Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 4/30/13

“In You, O Lord, I put my trust; let me never be put to shame.  Deliver me in Your righteousness, and cause me to escape.  Incline Your ear to me and save me.  Be my strong refuge to which I may resort continually; You have given the commandment to save me, for You are my rock and my fortress.”  Psalm 71:1-3

Today seems to be one of those days that, starting early, is filled with the faithful facing great challenges and being unsure of which way to turn.  Fear can overwhelm us when we lose our confidence, when we begin to question our lives and the trials we are forced to endure.

Yet the psalmist refuses to let go of the Lord!  It is important to remember that these psalms are much more than mere liturgy or empty prayers for ancient Israel; the psalms express Israel’s enduring heart for the Lord in spite of being surrounded by enemies and dealing with apostates from within – these prayers express Israel’s actual experiences!  The expressions reflect much of what we face today as well, so the psalms help us to find the right words when our own words may fail us.

Our Lord assures us of His presence in many ways, so let US “incline OUR ear to HIM” and listen carefully.  What we hear may not be what we want to hear, but we have the assurance of faith that what we hear will be what we need to hear; for “You are [indeed our] rock and [our] fortress” when all else fails us.


Monday, April 29, 2013

A Thought for Monday 4/29/13

“A good person out of the good treasure of one’s heart brings forth good; and an evil person out of the evil treasure of one’s heart brings forth evil.  For out of the abundance of the heart one’s mouth speaks.”  Luke 6:45

In biblical language, the heart is said to be the essence of who we truly are.  While we may be able to present a particular facade for public display (and fool many), we cannot conceal our hearts, our essence (and fool no one who gets too close).  Understand, however, that Jesus is not merely speaking about being or even getting “saved”.  That simple term alone can often betray us especially in the careless way it is tossed about or even truly understood.  What Jesus is referring to goes beyond redemption.  In verse 44 He speaks of “fruit”; that is, the produce of what is within us.  It is what salvation reaps after the gift of grace has been planted.  It is the acknowledgement of the eternally present reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is a given that the entire world was redeemed by Messiah’s sacrifice on the Cross, but it is not a given that this sacrifice will produce all it was intended.  It is the difference between being a “believer” who will not deny the power of the Almighty; and being a “disciple” who devotes an entire life to following Messiah and being willing to learn and grow in grace, love, and truth.  I think we can all agree there are some pretty nasty “believers” in the world just as I think we can all agree there are fewer disciples wholly devoted to producing good “fruit” for the Kingdom. 

We must not get caught up in careless and fruitless discussions of who is going to Heaven and who is going to hell; this is not our call one way or the other, and it is not exclusively what Jesus is talking about.  It is rather about being all we have been created to be, tapping into the fullness of our essence to live a life that would bring true honor and glory to our Holy Father, and living as though Jesus lives next door … because He does!


Leaving it all on the field

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

When my youngest daughter was active on the high school swim team, the coach was fond of saying "leave it all in the water".  Though I was pretty sure of what this implied, I didn't really know exactly what she meant until I started noticing that this saying is applied to all kinds of competitive events on the field, on the court, in the water, on the mats.  What it means - for those of you who may be even more mentally challenged than I! - is that the team goes onto the field and puts everything they have into the competition so that in the end, there is nothing left to give.  All the preparations, all the training, all the efforts, all the blood and sweat and tears are left on the field, all given to the contest; the competitors emptied themselves of everything they had to give.  Anything less, and it can be said that something was held back; "saved" for later, perhaps.  The question, then, is: what would it be saved FOR? 

I think it is safe to say most of us do not always give so freely or completely of ourselves - unless there can be some measure of personal gain.  We might give freely of what we think we can spare at any given time, but to give of oneself so completely until there is nothing left is just downright scary because if there is nothing left, we may be vulnerable.  What will be left for "me and mine"?  Even in the worship practice of tithing, it is not so much the practice of what we give but rather the measure and evaluation of what we withhold - and why we choose to withhold it. 

The state of marriage in this country is perhaps the greatest example of what our culture is teaching us to withhold.  Early in the marital relationship, there is that highly ideal nature of giving completely in the romanticism of what marriage is supposed to be.  When "real life" starts creeping in, however, too many find themselves in a struggle between A WILLINGNESS to be vulnerable - OR - choosing to be what we think is "strong" ... according to cultural concepts rather than theological realities.  When it comes to "real life", we are much more inclined toward our culture by having convinced ourselves that our culture IS our theological reality. 

Love, true love, real love, "agape" love, sacrificial love is completely vulnerable because it gives so completely; and that makes us nervous because we often equate vulnerability with weakness.  Being a patsy, being a fool, being naive, being an easy target is NOT the so-called "American Way"!  And yet the only "fools" are those who think love is easy!  Jesus Himself never suggested "agape" was easy and never would be!  Yet Jesus is also clear in that true love, real love, "agape" love, love that is self-sacrificing is the ONLY way "everyone will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."  "Personally saved" but withholding oneself from others?  Hating anyone?  Sell it to the devil because the Lord is not buying it!

