Monday, March 31, 2014

4th Sunday of Lent: The Strength of Handicap

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Running some errands last week with my wife, we swung by her employer (Hope Landing), a pediatric therapy and rehab service based in El Dorado.  There are lots of children with all sorts of special needs who are served through this ministry, and the work they do is inspiring.  From the outside looking in, as I can only do, it is hard to really appreciate what they do and how deeply they impact these children AND their families.

I waited outside on a bench while my wife was inside doing paperwork.  While I was enjoying the quiet on a beautiful day, a mother and her young daughter came out (the child is a client).  This in itself was not such a big deal because patients and clients are always going and coming.  What was a big deal is that this child was positively delighted!  Maybe it was a successful session.  Maybe she had reached another milestone in her therapy and development.  Or maybe she just had a good time (the therapy is often play-time-like).  The Lord alone knows exactly what was going on in her mind, but she was giggling and laughing all the way to her mother's car!  And in that moment I was so deeply moved in being reminded our Lord reveals His beauty and His perfection in the laughter of a child, especially such a child as she!

We sometimes think we don't see such witness often enough, but the truth is we are blinded to these moments.  It is always an awesome moment when such simple witness can open us to clarity, a moment in eternity when the chaos of the world is abruptly pushed aside, when Light completely overwhelms the darkness so that, as St. Paul writes, the "fruit of the Light is found in all that is good and right and true" (Eph 5:9).  There are no greater moments than these brief glimpses of Heaven's glory!  I would suggest Moses' own "burning bush" moment could not have been any more revealing about the glory and majesty and mercy of our Holy Father than in the innocence of a child's laughter!

We do not always see such things, and this Gospel story about the man who was born blind reflects this human reality.  It is easy to get so bound up in the physical that we often overlook the spiritual because even though the subject is the man's physical blindness and his sight restoration, Jesus turns the story toward a blindness which is much more compelling - and spiritually useful.

Imagine a world in which we could "hear" before we "see".  There can be no doubt we are a judgmental people because we judge what we see.  We notice and predetermine value initially based on what we take in with our eyes, so this initial assessment will determine whether we will give someone a chance to draw closer, let alone allow a second chance ... and we do not often give second chances. 

Sometimes our sight assessments serve us well because we can also determine whether some persons represent a potential threat to our safety and well-being; so if they appear dangerous or even suspicious, they are going to have to jump through some hoops to prove themselves to be worthy of our trust.  Our narrow and limited "sight" requires that the burden of proof falls on them because our minds are already made up!  A news article last week about some suspicious men going door-to-door in SE Arkansas posing as vacuum cleaner salesmen reminds us we can never be too careful.  We have good reason to be suspicious.

Our Lord, however, challenges the value of what we think we see by suggesting a good dose of "blindness" may be just the ticket for our deliverance from our own self-inflicted bondage and our own narrow judgments based on our limited capacity to see all there is to really see: "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind" (John 9:39). 

The Pharisees did not quite grasp Jesus' meaning because they were still speaking of physical blindness - and because they obviously could see very clearly, they proposed they had no real problem.  The latter part of this story, however, must not be removed from its setting.  Back to the first few verses, even Jesus' disciples believe they are "seeing" quite well through what is written in the Scriptures when they ask about the state of sin which must have caused this man's blindness.  The only matter not settled for them was whether it was this man's own sin which caused his blindness - or the sins of his parents.

This religious understanding comes from a narrow interpretation of Exodus 20:5b (as well as Ex 34:6-7 & Num 14:18) in which it seems clear according to the Word of the Lord that the man's blindness "from birth" must have been caused by sins committed before the man even had a chance, as it is written: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me".  This is to say, the 3rd and 4th generations of those who have been taught to hate the Lord.

Yet the Lord speaks through the prophet Ezekiel (18:20): "The soul who sins shall die.  The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself."

The seeming contradiction is nothing to get in a twist over because in the earlier verses, the judgment seems to come upon generations living in the messes made and attitudes created by previous generations - such as those born in slavery in Egypt or born during the Exile or, a little closer to home, children raised in a home in which religion and faith are barely incidental and not at all purposeful and deliberate.  We should also remember that in spite of the judgment of the Lord upon the Israelites in the Exodus who would die in the wilderness because of their faithlessness, Caleb and Joshua would see the Promised Land with their own eyes because of their faithfulness. 

This reality serves to remind us that biblical interpretations must not be made strictly verse by verse.  There are stories upon stories all connected one to the other that give us a much better view of what is really being seen - because the Lord our God "does not change" nor can He contradict Himself or violate His own nature.

