Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 9/25/14

“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.”  Psalm 51:12-13

On the surface it would appear the psalmist is trying to make a deal with The Lord; IF you restore me, I will pass it on.  Of course there is more to it, but the prayer upholds a central tenet of faith: we cannot know of this remarkable gift until it is granted from Above.  The compelling nature of this gift, however, does not allow us to disengage from the world or to take this gift as strictly “personal”.  It is personal in the beginning, of course, but it is at the same time to serve a Divine purpose.  The Spirit moves us to teach others.

This does not mean we become judges by which we impose spiritual sentencing nor does it allow that we can simply point fingers at those behaviors we find questionable.  Rather it demands that we reach first for the higher standard within ourselves and order our lives in such a way that people learn not from our empty words but by our substantial actions.  That is, they learn by the way we live and act and interact with the world.  And the lesson learned can be good and uplifting – or – it can be negative and demoralizing.  The nature of the lesson offered through the lives we lead will then determine whether sinners will even care to be “converted” to The Lord.

Israel was set apart from the beginning not to lead privileged lives but to serve as a “priestly” nation to serve The Lord by witnessing to the rest of the world.  I think it is the “witnessing” that confuses most of us because we have come to believe this act requires preaching in any venue or telling people about The Lord and how they must come to be saved.  There is that, of course, but like a successful fruit-producing garden, there is much more that must happen before the “seed” is finally planted.  The “soil” must first be prepared to receive the “seed”.

We prepare the soil by our living, by our daily habits, by our conversations.  Telling people about Jesus while acting like a jerk by mistreating or slandering others will win no hearts for the Kingdom.  But we must also remember that to be “upheld by the generous Spirit” is to be given a new, circumcised heart upon which Torah (we mistakenly call it “law”) is written; that is, the ways of God become our ways and the love of God becomes our love.  This is holiness at its best, and it must be our lifelong pursuit.  Then transgressors will care to be taught, and sinners will want to be converted by what they see and experience through us.

Maybe our question for today from The Lord would be: Can I trust you to share this remarkable gift, or will you mistakenly believe it was meant only for you?



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Thought for Rosh HaShanah 2014

Blessing for the sanctification of the Day:
“Praise to You, Adonai (Lord) our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has chosen us from all the peoples, hallowing us with mitzvot (commandment). In Your love, Adonai our God, You have given us this Day of Remembrance, to hear the sound of the Shofar, to unite in worship, and to recall the Exodus from Egypt. For You have chosen us from all the peoples, consecrating us to Your service, and Your word is truth eternal. Praised is the Sovereign God, Sovereign of all the world, who hallows the House of Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”
Rosh Hashana begins at sundown this evening (Wednesday the 24th) to signify not only the New Year in the month in which Israel was called out of Egypt but to also begin the ten-day preparation period of prayer, self-examination, and repentance leading to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Oct 3).  For most of us, it will be just another day.  Perhaps a day of blessing, perhaps a day of extreme spiritual challenges, or maybe a day in which our lives will be profoundly affected and radically changed.

This is the essence of the High Holy Days for Israel.  The periods of fasting and praying and inward reflection and repentance are precisely because those who have fallen short of The Lord’s expectations earnestly seek to make one simple resolution: to draw closer to God by drawing closer to one another.  Faithfulness is much more than simply believing something; faithfulness is a determination to more actively and purposefully pursue holiness of heart and mind and soul through faithful living and obedient faith.

Whether we can connect in a real way to Jewish heritage and history (their story IS our story because it is Christ’s story!), it is always a good practice to reflect inwardly, keep a prayer journal, think about all those we have encountered throughout the day, and evaluate those encounters according to how Jesus would direct our day – and then decide whether those we met actually met Christ through us … or not.

It’s a pretty high standard, of course, but it is no less than Christ gave of Himself for us.  To give fully of ourselves is to hold nothing back from our Lord and our neighbor, and it is truly the greatest gift we can offer back to the One who gave us life.

Shanah Tovah, ya’ll!  (Have a good year)


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday, 23 September 2014

“When I kept silent [regarding sin], my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long.  For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden.  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Psalm 32:2b-5

The single, most challenging event of my youth was making my “first confession” (I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church).  It was made clear in our instruction that to simply acknowledge one’s sinful nature did not go far enough.  To understand fully the depth of our transgressions, we had to go item by item, sin by sin, and confess these sins by stating why we understood them to be sins.  We had to come face-to-face with our short-comings.

It was not easy not only because it was a very small parish (there was no way the priest could not know who we were!) but because we were forced to evaluate each transgression and how these adversely affected our relationship with the Lord, with the Church, and with one another.  It is probably the hardest lesson I can recall because the experience did not let me off with a slap on the wrist after a bland confession; the discipline of the Church demanded that I come completely clean. 

I confess to you, dear reader, that I did not come completely clean with the priest because there were just some things I was unwilling to say aloud.  Then I continued to carry THAT burden which ultimately drove the point of confession home!

Believe what you will about the Roman Catholic confessional, but the stricter point was not about the power or the authority of the priest to grant absolution (one priest said that we could fool him and even ourselves, but we could not fool God!); it was about coming to understand the destructive nature of sin in general and each transgression specifically.  There was no “magic pill” offered by which a simple prayer or a priestly benediction made all the sin go away.  It was coming to appreciate the depth of sorrow while in the Divine Presence and being endowed with the confidence of faith to know that while forgiveness is indeed only a prayer’s breath away, there can be no forgiveness if there is no genuine sorrow.  Indeed, why would we ask forgiveness for what we are not sorry about??

