Monday, June 30, 2014

A Thought

I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”  Romans 7:21-23

It is not possible to over-think the inner conflict most of us face each day between the “Law of God” which we know to be good, and the instincts which are innate to our being.  We are hard-wired to survive, so we seek out for things that will not only enable us to survive but to also thrive.  We strive to assimilate ourselves into our environment.  To fit in?  To get along?  To remain largely anonymous so as not to draw too much attention to ourselves? 

Whatever our answers may be, St. Paul points out what he believes to be universal.  Actually like with most of us, we believe that if something delights us or bothers us, surely these same things delight or bother others.  But we also must see that we all face conflicts to one degree or another, and these conflicts begin within ourselves.  We know what is good and right and moral, but we also know we have our own sense and system of what is good and right and moral.  Largely subjective, we pursue these things because we want them.

Yet we are taught by The Word that we must reorder our priorities in such a way that we first “seek the Kingdom of God” and find “delight in the Law of God”; then Jesus assures us that “these things will be added to you” (the things we truly need).  This is to say that if The Lord and His Law is our first priority, we will discover how near at hand evil really is.  We will also, however, be more apt to make the right choices for ourselves, our families, and most importantly, our God.

It is not easy, of course.  We are distracted too easily because this world offers so much – and much of it good.  Too much of it, however, is not so good and has the capacity to separate us from our Lord’s covenant.  So we must never let our guard down.  We must find our “delight in the Law of God” through the written Word, the Sacraments of the Church, prayer, and the other means of grace at our disposal.  And make no mistake; it takes real effort, for the goodness of the Law of the Lord will not fall into our laps.  It is given when we seek, it is provided when we ask, and it is open to us when we knock on the right doors. 



Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Thought

“Whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock; and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.  But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand; and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, and it fell.  And great was its fall!”  Matthew 7:24-27 NKJV

Biblical theology can be tricky because we each read and interpret the Scriptures with a certain set of lenses according to our backgrounds, religious traditions, and the social and cultural environments in which we live and function; and each believes his or her interpretation to be the correct one.  Jesus, however, indicates there is only one way to interpret what He teaches – it is His way, for He is Himself “The Way”.  With the infighting going on within the Church universal, it is clear we do not yet have it quite right.

I would wish there was only one standard we could all understand and agree upon for the sake of the Mission of the Church, but this is not always possible nor will it always happen from the pulpit because preachers, pastors, and priests have their own sets of lenses, traditions, and experiences as well.  The bottom line is that human interpretation will always be human interpretation.  This is not to say there is no value in what one sees because we each have something to offer, something to share.  It stops being so “tricky” when we realize none of us will be at the same point in our spiritual development.

Unfortunately, too many of us draw conclusions we are comfortable with, and we live it there.  We check it off the list of those things that need to be settled, and then we go on with our lives as if there is nothing more we can learn.  Discipleship, however, constantly challenges us to look deeper so we can learn more.  Ultimately it is the challenge and goal of discipleship that as we grow spiritually, we become more and more like Christ Himself rather than becoming our own personal version of Him.

Disciples must never settle nor do we “graduate”; rather we “commence” onward.  We may be confident in a certain way for a certain time, but we must also be aware that our Lord is continually teaching and transforming us.  While on this earth and in these mortal bodies and with the inherent limitations of our human minds, we must allow ourselves to be open to new experiences and new perspectives.  Surely we can appreciate the fact that a 10-year-old child will not be the same person at 25 years of age!  The same is true of our spiritual selves; a new Christian with 10 years of experience will not be the same Christian at 25 years of discipleship.

Let us open ourselves to the reality that our Lord will do what He will do with us only when we are open to new visions, new epiphanies, and new insights not only so that we may grow in our confidence of faith but so we can help to equip others as they grow.  It is our Father’s “good pleasure to give you the things of the Kingdom” – if it is the Kingdom we earnestly “seek first”.



Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Thought

“Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper and said, ‘Lord, who is the one who betrays You?’  Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, ‘But Lord, what about this man [Judas]?’  Jesus said to him, ‘If I will that he remains till I come, what is that to you?  You follow Me’.”
John 21:20-22

Chad Holtz, a fellow UM pastor, recently wrote a piece answering one who had asked, “How can you keep on serving a denomination that is headed in the wrong direction?”  Chad, bless his heart, answered this question pretty easily because his heart – and his attention – are focused right where they need to be focused: on the church he serves as pastor.