So Jesus told His disciples the man was "born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (vs 3).  Was he born strictly for this specific moment in Jesus' ministry?  The context seems to suggest so, but surely future generations such as we who are invited into this moment by the written text can also see something much more profound and enduring than this single moment - much broader and far-reaching than just this one person.

Remember the precious child who virtually danced out the door at Hope Landing.  Done in a quiet setting far removed from the hustle and bustle and busy-ness of a chaotic world, coming from a place in which Christ's name is deliberately lifted up, surely that single child in a moment in eternity was also "born ... so that God's works might be revealed in her".  In a world we are called to be "in" but not "of", we are still shown the Holy Father in all His glory and in all His mercy in the smallest of moments - so that we remember we are not forgotten, that we have not been forsaken.  But we must be blinded to something in order to see these moments.

In that precious moment, my sight was at least partially restored - because I realized our blindness would see only a child with a handicap ... but in that child and in that moment our Lord showed His enduring strength.  For me - AND - for you ... and for everyone who would truly be blinded to what we think we see so that we may truly see.  Amen. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Lenten Thought

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”  Ephesians 5:8-11

Touching on the theme of last night’s class discussion of the 18th-century Methodist classes and societies, what St. Paul is encouraging of the Ephesians is what Wesley encouraged of the early Methodists (who were still Anglican and were encouraged to attend worship at the Anglican parish).  There were such rules of these early classes that encouraged participants to be always mindful of what they do and fail to do, and they were required to report each week to their classes how they had fulfilled the class’s three standing rules; 1) to do good, 2) to avoid all known sin, and 3) to attend to the means of grace (prayer, fasting, Scripture study, the sacraments of the Church and, of course, to regularly attend worship at the parish church).  As long as evidence was presented that one was purposely fulfilling the requirements of the class and working toward disciplined fellowship and discipleship, one could stay in the class.  The goal of the class, of course, was that one would soon (in God’s time) experience justification.

It was not an easy thing to do, but the success of these classes which grew until well after Wesley’s death was entirely dependent on class members’ willingness to hold one another accountable to spiritual growth – and to be held accountable.  It did not mean that an occasion of sin would automatically disqualify a member of the class; rather it meant that one was committed to consciously living as disciples are expected to live.  It also meant a reasonable expectation that when one struggled with sin and temptation, there were fellow disciples who were willing to struggle with them to overcome!

This is a practice which is almost entirely foreign to the contemporary Church.  We think nothing of asking a friend about the family or a sick relative, but we have somehow been convinced that asking about the state of a friend’s soul is too personal, that this is strictly between them and the Lord.  To ask about the state of one’s soul seems to require much more of us than we are willing to risk.  Yet we cannot ignore this certain reality that as the Church today seems to have become much more concerned with being popular and fitting in with the modern culture, the Church has become increasingly less popular (note the very many empty pews) because the many programs we believe will work to bring new guests in are themselves foreign to the culture of that particular church.  They are “put-on’s” that, more often than not, make people feel as though they are being manipulated or played for fools.  The “millennials”, the so-called “none’s”, the 18-29 year old groups are no longer falling for it.  They have seen behind this facade, and they do not like what they have seen and experienced.  I doubt very much that each individual who will read this likes to be played for a fool.

Remember St. Paul was not writing to a single Ephesian; he was writing to the Ephesian Church, the entire body.  The entire body was (and is) responsible for the overall well-being of that body.  There are no “lone rangers” in Christianity, for the very nature of our faith is entirely social.  We are called to care for one another at the deepest and most intimate level … to shed that very light we have become in Christ Jesus.


3rd Sunday of Lent: The True Gift

Exodus 17:1-7
John 4:5-42

You may remember the mini-series "Roots" that came out in the 70's, I believe.  Author Alex Haley put together a remarkable story of his own ancestry and his search for his African origin.  It was a great story and Mr. Haley had found his ancestor who had been forcibly taken from his African homeland and sold into slavery, so there was that measure of success.  Still, I wonder if he really found what he was looking for.  If that one ancestor was his goal, then yes.  But if he was trying to learn more about who he really is in the present, he may have come up short.

Though there were many memorable scenes from that movie, the one that stands out in my memory to this day was when Mr. Haley had found his ancestor's village.  One of the elders of that village began to tell the story of that particular tribe, and he seemed to go on forever.  Mr. Haley was shown to be fighting sleep until the elder finally mentioned the name: Kunta Kinte.  It was surely an exciting moment for Mr. Haley to have found the one he set out to find, but what was most remarkable about that scene was the tribal elder who told the entire story from the 20th century to the 16th century when Kunta Kinte was captured!  Who can do that now??

