Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Thought for Thursday 28 Feb 2013

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil for the Son of Man’s sake.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!  For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.”  Luke 6:23

No one wants to be ostracized or excluded from fun stuff, let alone be put aside because of one’s faith.  Yet Jesus is warning His disciples, those who will choose to follow Him faithfully, that there will be such days when the faith will cost them their “popularity” and maybe even their very lives.  Even though it may seem like the end of the world when those we thought were “friends” begin to exclude us and even call us names and spread malicious gossip to justify their actions because we stood firm, we must nevertheless remember that their actions are THEIR condemnation, not ours! 

This is not about being a “street preacher” or evangelizing door-to-door or being really vocal about Jesus; this is about living the life Jesus encourages us to live and standing firm for what is right, even blessing and praying for these who seem intent on hurting us – NEVER returning “evil for evil”.  Our Lord also reminds us that regardless of our actions in His name, when that day comes (and it will!) when folks begin to turn away from us and actually turn against us to do intentional harm to us, we are in good company.  It’s happened before to those before us, and it will happen again to us and those who come to faith after us.

The Church is the sanctuary intended for this very thing, the place of respite where we can go and be reminded that we are of great value, that we are deeply loved, and that our reward for persevering in the faith is “great in heaven”!  They say that “no good deed goes unpunished”, but our Lord says every good deed is a mark in our favor to the glory of His Most Holy Name.

“Do not be afraid, for I go before you always.”


Monday, February 25, 2013

A Thought for 25 February 2013

“The beginning of strife is like releasing water; therefore stop contention before a quarrel starts.”  Proverb 17:14

It goes without saying that the political landscape in this country is beyond repair under the current climate, and it is the reality of this proverb which is attested to in the contentiousness that pervades Washington DC and then spills over into the rest of the country.  Politicians take an opportunity at a microphone to make pretensions about taking the high road, but we soon discover it’s just empty words.  This strife is not evident of “water released”; it is testimony of a broken dam which no longer has the capacity to stem the tide.

The wisdom of this proverb is spoken of in human reality when we become more concerned with human will than with Divine Will; when political reality becomes more of a pattern of destruction than a system of responsible governance, and it continues when we allow these irresponsible men and women into our lives.  Sadly, they are the ones who set the tone for this nation rather than the Church.

I will not bother with such fluff as suggesting it does not matter whether one is a Democrat or a Republican because to partisans, it matters  - a lot.  It matters what we choose to hear and what we choose to accept as truth.  It also matters if we believe there is any man or woman who can “save” this nation apart from our Lord.  And they (and we) who live and speak like the devil ARE apart from the Lord – regardless of how many “prayer breakfasts” they or we attend.

Beware of the “ravenous wolves who come dressed as sheep”. 


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fox in the henhouse

Luke 13:31-35
Mark 5:1-17

Even though some scholars believe Luke puts the cart before the horse in "prophesying" Jesus' eventual entry into Jerusalem and the Passion, others have suggested that the thrust of Jesus' statement that "you will not see me until the time comes when you say ..." is directed more toward those who reject His office as prophet AND Messiah and, thus, reject "the One who sent Me".  And this seems to make more sense because, as we well know, many of those who shouted "hosanna" when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem were the same ones who would only days later shout "crucify Him"!

The thing to remember in reading especially Luke is that it is, by the author's own words, a narrative not necessarily of events but, rather, a narrative of various accounts of events.  That is, Luke states in the very beginning that he was not an eyewitness to Jesus' life but was writing an account based on what had been already been told.  Some have suggested Luke may have used Mark and Matthew in addition to other available written sources as well as eyewitness accounts.  Yet given the speculation that Luke may have been written sometime after 70AD (allowing time for Mark and Matthew to circulate), this narrative may also include some second-hand accounts as well; that is, "ear" witnesses to the "eye" witnesses - those who "heard" the stories but never actually saw them take place.

This is not to say Luke is not important in the overall Gospel narrative or that Luke should be ignored altogether; and it is not to suggest Luke may be inaccurate.  It is interesting, however, that verses 31-33, the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding Herod, appear only in Luke.  This, I think, adds an interesting element to the story that may often be overlooked but is consistent with Luke 9:7-9 when Herod had expressed an interest in seeing Jesus after John's execution.  Some were telling Herod that Jesus was John resurrected, or that Elijah or perhaps any of the other old prophets had returned to Israel.  Similar accounts are also recorded in Mark and Matthew, but Luke leaves out the details of events which led to John's execution.

The element this narrative adds to the story also adds contextual "meat" to Jesus' lamentation over Jerusalem's rejection of the many prophets who had come before, calling for Israel's repentance.  The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day, but they also had substantial political connections.  After all, how would they have known of Herod's interest in seeing Jesus?  The narrative does not tell us whether they were honestly trying to "save" Jesus from Herod by warning Him - OR - if they had been sent by Herod to keep an eye on Jesus. 

The other option to consider is that the Pharisees did not have the gumption to confront Jesus head-on, so they used Herod as a sublime threat to encourage Jesus to leave.  One thing seems clear, however; they wanted Him gone.  And if there is a "hidden" message in this exchange in which the Pharisees represent the political, social, AND religious community (that is, EVERYONE), Jesus' lamentation is all the more profoundly felt.  We may be witnessing the TOTAL REJECTION of Messiah and feeling the TOTAL LAMENTATION of the Most Holy Father.  After all, how would you feel if you knew for a fact that you were unwelcome even among your own people?