Notice, however, that Jesus does not say "if you FEEL loving toward one another".  Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures is love ever implied as magical or emotional or a component of fate as if it may "just happen".  In the biblical principle of love, for instance, it is possible to marry a complete stranger and have a fulfilling life together IF you have love; that is, if we have it to give in the first place.  This may sound ridiculous to some, but it is no more ridiculous than those romantic flights of fancy that proclaim "love at first sight".  This principle I do not believe in, nor should you because such a notion betrays the reality of agape love which is GIVING and unconditional - not "magical".  At "first sight" we may be infatuated with physical appearances, but we cannot honestly say love is present until we know for sure that we are willing to tolerate that person's unsavory habits or get beyond that person's less-than-admirable past.

Though it is often said that men do not generally respond well to sermons about "love" (because "love" is vulnerable and thus perceived as weak; more feminine than masculine), it must be said that love is not for sissies!  Love may indeed be "vulnerable", but there is nothing weak about a willingness to love even when there seems to be nothing worth loving OR there seems to be nothing to be gained.  "No such thing as a free lunch", we say.  "You don't get something for nothing" with the implication being that if there is nothing in it for "me", I have nothing to offer you.  Jesus DOES NOT back up this sentiment!

Divine Love, "agape" love, sacrificial love knows no boundaries or borders; and yet Christians are very nearly as "tribal" today as Jews were then.  Anyone outside of Judaism's cultural and religious boundaries were considered "unclean" (translate "unworthy" in the human mind) and thus to be avoided at all cost; even to be looked down upon.  Yet we should see of Peter's vision in Acts 11 that our Lord's own ideal of His boundless Love can have no boundaries, no limitations.  Contrary to what Christians have come to believe, this passage in Acts IS NOT ABOUT FOOD (the inherent danger of literalism)! 

Acts 11 is not about how or even whether Christians have suddenly been given Divine Permission to eat anything that suits their fancy.  If that is all there is to it, this passage would be more about "lust"; that is, self-fulfillment rather than Divine fulfillment.  "What God has made clean [the angel says], you must not call profane ... the Spirit told me not to make a distinction between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews]."  The passage is clearly about people, not food.  It is about filling others rather than filling ourselves.

Tribalism is most apparent in Christian denominations as we may proclaim a commonality in Messiah, but there are some religious practices we WILL NOT SHARE such as baptism and communion, insisting "they" are wrong and "we" are right.  Tribalism is apparent in our American patriotism in which we declare ourselves unique and distinct, ironically a "Christian nation" that is permitted - even encouraged - to hate those who are different from us.  Indeed the newspaper headlines encourage us to distrust any who do not look like us or act like us.  All completely contrary to what is written in the Holy Scriptures, and yet we "believers" will give much more credence to these "headlines" than to the Scriptures.  "In God we trust"?  Not really.  We trust only what we see with our eyes.

We face these realities with a sense of practical experience AND survival instinct.  And I am not aware of any religious doctrine (Christian doctrine, anyway) that contains an element of "fatalism"; that is, we are not encouraged to go headlong into a dangerous situation in blind faith.  Even Jesus said, "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves" as He sends His disciples out "as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matthew 10:16)

Yet He does send them - and us.  "Freely you have received; so freely give".  That is, "leave it all on the field" as we enter into the mission field; whatever mission field may be before us.  It is important to remember, however, that in all this there is more to it than simply "doing because Jesus said so".  It is about ultimately about fulfillment, yet it is not about the personal satisfaction we may get from doing "the Lord's work". 

Rather it is not only about what we have to offer; it is also about what we are willing to give.  It is about what we have been given to "leave on the field"; given not for our own pleasure or amusement but for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, given freely so we have it to give.  Completely emptying ourselves and "leaving it all on the field" so that we may be filled; for it is as our Lord promises: "Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38).

This is the sacrificial love to which Jesus refers in His challenge to His disciples "so everyone will know you are My disciples".  This is who we are, measured by what we "leave on the field"; not by what we take home. 

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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Thought for Thursday 4/25/13

“Behold, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who by night stand in the house of the Lord!  Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and bless the Lord.  The Lord who made heaven and earth bless you from Zion!”  Psalm 134

Most of us (including myself!) are very reserved when it comes to worship time with one another.  We close our eyes when we pray, we prefer the “tried and true” hymns of the past, and we hold on to traditions.  All these are important and have their place, of course, but it strikes me this morning as I read the psalmist encouraging an entire nation to “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary”.  There have been times when I have felt a need to lift my hands while praying or while singing, but I am always stopped cold in my thoughts: “What will they think of me?”  Or I cannot lift my hands while in song because I have a hymn book in my hands, and I need to see the words (and sometimes the music itself).

When was the last time you really let go of yourself in worship?  When was the last time you walked from the sanctuary and felt as though you had just participated not merely “in a worship service” but in active, engaging worship?  It is the difference between “going to church” which is more of a habit, and “worshiping” which is an expression of what is within us! 

A lot of it has to do with the traditions in which we are brought up, and there is nothing wrong with this – UNLESS we find ourselves questioning what others may think of us if we did let go and surrender to what is within.  That which is within, dear friends, is the Holy Spirit; and until we can freely surrender to this Power and give in to what our hearts long to express in worship, we cannot say we have surrendered our lives to our Holy Father.