Moses commanded that the people of Israel should always be able to repeat this awesome task of telling THE story of the Exodus and Israel's deliverance from slavery to their children and their grandchildren - in other words, in perpetuity (Deuteronomy 4-6).  It would be necessary for the people of the Covenant to remember their past - but not exclusively to know their ancestors. 

It would be more important for them to remember Moses' warning not to get too attached to their own flesh, their own comforts, "the cities you did not build, houses full of good things you did not fill, wells you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees you did not plant" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).  In other words, do not look to the "things" that give us pleasure and satisfaction only in the moment; look instead to the Creator of these "things" who gives this and much more.

I suspect if the woman at the well had remembered what she should have been told, she would have acknowledged much more than the ancestor Jacob "who gave us the well".  She would have perhaps been more mindful of YHWH who gave His people water (Exodus 17:7); the same God who gave them the entire land - AND - a future they would otherwise never know about.

We Christians, however, are stuck.  We make the mistake of believing ours is a story which only began at Pentecost - or perhaps in Bethlehem.  Even then, we do not often even try to go back even further - back to that moment the woman at the well was referring to when she said, "I know Messiah is coming" (John 4:25). 

The danger in mistakenly believing we have been fully satisfied and are no longer hungry or thirsty is that we stop looking.  When we stop looking, we fulfill not Christ and the New Covenant; rather we fulfill Moses' prophecy that "when you have eaten and are full ... you forget the Lord ..." (Deuteronomy 6:12). 

Yes, even "justified" Christians forget - and probably more easily than most others who are still searching.  We think we have found the Source of all things in Christ, so we too often overlook the 'True Gift" by taking far too much for granted - or worse, overlooking that which matters most.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "If you knew the gift of God ... you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."  And the woman, having missed the point entirely, asked in return, "Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us the well?" 

There are a couple of items that should draw our attention in this brief exchange.  First, the woman wrongly attributes the well to Jacob.  It is known as "Jacob's well", but that is only a geographical, maybe historical, reference.  Through Jacob, the people of Israel were given an identity; they were made a nation in fulfillment of the Covenant YHWH made with Abraham.  And they were given a land AND a future through this Covenant.

The woman shows us a little more about "grasping for straws", however.  Too often this woman and her marital situation are misappropriated to the issue of marriage and divorce, but I cannot see that this is the point especially when we are not told why the five marriages ended (and we have no reason to read something into this exchange).  Rather, we must understand this is a culture in which unattached women do not fare well.  This is a culture in which women are wholly dependent on being legitimately attached - that is, claimed and perhaps owned - for the sake of their well-being.

Knowing this, then, what do we see from a woman who has had five husbands and is apparently living with another man who is not her husband?  I see a woman who is looking for something tangible she can hold on to.  I see a woman - perhaps a nation of YHWH's chosen - seeking and reaching desperately for worldly safety and security.  I see a nation keenly aware of its physical lineage and needs but wholly unaware of their very source of existence.  Jacob is the past; he had a unique place in Israel's history, but that moment is gone and the well attributed to Jacob could very well go dry and soon be useless.

We cannot pretend we can look past our physical needs for the basic necessities of food and water, but we also must not try to pretend physical satisfaction will ultimately sustain us, food that gives to US but offers nothing back.  Jesus identifies the "living water" that is given from Above which becomes in us a "spring of water gushing up to Eternal Life" and real "food which is to do the will of the One" who sent Jesus; that is, food which wholly and eternally sustains us, food that nourishes not only our own immortality but which also sends us beyond ourselvesIt is food and water which constantly reproduces.

The danger in forgetting the Exodus story and failing to tell that story is that we become a people without a story. Yes, we are made whole in Christ Jesus and that by faith, but even that wholeness has a source of its own which is not tangible as something we can purchase for ourselves.  But the True Gift is revealed in that story - and that is the story which tells us who we truly are.  Apart from this we become little more than the woman at the well who will continually thirst and never be fully satisfied. 

Israel's story IS our story - and that is the True Gift because that story is our Savior's story - the story we are invited into, for now and forever.  Amen.    

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2nd Sunday of Lent: Asking the right questions

John 3:1-17

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”  Khalil Gibran

It occurs to me, without overstating what should be obvious, the world might be a better place if we would put more energy and effort into asking questions than in making proclamations, if we would work harder to understand our neighbors rather than demand they accept us and what we believe first.  There is nothing wrong with expressing confidence in what we believe (but not to the point of arrogance) but if we care to learn more about a subject or - more importantly - a person, questions AND a willingness to receive answers we may not agree with become necessary.  It is first about getting to know them.