So it is also hard to tell whether the "fox" to whom Jesus refers is actually Herod - OR - if Jesus is taking an off-hand shot at the Pharisees by reminding them that "I am casting out demons and performing cures".  The works and mercy of the Holy Father are being done right before their very eyes, and they are STILL trying to run Him off!  Frankly, I think Jesus not only makes clear that Herod does not figure into His itinerary and mission one way or the other, but He may also be calling the Pharisees "dogs" - if "foxes".  As clever and as cunning as they may think themselves to be, Jesus clearly sees them for what they really are and for what they are really trying to do.

This rejection of the Messiah is not unlike the story in Mark 5 when the people of Gadarenes had been terrorized by the demon-possessed man.  They had tried many times before to restrain the possessed man with shackles and chains, but he kept breaking free.  Yet when Jesus came and cast those demons from that man and into the herd of swine, the people who had just witnessed the Power of the Most High God first-hand, the Power which had finally freed them from their daily terror, nevertheless asked Jesus to leave because Jesus had interfered with their livelihood.  So He left ... and He never returned.

There is a saying, "Better the devil you know than the one you don't", which expresses our own handicaps when it comes to faith, like the people of Gadarenes and Jerusalem.  We get used to certain things and certain practices over a period of time when we claim to be "set in our ways".  In reality, however, especially when we "settle" for something we think we have no power to control, we are not set in "our" ways; rather, we are settling for "someone else's" ways.  Without even being fully aware, we surrender a significant portion of our lives over to something (or someone) without realizing the potential spiritual harm that simmers just beneath the surface. 

Who is to say that the people of Gadarenes, the people of Jerusalem, and the people of Magnolia AR do not have a "fox in the henhouse" that we have just gotten used to because as bad as it may seem, we have surrendered to it without realizing or acknowledging the real and lasting harm that can come from it?  We have surrendered even to its inherent danger and gotten used to it because we cannot comprehend an alternative.  Better what we "know" than what we "don't know", right? 

It is not unlike the challenge of fasting.  Fasting is not strictly about what we can give up; it is about identifying that - or them - standing as a barrier between us and our Holy Father and choosing to give THAT (or them) up in order to reconnect to our Holy Father.  It is not strictly about what we sacrifice or what we think we are being forced to do without.  It is entirely about what we will ultimately gain from the Hand of the Almighty Himself when we discover the "shackles" of the FOX on our souls that we had simply gotten used to, to the point that we no longer even notice.

What was - and is - right before our very eyes (just as it was for the people of Gadarenes and Jerusalem) if we will but open the eyes of our hearts and stop taking so much for granted are blessings we have been overlooking - perhaps rejecting - at the same time.  Messiah came to announce not that "hell is knocking" but that the "Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"!  Messiah's call to repentance was not a "threat"; it is a blessing!  Why was He so utterly rejected?  Why is the life He calls us to so utterly rejected still??

The Judgment came when Jesus arrived.  And as St. John testifies in John 3:19-20; "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the Light and do not come to the Light, so that their deeds may not be exposed."  Do you ever consider that cockroaches also scatter in the light??

The human race has been deemed worthy of our Lord and His Messiah, and the invitation into Eternal Life is the Gospel Itself offered through the Holy Church, the very Body of Christ!  Yet we run.  We hide.  We seem unable - or perhaps unwilling - to believe such a Love even exists!  But it does exist - and it does call to us as long as the Church stands.  Let us confront and finally cast aside the "fox in the henhouse" once and for all - and "be gathered together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings".  Our Lord is still willing and eager to receive us!  So let us receive Him.

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

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Thought

“I will concede your righteousness and your works, but they will not help you.  When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!  The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away.  But whoever takes refuge in Me shall possess the land and inherit My holy mountain.”  Isaiah 57:12-13

The people of Israel are under the judgment of the Exile, that time when they were driven from the Promised Land for having turned their backs on the Lord and had chosen to live not like the chosen people of the Most High but rather like the people who surrounded them.  Eventually they were overtaken by the very thing they chose to embrace!

The Lord speaks to the people by acknowledging their “righteousness and their works”, but their focus of worship is not directed toward the Holy God.  And lest we forget, the “worship” is not only in a gathering like we know as Sunday morning church service; their worship is in their daily living and in the things they value above all else.  Maybe it is that they had lost their sense of priority in thinking that “doing” righteous works is the same as “being” a work of righteousness.  If we will not go out of our way for the Lord’s sake, we cannot say we “love” the Lord.

Let us remember that the “greatest commandment” is to direct our attention and focus toward the Holy Father first and foremost; that is, to “love Him” with everything we have and with everything we are.  Only then can we truly live in righteousness; only then can we truly worship “in spirit and in truth”.  And only then can we truly count on His blessing and His mercy – just as He spoke to His very chosen people.

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Thought

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”  Luke 14:26

“Hate” is a very strong word which expresses, at least in our common language, the precise opposite of “love”.  It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to understand what Jesus is talking about especially when He seems to encourage rejection and violation of one of the fundamental commandments of the Lord: “You shall honor your mother and your father”.  The others of our families, those for whose care we are accountable to the Lord, also have a special place in our hearts.  For this language, then, to seem to offer the ultimatum of “Me or them” seems downright cruel and unreasonable.

