Wednesday, January 22, 2014

To drink or not to drink: is this really THE question?

There is a movement afoot in Columbia County AR called "Vote for Growth in Columbia County" whose purpose is to make alcohol sales in Columbia County legal once again (the county was voted dry in 1942 and chose to stay dry in 1974).  To be fair, the group's expressed goal is revealed in the group's name; "Growth in Columbia County".

Is this issue, however, strictly about tax revenue being lost to neighboring counties?  What would we do with the additional revenue?  There is no doubt Columbia County residents who imbibe are driving to the county line to buy home stock but as revenue goes, how can one lose what one never had?  That revenue has been off the table since 1942; there are very few, if any, in county government today who can possibly remember when that tax revenue was available to be spent.  Apparently that revenue was not such a big deal in 1942 or in 1974.  Why now?

The state lottery was hyped as a means for enhancing the educational quality of life in Arkansas, but the only measure I have seen clearly showed a substantial increase in remediation rates in colleges and universities for students who were not prepared for college life, but I have yet to see that debt-free graduation rates have increased.  The level of awards has also been cut because the anticipated revenue did not keep up with demand.  I think that hype has been shown to be exactly what it was: snake oil.

In Nevada every vice known to humanity is available and legal, yet that state's unemployment rate is well above the national average.  No state enjoyed any real or tangible benefit from creating a lottery or legalized gambling, yet Arkansas believed it could somehow do better.  It hasn't.  It is just the same tired story in another setting.  Now Columbia County believes liquor sales will somehow create new opportunities and benefits.  This remains to be seen, but it is very hard to believe industry will suddenly break down this county's doors because of legal liquor sales.

I question the "quality of life" issue that may or may not be enhanced with the sale of alcohol.  Have those companies which have recently left Columbia County or downsized in the past five years done so because there are no liquor stores, or did they move because there are no major river, railroad, or interstate arteries?  Did these companies aggressively recruit the university for quality employees, or did they succumb to a dwindling labor pool and a supply/demand economy?  Have restaurant chains refused to move into Columbia County strictly because of the wet/dry issue?  To my knowledge there was one such public restaurant in Magnolia that gained permission to sell alcohol by the drink; it is now closed.  Alcohol sales apparently did nothing for that business.

We must also not overlook the fact that gasoline in Columbia County is often as much as $.05 - $.15 higher per gallon than in neighboring counties.  Could this not also be considered a "quality of life" issue?  There are many more voters who drive than who drink.  What has the city of Magnolia or Columbia County done to recoup this lost revenue?  Many commuters and weekend shoppers never purchase a single gallon of fuel in Columbia County because it is much less expensive in neighboring counties.  Surely this is an economic issue that continually affects the quality of life in Columbia County and adversely affects the county's coffers.

We can have a civil discussion about alcohol sales in Columbia County without questioning one's state or narrowness of mind, but let us have an honest discussion.  There are wet counties in Arkansas that are far worse off economically than Columbia County, at least two of which sit on a major highway, a railway, and/or a river (Jackson and Desha).  There are dry counties doing quite well without alcohol sales that also sit on major railroad, interstate, and river arteries although admittedly several restaurants are permitted to sell by the glass (Faulkner).  While no one would want to stand in the way of up to fifteen new jobs in Columbia County, I hardly think these potential opportunities will compel high school or university graduates to stay.  Nor do I believe liquor stores will be a gateway to bigger and better things to come.

Quality of life is a big issue for companies seeking to relocate, expand, or upstart; but education opportunities and affordable housing are usually at or near the top of the list of desirable places to locate and live in, in addition to a sufficiently educated labor pool.  Will liquor stores and convenience store beer encourage this potential labor pool to stay in the hopes that some new company will relocate to Columbia County because we have beer for sale?

Yes, city and county coffers will have some additional revenue; and I think most will readily agree that law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and rescue workers (to name only a few) should be paid more for the jobs they do so well.  I believe, however, city and county leaders need to think a little bigger than alcohol sales in terms of economic growth. 