To confess that we are “sinners saved by grace through faith” is a thoughtless declaration that may salve the individual conscience, but it does little else except to suggest to others that our Lord pays no more mind to our sins once we are “saved”.  Quite the contrary, “whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath” (John 3:36b).  For those who claim to know the Truth, the bar has been raised; “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

We take too much for granted in refusing to confront the ugliness of our actions, our thoughtless and often destructive words, our failure to take time to evaluate each day in our prayers, and resolving to do better the next day.  It is not easy, nor should it be, to come clean before The Lord, but we have the assurance of forgiveness when we are completely honest with ourselves, with one another, and with The Lord.  That assurance does not come in spite of our sins but, rather, because of our confession to Him and our earnest prayer to be released from these overwhelming burdens.  Then our “vitality” which was once the “drought of summer” will become the “rains of spring” when we are infused with new life!



Monday, September 22, 2014

A Thought

“The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them and said, ‘Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will be no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’”  Matthew 18:1-3

A Jewish friend recently shared with me that Christianity’s near obsession with “getting to heaven” is a very strange thing to observe especially when it is so easily observed that we pay no mind to cursing one another, ignoring one another, slandering one another, and distancing ourselves almost completely from the fellowship of the Church.  While his observation may seem a little shallow, the point is made that we seem so caught up in getting our own “ticket punched” that we will trample over anyone who may get in our way! 

In this very short passage from Matthew’s gospel, it is not enough to note the use of the term “converted” while ignoring the greater point Jesus is making.  What does it mean for us to “become as little children”?  To have the faith of a child is to be free of the encumbrances of this world since a child has yet to take on debt or get caught up in the so-called “rat race” for bigger and better things or to hoard as much money as he can so that he will live well in his old age.  To believe as a child can believe is to be free of the conditions we often place on just about anything before we are willing to accept it.  We generally require proof that a thing we are asked to accept is all it is billed to be.

In this passage, however, Jesus “called a child to Him”.  What we see is a Divine invitation and a child willing to accept the invitation without question.  We may be able to read into the text and believe Jesus was at least familiar enough that the child would come without hesitation, but we would also miss the point because Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

Many have been “converted” (by human standards, at least; proper dogmatic formulas we require to be followed), but the Church continues to dwindle in numbers.  Many claim to have been “saved” but continue to live as though they are more closely aligned with the evil one.  And far too many of us have been made to so fear the “boogie man” that strangers do not stand a chance with us, so closed we have become to any who do not live or look or act like we do.  Sad to say an election year brings out the very worst in us all, believers and non-believers alike (and we wonder why our children become so hate-filled).

Before we can get too caught up in our “conversion”, we must look more carefully at how we treat one another.  It is not faith we lack; it is humility.  We are not humble when we speak the Holy Name, we are not humble when we enter into a church’s sanctuary (assuming we even do), we are not humble when it comes to our money or our possessions, and we are not humble when we encounter those with whom we have disagreements – especially disagreements about religion or politics!  In each of these scenarios, we are being “called” as Jesus “called” the child.  How we respond speaks volumes about our “humility” or our sense of “conversion”.



Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Thought

“The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendents so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.  The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you.  Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all His commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings …”
Deuteronomy 30:6-9

This passage almost sounds like the “magic spells” (snake oil) of contemporary Christianity I have such disdain for and have warned against in the past, the borderline superstitions that have convinced us that The Lord’s acts in our behalf require nothing of us at all – not even participation in worship and in community with other disciples.  Whether we should believe it literally or believe its possibility is not quite the point, but it is also important to understand that this passage – as with every other passage throughout the Scriptures – has a context that must be fully read before this small passage makes sense.

Moses was speaking to a rebellious people.  So the context requires a belief that fully engages heart and mind enough that a resolve is to obedience even when we do not fully understand what is being asked of us.  The context presumes repentance, a full “turning toward” The Lord and away from the life we had previously chosen for ourselves: “If your heart turns away and you do not hear but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish …” (vs 17). 

The proclamation is not that The Lord will magically make things happen; rather the Truth requires that we turn fully toward The Lord and turn our backs on the many “gods” we have allowed to all but consume our thoughts and our actions – even as we have claimed to be Christian.  To turn toward The Lord is to understand that in order to turn our hearts toward The Lord, we must first turn our attention (our minds) to Him.  It is like an audition for a play or a band; we cannot expect to get a role in either if we do not show up first for the audition.  The “circumcision of the heart” is not quite magic but is the Spirit of the Lord giving us what is needed so we may “see” with our hearts what our eyes are unable to behold.  This is the pure Gift of mercy that does not magically change our behavior; it is the grace of spiritual insight that gives us a reason to reorient ourselves toward the new life that is assured those who follow faithfully.

The assurance of The Lord is that He will not abandon those who turn fully to Him and trust that we will be given what we need when we need it: the strength of heart to carry on when our minds convince us the hardship is not worth the journey.  It is not about “works” to earn His favor; it is about giving Him our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole soul so “you shall live and become numerous” (vs 16).



