Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Thought for Thursday 6/27/13

“A friend who is far away is sometimes much nearer than one who is at hand.  Is not the mountain more awe-inspiring and more clearly visible to one passing through the valley than to those who inhabit the mountain?”  Khalil Gibran

When we were finally able to take a vacation to New York City a few years ago, my family and I were awed and overwhelmed with our first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.  Being able to see it from so far away was a treat itself, but floating by underneath her feet on a boat left me almost entirely speechless.  It was misty raining that day and the water was a little choppy as I recall, so I had this vision of what it must have looked like to those who floated into New York harbor from other lands and were greeted by this larger-than-life image of American idealism for the very first time.  And it blew my mind that residents of NYC could be so cavalier about the Statue (at least those I spoke with), but seeing something everyday makes it easy to make that thing which inspires so many to become virtually invisible.

It happens that way too often with our friends, our children, our parents, our spouses; but it is truly as so often expressed: we never really appreciate what we have until we no longer have it.  This may be attributed to the busy-ness of our lives when we are rushed from point A to point B with only the thought of whatever task is before us; getting to the next meeting, getting to the next activity, getting to work on time, getting home to prepare supper.  So it is that we become so overwhelmed with chores and schedules, we lose our awe for that which we often pass right by without notice.   The Lord and His Church and the Bible sitting on the night stand are no exceptions.

Let us not be so overwhelmed with our day-to-day busy-ness that we become underwhelmed by that which truly gives life and meaning even to those mundane things we so easily take for granted.  Let us renew our commitment to Sabbath and worship.  Let us renew the Friendship which gave real purpose to our very existence so that we stop taking for granted those things and persons in our lives that really do matter, those things and persons which teach us that Life itself is always bigger than we will ever be.



Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Thought for Wednesday 6/26/13

“The whole Law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  Galatians 5:14-15

Self-loathing is an attribute that can consume the whole person and will soon poison other relationships; and because such a low opinion of one’s self worth is so deeply engrained into one’s psyche, it is virtually impossible to have any sort of care or concern for anyone else.  This anger toward self cannot help but to be expressed toward others in our lives, and we ultimately do at least as much harm to ourselves as we attempt to inflict on others.  Though St. Paul was no psychologist, I think there is a lot of self-awareness in this statement as well as a profound appreciation for human and social behavior because in addition to the harm we do to ourselves, we can expect others to do as much harm when we by our own hatred and anger and contempt invite others to “strike back” when they have been hurt.

It is a maddening and destructive cycle that exists even among the people of the Church – and incidentally, St. Paul is addressing the churches in Galatia, so it is clearly not a new phenomenon.  It does, however, beg a question: among the many who claim to have been “saved” (assuming an understanding of having been “saved” from past sins), how can such behavior exist in the Body of Christ, the Church, presumably the community of the “saved”?  Could it be that too many among the “saved” are simply trying to convince themselves that their problems are over – only to discover that in discipleship problems that once existed really do not go away?  That these problems will still have to be confronted, only now as a member of the community of faith it does not have to be done alone? 

Do we have such unrealistic expectations that once we discover the world does not change even as our relationship with the Lord of the Church begins to change, we then lash out angrily when our personal expectations have not been met?  This is why discipling new believers is probably the single most important task the Church can undertake; making sure these new believers (and new church members) are reminded of their important place in the community, of their worth to the community, and keeping new believers’ feet planted firmly on the ground.  It is not enough to simply come to the altar and call it “good” or “done” (the one-and-done I referred to in last Sunday’s sermon)!  There is at least as much work to be done afterward than before the confession takes place!

If we are truly in the Spirit of the Lord, we are compelled to these means of grace and structures of mutual support so that rather than try to tear each other to pieces, we will do much better for ourselves, our neighbors, our Lord, and His Church to build one another up; especially to remind even those who do not think too highly of themselves that they are loved and have sacred value.  This, dear friends, is the very lifeblood of the Holy Church.



Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 6/25/13

“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest … you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth’”.  Deuteronomy 8:11, 12a, 17

In this discourse Moses lists off all the things the Lord had done for Israel up to this point just before they were to cross over into the Promised Land.  Moses was reminding the people that when they get fat and happy, they should be on guard against also getting “sassy” and a little too full of themselves and forget that all they have received and will receive will have come from the hand of the Lord himself.  They didn’t really listen, of course …

And it is an easy thing for us all to get a little too filled and forget what it was like to be hungry; a little too comfortable and forget what it is like to strive.  It happens this way too often that once we have achieved what we set out to achieve, what we set up for ourselves to accomplish, that we forget the Mighty Hand that delivered us.

We typically cannot appreciate Israel’s history because we are too far removed.  Living safely within the United States it is even more difficult to appreciate what living in bondage is about.  We can, however, read more about Israel’s history and find some kind of connection between their experiences and our own.  There is truly “something for everyone” within that story, something we can take a hard lesson from, even some parallel to our own experiences.  In this we are likely to find those moments when we thought the Lord was absent but soon discover He was there the whole time; we had only learned to take Him for granted – or – it was we who had strayed too far off course.

It is never too late to make a course correction and get back on track.  Reconnect with the Law, and find the Lord in our obedience to His judgments, His statutes, His commandments.  That is the mark of His people, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).  The perfection of the Law is summed up by Jesus as He reiterates these commandments.  It is who we are.