Of course the choice of the word “hate” is rhetorical.  It cannot reasonably be said that Jesus is requiring us to “hate” anyone, but He is calling to our attention those in our lives who have the capacity to interfere with our relationship with the Lord.  It must also be considered that within the context of the time and culture of Luke, following Jesus was quite radical.  Following Him would ultimately cause divisions within families; in fact, it can be said there are such divisions even today.

Yet we must be mindful of the priority Jesus is teaching.  We do not love God incidentally by loving those in our lives first.  Rather we love those in our lives purposefully by loving God first intentionally, just as Jesus affirms the “greatest commandment” as taught by Moses.  When we actively express and engage love to our Holy Father first by trusting and obeying His Word, we receive from our Lord the capacity and ability to love even those who can often be quite unlovable, including members of our own families!  We are given the spiritual capacity to move beyond the biological and the emotional and into the intentional and purposeful.  This, as it is written, “is the beginning of wisdom”; that is, “fear (intense respect) of the Lord”.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Choices - 1st Sunday of Lent 2013

Luke 4:1-13

"Too many Christians have a commitment of convenience.  They'll stay faithful as long as it's safe and doesn't involve risk, rejection, or criticism.  Instead of standing alone in the face of a challenge or temptation, they will check to see which way their friends are going."  Charles Stanley

It is a colossal mistake to believe the devil as portrayed in the Gospels was red, carrying a pitchfork, and had horns coming from his head as that common image many have of what the devil may looks like.  Though Jesus was surely aware of who He was dealing with, it cannot be said that we could always be as spiritually discerning - especially if we never take the time to spiritually discern anything.    

These choices Jesus was confronted with are the very same choices we face nearly every single day in practical living - in human desire and ambition; refusing to deny ourselves as our flesh desires, striving for money and power and "things" as the culture demands, refusing to consider the sin of gluttony in our quest for acquisition, and often "testing" our Holy Father much like a child will test a parent - which is always cute, huh?

Looking at this encounter between Jesus and the evil one always raises questions, but the dominant questions usually center around the third temptation when the devil quotes the Scripture - although I will grant that the "stones to bread" temptation is one that throws many off.  After all, Jesus has just endured a forty-day fast.  We are not given specific information about the extent of Jesus' fast or whether He ate anything at all; we just know that at the end of this fasting period, the Scripture says He was "famished" - very hungry!

So what harm would it do to eat?  How much good can we be to the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth if we were to fast ourselves into such a weakened state?  After all, this is the argument many Christians use to excuse themselves from the "need" to fast, claiming it as an "ancient" practice no long necessary after the Resurrection of Messiah.  For the "nominal" Christian who is perfectly content with the way things are, it is hard to show fasting as "necessary".  For the DISCIPLE who is on a Journey WITH Christ, however, the need to fast would be clear.

Think, for instance, about how much time during the day is spent thinking about, planning, preparing, and then actually eating the meal.  For some it may not be a big deal, but for others it is extremely time-consuming.  This is not to say it is a bad thing, of course, because we have to eat (and food is a gift!); and for those living on the edge of a tight budget, meal planning is essential.  The purpose and practice of fasting, however, is not strictly about "doing without".  Rather it is about examining the time we spend away from the Lord through the neglect of worship; tithing; and reading, studying, and praying of Scripture. 

In other words, fasting is about how much (or how little) time we spend actively and consciously engaged in the Divine Relationship rather than treating it as "incidental" to our lives.  It is about trying to determine whether we are simply "being" Christians - OR - "doing" discipleship.  The difference between the two is profound much like the difference between simply "being" married and earnestly "engaging" the marriage relationship.

The difference, then, can be determined and summed up by the third temptation when the devil quotes the Scriptures to Jesus.  He says, "It is written, 'He will command His angels concerning you, to protect you' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone'".  These passages come from Psalm 91 and, depending on the translation you have, is pretty solid - as the verses themselves go.  However, the problem lies in the context and practical application which depends entirely on genuine, first-hand knowledge of the Scriptures. 

Quoting a few verses out of context is the greatest problem "pop" Christianity suffers from because nearly any verse from the Scriptures removed from its context and setting will almost always alter its true meaning.  Consider Psalm 91, for instance.  Verse 11, "For He will command His angels concerning you ..." has no real meaning apart from verses 9-10: "Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you."  

The assurance we receive from the psalm is only to those who "dwell" in the Lord.  That is, our lives are totally consumed and regulated by the Lord and His Word, His Will, and His Way.  Everything we do revolves around the Lord and His Scriptures.  There is no portion of our lives that is not intimately connected with the Lord.  However, such a life devoted to the Lord is not possible apart from the Scriptures.  Such intimate knowledge of the Lord and His Way is not possible apart from His Word.  If our "bible", however, is a series of bumper-sticker quotes, we will always fall short of the full revelation found only in The Word - not a few select words.

