Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Out with the old ...

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul … Unless one made New Year resolutions, one would make no resolutions. Unless one starts afresh about things, one will certainly do nothing effective.”  GK Chesterton

And the old 18th-century preacher, Jonathan Edwards, said this: “My resolution is that I will live for God.  And when no one else will, I will still live for God.”

Unless we turn our backs on the hatefulness of the past, the past will continue to haunt us.  The spite and the rhetoric have grown so vile in the past year that it seems we can – or will – do nothing for God because we are too busy trying to defend ourselves and what we believe is most important to us.  We can do better, and indeed we must.  Our children are depending on us.

It is not about being politically correct because I doubt any of us can avoid saying or doing anything that will not offend someone in some way (some people are not content unless they feel victimized).  It is not about trying to be popular or well-liked because someone will always take issue with us especially if we strive to be true first to our Holy Father.  And it is not about being so tolerant that we would condone behavior, especially by our silence  – any behavior - which has been proved time and again to be destructive to the body, the mind, the soul, the family, and the Church.

The only thing that will separate 2013 from 2014 will be the darkness of night.  How we greet the dawn when we awake tomorrow and every day from that moment will determine whether we will remain stuck in the past or resolved to live for God and let the secular chips fall where they may.  As St. Paul states in his Epistle to the Romans: “Not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (2:13).

Resolve to live first for God.  Put away the selfish habits and practices of the past.  Rebuild the crumbling Church, and thus refresh your souls and the souls of your neighbors; for the Lord’s promises for those who turn to Him are sure and certain, and the fullness of life will be yours.

Happy New Year!



Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Renewed Awakening - 1st Sunday of Advent 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

"That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is expressed in our experiences as well as in the adage, 'If you don't know history, don't worry; it'll come back around.'  Then we add our own folk wisdom, "And it will bite you on your back porch!"

The life cycle of the Church is no different, for Church history is human history.  As we continue to analyze the decline since the 60's and 70's and try to come up with new "programs" or a misguided "marketing strategy", we overlook a crucial period in history in trying to understand why so many are walking away and why many more have fallen into a complacency about discipleship and faith.  That period is known as The Enlightenment, the so-called "age of reason" which ran from about the middle of the 17th century to about the middle of the 18th century.

This period with its subsequent worship attendance decline was surely at least as bothersome to the Church then as it is now.  This was the time when science was making itself known in explaining the natural world (often challenging biblical "miracles").  Philosophy also became its own force independent from religion with its own rules to break down the "old" structures and barriers and, ironically, create "new" structures and barriers (emphasis mine) (plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment).

Knowing what we do about the often heavy-handedness of the Church preceding this period in human history, there can be little doubt that the Church perceived an existential threat to its own well-being as well as to the spiritual well-being of untold numbers of souls when human reason began to trump religious faith; and any authority, particularly that of the Church, was called into question.  

Following this period of spiritual rebellion was what came to be known as the First Great Awakening which was, for lack of a better term, a century-long revival within the Church intended to awaken the faithful from spiritual complacency.  John Wesley's contribution to understanding and expressing faith and life in the Church cannot go without at least honorable mention as he sought to awaken the Church of England rather than try to start a whole new church. 

In a nutshell, Wesley saw no conflict between our capacity to think for ourselves and the faith necessary to "see" the Lord at work in our lives and in our hearts.  The doctrine of Free Will in our tradition demands that we use our own noodles, and Jesus Himself is very clear that one must first "count the cost" of discipleship lest we come off looking foolish later on when we discover we are unwilling or unable to bear the cost.  In order to accept or reject, however, or make any decision of any kind, one must first have knowledge.  As is so often stated but just as frequently rejected - no one "just knows" anything.  Knowledge does not come from a vacuum.

Although St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans was written well before the 17th-century Awakening, he was calling for an "awakening" in his own time.  "It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers" (13:11).  We must understand, however, that St. Paul was not referring to that moment of justification when we become individually aware of our sins and our need for a Savior; that moment "when we became believers".  Paul was not referring to a "come to Jesus" moment.  Rather St. Paul was clearly talking about the "Jesus will come to us" moment when our Lord returns to "judge the living and the dead", to separate the "sheep from the goats"!

Isaiah and Matthew are also referring to a time which goes far beyond the birth of Messiah.  It is often that the prophecies are used to point to that wondrous Day of the Nativity which the Church must continue to commemorate, but Isaiah's prophecy and the mission of the Church which Jesus clearly addresses obviously go far beyond Christmas Day as Jesus Himself affirms that The Day of the Lord is yet to be - that Day even the Son of God is not privy to.  

So it could be suggested that this Day of the Lord is not on our spiritual radar screens, perhaps especially during this time of year, because we are so focused on the past that we refuse to look to the future; the concept of which is expressed by our Lord through the prophet Amos: "I hate, I despise your religious festivals ... I will not accept [your offerings] ... and I will not hear [your music]; but let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream" (5:21-24)

All is well with us if we have a "good" Christmas ("good" being relative to our own standards), but we rarely match our human ideal of "good" with the best of what our Lord calls from us before His return.  Our Lord was admonishing His people for getting too wrapped up in their own celebrations to the exclusion of those who were on the fringes of society.  Amos was all about justice.

Do we ignore the cry of the needy by suggesting they made their own beds to lie in?  Do we turn our backs on the lonely and curse those families who ignore their own?  Do we further marginalize those who already live on the fringes of society by insisting the government minister to them instead of us?  Do we do all these things and much more because these might interfere with our "good" Christmas?  Then I assure you, dear friends, we are not ready for our Lord to return!  This was at the heart of the First Great Awakening. 

Does this mean we have yet to sufficiently "earn" our place in the Kingdom?  Of course not.  It does mean, as our Lord Jesus has plainly said, "Not everyone who calls Me 'Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven ... depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matthew 7:21-23); for "inasmuch as you did not [feed those who were hungry or clothe those who were naked or minister to those who were sick or visit those who were in prison], you did none of these things for Me - depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41-46).

In our own period of contemporary enlightenment when "universalism" (all will be saved) has made significant gains among the faithful, the concept of such a harsh judgment coming from such a loving God is very hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.  After all, we did not cause someone to be hungry, did we?  We did not cause someone to be without the basic necessities, we did not cause someone to be lonely, and we certainly did not cause someone to break the law and wind up in prison.  Did we??  

We cannot account for the conduct of others nor will we be held accountable for the sins of others.  Being accountable for our own actions and our own neglect of those things over which we do have some measure of control, however, is at the heart of "watching" for the return of our Lord just as one would "watch" his house if he knew exactly when the thief would show up.  In "watching", however, we would not merely sit idle; we would work to make necessary preparations.

How do we "watch"?  What is expected of us?  It's not as if we can manipulate the time of our Lord's return so that He will come only when "we" are ready, but there is something which must be taken into consideration.  It is not strictly that "reveling and drunkenness", "debauchery and licentiousness", "quarreling and jealousy" are offensive to our Lord; they are, of course.  It is rather that these things, these behaviors stunt spiritual growth.  It is that while we are engaged in these and so many other actions, we cannot live up to our full spiritual or even human potential. 

