bacile" is so cock-sure of his "rights" that he functions under an assumed name AND is apparently in hiding for his own safety.

How's that for freedom?  It is dripping with irony that this person felt "free" to make this film and modify it and is not very "free" to walk about without fear even though he remains defiant that he's "free" to do as he pleases.

In addition to St. Paul's letter to the Galatians regarding liberty, he also expresses similar sentiment to the Corinthians when he writes: "Beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak" (1 Cor 8:9).  Some have the mistaken notion that the freedom we celebrate is a uniquely American ideal granted to us by the US Constitution.  It is there in the Bill of Rights, of course, but the ideal of liberty itself transcends the US Constitution ... or any other man-made document, for that matter.  Mother Teresa said it best: "Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being's entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or sovereign. ... You must weep that your own government, at present, seems blind to this truth."

The context in which Mother Teresa was speaking was abortion, of course, but the sentiment is very biblical, very God-ordained of where every human's freedom actually comes from.  And we cannot be blinded to the fact that sometimes our freedom obligates us as much to what we "must not" do as it allows us to do as we please.  As the saying goes, just because we "can" does not mean we "should".

So if we are intentionally antagonizing someone - anyone - for profit, for sport, for politics, or for religion - all in the name of "freedom" - we are setting ourselves up, as St. Paul writes, to "reap what we sow" if we fail to "test our own work" by failing to recognize that the "load we must carry" may be an overly burdensome load of our own making with consequences we probably did not anticipate - especially if it brings harm to another by the hand of some lunatic fringe group just looking for an excuse to be "offended" and angry ... and even murderous.

Freedom is indeed a tricky business with vast and infinite opportunities; but freedom also comes with incredible and larger-than-life obligations and duties.  Freedom is not for the faint of heart, but freedom is mandated even for the weak among us, those we are scripturally required to respect and protect.  "Therefore if [my freedom to do as I please] makes my brother or sister stumble, I will never again [carelessly and mindlessly exercise my freedom] lest I make my brother or sister stumble (1 Cor 8:13).

Taking one for the team

James 3:13-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

I have a vague recollection from my early childhood of a time when my family and other families were enjoying a day at the river.  The adults were up the bank cooking and carrying on and having a high, ol' time, but we kids were down on the sandbar playing nearer the water.  I recall the river was pretty low - or at least low enough to expose a sandbar - and the now-high bank was reinforced with big rocks as you've no doubt seen many times.  Such jobs are done to help prevent further erosion and try to keep the river from cutting through Farmer Brown's corn field!  These rocks are very large and very sharp on their edges, and they are not hand-placed to make walking on them easier.  After a season or two, the crevices between the rocks are filled with snakes, dead fish, sticks, broken glass, and other objects that make climbing up or down these rocks tricky and very dangerous. 

Well, one of the kids got it in his head to wade out into the river (we had been warned to stay away from the water unless a grown-up is down with us).  This kid had a life jacket or an inner tube (again, my vague recollection) so there was no immediate danger, but he wandered out just far enough that the river's current swept his feet out from under him and pulled him away from the sandbar and out toward the channel.  The current was not too swift because the river was low, but it was strong enough to pull a small child out.

As this kid floated away, he began to yell for help (I remember sitting on the sandbar digging a hole, but I don't remember being too concerned with the floating kid.  Maybe I didn't like him much).  I remember suddenly my dad and another man (maybe this kid's dad) running past me with shirts and shoes flying as they prepared to dive into the river for the kid, but all of a sudden I was snatched up from behind by my mom who had thought I was the one screaming for help.  I do remember the utter chaos until the boy was brought in safe and sound.  What I found out soon thereafter is that my mom had come running down over those rocks and sticks and broken glass barefoot because she thought her child was in danger.  There was absolutely no thought about going over to the smoother path and concrete steps which led to the sandbar - mom and those men took the direct route NOT in spite of the obvious risks but BECAUSE of the obvious need; you see, the risks never crossed their minds because they were focused on the necessary task at hand.

Now it is never fair to compare a parent's love for their own children to any other kind of love because, quite frankly, there is no love on earth to be fairly compared to it.  This is truly the sacrificial, "agape" love referred to so often in New Testament theology.  This profound love is the foundation upon which so many successful relationships are built and maintained - each (not "one or the other"!) putting self aside for the sake of the other.  And it is this kind of love which speaks volumes about the very essence of the Lord's Gospel!  It is the essential message we are compelled to share through word AND deed by our own examples. 

