Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Thought for Thanksgiving 2014

“They are thankful for everything because they don’t have anything.”  Sadie “Duck Dynasty” Robertson

Watching “Dancing with the Stars” last night during the finals, each celebrity was asked what they are most grateful for.  The typical answers came expressing what most of us are grateful for: our families.  Sadie, however, expressed her gratitude for the mission trips she has been privileged to be a part of.  The people she serves on these mission trips always remind her how easily we can take those things and persons in our lives for granted, those things and persons always present.  As we should know, we never really know how important these are in our lives until we no longer have them.

Thanksgiving gatherings may involve a prayer of thanks before the meal, but after that we typically eat.  And eat.  And eat.  And … well, you see where this is going.  Maybe there will follow a football game or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  And then it’s over.  When things settle down and the last of the dishes and pots and pans are cleaned and put away, we may reflect on what a good time we had; but do we stop to give thanks to The Lord?  I mean, really reflect and pray?

However much or little we may have in our lives, each of us has something to be grateful for.  I was duly impressed with the young lady who is blessed beyond measure and has a strong family of faith to lean on, but nevertheless found it within herself quite easily to give thanks for the opportunities she has had to serve the “least of these” who are also members of Christ’s family.

May we never take for granted all that is in our lives, and find it within us to actively worship The Lord with these things and persons in mind.  And may we never forget that we are given much so we may in turn give much more; for it is, as our Lord Jesus said, in giving up our lives for the sake of others by which we will find life.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday 25 November 2014

“I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies.  Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings.  Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.  But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Amos 5:21-24 NKJV

Religious practices, even those prescribed by the Torah, have no meaning for the worshiping community if justice and righteousness are not part of that community’s DNA.  Much like our practice of participating in Holy Communion with no regard or sorrow for our sins or offering our children to the Covenant by baptism with no resolve to raise our children in the Church, religious practices – even our prayers – lose their impact if we are only going through the motions.  We Christians love to talk about the righteousness of Christ imparted to us by grace, but even that principle is lost if we have no interest in righteousness on our part; acts of justice and deeds of mercy.

I listened to the MO prosecutor’s statement last night before he announced that the grand jury failed to return any indictments against Darren Wilson.  The grand jury’s findings held that eye witness testimony, much of it inconsistent, could not be corroborated with the physical evidence.  However, the grand jury did not find Michael Brown guilty of anything nor did it find Officer Wilson innocent of anything.  The grand jury simply held that there was not sufficient evidence for the matter to be taken to trial.

Still, we have taken sides.  Some believe justice prevailed; others have convinced themselves justice has been denied.  In the human mind (and depending on how heavily invested we are in a particular situation), justice is entirely subjective once we convince ourselves that a wrong committed against us must be made right. 

Yet The Lord’s indictment against His own people, according to the prophet, held (and still holds) that until we actively work for the sake of justice, our gifts and our songs of praise and our worship will fall on “deaf” ears.  Even speaking of the Day of the Lord when Divine Judgment will be rendered, the “faithfully religious” should not consider that Day to be one of rejoicing: “It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him!  Or as though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him” (vs 19).

Regardless of how we may feel about what has happened in Ferguson MO, we are compelled by the Word of The Lord to actively seek justice; and the only way to do this is to actively engage our communities.  We cannot pretend all is well when we can clearly see this is not so.  We may have convinced ourselves that all is well in our own “house” … until the “serpent bites us”!

It is never about “me” or “mine”.  The Lord called Israel to something greater than individualism – and so did Jesus.  It is time for us to make our religious practices meaningful again before we can expect or even hope for genuine revival.  It is time for us to open our eyes to the cultural realities we face – and face them together as the community of faith.  Then The Lord will be pleased.  Then The Lord will be glorified.



Monday, November 24, 2014

Feel the burn

Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

"To be in Christ - that is redemption; but for Christ to be in you - that is sanctification."  W. Ian Thomas

So this question goes directly to the confusion experienced by almost every demographic group that is outside of the Church (and even some who are in): how "saved" do we need to be?  How engaged in the Christian life, which is discipleship, does one need to be? 

I am reminded of the rich young man who approached Jesus to ask "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 19:16-23)  Jesus' answer was very simple and very direct: keep the commandments.  This statement alone flies in the face of the contemporary Church that cries "legalism!" when commandments are lifted up as necessary toward the fullness of life.  The man was not satisfied with that simple answer, so he virtually pulls out his "check list" and says, "Which ones?" 

Jesus names off a few from among the "Ten", but He also pulls out one commandment that is not listed among the "Ten": "You shall love your neighbor as yourself".  This one, of course, comes from Leviticus.  It is not part of a "list"; it is part of a discourse.  It is not listed among the "Ten" in Exodus or Deuteronomy, but its importance in the grand scheme cannot be overstated as Jesus reiterates this particular commandment's overall impact in Mt 22:40: All the law and the prophets depend on it.

What is funny about this is that this last commandment seemed to have gone right past the young man because he obviously "checked it off" his list as "done" - or he didn't hear it or want to hear it.  Yet when Jesus tells him that in order to be "perfect" (Matthew) or to acquire what he actually "lacked" (Mark & Luke), he would need to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor.  So his faithfulness was not simply a matter of what he should refrain from doing; it was rather a matter of what he was willing to do - always in the future.

We're left to wonder, then: what did the young man believe he had once done that this last commandment would have been considered by him, according to his own standards, to have been "fulfilled" or "kept" or "obeyed".  If he walked away saddened by the concept of being poor himself for the sake of those who needed help, how could he have considered that he had "loved his neighbor" - a necessary requirement for eternal life, according to Jesus? 