This is not to say there are not concerns about schism and the direction the wider Church seems to be taking (or is being taken), but what should be our greater concern?  Jesus answers the question of Peter very succinctly: “What is that to you?  You follow Me.”

There are many within the wider Body that seem to have a focus more on social politics than the Gospel. Because of this, then, it seems there may be a greater concern for what does not apply to us in our local setting – at least, not right at the moment.  But Jesus answers this as well; “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).

Jesus never assured us we would not encounter problems; He only assured us He will not abandon us.  So the local church is our primary concern; and that concern has more to do with what we are doing for the sake of the Gospel and our own church’s mission because this will be how we are judged - not only by the Lord in His Coming Day but by our neighbors in the day which is upon us.  This, dear friends, is our primary concern for today.

What someone else may or may not do, or what someone may or may not have done, is not our concern.  We are the people of the Gospel, and this is our charge.  This is our mission; this is our concern.  And if we truly have The Lord in our hearts and are eager to represent Him fully within our own capacity as individuals and as a Body, what are the other things to us?

The local churches are where the rubber hits the road.  This is where the Gospel impacts those around us.  So let us go about the business to which we have been charged, the duty we freely took upon ourselves when we said “Yes” to our Lord and His saving mercy.  This will be sufficient for today.  We’ll deal with tomorrow … tomorrow.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Thought

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon.”  Matthew 6:24

Science has pretty much done away with the myth of multi-tasking, especially in warning us of the dangers of texting and talking on a cell phone while driving.  We can obviously do several things simultaneously, but we will likely not do them all very well.  In doing one thing, something is overlooked in another thing.  It is as we’ve all probably been taught; that anything worth doing at all is worth doing well.

Jesus’ lesson is challenging for us in that we live in a world in which multi-tasking is necessary (or we think it is).  We take on so much voluntarily in search of “happiness” as well as having so much pushed upon us, especially at work, that we feel we are always under the gun to accomplish so much.  In the end we never really accomplish much of anything, the work which needed to be done is not done well, and we walk away feeling as though we’ve only been spinning our wheels.

So Jesus has a lesson for us that not only compels us to evaluate our daily business but also challenges us to determine how much in our lives prevents us from a close, intimate connection to The Lord.  Our work cannot always be about The Lord, but our work must never pull us away from The Lord.  We may think our secular work has nothing to do with The Lord, but the Truth who is The Lord must always be present in our work because He is not our Lord only on Sunday.  Or if this is the only real time we think we have to give Him, He is not really our Lord.

But we must also not allow such passages as these to be strictly limited to a choice between Heaven and Hell as if Jesus is always giving ultimatums.  There is a tremendous blessing in this brief passage because it follows, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life …”  The distractions come when we worry about our financial well-being or the new car or the remodeling … or the still-challenging economy that is allowing a lot of employers to keep their workers on a thin ledge.  Jesus says that when He comes first, everything else will fall into place.  If He comes first.

Take this moment to devote this day to Him.  Not only will this bring us untold blessings, but we will also be reminded that the secular work before us will come to an end but the life we are given in Him will not.

Let Him bless you this day, this hour.


Monday, June 23, 2014

A Thought

“Our ultimate goal as a church is to help persons become deeply committed Christians.  As we developed our membership expectations in 1990 we asked this question, ‘What does it take to grow in Christ and to become a committed disciple of Jesus Christ?’  At the core I felt that if someone would worship regularly, commit to a small group or some other form of personal discipleship, would begin to serve The Lord with their gifts, and would reorder personal priorities by moving toward tithing, this would be the basis for both growing in Christ, as well as helping the church to accomplish its mission.”  Adam Hamilton, “Leading Beyond the Walls”

For those who do not know of Adam Hamilton, he is pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood KS.  He planted this church in 1990 with four persons and celebrated ten years of ministry with some 8000 members!  The church is still known as one of the fastest-growing United Methodist churches in the nation, and Rev. Hamilton was very clear in this year’s Annual Conference: this is no accident, no lucky strike, no “fate”, and certainly not just himself.  The church continues to grow because The Church is engaged in ministry to the community and understands itself purposefully and intentionally as The Body of Christ Himself!