My favorite comes from those who resist or outright reject being held accountable to discipleship by fellow disciples: "Only Jesus knows my heart".  While it is true that the Lord does see us within ourselves and does see what we do "in the dark" even when we think we have everyone fooled, Jesus specifically teaches that "out of the mouth comes the abundance of the heart"

So while it is true the Lord does indeed know what is in our hearts, He is not the "only" one who knows.  Our mouths will ultimately reveal what is within us ... good OR bad; just as it is written in Ecclesiastes 10:3: "When a fool walks along the way, he lacks wisdom, and he shows everyone he is a fool."  It must also be said that our actions usually follow our mouths - all coming from within our true hearts; not the heart we desire nor the heart we wish but rather the heart we truly possess.  So the only ones these "pop culture Christians" are kidding are themselves - and everyone else who shares their ignorance of the Scriptures.

The whole practice and purpose of Lent and fasting is to get real.  It is not about "what" we decide to give up for Lent (if we ever do); it is about "where" that something comes from that we choose to give up, and "why" we choose to give it up.  I don't mean to belittle those - and there are always many - who give up chocolate for Lent.  I love chocolate myself, but I cannot say that chocolate in and of itself interferes with my relationship with the Lord (or those I have spoken with in the past).  Even in my lowest years, I never stayed home from worship just to eat chocolate.  I never put aside Scripture study in favor of a Hershey bar.  There were many other excuses I used, but chocolate in and of itself never interfered with my spiritual life. 

But chocolate, for me, is only an example of what fasting is NOT intended to accomplish for us.  Fasting was never intended as a mere physical challenge just to see if we could; and its use strictly for self-improvement will always be limited.  For many, choosing a fast for Lent is a lot like New Year's Resolutions; we often set ourselves up for failure before the journey has really even begun not because fasting is not necessary - but because we enter into the call to fast completely self-absorbed (i.e., to lose weight or save money) and uncommitted.  It is rarely about our relationship to the Lord and His Church through His Word.

Lent is a time of profound choices, but we must choose according to an honest and earnest inward reflection - NOT simply for the sake of making a "choice" but rather determining what is standing between us and our commitment to genuine discipleship.  What is it that prevents us from attending worship as often as we can?  What is it that claims time which could be spent in Scripture study and earnest prayer - alone AND with a Bible study group?  What keeps us from the Lord and from one another?  This must be the point and focus of intense inward reflection because if we are not Bible-reading Christians, we cannot claim to be Bible-believing Disciples of Christ.

As a body of believers, let us resolve together to make the right choice; and let us then make this choice intentionally and purposefully.  Let us be willing to submit to mutual accountability during this very serious, very somber period of reflection.  Because Jesus made a clear "choice" for us.  Let us "choose" Him in His Word and our deeds.  Together.  As the Church, the very Body of Christ.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday 2013

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

A new season of Lent should never be redundant but should always be greeted eagerly and embraced with a renewed sense of purpose because we are offered, and encouraged to, a renewed sense of reconnecting to or strengthening that better part of ourselves, the Divine Image in which we are all created - and cast aside all that stands between the flesh and the Spirit; remembering what St. Paul wrote to the Romans: "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law - indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (8:6-8)

We are reminded on Ash Wednesday that who we think we are (that is, our mortal bodies and carnal minds) is that part of us which will one day return to the state from which we all come: dust, when our mortal bodies are buried.  So we should be mindful of the eternal moment when humanity received the "Divine breath" which gave enduring life to that flesh.  When our Lord calls us to come forward "with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning" as the prophet Joel proclaims, we seek to allow our Lord to "breathe" upon us once again New Life into dead flesh.  We submit and recommit ourselves to the Lord our God who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing" those who repent of the flesh and seek the Spirit of the Living and Eternal God (Joel 2:12-13).

But we come forward and present ourselves to our Holy Father NOT because He is about to strike and smite and punish but "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God".  We come before our Holy Father in this solemn occasion, yes, to be called into a state of awareness of the sin in our lives and an appreciation of the damage this sin inflicts on the mind, the body, and the soul; but we also come before our Holy Father mindful of the blessings He eagerly intends to bestow on His people as He reveals to the prophet Malachi: "Return to Me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts ... Bring the full tithe into the storehouse so that there may be food in My house, and thus put Me to the test, say the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing" (Malachi 3:7b, 10).

We must remember, however, that what the Lord is asking of us goes beyond that mere 10% we've been conditioned to offer; and although we can and should certainly offer to the Lord's Church that tithe He does command, just as Jesus teaches (Matthew 23:23), it is the life devoted to that tithe, that "holy and living sacrifice", which the Lord seeks and intends to restore. 

When we let go of that portion without fear and without doubt, we also let go of that "flesh" which "cannot please God"; that flesh which is "hostile to God", that "flesh" which always chooses first what is personally pleasing and comfortable with no mind or thought toward our Holy God.  The people of Christ's Holy Church must rise above the complacency that "getting saved" somehow automatically shields us from the temptations we continue to face as long as we draw breath "in the flesh", as long as we choose to continue living "according to the flesh" and the flesh's desires. 

We are reminded by Messiah's experience in the wilderness that the evil one is very aware of our weak moments when we are most likely to succumb to anything that will give us pleasure or comfort our "flesh" but can ultimately lead our spirit AWAY from the Lord rather than TO Him. 

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus speaks of those "flesh-pleasing" things that even when done correctly, can still be done for the wrong reasons if we forget who it is we are first called to serve; if we forget that absent the "Divine Breath of Life", we are only "dust".  And this is what the discipline of Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday, seeks to accomplish.  There must be a renewed sense of humility in remembering that even in our darkest moments of sinful awareness, it is still not about "us"; it is about our Lord and His mercy.  Even in our most glorious moments of blessings received, it is still not about "us"; it is about our Lord and His purpose.