This is an honest question that requires an honest answer, for it is our answer not in recitation or memorization but in actual practice that will determine where we find ourselves in the Day of the Lord.  It is not about what we once did "yesterday"; it is entirely about what we are willing to do "tomorrow" in perpetuity.

In order for the Church to grow in sanctifying grace, we have got to get past the prescription formulas and single-answer check lists by which we determine our own righteousness.  We have become so dependent on man-made - and incomplete - doctrines that we have virtually ignored altogether what is actually written for us to know - AND for us to grow on.

For instance, we might be inclined to decide for ourselves (as I have actually heard this preached) that the "saved" are the sheep (Mt 25:31-46).  That is the popular notion, of course, but it does not go deeply enough because it clearly does not read the text carefully enough.  The sheep are indeed those to be "saved", but that mercy will not be extended to those who do not fit the profile Jesus lays out very carefully.  He does not say, "Those who recited the 'sinner's prayer' or memorized the Apostles' Creed or the Lord's Prayer will be on My right ..."

No, where we are indeed headed is a place of "perfection" that requires "perfection"; as Jesus commands, "You shall be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Mt 5:48).  Where the Church gets tripped up, however, is strangely ironic in that the 16th century Reformation Church did its level best to distance itself from the prescribed "works" of the Roman Church and its sometimes corrupt practices and borderline superstitions - only to trade one set of superstitions and prescriptions for another. 

Now we can split hairs all day long about what constitutes salvation, what it feels like and what it may look like and what prayers must be said to make it happen, but Jesus seems pretty clear that faithfulness in perfect obedience - AND - perseverance in the face of adversity will rule the Day; not only "that" Day but every day between now and then: "Those who endure to the end will be saved" (Mt 10:22). 

There are extreme "growing pains" associated with discipleship, and discipleship is entirely wrapped up and invested in "sanctification" - that is, "going on to perfection" purposefully rather than incidentally.  What we seem to be entirely trying to avoid, however, are precisely the growing "pains" we must endure in order to be sanctified by Christ. 

All too often we are more in the role of the young man who wanted the bare minimum, a "one-and-done" formula.  In that narrow vision, however, he would deny himself the "perfect" state that was being offered to him in that moment with our Lord.  The invitation was there not only to sell all he had but to rid himself of the world's encumbrances so that he would then be ENABLED to "take up the cross and follow" Jesus all the way to blessedness! 

Yet he walked away because the cost and subsequent discomfort was more than he was willing to bear.  And he cheated not only himself but others with whom he would come into contact not because he was selfish - but because he was too narrowly focused only on himself.  He missed the entire point of salvation!  He was looking only at what it was going to cost him; he failed to see what was being offered to him, what he would certainly gain rather than what he might lose.

So when we ask "what must I do to be saved", we are asking the wrong question; and because we are so completely engrossed in "what's in it for me", we will always walk right past - or away from - all that is being offered to us.  There is nothing - NOTHING - that will make a commitment to Christ and His Church any easier.  There is only the Church on earth; and that, my friends, is the key not only to our glorious future - but is central to a life worth living now; a life filled with purpose and joy in sanctification.

I am constantly bombarded with websites and e-mails from the Conference, from advisors, and other religious and church 'experts' who seem to have those simple prescriptions and formulas by which people will virtually run to our churches.  I am more and more convinced, however, that people are not walking away from Christ. 

People are walking away from the Church due to a lack of purpose and righteous fulfillment and substance, things too often lacking in the Church.  They have begun to question the Creeds and the prayers and even the Sacraments that seem no longer to have any real meaning because these practices don't go anywhere; they just sit there because we leave them there.  The "lost" (as we fondly convince ourselves they have become) have pulled away the facade of the Church and have found, for lack of a better term, little more than "Ezekiel's bone yard" (Ezekiel 37). 

The contemporary Church has been on such a tear for so long against "works righteousness" - actually since the Reformation - that we have missed altogether the point of our very existence as the Body of Christ!  It is not now nor has it ever been about what we can get out of it for ourselves.  That is not "Christ in us".  It is entirely about what we can do for The Lord and His Church, what we have been equipped to do, and what we have been called to do for Him and in His Name regardless of risk or cost.  THAT is "Christ in us".

The "burn", the pains of spiritual growth, the hard lessons learned, the scars produced of a life filled with spiritual fruit are the only means by which we learn and find fulfillment.  We are challenged to go against our very nature - which is hard-wired to self-preservation - to swim against the tide of our humanness, and allow the nature of Christ to guide and direct us, to rule us, to regulate everything we do.  But because we have been convinced over generations that we don't have to do anything, that becomes our choice because it is easy and painless and cheap.  It asks nothing of us.

I cannot tell you what you must do to be saved - nor can any preacher or priest or rabbi - apart from what is written of and spoken by Christ Himself.  And if "personal salvation" is all we expect or hope for with no regard for our "neighbor", then we've missed the point entirely and salvation itself may be a moot point. 

If Jesus' words mean anything to us, it is not the "saved" who will be on the right hand of Christ; it will be the "sanctified" - those who knew what was the right thing to do in all circumstances regardless of personal risk or cost, and pursued that righteousness with hunger and vigor for the sake of something much greater than any person or any moment. 

He is Christ our Lord.  He is not only our Savior; He is also The Boss.  And He is IN us - or not.  Amen.