Monday, June 24, 2013

A Thought for Monday 6/24/13

“Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.  O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise.  For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it.  You do not delight in burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise.”  Psalm 51:12-17

This passage seems to contradict the Law as offerings and sacrifices are prescribed, but this passage is actually written by one who has spent considerable time in prayer and introspection.  The psalmist has learned to appreciate exactly what these sacrifices and offerings truly represent. 

It is not easy to look deeply within; it is harder still to be perfectly honest not only with ourselves but with our Lord and see where we have failed to acknowledge what has already been done for us.  The people of Israel are called to always remember the Exodus, when they were delivered from bondage, and tell the story to their children and grandchildren.  The people of the Church are called to remember what was done at the Cross, when all were delivered from bondage to sin and death, and tell the story to our children and grandchildren. 

Maybe like the psalmist, we are looking for “new” evidence of Divine Grace especially when we feel overwhelmed by the world.  Real time spent searching the Scriptures, contemplating what has been done already, and coming to realize how easily these things are taken for granted should be sufficient for a “broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart” – if we can truly appreciate what was already done and why it was done.

Let us learn to embrace what is already in abundance, and be renewed in our spirit and in the purpose for which we have been called forth.  As it is written, “My grace is sufficient for you”.  Not the grace that may come, but the grace that already is.



Sunday, June 23, 2013

Demons within

Leviticus 11:1-12
Ephesians 4:17-32
Luke 8:26-39

It should say a lot to us that "Legion", those many demons who had possession of this poor man, "begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss" (Luke 8:31); in this context the abyss meaning "abode of the dead" or "abode of evil spirits, hell" (  Billy Graham once remarked, "Even the demons of hell did not want to be sent back to hell!"

Though there are varying accounts of "Gerasenes" (Luke NRSV) or "Gadarenes" (Luke NKJV) or even "Gergesenes" (Matthew NKJV or "Gadarenes" NRSV), the story itself is not strictly about a specific location.  We should also not mistake what is being offered as a strictly "historical" account of Jesus' ministry (Matthew has two demon-possessed men, while Mark and Luke refer to only one man). 

An entire region to the east of the Sea of Galilee is the "country" to which the gospels refer, a region called the "Decapolis" the demographic of which is more Greek than Semitic and thus Gentile and not Jewish.  This should be understood especially in the Levitical context because not only is swine not to be consumed by the people of the Lord, one is rendered unclean for even touching swine flesh.  So it would make no sense that there would have been Jewish swineherds.  Swine exist, of course, but the people of the Covenant are prohibited from even touching, let alone eating, swine.

Some suggest this passage may also point to the future Church's mission to the Gentiles, but it might be notable that when "Legion" destroyed these people's livelihood by driving the swine into the sea - even though Jesus had healed the demon-possessed man by casting out "Legion" - the people asked Jesus to leave.  Though this demoniac was obviously a royal pain and perceived as a threat to the people, they had gotten used to it; they had learned to live with it over time.  Maybe it even became "normal".  It never seemed to occur to them there could be another way, a better way to live - without fear.  So when they rushed out to see after having been told of what had happened, rather than notice the "healed" man "sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind", they only noticed the missing herd; that is, they noticed only what was apparently more important to them.

Demonic figures in the New Testament are typically associated with physical ailments.  It may also be noted that such afflictions are not "caused" by the Lord when these afflictions are assigned to demonic activity.  In fact, it would make no sense that the Lord would inflict us with demons only to cast them out later just to make a point; as the Pharisees had accused Jesus of doing (Matthew 12:24).  Whether these afflictions can be directly attributed to demonic activity today may be debatable, but there is one thing throughout the Scriptures NOT attributed specifically to demonic activity: sin.  That is the one thing that has always been - and always will be - attributed to our human nature and free will when we freely choose to violate the Lord's standards and Law. 

We cannot help how we are born and we cannot always help being overcome by sickness or disease, but we are always - ALWAYS - responsible for the choices we make regardless of how we may choose to classify our own impulses.  And the choices made by the faithful must always - ALWAYS - take into account Divine Will according to what is written in the Scriptures ... BEFORE we act or speak. 

Perhaps especially reading this passage in Luke, we might do well to consider that any "snap" decisions we make without any real thought will almost always be more attuned to our own desires (how we will be directly affected, like the people of the Decapolis).  If someone is standing nearby whom eye witnesses say is to blame, we will likely react just as they did.  Send Him away or have Him arrested for interfering with our choices, our livelihoods, our lifestyles - our "rights"; pretty much what happened to Jesus in the end.

So if we cannot blame the devil for the sin in our lives, who can we blame?  Clearly we would like someone besides ourselves to be responsible for our bad choices because we would not deliberately grieve the Lord, would we?  What is the underlying cause for us to act contrary to what is written in the Scriptures (and we cannot claim ignorance of what is written)?  How do we come to the conclusion that the Scriptures, especially those parts that say "thou shalt not" always mean "them" but never "us"?  How have we been somehow led to believe that sin and temptations are no longer threats to us?  How has "sanctification" - that life-long commitment to discipleship and the pursuit of spiritual perfection, the staple of the Methodist movement - been cast aside in favor of "one-and-done"?