On Ash Wednesday we are called forth in fasting and repentance to cast aside our flesh, surrender to the reality of the "dust" to which our mortal bodies will one day return, and reconnect to that blessed moment when our Lord speaks to His Holy Church in an unmistakable proclamation as our flesh falls but our spirit is raised by the Mighty Hand of our Eternal God and Father: TODAY, says the Lord, YOU ARE MINE!  REPENT AND BELIEVE THE GOSPEL!

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

A Thought

“They will be made holy who observe holy things in holiness, and those who have been taught them will find a defense.  Therefore set your desire on My words; long for them, and you will be instructed.”  Wisdom of Solomon 6:10-11

The whole intent of the Methodist movement from the days of John Wesley was the pursuit of holiness; that is, spiritual perfection not only in our lives but in our social encounters and daily living.  It was always understood, however, that the pursuit of holiness by our own efforts did not mean we would ever achieve holiness by our own means or our own efforts.  We have those means of grace (prayer, fasting, worship, fellowship, the sacraments of the Church, Scripture study) through which we encounter the holy.  It is through these means by which we are shielded from ungodliness and lifted up not by our efforts but by our merciful Lord who blesses those who follow Him faithfully and diligently.

As the season of Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday, let this be for us a new season of commitment to the pursuit of holiness.  Let us lift up one another in worship and in fellowship and in mutual accountability to cast aside the things of this world and reach Higher!  For we will be “made holy” when we pursue holiness; and our children who must be taught holiness will find our Lord’s “defense” as they, too, face an ungodly world.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Thought

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.  In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died and their departure was thought to be a disaster and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.”  Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-3

We are surrounded by violence, and this violence is causing more than a little fear (sometimes irrational fear) among us; so much so that the Arkansas state legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law allowing properly permitted concealed carry weapons in churches that choose to allow it.  Now it is that these “terrorists” have managed to convinced many that they are not safe even within the sanctuary of the Holy Church and in the very presence of the Almighty God and Lord.

After the tragedy of Sandy Hook, even nominal Christians joined the chorus of those unbelievers who cried out, “Where was your God in all this?  Why did He allow this to happen?  Where is this protective Hand you keep talking about?”  It is these many to whom this Wisdom is directed, the “foolish” who cannot see or believe that those precious lambs who were caught up in the evil acts of a single man are “at peace” with our God; they are not stuck in the perpetual torment of their last moments on this earth even though we are.

This does not mean we do not mourn such profound losses because we obviously do, and this does not mean that a community’s deep sorrow should not be shared by an entire nation because it is.  This does not mean we have a death wish or that our God and Father calls us to live recklessly.  Rather He calls us to live courageously with the hope of the “peace” that is at the end of the Journey for those who endure with faith – and especially for the little children whom Jesus favored most!  Sometimes that end comes sooner rather than later, but ultimately it will come to us all.  How it will come or when it will come is not for us to know.  So we have been given assurance in the Scriptures, in the very Voice of the Almighty, that it’s ok.  We will not live long upon this earth, and our passing from this life is more certain than anything else we can know. 

It is the “foolish” who see only “disaster” and “destruction” in death; it is the Faithful who have their hope in the Lord in the assurance of the Resurrection, that glorious moment when evil is finally and completely overcome once and for all!

We must try not to live our lives in fear, for the very manner in which we live is the witness of our faith (or the lack thereof).  We can and should take reasonable measures to keep one another as safe as possible, but we must not submit ourselves to the lowest common denominator and become ourselves what we seem to fear most.

Have peace.  It is our Lord’s most blessed assurance of the life which is to come.


Monday, February 11, 2013

The Radical Way

Luke 9:37-43a

"The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing [to be] his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of [Messiah], but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him."  John Wesley, "Self-Denial"

In this sermon of "Self-Denial", John Wesley was specifically referring to Luke 9:23-24 in which Jesus says, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his own life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it."

Make no mistake.  This is not about the contemporary concept of "personal salvation" by merely "accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior", as popular in some traditions as this has become because it is theologically and biblically questionable whether "personal salvation" is even possible apart from intentional discipleship; that is, "daily" following Messiah.  And what Jesus is talking about and what John Wesley is emphasizing is discipleship; intentional, purposeful, sometimes radical, sometimes downright dangerous discipleship.  It is as literal as the Bible can actually be except for one small misunderstanding; the life we gain or lose is not necessarily nor exclusively being taught in terms of how we have come to understand "martyrdom" - not strictly speaking, anyway.  It is rather about a life devoted to Messiah rather than to self. 

We (that is, potential and active disciples) are called by Jesus to "deny ourselves daily" of our base instincts and selfish purposes.  We are to live our lives not according to our own desires or what society or our culture expects from us, but we are rather called to follow Jesus and go where He will lead us - never expecting or demanding even for a moment that He will somehow turn and follow us in the path we choose for ourselves.  This is NOT the role of a shepherd. 

This is the trickiest part of trying to understand what is happening with the disciples the day after the Transfiguration (Luke 9:37-43).  The disciples had been called upon to cast a demon from a boy, but they apparently failed to do so even though they had been empowered by our Lord to act in His behalf (Luke 9:1-5).  What went wrong?  What happened between the time of empowerment and the time called upon to fulfill that empowerment and put it to good use?    