A Thought for Monday 24 November 2014

“Jesus said [to the woman at the well], ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is who says to you, Give me a drink, you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water’.” John 4:10 NKJV

“Wells are characterized by depth; their contents give life. The well requires an act of strength to access its life-giving waters; it does not simply flow of its own accord.”  This commentary by Rabbi David Segal is a direct reference to the well at which Jacob met his beloved Rachel, but his observation fits well especially in this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Like nearly every story in the Bible, there is always much more than what initially meets the eye.  So if we truly believe all Scripture is inspired from Above, we must believe we are invited into a story to look deeper, to exercise “an act of strength” in determination to draw closer.  If we truly believe all Scripture to be so inspired, then, we cannot simply accept it as is; to expect it to “flow of its own accord”.  It may well do this, but we won’t know if we do not intentionally draw from that well with a determination to do much more than merely quench our own momentary thirst.

The woman was involved in the discussion, but she did not have a “burning bush” moment in which she suddenly saw the light.  Even after she went back into the city, she was sharing her encounter with Jesus but was still asking, “Could this be the Christ?”  Her efforts speak to what most of us go through almost daily.  It is not a matter of doubting Jesus as Messiah; it is, for us, a matter of more fully understanding what is being said in a given moment and what it will mean later.

There is no linear thought in the Scriptures.  Though some passages seem very clear as they are, the context from which we draw fuller meaning must always be taken into consideration.  Even Jesus’ offer of “living water” and “the food which is to do the will of Him who sent Me (vs 34)” demands a closer look.

Let your daily reflections and devotions become for you much more than the mere words on a page.  Recognize that the well from which we must draw the “living water” runs very deep and requires devotion to the task and real effort.  We are assured that the effort will have been well worth it.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Thought for Wednesday 19 November 2014

In a prayer of thanksgiving for the birth of a baby in our congregation yesterday, I remembered a story I had run across shortly after the birth of my own granddaughter. 

“When Israel stood to receive the Torah, the Holy One said to them: "I am prepared to give you My Torah. Present to Me good guarantors that you will observe and study the Torah, and I shall give it to you."  The people responded: "Our ancestors are our guarantors."
The Holy One said: "Your ancestors are not sufficient guarantors. Bring Me good guarantors, and I shall give you the Torah."  To which the people responded: "Our prophets are our guarantors."
The Holy One said: "The prophets are not sufficient guarantors. Bring Me Good guarantors and I shall give you the Torah."  Finally the people replied: "Indeed, our children will be our guarantors."  The Lord said, "Your children are good guarantors. For their sake I give the Torah to you."
The world is not going to teach our children about The Lord and His eternal Word.  In fact it can be said that our failure to teach our children, our refusal to bring our children to Sunday school so they may learn about The Lord and His Body the Church, and teach them how and why to participate in worship is nothing more than to create a void left open and unprotected.  It means that for everything we do not teach our children, there is more the world will gladly teach them.
We need only to look around and see what this spiritual void has created: a drug- and alcohol-induced spiritual stupor, an empty space into which instant gratification is demanded, a generation walking away from the Church because the Church does not cater to their whims, children giving birth to children, and infanticide (abortion) with its false promises of a new start into a better life.  There is a generation completely lost because parents AND the Church have failed to recognize the importance of children in the life of the Church; that they are truly the “guarantors” of the Holy Word, the Word which is entrusted to us for their sakes.
We lament that these children need to grow up, but the truth is we adults have an awful lot of growing up to do before we can begin to teach them what they need to know.  As it is written, “Do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together” in worship and in discipleship development studies (Sunday school and other small groups) and prayer groups.  If we neglect this task, so will our children; and we will be held accountable in the Day of the Lord.  Our children cannot be taught to love something they know nothing about.
It is long past time to “grow up”.  It is past time to stop giving our children the excuses they demand to “forsake the assembly”, and it is long past time that we stop raising our children in a spiritual void.  We neglect our children’s spiritual development and Christian educational needs at great risk.  Especially at this time of year, it is too easy to see that our children know more about Santa Claus than they do about Jesus Christ – assuming they know Jesus at all.  Shame on us.
It is never too late to turn back to The Lord, and it is never too late to teach our children about The Lord.  Do not, however, make the mistake of believing any one of us can do it alone.  It is a task too big to be taken for granted, and it is too spiritually shallow to believe it will just “happen” in such a great void.  It won’t.
“Allow the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them; for the Kingdom belongs to such as these.” 


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Give Thanks

1 Thessalonians 5:14-24

Sometimes being thankful comes easily for us; those times when we get our own way, when life is treating us well, and our cupboards are full.  These are the times when being thankful is no challenge - although I would submit to you these are also the times when it is so easy to take such blessings for granted.

We also know there are times when things are not so good.  We have all suffered such days when even getting out of bed has been a real challenge.  Maybe it is fear or loneliness that paralyzes us.  Maybe we are grieving, maybe we suffer from some form of depression or other forms of physical pain.  I doubt there are many of us who do not suffer to one degree or another, for one reason or another.  We're human, and we are bound to have such days.

So reading encouragement or even admonishment from one or more of the biblical writers to "give thanks in all circumstances" actually compounds our misery especially when we are told that to do so is the "will of God in Christ Jesus"; and that failure to do so is to "quench the Spirit".  On top of whatever it is we may be suffering, it does not help that a generous sprinkling of guilt is added to the mix!