We cannot reflect the very Image in which we are all created, having become so spiritually disabled.  Thus we cannot "watch" because we are spiritually blinded.  We cannot "see" because the shade of spiritual darkness has overwhelmed us, and we will not "see" or "hear" until the door of the ark is sealed against us and the waves of sin and degradation wash over us and sweep us away.

The success of The Enlightenment was in giving humans "permission", so to speak, to think for themselves, including the people of the Holy Church.  The fallacy of The Enlightenment was - and still is - the insistence that faith and the human capacity for reason are inherently at odds with one another.  We can acknowledge the usefulness and necessity of human reason, but we must also be willing to acknowledge the limitations of human reason and the arbitrariness of human standards of "good".

The Glory of the Lord our God, however, came shining through in the First Great Awakening when the Church was reminded of her need for Her Lord and Savior in Her willing submission.  The fallacy of The Enlightenment was revealed in our human weakness borne of our innate limitations!

So we as the Church are again standing at a crossroads.  What we face is "nothing new under the sun", for we have been here before.  If it seems good to our Lord that the Holy Spirit should awaken us once again, we must then be willing to cast aside those things that weigh us down, those things that bind us, those things that degrade and exploit us.  Let us once again "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no [more] provisions for the flesh" - for we all have now more than we will ever need.

The Lord speaks through His prophet Jeremiah, "Return, My backsliding [children] ... for I am merciful; I will not remain angry forever.  Only acknowledge your iniquity ... [admit] that you have not obeyed My Voice" (3:12,13).

Let this first Sunday of Advent be a day of New Beginnings without a definitive ending on a calendar.  Let us welcome and embrace a Renewed Awakening so that we may once again find His Way beyond our own; the way to Glory, the way of the Lord's Messiah; the Way of Life, the way Home.  Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Real Promise

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

We are a week away from the beginning of the Advent season, yet the lectionary prescribes Luke's account of Jesus' final moments on the Cross, a reading we might think more appropriate for Lent than for Advent!  What strikes me more than anything is the supposition we all probably share in the traditions of the Church; that Jesus was born, He preached, He was killed, and then He was resurrected - BUT - only in the "appropriate" calendar season!  Because frankly, these "seasons" are the only times we give these events much thought.

There is, however, a perpetual element of Advent since the Resurrection of Messiah, a component of its life the Church is compelled to always be mindful of.  It is our Lord's Word in The Revelation in which He declares: "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to give to everyone according to his work" (22:12 NKJV).  This is the very spirit of Advent itself which means "arrival".  We are "expecting" the return of Messiah.  But are we really?

Small children can afford to use the calendar to count down to Christmas Day which means little more to them than when new toys and games may be found under the tree - that is, children whose parents have means to indulge a child's every whim.  Grownups, however, - and particularly the Church! - are charged with the responsibility of preparing children, young and old, not for a rebirth of the Christ Child nor a visit from a jolly ol' elf but rather living in and for the Covenant and the Gospel in preparing for the Coming of Messiah.  The vast and empty pews across the churches of America suggests we've dropped the ball.

So the placement of Jesus' final moments would be appropriate for the "season" such as it is so we are mindful of what lies ahead for the Church and for all of humanity.  A manger, dear friends, is not in our future - but there is a KINGDOM; a Kingdom of untold riches which beckons us beyond ourselves and the consumerist mentality that has overwhelmed our culture, poisoned our children's minds, has invaded the Church, and has essentially come to define Christmas to the point that the Promise Fulfilled by our Lord has become an incidental afterthought - and the Promise Forthcoming; no thought at all.  We must be constantly mindful that Messiah came once to call us and to redeem us.  He will return to judge us - perhaps especially we who constantly throw His Name about so casually or give the jolly ol' elf a more prominent place in our children's hearts during this particular season.

The evidence of what I submit Christmas has become is revealed in a demographic study which shows a vast majority of those who live right in Magnolia's zip code area who are firmly entrenched (and enslaved!) in a "high- or very high-risk" debt ratio  situation.  This means the vast majority lives well outside its own means; and while these individuals must take personal responsibility, the Church cannot afford to ignore the dominant social message that demands personal satisfaction and instant gratification even if it means walking willingly into the shackles of debt.  This is NOT the message of the Cross or Advent - and certainly not Christmas.

We will have our month-long fantasy regardless of what is written in Scriptures or spoken from pulpits, but the Church cannot - must not - ignore the reality which exists the other 11 months of the year.  There are so many who live in constant fear and uncertainty, enslaved as they are to a merciless task master who virtually owns them, the many who are perhaps only one paycheck or one catastrophic illness away from financial disaster and even perhaps homelessness.  These many cannot possibly live up to their fullest human and spiritual potential, bound as they are to the merciless and utilitarian world which measures human value according to social usefulness.

So the placement of Messiah's final moments on this earth is a good way for the Church to get real, a good way for the Church to reconnect to the essential promise from our Lord that for all we are willing to faithfully endure for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel, this is what lies ahead; an utter rejection by the world in which we live, a rejection of the Eternal King and His call to repentance and the fullness of life.

It is not the Cross itself that is before us in that final moment - or should not be - because we should already be freely and joyfully burdened with the Cross Jesus charged us to take up in choosing to follow Him.  It is the burden we should freely share together as the Body of Christ.  Instead, the moment which is ahead for the faithful is the Assurance from our Lord that "you will be with Me in Paradise".  As I pointed out last week, this Assurance is the one we like and have no problem with.  It is those pesky "other" promises and commandments we have flatly rejected, oftentimes in the very name of Jesus - the One whose Name we so carelessly and incidentally - rather than purposefully - toss about.

I have often wondered how many of those "thousands" recorded in Acts would have come to Christ if they could have known, really known, what was ahead for them and what would come to be expected of them in spiritual growth and accountability.  Of course we always have to remember that, like Peter's confession of Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God", these confessions cannot come from human sources. 

Humans cannot make such a convicting argument that other humans are compelled to believe. No human person possesses that capacity alone.  In fact we should recount St. Stephen's speech in Acts 7 in which he tells "The Story".  There is no record of any coming to faith in that moment.  Rather the crowd which heard him reacted angrily and aggressively in their rejection, and St. Stephen was murdered.  The crowd clearly heard the words, but they refused to listen to their own Story!

There are two points of interest in that story; the reaction of those "convicted" (or accused), and St. Stephen's vision just before his life was taken from him.  No one likes to be "accused" of anything, and no one likes to be told they could be wrong or misguided.  Those who "accuse" us of anything will not find themselves endeared to us, and we often react very strongly when we stand "accused" - and we react rather aggressively when we are "convicted".  In this it is very hard to distinguish ourselves from the crowd that took Stephen's life.

St. Stephen's vision, on the other hand, is the essence of the Promise our Lord has made to His people - to Joshua as he was preparing to lead Israel into the Promised Land, and to the Church itself by Jesus just before He ascended into Heaven: "I will not forsake you", and "I am with you to the very end of the age".  Both statements are unquestionably conditional (and I know many Christians grind their teeth at this statement!). 