Adam never makes a claim to have perfected their approach; he only makes clear that nothing – especially the personal component of faith – is taken for granted nor it is ever assumed as a given.  Membership is understood not as a position of privilege but one of expectation, duty, and responsibility.  It is understood before one is even allowed to join the church that these four things are to be expected, but no one is ever prohibited from participating in the life of the church.

Membership is a sign of commitment within the covenant of that community of faith, just as it is a sign of commitment to our Lord as Head of the Church.  That we claim Him as Savior is one thing (and the beginning of a very great thing!), but that we claim Him as Lord of our lives and Head of the Church is another thing entirely. 

We in the land of plenty have learned to take too much for granted.  We assume the church will always be there in case it is needed for our own funerals, but we overlook the reality that it is the commitment of every single member that ensures the church is always there.  Giving nothing of oneself is the surest way to seal the lid on the coffin.

Let us recommit ourselves to this certain reality: discipleship is not a “thing” we do.  Rather it is our very lifeblood and the assurance of the well-being of the church we call our spiritual home.  It is devotion to our Lord which ensures that others will come to know of the Gospel of our Lord – for outside of this reality, this duty, there is no church.  And the only life we can really claim for ourselves is the one that will surely come to an end when we breathe our last. 

Never assume the church does not need you, and never assume the church will be just fine without you.  Without you, the church is just a building that can be as easily abandoned as it can be strengthened.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Thought

[Jesus said], “Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with what measure you use, it will be measured back to you … First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-2, 5).

This is probably the most misunderstood yet most often quoted passage in all the Gospel accounts.  We live in a society in which “every man for himself” seems to be the dominant mantra, and “freedom of religion” also means “freedom from religion”.  So those who set their own course and make their own decisions based strictly on what pleases themselves are demanding that religious people “judge not”; probably better translated as “butt out”.

Passing judgment is a tricky and dangerous business no matter how you slice it not only because of what Jesus points out, but also because our snap judgments can (more often than not) be hastily made based only on what we may happen to know at any given time – knowledge which will always be limited but primarily based on what we think we know.

Yet our Lord does not preclude judgment as in discerning right from wrong and holding one another accountable to the faith.  In fact a willingness to take such a risk is an act of love, just as when we set limits for our own children – to protect them, not stifle or control them.  And when we do not hold our children accountable but let them do all they wish to do when they wish to do so is neglect, pure and simple.  We do not care enough to put being “popular” or “cool” at risk.

However, discernment is not without its own tricky balance.  A willingness to risk a relationship for the sake of what is righteous must come from earnest love for the soul of another.  If we try to point out what is offensive to us personally and only use a few select Bible quotes as tools to our own ends, we are not “speaking the truth in love”.  This is a very delicate line that, once crossed, can often do much more harm than good depending on our ultimate goal.  Are we trying to save a soul, or are we simply trying to manipulate our society one life at a time to something more pleasing to ourselves?  But just as we can discern between right and wrong, others can easily discern genuine love from religious manipulation.

Make no mistake.  Jesus is very clear about we who would point a finger: “First remove the plank from your own eye”; that is, we must do some serious soul searching, confess and repent first.  After we have first been completely honest with ourselves and our Lord, then we have not only the right but the moral duty to admonish others so they may also avoid the coming Judgment.  And if even then they will not hear us, we are to move along – not dig in for a prolonged fight.

The Lord’s Word will serve The Lord’s purposes, not ours.  Let us always remember Whom we speak for.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Thought

[Jesus taught], “Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.  Therefore pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen’.”  Matthew 6:8-13

Jesus is teaching much more than a prayer we should memorize; He is teaching about the very nature of prayer itself.  When He speaks of the “hypocrites” who are much more concerned with putting on a prayer show than with the prayer itself, He is admonishing us that prayer which seeks to glorify the “prayor” rather than the One to whom we pray is a waste of time.  How many times have we heard someone comment, “Man, that guy/girl sure can pray!”??  Maybe.  It’s just that Jesus seems to suggest what they are really good at is putting on a show or giving a speech but pretending it is a prayer.  The focus is on the prayor rather than on the One to whom we should be praying.