Clearly the disciples were unable to cast this demon from this boy and it might have been easy for them to believe only the Lord to be powerful enough to deal with this particular demon, yet Jesus did not allow that they were incapable or that this task was perhaps just a little too big for them.  They were unable to do what they had been empowered to do because they had been unwilling to submit themselves fully to that empowerment.  The disciples were unable to cast this demon out because they were depending on their own resources - which, it turns out, they didn't have.  And they didn't have what they needed because, as Jesus suggests, there was a substantial "disconnect" by their own neglect; maybe their arrogance.

A detail that Luke leaves out in this confrontation is recorded in Matthew's and Mark's gospel.  Each account follows the Transfiguration and nearly every detail is present except for this one explanation from Jesus as to why the disciples were unable to cast this demon out: "This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting" (Mt 17:21).  And Mark's gospel, in addition to the fasting and prayer prescription, gives this simple admonition: "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:23).

And this, I think, is where the real "litmus test" of discipleship rests because I might suggest many of us, maybe even most of us, have an intellectual willingness to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah because it is what we have been taught since Vacation Bible School; but to BELIEVE, to EMBRACE from the depth of one's soul (that is, to give oneself fully to the better part of who we truly are) means we have to dig much deeper.  I suspect many of us find ourselves in the same spiritual place as the father of the possessed child as recorded in Mark's gospel: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" (9:24); because, truly, when and where have any of us really been so spiritually pushed?  We WANT to believe but if we are unwilling to completely submit and let go of everything around us, how committed can we really claim to be?    

It is not enough to be "astounded at the greatness of God" as the crowd was after Jesus had cast the demon from the boy; that "astonishment" alone did not make them disciples.  It was not enough for the Israelites to be astounded at the Parting of the Red Sea and it was never enough for the Israelites to witness the power of the Lord when they watched water come from a rock or when they gathered manna every morning for each day's sustenance for the journey.  There is nothing "radical" about being astounded or amazed. 

I know from speaking with several that many have personally witnessed what they would call a "miracle", being amazed at the power of the Lord at work, but that's THE LORD'S POWER - not the "empowerment" He offers to His disciples.  That kind of empowerment, according to our Holy Father's Messiah, is going to require much more from us than intellectual acknowledgement, a profession of faith, a personal credo, or even a willingness to "be astounded".  No, we are going to have to go deeper.

It is as St. James points out in his epistle, it is not enough to "believe with fear and trembling as the demons do".  And it is not enough to mindlessly claim to be a Christian without the real mark and measure and intentional effort of discipleship.  Consider Jesus' admonition to His disciples after they had failed to cast out the demon.  Jesus was not amused at their failure; He seemed rather put out with them that they were incapable of acting in His behalf for His people!  "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?" 

Think of a parent, after showing a child time and time again how to do something and the child still can't quite get it?  Good grief, child, how many more times do I have to show you??  Each is being prepared for the day when the parent - or Jesus - will no longer be around to do the things which must be done!  But the child does not quite grasp because the child is not completely committed to the task.  Nor are the disciples; not enough to have done the necessary prep work BEFOREHAND - fasting and prayer.

The time was coming for the disciples, and is upon us now, when we will be called up to act in the name of Jesus on behalf of Jesus for those who cannot do for themselves!  Yet we should not be surprised that nothing happens by our hands if we lack the discipline of being truly, genuinely, and completely connected with our Lord through "prayer and fasting".  According to Jesus, it is the only way anything of any real consequence is going to happen.  Oh, we can go through the motions, of course, but we have learned to trust in modern medicine or the government to get the really "astounding" or "amazing" things done. 

It is not enough to simply acknowledge that our lives are pretty good just as they are.  This is a little too inwardly focused to really be "kingdom-oriented"; and "kingdom-oriented" is what disciples of Christ are called to be!  It is not about "me"; it never was.  To claim a "personal" salvation and then reject opportunities for discipleship calls into question what we actually, deep-in-the-soul, believe about our Lord and the mission of His Church to which disciples are called. 

The "radical way" of discipleship - when it stops being about "us" and our "personal" issues and "personal" blessings - is but a "fast and a prayer" away.  It is by "fasting and prayer" that the forces of this world will no longer have power and dominion over us because we are, by "fasting and prayer", completely submitting ourselves to our Lord and His Will and His Way ... and His POWER and His EMPOWERMENT! 

Maybe this is precisely why devotion to serious, self-sacrificing fasting and serious, contemplative prayer have gone largely by the wayside; we are afraid of what the Lord may actually call upon us to do, or we are unwilling to heed that call.  Or our faith, such as it is, is a little too "personal"; that is, without regard for anyone else.  That is NOT our Methodist heritage.  That is NOT discipleship.

If we want to serve Him, truly serve Him; Jesus is offering the means by which truly committing ourselves to Him is even possible: denying ourselves daily in fasting and serious prayer.  That is to say, deliberately setting aside time each day to put aside creature comforts and the burdens of work and connect only with Him - just as Jesus did the many times He went away to pray

Going without food for the modern Christian is not so radical.  Saying a prayer while engaged in some other activity is not so radical.  Serving our Lord fully and completely and being earnest in discipleship and the means of grace like fasting and prayer, Scripture study and worship of our Lord?  That is truly the "radical way".  And THAT is who and what we are called to be. 