We must be following and obeying and doing and living faithfully in His Name and not exclusively for our own sakes - for our Lord says plainly, "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to give to everyone according to his work".  St. Stephen's vision in his final moments on this earth was the fulfillment of our Lord's Promise, and Stephen was granted the vision he would need to endure his last painful moments on this earth, to remember he was not standing alone, that his faithfulness had not been forgotten.

The common connection between these two points is, ironically, the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit certainly gave Stephen this vision, this strength to endure what we can only imagine as excruciating - if we can imagine this at all.  Those who were unwilling to listen, unwilling to repent, unwilling to change were as ignored by The Spirit as the crowd ignored Stephen. 

It is actually a lot like how modern white America reacts to the genocide of the Native Americans and slavery in the earlier days of this republic.  There is no denying the truthfulness of these events as these are matters of historical record, yet it is very hard to hear because we simply cannot wrap our minds around the human capacity evil and cruelty in our innate need to dominate our world.

St. Paul's prayer and wish for the Colossians, however, is what calls us to look higher and beyond our present moment, beyond our own "world" as we know it.  St. Paul does not suppose bad things will not happen as so many modern "prosperity gospel" preachers do (though it is hard to imagine Paul or our Lord would wish persecution and torture on the faithful!).  Rather St. Paul offers a prayer of support and encouragement that the people of The Church be granted Divine strength in the present reality, and "be prepared to endure [rather than fight against] everything with patience" (Col 1:11) - just as our Lord did in His final moments.

Then when we arrive at "The End" of our time, the end of our mission, the end of our journey we will utter the simple prayer offered by the thief on the cross, "Jesus, remember me."  The assurance from our Lord as we stand bloodied and broken for our faithfulness by a fallen world? "Today you will be with Me in paradise."

"Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus."  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Justice, Faith, and the Law

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

"When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?"

This is a compelling and somewhat awkward question given that the parable of the judge and the widow seems to have more to do with persistence than with faith.  Yet it is a colossal mistake to read into this parable any notion that we will always get what we want if only we are persistent in our prayers - because the key word in this parable is "justice", and it is the ideal upon which the entire parable hinges; "justice", not "personal desire".  In other words, the Lord's Way and not our own.

The widow was persistent as she "kept coming" to demand "justice against my opponent", but it must also be assumed the widow had a legitimate beef in the first place; that in the fullest sense of the word, real "justice" had been denied her.  It would not do for our Lord to use an entitlement-minded chronic complainer who simply did not get her own way as a positive example of our "need to pray always and not lose heart"; that in the face of persecution, in whatever form that absence of justice may take, true justice will one day be restored.  We just don't know when that day will come nor can we demand that day on our own terms or in our own time strictly by persistent prayer. 

It must also be noted the judge did not simply give in to the widow's personal demands.  Rather, as it is written, "I will grant her justice."  And yes, as it pertains to the parable itself, there is a profound difference because depending on the actual case before the judge (we are not told what the complaint was in the first place), the truly "just" ruling may not have favored her.  So it seems inferred the widow had a "just" claim.

We often think the world would be a much better place if everyone would just go along and get along, but there is a crucial component missing in such a foolish notion that would pretend such a concept would ever work, let alone become a human reality according to human standards.  Looking at the hot mess that is the United States Congress, we can clearly see that 535 "alpha" minds between the House and the Senate representing 535 different constituencies and agendas will never fully agree on anything. 

The crucial component missing in that human dynamic, the crucial component often missing in the Church itself, the crucial component that is inferred in the parable is - DIVINE WILL.  Of course there are many who have convinced themselves they are doing the Lord's work (because their personal desire for whatever they seek for themselves is so intense), but Jesus teaches that "not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven ... I will declare 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:21-23).  Righteousness and justice transcend the false idea that we need only know Jesus' name or call Him "Lord" in an empty prayer. 

Thus it is written in 1 John 3:4: "Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."  The absence of justice.  St. Paul writes to the Galatians that "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law" (5:18) even though he follows this statement with a list of behaviors which are specifically prohibited by The Law.  Yet St. Paul also writes to the Romans: "Do we overthrow the Law by faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the Law" (3:31).

Righteousness and justice are clearly defined by the Law according to One Divine Standard rather than many human standards, so it is a rather disingenuous argument to suggest faith and The Law become somehow disconnected and incompatible in the New Covenant - for this reason: Jesus IS the Law (Matthew 5:17).  So faith in Jesus as Messiah, the anointed One of the Lord our God, is faith in The Word, the same and very Word that was "with God in the beginning".  One Eternal God.  One Eternal Word.  Not an Old (or "obsolete") Testament Word opposed to a New (or improved) Testament Word. 

Anything less than this One Standard is "polytheism" - that is, belief in multiple gods, more than one deity often with conflicting standards.  When we try to pretend that "faith, justice, and the Law" are incompatible according to different covenantal standards or that they have no meaning apart from "being saved", we pit the Holy Father against Jesus of Nazareth as if Jesus Himself can or did rewrite or throw out altogether The Law. And yet, just as we are shown through Jesus' very life, it is not only possible but required that The Law be upheld by and with "great grace".  Not shallow "excuses" as "God understands me" but rather allowances and patience for time to come to one's spiritual senses.

If this parable is read carefully enough, we should see the promise of vindication for the faithful not for the sake of any individual plea but for the sake of justice itself, the true restoration of the Holy Kingdom.  We would also see a tension that pits the coming "true justice" against the current emptiness by which justice can never be truly measured or upheld by fickle human standards: the absence of faith - unqualified trust - in our Lord.  That we claim to believe the Lord is coming and will restore His Just Kingdom is not the question as it pertains to persistence in our faith and "not losing heart".  Rather the question is - will our faith be part of His Solution, or is our lack of faith part of the existing problem?  Only a fool would suggest there is no problem.  An even greater fool who claims Christ as Lord would suggest "it is not MY problem".

The psalmist writes, "Oh, how I love Your Law!  It is my meditation all day long" (119:97).  That is, every waking moment is devoted to The Word not only in its written form but also in daily living.  And our Lord Jesus says, "Will not God grant justice to His chosen ones who cry to Him day and night?"  If there is no reading and meditation of the Word, there can be no appropriation or appreciation of the Word; for the Word does much more than simply call out Jesus' name, and it is much more than simply being "religious" or "spiritual".  It is about BEING Christ in the world today which is the Holy Church. 

This is "justice, faith, and the Law".  They each require response, and they each demand complete devotion "all day long" - for they each represent the Word; the Word which existed before the birth of Messiah and yet the Word "which became flesh and dwelt among us".  The Word of God for and in the people of God - and yes, even for the people who do not yet know our Holy Father! 

The witness of the Truth, the witness of "justice, faith, and the Law" moves far beyond simply inviting people to "know" Jesus' name.  They need to know what Jesus represents.  They need to "see" Jesus in us.  They need to "see" the Word manifest in our daily living.  They need to see that we believe it enough to actually "do" it, to embrace it, to revel in it, to rejoice in it, to live it each and every day of our lives inside and outside the Church. 