None of the biblical writers downplay the impact such suffering can have on the human psyche; however, we have to remember that the apostles and the prophets who gave us most of what we read endured much worse.  So while it may be easy for us to think they nor anyone else can possibly understand what our own brand of suffering is about, it is surely true that we cannot really understand what they endured for the sake of the Church and the Word of The Lord. 

So I suppose everything is a matter of perspective.  Yet it falls on us to have a proper perspective rather than to try and pretend what we are going through is unique.  It may be a new experience for us but it is also written in Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun."   

We are all challenged to one degree or another.  We are also assured, however, that such suffering, such misery, such pain, such loneliness is never in vain - unless we choose to stay in that pain and misery.  These are only some of the trials of life we must endure for the sake of "sanctification", Paul's earnest wish and prayer for the faithful.

Sanctification is not a word we use nearly often enough in the Church and among the faithful.  It never comes up in conversation.  We get entirely caught up in "justification", what some traditions refer to as "getting saved", and thus ignore what it means to "grow up" in the faith; what it means to mature. 

It is no secret we are all getting older by the minute.  It may be, however, the Church's best kept secret that with all our natural aging and acquired wisdom which goes with it, there is something more we need beyond that moment of "justification".  Our souls require "sanctification".

Methodism's John Wesley believed Divine Mercy has three components, each complementing the next rather than opposing.  There is, first, "prevenient" grace (or mercy) in which The Lord is already at work in our lives before we are aware.  We must consider The Cross to be that defining moment of Divine Mercy before we were even born!  Wesley likened this point as the "front porch" of a house.

"Justifying" grace (or mercy) is when the front door of this house is opened to us.  Because of The Lord's mercy, we are able to come in from the elements and find shelter from the storms of our past sins.  We are now under The Lord's shelter.

"Sanctifying" grace (or mercy) moves beyond the front door.  Just as we would not enter into a house and only stand just inside the door, so we also cannot only stand just at the threshold of "justification".  There is more.  So "sanctifying" mercy is likened to moving around inside the house.  As we explore each room and notice the appointments and fixtures throughout the house, we get to know more about that house.  It becomes more and more familiar to us, and our level of confidence in that house is raised.

Now of course we cannot imagine any physical structure so large or so grand in scale that we cannot get to know this house in pretty short order, so there are human limits to such a definition of "sanctification".  Yet when it comes to matters of the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end in human sight of what we can discover as soon as we open yet another "door". 

Our Lord encourages us to "knock" on these doors so they may be open to us.  It is a life devoted to pursuit of spiritual perfection as it is written in the Letter to the Hebrews: "Let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings about Christ" (6:1)

This matter cannot be overstated for any Christian, for this is how we grow up.  This is how we come to understand a little more each day, each hour, about the nature of the Holy One - and ultimately discover even more about ourselves.  Maybe this discovery involves more about our personal brand of suffering and how to overcome it.

We are quite familiar with our stations in life, very familiar with our human limitations and conditions.  We think we already know who we are and where we are.  It is all too common among Christians, however, that we may not be fully aware of exactly where we're going or how we're going to get there.  Whatever we may be suffering at any given time, whatever we may be challenged to endure may well be yet another "door" through which we must pass.

It is the sanctifying life filled with Divine Mercy that challenges us at every turn, but pursuing the Divine Will in Christ is entirely about moving beyond each moment - AND - having the increasing confidence of knowing we will not move alone

This is entirely the point of what it means to "rejoice always" and "give thanks in all circumstances".  It is not about being thankful for the misery for its own sake; it is about being thankful there is yet another door through which we are being invited to pass.  And each moment of "testing" (as it is written) prepares us for the next.  It is life's certainty that there will be more.

Our Lord is not playing with us arbitrarily.  Our Holy Father is preparing us for the moments to come.  Just as when we passed from one grade to the next in school, each grade is designed to prepare us for the next.  So it is with life, and the full embrace that we are truly not "getting older" (as the old TV commercial went); we're "getting better" with our Holy Father in Christ Jesus!  This is what it means to be "sanctified".

This is more than enough to be thankful for, so let us learn to give thanks in all things - the good and the bad; for in the end, it will all have been worth it.  This is our assurance; this is our Holy Father's Eternal Covenant.  Amen.

Monday, November 17, 2014


1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

A father was answering his young son's questions about why he was not pitching in the Major Leagues.  Dad was a pitcher in his younger years, through college, and a brief professional stint; but his arm gave out, and he was no longer up to Major League standards.  As the kid persisted in wanting to know exactly why dad was no longer a pitcher, however, his dad finally told him there are many factors that play into big decisions in life.  "It's never just one thing."

Like discipleship and making a commitment to Christ and His Church, that commitment is never "just one thing"; never just one prayer, never just one plea.  There is always going to be something beyond the moment; but if we stop looking, stop praying, stop pleading, stop asking, we will not be able to move beyond any single moment because that is when we stop living. 

It is written in the Letter to the Hebrews; "Let us go on to perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings  ..." (6:1)  In other words, there is something more far beyond the "basics", and we are compelled in and by Christ to "grow up" and find out what that is.

Much like Israel's exodus from Egypt, in that moment of "redemption" had they stayed put as freed men and women and not moved forward with The Lord leading the way, they would have surely died right where they chose to stay.  They would not have known what is beyond that moment of redemption. 

The Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) is yet another of Jesus' many parables that cannot be left "as is".  It is like the old cedar chests that get passed from generation to generation.  The entire thing has to be unpacked piece by piece in order to see what is really there.  There is likely a lot of family history and stories long forgotten or even perhaps never known.  The only way to get to those stories and find fuller meaning is to unpack the chest so as to discover something about who we are we otherwise would have not known.