On the surface, however, and according to what we can see with our human minds and eyes, there is nothing - NOTHING - in this abiding love for us.  When we give so freely and so liberally, we risk so much of ourselves because there is nothing - NOTHING - that will evidently come for us from such risk.  Oh, we can hope, of course, that there will be some kind of pay-off that will have made the risk worthwhile, but on the whole our practical, calculating minds can easily see that the risk will almost always outweigh any kind of gain.  Our cultural indoctrination is inclined to say, "Only a fool would take such uncalculated risks."

Yet challenge #16 of the Love Dare© states: Love intercedes.  Love gets involved where Love is needed.  Love does not consider risk or reward when it comes to interceding on behalf of someone in need.  Love will run down the river bank over jagged rocks and broken glass for Love's own sake.  Jesus did not long consider Himself, His personal risk, or His personal reward when the Holy Father called Him forth to endure what was to come, all He would put on the line; and it must surely have been known by Him that for all He would put forth, many more would walk (or run) away than would come forward; yet Love persevered.  Jesus endured unimaginable pain, humiliation, and degradation at the hands of evil men whose power was in jeopardy.  They were clearly unwilling to risk their political standing and positions of religious power.

I think it is in this very context that James slaps the hands of those whose "bitter envy and selfish ambition" blinds them to the certain reality that for as much as we focus on our own needs and our own desires and only on those whom we "like" outside of ourselves , we simultaneously diminish our capacity and willingness to risk ourselves for the sake of those who cannot do for themselves.  And this, I think, is the context in which Jesus brings a child into His lesson to the disciples about what being a member of the Body of Christ is all about; that is, what it truly means to be a part of Christ Himself. 

There was a time when I thought - and I still do to a degree - that a child in Scripture represents purity and innocence; all which is good.  In certain places I am sure this much is true.  I think, however, we must also consider all this child in Mark's passage would represent in our own cultural context; "widows and orphans" (the weak, the oppressed) in the context in which these many passages were written.  These represent not only perhaps innocence and purity to be jealously protected and defended at all cost - but also vulnerability and powerlessness.  Children are completely at the mercy of a culture that has become far too self-involved and almost completely removed from what the Gospel of our Lord is all about.  It is as much about "getting saved" as it is about "doing the saving" within our capacity to do so.  This is discipleship! 

It is simply a matter of what we are willing to do; and why or why we are NOT willing to do.

The dispute among the disciples as to who among them was "greatest" goes directly to what James expresses in "coveting" something for oneself and being prepared and more than willing to "engage in disputes and conflicts" (remember the disciples' sense argument!) ... and even "murder" {remember the religious authorities who sought to have Jesus killed for their own gain}(4:2); in other words, being fully prepared and willing to do harm to others for selfish gain, including deliberately withholding what is needed - not at all "willing to yield" if it means personal risk.  And if that willingness to take risk is not present, neither is the Lord present because Love is clearly and distinctly absent.  As it is written in 1 John: "The one who says he abides in Christ ought to also walk just as Christ walked" (2:6).  Otherwise, the apostle says we are just big, fat liars when we call ourselves Christians (4:20)!

Jesus makes it clear that the rewards of the Kingdom will come to those who are "last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35).  What Jesus is telling His disciples - then AND now - is that we can have our reward in this lifetime if this is what means the most to us, but we must not expect much in the life which is to come.  This is the tension most of us live in today because we are caught between the spiritual lessons of the Bible and the cultural and personal demands of a society that insists that "number 1" (that is, "me, myself, and I") must always come first - " 'cause if you ain't first, you're last" (Reese Bobby, "Talladega Nights").

When it comes to the power of sin and death, then, we must consider the analogy of the child in our own lives and in our own understanding of Jesus' purpose in His life and death.  If the child truly represents the "powerlessness and vulnerability" (Harper Collins Bible Commentary, 912) of those whom we are charged to protect and defend, then surely the Lord placed us in that very category as He prepared Himself to go to Calvary in our behalf.  We can pray, we can fast, and we can repent of our sins and resolve to never do it again as indeed we must; but we cannot by our own power OR will break the chains and shackles of bondage which sin and death have over us. 