Let us begin today (this Thursday!) to prepare our hearts and our minds for worship this weekend.  Begin to think of the wonderful things and persons in your lives who remind you of the glory and the majesty of our God.  Begin to offer prayers of surrender.  Cast aside the prayers of personal desire and personal petition and learn to allow the Holy Spirit to free our souls for earnest and genuine and heart-felt worship.  I believe we may never be the same again – and thank Almighty God for that!!


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Thought for Wednesday 4/24/13

“The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”  1 John 2:17

“Desire” is a difficult emotion to pin down because disciples must think in terms of what “desire” is leading us toward.  Everyone has needs, legitimate needs; but we must always be on guard against trying to fulfill these legitimate needs in illegitimate ways.  We must also understand those needs from their source.  What need are we seeking to fulfill and why?  This determines the difference between “lust” and “love” because “lust” seeks self-fulfillment; “lust” always has an ulterior motive.  “Love”, on the other hand, seeks the well-being of others.  “Love” gives of itself with no mind toward getting something in return.  “Love” will empty itself completely just as our Lord literally bled to death upon the Cross.

St. John is pointing out that “lust” is self-destructive.  Because “lust” can only feed on itself, its source will soon be spent and will dry up; there won’t be anything left.  “Lust”, then, becomes predatory and must ultimately destroy in order to feed itself.  “Love” does not seek to feed itself but seeks to feed others.  When we give of ourselves, we find much more given without our even having to ask.

The Church must get past the notion that “lust” is purely about sex or that “lust of the flesh” is strictly about coveting a neighbor’s spouse.  “Lust” causes us to withhold ourselves, our gifts, our talents, and our treasures from the Church in favor of a nicer car, a nicer home, a grander vacation, a remodeled kitchen, etc.  “Lust” causes us to withhold from our spouses and our children because we prefer something else.  “Lust” convinces us that we can be righteous and selfish at the same time.  “Every object of our lust is the beginning of a lie”  (Love-Dare, day 24, pg 117).

What we desire, what we truly desire, has everything to do with our relationship with our Lord and His Church (and no, these are not mutually exclusive; one cannot “love” the Lord and “hate” the Church as the Body of Christ.  “Lust” says otherwise.).  If it is our genuine desire to do the will of God and glorify His Most Holy Name, we will think beyond ourselves and toward something much greater than even our spouses and our children (“For if you love only those who love you in return, what good is that?”).

We must not concern ourselves with any “reward” but should rather be concerned about and focused on the work at hand.  Done in the name of our Holy Father, the rewards will come soon enough.  If we can believe this, then – and only then – can we say truly trust our Lord.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 4/23/13

“Jacob was left alone, and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.  And when the Man saw that He did not prevail against Jacob, He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him … and the Man said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed’.”  Genesis 32:24-25, 28 NKJV

This passage is difficult to grasp for several reasons; the dominants ones being the identity of the “Man”, and Jacob’s having “prevailed” in his struggle “with God”.  In this moment, however, Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau who had previously vowed to kill Jacob because Jacob had deceitfully taken the blessing from their father Isaac, the blessing which would have normally been reserved for the elder brother (Isaac’s eyesight had begun to fail, so Jacob and his mother worked to deceive Isaac).  It may sound sinister, but in the grand scheme we must remember that in a weak moment Esau had previously surrendered his birth right to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of stew!

The lesson I take from this passage is the name given to Jacob in his refusal to stop wrestling (struggling) with the “Man”.  The very nature of what would become the nation of God’s “chosen” means “to struggle with God”.  It speaks to our human nature when we struggle with our faith.  On the surface, Jacob’s story sounds completely ridiculous – after all, who can struggle with God even with a bad hip and prevail??  Yet it is not necessarily that Jacob prevailed; it is that Jacob refused to stop struggling even when requested to do so.  Jacob wanted the blessing; in fact Jacob needed the blessing not simply to prevail in that moment but to endure the moments to come when the meeting with Esau was imminent and a blessed nation would be conceived!

Sooner or later we will come face-to-face with those intent on doing us harm in some way, and it is a struggle to maintain our connection with our Lord in those moments when our human side struggles with our spiritual self in doing what we prefer to do not always doing what must be done.  Our nature is such that we will constantly struggle with our Lord … and our Lord’s nature is such that He will never give up on us especially as we prove to Him that we would much prefer to struggle with Him than walk away from Him!  We will “prevail” by the Lord’s grace and be blessed – as He blessed Jacob – to serve His purposes and His people.


Monday, April 22, 2013

A Thought for Monday 4/22/13

“One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.”  Proverb 28:9

“John Wesley believed that the law and the gospel are two sides of the same coin.  When behaviors are commanded, they are law; when promised by God, they are gospel.  So the law has three uses: convicting people of sin, bringing them to Christ, and then guiding them in their Christian life”  (Commentary, Wesley Study Bible, pg 93).

In Christianity too much is made about the Church being “under grace” rather than under law.  It is true enough that the Lord’s mercy is abundant, but divine grace cannot be used as a reason or an excuse for being altogether removed from the law based on one statement by one writer.  The Law of Moses teaches people of faith how to live and work and worship WITH one another in God; it is how the people of the Lord are distinguished from those who have no time or desire for the Lord.  Besides this, how can we claim Jesus as “savior” if we completely disconnect Him from His eternal Source; the Holy Father?  Jesus is the Law fulfilled (that is, perfected); this does not mean the Law is over and done with.  Remember that a “house divided against itself cannot stand”.  If this is true under one situation, surely it must be true altogether under any situation. 