The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, once wrote: "We may repent; however, there will be need of much time to conquer an evil habit, and even after repentance one's whole life must be guarded with great care and diligence" ("Discourse on Hades").  In other words, Josephus rightly acknowledges Divine Mercy in sincere repentance, but he also insists that human sin comes as the result of human activity.  Our bad choices and "evil habits", once learned, have to be un-learned - by young and old alike.  It becomes, as has been said before, not a new life but rather a new way of being.  Individual effort and the mutual support of the Church is not merely suggested but put forth as necessary - IF we are to successfully overcome our own "evil habits"; our own "demons within" - the "demons" we actually have control over.

There is nothing distinctly "Jewish" about Josephus' insight; it is consistent throughout the Scriptures when we are reminded to cling to one another, pray for one another, correct and (yes) discipline one another as necessary, and mutually support one another especially in our weakest moments and darkest days.  It is possible to make such a commitment to perfection by sheer will and individual effort, but we must never underestimate the raw power of evil to overcome us if we choose to go it alone, when there is no one to support us and hold us accountable to the faith - including proper doctrine. 

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul partly quotes from the prophet Zechariah: "These are the things you shall do; speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true, and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for these are things I hate, says the Lord" (Zechariah 8:16-17).  Re-emphasizing the point made by the prophet to the people of Judah, St. Paul thus says, "for we are members of one another".  We are connected by faith through the "ekklesia", the assembly of the faithful.

St. Paul refers to many "evil habits" it is not hard to ascertain too many of us are still captured by.  We go to bed angry, we take what does not belong to us (our tithes and the abundance of our excess while the needy go without), we curse those we think may have done us harm and due to our pride, we refuse to apologize or take a part in making it right.  We refuse humility, but we demand it of others.  These are not the acts of the "righteous" nor of those who have been "justified" before the Lord; those who claim to know what it truly means to have been "forgiven".  These are those "demons within" we often make no effort to resist because "God loves me anyway".  Besides, if these are truly "demons" within us, our sin is no longer our own fault.  Right?  Wrong!

Shame on us.  Shame on us for allowing such things to go on in our lives unchecked and unchallenged.  Shame on us for failing to live up to what we have been called, set apart, and equipped to do.  Shame on us for failing to live up to and into the blessings in our lives.  Shame on us for not embracing all that has been granted to us by living up to our truest and divinely appointed potential.  Above all else, shame on us for "getting used to" anything that clearly harms our neighbors, offends our Lord, grieves His Holy Spirit, blatantly violates His Divine Law, and ultimately diminishes the quality of our divinely appointed life. 

We are not done, however, nor is the Lord done with us.  Above all, the Lord is not done with our neighbors (you know, the guy or girl whom we "can't stand")!  That is the entire point of "sanctification", discipleship, and the Church.  If the Lord did not care about us AND our neighbors, the Church would never have been called forth to "preach the Gospel to the poor ... to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Matthew 4:18, 19).

Let us work together to overcome these "demons within" so that we may go about our Lord's work - together; and stop leaving it to "someone" - who never seems to show up.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reproductive Rights: the ultimate misnomer

With the advent of Obamacare and its full implementation, the greatest misunderstanding being perpetuated by this administration's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) involves so-called "reproductive rights", a term that is so twisted that I am frankly shocked it has not been more seriously challenged beyond sound bites and bumper-sticker slogans; a term that simply transcends "basic health care".  A turn of a simple phrase or a play on words is how we have been able to successfully de-humanize an unborn child by calling "it" a fetus, teaching the scientific term to school-age children who are thus taught to separate or remove altogether the utter miracle of life from pregnancy, reducing it to mere biology.

"Reproductive rights" insinuates a right to reproduce or not.  Whether such a right exists may be debatable at least in the way we've come to understand "rights" as entitlement.  That we have the capacity to reproduce is without question.  It must be said, however, that much like any other "rights" also comes with them enormous responsibilities we cannot avoid, though we apparently do try.  That we can reproduce does not necessarily mean we should.  Make no mistake, however; this statement is not about advocating for birth control.  It is rather about self-control which is not only a right without question but is, more importantly, a duty in all aspects of our being; a personal, social, moral, and doctrinal duty to ourselves, to our families, and to our society.

How has it come to be, then, that arguments for reproductive rights are more closely associated with terminating a pregnancy or using birth control as a means to avoid pregnancy than it is about the act itself (of reproducing)?  Even if it could be argued that we possess an inherent "right" to reproduce (and I think such an argument can be made), there is within that same argument a right not to reproduce; that is, a right not to participate in that one act that causes parenthood if we are not seeking to become parents.

If we dare, we may be getting closer to what the whole argument is about; whether or not we possess a "right" to have sex, married or not, without consequences.  If we can at least be honest on this one point, we may come closer to understanding what "rights" we truly possess, what "rights" we think we are demanding, and how we must exercise responsibly any "rights" in our society while simultaneously understanding what is truly innate within us as human beings.

Pope Paul VI observed in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that "with regard to man's innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man's reason and will must exert control over [his drives and emotions]", meaning we must never surrender to pure impulse in our "drives and emotions" but are rather challenged and called upon to act responsibly as humans with the capacity to not only reproduce but also with the capacity to reason, to think things through (like counting to ten when we're angry).  That we are born with an innate sexuality does not necessarily mean we are compelled to express this sexuality by whatever means whenever possible.  

As we must necessarily consider the significant number of those who not only reject the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church but also the teachings of the Holy Scriptures in part or in whole, there is still a common thread upon which we must all surely agree: humans have a social duty and moral obligation to one another to refrain from acting as mindless animals strictly subject to physiological impulses.  We are born with the capacity to rule over these impulses, this capacity as innate as our sexuality; and whether by divine decree or social responsibility, we are compelled to exercise our innate ability to reason.