Call it what it is: a drive to make alcohol sales legal in Columbia County, and let the voters choose based on real information - because these voters are not as gullible as some seem to hope.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

The First Step

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Last week I shared that it is time for the Church to "come out of the closet".  We must reinvigorate ourselves in the Holy Spirit because we cannot do this alone, renew or begin anew our commitment to discipleship because it is our God-given, Christ-commanded mission from which no one has been exempted, and reinvest ourselves in mission as the Body of Christ because we need one another.  I proposed to you no one is going to follow a God whose own followers are more devoted to their own interests and in following some pop-culture icon; and that when we withhold any portion of ourselves, our witness and our testimony and perhaps even our salvation all become lies.

It is true that the salvation of all is the goal and mission of the Church as the will of our Holy Father, but we too often stop short of helping others (and ourselves) to understand WHY we are justified before the Lord and why sanctification (becoming more and more Christ-like) is so important and must never be taken for granted as a "given" just because we think we are "good people".  These are not multiple choice issues; they are two sides of the same coin in the fullness of life.

By the same token we emphasize the necessity of baptism as initiation into the Covenant and the Church, but we lose our way when we get hung up on the "how" in exactly what must be done or in defending our own superstitions.  Thus we miss altogether the "why" of what baptism is about.  So rather than devote ourselves to exploring the fullest meaning of baptism, we get stuck in needless disputes about the method of baptism.  This helps no one.

The method is probably the biggest hang-up for many, beginning at the River's bank.  Is it possible the Baptizer was fully immersing those who came to him?  Of course it is.  Is it also possible John was scooping water with his hands and pouring it over their heads?  Of course it is.  We cannot know which way it was being done because it is not written for us to know; we can only speculate.  So I would suggest that because there is no precise written prescription we must follow, we should pay more attention to what is written for us to know.

The word "baptism" in the Greek can mean to "immerse" or "to dip", but it can also mean simply "to wash".  In the Gospel accounts we are reading a "record" of what happened at the River and clearly not a "prescription" as to how baptism must be done simply because it is not told or even inferred. 

So when we read about John's baptism of repentance, we must remember John did not fall from Elizabeth's womb onto the river's bank.  Like the rest of us, John had a background that informed this practice he was offering; and what we are reading in Matthew's gospel has a much broader context than these few words written on a page.

It is believed, for instance, that John came from the Qumran community where an ascetic Jewish sect called "Essenes" lived (like our idea of the Amish); a people who chose to remove themselves from what had been deemed a "godless" urban culture under pagan (the Romans) rule.  Qumran is near caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 (perhaps buried there for safe-keeping in AD68 when Roman invasion was imminent?). 

Within these scrolls was found a Manual of Discipline, or the "community rule".  Like our own United Methodist Book of Discipline, it may not have been considered scriptural since as Jews, they had the Tanakh (First Testament) as their scriptures.  Rather, this Manual, like our own Discipline, served as their community covenant in how they would live and work and worship together as a community of faith.  Religion was not incidental to their being and their living.

This manual, then, stated that a person could not become clean if one failed to obey the Lord's commandments.  The manual states, "It is through the spirit of God's true counsel concerning the ways of man that all his sins be expiated (atoned for); and when his flesh is sprinkled (emphasis mine) with purifying water, it shall be made clean by the humble submission of his soul to all the precepts of God."

Baptism by "purifying water" was the point of interest rather than the method itself.  Even as the Manual John may have been familiar with seems to stipulate "sprinkling", we would still miss the entire point of baptism if we allow ourselves to get hung up on a single word rather than appreciate the much broader context.   The method of delivery of that water does not seem to be emphasized as much as the water itself - AND THEN - what must necessarily follow.  It clearly does not end at baptism; for baptism is only the beginning of a whole new life.

This is the context of John's baptism of repentance.  His discourse beginning in verse 7 (Mt 3) in calling people to "bear fruit worthy of repentance" seems to come from the community whose standards he embraced for himself; that baptism can cleanse us from past sins, but it cannot save us from ourselves if we have no intent to commit.  "Bearing fruit worthy of repentance" to prove our commitment is very much a part of a much broader and more all-encompassing context. 