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Thought

“He who is not content with what he has will not be content with what he would like to have.”  Socrates

Contentment is not necessarily a state of satisfaction in which acquired possessions mark the goal.  Rather contentment is a state of mind in that anything more we might achieve or acquire is like a pleasant surprise since we are already satisfied.  Like the biblical concept of love, however, contentment is not something that just happens or comes naturally.  Contentment requires that we actively engage in what is at our disposal, reveling in what is already present rather than focusing on what we convince ourselves we lack.  So contentment may come down to what we think we own or what we believe we are entitled to vs. what we have been allowed for purposes much greater than for self-satisfaction because as long as we are in pursuit of “stuff” we think will make us happy, there will never exist a goal which can be reached – and true happiness will never be known.

Contentment may be the single greatest gift we can offer and teach to our children rather than to orient them toward religious holidays the sole purpose of which is to get more stuff.  The religious holidays (i.e., Christmas and Easter) are the gifts themselves, not incidental to what is found under a tree or in a basket.  If we cannot find contentment in these, we will not find contentment in the “prizes” because the true gift is overlooked.

This is how contentment is neglected.  Much like it is often said that we are inclined to “step over a dollar to pick up a dime”, we become so focused on what we do not have that we take for granted what we always had.  Counting our blessings is more than the title of a religious hymn.  It is the essence of faith itself in trusting that what we truly need is already present, however much or little.  And if we can embrace the spiritual reality that nothing is given that is not intended to be shared, we will find much more satisfaction in what already is than in vain hope for what may never come to be.



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Thought

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  Aristotle

Being open-minded and willing to listen is, in the truest sense, being “liberal”; “liberal” having its root in the Latin “libre” which means “liberty”.  That is, we have the capacity and the freedom to think as we will think.  Being “educated” (not strictly about the degrees we may have earned) is to be simply informed and open to new ideas without feeling threatened.  I think it must be that when we close our minds to opinions, perspectives, and observations that do not mesh with our own (and this includes very educated persons!), we are actually uncertain about what we really believe; we are unwilling to risk what we have already settled in our minds.

This is the state of the Church today.  We impose “liberal”, “conservative”, and other labels more often in demeaning and demonizing ways without really understanding – or even willing to understand – where our fellows are coming from.  It is a lot like believing there can be such a thing as “common” sense when in reality, few of us have “common” backgrounds.  We all have different as well as some shared experiences from our past that we have been conditioned to.  It is that staple which makes us feel good about ourselves.  It is our comfort.  Often we mistakenly believe it to be our strength when in reality, it may be our greatest weakness.

In order to fully appreciate that the strength of the Church is actually found in its diversity, we must be willing to listen just as we wish to be listened to.  There is no need to preface a discussion, an argument, a debate, or some pretense of “holy conferencing” with a preset agenda and/or an accusatory finger pointed at others.  This is the sure way to guarantee there will be no discussions, no new ideas, and no consensus.  Worst of all, it is the surest way to close the door to the possibly of the Holy Presence.

It has been said that perception is reality regardless of its truth, but reality is also not always what it seems.  Seeing something with our eyes only means we can see what is physically present; we cannot know all there is to know about what we are seeing, but our backgrounds and traditions and experiences will fill in the blanks for us impulsively.  This is not always a good thing!

In order for the Church to be all the Church is called to be, all “members” must be present (whether one’s name in a “book” or on a “role” is not quite relevant); the arms, the legs, the eyes, the ears must be together physically and spiritually just as St. Paul teaches.  The Church cannot function to its fullest potential without everyone on board – even those who dissent.  Yet this biblical reality is what does not set well with us as individuals because we have come to believe our journey is done and our obligations fulfilled once we are “saved”.  We withdraw from the Church because it is no longer “needed” – and the Church is further weakened with each absence.  Worse than this, our spiritual growth is stunted.  Not only is the Church weakened, but so are we as individuals.  We fail to realize the depth of our need for the Church until we actually need the Church.

No one can possibly know all there is to know.  It is why the Church exists, and it is why discipleship is a lifelong journey of learning and growing and doing until we are finally called “Home”.  The Lord alone knows what we may discover tomorrow as long as we do not shut ourselves off to new ideas, perspectives, opinions, and experiences.  And we will never know if we choose to disengage from the only Source of Life there is: Christ, who is the Head of the Church.

Yes, we may be convicted by a new word.  We may find that what we have been doing all along is not ok.  We may discover that the path we chose for ourselves is actually the road to perdition, but we will never know if we do not stop once in awhile and ask “directions”.  Make no mistake; that “inner voice” is not always The Lord!

Listen.  Look.  Learn.  Grow.  This is real life, and it is the life in pursuit of holiness we are called to.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Thought

“Thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place with those who have a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite ones’.”  Isaiah 57:15

This anniversary of a dreadful day we hope and pray will never be repeated is an anniversary that provokes different responses from different people.  Some continue to grieve their losses.  Some allow anger to overwhelm them while others are awash with emotions they find difficult to sort out.  Almost all remember where they were when word of these attacks came.  Working on the operations floor of a trucking company at the time, a place almost always filled with chaos and ringing phones, there was nothing but silence.  Even the phones stopped ringing.  It seemed in those dark moments that the world had stopped spinning on its axis.

Now we are facing an expanded battle with those who would continue to threaten peace.  What tomorrow may bring and what this expanded battle will look like and how many more lives it will cost is impossible to assess.  Yet we of the faith are called to do one thing before anything else: turn toward the One “whose name is Holy”.  Whether we are seeking answers or trying to find justification for our anger or grief, whatever we may be facing, this is an invitation to the people of The Eternal One to turn away from the life we currently face (as The Lord was speaking to His exiled people through the prophet) and seek the “revival of the heart” we are being offered.