There is also a component to this prayer often overlooked.  Jesus say, “When you pray, go into your room; and when you have shut your door pray to your Father who is in the secret place.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).  Private.  Even silent.  No audience.   “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.  There is a huge difference between divine “reward” and “wishes granted” and again places the focus back on the One to whom we are praying.  The prayer itself is a prayer of adoration with a sprinkling of petition according to our genuine needs: our bread for the day in whatever form it may come, forgiveness in light of our having already forgiven others, and protection from temptations which have the real power to lead us astray.

What else is there?  Of course we have needs, we have worries, and we have real problems.  Part of this prayer, then, is an act of faith in believing Jesus’ assurance that “your Father knows …”  The other part is in trusting that The Lord will see to what He will see to.  “Your will be done …” – not ours.

So rather than approaching our Father with a laundry list that focuses strictly on us and our wants, let us learn how to approach Him and how to adore Him.  Let us learn to reflect on all The Lord has already done, and let that be sufficient for the moment of solace and quiet we all need.  “And your Father … will reward you.”  Not with our desires which are probably more potentially destructive than constructive, but with the needs we may not even be consciously aware of.  And then trust this blessing as sufficient for the day.



Monday, June 16, 2014

1st Sunday after Pentecost: The Road Less Traveled

Isaiah 56:1-7
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

"Things do not happen.  Things are made to happen."  JFK

The late President Kennedy was speaking in general terms of the environmental and social responsibility of American citizenship, the collective responsibility we share in this republic not strictly for our time but also for the future of our grandchildren's grandchildren.  In this observation, then, the president was simply pointing out the obvious: if we do not "do" according to what needs to be done, it will simply not get done.  If a church's Trustee committee has no willing participation from the church's "citizens", the buildings will simply rot until there is nothing left. 

So if the Church as the Body of Christ ignores its God-given duty and Christ-ordained responsibility - the last Commandment our Lord spoke before He ascended into Heaven - then those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" will not be filled.  Those who do not know of mercy and the raw strength of a community with a shared sense of purpose will never come to know of mercy and the raw strength of a community with a shared sense of purpose; at least, not in this lifetime.

Ideological purity has become the Church's mantra to the exclusion of the "Great Commission"; and it has become so very nearly to the exclusion and isolation of all who might come inside to learn more about the community of faith and to hear more about our Lord but are kept at a safe distance because they do not dress appropriately or believe properly.  We are inclined to treat "strangers" as the "strangers" they are, and then ironically threaten them with hell fire and eternal condemnation if they don't believe in Jesus the way we think they should.

We believe we are doing the right and honorable thing because we remember St. Paul's words: "A little leaven will leaven the entire loaf" (Galatians 5:9), but we think of this in a more negative way - as in a duty to keep out those who do not belong (according to our own self-imposed standards) lest the congregation be poisoned with their strange or non-existent beliefs and even stranger attire or lifestyle. 

It is the purity of our religion which seems to require that we keep at a safe distance those who would mislead our children with their false doctrines.  Yet in our quest to be as faithful to The Lord as we can possibly be, we might do better to remember Jesus' take on "leaven": "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matthew 16:6). 

Jesus and Paul were both speaking in terms of something growing out of control.  St. Paul was talking about the "Judiazers" (likely Pharisees or of that "school of thought") who were insisting on circumcision for new believers according to the Law's requirement.  And Jesus is warning His disciples of the danger of putting too fine a point on rigid rules that do more to suppress and inhibit rather than to liberate the soul.

I am a believer in rules and well-defined boundaries, so I am probably more aligned with a pharisaic understanding of righteousness.  The Law exists to distinguish the people of YHWH, so it is disingenuous to suggest the Sinai Covenant has no more use for the Church.  Without rules, without discipline, without some sense of distinction, direction, and purpose, and without adequate and reasonable enforcement there is nothing but chaos.  And if no one is in charge, everyone thinks they are in charge.  Anarchy is the result, nothing useful can be accomplished, and the weakest among us are the ones who will pay the price.  They will be the ones who get hurt.  Almost without exception.