"Whoever welcomes one such [powerless and vulnerable person] in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not Me but the One who sent Me."  So we discover by this profound statement that as much as we cannot overcome sin and death by our actions, we can and must help others to overcome the adversities of life.  And when we do this, when we "welcome the 'powerless and vulnerable' among us, we "welcome the One who sent the One willing to 'take one for the team'".  As He did, so must we; to the glory of our Holy God and Father.  Amen. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Thought

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own.  Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”  John 15:18-19

It is a matter of who – or what – has claim to the better part of who we truly are according to what we are willing to give.  No one I know wants to be “hated”, yet Jesus says this hatred is inevitable – meaning we can earn the respect of “the world” by living according to the integrity of the Scriptures, but “the world” will have no real use for us.  However, if we are willing to follow every trendy thing in order to fit in or be “popular”, the world is at our service to “love its own”.  This is a distinction disciples of Christ should flee from!

We must remember that the Church (which is the Covenant for those baptized into this Covenant) is chosen “out of the world” for the Lord’s own purposes, but we must decide whose purposes we will ultimately serve and whose love we will seek, whose approval we desire – for “many are called, but few are chosen”.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Thought

“This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”  John 15:12-13

Reading this passage literally, it seems clear that Jesus is referring to the perfect love and the perfect faith which will be expressed when He willfully allows Himself to be delivered to the Cross for death, the death by which sinners can be freed.  Reading more broadly, however, and not quite so literally, we can see “love” expressed not only in a literal shedding of one’s blood unto death but a surrendering of one’s own will for the sake of another whose genuine need exceeds our own.  The tricky part of discerning need, however, is trying not to measure another’s needs according to our own desires; that is, when our needs are more than met and we become confused between the two.

Make no mistake; it is not always about money.  Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to others is our time just as it is often the greatest gift we can offer the Church and to our Lord in prayer, in fasting, in worship, in attending to the Sacraments of the Church, and in singing songs of praise.  Yes, Jesus does teach us that the giving of the tithe must not be neglected, but we must also consider tithes “and offerings” that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

We all have needs, genuine needs according to the body as well as the soul; but if we are unwilling to offer anything except only to those whom we deem worthy of our love, we have entirely missed the point of what Scripture means of divine love, perfect love, sacrificial love.  This comes from the better part of who we truly are; the Image in which we are created.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Thought

“A capable wife who can find?  She is far more precious than jewels.  The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.  She does him good and not harm all the days of her life.”  Proverb 31:10-12

I encourage you to read the entire proverb and see if you can make the Bride of Christ (the Church) fit this description.  I wonder if we can honestly say we as the Church (or even as a church) are doing the Bridegroom any “good” – or – if we are only looking out for our own good.  Does the “heart” of the Bridegroom “trust in us”?  Does the Kingdom of Heaven “have no lack of gain” because of our devotion to excellence and faithfulness?

Reading the chapter as a check-list of all that is desired by the Lord of His Bride is a challenge, but there is revealed in this chapter the “cause and effect” of a covenantal relationship whose demands may seem a little overwhelming until we realize the more-than-ample reward that is sure to come when “her children rise up and call her happy; her Husband, too, and He praises her” (31:28).

This is who we the Church are called to be and to do.  Could this description be adequate to describe and find us if we came up missing?


Monday, September 17, 2012

A Thought

“I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there will be no more hurt; only more love.”  - Mother Teresa

Looking more closely into the life of an extraordinary person who believed she did only ordinary things, Mother Teresa exemplified all that is right with Christian doctrine and practice even within what she believed were her imperfections!  She obeyed the command of our Lord among predominantly Hindus and did not worry about whether they converted and did not ask their religion.  In the end I think it can be said that she saved many souls because of the true Gospel her charges witnessed at work in their lives amidst their suffering.  To give until it hurts and then give even more can be attributed to our Lord’s promise that the more we give, the more we will receive because it is in giving so freely by which we prove to our Lord we can be trusted with His most precious gifts.

May we all be so divinely trusted!


Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Intervention

James 5:9-20
Mark 8:27-38

A couple of weeks ago I asked the SNAA crowd, "What makes a Christian a Christian?"  The following Sunday night a member posed a question that has haunted me all week: "If being a Christian were illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict us?"  Part of this whole discussion had to do with orthodox beliefs; that is, believing "right things", specific doctrines; but as important as I believe orthodoxy and doctrine to be in articulating our faith, it must also be acknowledged that doctrine has also been a source of great confusion, anguish, and harm, both spiritual and physical, in the hands of wrong-headed religionists such as the Pharisees of Jesus' day and the fundamentalist Christians of today who are better known for what they are against than what they are for

The 4th-century Council of Nicaea was convened by Roman emperor Constantine in an effort to define the Church and its doctrine (maybe as much for himself as for the sake of the Church), but he also sought to put an end to the bloodshed that was already taking place due to conflicting beliefs about the nature of the Son Himself as well as the nature of the relationship between the Holy Son and the Holy Father (whether "begotten" rather than "created").  From that time and extending into the Middle Ages, men and women have been executed for not believing "right things", sometimes having been "officially" condemned by the Church, a bishop, sometimes a king, and sometimes by an angry mob just looking for a reason to be "offended".  Clearly, then, at least within these kinds of conflicts, it is hard (if not downright impossible) to define a true Christian by what he or she professes to believe because surely we cannot justify executions at the hands of those who professed themselves to be "orthodox" Christians who believe all the "right" things but choose to do all the wrong things. 

Why continue to "chase this rabbit" of asking what makes a Christian a Christian?  Why bother asking questions that seem impossible to answer universally; that is, try to provide an answer everyone can agree upon?  What difference does it make that "you" believe "this" and "I" believe "that"?  Why not just leave well enough alone? 

The difference it makes to me is expressed in that certain reality that Christians of different denominations cannot - or will not - respect the baptismal or communion practices of fellow Christians of other denominations because they're not doing it "right" (whatever "right" may mean).

I am convinced it is also causing a lot of confusion among those who are outside the Church and will stay outside until we inside the Church get our own story straight!  Why buy into something even Christians don't seem to believe or cannot agree on??  So this "rabbit hunt" is of profound importance for this very reason: Christians cannot articulate their own faith!  This means we are not equipped to withstand the trials and tribulations which are sure to come.  This means we cannot answer honest questions of those who may be seeking purpose and meaning.  This means we will not be able to understand the difference between the Christ ... and the antichrist when that time is upon us. 

Now it is easy for us to remember our own profession of faith or confirmation or even baptism for those who were baptized later in life, and it is easy for us to say we made that profession of faith with conviction.  We meant it ... at the time.  But if we are to "stand trial" for being Christian, is this profession of faith or baptism or confirmation sufficient evidence by which outside "judges" could convict us?  In other words, can they be convinced by this single moment in our lives that we are truly "guilty" of being disciples of Christ?  I would suggest a good police investigator would find these moments to be points of interest and good places to begin an investigation, but I also think the "evidence" from those moments would ultimately be insufficient when the investigator begins digging a little deeper and trying to get beyond "circumstantial" evidence - like the "accuser" of Job.

"Who do people say that I am?"  We get a sense that Jesus is asking this question of His disciples casually, as if He were simply thinking out loud.  Then, of course, He gets different answers according to what the disciples had heard or were thinking themselves.  "John the Baptist".  "Elijah".  "One of the prophets".  See?  Different answers according to what different people had come to believe.  And all these answers would have been valid within their own context of understanding the prophecies - OR - according to what they had been told to believe.  Yet each of these prophets, including John the Baptist, were all speaking not of themselves or of their importance within the grand scheme; rather they were all speaking of something yet to be, something yet to come - even within the context of something already having taken place.

But "the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).  And now that all this is upon them, Jesus asks His disciples, "But who do you say that I am?"  Matthew (16:17-19) accounts Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah to the revelation by the Holy Father Himself, a detail Mark omits.  Both accounts, however, end with Jesus' "stern order": Tell no one. 

This may be the most profound point of the entire passage because given that we cannot seem to agree upon basic principles of religious doctrine - "Whatever" seems to have become our creed - if we did choose to tell, whom would we tell?  And perhaps more importantly, what would we tell them?

I think one of the greatest misconceptions about the so-called "Great Commission" is the common belief that all Christians have been commissioned as "evangelists".  We get the idea that we should all be street preachers proclaiming Jesus' message to anyone who will listen - AND - everyone who won't.  However, St. Paul (Romans 12:3-8) speaks of the "many parts" of the same Body and thus different functions within that same Body; for instance, an arm does not serve the same function as an ear, but both are necessary for the good order of the Body, the community of faith.  So because of our misguided notion of evangelism we have forgotten that as important as preaching is within the worship setting, it is the "doing" expressed in Romans 12:9-21 and by St. James that must necessarily come as a result of the preaching that is going to make a difference in the lives of those who are "outside" the Church and are unsure about coming in.  The "sermons" expressed in works will gain much more traction than any "sermon" expressed in words.