What this “revival of the heart” may look like we cannot know (“for My thoughts are not your thoughts nor are My ways your ways).  What we can be sure of is that we will receive whatever it is we need to forge ahead in faithfulness and with the highest of hopes.  The name of Eternity is not ‘misery’; it is “Holy”.  It is complete.  It is perfected.  It is a state of being which recaptures all we were created to be in the very beginning and restores the Image in which we are created.

Rather than allow this anniversary to renew feelings of anguish or grief or hatred, let us allow this to be a day of “revival of the heart”.  Let us approach The Holy One with contrite hearts, humbled by our grief and our anguish and our fear, so we may find what it is The Almighty seeks to give us.  The Scriptures assure us it is much more than we could possibly imagine for ourselves, and that it will be enough.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Thought

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of My Father in heaven.”  Matthew 18:10

Often this passage is taken as meaning small children, but the broader context would surely include not only small children but “infants” in the faith as well; new believers who are still trying to work out their connection to The Lord and to the Church (can’t know one and not know the other!).  The language of admonishment, however, is much stronger than we take note of because we do not often consider that we “despise” anyone as much as we just don’t “like” someone.  Yet the language challenges us to take a closer look at what it means to “despise” someone even if we are not actively seeking to do them harm.

The love/hate analogies throughout the Scriptures are much stronger than any particular feelings we may have (including ambivalence); in very nearly every context the love/hate speaks more closely of what we “do” or fail to “do” for others.  We love when we “do” regardless of how we feel, and we “hate” or “despise” when we neglect the needs of those who have legitimate needs or fail to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Small children and those new to the faith require the full attention, protection, and nurture of the Church.  Just as there is only one Body (which is Christ), there can be only One Church (of which Christ is the Head).  And the whole of the people of The Lord are commanded to care for those who cannot care for themselves, whatever the need.  To “despise” these is to decide that it’s not “my” business even as we become aware – and thus deny Christ Himself.  As is so often said not only in the Church but in the secular business world: if you become aware of a problem, it becomes your problem until it is resolved or until you ask for help.  To “despise” is to deny this reality because we simply do not care enough to put ourselves out except for those we “like”.

Social justice involves much more than a pet project for a particular cause, spewing bile toward those we disagree with, and cursing elected officials who do not succumb to our demands and do for the “little ones” what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  Social justice requires our active engagement not with political lobbies but with the “little ones” not to merely speak in their behalf but to “do” for them what they cannot do for themselves.  This is fulfillment of the Great Commandments to “love the Lord our God with all we have and with all we are” and to “love our neighbors as ourselves” which, as Jesus affirms, is “like the first [Great Commandment]”.

We cannot revel in our salvation while others suffer in their misery, and we must never demand of “Caesar” what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  The Love we claim to know is the Love we are required to express.  And we will never really know or even appreciate the depth of that Love until we actually engage in that Love.  It is our duty, it is our privilege, and it is our Lord’s blessing.



Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A Thought

“I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendents may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days.”  Deuteronomy 30:19-20

The people of Israel had witnessed firsthand the might and the power of The Lord in Egypt, and they had spent 40 years developing a relationship with The Lord and with one another within the Covenant.  They had seen and experienced the blessings of The Lord’s favor and mercy, and they had experienced the cursing which comes from disobedience and faithlessness when they tried to go it alone.  Yet even as the journey itself was about to come to an end, a whole new chapter was about to unfold with dangers and challenges not unlike all they had already endured.  Moses was taking great care to remind the people of The Lord that it was far from over!

Serving in the US Marine Corps while stationed in the Mojave Desert in 29 Palms CA, we had a company commander who was the epitome of the Marine officer.  He was hard and firm and rigid in his demands, but he was fair.  He used to lead us on what he called the “Death Run” through the desert, but the purpose of the run itself was not just to see who could hack it.  The run was a means to an end.  This commander was incapable of getting tired, it seemed, so we ran for what seemed like eternity!  In the end the captain always made it clear that the run was not a test (though we were all expected to pass!); it was pure training to prepare us physically and mentally for the rigors of combat.  It was a means to an unseen end.  It was hard to appreciate what he was preparing us for since it was peacetime, but he worked to keep us focused while we were at peace.

Moses is doing the same thing to the people of The Lord, then and now.  There are experiences written of that seem overly harsh to us (taking a disobedient child outside the camp to be stoned to death!), experiences you and I cannot fathom in our contemporary culture; but it was all done not as an end but as a means to an end: to prepare to take possession of the Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey”, and to “put evil out from your midst”.  Even then, the people were clearly warned that the challenges they faced in the wilderness were nothing compared to the challenges they would face once they crossed over the river and into the Land; and obedience to the Word of the Lord was key to success, while disobedience would lead to utter failure and disaster (as in the Exile they would soon face).