So the proverb expresses a spiritual reality for the people of the Lord; if we will not listen to God (ironically in the name of Jesus, the Son of God), how would we come to believe our Lord will listen to us?  When we pray, we should be mindful that we are asking for an audience with our Lord, whether alone or with the congregation of the faithful.  We claim to live within an Eternal Covenant with our God, but we can never assume this Covenant lacks terms.

We are honor-bound to observe all that the Lord has commanded us to observe, from the beginning to the very end of our time on this earth.  In this observation, reverence, and respect, we will discover in this journey not that we had been duped or tricked or hindered in any way.  Rather we will discover blessings we have yet to experience when we fully and completely submit ourselves to our Lord, the King of endless Glory and the very Author of Life itself.  We cannot “take” these blessings; they are only given by the One who is worshiped, adored, and obeyed in adoration – for His purposes, not our own.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Great Ordeal

Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Tribulation: "great affliction, trial, distress, suffering; an experience that tests one's endurance, patience, or faith" - in other words, NOT what we would consider a good time!

Most are at least familiar with the idea of the biblical, seven-year "Tribulation" period which is believed to immediately precede the return of Messiah.  I also think most understand the "seven years" is not to be taken literally; at the very least, seven years should not be understood according to a human concept of time since we must also understand that when Jesus teaches us not to worry about "when" ("for it is not for you to know"), He is reminding us that time in this matter is clearly in accordance with YHWH's own divine timetable.  We have our own task within this timetable - not after.

The concept of a tribulation period, however, should not be summarily dismissed by the faithful because Jesus also mentions this period in a practical application, how-it-matters-to-us-today way in the "parable of the sower": "He who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself but endures only for a while (I add, only as long as it 'feels' good or as long as it's 'safe').  For when the tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles" (Matthew 13:20-21 NKJV).  The NRSV says "trouble or persecution, both indicating two different circumstances of spiritual distress and challenge.

When persecution of the early Church was beginning to heat up, St. Peter encouraged his followers not to give more credit to the challenge than was due: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12).  Could it be said that Peter is simply acknowledging that "life is hard" especially for those who go against the grain of the dominant culture?  Christians did that in Peter's day; today, not so much.  Today we are encouraged to be "tolerant" of the dominant culture, not "faithful" to the Eternal God.

I have said it before, and I will say it again before I go further: "End of Time" theology is, at best tricky and at worst, spiritually dangerous.  When it comes to trying to pin down a finite period in which THE Tribulation is, was, or will be, theologians do not agree because the Bible is not clear about "when" - and for good reason, I think, if we take Jesus at His word that it is "not for you to know". 

Someone once said, 'let us stop worrying about life-after-death, and focus more on life-until-death' ("discipleship") but even this begs the question for the faithful: if there is no heaven and no hell, no spiritual reward or punishment, would we still bother with Jesus anymore than we might bother with Socrates?  Because to really follow Him, to really devote ourselves to what He not only preached but practiced - AND COMMANDED - is going to bring trouble of its own because the life Jesus led was COMPLETELY CONTRARY to the dominant culture of His day.  Following Jesus was dangerous in every sense of the word - and became even more so after the Day of Pentecost.  How have we come to believe it is any safer today?  We have made it safe, but it cannot be biblically measured that we have made it "respectable" because for the most part, the Church today chooses to 'follow' Jesus - BUT - at a very safe distance so that His life will not interfere with ours.

The "Great Ordeal" mentioned in the Revelation (7:14) seems to be a reference to that defined, seven-year Tribulation period, but I have often wondered how it matters to us especially in a nation in which persecution of Christians simply DOES NOT HAPPEN.  Daily living can be pretty tough on its own, with its own challenges and temptations; so could this "great ordeal" just be the "great ordeal" of mortal life itself for those who devote themselves to the Lord?  

That "great ordeal" is a time of testing whether in the concept of Tribulation or in the manner of the life we choose to lead "in Jesus' name" - facing and resisting all manner of temptation - and whether we are truly giving glory to the Most High God - OR - if we are merely using His name "in vain" to suit our purposes, to make ourselves feel good about what we do even if what we do is contrary to the Holy Scriptures (assuming we even know the Scriptures!).  We cannot escape the "pain" of life whether it is the everyday, run-of-the-mill heart aches and heart breaks and disappointments we endure - OR - somehow getting caught up in the cosmic battle between Good and evil by suffering persecution OR succumbing to temptations.    

We are mortals; we are going to get hurt, Christian or not, often by self-infliction.  Physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually, we all must endure.  It is not a matter of whether we will survive, however, if we are of the "sheep" to which Jesus refers in John's gospel.  The Flock of the Great Shepherd.  The ones who will allow themselves to be moved from one pasture to the next for our protection and well-being; "heeding" the Voice (responding) rather than merely "hearing" the sound of His voice.  There is a profound difference. 

For those who will obviously choose not to follow Messiah, including so-called "believers" (not to be confused with actual "disciples"), the matter of survival of this "great ordeal" rests entirely on running in circles and surrendering themselves to whatever "fad" (aka, "temptation") happens to be popular and promises to give what it clearly does not have the power to give: a real and lasting sense of purpose.  But not only commercial practices but cultural ones as well: drugs, alcohol, sex, mindless consumerism, hoarding - all desperate attempts to add meaning to their lives and finding nothing but pain, degradation, and emptiness.  This, for many, is real life.