The only way to discern for ourselves our own place within the Family of Christ's Holy Church and the community of faith is to partake of those means of grace John Wesley believed were the hallmarks of a genuine disciple: prayer, fasting, Scripture study, fellowship, worship, partaking of the Sacraments of the Church - AND - good works as attested to by Jesus Himself as the means by which others will come to know of the glory and grace of our Holy Father {Mt 5:14-16 (let your light shine) and Jn 13:34-35 (if you love one another, others will know)}.

What we believe has meaning to others AND to our Lord only in how we express what we believe.  The profession of faith is a good start, but that profession must be articulated in a positive, life-affirming way.  It should be as conversational as Razorback football or deer hunting.  And if it is not, there is much work to be done.  So let us get on with and continue the Good Work that was begun in Christ Jesus ... for sake of the Holy Church and to the Glory of our Holy God and Father.  Amen.   

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Thought

“If you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear, knowing you were not redeemed with corruptible things like silver or gold from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ …” 1 Peter 1:17-19a

This passage and others like it should not be mistaken with notions of good conduct and charitable deeds as accumulated “merits” by which we can earn points toward our salvation.  Rather the judgment by the Father will be to determine whether we are found faithful to all Christ taught us “throughout” our time in this life when our judgment is upon us.  Our profession of faith, our spiritual “pledge of allegiance”, is where we begin, but it is not where the journey ends.  We are called to live according to that redemption not as a purchase but as a trade when the Lord proclaimed, “My life for yours”.

So we called to live and conduct ourselves not according to social or cultural standards taught to us by our own traditions (which, incidentally, shift from one generation to the next), but are instead called to the reality of the transformation from within.  This is to say, we are not to “fit” the Lord into our already-busy schedules and priorities; we are called to put all else aside for the Lord and then reorder our lives according to Him and all He taught us.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Thought

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord, looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled …” Hebrews 12:14-15

You may already know the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt was overrun by protesters and that the US ambassador to Libya was killed in the past couple of days.  News reports this morning indicate these acts of protest and violence came as the result of some online movie (produced by an Israeli-American in California, they say) depicting the prophet Muhammad in an unfavorable light.  We know Islam is very sensitive to any references to or of the prophet outside the preaching of the faith, but there is also an insistence that we are “free” to speak as we please when we please about what we please.  Indeed we are, but we are equally free to refrain from intentionally antagonizing someone needlessly and ultimately causing harm.  Would you celebrate and defend your freedom to speak as you please if the US ambassador to Libya were your loved one?

The writer of Hebrews reminds the faithful that our conduct and pursuit of “holiness” is necessary if we are to follow in the footsteps of Christ and if we truly hope to one day “see the Lord”.  It is not a matter of whether or not Islam needs to “get over it”; it is entirely about what we intend when we speak and act in any regard because when we do so as we are known as Christians, we are assumed as speaking on behalf of Christ Himself and what we believe to be true.  So would Jesus intentionally antagonize someone only because He was free to do so?  There is a difference between speaking freely in a constructive manner – and just being a jerk.  An American ambassador and countless American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are dead – needlessly so - because the freedom of others was not exercised responsibly.

We are better than this; grace has not been extended to us so that we may do as please regardless of who may get hurt.  Somewhere and at some time, this madness has to stop.  Will we choose to be part of the process of peace as we are so called?  Indeed we must; otherwise we are just part of the problem.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Thought

"The moment to spend with a spouse who loves me, or a sick friend, or a delicious new grandchild is here and now. Not some time later .... The nation learned this lesson all at once that horrible day in September 2001. The pictures stay with us -- the fires and falling debris, and, most hauntingly, the faces. Look how young so many of them were, people who thought there would be much more time, a lot of 'later' when they could do all the things they really wanted to do. I grieve for their families -- especially for those, like me, who haven't found any trace of the people they loved. But I grieve even more for the people who died that day. They couldn't know what we know now about the precious gift of time." – Cokie Roberts, NPR News

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.”  Psalm 23:4

And I will add, “Because You are with me, Holy Lord, I will bless and cherish each moment as the divine gift it is; each joy, each sorrow, each burst of laughter, and every tear – because You give us these moments to grow and to love in making us ready for the moments to come.  These moments are the life You have granted, and I will embrace each one.”  