The Essenes also shared an apocalyptic vision of the future which looked to the coming of Messiah as the Manual also requires: "[those wishing to enter the Qumran community] shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him, as it is written, 'Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a path for our God'." 

This seems to be what John was doing; not establishing a new "Christian practice" with no instructions but rather practicing what had long been established.  And since Jesus Himself refers to John as the "greatest", we have to more seriously consider what John was saying and not getting hung up on what we can only guess he may have been doing.  Perhaps more importantly, we should more seriously consider why Jesus found it necessary to go to John.

Commitment is key, I think, to a fuller understanding of baptism as the beginning rather than as a singular event; whether we are talking about the commitment of the Church, the parents, and the godparents at the baptism of an infant in preparing that child for life and service in the Church; or the commitment of a new believer, sponsors, and the Church in preparing that person for life in the Church, the issue is the same because if there is no commitment, no discipline, no accountability, no instruction, no follow through, and no intent to follow through, people just get wet.  And when vows are spoken and then disregarded, there is blasphemy.

Although there is no definitive interdenominational consensus, the one dominant opinion for Jesus' baptism that is consistent with His life, His ministry, His love for all of humanity, and that "fulfills all righteousness" is His willingness to identify with sinful humanity and take upon Himself the sins of the world - as St. Paul describes it to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:21): "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God." 

To "fulfill all righteousness".  That is Messiah's commitment to the Holy Father AND to us.  Shall our commitment be any less to Him who "became sin for us"?

So our "first step" out of the closet this New Year as disciples of Christ is to reconnect and recommit ourselves to our Lord.  Put aside the superstitions and remember the only thing required is commitment to a life beyond oneself and toward the fullness of life in Christ Jesus.

Let the Holy Name be glorified in your life, in my life, and in the life of the United Methodist Church!  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

One never knows, do one?

How does a Christian "try" atheism?  Seventh Day Adventist pastor and teacher Ryan Bell had decided to "give atheism a try" as an "intellectual experiment" after he had been asked to resign as pastor of the church he was serving.  According to CNN Belief Blog co-editor Daniel Burke, Bell had advocated for church leadership roles for gays, actively campaigned against California's Proposition 8 (same-gender marriage ban), and questioned (apparently vocally) church doctrine about the End Times.  Once his pastorate had ended, Bell had stated: "I could finally pursue those questions that had been bouncing around in my head."

Where to begin?  Any pastor or priest, preacher or deacon would be less than honest if never admitting to any sort of doubt.  Discipleship is not supposed to be easy, and Jesus never promised life on this earth as a bed of roses.  In fact Jesus virtually guaranteed following Him would cause more problems in this life than would be solved, including perhaps death.  Discipleship, however, is entirely about discovery and almost always involves "those questions".

I have long held that our Lord is a "Big Boy" and is not threatened by our questions or any doubts we may have.  The test we endure (not unlike the 40-day test Jesus endured in the wilderness) revolves around discovery of The Truth.  We Christians, however, have come to confuse Truth with fact; and by doing so have probably created more confusion for those among us who are spiritually weak and struggle in the faith.  When these weak ones cannot settle on or accept our proposed "facts", they begin to question their own faith by asking perhaps the wrong questions or getting insufficient answers from those who claim to have the "facts", and eventually walk away altogether.  This, as my most humble opinion, is the legitimate beef of the so-called "Nones" (18-29 year-olds who have walked away from the Church in substantial numbers).

Maybe Bell's "experiment" hits a little too close to home for me (and probably others) because I have constant questions and very few answers, just as every little thing I do learn only raises more questions.  I freely admit that sometimes my sermons are so off-the-wall because of these very questions.  By these off-the-wall observations, however, I often assume that because I have such questions surely others do as well.  I cannot say for sure, of course, but there is one conclusion I have drawn: people typically want whatever beliefs they have affirmed, not challenged.  They like the safety and the certainty of their own set of core beliefs even if those beliefs may be biblically and doctrinally questionable.  They embraced whatever sounded good at a particular time in their own lives, and they've held on ever since - probably with doubts but refusing to question.