WE need it, too!  When life beats up on us, when the world tries to convince us we have no intrinsic value, when we feel we have nowhere to turn, when we feel we are standing alone against the tide of secularism and popular culture inside AND outside the Church, we need to know we can depend on one another - or the Church crumbles.  It does not do well for anyone to discover we are only butting heads with someone who, like the judge in the parable, "neither fears God nor has respect for people" - especially if that someone is inside the Church.  

The promise of the parable is that the Lord will one day come and make right the many wrongs which should have never have been allowed or ignored by the people of God in the first place.  And in that Day our Lord's question will be answered: whether there is "faith on earth".

In the Revelation it is written: "I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the Throne, and books were opened.  Also another book was opened, the Book of Life.  And the dead were judged according to their works as recorded in the books ... and all were judged according to what they had done ... and anyone whose name was not found written in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:12-15).

We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by cheap grace and expressionless theology that professes empty prayers and hollow promises of Something from Him for nothing from us.  Faith is much more than an acknowledgement of a concept.  Faith defines the character of the whole person.  Faith is a life devoted to Christ in Word AND in works!  Let our Lord find this upon His return, so that we may find Life Eternal in Him.  Amen.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

If your heart is as my heart ...

Lamentations 1:1-6
Romans 3:21-31
Luke 17:1-10

"Thought we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"  John Wesley

Among the many challenges we face in our Sunday evening study of the First Testament is that of the diverse opinions we have, opinions we have come by honestly from our own diverse traditions; and some, admittedly, rather carelessly.  That is, we have traditional understandings we have probably not tested carefully enough.  Sort of like how so many atheists and Protestants are misunderstanding Pope Francis because of what someone else told them he said (or meant); for instance, that the pope said homosexuality is ok.  No, he did not.  He affirmed that "the Church's teachings are clear".  Or that the pope said being an atheist is ok.  No, he did not.  Opinions can be good, but often they can do more harm than good if these opinions are not based on some real, first-hand knowledge and experience and tested through tradition and Scriptures.

The Church universal has historically faced and continues to face a profound threat when we allow uninformed personal and political opinions based on second-hand information or "the hairs on the back of the neck" to trump the essential nature of the Holy Church, the nature of which is to serve just as our Lord came "not to be served but to serve".  When we lose sight of this - and I think we did a long time ago - it is the children who get stuck between what we grown ups think and what we should know

What we are left with is an age of confusion that feeds on itself from generation to generation - and our children are in perpetual danger of losing sight of and forgetting altogether the essential sacrificial love that is perfected in Christ and should be personified in His Body the Holy Church; the sacrificial love that can bind us together ... if we are willing to put aside "our own" for the sake of the Lord's own.  This concept of service for the sake of something greater than self is, thankfully, exemplified and embodied in Scouting; making these young men and their leaders worthy of our support, prayers, and encouragement!  Keep them free from politics and personal opinions, and just let them serve!

We will not always agree on what are essentially disagreeable opinions.  Not about denominational doctrine, not about what constitutes proper worship, not about the Sacraments of the Church or theology in general, and certainly not about politics.  For the sake of the Holy Church we of the faithful, however, must necessarily agree with our Lord who more or less puts us in our place in Luke's gospel by reminding us that His "slaves ... have done only what we ought to have done".  Not what we think should have been done, not what we felt like doing when we felt like doing it, and certainly not doing in anticipation of some reward or individual recognition of achievement.  No, our Lord is clear there are things we "ought" to do simply because they need to be done.  Period.  No reward.  No thank you.  No recognition.  Just integrity within the true nature and character of His Church.

Before we even get to this point, however, Jesus still has much to say.  Even if this whole text seems somewhat disjointed, there is a connection, a common element that ties everything together.  Strangely enough, however, even this connecting point is not something many disciples are willing to agree on.  Jesus is very clear that we have duties.  We have duties which go beyond a personal profession of faith.  We have duties to our Master, and we have equal duty to our fellow disciples.  Together as the Church - the Body of Christ - we have a duty to the communities we are called to serve. 

It is especially important to allow the preceding story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) to lead us into this discourse because the duty imparted to the rich man, to his brothers, and to all of Israel is what was revealed to them by "Moses and the prophets"; what they would have known as the "Holy Scriptures".  The clear duty which comes from the Lord on High, the duty to have been embraced by the faithful, would have assured that Lazarus would never have been allowed to fester in his misery and die an excruciating death - alone. 

So we come into chapter 17 and find Jesus expounding on the idea of what a community of faith is supposed to look like, what our Holy Father surely envisioned when the Law was revealed to Moses.  As our Jewish friend from last week had plainly stated, it's not about how to get to heaven (that is, worrying only about saving your own cheese); it is about how to live with and for one another for the well-being of the entire community.  Chief among these duties is the protection of the "little ones", the next generation, be they biological children or new believers.  They need to be taught - by Word and deed.  It will not simply occur to them one day somehow by magic.  And Divine revelation and epiphany without context will be meaningless.

Notice also that Jesus is referring to our relations with those of our community of faith when "another disciple sins" (vs 3).  We have as much a duty to call our fellow disciple on his or her sin as we do to forgive that fellow disciple who seeks forgiveness.  It seems to me there cannot be one without the other which is another way of saying the disciple may not realize the depth of his or her offense as "sin" if we are not willing to make it known, if we do not care about them enough to teach them - not to merely criticize them.  Then we are to be as patient with them as we all must surely hope our Lord is patient with us!

The disciples' response is rather surprising, though I would suppose faith to be the thing to ask for.  After all, Jesus is telling His disciples to forgive without condition.  Our Lord does not recommend it nor suggest it; He says, "You must forgive."  For most of us, this is a pretty tall order!  What will an "increase in faith" do for the disciples, though?  How will having more faith make forgiving an offense easier?  Or maybe it won't become easier to do more than it might be a little easier to swallow our pride when after the seventh offense, the offender comes to us yet again seeking forgiveness - no matter how we may have been personally harmed! 

But I don't think Jesus is letting us off the hook so easily because Jesus clearly states that faith the "size of a mustard seed" can do remarkable things.  So it is not necessarily more faith we need, for even a little faith can "move mountains".  Think of this request in the whole context, and what we may discover is that Jesus is telling them they already have sufficient faith. 

How much faith they actually have, however, is as immeasurable as yours or mine - although I would suggest we each may have a cut-off point at which time fear may overwhelm our faith.  Then more "faith" would come in quite handy, but Jesus is not going there.  He is talking about something much more enveloping, much more all-encompassing, much more communal. 

Especially moving into that "slave thing" which would obviously rub many of us the wrong way - after all, we are Americans! - Jesus may be suggesting we are going to need a little more than faith imparted.  Remember the Bible teaches us that faith, true faith, is given from Above.  To understand how this faith matters beyond self, however, is going to require something from us: first the will to respond.  And secondly the gumption to respond.  So in faith the Lord is going to do His part to give us what we need to respond.  In fact Jesus seems to suggest this much has already been done.  So then comes our response.