All this boils down to a concept (or, rather, a misconception) of what truly constitutes freedom.  Are we really free to do as we please when we please, or is freedom best expressed in doing as we should when we should, including not engaging in sexual intercourse?  Some suggest it is the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church which compels (commands?) us to act as the Church thinks we should when the Church thinks we must, but I suggest it is anarchy that allows us to do as we please when we please - with no moral or social restraints.  That kind of society truly becomes one ruled by the "fittest" with the weakest among us subject to the whims of what would soon become the "fit" majority in which only the strong can possibly survive and flourish.  Aside from biblical principles which prohibit such a concept, it makes no sense in a civilized society that one can act as one chooses when one chooses regardless of how it will affect others.

That birth control and abortion exist is, unfortunately, without question.  That we have the capacity and free will to choose participation in these and other destructive acts is also without question.  That we have come to expect and demand this things, that we are somehow entitled to these by legislative or judicial fiat by means compelled of others (taxes and other fees, such as insurance premiums) is morally and ethically questionable at best, which renders the HHS contraceptive mandate (and underlying motive to soon mandate unrestricted access to abortion services) morally and ethically questionable - especially when others will be compelled by tax legislation to finance them in spite of our religious and moral objections.  And isn't it the height of irony that "family planning" involves the intentional destruction of an unborn child??

I dare say this is but the type of the iceberg in what we can soon come to expect from this behemoth legislation that even our own legislators and president cannot pretend to understand.  Let us pray, however, that we may soon come to our senses before we find ourselves in deeper than even our most liberal friends envisioned - because whatever "rights" we believe are granted to us by any entity can soon be taken from us by that same entity, including the right to protest - if we ever do come to our senses before we self-destruct.

A Thought for Thursday 6/20/13

“If we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer.”  2 Corinthians 1:6

It is too easy a thing to think that if bad things happen to us, the devil must be out to get us.  The Scriptures attest to the evil one working to tempt us to sin, to rebel against the Lord, but that we are given strength to resist those temptations when we ask; but we are also given the free will to submit to that temptation.  When we suffer any affliction, however, it is important not to simply attribute it to the evil one or to bad luck; it is to look to the Lord for guidance through the affliction and think about whether this affliction is something we brought upon ourselves through neglect or carelessness, or if this affliction comes by way of persecution.

Regardless, affliction is the best way we can draw even closer to our Lord when we consider the source of affliction AND the Source of comfort; in our afflictions we are often at our weakest and most vulnerable.  Our pride and arrogance are pushed aside, and we find ourselves humbled and willing to accept the Lord’s hand through the Church – as long as the Church is willing to live up to its potential.  Also remember, too, that affliction which comes from the hand of the Lord is either to get our attention or prepare us for what is to come.  Afflictions and our suffering through them can be incredibly purifying and strengthening – if we are willing to endure.

Regardless of the source of affliction, however, let us always remember that it is the Body of Christ, the Church, that is meant to help us through these afflictions so that we may be strengthened in our faith.  This is yet another reason why the Church has not outlived its usefulness – unless we are willing that our own local churches no longer serve the Divine purpose for which the Church was called forth.

We are called to something greater; let us strive for that greatness in Messiah.



Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Thought for Wednesday 6/19/13

“Whosoever shall have lived wickedly and luxuriously may repent; however, there will be need of much time to conquer an evil habit, and even after repentance his whole life must be guarded with great care and diligence, after the manner of a body which, after it has been a long time afflicted with a sickness, requires a stricter diet and method of living; for though it may be possible to break off the chain of our irregular affections at once, yet our amendment cannot be secured without the grace of God, the prayers of good people, the help of brothers and sisters, and our own sincere repentance and constant care.”  Flavius Josephus, “Discourse concerning Hades”

Josephus was a Jewish historian born approximately four years after the Crucifixion of Messiah.  Much of what he writes accounts for certain “gaps” in the Bible.  There is no real theological claim in his writings, but there is a great deal of wisdom in his observations especially in the account of Hades and most especially in this observation of what repentance is really about.  This perspective he offers confirms what John the Baptist calls upon from those who came to observe him in his time: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  In other words, “YOU must change your habits”.

Christian theology teaches that we cannot overcome sin by our own power.  However, our experiences should affirm this truth: old habits die hard.  And just as a once sick body needs extra care to get over an illness, so must the soul take extra care to move beyond these old habits that were bringing us to judgment.  There is no magic in our Lord’s justification when we become aware of the sin in our lives and our need for a Savior; there is necessarily a will and a determination to change our lives, our habits in order to be “transformed” from our former “conformation” into what we think others expected of us.  And Josephus backs up the usefulness and our need for the “assembly”, the Church.  We need our brothers and sisters to not only pray for us and with us, but to also help to hold us accountable to the new life we’ve chosen in gratitude for the Lord’s mercy and grace.  This is the essence of discipleship.

Finally, we cannot take our repentance for granted and come to think that somehow being “saved” or justified (depending on the language of your tradition) suddenly makes sin acceptable or makes temptations go away.  A new life of repentance requires constant vigilance, prayer, Scripture study, a mind toward Messiah, and the Church.  Even though we have been given a new heart with a renewed sense of purpose, we cannot ignore human habits.  These things do not simply go away.  Repentance requires effort on our part.  It is all part and parcel of what it means to become truly transformed.