On the surface Jesus telling His disciples - then and now - we are entrusted with only a portion of The Lord's wealth, "to each according to his ability" (vs 15).  This remarkable gift is given to His followers after Jesus ascends to Heaven following His Resurrection.  It is truly the "gift that keeps on giving".  It then falls to each disciple to use those "talents" left to their care not for personal fulfillment and not for smug self-righteousness, but to increase The Lord's portion.  As much as it is never "just one thing", it is also never just "about me".

So in the parable we see the first two who faithfully used what had been entrusted to them to give The Lord back a greater share than what had been initially issued.  It is the third disciple who did nothing.  He put the "talent" away, he tried as an excuse, for safe keeping.  He didn't lose it.  He didn't spend it on himself.  He simply did not use it for his Master's sake, for what it was intended.

Speaking of the Day of the Lord when Messiah returns and settles all accounts, those who use what is entrusted to them will be rewarded for their - yes - "works".  These are not empty works, however; they are deeds of mercy and acts of justice in service to others.  They put to work that which had been entrusted to their care, "each according to his ability", and returned to The Lord double what had been given.  The third disciple simply did not do anything. 

Again, he did not steal The Lord's "talent" for himself, and he didn't lose it.  He did not do anything with it.  He wasn't "bad" as we might define "bad", but he wasn't "good", either.  He was "neither hot nor cold" (Revelation 3:15).  For his complacency, then, what little he had been given was taken from him and given to the one who had showed up with ten talents from the five he had been given.  Then the Master rendered judgment to the third: "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (vs 30).  The third one had been "vomited" from The Lord's mouth (Rev 3:16).

There are two undeniable components to this parable, even though we often try to deny them.  First, when we decide to commit our lives to The Lord we will be given, "to each according to his or her ability", what we will need to endure the journey that is discipleship and increase The Lord's portion.  It should not be overlooked that the language does not stipulate one's willingness.  Our willingness - or lack thereof - is not an allowable factor; not if we expect or hope to see the Kingdom.

The second component we must not overlook is what is "beyond".  Especially during funerals, we have fond ideas of what Heaven must be like for our loved ones.  That a place will be "prepared" for us, as Jesus teaches (John 14:2, 3), still does not quite tell us exactly what is being "prepared" - or why. 

We infer from vs 2 that it is perhaps a "mansion" (NKJV), a "dwelling place" (NRSV) that is being prepared for us, but then what?  Few of us can sit idle for more than a few minutes now; can we even imagine just "sitting" in this heavenly dwelling place for all eternity??  There must surely be something even beyond the "dwelling place" prepared for the faithful, and Jesus seems to allude to this the parable.

Note the reward offered to the first two.  "You have been trustworthy in a few things.  I will put you in charge of many things ..." (Mt 25:21, 23).  Contrast those rewards with what the third one was confronted with.  These first two would not have charge over the third one because the third one will not even be allowed into the same realm as the first two.  "Cast into outer darkness" ... where there is no Light, no Christ, no Kingdom, no "lower heaven".  The third will not even have a "lower" place in the heavenly realm just because he "feared" the Master.  He will have no place at all.

What are we "preparing" for?  Heaven?  That's too vague.  Of course we cannot know details, and I think there is a reason for that.  Much like knowing precisely when The Lord will return, that kind of information in human hands would likely be more dangerous than fulfilling.  Besides, the entire point of faith itself is our willingness to trust The Lord fully enough to serve Him in spite of personal risk or inconvenience.  It is not as if The Lord will tell us exactly how the banquet table will be set or exactly what is being served so we can decide whether or not "work" in this life will be worth the trouble! 

No, what we are told is that those who "work" will "enter into the JOY of your Master".  That, dear friends, should be enough.  Considering what "joy" really means to us, then, we would do well for ourselves to consider the possibility of "joy" not only to come - but the fullness of "joy" we can have in this life as we "work" together to build up the Church, to bring people into the JOY of the Body of Christ, working not with anxiety that we might not get "enough" done but working in joyful anticipation of what is ahead of us - in the here-and-now!

The Church has gotten into a nasty habit of downplaying the importance of "works" of mercy and deeds of justice in a life filled with faithfulness - the "fruits of the Spirit" - and there has not been nearly enough said about those who ignore their God-given "talents".  And though it is a fond notion that The Lord is so merciful that He will overlook sin since we claim to have been "saved", the Parable of the Talents does not affirm this.  These "slaves" had been "redeemed" - "purchased", as it were.  They knew the Master; they sufficiently "feared" Him.  But the one did not trust Him enough to take the Master at His Word.

Threatening people with eternal condemnation is also counter-productive and short-sighted.  Such a doctrine does not take into account what is being offered to us in this lifetime.  It isn't material wealth we are being promised, but there are "riches" beyond what the human mind can comprehend!  It is the fullness of life beyond anything we can create for ourselves, but it also a life we will never know if all we do with The Lord's goodness is to "bury" it and continue doing our own thing as if nothing has been asked of us.  Our excuses will not fly in the Day of the Lord.

Today is a brand new day.  As it is written, "This is the Day The Lord has made; let us REJOICE and be glad in it!"  Let us embrace fully all we have been entrusted with so we may know fully the JOY that is always before us - in this life and in the life to come.  Amen.  