We respond not for bragging rights.  We respond not for individual achievement or recognition. We respond because our "neighbor" needs us to respond.  We respond because our community needs us to respond.  We respond because our nation needs us to respond!  We respond because Divine Love compels us to respond, and we respond because in the faith that is imparted to us we are assured that others will respond for us as well.  We respond not to "earn" anything for ourselves, for we already have the assurance of the Resurrection of our Lord. 

You and I may not agree on the finer points of doctrine and we may not agree on political philosophy - and we will NEVER agree on rooting for LSU or UofA! - but I think we can agree that the essential nature of the Church, the essential nature of the Body of Christ, is to "do" for our Lord by "doing" for His loved ones just as surely as He did for His beloved Israel, just as surely as He did for His beloved Church - long before we had a chance to love Him, our Lord clearly loves us first!

Let us agree on this, and we will find much less to disagree about.  After all, we do not want to be mistaken as members of the Congress, do we?  To the Glory of His Holy Name, let the people of the Lord say, Amen!    

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The lack of rudder

As much as President Obama is being blamed for the stalemate that is Washington DC, has no one really noticed that the spitting match actually comes down to John Boehner and Harry Reid?  This president is merely a sidebar in this drawn out sand-box drama.  The House passes a bill (allowed by Boehner) and sends it to the Senate; Harry Reid makes a decision on behalf of the entire Senate. The Senate offers something back to the House, but Boehner decides what the House will consider.  And the President of the United States stands off to the side and says, "Nasty Republicans!"

I have some advice for these many members of the Congress who claim to be frustrated by all that is going on: remove the current House speaker and the Senate majority leader from their posts, and stop the nonsensical talk of impeachment.  It will not be the president who will cost you your jobs, for he is entirely too insignificant.  Impeaching this president will be as meaningless as he already is, it will be futile, and it would be a colossal waste of precious time because the Democrats simply will never vote to convict anyway. 

No, the problem is not the White House in this one.  In fact I dare suggest the White House is the very definition of impotence in this matter.  This president will not deal face-to-face with the Republicans (it has been reported he has made a few phone calls, but he also called the newly elected president of Iran.  Take these calls for what they are worth.); this president will only go to an open microphone and insult the Republicans, somehow believing he can shame them into submission. 

This president overlooks or chooses to ignore one very important item, however: this Affordable Care Act which is at the heart of this shut-down was passed in the shadows by the Democrat-controlled Congress and received not one Republican vote and in fact lost several Democratic votes.  Therefore the congressional Republicans who were in the Congress when it passed and the newly seated Republicans who came to Congress as a result of voter backlash in 2012 are simply not free to go along with ObamaCare.  Their constituents prohibit it!  These are the very constituencies that did not carry this president in 2012.

The House is firmly in Republican hands, and the Senate is under Democratic control.  What should a president be doing?  Dealing with reality, not fantasy.  This president can only wish that somehow Republicans will come around to his way of thinking.  This president can only wish he could offer such a compelling argument through his public insults that the Republicans would finally see the light. 

This is not going to happen by his calling names and casting blame.  If anything, this president's public lambasting of the Republicans will only steel their resolve as it well should.  This president is seriously missing the boat on this one by making clear his refusal to sit face-to-face like a grown man with these duly elected Republican members of Congress and negotiate an end to this nonsense.

This president does not have to negotiate, however, and he obviously does not want to.  He is in his final term.  He has no other elections to worry about, no other political decisions to be concerned with.  And since this president has made himself very clear by his past loftiness, he does not even want this job because this job would require him to get serious about working toward a reasonable solution to a legitimate problem rather than hoping a solution will fall into his lap.  As many have said in the past and as is becoming more and more evident, this president is clearly not up to the job.  What is at hand requires a leader, and this president is not that leader. 

So we are stuck with Harry Reid who runs the Senate like his own personal fiefdom (actually setting in concrete the idea of this president's impotence); we have John Boehner who is doing virtually the same thing in the House, and both refusing to blink.  This president does not (by his own clear choice, mind you) even factor in.  So we have this massive ship without a single rudder.  Of course there is stalemate in Washington DC!  What else could possibly come as a result?

Neither Republican majority nor Democratic majority will break the log jam or serve the nation well.  A nation as ours requires an engaged leader, not an elected figurehead.  It is little wonder nothing constructive will happen anytime soon.  Not until Democrats stand up to Harry Reid and not until Republicans stand up to John Boehner will anything useful come from this Congress.  If we really want to talk about "term limits", let us consider limiting the terms a single person can hog-tie an entire chamber of Congress.  This president is not the problem; one must actually be in the game before one can be blamed for costing the game.  Reckon?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Futile Comparison of Spirituality and Religion

I have often wondered what people mean when they insist, sometimes rather haughtily, that they are "spiritual but not religious".  I already know what I think, but I wonder if those who insist on their primary, if superior, spirituality can articulate in a meaningful, communal way exactly what they are trying to express beyond, "I don't do church", because this seems to be all I can draw from such conversations.  Maybe I am looking too narrowly, too critically, but in the end the safe distance from "organized religion" seems to be at the forefront of their being.

I readily agree that merely going to church as opposed to attending worship services, more often than not, can be an empty practice in futility.  Such an expression that is typically associated with being strictly religious can come across as more of a habit than an intentional act seeking expression and purpose beyond oneself.  Indeed habits themselves can be and often are executed almost as mindlessly as much dogma associated with religion in general.  We do have our religious worship practices, we have our pre-printed bulletins with the order of worship (a program?), prayers and creeds, and we have a definitive start AND stop time (better stop before noon, preacher!) at which time all religious expression comes to a grinding halt in deafening silence.  Does this carelessness and mindlessness, however, indicate an inherent inferiority to spirituality which seeks nothing more than self-justification and feeling good?

If being religious is, as 20th-century Christian theologian and existentialist Paul Tillich expresses, "asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt", then what is so futile and dogmatic about being religious as an outward expression of a spirituality from within?  Where is the dividing line between religion and spirituality especially when so many morally superior spiritualists neither ask questions nor willingly care to receive "even hurtful answers" (spirituality seems to avoid these), answers that compel us to move beyond self and into community as Jesus commands His followers? 

If I sound bias, it is because I am.  I am a religionist.  My experience with spiritualists has often been as negative as religion seems to be to so many spiritualists.  From my vantage point, spiritualists seek not to be associated with the hypocrisy with which the religionists seem so easily associated (say one thing, yet do another).  Spiritualists are associated strictly with their own feelings, their own moods, and their own agendas, thereby avoiding hypocrisy by being true only to oneself.  Spiritualists in general are not interested in community except on their own terms, and Christian spiritualists seem concerned only with whether or not they have been assured a place at the Heavenly Banquet.  What happens between then and now seems inconsequential.