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

A Thought

“Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth; think of the Lord in goodness and seek Him with sincerity of heart; because He is found by those who do not put Him to the test, and manifests Himself to those who do not distrust Him.  For perverse thoughts separate people from God, and when His power is tested, it exposes the foolish, because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul or dwell in a body enslaved to sin.  For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit and will leave foolish thoughts behind, and will be ashamed at the approach of unrighteousness.”  Wisdom of Solomon 1:1-5

Reading more from the books of the “Apocrypha”, I often wonder why these spiritually insightful books did not “make the cut” in the Protestant bibles but are still retained by the Catholics and the Orthodox Christians.  Then again, I suppose if every useful book of antiquity were to be retained as authoritative, it might require the use of a truck to carry one’s Bible around!

What stood out for me in this passage, however, is in verse 3: “For perverse thoughts separate people from God, and when His power is tested, it exposes the foolish …”  This makes me think of how easily we Christians can be lulled into a complacent spirit of being in not protecting ourselves  from “perverse” thoughts that come not only from our neighbors and co-workers but also from within our own hearts.  Because we are so comfortably settled in our own sense of righteousness, we do not always “vet” the thoughts we have against the knowledge of Scriptures.  We rely on “bumper sticker slogans” or a few out-of-context, short Bible verses to make us feel good about ourselves while we go about our own business, not wanting to be known of as “holier than thou” or “Bible beaters” or “Jesus freaks”.  We would rather be “liked” than respected.  It is then when we are “exposed” as the “foolish” we have become, for the world can see right through us.

It is often said that “only the Lord knows my heart” but the wisdom herein reminds us that when we are “exposed”, we are fully “exposed” not only to our Lord but to those around us – especially the unbelievers who know the Scriptures (better than many Christians, I might add!) and call us “hypocrites” because we say one thing but do another.

Yet “a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit and will leave foolish thoughts behind”.  This is the underlying message in Wesleyan Methodist “discipline”; discipline which requires effort, real work, devotion, and mutual accountability so that we are reminded of who we truly are. It is, in a word, discipleship.

We know who we truly are and to Whom we belong, deep down.  So let us put aside the “perverse thoughts” that separate us from our Holy Father and live as we are called to live; fully and eternally!


Thursday, February 07, 2013

The State of the Church: packin' heat

I have grave concerns regarding SB 71, known as the "Church Protection Act of 2013", which removes houses of worship as exempted places where concealed carry weapons are not allowed under current law.  This is a violation of the sanctity which has been, and should continue to be, the sanctuary that is inherent to all houses of worship.

I had expressed my concerns to Arkansas state Senator Bruce Maloch who indicated his support for the bill, to state Representative Lane Jean who did not respond to my letter at all, and to Governor Mike Beebe whose office only acknowledged receipt of the letter (although Gov. Beebe had previously indicated he will sign it if it reaches his desk).  This is the same reaction we received from the "leader" of the state who, after having signed the lottery bill into law, indicated he was personally opposed to the lottery and thought it an ill-conceived measure.  Well done, governor.  It is always comforting to know of your personal opposition to something you officially approve with the stroke of a pen.  I suppose we may expect the same in this matter: your voice from the back of the room.

The disturbing language of the bill which claims to address an "immediate necessity ... to public safety" and declares "an emergency" is, in my humble opinion, a panicked, emotional overreaction (which is always dangerous!) so soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy and amidst the talk in Washington DC about gun control and the 2nd Amendment.  There is no indication this bill has been carefully considered as to the potential burdens of liability which will be placed on houses of worship should this bill become law (it currently lacks only the governor's signature).  The occurrence of violent incidents in houses of worship is so miniscule in the broad spectrum of gun violence that this bill does not lend itself to an "immediate necessity" since no "immediate necessity" seems to even exist.  It is also arguable as to whether a state of "emergency" actually exists.  The language of the bill itself is panicked rather than measured! 

Houses of worship are protected by current law.  This bill on its basest level seeks to remove this protection altogether ... as a matter of "immediate necessity" because an "emergency" exists?  I fail to see how.  As the pastor of a church, I am disturbed at the idea of armed parishioners, other parishioners concerned about who may or may not be carrying, the necessity of posting signs advertising whether a church prohibits weapons or allows only designated persons, enforcing a church's chosen policy to prohibit weapons, etc. 

It must also be considered that in such a litigious culture as ours, it is quite possible that someone could be hurt and the church held liable since the legislature "allowed" (mandated, actually) churches to make these decisions for themselves.  It is no longer assumed houses of worship are gun-free; this bill allows that all permit holders may carry weapons into a church.  The individual house of worship will have to make a public declaration, presumably post signs outside, and decide whether or how to enforce its own policy. 

Houses of worship must decide to declare "designated" persons (or any permit holder) who will be allowed to carry a weapon, and the burden of careful selection falls on the church should that church decide to allow weapons by designated permit holders.  Given the limited training permit holders have undergone, a liability factor must consider that a permit holder who has not been "battle tested" and has only faced stationary targets that don't shoot back could conceivably panic at a clear or even perceived threat and inadvertently hurt an innocent bystander.  In another scenario, a "bad guy" could come into an "advertised" unarmed church and do harm. 