Because these "fads" obviously "fade", they cannot be depended on - and yet we spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and money on these things that promise us anything "too good to be true".  Conventional wisdom and experience have clearly shown us that if it does indeed sound "too good to be true", it is probably not true at all.  Yet in a moment of weakness or desperation and in spite of our better judgment in the context of what is actually written in the Holy Scriptures, we dare to hope that perhaps this time it may be true.  It never is, of course, and we are left weaker and more vulnerable than before.  And totally lost - because while we may claim to have "heard" the Voice of the Great Shepherd, it is in these moments when we prove that we failed to "heed" the Voice of the Great Shepherd.

In this manner of real life, then, how are the "sheep" identified?  Exactly who is Jesus talking about?  Those who continue to cling to some random event from long ago hoping for some "magical" quality - OR - those who manage and order their daily living in devotion to the Risen Christ?  There are many who have gotten caught up in these false promises in search of fortune or easy living or personal happiness in pursuing everything the evil one tried to use against our Lord in the wilderness.  Jesus, you recall, rejected them all in favor of the Holy Father.  Somehow, we have managed to convince ourselves that we can have all that the evil one tried to tempt our Lord with AND enjoy the blessings of the Almighty God and Father at the same time!!  These are NOT the sheep of the Great Shepherd!!

"My sheep ... follow Me", says our Lord.  Not incidentally but purposefully and constantly.  Not by "magic" but by sheer will to spend an entire life in pursuit of something much greater than self.  THESE are the ones who have been given the hope of eternal life; the ones who "FOLLOW" Him.  All day.  Every day.  Morning.  Noon.  And Night. 

I think we can all identify those Christ-less moments in our lives when we get so busy with what we want to do that we fail to acknowledge and DO what we must do.  And when it comes to trust itself, I think we all have serious trust issues.  Now, however, is the time to get past those trust issues and leave everything at the altar of our Lord.  We remember the Passover each time we come forward to partake in the Supper of the Lord.  We remember that the Passover required complete trust in our Lord right before we are to be "called out" from the bondage we have willingly submitted to over time - without hardly a notice. 

Today is the Day of the Lord.  Today is the Day of your new-found Freedom from bondage to sin and death.  Today is your day of renewal in discipleship.  Today is the day we must SHOW our Lord we really do trust Him.  NOT to "get us to Heaven" for our own sake - BUT to get us through the Tribulation, the period of testing, TOGETHER for the sake of the Holy Church AND our immortal souls.

Trust this, HEED the Voice, and we will see The Light at the end of the long tunnel of Tribulation.  AMEN.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Stuff happens; A thought

An explosion in Boston during a recreation event.  An explosion in West TX at a work place.  One by design, and the other seeming to be accidental.  Both happened.  Whether by design or by accident, both created casualties; some have been hurt, and others have lost their lives.  In the ashes of such destruction, it is impossible to sort through the rubble of despair without asking “why”. 

The faithful pose this question to the Lord, while others may even seek to blame the Lord in the wake of such destruction.  There is even a theology dominant in many Christian traditions that simply hands over such acts to the Lord because there are no other answers that make sense to us.  And while some may be testifying to the Lord’s might, others translate that theology to a randomly violent God who gets His jollies from such things; a god not worth following, let alone worshipping.

Be careful in using the Lord’s “name in vain”, and be especially careful in “blaming” the Lord when things go bad.  Humans deliberately planted bombs in Boston, and human imperfections may have contributed to the blast in West TX.  Whether the Lord had a hand in either is impossible for humans to discern, but we can know with confidence where our Lord expects us to be in the wake of any disaster: with those who suffer, with those who lost loved ones, with those first on the scene.

Our place is not in random violence, and I am not convinced our Lord “causes” accidents by human neglect in which innocent persons are hurt or killed.  We humans can be as volatile as gases in a fertilizer plant, or we can be as gracious and as merciful as Messiah.  We pick.  Either way, stuff happens and will always happen.  We have the privilege, however, to be there in stuff’s wake to comfort those who suffer.  It is the Cross we are compelled to bear.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Thought for Wednesday 4/17/13

“Remove me from falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches.  Feed me with the food I need, or I shall be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’, or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.” Proverbs 30:8-9 NRSV

Shane Claiborne, a writer, evangelist, and disciple, says he heard a preacher some time back make this statement: “There is plenty in the world to see to our needs; there is just not enough to see to our greed”.  In a time when many claim the earth’s resources are drying up (thus justifying birth control AND abortion as well as hoarding, ironically in the name of our Lord), we have been convinced over time that it’s every man for himself!  In this we justify hoarding resources to see to our own needs first.  After these things are done, IF there is anything left over, we might give something to the Church and we might give something to some other charity.  A safe, middle-class, American sense of theology has given us permission to do these things.