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Matthew 6:14


Monday, September 10, 2012

A Thought

“Honor the Lord with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine.”  Proverb 3:9-10

As the saying goes, ‘All we have is a gift from the Lord; what we do with what we have is our gift to the Lord’.  There is nothing the faithful can possess without an understanding of ‘stewardship’; that is, what we have been given responsibility and watch over for the sake of the Lord.  There is nothing within our power to grasp that does not first belong to the Lord. 

The “firstfruits” are the tithe we offer to the Lord as an expression of gratitude for all we have charge over.  This is the portion that was given to the support of the Temple, and today it is the portion we give in support of the Church.  Beyond this tithe, however, is still a duty and responsibility to use what we have not only to sustain ourselves and our families responsibly (not extravagantly; that is, beyond basic needs) but to share with those who have not even their basic needs met. 

I realize we live in a time when many actually make a living taking from those who are generous with what they have, but we must also understand the limits of judgment when we withhold from those who need, not knowing the whole story.  We must also be willing to embrace the certain promise that comes from the Lord to those who “honor the Lord” with ALL possessions in giving the tithe faithfully, living morally and responsibly, and sharing generously.  That promise is this: “Your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine.”

It is the sure and certain covenantal promise from the Lord that if we will trust Him first with everything we have in tithes AND offerings, He will see to it that we have the “plenty”.  As for those who take what they do not need or what they can earn for themselves, the Lord will deal with them in His time.

Let us learn to let go of the things we hoard, the things that will rust or that can be stolen, the things that actually bind us; and let us learn to embrace the certain promise of the Lord.  Then – and only then – will we truly learn of the Lord’s intent for His own.


Thursday, September 06, 2012

A Thought

“Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others so [by example], shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 5:17-20

Having been a somewhat interested observer in a recent conversation in which hatefulness and spite were dominant amidst talk of being “saved”, it occurred to me either that person is clueless about exactly what Jesus is talking about in this passage – OR – entire churches are spiritually (or willfully) deaf to the reality of the Law in New Testament theology, depending on one or two verses attributed to St. Paul but more often completely out of their appropriate context.  I think of those who tried to stand toe-to-toe with Jesus by proclaiming Abraham as their father (John 8:39) as their means of self-justification even as they had evil intentions against Jesus.

In light of 40+ years of the Church in America falling apart, it becomes more and more apparent that the Church is falling apart because the Church is falling away.  It is not about whether the Catholics or Baptists or Methodists believe “right” things; it is entirely about ‘righteousness” in our acts in union with our words in the name of Christ’s Holy Church.  New Testament theology allows us to depend on the “righteousness of Christ” while we remove Christ’s command to be “more righteous” from our own language.  Jesus’ words are plain: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven”.  “By … NO … MEANS”.  Pretty ominous for those who depend on a profession of faith spoken years ago but have long since forgotten what it was supposed to mean.

It is not about whether we are saved by grace through faith or by faith perfected in works.  It is entirely about being “just”, being “righteous”.  It is about living the life Christ commands the Church to live so that our “light may shine … and glorify your Father in heaven”.  We cannot do this with cheap words about having been “saved” because clearly more and more persons are rejecting what we say because they can more clearly see what we do!

If the Church (that is, you and I) cannot “be” what we “say” in the eyes of non-believers, it is a stretch to call ourselves “disciples” and expect favor from our Lord who commands of His people a much higher standard.  The Law is clear, Jesus amplifies that clarity, and the Holy Spirit surely did not tell St. Paul to “never mind”!  


Blest be the Tithe that binds

Malachi 3:6-12
Matthew 23:23-24

How much do we really, truly, honestly, earnestly trust our Lord?  It is not an abstract question that forces us to try and remember some favorite passage of Scripture that speaks to that writer's trust and faith.  Rather it is a challenge to look more deeply at our lives and how we worship, live, love, work, and play.  It is a challenge to get to the heart of how our faith is defined - and perfected.

Msgr. Charles Pope of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington tells the story of a time in a parish that was facing financial difficulties.  They were neck-deep in debt, they were receiving cut-off notices from local utilities, and the money just to survive was not there.  As with many churches that face this same situation - and there are many of all denominations! - the administrative council thought up all kinds of fundraising ideas to bring new money into the parish: carnivals, raffles, bingo, picnics, you name it. 