In the pilot episode of a new TV series, "Resurrection", a young American boy suddenly woke up in the middle of field in China with no explanation as to how he got there.  Once he was finally returned to his home in Missouri, we learned the boy had been dead 32 years from drowning in a river behind his house in Missouri! 

Through the twists and turns of the yet-undetermined plot, the boy ran into a local pastor who remembered this boy to have been his childhood friend.  The preacher expressed his utter dismay and confusion to a friend when he said, "I'm seeing something I cannot believe, and I cannot explain it.  I'm supposed to have the answers!"  His friend replied, "Should you not rather help your congregation to ask the right questions than to think you can have all the answers?"

Check mate!  The preacher found peace in the reality that when we enter into the realm of mystery - especially the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven and of life and death - we are always in a much better position to ask questions than we are to have ready answers; asking is far better than making something up that sounds good to us!  This is especially important when we enter into the "mission field" to seek out the lost and the marginalized and the alienated as Jesus commands and expects of us, His Body the Church.  But in order to gain the trust and confidence of our neighbors who are too often strangers to us, should we not first set out to establish a relationship?  And is the first step in any relationship not geared toward learning more about the other person by freely entering into his or her world before we impose ourselves and our world upon them - especially if they have come to feel alienated from our world?  

Nicodemus approached Jesus very carefully "by night", as the Scripture says, but also by words.  He seemed to be feeling Jesus out not by challenging Him but by trying to determine exactly where Jesus was coming from.  The inquiry seems to be more about the nature of Jesus Himself rather than about the nature of His "signs".  Is this just another prophet, self-appointed rather than anointed, or is there more to Him than meets the eye?  We stopped asking questions like this a long time ago.

The Church has been so caught up in the tension between faith and works-righteousness as to what we "have to" do for so long that we seem more concerned about what it takes to be "saved" than we are concerned about being "sanctified" which will necessarily involve others.  Even in our efforts to reach out, we have become a little too obsessed with new "programs" that might attract new members - yet not nearly concerned with new ministries that seek to serve others rather than to serve ourselves.

"No one can SEE the Kingdom of God ..."  So when others in the New Testament preach and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has "come near", perhaps they are getting closer to what becomes necessary for us to be enabled to "see" this Kingdom which has "come near"; that there is something we must seek after so we can "see" this Kingdom which is upon us - without being so distracted by worldly things ... or our own concerns.

We must also remember that very little works in isolation to itself.  Just as fasting is meaningless without prayer, baptism by water can have no lasting effect if the Holy Spirit is not present.  So baptism (Exodus 30:18 and Matthew 3:6) and the reality of the Holy Spirit - which is the essence of the Living God (Micah 3:8) - were (are) not foreign concepts to Judaism, yet Nicodemus did not fully understand what Jesus was saying. 

As a "teacher of Israel", Nicodemus was well aware of the Presence of God in the Spirit and the use of water as a means of cleansing (some passages use "sanctifying" as ritually purifying oneself with water) as a matter of Law perhaps, but he was missing the crucial element: that what Jesus was proposing was something Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) should have already been doing and preaching just as Jesus teaches "when you fast" rather than "if".  Nicodemus asks, "How can this be?"  Jesus seems to reply, "How can this NOT be?"

It must be understood from this passage, I think, that Nicodemus would have discovered nothing had he not approached Jesus the way he had.  The religious leaders of Jesus' day were never shy about "challenging" Jesus even as they asked what may be better described as "sarcastic" questions with ulterior motives, but few approached Jesus as Nicodemus did; i.e., "we know you are a teacher from God"; that is, acknowledging Jesus in a positive and inquisitive way rather than in a negative and challenging one.  Trying to learn something rather than trying to impose or defend something.

Recall that Jesus quotes the Scriptures when challenged by the tempter in the wilderness, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7).  Quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus was mindful of Moses' instruction to the people not to test the limits of the Holy Father's patience and mercy, for it follows that Moses states: "You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God".

I recall an online conversation I had some time back with a messianic rabbi about kosher law (messianic being Jews who embrace Messiah Jesus).  The rabbi pointed out that such laws are not strictly about diet and what one can or cannot eat; rather it is about a God who cares deeply about His people and that this thought alone should be enough for us who claim to "trust" the Lord.  He also reminded me that the prohibitions against certain meats should not provoke a "why not" from us but more along the lines of "what will I learn from this?"  Not in search for excuses but honest, genuine answers.  From the very beginning, even the Law calls the Lord's people to a life filled with the struggle of "right questions" that serve to prepare us for life's next moments.