Yet we cannot ignore the very prayer Jesus taught, “give us today our daily bread”.  How much do we think we need?  We convince ourselves that the Lord wants us to be financially secure (where in the scriptures does it even suggest such a thing?), or there is that careless and cheap theology floating about that convinces us our Lord wants us to be materially wealthy (prosperity gospel).  In the middle of it all, we have lost all sense of who we are as disciples of Christ for this reason alone: we do not trust our Lord.  And if we do these things with no thought toward others, as Jesus clearly taught, I dare say we do not even KNOW our Lord, the “homeless Rabbi” who owned nothing and yet gave all He did have – His life (Shane Claiborne).  So it is not a matter of what we might be willing to give; rather it becomes a matter of what we are willing to give up altogether.

Our theology does not start with what we ought to do, however.  Our theology begins with what we need to know.  From this we find our place, and in this we find our abundance according to what is already written in the scriptures and not according to what we make up for ourselves, as the writer also states: “Do not add to His words, or else He will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar” (Proverb 30:6).

It is the theology of “enough”, and we have it.  Perhaps it is we have yet to discover it.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 4/16/13

“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.  Honor all people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king.”  1 Peter 2:13-17 NKJV

Social order – rather than social engineering – is at the heart of what Peter is encouraging.  Even as we face laws we strongly disagree with, we are honor bound to respect those laws.  This, of course, is problematic in facing laws and legislative proposals we may find reprehensible.  Whether these laws or proposed laws can stand against a constitutional challenge, however, is not the way by which the faithful are called to measure the law’s worth.

We must also be mindful of this: we cannot enforce our doctrinal standards nor compel others to abide by our religious or social understandings of what is right.  Rather Peter is encouraging the faithful to live with the integrity of the faith by which we are justified before the Lord and order our lives accordingly; for it is not the fear of imprisonment or fines by which others will see the goodness of our Lord’s standards.  It is by our living and acting and ordering of our own lives by which they will be able to see what integrity is really about.

Should we change or challenge laws we do not agree with?  By our system of government in which we govern ourselves and elect representatives to speak and act in our behalf, we are able to do so.  However, if we are to propose a law or an alternative to an existing law, we must necessarily measure our challenges against what our Lord expects from us and why we choose to challenge the validity of a law.  Because we find it personally offensive?  Or because we can clearly see the injustice that may come as a result?  Or are we merely protecting our own individual interests?

The late John Paul II said it best; “We are not freed to do as we please; rather we are freed to do as we should.”  All in the Most Holy Name and not our own.


Monday, April 15, 2013

A Thought for Monday 4/15/13

“Laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”  1 Peter 2:1-3

Because life can be overwhelming, it can be hard to remember the last time we “tasted that the Lord is gracious”!  If ever, because it seemed so long ago!!  It is important, however, to remember that it is not the Lord who turns away; it is us.  The Lord alone is the Constant One!  When we neglect the means of grace (worship, Scripture study, prayer, fasting, fellowship of the Church, etc.) necessary for continued spiritual growth and nourishment of the soul, as is so easy to do, it can be easy to forget those sacred moments we have experienced in the past.  Knowing how easy it is to neglect those things we do not “have” to do, it is all the more important that we set aside quiet, alone time each day to spend exclusively with our Lord.  These quiet moments are not, as unbelievers might suggest, attempts to convince ourselves of something that is not true.  Rather these quiet moments keep us properly oriented to the One who promised to redeem us (and did), the One who shepherds us daily (and does), the One who will save us in the Last Days (and will!).

We must never lose hope to the point that we lose our “desire for the pure milk of the [Eternal] word”! 


Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Restorative Nature

Psalm 30
John 21:1-19

In my humble opinion, Peter is far too undervalued in the Protestant tradition, having been overshadowed in the biblical witness by Paul.  Not to downplay Paul's critical role in Church doctrine and his ministry to the Gentiles, but Peter has at least as much to say based on his actual experiences with our Lord and in his letters which, quite frankly, get to the point a whole lot quicker! 

It is within this ironic shadow, then, that Peter's restoration in John's gospel is a significant step toward that glorious day of Pentecost when the Church will be "breathed" into life - even with our flaws and short-comings!

Peter's experience during this encounter makes me think of those moments so many of us let slip by us, moments we missed when we could have actually made something right - whether we were at fault or not - before it's too late.  I am especially mindful of these things whenever those who mourn the loss of a loved one often have regrets of opportunities lost; some imagined, but some also very real - and all gone forever.  In Peter's case, we should wonder how he may have been feeling about the last time he saw Jesus alive; after he had boldly proclaimed he would give even his very life for our Lord, and then how heart-broken he must have felt when Jesus "accused" him of being less than honest about what he would be found willing to endure. 

I think we can be sure Peter meant every word he spoke when he spoke them - just as you and I often do.  I don't think Peter made his bold proclamation simply because he thought Jesus would want to hear it, and I don't Peter could possibly have envisioned what was to come and how he would get caught up in it any more than we can envision a time when we might actually be in mortal danger for our Lord's sake.  It happened, though, when Peter ran for his life after Jesus had been arrested, and Jesus' "accusation" against Peter came to fruition when the cock crowed - much to Peter's dismay and shame ... and profound regret.

Like every other Bible story, it is not enough to simply read the account and let it go as an historical event with historical players so far removed from us that we cannot imagine how the experience matters to us today except perhaps by its political implications.  This, I think, is the extraordinary challenge of theology for our time: making everything matter to us by somehow making these events moments we can experience for ourselves and learn from - because until we do, Jesus and religion and faith will never be more than abstract, feel-good, self-justifying notions we acknowledge from time to time as it suits our purposes.