“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another …” Hebrews 10:24, 25  As the writer states, we need one another to overcome the old life and find fulfillment in the new life into which we have been called.



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 6/18/13

“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.  For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.  Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  Luke 6:35-36

Jesus defines “neighbor” when He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, but we don’t get much of a definition of exactly who our “enemies” are. Ask that question in general, and we will likely get a political answer in general: illegal immigrants, terrorists, Democrats, Republican, “big oil”, “big pharmaceutical”, etc.  And we come to these answers because too frequently our politicians, in shamelessly pandering for votes and favor from constituents, will tell us who is “out to get us” – just as it has so often been said, If you want people to follow you, find a common enemy to blame.

In this particular context, an “enemy” could be defined as the one who has borrowed something and fails to return it, perhaps never intending to.  Money, books, a lawnmower, you name it.  The “enemy” could well be the one who never intended to return what was borrowed (thus being willing to take advantage of a generous heart), or took what was offered and failed to acknowledge the generosity.  Of course when we lend anything we do so with the reasonable expectation that what we lend will be returned to us.  There is nothing wrong with this especially when we are asked, “May I borrow ____?”

The problem comes to be when we allow our relationship with that person or persons to be strictly defined by what was borrowed, and the nature of that relationship becomes conditional upon whether or not we get back what we loaned out.  The failure is in understanding that even the Most High is “kind to the unthankful and the evil”; so, too, must we be “kind” even as we can clearly see that the “unthankful” who take and the “evil” who do less-than-good are subject to the Lord’s mercy – just as you and I are subject to and completely dependent upon that same divine mercy.

The trick is not allowing our humanness to be defined by our “stuff” lest we come to discover that our perceived self-worth is directly attached to the “things” we only think we own – when those things we “paid good money for” soon come to own us.  When these “things” come to define us; when these “things” become more important to us than Messiah and His words.

Let the Lord settle the account – as He most certainly will – and let us learn to let go of “stuff”.  We can’t take it with us anyway.



Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lasting Epitaph

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Luke 7:36-50

Funny epitaphs: GA (an obvious hypochondriac) - "I told you I was sick"
England - "The children of Israel wanted bread, and the Lord sent them manna; Old clerk William wanted a wife, and the devil sent him Anna."
Silver City NV - "Here lays Butch.  We planted him raw.  He was quick on the trigger, but slow on the draw."
Maryland - "Here lies an atheist; all dressed up and no place to go."
But this one is probably the most profound: "Consider, friend, as you pass by; as you are now, so once was I.  As I am now, you too shall be.  Prepare, therefore, to follow me."  Scotland

"Epitaph" is from the Greek which means "funeral oration"; "epi" meaning "over" or "at, and "taphos" meaning "tomb".  It is the brief text we include on the head stones of our loved ones who have passed on.  It is a means by which we honor the deceased by trying to express in a few words what we want the world to know about this person, something that can sum up this person's life in a few short words, space obviously being limited.  Yet aside from an obvious historical record, it is impossible to capture the fullness of any person's entire life on a small block of stone.

In much the same way we "set in stone" a record of the deceased, we too often consider the entire Law of the Lord being confined to two small chunks of stone large enough to contain Ten Commandments but small enough for an elderly man to carry - and after forty days of fasting (Exodus 34:28-29)!  So there are those basics which are contained in the "Ten", but we have several books that expound on those Ten.  So we cannot say the Lord's entire Law can be summarized so simply on two blocks of stone anymore than we can say a person's entire life can be fully known or appreciated only by what can be carved in a few lines on a head stone.

It should also be remembered that when it comes to "commandments", Jesus affirms the Greatest Commandment which is not included in the Ten: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  And the second [greatest commandment] is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).  So Jesus says the entire Law - that is, the "spirit", the intent of the Law - cannot be restricted only to the Ten written in stone.  There is much more to the Law - just as there should be much more to our lives and the life of the Church - than what can be printed in a few, short lines.

The word "church" in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word "ekklesia" which comes from the two words, "ek" meaning "out" and "kaleo" meaning "to call".  So the church addressed is called out by Jesus and the apostles as the "assembly"; not merely a bunch of individuals.  It gets us closer to understanding the greater context that necessarily (for the sake of the Church) transcends "personal salvation", a particular fond term among Protestants upon which nothing really hangs especially for those who have "taken" what they think has been given - but are willing to "give" nothing in return; like the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus but only one of whom returned to Jesus, a Samaritan not of the "assembly" of Israel to whom Jesus refers as a "foreigner" (Luke 17:11-19).  Yet this "foreigner" was so grateful to Messiah for his healing that he refused to allow himself to be separated from the source of his healing.

All of this is to say that the Bible is the book of the Church, and the Church as the Body of Christ, the "ekklesia", called out and set apart from the rest of the world, the "assembly" that is healed and called forth, like the returning leper, to glorify God, proclaim the Gospel, and make disciples as Jesus commands the Church (Matthew 28:18-20).  In a word, "mission" - the duty from which no Christian - and certainly no church - is excused because it truly is as has been expressed: "Any church not seriously involved in helping fulfill the Great Commission has forfeited its biblical right to exist" (Oswald J. Smith).  Because there is no other reason for which the Church is called forth.

"Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die".  This excerpt from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" pretty much sums up what it means to be the Church in complete submission and obedience to our Lord and what it means for we who excuse ourselves from the life and mission of the Church by absolving ourselves of our own sins and abdicating Messiah's claim on our whole being: if we are not "doing", we are "dying".  And if we die the slow, painful death of inactivity and complacency as our spiritual muscles slowly atrophy to the point of uselessness, what will be the epitaph that can possibly define our life as disciples, as "ekklesia"? 

There is more to this, of course, than the simple notion that everyone "should" be in Church - and only on Sunday morning.  Jesus' story of the debtors in Luke's gospel contrasts self-righteousness (the Pharisee) against the righteousness granted by Divine Mercy (the anointing woman) when sins are truly forgiven.  It should be noted that even though Jesus was invited into the Pharisee's home for a meal, Jesus was really offered nothing by the Pharisee who probably didn't feel it necessary to offer Jesus much more than a perfunctory meal.  In fact, the context - in which this Pharisee was probably among those who had previously "rejected the will of God" in verse 30 as Jesus was teaching of John's legitimate baptism - suggests it is more likely this Pharisee had less-than-honorable, or purely self-serving - intentions when he invited Jesus to his home in the first place.

The woman, on the other hand, had heard of Jesus' presence at this Pharisee's home and invited herself to come NOT WITH EMPTY HANDS (as commanded against in Exodus 23) but with oil and tears of sorrow for sins she freely acknowledged in her life.  A less-than-worthy woman - at least in the Pharisee's eyes - but a woman who by the sorrow of her heart and her need for forgiveness from sin obviously overwhelming her, she offers her entire being to our Lord in complete humility.

Which of these has truly invited Jesus "in"?  Which of these is the greater "debtor"?  It is very likely the Pharisee does not see himself as a "debtor" at all.  In fact it is difficult, if impossible, to feel like a "debtor" if one rarely - if ever - admits sin and a profound need for a Savior.  When we become so self-righteous and so self-involved that we do not feel a need to do much more than offer our Lord a social acknowledgement, our own epitaph is already being written because our slow, painful, degenerative death is already in progress - and we're just too blinded by our own self-concern to see it - OR - we just don't care.  And when we are too wrapped up in ourselves, the Church we are called to serve - the Church we freely joined rather than being "drafted" into against our will - suffers as well because the Church cannot be in mission if the "ekklesia", the assembly, is too busy with its "real life" to be bothered with "church stuff".

So what will our epitaph read when our moment of imminent demise is upon us?  And I am not referring to us as individuals; like the Bible, I am addressing the "ekklesia".  Will our epitaph read, "We were too busy" - OR - "What is there except to 'get saved'?" - OR - "We had real lives, you know" - OR - "Someone should have seen to it" - OR - "What were we paying the preacher for?"  Or will it be that an epitaph will be unnecessary because no one will really care - or even notice that we no longer exist?     

I think the Church's greatest problem is that we have become so self-involved with our own problems and our own plans that the Church has become just a place to be - that is, whenever we can find the time to "be" there because our perceived need for the Lord has disappeared altogether because we have perhaps failed to really understand or appreciate the destructive nature of sin itself - or - we have lost faith - or - we just don't care.  As long as it's open when I decide to show up ...

The worst of all is when we are so concerned with our own epitaph that we do not concern ourselves with the epitaph of the Church we are called to serve, the Church we freely "signed up" for, the Church we will not allow to baptize or educate our children, but the Church we will call upon and whose undivided attention we will demand when there is an accident or when we are sick or when our lives come to an end.

The Lord revealed to Jeremiah the coming New Covenant because the Old Covenant - "that I made with Israel and Judah ... which they broke [after having been delivered from slavery to Egypt]" is still a Covenant that involves the Law - the ENTIRE Law - the Law "fulfilled" by Jesus and written not on "stone" but in hearts of flesh and minds of the faithful, the "ekklesia" to be called forth - the "assembly" of those whose "iniquity has been forgiven and whose sins will no longer be remembered".  The Church personified by the woman whose sins were many, burdened by a debt she could never pay, who kissed the feet of the Savior of the World and Lord of the Church.

This is not a "free pass" nor is it offered as such.  It is the Covenant sealed with Blood, but it is also the Covenant that requires active participation by the whole life of the "assembly" devoted to something greater than self, the assembly that loves the Lord our God "with all our heart, all our mind, and with all our soul"

It is the "MISSION STATEMENT" of the "ekklesia". 

It is the "epitaph" of the faithful.  In the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A Thought for Monday 6/17/13

“Your hands have made me and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn Your commandments.  Those who fear You will be glad when they see me because I have hoped in Your word.  I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.  Let Your merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to Your world to your servant.”  Psalm 119:73-76

Each time I read Psalm 119, I find myself in tension between the psalmist’s obvious joy in the Law, which he refers to as the Word of the Lord, and St. Paul’s seeming rejection of that same Law.  Even in St. Paul’s time it must be remembered that the psalms were very much a part of the God-breathed Scriptures to which Paul refers in his first letter to Timothy, including Psalm 119.  It would be hard to consider the psalmist as “imprisoned” (Galatians 3:23) by the very Law he refers to as his “delight” (Psalm 119:77).