Think about it in this way.  We parents know - or should reasonably know - that telling our children to "do" or "don't do" - BECAUSE I SAID SO - is asking for rebellion sooner or later!  They might be obedient for the moment, but they will have learned nothing.  Demanding blind obedience even when we answer "because I care" fails to teach our children the value of any particular lesson and does not help them to think through things for themselves.  The lesson is lost on them because we often feel our authority is being challenged or threatened because our children don't accept our inadequate answers that often do not speak to the topic at hand but rather to our parental authority.

"Going on to perfection" (what we Methodists understand as sanctifying grace) requires a certain resolve from each of us to always strive to do our very best in the Lord's name, but discipleship also requires that we "ask the right questions" - not to try and affirm what we think we already know but to grow spiritually in faith and in love of God and neighbor.

Lent is the time to ask questions - and lots of them.  Lent challenges us in prayer, in fasting, in Scripture study - alone and in fellowship with other disciples - in submission to the Spirit to always reach higher and go deeper. 

Our Lord Jesus assures us that when we seek, we will find ... not necessarily what we may be looking for only for ourselves, and certainly no excuses - but surely we will find what our Lord has in store for us.  IF we trust Him enough to ask.

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

Thursday, March 13, 2014

1st Sunday of Lent 2014: "Starting here, starting now"

Matthew 4:1-11

I think maybe to begin what I hope to share, I must first back-pedal on a statement I made recently.  I had suggested that when we are faced with our "moment in eternity", that glorious moment when the Lord reaches out to us in an unmistakable and intensely personal way, our response in that moment must never be "maybe" or "I'll get back to you"; that "not now" can be construed as "not ever".

Clearly this is an unfair statement for a couple of reasons, not least of which is our Lord cannot "misunderstand" us as we often misunderstand one another.  The Lord knows what He is asking of us - discipleship is no cake walk - and He surely knows above all else we humans fear the "unknown" more than we fear almost anything else. 

Jesus clearly states commitment to discipleship, to following Him, requires much more than blind faith - especially if we, as many do, have trust issues.  Jesus calls us to "count the cost" before we jump into something lest we come off looking foolish when we decide it's more than we bargained for (Luke 14:25-33).  In other words, there must be a period of thought, prayer, testing and preparation - because we are never called only to be justified (saved); we are beckoned into sanctification (the journey of continued spiritual growth AND service to one another - two sides of the same coin).

Some traditions believe the Lord's call is compelling beyond our capacity to resist or to doubt, that we are so moved by the Holy Spirit in such a way that we literally cannot resist or be forced to act against our own will.  Our Arminian-Wesleyan tradition does not see it quite that way.  The calling is compelling, to be sure, and unmistakable; but our tradition and heritage teach us our ability to reason and to think things through is truly among our Creator's great gifts and thus cannot be denied.  Working within that free will, however, still requires that we seriously consider an appropriate response to what is being asked of us while we explore discipleship honestly and openly within the many means of grace; prayer, fasting, Scripture study, and worship to name only a few.    

Lent is always a good place for seekers to start asking the hard questions because it is during this time when many begin to look at Jesus' life and ministry in a more challenging way; and the reason many look more critically is we know this journey will come to a head on what has become known as "Good Friday", that most cursed and blessed of days when even Jesus Himself cried out to the Holy Father, "Why have You forsaken Me?"

Surely we have all had those moments at some point; those moments when we questioned this God who promised, "I will never forsake you", especially when bad things happen to us.  And we try to embrace that certain promise in the midst of chaos and despair when we feel completely and utterly forsaken.  And I promise you this: if we stand firm in Christ, in what is written in the Scriptures as Jesus did in the wilderness, we can be sure even some "Christians" will turn on us when we seek to do what is right in the eyes of our Holy Father rather than worry about what our "friends" or our culture may think of us. 

These attempts at destruction happen all the time in cliquish social circles, private gossip circles, on social media, and even in "conversation forums" such as one I am currently engaged in at the local university.  People do not want to hear anything other than what they already think they know (I doubt any of us can be excepted from this!); and anyone who speaks outside that particular frame of reference is at least a potential "enemy" - but certainly a threat.

Sometimes the attempts to undermine our faith are more subtle, such as when the "tempter" takes Holy Scripture out of its appropriate context in an effort to make a self-serving point.  He does so when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable as Jesus surely was, or at least as vulnerable as the "tempter" hoped He would be.  Lest we forget, however, it is probably even easier to be tempted when we think we are at our strongest - you know, when we are pretty full of ourselves and have lost all sense of humility and spiritual need. 