A pastor acquaintance (Morgan Guyton) I've come to know via the Internet wrote this thought recently: "People are liberated from their sin in environments where they feel safe being wrong."  This may sound a little foul on the surface, but a closer look suggests those who feel free to express themselves, share (but not attempt to impose) their thoughts and ideas, ask honest questions, and even make a full confession are much more open to receiving a more mature Christian perspective - but only if they feel safe

This applies to probably each of us much in the same way there are some neighborhoods we would not feel safe in, so we would not even go there - for safety's sake alone!  So we think about this in terms of the Church, the community of saints and sinners who have found a place where they feel safe; where they (hopefully) feel free to express what more traditional Christians might consider to be completely off-the-wall - and feel safe to do so.  If they are afraid, they won't.  Neither would you nor would I.

So it becomes a battle between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice).  To be sure, Jesus did tell His Church to "teach all nations to obey everything I have commanded you".  Teaching is very much a part of the mission of the Church (perhaps primary) but if Jesus was suggesting a "list" of things for the Church to do and that list is ordered according to what is most important, or at least what must come first, then the very first thing on our "list of things to do" is to "make disciples". 

Arkansas' own Bishop Mueller has raised the bar even on this in challenging the people of the Arkansas United Methodist Church to "make disciples who make disciples".  That is, introducing our neighbors into a relationship with The Lord through His Church and then leading them from their moment of justification into the spirit and life of sanctification - "going on to perfection".

The Church was never intended as a place to "get comfortable" anymore than the Promised Land was a place for Israel to "get comfortable"; yet both are intended as places where comfort may be found for those who feel safe nowhere else.  As the Lord spoke to Israel through the prophet Isaiah in reminding them of YHWH's intent in calling Israel out of Egypt, so Jesus speaks to the Church through what is commonly referred to as the "Great Commission" and calls us out of "self-service" mode.

There is a lot of chatter about the future of the United Methodist Church, and each "side" of the perpetual debate claims to have the right answer.  Sad to say, there has been a lot of posturing and positioning by those who claim to have a corner on what the Lord intends for the Church today.  Yet for all the ideas we think we have and how right those ideas may seem, we have yet to concede this foundational understanding: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My way ... My ways [are] higher than your ways, and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). 

We are going to be much more inclined to think more highly of the Lord and His word as soon as we stop thinking so highly of our own words and ideas.  And I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once said: "If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next [world].  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one." 

Becoming complacent in faith and faith development has become the busy highway of secular life within the Church because it is the one most often trod upon.  It is the one that demands most of our attention, but this demand has been met and agreed upon by us.  It is the life the Church has become entirely too comfortable with because it is the road most familiar to us. 

"The Road Less Traveled" is the one with no human compass, no mortal map, and no paved and safe shoulders.  Yet all that has been given for us to go and has compelled us to go is the assurance of our Lord that "I am with you always".  It is Trust in this assurance, our collective sense of purpose as the Body of Christ, and the knowledge that nothing to this end will not get done until the people of The Lord do so that compels and commands us to stretch our legs and step out on the ledge. 

We have come to mistakenly believe a profession of faith is only a one-and-done prayer; but there can be no more profound profession of faith in our Lord than our willingness to trust Him - and Him alone - with the future of His Church and to travel the road only He can know, the road He trod Himself.  Amen.

A Thought

“This life is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing towards it.  The process is not yet finished, but it is going on.  This is not the end, but it is the road.  All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”  Martin Luther

Lord help all who would actually reach a point in spiritual development in which we declare it is “done”, that we’ve finished, and that because of Jesus’ death there is nothing more we need do.  Yes, there are accounts in which Jesus declares upon the cross, “It is finished”, but this says more about what Jesus accomplished Himself.  If it were truly “finished” at that point, what need do we have of the Church?

It is better, I think, that we embrace humility in all its glory and submission because it is in a humble state of mind and being in which we are still willing to admit our need for The Lord.  Many of the Church’s problems seem to stem from the many who have somehow convinced themselves they have it all figured out, that they’re “good”.  Jesus, however, has clearly stated, “There is only One who is ‘good’”.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages his reading audience to “leave the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ [and] go on to perfection”, but he never suggests we will ever reach that goal; at least, not in this lifetime.  But to grow, to pray, to discover, and to serve one another is the life we are all called to lead until our last breath. 