I think, though, that what St. Paul often refers to are the ‘demands’ of those legal requirements the Jewish elders taught as the means of justification rather than obedience as the spiritual fruits by which true faith is expressed; obedience to the Word of the Lord – including the Law.  It may sound like splitting hairs, but it seems to come down to the difference between obeying a demanding culture rather than seeing the Word as our means to true freedom in the Lord for the sake of “understanding, that I may learn” the Law.  That is, seeking Divine wisdom so that the Law actually makes spiritual sense rather than being reduced only to a legal code.

Make no mistake; understanding and obedience to the Law is the only way the people of the Lord can be distinguished from the rest of the world – and we are called to be “set apart” - even as they laugh at us and make fun.  This does not mean we can reject the Law until we can be satisfied that we fully understand or pick the ones that suit us and reject the rest.  It means incorporating the Law into our lives so that the Word of the Lord can be implemented in our hearts.  Jesus did not disavow the Law; He perfected it.

Let us live into the Word of the Lord in its fullness so that we may indeed be justified by faith, for faith is not merely intellectual acknowledgement; faith is trust in something greater, something bigger than ourselves, something “yet unseen”.



Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Power of Grief

1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17

A few weeks ago I presided over a memorial service for a former classmate and childhood friend; a friend I grew up with, fought with, played with, shared birthday parties with, built forts with, and attended summer camps with.  My friend and I (and others of our little group) had known one another at least since first grade and had all kinds of childhood experiences together.  So it is as I shared with the congregation at the memorial, saying goodbye to a childhood friend means saying goodbye to at least a small part of one's own childhood in the process.  It is a reminder, I think, of the "seasons" of life; "a time to live, and a time to die".

Last week I received a note from his widow thanking me for my service but also expressing a profound grief that often goes beyond the loss itself.  We grieve the loss of a loved one, of course, but we fail to acknowledge the almost certain disorientation as we struggle to come to terms not just with the loss but with how our lives are forever changed.  This disorientation can also be exacerbated by well-meaning friends who, in an attempt to provide comfort, try to remind us that the pain will pass in time.  The rational mind knows this to be true, of course, but we are not often rational in our grief.  Friends mean well in awkward attempts to comfort those who grieve, but trying to somehow "distract" a grieving person from the reality of their loss or trying to explain away the pain can often trivialize the loss and actually compound the confusion.

Even the psalmist seems to trivialize loss as it is expressed: "Do not put your trust in princes, mortals in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish" (Psalm 146:3, 4).  Well, those we love are "mortals" and we know this much to be true, but in our grief we are not well consoled with such words that really do make our losses seem ... insignificant.  Maybe in the grand scheme our loss is not going to matter much to anyone else, but to us - at least in that moment of loss - our world and the life we once knew and took comfort in has come to an end.

An interesting essay I came across last week actually speaks directly to our inability - or unwillingness - to deal with death honestly.  Carl Trueman is a seminary professor of church history at Westminster Theological who wrote that the problem within the wider church is not that "entertainment" has become too prevalent; it may be that we are experiencing the wrong kind of entertainment too often, particularly in worship. 

"Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment ... tragedy.  Tragedy as a form of art and entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship."  

Of course Christ is resurrected!  But the death had to come first.  And that particular death, I think, is the one we do not deal with honestly - or we make an after-thought.  We prefer jumping straight from Christmas to Easter, so we gloss over or outright ignore the death.  Dancing about and taking any particular "joy" from such a horrific and gruesome death (like "Happy Good Friday" greetings) ignores the humanness of Jesus and the excruciating pain He felt, takes even a perverse joy from that torturous death and even diminishes our own humanity, discounts the profound grief of his mother who was forced to watch this tragedy unfold, and reduces Jesus' worth to little more than a head of livestock; just a "sacrificial lamb".  We choose to ignore all this and thus deny ourselves the full experience and the fullest expression of Divine love.

Some would argue that we are Resurrection people, that Christ cannot be killed over and over again.  Well, we have completely perverted the Holy Day of Christmas as nothing more than an occasion of mindless consumerism, and Easter has been reduced to little more than an occasion for new clothes.  But we do these things "over and over"; why do we choose to ignore the Crucifixion?  Or worse, why do we somehow make this occasion a "happy" one?  Would we take joy in the death of a loved one who died while risking their lives for us?  Why do we take joy in Jesus' painful death?  Or overlook it altogether?

I do not think Mr. Trueman suggests we should dwell on death, but how can we really experience and appreciate life and its truest gifts if we try to ignore or gloss over the reality of death?  Philosophers and theologians have tried to convey the idea that it is impossible to appreciate "good" if we never experience evil.  It is, I think, what Mr. Trueman terms a "distraction", a "diversion" from real life that a constant diet of "upbeat" entertainment in worship is about; a "diversion" that leaves us ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the inevitable; a "distraction" that tries to pretend we can somehow avoid grief.

Some might suggest that a constant diet of death can actually lead to a state of depression.  While I can appreciate that perspective, I might suggest that rather than writing off loving and living as worthless endeavors since it will all come to an end sooner or later, we might be more inclined to appreciate what is in our lives in their appropriate "seasons" while they exist - that is, if we are willing to understand and truly appreciate the nature of "gifts"; something given as an expression of love, but also something the loss of which reminds us how very alive we truly are.  If we never experience pain, if we never suffer any grief, how "alive" can we really be?