A Thought for Monday 17 November 2014

“Be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you.  Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.  This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it.  For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”  Joshua 1:7-8 NKJV

“Prosperity” means different things to different people.  We have the modern-day “prosperity gospel preachers” who promise material wealth to those who pray hard enough and believe deeply enough and give generously enough.  There are two problems, however; one, we don’t really know how “enough” is measured, and the only ones who really seem to “prosper” are the preachers to whom such generous folks “give”.

Trying to understand “prosperity” is hard enough especially when we let our Western capitalist standard become the sole, or even primary, measure of prosperity.  The word itself has its own meaning in its own context, but we cheat ourselves when we try to make our Western standard fit into the standard of Joshua’s culture, Israel’s future, and the Eternal Word.

Rather than try to define “prosperity” neatly and conveniently, however, I will commend to you The Lord’s instruct to Joshua: “You shall meditate IN it (The Book of the Law, aka, “Torah”) day and night”.  This is to say, we must not simply read the text as an “assignment” and then walk away toward our own business as though we had not even cracked the Book!  Rather we read and absorb what is written for our instruction, for our “prosperity”, and most certainly for the sake of The Lord’s glory so that as we go about our business, we do our business in accordance with what has been revealed to us in the Scriptures.  Rather than to allow the Holy Word to become a part of our being, we become a part of The Word itself as we “meditate IN it” instead of “about it” or even “on it”.  It is the difference between trying to make The Word fit into our own private mold – and – allowing The Word to shape us into that Divine Image in which we are all created.

Do not allow “prosperity” itself to become the pursuit.  Rather, allow The Holy Word to become our earnest pursuit.  Our God assures us He will take care of the “prosperity”.



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday 11 November 2014

“Whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on a rock.  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.”  Matthew 7:24-25 NKJV

Too many who are led to Christ without being told the whole story soon find themselves questioning their commitment to a God who allows bad things to happen.  It is a grievous thing to watch so many turn away from the Church because they had somehow been led to believe The Lord would protect them from the storms of life, that faith in Jesus would somehow be magically transforming with no effort on our part. 

Jesus does not even come close to suggesting bad things will never happen to His followers; and this passage affirms life’s realities.  The storms will come, the flood waters will rise, and the winds of cultural secularism will do its level best to blow and beat disciples into submission to the belief that being a “good person” is good enough.

Being a “good person” is a good start, but how we define “good” is completely subjective and based on cultural norms.  If being “good” is simply the absence of evil acts, then nearly everyone can be considered “good”.  We should remember, however, that Jesus is wrapping up His Sermon on the Mount.  His “sayings” go much further than to only challenge us to refrain from being “bad”.  Being “good” has a whole other dimension in “righteousness”; deeds of mercy and acts of justice.  It is not strictly about “getting saved”; it is entirely about being Christ in the world today.

“Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?  [Then Jesus] will declare to you, ‘I never knew you.  Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’.”  (Mt 7:22-23)

Discipleship calls forth from us much more than this, but the “more” is expressed not in the big things (the “wonders”) but in the small things, the personal things that truly transform lives and lift up those who are down.  It is ‘disciples making disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves’.  It is about feeding those who are hungry, and caring for those who are sick – yes, even those we consider our ‘enemies’ – giving them a reason to believe the “hope that is within us”.  “Good” people take great care of those whom they love, but they will often ignore those who are really hurting.  “Good” people often refrain from “judging” others, but these same “good” people will not challenge those who are on the road to perdition and hold them accountable to the reality of discipleship.  It is much more important to “good” persons to be liked and popular than to be faithful to Christ and His “sayings”.

Claiming to believe in Jesus as the Son of the Most High God but being almost completely ignorant about or unconcerned with what Jesus has taught, or being unwilling to take up the cross, is no belief at all.  It is building the proverbial house upon the shifting sands (Mt 7:26-27) of popularity that will ultimately cause grief.  We will discover that our own ‘goodness’ will not be good enough if we are not touching and transforming lives by teaching people about the real Jesus who offered no excuses.

Let us be diligent about building upon the “Rock” which is Christ, the eternal Word which will sustain us when the storms of life threaten to overwhelm us. 



Monday, November 10, 2014

A Thought for Monday 10 November 2014

“[Israel] sinned even more against [The Lord] by rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness.  And they tested God in their heart by asking for the food of their fancy.  Yes, they spoke against God; they said, ‘Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?’  Behold, He struck the rock so that waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed.  Can He give bread also?  Can He provide meat for His people?”  Psalm 78:17-20 NKJV

If we never ask questions, we never learn anything.  Experiences in life will happen, of course, whether we ask questions or not.  It is a passive way of learning by just taking what comes, and we often learn harsh lessons from these experiences … and sometimes not!  Asking questions, however, means we are not sitting passively by and waiting for things to happen.  It is the inquisitive mind which wants to know something.  It is how we learn best.  What we learn, however, depends on what we are looking for and for what purpose.

Israel’s journey through the wilderness was to accomplish a couple of things.  They were going somewhere, of course, but the extra time needed in the wilderness was for one specific purpose: to learn more about the God who was leading them to the Promised Land.  Before they would be allowed to enter into the “land of milk and honey”, they would need to know about the God whom they would be called to serve.  This they learned through the Law.  Along the way, as they constantly tested this relationship and the power of this God, they learned some harsh lessons.  By the words of the text, however, it seems they did not learn very well.