Jesus, as the “Word made flesh”, the “Voice” we must obey, continues to lead us, but He is also clear through the Scriptures that we still must be willing to follow completely, not half-heartedly.  The death on the Cross does not in any way mean it is over for us, that nothing more is required or expected of us in this life!  There is still something ahead we cannot anticipate, challenges we cannot imagine.  It is necessary, then, that we “train” constantly to learn to obey The Lord, learn to “cling to Him” before we face these challenges, and remember where we come from.  It is entirely about learning to trust Him and learning to trust one another.  It is always about developing relationships; and if we do not care about one another, including the “stranger”, if we expect that Jesus will do all the hard stuff for us while we refuse to participate, we will not be prepared for whatever is ahead.  Even though The Lord promised to lead Israel into battle and to protect them, He nevertheless required them to create an army of warriors because they were still going to have to do the work.  The enemies they faced did not magically dissipate!

The same is expected of the Church today.  No one is going to do “for us” or “instead of” us, but most would be willing to do “with” us if they can be shown what it is we are preparing for and can trust that they will not be abandoned.  There are no magic spells, no magic potions, no magic prayers or incantations that will make all the broken pieces of our lives come together; only devotion and dedication.  We are required to do for one another and with one another.  That is the Church, the Body of Christ.  A “decision for Christ” leads us into this reality; it does not end the journey nor does it excuse us from further participation.

“Count the cost” before the decision is made, but “choose life” in that decision and all life entails; the blood, the sweat, the tears, the disappointments, and the heartaches.  But “choose life” knowing the Church is with you to support you, to “train” you, to teach you that you are not alone.



Monday, September 08, 2014

A Thought

“This day the Lord your God commands you to observe these statutes and judgments; therefore you shall be careful to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.  Today you have proclaimed the Lord to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments, and His judgments, and that you will obey His voice”  (Deuteronomy 26:16-17).

Sometimes it seems Christianity is more concerned with which “laws” are not worthy of our time or attention, and which “laws” are the really important ones.  Many classes and discussions I have been a part of have too often centered on this very conflict especially when it comes to the social “hot button” issues of our day.  The Jewish culture, however, does not seem to wrestle with which ones are “important” and which ones no longer merit serious attention (the absence of the Temple dictates which can even be fulfilled).

To “fulfill” a commandment, however, goes beyond being strictly “legal”.  Rabbi Jeremy Simons is director of Rabbinic Services at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson MS; and he writes: “These commandments existed to bring holiness to the utterly mundane tasks of life. Cooking a meal, putting on a shirt, even building an outhouse all became holy tasks. Throughout the day, dozens of actions reminded the Israelite of his or her connection to God. Seeing commandments as blessings rather than obligations motivated the rabbis of later generations to create countless more of them. Ultimately Jewish law had guidelines on how one ties his shoes in the morning.

The rabbi points out that even in going overboard on more rigid regulations governing virtually every facet of daily living, the purpose has never been about being strictly legal (although the Pharisees in the Gospels seem to suggest otherwise!).  The overriding purpose has been toward staying connected to The Lord in daily living, in even the most mundane tasks.  We Christians have our daily devotionals, but too often we give that little bit of time to The Lord and then go about our business – often forgetting that devotional time and the lesson which may have come from it.  Talk about being “legalistic”!  We satisfy our sense of righteousness and/or obligation by devoting a fraction of our day to The Lord and His Scriptures, but we rarely take those lessons with us to work and see no problem with it.  We have “fulfilled” a holy obligation!

What Christians can (and should) do well to learn from Judaism is that these “statutes” and “commandments” and “judgments” are not about fulfilling some legal obligation, being “holier than thou”, or stifling independent thought; they are entirely about staying connected with our One, Only, True, and Living Source of Life itself, leaving no portion of our lives untouched by The Lord.  In this we are constantly being reminded of the great care our Lord has taken to teach us, just as a loving parent teaches their children.

We are called to obedience, of course, but serious prayer and study of the Scriptures also teaches us why we should pursue obedience.  It is always about Divine Love, but we will not know what Divine Love really means unless or until we are fully engaged in and with The Lord.

Obedience is not being unduly burdened; it is being fully loved.



Sunday, September 07, 2014

Strangers in our midst

Exodus 1:8-14
Hebrews 13:1-5
Matthew 25:31-16

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."  Exodus 22:21 NRSV

"You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."  Exodus 22:21 NKJV

"When strangers start acting like neighbors, communities are reinvigorated." Ralph Nader

"Stranger Danger" is without a doubt the greatest challenge we face as disciples of Christ because our Lord calls us to ministry with and for these "aliens", these "strangers", these outsiders in whatever context we consider them to be "outsiders"; but our practical, protective selves are more inclined to focus on the potential danger involved in dealing with someone we know nothing about.  We of the Body of Christ are charged with a mission borne of a theological certainty that "while we were still sinners (that is, "outsiders"), Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8), our Lord extending to all of humanity a hospitality so radical and so unbelievable that even we who call ourselves Christians can barely wrap our minds around it!

It's one thing to believe Christ died for "me"; it is another thing altogether to fully embrace that certain reality that Christ died for "all".

The news reports never let us forget about "stranger danger".  Stories of children and women disappearing without a trace send a shiver down our collective spine and force us to circle the wagons, close our ranks, arm ourselves, and do all we can to protect our loved ones ... and maybe our friends.  We see nothing wrong with this, of course, and I cannot say for sure there is anything wrong with this because protecting one another is a responsibility.  Protecting anyone and everyone who needs protection, however, is not only a commandment of our Lord but a social responsibility as well.  According to the Holy Scriptures, we are charged with protecting the human dignity of even the "strangers".  Beyond taking care of "our own", we are commanded to "love our neighbors as we love ourselves" - that is, to do for them just as surely as we would do for ourselves and those we love.