Fasting alone does not bring us temptation even though we should understand taking on such a spiritual practice can be quite a test of spiritual endurance.  Yet fasting alone does not serve a spiritual purpose if our only measure of success is whether we were able to "go the distance" and do without something for a specified period of time without cheating.  It must never be fasting alone or strictly "giving up something for Lent"; it must be fasting AND prayer AND Scripture study AND self-sacrifice AND the other means of grace by which we connect or reconnect with our Lord in a meaningful way.

This is why a statement of suggesting "now or never" is unfair and borderline manipulative; it leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to work.  It puts people on OUR time table.  We observe Lent every year, and for good reason.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers to fasting as a presumed and necessary spiritual practice already in place as He says, "When you fast ..." - not "if".  Like repentance, fasting is not a "one-and-done" proposition.

Lent is a reminder for us that discipleship is not a static "thing" that just sits there after we have been baptized; that false notion of believing we are "saved" only for our own sakes and not for the sake of the Lord's Kingdom AND His people who have yet to make a commitment, those who find it difficult to let go, those who are lost, those who feel "forsaken", angry, and bitter because of what they have suffered and cannot find their way back. 

Jesus clearly teaches that the "end" of spiritual life in Him is not at baptism; rather that baptism is a means to an end, a way to something greater and clearly beyond oneself as being "led ... into the wilderness" as Jesus was.  I suppose it can be said that after baptism is when the real work begins, when perhaps we become a greater threat to the "father of lies", when we have been marked with the sign of faith and means of grace by which our Lord claims us and we declare our allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and to the Lord's people on earth - His Body the Church - as well as to those who continue to struggle or are struggling perhaps for the first time.

But we also must never overlook or soft sell Jesus' use of the Holy Scriptures to endure and overcome this "testing", this "temptation" - NOT clever bumper sticker slogans we make up for ourselves that are, more often than not, not quite biblical.  Standing firm in the Word, returning to that Word after we have drifted away, or entering into that Word as a new beginning, is a daily challenge for us all.  This is the justification and necessity of the fellowship of the Church, the congregation of disciples who continue to struggle themselves and are glad for the company of others who so struggle.  This is discipleship; to struggle rather than to settle.

So if we really care about the state of this nation, if we are truly concerned about the state of the Church, it is time to more seriously and prayerfully consider what our Lord asks of us and WHEN He asks it of us.  We must resolve to "start here, and start now" each day to affirm for the first time - or reaffirm once again our commitment to our Lord.  Let the sacraments of the Church be to us our Lord's call to Reconciliation - to Him AND to one another. 

All glory and honor to the most High God, and peace to His people on earth.  Amen.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Lenten Thought

“Turn Yourself to me and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.  The troubles of my heart have enlarged; bring me out of my distresses!  Look on my affliction and my pain, and forgive my sins” (Psalm 25:16-18).

Imagine a world in which we worry more about evaluating our own sins (and notice how we are inclined to ask for mercy!), and stop worrying so much about the sins of others (whom we eagerly condemn!); a world in which life bears down on us and we seek mercy rather than someone to blame.

Such introspection seems overbearing and sometimes needless – after all, why worry when we are already redeemed/saved/justified (pick your word)?  Yet even as we seek sanctification (spiritual perfection in which we become more Christ-like with each passing day), we must always be on guard against our human impulses; those impulses that allow us to ignore the needs of others in favor of our own desires and demands, those times when it is much easier to withhold our tithes and other offerings than to allow ourselves to be vulnerable even a little, those times when we are just too distracted or too tired to spend some alone time in prayer with the One who seeks us out and beckons us into a life only He can envision and give!

Prayers of confession acknowledge all these things, but prayers of confession always approach the Throne of Grace with confidence in the Eternal Covenant the Lord Himself has offered to His people!  Only when we face our humanness with honesty can we expect our spiritual selves to be fed … and to the full!

Let us continue this journey of Lent with high expectations for what the Lord will reveal to those who earnestly seek His face!



Thursday, March 06, 2014

Continuing the journey of Lent

“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 in 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

At last evening’s Ash Wednesday service, I challenged those present to consider primarily the much more difficult task of what it takes to be a true disciple, a follower, of Christ rather than a generic “Christian” whose claim to allegiance is little more than church membership.  Although we still must consider how we have offended our Lord and repent of those short-comings, it will be a much greater challenge to define – and then be able to articulate – our faith and what draws us to the Lord.  If we cannot do this for ourselves, we cannot do this for our children and grandchildren.  And if we cannot do this at home, we certainly cannot do this in public!  And this, of course, is the calling of the Church for it is the very nature of the Holy God revealed in Christ! 