There is nothing wrong with asking questions.  The journey we are on as Christians requires questions.  The manner in which we ask these questions, however, speaks volumes about what we think we want to know against what The Lord needs us to know.  These questions, as expressed by the psalmist, were asked in a manner by which the power and the mercy of The Lord were questioned.  These questions were not about whether The Lord would provide; the questions were more along the lines of whether The Lord could provide.  There is a big difference.

“You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”  James 4:3 NKJV

So it begins not with the questions themselves, but with the motivation for the questions as we must first question ourselves.  What is it we seek, and why do we seek it?  Are we trying to test The Lord, or are we earnestly seeking His will?  There defines the real nature of the relationship we claim to have with The Lord.  Even if we never ask, this also defines actually the relationship we do not have with The Lord. 

Before we question The Lord and His purposes, we need first to ask ourselves what we expect to gain from this relationship.  Are we seeking the good life for ourselves and our families, a spot in Heaven only for ourselves and those we love, or are we fully pursuing a relationship with The Lord in the here-and-now?  We should know the correct answer, but whether we are willing to ask the right questions for the right reasons indicates whether we should bother asking at all.

For the sake of the Holy Church, let us learn to ask the right questions for the right reasons so our Father may be glorified and our neighbors draw closer to learn more themselves.



Thursday, November 06, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 6 November 2014

Genesis 18 is a study of contrast in the reality we deal with on a daily basis.  We have Abraham receiving three “men” (presumably strangers, at least in the beginning) not necessarily because there was anything apparently special about these men but because even in the ancient world, hospitality to strangers was a very big deal.  Because of our New Testament lens, however, we read into Abraham’s reaction more than there may be initially because of his greeting; “My lord, if I find favor with you (NRSV) …”  It follows that Abraham wants to give them respite as it was “in the heat of the day”.  All is well as Abraham and Sarah go about preparing a meal and serving these men.  Of course we know it follows there is clearly more to these “men” because Abraham is then told that Sarah (previously known as “barren” and now known as “old”) will conceive.

Then these men set out from Abraham’s tent, the place of hospitality, and head toward Sodom, the place of extreme inhospitality, due to the “outcry that has come to Me” from those who suffer according to the “very grave sin”.  The Scriptures open up the gap between the two in stating that The Lord’s determined judgment is not for Abraham is to be concerned with.  Rather he and his seed are charged with “doing righteousness and justice” (vs 19).

Yet Abraham, once he is aware of what Sodom is about to face, does make it his concern to intercede with The Lord on behalf of those who may get caught up in the judgment that is coming.  Some have suggested Abraham was concerned only with Lot, his nephew.  Though the text does not tell us this, we insert it into the context because, frankly, this would likely be our own concern!  We would not care so much about those who may have it coming.

We primarily concern ourselves with family and a few close friends.  Though this is not in itself a bad thing, we fail to understand the importance of offering genuine hospitality to strangers, teaching our children of its importance.  Though it is written in Hebrews that these strangers might be angels (13:2), we miss the greater point in hospitality that serves for its own sake rather than for what we hope to personally gain from our hospitality.

Watching Abraham open his tent to these men, we see the ideal of a nation called forth; a nation charged with the privilege and responsibility of “doing righteousness and justice” which involves receiving strangers, and a “priestly” nation that will provide intercession between Heaven and earth on behalf of those who suffer from a lack of “righteousness and justice”.  Sometimes our intercession involves prayer when we realize the limits of our capacity, but most times (I think) this intercession will necessarily involve our “doing” righteousness and justice with our own hands – not just for kin but also for neighbors whom we do not know. 

Some suggest we cannot always know our limits.  I submit, however, that we often fail to test our limits in a willingness to go out on a limb for those we do not know and especially for those we do not like.  Yet we see our ancestor Abraham daring to go to extreme limits in trying to make a deal with The Lord for strangers he does not know; and this after he has given up his free time in favor of these men who showed up in the middle of the day.  In all things, the Divine Ideal is pushing self aside to serve The Lord and “neighbor” – with hands and with prayers.

Though this may not be who we actually are, it is the manifestation of what we are called to be: a “priesthood of believers” charged with serving The Lord and our neighbor in the name of The Lord.  We must not question who is worthy of our favor because the Ideal expressed by Messiah Jesus went to the cross “while we were sinners”; completely unworthy of such consideration.

This service to one another will not always be easy, but it is always necessary.  It is the Ideal which was in the beginning and will be in the world to come.  Today we decide where we want to fit in.  “Choose this day whom you will serve”.  We must choose wisely ... and choose daily.



Tuesday, November 04, 2014

A Thought for Election Day 2014

“If it seems evil to you to serve The Lord, chose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve The Lord.”  Joshua 24:15a, 15d NKJV

The best thing many of us can say about Election Day is that the campaign season is done!  We have been inundated with all kinds of ads on television, radio, newspapers, US mail fliers, and incessant phone bombing!  The nature of most of these ads has been almost entirely about how bad the “other” candidate is.  Worse, too many of us have been more than happy to share the negativity with others.  I must admit that as much as I claim to be trying to distance myself from politics altogether, I still get drawn in too easily.

I used to love politics so much so that I believed my future would be politics.  I studied politics, I read the stories, the opinion commentaries, and just about anything I could get my hands on.  It soon became clear that my near-obsession with politics was beginning to negatively affect my theology.  Bible study, small group discussions, and even sermons began to center around my political ideology to the point that rather than being incidental to my faith, it was my faith which became incidental.  The Lord was a given; it was politics that had my primary attention.