Finally the music director spoke up after all these ideas had been tossed about.  "God has a plan, a financial plan, for His Church.  It doesn't involve games of chance and other glitz; it involves tithing.  And until you faithfully preach that plan, I doubt this parish will ever be out of debt for more than 20 minutes.  Preach the Word, Father; preach the Word."

The parish priests did exactly that; and within two years the parish was out of debt and never returned - AND - was truly "freed" to serve the Lord and the community.  "God knows that where our treasure is, our heart will be. And whether we like to admit it or not, our money and possessions are important to us.  So the Lord, in order to reach our hearts, has to discuss these things. Money isn’t just about money; it's about what we value, and we have to allow the Lord to help us think properly about, and deal with, money if He is going to mend our hearts.  A conversion that does not reach the wallet is far from complete.  While the Lord does not need our money, He IS interested in our hearts. How we deal with finances is an important indicator of our hearts and our priorities. Thus in teaching the tithe, the Lord is not after our money, as much as [He is after] our hearts."  Msgr. Charles Pope

Before I go much further, it should be noted we are not facing financial straits and we have no debt to answer to.  We are not awash with cash, but we're paying the bills and are able to carefully take care of some much-needed repairs on a 40-year-old building.  But this is not the point or purpose of tithing to the Church.

Something has been haunting me since late 2011 when we were planning the 2012 budget.  We tried the radio spots that got a lot of positive reviews and feedback but did not translate into much beyond our desire to be in ministry to the community though we had hoped for something more tangible like increased worship attendance and new guests. 

However, because the budget was still tight due to a coming increase in some obligations and giving had dropped, it was decided that perhaps we need to be careful in our spending to ensure we can stay on top of our obligations as well as repairs and maintenance for the foreseeable future.  Responsible financial planning, right?  Of course.  Still, something was missing from the 2012 budget - and still is.  Even with responsible planning in the absence of the bondage of debt, we are still substantially constrained - maybe even a little fearfulAnd this constraint, this fear has nothing to do with money.

The faithful respond to the Truth (not everyone will).  Msgr. Pope discovered this truth as he took the reins of a parish in one of the poorest areas of the city.  The money was tight, and the building was in dire need of repairs.  As fearful as Msgr. Pope was about what he faced, he nevertheless was reminded of the Lord's plan and the Lord's message through the prophet Malachi: "Trust Me ... and you will never want for anything."  In seven years of serving that parish, replacing roofs and boilers, renovating the entire church, and installing a brand new heating system, they never saw red ink - no debt - all because the pastor preached the Word, the Truth.  And the faithful responded.  More importantly, so did the faithful and true God respond ... just as He has always promised.

Now I know many are put off by money and tithing sermons, and I myself have heard many dubious claims from the pulpit about what Scripture teaches about money.  I am confident some are faithfully tithing, and I am equally confident some are giving all they are going to give with the argument that "God understands my situation".  Well, He does; of this there must be no doubt.  What I would suggest He does not understand is why we cannot - or will not - turn lose of the trappings of this world and fully trust Him in every facet of our lives.  How can we say our Lord "understands" that we find it necessary, perhaps even noble, to withhold anything from Him without admitting something has gotten hold of us and is holding us back from Him??  That we have much more respect for that "thing" than we have of the Lord??

Now in giving faithfully and making a commitment to the Lord and His Church, I will not tell you money is going to fall from the sky for you.  I cannot believe it works that way, so I will not ask you to believe it!  I remember one of those TV "plant a seed" testimonies of a woman who claimed she gave that "ministry" $1000 she did not have and claimed to have suddenly received a $3000 check in the mail from someone she did not know funded from something she had never heard of or invested in.  Magic Money!   

Whether or not the Lord will match us dollar-for-dollar, however, is not the point of tithing.  I don't think it is the Lord's point in Malachi, and I don't think it is the Lord's point in Matthew's gospel.  Jesus affirms to the scribes and the Pharisees the principle of tithing as something not to be "neglected" even as we are also called to attend to the "weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith" - all according to the Law; so we cannot also try and claim an excuse from "Old Testament law" to which we think we are no longer bound as Christians - especially when Jesus Himself tells us in no uncertain terms that He did not come to abolish the Law.  We are "excused" from nothing except by our own dubious, debatable, and unbiblical claims.