I freely admit that my religion can often be a hindrance to genuine and earnest spiritual expression especially when following an order.  My religion and its liturgy, however, lend form and substance and direction to whatever spirituality I may express within a centuries-old tradition and The Word.  My religion compels me to "do" in accordance with commandments which come from the Holy Scriptures themselves (incidentally, there are more than "ten" commandments), but to "do" is not based on any conceived "merit" system.  Rather, to "do" is to honor the One who gives life and offers life to those for whom we "do".  Based on my own experiences, a strict spirituality sans any religious expression becomes strictly about "me" and how I may be feeling at any given time.  My religion helps me to discern my sense of spirituality by challenging me to "test" whatever spirits may be reaching my consciousness (1 John 4:1-3).

What this must necessarily come down to, then, is that spirituality and religion are not at odds with one another except in how we choose to define one as superior to the other based on incomplete observations.  Spirituality without religious expression is as dead as any religion without a substantial spiritual component.  After all, would we religionists deny THE Spirit by denying the value of spirituality?  And would spiritualists deny the value of religion as uniquely defined by St. James: "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), containing a necessary communal component of religious expression?

The truth is religion AND spirituality can be hindrances to personal spiritual growth within a religious community of faith especially when we draw lines in the sand.  The Church's growth is stunted, and many innocents are misled into empty relationships that simply do not exist and cannot be fulfilled or fulfilling.  It is not fair judge either based strictly on opinions without understanding how each can benefit mutual relationships to the same God.  In fact each can aid the other to enhance these relationships and build a much stronger Church in a world gone mad.  Keeping each other honest in mutual accountability is as much a component of discipleship as bringing someone to Christ for the first time.  Let us find The Way - together. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Into the Unknown

Psalm 79:1-9

The human psalmist writes: "Pour out Your anger on the nations that do not know You, and on the kingdoms that do not call on Your name ... Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors ..."

The Divine and Eternal God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah: "My joy is gone; grief is upon Me, My heart is sick.  Hark, the cry of My poor people from far and wide in the land: 'Is the Lord not in Zion?'"

It can be suggested that both passages were written roughly in the same time period during the Exile and by the same people (though not necessarily the same person) - AND BOTH with completely different notions about the Lord.  The psalmist prays for judgment against the "nations ... who have defiled Your holy temple" - and yet the prophet conveys thoughts from our Heavenly Father whose holy heart is broken not by these uncircumcised invaders but by His own circumcised people of the Holy Covenant ("Why have they provoked Me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?")!

It is easy to connect these passages with so many others to provoke a sense of conviction and guilt against the faithful who should never have allowed themselves to reach such state of spiritual neglect, and the value of conviction and guilt cannot be overstated when it comes to the spiritual cleansing of earnest repentance.  Beating people over the head time and again, however, produces little more than "scar tissue", an ambivalent lack of sensation that is no longer even capable of, let alone concerned with, a healing response.  What do we do with this?

It is important to remember that the Psalms in general are prayers written by prophets and priests as well as some which can be indirectly attributed to King David or at least attributed to the period of his reign as king.  There are psalms of joy as well as psalms of lamentation, expressions of a people no more and certainly no less fickle than we are today. 

Psalm 79 is just such an example of a people who pray for judgment against invading nations - AND YET they pray out of the "other side of their mouth" not to be held responsible for the "iniquities of our ancestors".  It would appear this is a people who refuse to look too closely at themselves to determine that the problems they are experiencing are not coming from outside - but from within.  It is a lot like what we do today in blaming our government or foreign terrorists for invading our "bubble" without realizing there is no political or military solution for what truly ails us.

The prophets are another story altogether.  These men have been anointed and commissioned by the Holy God to speak in His behalf to His people, so these words carry a little more weight - especially when Jesus brings these words forward into a new generation to show essentially the same people that not much had changed from the time of the Exile to the Messianic period when our Lord quotes the prophet Isaiah: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:6-7).

There was recently an interesting speculation from an atheist writer who commented that these and so many other passages come dangerously close to suggesting that the people of God knew nothing about this God.  And then, of course, this atheist goes further to point out that the very same holds true for Christians who claim a Messiah but seem to know even less about Him even today!  This is the very same spiritual ignorance cited by the prophet Muhammad in the 8th-century which gave rise to Islam - an alternative religious expression that sought to reconnect the "people of the Book" (Jews and Christians alike) to the original faith of Abraham.  So what are we supposed to do with this?

It is one thing to be accused by an unbeliever.  It is another thing altogether to stand accused by the Eternal Judge: "My people are foolish; they do not know Me" (Jeremiah 4:22).  Or from St. John: "He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him"

In spite of this willful ignorance and rejection comes this eternal prayer from Messiah: "Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing."  In the face of the Ultimate Rejection, the Messiah - the very One sent directly to us by our Holy Father - nevertheless prays for our forgiveness, and it was in that moment when the entire human race was redeemed by the blood of the Sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; forgiven for willful neglect may be another story altogether, but this is a story which continues to be written!

Sin is defined as a "transgression against the moral or divine law", but sin is also defined as "estrangement"; that is, a broken-ness in fellowship and relationship.  This estrangement does certainly come when we willfully commit an act of transgression against the clearly stated will of the Most High God. 

This estrangement also comes when we willfully choose not to pursue a familiar relationship with the Holy God in Christ Jesus through His Divine revelation in Scriptures but rely instead strictly on "feelings", feelings borne of emotions which can often betray us - especially when our feelings are, more often than not, completely irrational because they are based strictly on what we THINK we know rather than what we ACTUALLY know.

After 2000 years of preaching the Gospel of our Lord through His Holy Church, one might think we would know more by now.  Do we?  Can you pick up your Bible and turn to any random page, read what is written and say, "Oh.  I didn't know that"?  If you can - and I suspect we all can - then we do not "know" enough.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Stranger in our midst

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14:1-7
John 1:1-18
Luke 15:1-10

"I say there is no darkness but ignorance."  William Shakespeare

"Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice.  Only about one-third can name the three branches of government. Less than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.  Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it's right there in the name."
"The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance.  That ignorance starts in the earliest years of a child's schooling, but often continues all the way through college and graduate school."  Former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, miamiherald.com, 9/6/13