Surely it can be said that the church, rather than being protected by the state and having been left to its own devices, could conceivably be found to have been "negligent" in ensuring the safety of worshippers since the state now "allows" (mandates?) the church to be responsible.  It seems a reach, but we must consider the lawsuits churches face and have faced because adequate background checks were not done on volunteer child care-givers and youth workers.  This is one more burden churches do not need and are not equipped to administer effectively because a background check cannot speak to a person's potential state of mind under duress.  This is the very reason police officers must undergo psychological testing before being accepted as an armed officer!  And even they get it wrong sometimes even after so much testing and continuous, on-going training.

This bill has the potential to create more problems yet unforeseen (or even conceived of) than it will solve, and it cannot be quantified that any lives will be saved or lost from this measure.  I will grant that no value can be assigned to even one life lost or preserved, but I dare say this measure is not the way to go about it. 

I would argue that as surely as the 2nd Amendment grants citizens the "right to keep and bear arms" (this seems to be the state of "emergency" the bill refers to), the 1st Amendment also grants to houses of worship all reasonable measure of protection from government intrusion - and by government from intrusion.  The law as it currently prohibits weapons in houses of worship is reasonable and adequate.  Now is not the time of radical departure from what has evidently worked very well.

A Thought

“Oh, how I love Your law!  It is my meditation all the day.  You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me.”  Psalm 119:97-98

“Let there be light!”  “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” 

It is the Word of the Lord, not the “adjustments” we’ve made through generations of traditions and new traditions, which gives us the True Light.  So many popular sayings are twisted to the point of being very nearly removed altogether from what the True Word teaches us.  Let us not fall for the worst of all: “The Bible means different things to different people”.  This may be true in the minds of humans but it cannot be true in the souls of the faithful, for it is as Moses declared to the people of Israel: “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE!”  The Almighty therefore cannot be one thing to “him” and yet another to “her”.  He is One eternally.

This is the greatest source of comfort we can embrace for ourselves especially in a world that tries to pull us first in one direction and then in another.  The people of faith have a firm and eternal foundation, unshakable from the very foundation of time itself!  We must therefore dwell in the Word, abide in the Word, and revel in the Word!  It is not a “law” that keeps us from a good life; it is the Word that leads us into Life Everlasting!

Have a grace-filled day of blessings and peace!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A Thought

“Take heed to yourselves.  If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke him or her; and if he or she repents, forgive them.  And if they sin against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day return to you saying, ‘I repent’, you shall forgive them.”  Luke 17:3-4

Forgiveness is hard.  In fact, to genuinely forgive someone an offense against us is actually painful because it is required the offense to be forgotten – and we don’t forget so easily even as we pay lip service to forgiveness such as those who might say, “I will forgive you – BUT – I will never forget what you did to me.”  That is not genuine forgiveness.  We have not let it go even if we have mouthed the words, “I forgive you”.  Real forgiveness has not taken place.  The offender may feel better hearing the words, but the burden still rests on our souls!

Jesus does not merely suggest we “should” forgive the offender who repents; the language is straightforward: “Forgive them”, and “you shall forgive them”.  Coming from the mouth of the Lord, then, it becomes a “commandment”.  It is as absolute as those “Ten”, and there is no wiggle room. 

Forgiving an offender is as much a part of the journey of discipleship as worship, Scripture study, and attending to the Sacraments of the Church.  In fact, the journey stops when we become stuck in the past as when we retain the offense of someone who has harmed us; we are stuck in that moment even though the offender has moved on.  We do not harm those who have offended us by refusing to forgive them and choose instead to hold the grudge; we harm only ourselves.

We must learn to let go of the past.  If there are those who have asked our forgiveness, we must give it to them as readily as we seem to expect our Holy Father to forgive us.  That burden is more than any can bear, and it only gets heavier and more cumbersome as time wears on.  Jesus offers us better than this, but we must be willing to accept it.


Tuesday, February 05, 2013

A Thought

“Jesus said to the Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” John 8:31-32

It’s very simple.  The “word” is the Scripture, and Jesus is the “word made flesh”.  Therefore if we never spend time in the “word”, we cannot be disciples of the Messiah whom we know nothing about and will not follow.  An intellectual and/or historical acknowledgement that a man named ‘Jesus’ existed is not “abiding” in Him.  Refusing to attend worship of the Holy Father to hear and celebrate the “word” in fellowship with other disciples is not “abiding” in Him.  Refusing to share in the sacraments given to us by Him is not “abiding” in Him.  Having a “bumper sticker relationship” with Him (that is, knowing some short verses such as “the truth shall make you free”, or “God so loved the world …’”) is no relationship at all because each little saying has a context.  And it is often that we toss short phrases carelessly about with no knowledge of what the phrase actually means.  If this is the case, there is no knowledge of Messiah Himself; only the knowledge of some empty words.

Understand this is not about heaven or hell, being saved, or being unsaved.  This is about living the fullest of the life which has been given to each of us to fulfill a divine purpose.  Knowing Messiah is about knowing the fullness of the Holy Father’s love for His creation and understanding why He chose to humble Himself so.  Abiding in the fullness of Messiah Jesus is abiding in the fullness of Divine Love.

Do not neglect those simple means of grace by which we remain constantly and intimately connected to our Holy Father.  He came to us for a reason; and that reason was, indeed, YOU and the Life He means for you to have.