I also wonder how our journey through these forty days of Lent might be received if we purposefully count each day of this journey as a gift even as we fast and devote quality time to prayer when we would rather eat or doing something else.  Of course we can quote and sing the psalm, “This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24), but do we consider each day as a genuine gift?  Especially if we are facing a particular day we would rather not?  That this might be the day when our worst fears are confirmed by medical tests?  That this might be the day when our jobs are being eliminated?  Or that our working hours (and pay) might be cut? 

These things would certainly send us to our knees in prayer, but how often do we go to the Lord in prayer because we see each day (good or potentially bad) as a true gift?  The psalmist was surely speaking within this context and declaring the determination of a people redeemed with plenty to be thankful for even if the events of a day reveal nothing but bad news.

This must be the determined mission of the Church in remembering our redemption did not come by “perishable” things but by the blood of Him who is Himself imperishable.  So may we be as purposefully focused not on our sins or our failures or our fears – but rather on the Lord’s mercy and His assurance that our weaknesses are truly His strengths! 

It is His gift to us, His assurance that as long as we do not give up on Him, He will never give up on us - not because of what we may or may not do but because of who the Lord is.  What a truly marvelous gift indeed!



Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ash Wednesday 2014

Traditionally the season of Lent is encouraged as a time of prayer, fasting, spiritual reflection, and penitence - making our wrongs right as in "bearing fruit worthy of repentance" - all done in preparation for The Resurrection.  Like the seven days leading up to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in the Jewish tradition, it is a time not to be taken lightly by the faithful as if it has no significance or that simply going through the motions will satisfy some obscure "legal" requirement - like the "hypocrites" who are called out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Though we may never attain a level of spiritual perfection in this mortal life, this does not mean we are not expected to reach higher as we strive to "go on to perfection" rather than settle for spiritual mediocrity.  It means we are given some latitude as we inevitably stumble and fall but refuse to stay down and resolve to do better with our Lord's help.  This is "sanctifying grace", intentional discipleship, as we become stronger day after day.  It is as necessary for the soul as exercise and food are for the body.

It occurred to me this past week, however, that maybe our focus should not be exclusively on our moral failings, our penitence, and how we can do better - although this is still necessary for honest inward reflection and self-evaluation.  But maybe it is time to shift our primary focus in such a way - a much more difficult way, I think - that we put some real time and thought and effort into what it means - what it really means - to be a Christian, a genuine disciple of Christ, beyond being simply a member of a church.  Frankly if we cannot do this for ourselves, we will find it impossible to articulate genuine, life-sustaining and life-altering faith to others, including our own children and grandchildren.  Let's face it; if we are not "ambassadors for Christ", we are only the "dust from which we came and to which we will return".

Is our faith defined by a particular code of ethics?  Certainly, but there is more.  Is our faith defined by that one clarifying moment of justification when we became aware that we have been forgiven of our past sins when we asked?  Not necessarily, because that "justifying grace" is our Holy Father's act of mercy.  Are we automatically Christians when we are baptized?  Well, frankly, no; because baptism is, as shown in John the Baptizer's life, a Jewish practice as well.

We can easily see the Lord has set forth certain things for us to know in the moral law which teaches us how to treat one another, how to "love our neighbor as ourselves" which clearly goes beyond a warm-and-fuzzy emotion we mistake for "love".  We should also understand "justifying grace" as the Lord's act of mercy.  This moment is clarified further, however, in how or whether we respond in a transformative and life-altering way.  And the difference between a brand-name "Christian" and a purposeful and intentional "follower of Christ" marked by a life of constant transformation and spiritual growth is defined and refined by the length and the depth and the breadth of our response to that mercy which is our calling. 

One of the greatest misunderstandings about Christianity is that we are defined strictly by a professed allegiance to Christ Jesus, our knowledge of a certain "creed".  There is that, of course, but there is so much more - much more.  There is discovery.  This is the exciting and sometimes downright scary part about "following" Jesus; I mean really going after the Holy Father through Christ in worship, in prayer, in fasting, in Scripture study, even in fellowship with one another - it is the discoveries we make along the way about ourselves, our neighbors, our God revealed in Christ, and our faith.

These "discoveries" involve constant life-changing decisions through which we struggle with our own intense personal desires against what we truly need to grow in faith and in love.  For instance, we often confuse material wealth with personal blessing so much so that we keep our wealth (and thus our blessings) to ourselves.  Or we do "this" when the Lord is clearly calling us to do "that". 