Though often misunderstood, "ignorance" is not strictly an insult to one's intelligence.  Rather the term speaks to what is undeniably true: knowledge is lacking.  One can be completely ignorant of certain information without being "stupid".  I am ignorant about just about all things mechanical, but I am relatively well-versed in how our government works. 
Yet at the time of this writing, I could tick off only four of the nine Supreme Court justices right off the top of my head (five if you count the one I tried to name who died several years ago!).  Who they are, however, is not as great a concern to me as the decisions they hand down; so I don't make it my business to memorize each individual member of the Court.  Yet some decisions which have come from that Court are my business, especially those rulings having to do with religion in society.
The knowledge we pursue speaks directly to what we consider to be important to know.  The knowledge we expose our children to speaks directly to what we believe to be important to their well-being and their education.  Yet when it comes to religious studies, there is a huge gap we seem largely unconcerned about.  I suppose there can be many reasons for this deficit and why we don't seem so concerned about being or becoming more biblically literate, but the compelling factor cannot be denied that ultimately the Bible is just not that important to us - and if it is not important to us, it will likely never be important to our children. 
This is not a condemnation; it is an observation with merit that our children pay attention to what we pay attention to.  Oh, we complain that prayer is not allowed in public schools and we decry the absence of the Ten Commandments in the hallways of those same schools, but we fail to take full advantage of the religious opportunities there are outside of the public school systems.  It seems much easier to blame others for failing to do what WE should already be doing, what we've had opportunity to do since the advent of the printing press.
What is especially appalling about this reality is expressed in Jeremiah, in the Psalms, and in John.  In Jeremiah it is written about the impending judgment against Judah: "My people are foolish; they do not know Me."  In Psalm 14 it is written, "Have they no knowledge [who] do not call upon the Lord" (vs 4).  In John's gospel it appears things had not gotten much better between the advent of the Exile and the advent of Messiah: "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him." 
Jesus was born, was brought into the Covenant community, and was raised pretty much like all other children.  Of course the Bible gives us only a glimpse of Jesus' childhood, but we can see even by that short piece of chapter two in Luke's gospel that Jesus was "known".
So when John proclaims that "world did not know Him" and that "His own did not receive Him", we are compelled to ask ourselves how this could be since Luke's gospel seems to go in another direction in terms of familiarity and acceptance.  It has been suggested by some that portions of the first chapter of John can be more accurately described as "post script"; that is, speaking of Jesus' crucifixion as the ultimate rejection.  Perhaps.  I think, however, there is much more we need to know especially in light of the often-quoted but rarely understood passage, "No one comes to the Father but by Me". 
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks well of the priesthood of Messiah as "mediator", as a "priest in the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 5:6), and indeed He is.  No one would deny this component of Messiah as the "anointed one", yet this component of Messiah is relatively small in comparison to what we need to know about "logos", the Greek term in John's first chapter translated to our English "word".  The "logos" is the "Word of God - and more than this, the "Word made flesh".
So we can pretty easily say we know Jesus as priest and Jesus as Savior (that's the easy one!), but what can we say we know about Jesus as "The Word" which is necessarily the primary configuration as His place in the Holy Trinity?  Some may suggest it means different things to different people and to a degree this is a reasonable supposition, but it can only be a supposition.  It says nothing of what we know about "The Word", the "logos" because there is only ONE "Word", and it is the "Word of the Lord" - that which comes from the blessed Mouth of the Most High and Eternal God; the God who "does not change"; reasonably, "The Word" which does not change.  What we conceive of and understand, however, can change everything according to our opinions - what we think rather than what we know.
Consider a book by James Michener called The Source.  It is a fictional story of archeologists on a dig in Israel.  Cities in the ancient world were built on top of one another rather than moving down the road after destruction, so archeologists dig "layers"; and each "layer" tells a different story from a completely different time.  In the story, one layer which revealed a culture before the rise of the Hebrew faith revealed the story of a woman standing in her doorway with tears streaming down her face as her husband took their first-born son to the temple to be sacrificed as an act of worship to an ancient "god".  Though this is a fictional book, that practice actually happened.  Our Scriptures attest to this reality.  In fact it still happens today.
Later there is this same woman revealed in yet another "layer" this time watching as her husband goes off to the temple to "worship" with temple prostitutes, an accepted act of worship of this ancient religion (also revealed in our Scriptures, practices which our Holy Father firmly HATES!), a mode of worship believed to ensure fertility in the family and on the farm.  As the woman stands in the doorway with tears streaming down her face she says, "If my husband had a different god, he would be a different man" (Faith Sharing, Fox/Morris, pg 18).
For those families then and for our families now, the theological issue is not whether or not the family is engaged in faith formation.  The question is: what kind of formation is taking place ("Faith Sharing Congregation", Swanson/Clement, pg 68) especially in light of a colossal failure to give religious education its due?  That we call Jesus our "Savior" is central to our understanding of the Christian faith, but can we honestly say we know Jesus if we are ignorant of "The Word"?   Because it cannot be denied that what we think we know about Jesus has everything to do with what we think we know about the Holy Father.  Our behavior is conditioned by our understanding of the very nature of the Holy God revealed in Messiah.       
To believe Jesus of Nazareth existed does not require a lot of faith.  He was, after all, as much a rabbi and a prophet of the Most High God as He was fully Man.  To believe He was executed because He went against the religious establishment is also not much of a stretch of faith because we can easily see in our own culture, indeed in our own towns, that people (clergy and laity alike) who do not "go along" with pop culture are subject to social crucifixion - often by very cruel, unfeeling, and uncaring Christians who think they "know" Jesus.  It all has everything to do with what we know about our Holy Father because, you see, we "see" the Father when we "see" Jesus; and we "hear" the Father when we "hear" Jesus.  When we are in "darkness", however - that is, in ignorance of "The Word", "the Word which was in the beginning" - we "see" nothing and we "hear" little beyond our own thoughts and opinions.
The primary nature of our Holy Father, that divine nature revealed in Messiah, is one of Shepherd who leads the willing flock.  And when even one of the flock goes missing, the Shepherd drops everything to find that missing lamb and return that lamb to the fold, worrying more about the one who "needs repentance" than those who do not.  And we might think one dollar missing out of ten is not so bad, yet our Lord states very clearly that it is a very big deal to Him and He will stop at nothing until that "missing" one is found!  All for that one tiny, socially insignificant coin which is finally found, there is "joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
This is a God worth knowing.  It is not enough to "suspect" there may be a higher power.  It is not enough to believe a Man named Jesus existed.  It is not enough to form opinions in "darkness" (that is, in ignorance of what is actually written in the Scriptures), opinions borne in darkness and which remain in darkness that do not shed Light; for "the Light shines in darkness, and the darkness [still] did not comprehend it" because He came - but we could not "see".
It is not enough to know He came; it is a matter of Life and Death to know what He says as "The Eternal Word".  What He said in the beginning, what He says to the Church today, and what He will say when He returns.  "The Word" is that which speaks to us even in our moments of doubt, and it is "The Word" which speaks to us in our moments of glory.  It is "The Word" which not only seeks us out when we have gone astray; it is "The Word" which restores and transforms the Willing Soul.  There is no "magic trick" - there is only Love; the Love of the Holy Father in His Word made flesh.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

It ain't cheap ... or easy

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Revelation 12:10-12
Luke 14:25-33

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Christ Jesus.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Hate" is a strong word, too strong especially when it comes to the relations we have with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, and our children.  In fact the very idea of Jesus' seeming ultimatum commanding that in order to follow Him we must "hate" our families makes such passages not only hard to digest - but easy to ignore.  This, of course, is the real travesty because when we make the conscious decision to deliberately side-step those passages that make us uncomfortable, we redefine the relationship altogether.  We become our own "creator" and assign the Holy Father the subordinate role of "created"; a "creature" of our own making - in an image of our own choosing.  And when I choose an image and you and you and you choose an image, we have a God who is unrecognizable.