Looking at a recent picture of my granddaughter, she was sitting in a little thingie that helped to support her and she had a little book in her lap that she was completely engrossed in.  And I got a little emotional looking at that picture because in the purity of her innocence and being oblivious to any sense of danger, she was learning, she was discovering, they were growing.  And our Lord is counting on her caregivers - not just "commanding" - to protect her so she can go about her business of growing up and learning and discovering new things without fear - becoming all our Lord created her to be.  Nothing productive and growth-enhancing is going to happen, however, if all she can know is fear and suspicion.

The same goes for us.  We know we live in a dangerous world; and though this crazy world seems to have become even more dangerous, the reality may be the world has always been this dangerous.  We are just more aware in an age of instantaneous news.  Being aware of these dangers, however, or being consumed by these dangers makes all the difference in whether we will continue to grow as human beings, as disciples of Christ, and as a people living in community with one another - or be stunted in our growth by our isolation, our suspicions, and our sometimes paralyzing fear of the unknown.

So what is it we think we know?  What are we more actively aware of?  It is written in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (NRSV): "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God.  Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget."

So why should Israel not at least be mindful of past experiences when they were mistreated, when the "stragglers" were hit while they were "faint and weary"?  Should this not be a lesson for future generations so measures can be taken to be sure it does not happen again?

The experience itself cannot be forgotten, of course, and there are lessons to learn.  What we choose to dwell on, however, may well determine whether our outlook in the present and for the future is cynical or optimistic! 

Neurosurgeon Dr. Daniel J. Siegel writes, "How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain."  So when we erect any sort of barrier that we hope will protect us from future harm, science shows that "what we pay the most attention to defines us.  How we choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of our lives (bells which cannot be unrung) literally transforms us."   

A rabbi writing a devotional expressed an experience he had once at a Yom Kippur service when the rabbi of that synagogue asked the congregation to list off some names of Hitler's SS.  Of course there was that keen memory of specific names of Nazi leaders who were responsible for perpetuating the Holocaust.  But then the rabbi asked the congregation to name those who tried to save Anne Frank and her family.  There was silence.

He quoted the rabbi, "Blot out the memory of Amalek, of all those who have tried to destroy us. But ... whose names have we blotted out, and whose names have we remembered? In focusing on our suffering, we have chosen to see ourselves as victims, to see in others the potential hater" (Rabbi Shira Milgrom, "We are what we remember").

We don't really have that kind of collective memory as Christians (though we should) because even though we can agree the Holocaust was the worst human disaster of the 20th century, we can probably also agree (though we shouldn't) that it didn't really involve us.  Yet even if we do not see the Holocaust itself as a direct threat to us or to our past, the Jews have a different recollection; their current generation still has some tie to that horrific time.  It is very real to them.

So even if we do not have such a recollection, we still have a way of making the "boogie man" seem so real and so vivid to us in the present time that we shut out those we do not know, we shut out those whose ideologies we find strange or threatening, and we shut out those who don't look or live like we do!  What happens as a result is that we truly do forget who we are altogether; disciples of Messiah Jesus who calls us - commands us, actually - to take deliberate measures to narrow - and ultimately eliminate - the gap between ourselves and those we deem to be "outsiders", "strangers", "resident aliens" - all the things we truly once were.

We as the Body of Christ, as bearers of the Gospel of our Holy Father, must always bear in mind that "strangers" are our primary target, "aliens" are our primary focus, and "outsiders" are our primary mission.  We should not be looking for and focusing on strictly trying to recruit new "members" who fit a preconceived and socially acceptable mold; we must be about the business of "making disciples [who are not yet disciples] who [will then go on to] make disciples" themselves - including our children and grandchildren!  Beyond growing the Church, if we are not doing this, we are failing our Lord AND the next generation!

Even as we prepare to do some remodeling and get a new, colorful outdoor sign and playground equipment, we must remember our task is not to make for ourselves a more comfortable place to gather or a place we can take pride in; but rather to prepare ourselves to comfort the "stranger" and be not just willing but eager to welcome the "outsider" who may be a member of this wider community but is outside of the inheritance of The Covenant of our Lord. 

"Stranger danger" is a potential rather than an imminent, but the greater potential is that "strangers" will become friends and co-workers for the Kingdom of Heaven on earth; "outsiders" will become "insiders" when they see the Gospel faithfully lived out and extended to them in real and relevant ways.  Then lives will be transformed in positive ways, and the Gospel of our Lord will live to see yet another day - because we remember who we once were.  And then "the lion will lay down with the lamb" - in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Thursday, September 04, 2014

A Thought

“[Take care that you be no] fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place for repentance though he sought it diligently with tears.”  Hebrews 12:16-17 NKJV

This one is hard because the implication is that when we make a hasty and rash decision in a moment of weakness, we should not expect to come back later and ask for the blessing we seek.  Notice, however, that the author points out the reason Esau was rejected was because “he found no place for repentance”.  In the context of Esau’s story, then, we see that he was a pretty demanding fellow and perhaps felt as though there were special privileges for the firstborn to which he was entitled.  In the cultural sense it is true that the firstborn were entitled to certain privileges and rights of inheritance.  Notice also that The Lord does not take secular culture into account when He calls us forward to take our place in His story!