That our Lord “finished” only suggests we’ve only really begun.  Pray we never come to think we’ve “finished”.



Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Thought

“’In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid My face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you’, says the Lord, Your redeemer.”  Isaiah 54:8

The prophet was speaking to Judah in Exile after they had lost everything, including their homeland.  As much as it might be thought the people of Judah grieved over having lost everything “they” owned, they finally came to realize they had lost everything the Lord had entrusted to them.  They had lost everything because they had forgotten who they are.  The “wrath” of The Lord had overwhelmed them only for a “season”, yet they were assured of The Lord’s “everlasting love”.

We are easily overwhelmed by what seems to be a society living not only in darkness but in utter hopelessness.  If we lacked any sense of hope, would we of the faithful not also likely turn toward the empty promises of the world and seek whatever comfort and pleasure we could find in the moment – having no hope for a future?  

We are assured by the faithful ministry of the prophet that there are indeed “seasons” in which The Lord may hide His face from us (such as when we try in vain to hide from Him), but we are also assured that a new season is upon those who turn to the Lord, who “seek The Lord while He may be found”, who “call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).  There can be – and must be – “wrath for a moment” when we get a little too full of ourselves; for without these moments we may never turn back to the One who is everlasting and Whose love is everlasting.  We must never “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when you are punished by Him; for the Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and chastises every child whom He accepts” (Hebrews 12:6, from Proverb 3:11-12).

The devil isn’t out to get us when things don’t go the way we want them to go; rather it might be more accurate, at least in this context, to say that the “way we want” is not the way The Lord intends for those whom He calls His own.  In the end, it is all going to work out how The Lord intends it to work out.  This is His everlasting promise; this is His everlasting love!



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Thought

“You shall call nations you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you because of the Lord your God, the Holy One, for He has glorified you.”  Isaiah 55:5

“We are called to be, in our very lives, an epiphany of the Lord to those we encounter.”  Cardinal Wuerl

Everything we do and everything we say is a reflection of what is in our hearts (not always a good thing!).  As both writers reflect, however, we should be an accurate representation of the One whom we claim as Savior and Lord.  Not only because we need to be but because we are called to be. 

In light of the most recent shooting in Oregon, it grieves me that there is so much violence; but I think it grieves me more when we overreact – whether in a demand for even tighter gun control laws or in panic and hatred toward those who would violate the safety and innocence of our children.  These are natural and understandable responses, and I think we all share them.  As much as we have tried in our efforts to prevent such tragedies from happening again, they continue.

What do our futile and vain efforts suggest?  That perhaps we have not faithfully turned to the Lord.  Oh, I have no doubts many pray and ask for protection from such needless violence, but when was the last time we as a Body prayed for the Potter to mold and shape us?

As much as there is we can do to prevent future tragedies (and we must do all we can!), there is at least as much we cannot do – and for this we pray; not with glancing thoughts but with devoted time and intensity to first ask the Lord to show us what we need to know and, more importantly, what we need to be, what we must be: a reflection of Him, an epiphany of His mercy and glory.

We can learn from past mistakes, but we can also turn the page on a new chapter in the Church’s history as the epiphany of the Lord.  I believe this is where we must start anew.



Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Thought

“The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; there is no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection except at the price of pain.”  St. Padre Pio, 19th century saint

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”  Ezekiel 36:26

The Lord willing, nothing will ever be fully settled until we are gone from this earth.  This is to say, it is a dangerous time for Christians who come to believe there is nothing more to know, nothing more to gain, nothing more to grow from.  This is the time when we believe ourselves to be equal with The Lord, and we stop listening.  The danger in such a state of mind is that we are more inclined to pronounce judgment than to offer mercy.

The Lord promises His people that He will do a great work in those who are willing to be worked on and worked through, but this is the key: our willingness to be continually formed and shaped and molded, our willingness to give freely to the Church of ourselves, our talents, our prayers, and our treasures to ensure that the Gospel is perpetually proclaimed.  That we don’t “have to” (as in trying to ‘earn’ mercy) is not nearly to the point; that we are so willing is only the beginning of what the “heart of flesh” can produce – while the “heart of stone” is already set and the mind closed.