Of course we can never "unring a bell", so it is always a mistake to live in or dwell on the past.  There are consistent biblical witnesses from the past, however, that remind us of timeless biblical AND HUMAN truths; and these truths are often a bit more revealing than we are comfortable admitting.  Psalm 30 is just one example when the psalmist acknowledges his faith in his "prosperity" (that is, when things are good) as he writes: "I said in my prosperity, 'I shall never be moved'."  In other words, when things are wonderful for us, our Lord is wonderful to us.  BUT the psalmist follows up: "Lord, You hid Your face, I was dismayed." 

Peter's "dismay" when he ran for his own safety after his "prosperity" had dried up, when his idealistic bubble had burst, is understandable to us - if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.  There is no need to ask for trouble if trouble can be avoided, and we certainly do not understand "martyrdom" the way Islamic terrorists seem to (nor does the Church even teach such foolishness!).  But when we are so far removed from the story, we can kid ourselves into believing we would have stood tall with Jesus on that Fateful Day.  I'm sure Peter thought so as well, but he didn't.  Nor, I suspect, would we.  So rather than live with and surrender to that perpetual failure or simply hand over to Peter alone, how do we move forward from that very dark moment?

When Jesus repeatedly asked Peter, "Do you love Me?", we may be as perplexed, as confused, and as dismayed as Peter was because our Protestant tradition has taught us that we need only to "make a profession of faith" and "be right in our hearts".  And we have come to such a careless and incomplete conclusion not because of what St. Paul taught but rather because of a careless interpretation of carefully selected verses taken out of their appropriate contexts; one of the many flaws borne of the 16th-century Reformation.  And yes, for all the good that came from the Reformation, it also had its share of flaws; flaws that, rather than being corrected over time, only perpetuated themselves. 

Peter wanted Jesus to understand how he "felt", how sorry he was - especially in this unforeseen moment when Peter surely could see an opportunity otherwise lost to make things right once again.  Jesus, however, wanted to know what Peter would actually be willing to "do".  It would appear Jesus had little interest in how Peter felt.  I might also add that the Lord did not seem to care how Abraham "felt" when he was asked to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  Surely the Lord knew what was in Abraham's heart, but the Lord also wanted to know what Abraham was willing to "do" for our Lord.

It's hard to say whether or not Jesus is actually challenging Peter's "heart".  It is harder still to remove ourselves from this moment because even though we have not faced arrest and imprisonment - or death - in Jesus' name, we can surely recall many moments of denial in our envy, our lusts, our cursing and slander of our neighbors and one another, our denial of food to the hungry, our heartless turning away of those who are marginalized by our dominant culture, the withholding of our tithes and other offerings - all done and never repented of, ironically, under our own individualized, and substantially flawed, theology of "grace".

Denial of our Lord is not about whether there is a single, solitary moment in our lives when we once said, "Yes, Lord", though that is certainly the beginning; but it is NOT the end.  Our denials move into Jesus' command to Peter (and thus to the Church) to "feed My sheep" - that is, "DO" something.  Peter's context may be a bit broader because of his unique future in the Church, but our commission as the standing Body of Christ in the world today is no less compelling. 

Even if we can say from our hearts that we do truly love our Lord, we cannot - we must not - remove ourselves from Jesus' own commission in this moment when our Lord essentially says to Peter - AND to the Church, "Your words, your 'profession of faith, has no meaning because I've seen what you do.  I know how you feel but for the sake of My Holy Church, for the sake of My beloved 'sheep', I'm gonna need to know what you are willing to do; how far you are willing to go for My Sake and for My 'sheep'!"

"If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word" (John 14:23).  Sadly, the best we can do as the Church is to argue over exactly what "word" Jesus was referring to when Jesus Himself IS the Word.  When we witness or even participate in such nonsense, it can be said at that point that we are no better off than Peter was just before he ran away.  And this defies the Restorative Nature of our Lord.  We may continue to claim to have been "saved" in some moment of spiritual or emotional distress long ago but if we are unwilling to pursue that "word" in spirit and in truth but would much prefer to argue about the semantics of what we "have" to do, that moment of justification was just another abstract notion of self-justification.

Jesus clearly did not give up on Peter even though Peter had clearly once given up on Jesus, and that is a moment I think we call all relate to on some level; however, we must never simply shrug our shoulders and say, "oh, well; Jesus knows my heart".  We must heed Jesus' words not for the sake of our own souls, but rather for the sake of the "sheep" - for this is the heart of the Holy Church.  It is our call; it is our commission.  And it is our opportunity to understand  AND EMBRACE the "Restorative Nature" of our Lord when we heed that commission - and respond.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Thought for Thursday 4/11/13

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

There is no “thing”, no amount of money we can offer to our Lord that will gain us any sort of advantage in prayer.  It must be said, however, that living a life that does not reflect an honest understanding of the biblical witness will also gain no favor because, as it is written, “without faith, it is impossible to please God”.  But we must also understand the fullest context of the word “fear” which is not necessarily “being afraid” so much so that we cower and try to hide ourselves from the Lord.  Rather “fear” in this context denotes “intense respect”.  That is, we do not approach the Almighty God casually; we approach our Lord reverently.  This “intense respect” is also reflected in how we conduct ourselves in accordance with all that is written in the Holy Scriptures but most importantly of all, this “intense respect” is an acknowledgement not of an All-Powerful God who will strike and smite randomly; this is the benevolent and gracious God who suffered for us.  This, I think, is the point upon which Peter’s teaching hinges.