Repentance is another of those “churchy” words we don’t seem to have a lot of time or tolerance for because, perhaps like Esau, we have reached a certain level of entitlement in which we demand what we are convinced is rightfully ours.  The biblical truth, however, seems to reject our own secularized understanding of benign religion in which we are not fully engaged body, mind, AND soul.  What is often overlooked in the reality of Messiah’s sacrifice is that His path is the path we must choose, but we are instead more satisfied with the bumper-sticker theology that simply says, ‘Jesus took my place so I wouldn’t have to’.

While this is true in a sense, it is true only as it pertains to The Judgment.  Jesus took our place in The Judgment so we can find our way out of a secular world that has no real meaning and into the glory of the everlasting Kingdom that gives us meaning and purpose in this life.  We must not convince ourselves, however, that it is in any way an entitlement without understanding that just as Jesus took our place in The Judgment, we must take His place in our living.  That is, we must do as He did, teach as He taught, and most importantly of all, love as He loved – even to the exclusion of self.

This is what it means to live in Covenant.  The Lord has made a New Covenant that includes the Gentiles.  While it may be debatable about exactly what of the Torah we Gentiles are expected to uphold, we can never do any less than to love as completely and as selflessly as Jesus did.  It is discipleship at its finest AND at its most brutal and difficult, but it is also whom we are expected to be.  Not without our flaws, of course, but certainly without our hatred, our covetousness, our anger, our jealousies, our bitterness, and without any sense that we are entitled to something which is given only by The Lord’s mercy – never taken by our demand.

“Ask and it will be given to you”, our Lord Jesus teaches.  Yet St. James warns, “You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spent it on your pleasures (4:3)”.  Like Esau who did not seem to be the least bit concerned about The Covenant but only about what he gets for himself, we must not find ourselves in that boat and “find no place for repentance” and thus outside of The Covenant.  It is our Holy Father’s good pleasure to give, so we must be in a good place to receive.



Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Thought

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  Matthew 7:13-14

Many have asked the legitimate question: Why does Christianity have to be so difficult?  Why is suffering necessary?  Why can’t The Lord just make a way for us so that we don’t have to suffer or watch our loved ones suffer?  Why does The Lord seem to desire that His people suffer? 

These are good questions for which there are no easy answers, but there are brutally honest answers we have to contend with.  I am corresponding with an atheist who has asked these questions, he being a man who sees no real payoff for a life of discipleship, a life of “suffering”; but it is exactly persons like these for whom these questions must be answered because real life is what it’s called – and real life cannot be put aside nor can pleasantness be simply spoken into being. 

A better understanding of what “suffering” really means will help to put things in their proper perspective.  Although we have a general understanding of “suffering” as pain or misery, the New Testament context is often probably better understood as to “allow, tolerate, or permit” – such as Jesus’ call to “suffer the little children come unto Me” (KJV).  This understanding would also be consistent with the admonition to “turn the other cheek” or “bless your enemies”.  Yet even then we need a reason to “allow, tolerate, or permit”.

The Bible does not necessary demand or require that we “suffer” as we typically understand the word.  Rather we are taught by Jesus that life is not always fair, not always just.  Life is sometimes just plain ugly.  We should remember, however, that even the Israelites had to prepare for battle as they journeyed to the Promised Land.  The Lord promised to lead the way, but the people would still have to be willing to take risks, risks that surely often put their own lives on the line as they continued to journey forward.  Yet the prize before them was must bigger than the moments they would endure on the way.

The Christian journey is like Israel’s journey through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.  We are not there yet, so we must not get so comfortable in any given moment that we forget we are not yet “home”.  To “suffer”, then (that is, to “allow”) simply means we acknowledge and deal with reality, but we do not delay our journey by getting stuck in the present or in the past.  To stay and fight is to delay or to quit and settle simply means we outright deny The Journey.  We, however, are called to forge ahead, to “deny ourselves and take up our cross”, to continue to look forward, and to follow The Lord – for He is leading us somewhere.

We are headed Home, but “difficult is the way” – and Home will not come to us.  Just as we ‘go home’ at the end of the work day, we must continue our journey together toward Home.  Our Lord is simply being brutally honest with us about what is ahead.  What is left for us is to “count the cost”, hear His assurances, and then decide which path to follow.  We must choose wisely.



Tuesday, September 02, 2014

You call that Love?

Revelation 20:1-6                                                                                                                           Romans 12:9-21                                                                                                                           Matthew 16:21-26

"It is not the punishment but the cause that makes a martyr."  St. Augustine

"Martyr" is among the many terms generally associated with religion that is misunderstood and grossly misappropriated.  The Church traditionally considers St. Stephen to be Christianity's first "martyr" (Acts 7:54-60) strictly because he was stoned to death but according to a more appropriate definition of the word from its Greek origin, we will discover Stephen is not the first. 

Throughout the Church's history, those who have died in service to Christ and His Church continue to be remembered and honored for having given their all to the bitter end.  To be sure, there is nothing wrong - and much that is inspirational - with remembering these folks and their faithfulness.  But like we do at funerals; is it not better to remember how they lived rather than dwell on how they died?

Religious leaders have tried to make a martyr's death glorious as something to which we should all aspire.  However, I doubt many of us have a death wish.  In fact we spend incomprehensible amounts of money every year doing all we can to avoid death!  Yet glorifying a "martyr's death" comes close to suggesting our lives and the work we do for The Lord in the here-and-now do not matter unless or until our lives are forcibly taken from us.  Like I said earlier, the word is "grossly misappropriated".