Let us break free from that cast and stone-cold heart and learn to take The Lord at His Word; that His gifts are freely given each day we are willing to receive.  Nothing is settled for us even though The Lord has done His great thing in “tearing open the veil”.  You and I, however, must be willing to go in.



Monday, June 09, 2014

A Thought

“Peter opened his mouth and said, ‘In truth I perceive that The Lord shows no partiality.  But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him’.”  Acts 10:34

St. Peter had seen a vision while praying; the vision included “all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth”.  When Peter had been commanded to eat, he declined because these animals included those considered ‘unclean’ according to the Law.  The Lord, however, replied to Peter, ‘What The Lord has cleansed you must not call common.’

Many believe this passage renders all things edible, that the kosher law is no longer in effect.  However, a more careful rendering of the entire chapter indicates The Lord was speaking of Gentiles, those outside of the Covenant; it is very unlikely this passage is strictly about food.  So what we take from this is that it has nothing to do with pork and other ‘unclean” meats, but it has everything to do with those whom we likely consider to somehow be beneath us; those we may consider to be unfit for the Kingdom.  If we only take from this chapter divine permission to eat whatever suits us, we have missed entirely the Mission of the Church which has nothing to do with what we can bring for potluck!  In other words, it is not about “me” and what brings “me” pleasure or personal satisfaction.

Let us remember the Church is the Body of Christ, the reality of the Holy Presence in the world today.  Becoming a member through baptism is a sharing of Peter’s vision in understanding that even though we will have our own personal, special moments with the Lord, we are always called beyond ourselves because as much as The Lord loves you, He loves your enemy as well.  The Lord therefore has given us all we need to speak in His behalf especially to those we deem unfit or ‘unclean’.

Let the Holy Spirit inform your words and actions today and each day – because the Gospel of our Lord is all about those who will be watching and listening.



Sunday, June 01, 2014

7th Sunday of Easter: Divided but [not quite] conquered

John 17:1-11

In John's chapter 16 Jesus' discourse can be summarized as "final" instructions.  In chapter 17 Jesus is offering a prayer for His disciples and the future Church before the final events in chapter 18 begin to unfold.  In this context Jesus is asking the Holy Father to bless His disciples (and not the world, vs 9b, but those who choose to follow Him) because the world is going to do what it will do.  These disciples who were gathered with Jesus were going to be soon sent to call people out of that world and into the fullness of life in Christ, into The Church; so they were clearly going to need all the help they could get.  And surely Jesus did not want His coming death to be all for nothing!

To begin this enormous task, then, the one thing that seemed to concern Jesus was not the theology or the doctrines they might share, or the "talking points" they might use.  His primary concern was for the "unity" of this group - and ultimately the "unity" of the Church for the sake of future seekers and disciples.  Why such concern?  Because a fragmented Church is a fragmented Body and can only produce fragmented, incoherent, and completely subjective messages.  When this happens, no one gets it - and as a result, evangelism as the means of sharing the Good News becomes moot.

Reading several books these past few weeks on evangelism, it has occurred to me that we are not losing people because of a lack of "programs" no one wants to do but everyone expects someone to do, and it is not primarily because of the preacher or the music or the ushers or the greeters.  While it is true these things (and many others) are indicators of the general condition of life in The Church, the one thing The Church is lacking overall is our "core memory".  We have forgotten who we are as a Body.  Individually maybe not so much a problem, but as a Body a huge and paralyzing problem.

But what is our "core memory"?  Israel's "core memory" is the Exodus and deliverance into the Promised Land.  Part of that "core memory" also includes the Exile which came because Israel had forgotten its own story.  The people of YHWH had lost their "core memory" and had forgotten who they were - or had freely surrendered that memory in favor of abundance, affluent prosperity, and "subjective individualism". 

So during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, the people of YHWH sought to regain their "core memory", learn from their collective mistakes, restore their relationship to YHWH AND to one another, and move forward once again as a "priestly nation" - not as a bunch of individual priests.  Yet we also notice that by the time of Jesus' ministry, the religious authorities had somewhat "overcorrected" to the point of oppression.  Religion became more about rules than about righteousness.