I get that.  I get that because some classes I have had to endure toward my own religious education and the books I've had to read have shaken my own faith many, many times.  Discipleship is always going to come with a certain risk level, and discovery can often be downright dangerous.  One class I recall in particular and its assigned books very nearly caused me to withdraw altogether because everything I had come to believe came into question - and by quite biblically sound logic, I might add.  I had to learn to read the Bible much more critically and in a whole new light, a light sometimes a little too bright for my own comfort.

It came to be, however, that this "light" I once thought so disturbing and so blinding was actually "The Light" which came into the world, the very Light which "the darkness did not comprehend" (John 1:5).  And though I cannot say I settled for any new beliefs, I did find an assurance by "The Light" (which is Messiah Jesus, in case you were wondering) that it is ok that I do not have all the answers and that it is ok to continue asking - as long as I am willing to ask Him ... and trust Him even when the answers I seek are not forthcoming according to my own demands.

Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."  I have no doubt and no quarrels with this statement.  I simply doubt those who claim to have found that "truth" and expect me to come along with them and embrace their concept of "truth".  This is when it gets dangerous because this is often that moment when we discover those who think they have complete command of spiritual "facts" and have completely resolved all "mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven". 

But to "try" atheism?  No thanks.  One irrefutable conclusion I have drawn is simply this: I will probably doubt at least on some fundamental level until I die, but I must never try (even as an "experiment") to face these doubts without "The Light".  

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Coming out of the closet in the Year of our Lord 2014

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

A question was recently posed: "How do we finally draw the line?"  Though the question was spoken by one person, it is a common frustration shared by many in the faith who feel pushed, put upon, marginalized, and even threatened for a conservative understanding of the Scriptures and the proper role of the Church in a modern society that demands the Church "keep up with the times".

We are told that love is "tolerant", but how tolerant is too tolerant to the point at which we feel we are expected to condone sin disguised as "social justice"?  How open-minded must we be before our minds, the minds of our children and grandchildren, and the minds of those who try to sway us become filled with Ezekiel's "dead bones"?  How far can we bend before we finally break? 

Most importantly, how do we responsibly and faithfully convey to the world that neglect of the soul is the easy path, the "wide and broad gate that leads to destruction" as our Lord Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, while genuine and compassionate love of our neighbor's soul is the "narrow and [much more] difficult way which leads to life" (Matthew 6:13-14)?

We share, I think, a generalized understanding that the Church must never be reduced to little more than a "social club" of like-minded people who happen to "like" each other; that the Church as the Body of Christ in the world today has a God-given mission - one which must not be neglected - as the ultimate hospital for broken souls in need of some intensive care and rehabilitative therapy.  The potential of such therapy is that although the regimen may be long and arduous, the end will justify the very uncomfortable - and sometimes downright painful - means as we work to help others to spiritually recover from their broken lives.

Yet the position the Church has found herself in is one of extreme disadvantage, that of perpetual defensiveness; that is, we feel constantly compelled to RE-act to everything we deem offensive and have no energy left to attend to our PRO-active, Spirit-driven calling. 

We RE-act to any number of social media "stink bombs", but our protests are not taken seriously because no one hears from us until we get our "duck feathers" ruffled (yes, pun is intended).  No one knows of discipleship or the mission of the Church because our discipleship in mission is virtually non-existent.  Sadder still, few seem to care - but they seem to know whom to blame when things go wrong.

As it is written in Ecclesiastes, life itself is a series of seasons in which there is a "time for everything under the sun".  In the life of the faithful, it is always "time" to do something positive and constructive in and for the Body of Christ.  Though it may seem as though destruction has its own season such as a time to "break down", we must remember it is sometimes necessary to put away the "old" to make room for "new", to prune dead branches so new life may spring forth. 

So for the American Church it is the "season" of renewal and reinvigoration.  The forces of darkness and destruction have had their "15 minutes", and so it is time for the Church to COME OUT OF THE CLOSET and unapologetically make known who we are and Whose we are - but not by militancy or angry words or spiteful slogans that seek to demean those with whom we disagree!   