And did you ever notice that "legalism" applies only to those point of Torah we do not happen to agree with?  That "legalism" applies only if our personal lives will somehow be disrupted?

Is it strictly about money?  Of course not.  It never was.  I have said before that each of us must make our own decisions - but without the unbiblical excuses, without the "bumper sticker" slogans.  We must also look much deeper into what is being stated by Malachi and by Jesus and what is accomplished by tithing - and it has nothing to do with the church's electric bill - but it has everything to do with the mission of the Church.  It is purely about whether or not we trust the Lord - AND - whether or not we are truly "free" to worship Him completely and unreservedly.  Now Jesus does teach that even the faith of a "mustard seed" can produce more spiritual fruit than we can possibly imagine, but I would suggest "trust" is one of those either/or propositions; either we trust the Lord completely - or - we do not.  And this is the question before us.

There is nothing "magical" about tithing blindly, but there is an intense spiritual connection when we tithe purposefully, gratefully, and joyfully.  Many, including Msgr. Pope, have testified to the reality that when they sat down to plan their personal budgets and make allowance for the faithful tithe, when they made a conscious choice to fully trust our Lord, they discovered as much about themselves as they did about our Lord!  They discovered frivolous and mindless spending habits, more debt (bondage) than they had realized, and ultimately more fear, doubt, and uncertainty in their lives; and that, dear friends, is no life at all!  That is a life in bondage to someone - or something - else.  That is being hopelessly bound by someone else's life or desire!  They could not honestly say they "belonged" to the Lord.

Once that prayerful commitment was made, however, new blessings began to manifest themselves.  Some have attested to unexpected pay increases or bonuses at work, but all discovered that by Divine Blessing their careless desire to spend (seeking worldly comfort through consumerism, buying stuff that will never last!) had been curbed, and a radical transformation of the heart had begun from within - a heart soon GLAD for however much or little they had to offer in the tithe.  By "returning" to the Lord in giving themselves completely and unreservedly to the Holy Father, they finally found True Liberation ... salvation from fear, from doubt, from uncertainty, from virtual bondage!

And this is completely the point of withholding nothing from our Lord and tithing faithfully.  If we withhold because we are afraid of not having enough money, there is no faith - only fear.  If we withhold because we have determined other things are more important to us than the Holy Church, we have placed ourselves above the Holy God and beyond the Eternal Word which is Christ our Lord, the Head of the Church.  If we withhold because someone or something else has a greater claim on our lives, we do not belong to the Lord - we belong to the world; we are children of perdition. 

Surely we can see through Malachi and through Jesus' own words that the tithe serves a much greater purpose than what we can see with our eyes - and it is NOT about "money"!  Surely we can see there does not seem to be an apparent "curse" if we do not tithe - but surely we can also see there are blessings in abundance if we do trust the Lord fully; blessings not only for ourselves but also for the communities Christ's Church is called to serve.  Surely we can see that our Lord is not waiting to see if we will - He is rather waiting to "open the windows of Heaven" upon His faithful!  

"Abraham Commenced it,
Jacob Continued it,
Moses Commanded it,
Jesus Commended it,
So who are we to cancel it?"

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A Thought

“When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, ‘The Kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!”  For indeed, the Kingdom of God is within you.’”  Luke 17:20-21

In light of Old and New Testament prophecies that speak of such cosmic happenings that will leave no doubt when the Day of the Lord is upon us, Jesus seems to break away from these prophecies to speak of something a little less foreboding.  I think, however, what He is saying has not so much to do with something that may or may not happen in the future; rather He is speaking of the Kingdom as in presence.  Whether He is speaking of our capacity or willingness to believe OR speaking of His physical presence, one thing seems clear in this passage: the Holy Father promised never to “forsake” His people, and Jesus may be reminding them of this very thing from the Jews’ own Scriptures (Joshua 1:5-9).

The Kingdom of God is within His own people, those who “meditate in [Torah] day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8).  That is, the Kingdom of God is within His faithful, those who trust fully in the Lord and are willing to study His Word and commit to His Truth.  It is not only how the world can distinguish the faithful from the rest of the crowd; it may well be how the Lord can tell us apart, how He will “separate the sheep from the goats” in the last days.

Let us be the “light of the world” Jesus calls us to be, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).  It is His commandment; it is His kingdom within His faithful.