Maybe it is this way today except that during all the changes over the past centuries before and after the Reformation, the Church has not so much "overcorrected" as it has "understated" what discipleship and living in faith are really about.  This is to say, discipleship has been cast aside in favor of "subjective individualism".  While that "personal" component of faith is necessary and present especially when we read the Scriptures and have our own times of devotion, "subjective individualism" has led us not TO the Church but away from fellow disciples. 

Faith has become an "every man for himself" proposition to the exclusion of corporate worship, fellowship with other disciples, mutual accountability for spiritual growth - AND - perhaps worst of all, no one is evangelizing because it's "someone else's" job.  Individually it's not "my" problem.  No one is telling The Story, frankly because very few know or even care what The Story is, being much more concerned with their own story.  While this is important, it is not "core memory" which belongs to the collective Body.

So Jesus' prayer for unity in John is compelling for us in that we are left to wonder if this is one of those prayers for which the answer was "no".  YHWH answers the prayers of the faithful, as it is written in the Scriptures, and there would be no one more faithful than Jesus.  We are often painfully aware that sometimes the answer to our prayers is "no", but this is all the more confusing because clearly the will of Messiah (who is 'in the Father') was that unity be protected and maintained.  Sadly, unity is probably the furthest thing from our minds - unless by unity we mean that all must agree with us.

The most poignant speech ever delivered in the US (in my opinion) was Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address.  It was given as the Civil War was beginning to wind down and about a month before President Lincoln was assassinated.  While Mr. Lincoln was clearly talking about the unity of the nation, his words can easily speak to the state of the Church in the US as well.

In part Mr. Lincoln said, "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."  

Further he states, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." 

And as a result of the utter conflict within the whole body of the nation Mr. Lincoln offered this: "The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh ... and so [the Almighty] gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came."

In other words, both were offenders - and both suffered for it.

The destruction of disunity during this awful war also affected what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church, resulting in what became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church South.  Methodist Christians were willing to part company and tear the Body asunder over the issue of slavery and states' rights rather than to work more diligently toward that for which Our Lord prayed.  The Church became entirely too embroiled in national politics to the exclusion of unity in faith - both trying to convince the other they were truly following the Lord when, in reality, probably neither were.  Not entirely.

Today it is not so much the issue of slavery to man as much as it is slavery to ourselves and the sin which envelops us, the sin we have come to embrace individually.  Whether we are talking about the sin of "subjective individualism" in which we create our own personal doctrines or the sin of inappropriate physical intimacy, we are nevertheless talking about the collective sin of a Body which would much prefer "war" (schism) over unity.  This great sin, such as it is, is offensive to our Holy Father and an affront to everything our Lord and Savior prayed for.

"And now", in the paraphrased words of Mr. Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, "we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether [that Body] or any [Body] so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

We are not sure where we go from here.  When Mr. Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address, it seems clear no one knew where to go from that point.  What is equally clear is that the War was far from over, and thousands more young men would die needlessly.

It is not so different today within The Church.  Even in light of Jesus' clear prayer for the unity of His disciples and thus His Church, there are many who would rather fight over their own ideas and notions of "rightness" than to agree on the ideals and righteousness of the Savior of the World.  Our "subjective individualism" is about to choke the life out of the Body of Christ because we are, individually, more concerned with being "right" than with being "righteous" - and Christ our Lord will have prayed for nothing.

Yet we know this cannot be true, for our Lord did not pray in vain, did not die in vain, and was not resurrected strictly for "subjective individualism".  Such was done and such is proclaimed for the Body that is The Church.  Individually we must draw near so collectively we can work to regain and embrace once again our "core memory" and lift up our Holy Lord who did not pray for the "rightness" of what we would choose to believe individually but for the "righteousness" of the Holy Church.  For every time someone withdraws or withholds or is harmed, the Body is weakened further and the destruction will soon be complete.

Let His will be done, now and forever!  Let us repent of our own personal desires and pray fervently for the unity of the Body which is the Church - for Christ cannot be divided within or against Himself.  He is One with the Father; thus we must be one with each other.

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