The Bible, particularly the Revelation, promises Divine Retribution for those who have given their lives in service to the Word.  However, as St. Augustine had observed, it is not the death itself which makes a martyr.  Rather it is the cause to which these faithful had given themselves entirely.  The death was incidental; it was the service in faithfulness they gave which we must remember, honor, and emulate.

The word "martyr" itself, having come to mean "murdered saint" (my choice of phrase), actually has its origin from the Greek martur which means "witness" (not "dead" witness).  So going back to what St. Augustine observed, it is not the death that speaks to faithfulness; it is rather the life we choose to give in service to the Church and in witness for Christ.  Even Jesus taught, "When they persecute you in this city, flee to another ..." (Mt 10:23).

This much can be taken from Jesus' words themselves according to Matthew's Gospel, although we are still more traditionally inclined to read literally that which likely has a much broader and more fully encompassing meaning.  When Jesus says, "Those who lose their life for My sake will find it" (Mt 16:25), can it be strictly said that He is referring to physical death as the only means by which we "lose" our lives, when our lives are forcibly taken from us against our will?  Or could it more appropriately be said that we "lose" our lives when we give our lives so completely by "denying [ourselves] and taking up [our] cross and following Jesus" (Mt 16:24) with purpose and conviction?    

It is the latter choice we are compelled to make rather than the former.  Even though it has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, we should bear in mind that the Church needs live witnesses, faithful witnesses, engaged witnesses in order to thrive in faithful vitality.  Faithful service may cost us our lives, but that cost should not be strictly defined according to an untimely death.  While we do not - and probably should not - aspire to literally die for Christ, we can - and should - seek to understand where "our" lives end and Christ's life in us begins.  This requires much more from us than to simply allow ourselves to be murdered - and it reaches far beyond the moment of confession, profession of faith, baptism and/or confirmation.

While there are many Scripture passages that speak to the same ideal, our lectionary reading from Romans actually defines well what it means to give of ourselves so completely that the value of "our" own life is directly relative to the value we assign the life of others - including our "enemies"!  Yes, even those who have wronged us are still, by biblical standards, deserving of our devotion TO CHRIST! 

We are not being weak or being played when we "serve" our enemies as St. Paul encourages and Jesus actually commands (remember the strength you exercised the last time you bit your tongue rather than answer for evil done to you!  Even a weak fool can give in to his or her emotions and lash out.).  And we are stronger still by living into our Lord's assurance that "vengeance" belongs to Him; and it is affirmed in the Revelation that those who lust for the blood of faithful witnesses will stand before The Lord and will answer for their evil and their bloodlust - and this judgment is reserved for ALL who wish and do harm to another!  And we would all do well to remember this in the upcoming election season!

We are clearly not called to be "judge, jury, and executioner".  Those roles belong to the life we choose for ourselves irrespective of Christ Jesus and any supposed - and certainly limited - loyalty we have to Him; for it truly can be said that when we return evil for evil, we are affirming and defending self - not Christ.  In this we are compelled to ask ourselves, "When does an evil act become a righteous act?  ANSWER: It doesn't".  And when we do return evil for evil - OR - instigate evil, there is no "witness", no faithfulness, no "martyr"; only the life we demand to keep and defend for ourselves - the very life Jesus says we will lose one way or the other; the very life which is not ours to keep nor take - only to define by how much of ourselves we freely give.

In keeping with making disciples who make disciples - and becoming better disciples ourselves - we need to understand that in giving of ourselves so completely to others, we are entering into and purposefully developing relationships - not church "programs" which can almost be done mindlessly.  This is important for us to understand the difference because "programs" can be done without actually engaging in people's lives on a personal level in developing relationships - like the Food Pantry. 

This is not to suggest there are no useful "programs", of course (Sunday school is a "program" - and a necessary one for all ages of disciples), but we have to understand that an earnest relationship is where we give ourselves completely - or should - without reservation and without restrictions.  The "programs" involve a season, a finite period of time.  A "program" might be taxing to plan and implement but once it's done, it's done.  We disengage.

This must not and cannot be so with relationships; for I am convinced it is the blood AND the sweat AND the tears AND the bonds of relationships that are the "seed of the Church" as we witness in the early chapters of Acts.  While these relationships do not literally require spilled blood, they do require a devotion defined by how much of ourselves we are willing to give to those relationships for the sake of Christ and His Holy Church.  "Programs" designed to bring people into and introduce them to the Church can be useful - but only if and when we are willing to give of ourselves not strictly to the "program" itself but to the people who may come - the same people who will return only when they learn to trust not our "programs" but us ... we who are the Body of Christ Himself in the world today.

This is what is called "love".  "Love" is what we do rather than what we may feel, and it is the "labor" to which we are called.  This Love is defined by what we give - not by what is taken from us.  This Love is the cost AND the price AND the privilege AND the blessing of discipleship.  This Love is the life fully devoted to Christ in which we gain much more than we will ever lose - because the assurance which comes from our Lord is the assurance that Love -  fully giving and fully given Love - will build up and sustain the Church; nothing less.  Messiah's own blood was sufficient to make this kind of Love possible to even comprehend, so nothing less than our whole life will do.  For Him, for His Church, and for the fullness of life which is promised and reserved for the faithful witness - in the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.