The stories of Elijah and Jesus with these widows suffering their losses of sons must first be understood in their cultural context.  It was rare that widows had any rights or owned property, so a son was crucial to their very survival in a society that seemed to have had little use for widows.  This cultural reality is judged, however, in the Law (Deut 16:11) and in the psalms (68:5) as well as in other writings throughout Tanakh (I'm trying to remove "old" testament from my vocabulary, and Hebrew gives me the best option for now!). 

So it must be noted, in that cultural context, that these women had each suffered a profound loss that transcended the loss of a loved one; their own state of being was at stake.  The safety and security of their former reality were at risk, but thanks be to the Living God this was not the Holy Father's will for their lives (another particularly detestable attempt to comfort those who grieve by assigning death directly to Divine will)!  In a moment of spiritual clarity, the Divine intersected with the secular and not only restored life to those formerly "dead" but also gave to these grieving widows a "new way of being".  Nothing ever stays the same, even for these widows after their sons were restored!  Not "same ol' - a whole new reality, a whole new way of being!

Notice in both stories neither widow was spared the grief of her loss.  Even the widow with Elijah thought she was being somehow judged by YHWH through this "man of God" for some long-forgotten sin!  But isn't that often a reaction to an unexpected loss, wondering what we did to deserve this, wondering why the Lord is somehow "unfairly" judging us?  Or even wondering why the Lord will not do for us what He did for these widows? 

There can be no doubt that any significant loss in our lives is going to change everything to some degree, but we must not be reduced to a moment of "blaming" the Lord for our loss.  This, unfortunately, can often be a byproduct of too much "happy hour" entertainment in worship, if Mr. Trueman's assessment is accurate.  Rather we should learn to look to our Lord for our own "new way of being" - through His death on the cross.  It is in the weakness of our grief in which the strength and might of our Holy God is most pronounced - especially when we realize Divine grace is Divine grief. 

We cannot change that age-old reality: stuff happens and even those we love will die because death - like our Lord - is no respecter of persons; there is no partiality as Peter discovered (Acts 10:34).  But the "new way of being" in the Covenant of the Lord is His promise that though we are surrounded by death, Life will always burst forth - through Him, with Him, in Him.  But it is only in our grief when this Reality finally comes to fruition.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A Thought for Wednesday 6/5/13

“Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.  You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you.”  Exodus 31:12-14a

The Sabbath is mentioned in many more places than just among the Ten Commandments, and the reason for its prominence is simple: our observance of Sabbath serves as “a sign between me and you” by which we not only acknowledge this remarkable and extraordinary gift, but receive it as well.  Sabbath is much more than just a day off from work; it is a day given “throughout your generations” to be devoted to the Lord, far beyond a meager hour for worship.

I often wonder if the decline of the American church and American society cannot somehow be connected to our refusal to devote any real time to Sabbath rest and reflection and worship.  This cannot be said of those who do not acknowledge the Lord at all; I am referring strictly to the Lord’s people who claim the Lord but also defy the Lord (ironically in the name of Jesus!) in refusing to acknowledge and accept this gift in its entirety, for instance, by refraining from work ourselves but placing our work’s burden on others.

There are those who try to suggest that one’s Sabbath may be on a different day than another’s Sabbath, but this makes no sense within the context of “My Sabbaths”, the Lord making this claim on the “seventh day” – and we refusing this day by establishing our own terms according to our own schedules according to what we desire for ourselves.  In other words, spitting in the hand of the One who made this gift possible in the first place.

Receive this gift in its fullness and in its entirety and in the spirit in which it is given.  Devote this day entirely to the Lord in worship and in Scripture study and in rest for in doing so, we may truly discover the difference between human will and Divine will – and find Divine will the best way to go.



Monday, June 03, 2013

A Thought for Monday 6/3/13

“Simeon blessed [Joseph, Mary, and Jesus], and said to Mary, ‘Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’.”  Luke 2:34-35 NKJV

This was the occasion in which Jesus was presented to the Lord in the Temple in accordance with the Law and the Holy Family’s faithfulness.  The Holy Spirit had led Simeon to the Temple to see the Baby because he had been assured that he “would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”.  So this was an incredible moment of divine fulfillment for Simeon as he offered his praise to the Lord: “now You are letting Your servant depart in peace according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

Simeon also saw the foreboding nature of Jesus’ ministry that would eventually unfold, a sign which “will be spoken against”; the very sign the late Pope Paul VI referred to as a “sign of contradiction” as the world would continue, even after Jesus’ death, to struggle against the “Word made flesh”, demanding freedom not in the Word but from the Word.

It does not seem to be enough, however, that the many would simply walk away.  They seem to choose, more often than not, to walk away angrily and noisily to try and somehow justify their decision to themselves and perhaps to others to divorce themselves from the Word and Messiah’s Church by blaming someone else (whomever may be convenient), and ultimately living out Simeon’s prophesy as the “hearts … revealed”.  We must not forget, however, that often people have found it much easier to walk away because the Church has historically been very good at trying to hold others accountable for their actions but have failed to offer real and earnest support.  As stated in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, “Support without accountability promotes moral weakness; accountability without support is a form of cruelty” (¶102, pg 53).  Simeon may have been prophesying as much against the future Church as against those who would choose to “speak against” the Holy Revelation of Messiah.

Let us dare to look more closely at who we are and what we do.  We the Church must not be the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy as a “sign of contradiction” but rather a sign of fulfillment, a sign of mercy and peace, the means of grace whose “light” may serve as a beacon to those who cannot find their way.  This may not be exactly who we currently are, but it is clearly what we have been called to be.