By these actions (which seem to have become our forte of RE-action), and by our neglect, by our complacency, by our spite, by our petty jealousies, by our selfishness, by our vindictive gossip and slander we have denied the reality of our Savior in denying our own salvation and why we have been redeemed in the first place!  We then wonder why people do not take us seriously or believe our witness - our witness has become a lie. 

None of us can escape this stinging indictment, and yet as the Church we must all face this indictment together - as Israel had to face its own indictment - with a sincere desire and an earnest resolve to live into the "redemption from all iniquity", as it is written; the "redemption" that belongs to the Church called forth in faith and in love, "destined [as we are] for adoption as children of the Living God through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His Will" (Ephesians 1:5)!

We must never deny our God-given destiny by a willingness to settle for less than what we have been created, redeemed, and called forth to be AND to do.  Far be it!  For the Lord promises His faithful (that is, those who follow Him and not themselves or some pop-culture icon): "I will gather [My people] ... and with consolation I will lead them back" (Jeremiah 31:8, 9); back to blessedness in the safety and the promise of the Eternal Covenant.

So there is much more we are faced with than merely "how" to draw the line.  There is also a "when" and a "where".  And the "when" is now.  The "where" is right here, and the "how" is first by our own complete repentance and total surrender to the "Word which became flesh and dwelt among us" rather than trying to make that Word subjective to us and our own purposes! 

Even though it may seem to be "people" who are a threat to us and to the Church, we must remember as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians: "We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities and rulers of the darkness of this age" (Ephesians 6:12); so "though we walk in the flesh, we [must] not war according to the flesh; for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but are mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)!

None of this will happen, however, until WE (that is, the Church) are completely captive to the "obedience of Christ".

It is time to stand up and be counted - but to be counted in the righteousness of Christ our Lord in the "whole armor of God" - not just the tiny pieces we select for ourselves - the WHOLE armor; most especially as He is revealed in the Written Word of the Holy Scriptures in the First Testament AND the New.  If we will take the time to be still, to stop and remember what we have been redeemed for and called to, life as we have come to know it will cease to exist - as the dawn of the Promise of the fullness of life is upon us by His Mercy and by His decree; but not until we give Him our "whole" life - personal AND corporate: "You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13)

Sometimes these are harsh words, I know, but they are always Words of Promise and Assurance - for nothing less than our immortal souls are at stake!  The territorial nature of the Church has become so acute that its being as "The Body of Christ" has been so completely surrendered that earnest seekers will never wander in without a direct invitation from a member of that church whom they know and trust.  A seeker will never seek a God whose followers do not earnestly seek Him.  A seeker will never offer himself or herself to a God whose own followers hold back a substantial portion of their own "hearts, souls, minds, and strengths" and gifts.  And this most certainly and perhaps especially includes our children and our grandchildren - for they learn from us FIRST. 

If we truly want this country to turn around, the Church must take the lead PRO-actively as if it truly is the "Year of our Lord" (AD).  Just as Jesus came to show us the Way to the Father, the Holy Spirit has empowered the Church from the beginning to show others the way to Jesus!  It is a duty and a privilege we dare not take lightly!  And no one - NO ONE - is too old or too busy or too ill-equipped or too infirm or too "saved" to offer their very best to the Lord our God through His Holy Church which is the Body of His Only Begotten Son.

It is His very best we have been given, and it is no less than the Very Best called forth from us.  Let us as the Body of Christ resolve not to waste energy in pointing out fault in others but together search for solutions within ourselves; for the promise of our Lord is sure and certain: "The Holy Spirit will teach you" (Luke 12:12). 

We, however, must be willing to be taught.  Or else 2014 will look exactly like 2013 - or perhaps worse as we continue to assimilate and degrade ourselves in this modern culture and drift further and further away from our Holy Father.  We must proclaim much more than the NAME of the Lord; we must embrace the entire LIFE of Messiah! 

For it is Messiah who beckons us and assures us; REPENT; for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! 

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