Faith is a life lived with confidence (not arrogance) in this Divine Love.  We have, by the Blood of the suffering Lamb of God, been given so much more.  And this really should be enough to us get started on the journey of discipleship and sustain us on our way.  If it is not, perhaps we are seeking the wrong things first.  “Seek first the kingdom of God; THEN all these things will be added to you.” 


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Thought for Wednesday 4/10/13

“Gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’.”  1 Peter 1:13-16 NKJV

What is the difference between a non-believer who lives like the devil, and a “believer” who claims to have been saved but lives as though nothing had changed?  Nothing.  There is not an ounce of difference between them (except that non-believers laugh at and mock these silly “believers” who really do not believe anything except maybe a fairy tale).  Those who call themselves Christian will be held to a much higher standard as the Lord had spoken: “That servant who knew his master’s will and did not prepare himself to do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.  But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few.  For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:47-48).

The Gospel of our Lord, however, is not about who’s gonna get it when the Lord returns!  The Good News of the Lord is about living the best life possible, asking for little, and yet getting so much more when we live by faith rather than by sight; when we do not live in a constant state of “lust” for the things of the world which will “rust or that thieves can take”.  Living in holiness is about being a complete a human being as we are created to be … and living in hope for the world which is to come.

That is the Gospel of our Lord.  That is the “transformed” life of the disciple.  That is our present AND our future!


Tuesday, April 09, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 4/9/13

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  By His great mercy He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the Last Time.  In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”  1 Peter 1:3-7 NRSV

I was recently asked if faith is something that, once obtained, is always present.  St. Paul suggests faith, like so much else, is but one of many good gifts from Above.  St. Peter does not dispute this but does suggest it is the “genuineness of our faith” that is “perishable”.  So if faith in the knowledge of the Resurrection of Messiah is a gift from Above, this is a Gift given freely by Divine Favor (grace); the Church is called forth, set apart, and equipped to develop and safeguard that “perishable genuineness” by the means of grace at our disposal.  This means worship, prayer, Scripture study, and the Sacraments (to name only a few) are given and are to be used to protect and develop what has been given so that “when Jesus Christ is revealed … in the Last Time”, we will be found faithful rather than lacking.

Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but this means faith in discipleship – that is, devotion and service to Messiah and His Way because we are enabled to trust Him – is no magic spell that coerces our will.  Nor is faith a gift we use to justify ourselves in our sinful practices; faith does not change the nature of sin (lust does not suddenly, magically turn into love!).  Faith freely given, however, does require a response that goes beyond “yes, Lord” in a single moment of emotional weakness.  Faith cannot save us in our adultery, our fornication, our idolatry, our theft, our hatefulness, our slander.  Rather faith calls us away from these things (repentance) and toward the “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”; but we still have to make choices … constantly.  Daily.  Hourly.  Because this faith is certainly “tested by fire” and will be until the Last Time.

Is faith, once obtained, always present?  It would have to be if it comes from Above.  Think, however, about gifts given from our loved ones, gifts we don’t especially like mainly because the gift was not what we expected or even wanted.  We can put the gift in the closet and never use it, but we can never deny it was given.  Hidden away, however, that gift will never be of any good use to us except to say “it’s there”.  It will never serve the purpose for which it was given if it is put away and never seen again.


Monday, April 08, 2013

A Thought for Monday 4/8/13

“Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.  For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfaithful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.”  2 Peter 1:5-9

The theology of grace from the biblical witness has a distinct “growth” perspective and pattern.  Peter points out to his audience that there is no such thing as a “magic spell” in discipleship.   That moment of justification, when the Holy Spirit gives witness to our spiritual cleansing by the Holy God alone, is that moment when we are freed from our old selves and have been forgiven.  It is in that moment when we become “somebody” not by human standards but by the Divine Standard; the mercy and grace of our Lord.  However, it does not end there.  We have not been cleansed so that we can go out and dirty ourselves again!  We have been freed from our old selves and enabled to move forward, freed to respond!

Sanctification, then, is what Peter is referring to.  It is the pursuit of spiritual perfection borne of an inward grace that defines self-giving love and moves with personal will.  It is that love, when we give of ourselves in service to the Lord, His Church, and to one another that we make conscious decisions.  There is nothing “magical” about it; it is, rather, the path of discipleship, we choosing to act as disciples of our Lord rather than as minions of the evil one and living as though we had “forgotten that we were cleansed from our own sins”! 

It is a long and often difficult journey in which we persevere not only by our own faith (which will surely be tested!) but also by the faith of the community of the Body; that is, the Church.  We will be challenged and pushed and tested again and again, but the Promise is sure when our Lord teaches: “Those who endure to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).

Hang in there, and know there is that “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us and had endured much worse that we will ever see in this country!  It can be done, and it is the Church which exists for this very purpose; the Body of Christ, the community of disciples who are with, for, and in one another in The Most Holy Name!