This can be overcome (in fact, must be overcome for the sake of the Church in the world today), but it will require real effort, real commitment, and a genuine desire to overcome.  It requires that we not get so bowed up that we say stupid things such as, "I don't care what it says ..."  or "The preacher is an idiot" ... Or worse: "That's not what it means" but then be completely detached from its meaning with no clue or concern about what it does mean and take no action to discover for ourselves what our Lord is really saying to the WHOLE Church.  

Reading the Bible, memorizing verses, reading what is written on a page with no concern for what is meant in our lives and our relationship to the Lord through the Church and with no intention to do much more than move from one moment to the next is wasted, purposeless motion akin to one of the seven deadly sins known as "sloth"; a complete and utter disengagement from the Word and the Church - spiritual laziness.  It is perhaps the slowest and most painful of deaths, ironically, because as it becomes easier to disengage and remain disengaged, the resulting spiritual vacuum becomes impossible to fill because by our own means we lack the capacity to fill that void which will, incidentally, only get bigger and more aggressive if neglected - actually very much like a life-threatening tumor.

Jesus was nothing if not radical, and this is the first thing we must understand in reading from the New Testament accounts of Jesus' ministry.  There was certainly not a complacent bone in Jesus' body, and He made it very clear He had no interest - NO INTEREST - in being popular, being "liked", or "going along to get along".  The ultimatum to "hate" was as shocking to a contemporary audience as a command to "eat [His] flesh and drink [His] blood", all three prohibited by what is written in the Scriptures. 

Yet these things are tagged by our Lord as necessary (not merely recommended) components of discipleship - AND - Eternal Life.  A refusal to accommodate this radical language and choose instead to simply walk away because it is too difficult - as many did in Jesus' day - means we walk away from discovery, we walk away from discipleship, we walk away from one another, we walk away from Him.  And as our Lord Himself states very clearly, a refusal to accommodate the Word, to engage the Word, to "ingest" the Word which is Christ Himself means "there is no life in you" (John 6:53).

As difficult as these passages can be, however, we are compelled to draw closer; to "count the cost" BEFORE we do anything.  The very reason Jesus used these peculiar words and phrases and taught primarily by parable is because what we need to know about discipleship and the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be reduced to "yes" and "no", it "is" or it "ain't", cheap and easy answers - for there are none. 

In boot camp our drill instructors used to tell us that in order to march in formation and respond appropriately to commands - for the sake of the WHOLE unit - requires complete engagement of body, mind, and soul to the command given - AND - willing submission to the authority from which that command comes.  The senior drill instructor used to say, "Drill (what Marines call marching) is a thinking man's game because you will never become a robot". 

So, too, is discipleship a total engagement of body, mind, and soul to the "commands" given - AND - a complete submission to the Authority from which these commands come for sake of the WHOLE Church; and if we do not completely understand the commands (i.e., "commandments"), we are compelled to listen more closely rather than walk away because a "left face" turn when the "right face" command is given will end in disaster on the parade deck, on the battle field, and in the mission field.  The chaos and complacency in the Church today is no less profound when we refuse to submit and respond for the sake of the WHOLE Church.

So Jesus says we "cannot" be His disciples if we do not "hate" those we typically love most, but there is the problem.  We cannot love our families "most"; that is, above and beyond the love our Lord requires of us because this is where a great deal of the Church's trouble begins - when we demand that our families come "first" and our "neighbors" as defined by Jesus come a very distant "second".  Strangely enough, we call these "Christian family values" when there is in fact and in Scripture nothing "Christian" about that upended priority - it does not come from Christ.  It is a value we have assigned for ourselves, our own pleasures, and our own priorities; it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Father. 

Jesus does not "command" us to hate our loved ones, and He certainly does not suggest we neglect those who depend on us.  The "hate" language is the attention-getter, to be sure, but the radical component and the great challenge to us is to consider our love of family within the context of Divine Love which also encompasses love of neighbor.  Like faith and works, it is not an "either/or" proposition; it is two sides of the same coin.  There cannot be one without the other, and yet we cannot displace this reality: only one such love is eternal and will exist beyond the grave; that is, without limits, without boundaries.  Apart from Divine Love, there can be nothing but limits and boundaries.

"Counting the cost" means this must all be taken into account BEFORE a child is presented for baptism, BEFORE vows are taken when joining the Church, BEFORE undertaking such vows for matrimony.  If love for the Holy Father does not take precedence over all these things, all these relationships, there will always be limits to our capacity to love.  There will always be boundaries to our willingness to love.  There will always be restrictions on what we will do for or offer to the Church when we would drop Christ "like a bad habit" if it means choosing between Him (who IS The Church) and our spouses, our parents, or our children.  That is what is so radical about what Jesus proposes - because it involves our "neighbors".

One 4th-century theologian put it this way: "He who pursues his own will, however slightly, will never be able to observe the law of Christ the Savior" (Symeon the New Theologian, Ancient Commentary).  So when Jesus says we "cannot" be His disciples, He is not talking about His willingness to "allow" us to follow Him, for He will always "allow" a willing disciple. 

Rather He is referring to our "capacity" to follow Him if we are not fully engaged, fully submitted, fully committed to the Lord - if He is only the God of Sunday (as long as there are no tournaments), the God of special favors (as long as OUR will be done), or the God of cheesy Facebook postings (by which we "witness" without actually engaging the mission field - that is, people).  The limited capacity we are burdened with comes by the choices we make for ourselves and what WE decide must come first - OUR will be done, which makes a mockery of the Lord's Prayer. 

Knowing all this, then, coupled with the radical language of "hate", we find it easy to walk away and ignore while convincing ourselves we are "saved" because that is "cheap" and "easy", but it isn't Christ.  As the Scriptures make abundantly clear, we cannot have Eternal Life until we surrender our Whole Life.  It is only in surrendering our lives to Him by which Eternal Life will be found - as Jesus teaches one cannot serve both God and "mammon" just as "none of you can become My disciple if you do not give up all your possessions".  Jesus suggests by this radical context that even our families can be a hindrance to a fuller and more complete relationship with the Church - that is, the Body of Christ in the world today.    

So we take upon ourselves these unnecessary burdens and add to the chaos that already is in the world and in our lives.  We make bad choices with the best of intentions, and in doing so we miss the greater meaning when we disengage from Messiah and choose our own paths.  Yes, Jesus asks a lot - but He offers much more.  And He settles the confusion when we hear and respond to His invitation: "Come to Me, all you who are tired and overburdened, and I will give you rest; for My yoke is easy and My burden is light." 

What will it take for us to believe Him?  What will it take for us to become convinced we may not be going in the right direction as the Church?  How can we learn to appreciate the reality that the life and well-being of the Church has everything to do with the life and well-being of our culture, our community?  How can we learn to appreciate that the philosophy of "every man for himself" has been the downfall of every civilization since the dawn of humankind? 

By coming to Christ, by drawing near to Christ, by committing our lives - our WHOLE lives - to Christ who is the Church, who is the Word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.