Like the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-22, we often think simply obeying a list of "rules" or merely refraining from evil acts is enough; but even then we often excuse ourselves from "legalism" when we willfully disregard these "rules" - such as when we freely engage in the most common and damaging of offenses: neglect of our neighbors' needs, especially those we don't like or who are not like us.

It is easy to stumble, too easy, in fact.  This is one of the harshest lessons of life.  I submit to you, however, it is much more difficult to define and articulate our faith - and even more difficult to truly "follow" Jesus.  We are often more inclined to expect Jesus to follow us as we "reap and sow" to our flesh rather than to the spirit.  And this, dear friends, is the emphasis of Ash Wednesday which beckons us into the challenging and spiritually necessary journey that is Lent.

It is a clarifying moment when we are reminded in a tangible way of our true origin in the "dust of the earth"; when we are reminded there will come a day when our mortal bodies will give out - some sooner, some later.  This sounds a little gloomy and depressing, but we must not deny that death does not discriminate between young and old, rich and poor, black and white, insured and uninsured, faithful and not-so-faithful. 

So we are called and challenged to put away the things of the flesh, the things that may satisfy the body but do nothing for the soul - the soul, that Divine "breath of life" which calls us beyond our flesh and into communion with our Creator.  It is the annual "dose of humility" we need - to be reminded that apart from our Lord who spoke us into being and then breathed into us the breath of life, we are only slightly more evolved than apes - and when our mortal bodies die, so also do we - apart from the Lord our God who is revealed to us in Christ.

Let us remember that our genuine and holy purpose for being is always ahead of us, never behind us, as we are renewed by the mercy and spirit of the Lord our God. 


Ash Wednesday 2014

“Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may - by your good works which they observe - glorify God in the day of visitation.”  1 Peter 1:11-12

Today is Ash Wednesday which leads us into the season of Lent.  Many devout Christians question the necessity of Lent and its penitential practices of fasting and repentance because we are, after all, Easter people; that there is no need to overwhelm ourselves with “works” that are not necessary.  I get that, and I freely admit there are times when I question such practices myself.  If this is where we truly are, then we are compelled to question why we would celebrate Christmas since that time has also passed.  Why do we celebrate the Resurrection of Messiah since this time, too, has passed?

I would suggest that if we question the many means of grace and mercy, such as prayer and fasting, that call us to evaluate our lives as “sojourners and pilgrims”, then it is likely we fall outside the definition of “sojourners and pilgrims” and need these practices in our lives all the more.  This, dear friends, is precisely why Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and seeks to call us away from matters of the flesh and reconnect to our Lord in a meaningful way; for a benign, inactive “relationship” is no relationship at all.  Think of it this way: what good is a prayer life if our prayers reveal something we have no intentions of responding to?  That our prayers are only our wish lists we expect the Lord to hear even though we offer no time to hear Him?

I encourage all to find the necessity of visiting this season with an open heart and honest mind; for if such practices are seen as “burdens” unnecessary for “saved” Christians, there may indeed already be something seriously amiss in our spiritual lives.  Lent is a gift, perhaps the greatest of gifts, because it calls us to gather once again as “sojourners and pilgrims” by showing us exactly where we are headed – to the Resurrection and beyond! 



Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Into and through Lent 2014

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil nor does He tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.  Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.”  1 Peter 1:13-15

As we approach the season of Lent, we should be mindful of certain realities; not least of which are those temptations we face daily.  Too often we fall into a trap by which we reason that when something happens – anything – it would not have happened unless the Lord willed it to happen.  This is not to say our Lord does not work in and around our lives daily, but sin presents itself at least as often and must never be confused with what is good and right and uplifting and is not always self-serving.

St. Peter is clear; our Lord is not tempted by evil nor does He tempt us with evil.  We can often be tested, and I will grant there is a fine line, but temptation seeks to interrupt our communion with the Lord; testing prepares us for the next Godly moments for the challenges we will surely face will be great.  Like school work, tests prepare us for the next level.

So it is with the season of Lent.  It is an invitation to enter into a 40-day test like Jesus’ time in the wilderness before He embarked on His ministry.  It is necessary that we shake off the old and begin anew each day.  Let us not take this time lightly, and let us not brush it aside as unnecessary or as a “Catholic thing”.  Lent is very much a Christ thing which our Lord Himself endured.  And in this experience as we seek to draw closer to our Lord, let us also discover even more about ourselves; our weaknesses as well as our strengths – and in this, learn more about what the Lord would ask of us.