Now politics is more like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.  It won’t go away and is very annoying and distracting to the point that it would be so easy to be drawn back in.  And I think this may have been Joshua’s concern for the people of Israel as well.  There are realities Israel would have to face because as much as they may have been willing to try, evil simply cannot be eradicated.  Not in this lifetime, anyway, and not as long as the prince of darkness roams the earth.  Yet for all the good we believe we are doing to put evil in its place, we often cross a line at which we become evil ourselves because it is a very fine line!  It is very hard to discern especially when we get caught up in our own passions, what is important to us personally, and which candidate we prefer.

So Joshua found it necessary to retell Israel’s story to remind them of all The Lord had done to make possession of this new land possible.  Moses told the story before Israel was to cross over, and Joshua told it yet again once they were over the Jordan.  So must we continually tell The Story, share The Story, and embrace The Story for ourselves.  The world and its trappings are compelling and extremely hard to resist; but if we take deliberate steps to remember The Story and who we are in The Story, we will find that our primary attention is where it should be: on our determination to serve The Lord faithfully.  As Joshua held out for Israel, so must we “choose” rather than “settle”.

Our choice seems clear, and so we must “choose this day whom we will serve”.  And then serve faithfully.



Monday, November 03, 2014

Responsible Grace

Joshua 3:7-17
Romans 2:4b-13
Matthew 23:1-12

“If we truly believe that we are the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ, our actions would (not "should") begin to reflect that belief.”  Alisa Hope Wagner

The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to die by a court in Athens in the late 4th century BCE, having been found guilty of “corrupting the youth” and for “impiety toward the gods”.  Both charges came not from any physical act on his part but strictly because of his teachings, his philosophy which challenged the dominant culture (actually a lot like Jesus!). 

Unlike Jesus, the stink of Socrates’ death sentence was that he would have to do the deed himself by voluntarily drinking hemlock.  It was an honor thing, I suppose, or perhaps a social test that would force Socrates to do what he claimed to believe: that in his concept of a “social contract”, he would be compelled to respect all the terms of the society he embraced, not just the ones he liked.  Socrates' "social contract" held that one must not expect the benefits of being a part of something the rules of which we disregard and to which one is not willing to fully contribute.  There could be no half-hearted measures; one was completely in or completely out.

The foundation of Socrates’ philosophy that got him into trouble with the whole of society is that what he believed to be the most significant component in the search for wisdom is espoused by Jesus.  In order to find true wisdom, one must first acknowledge one’s fundamental ignorance (humility).  One must acknowledge there is always something to be learned. 

For the faithful, our ultimate source of wisdom is The Lord; but that wisdom is not magically imparted to us when we decide to call ourselves Christians.  This wisdom is discovered as we intentionally seek it out.  It is found only on the path made possible by The Lord as that step of faith is portrayed in Joshua.  Of course Israel would take that first step on that particular path according to the promise of what was ahead, but they would also discover soon enough that this one step is not enough.  There are many more steps to be taken.

“Responsible grace” is a lot like Socrates’ idea of a “social contract” in that while we can be assured we will receive much more than we can ever give, we must not ignore our need and our duty to give.  Not diametrically opposed to the concept of “free grace”, yet “responsible grace” demands a duty which comes with the “social contract” or, in the Church, the Holy Covenant we are baptized into.  We become a part of something bigger than self, and this comes with undeniable responsibility according to biblical terms.

We do not deny that grace is The Lord’s “unmerited favor” which is freely given according to The Lord’s own nature and cannot be earned by human means.  Rather we embrace the reality that just as hatred breeds hatred, mercy will breed mercy (the essence of grace).  It is the “social contract” of the community of faith, actually the social terms of the Covenant itself.  It is much bigger than “personal salvation”, that necessary but inadequate first step.  It involves the entire community of faith – and then into the greater community we are called to serve.

As UM elder JD Walt observed recently, "While salvation may begin with a decision to trust Jesus, if it does not lead to a daily decided-ness to belong to Jesus it will mean less than nothing to the world Jesus came to save. In fact, it will actually be worse for the Church because when God’s own people do not ever-increasingly reflect the depths of The Lord's nature, it turns people away from The Lord."

“Responsible grace” is the Wesleyan concept of sanctification; the active, engaged, and engaging pursuit of spiritual perfection by which we grow and mature in the faith, discovering along the way that as much as we may give, we will receive much more in return.  However, we will not come to know this until we actually engage.  We can think it, we can have ideas and opinions about it, and we can talk about it in our Sunday school classes; but until we are directly involved and actively engaged, we will know nothing.

For too many the concept of “free grace” has not lived up to any particular tangible promise – as evidenced by the exodus of the disillusioned masses from the Church.  Rather "free grace" has become more like the shiny new car we buy.  We get excited by all the features and the “new car smell”; but once our “prize” suffers its first door ding, the shine is no longer so shiny and we no longer seem to notice the “new car smell”.  It is no longer a new and shiny thing of perfection to be enjoyed and used responsibly; it becomes a burden.  Often following such “disasters”, we turn our attention toward something newer and shinier because this will no longer do.  It is still a reality, but it is one we no longer embrace.  It is always human acts, especially within the Church, that put the "door ding" on grace when we reject grace by refusing to offer grace

We cannot have what we are unwilling to share.

Christian author William Branks once wrote, “Many Christians live as if salvation is the only reason Jesus died.  Christ died so we would die to sin and live to righteousness, [as St. Peter observed] (1Peter 2:24).  This is a lifelong discipline that we must exercise every moment.  The Lord’s marvelous grace does not excuse us from His expectations of holy living.” 

St. Paul affirms this principle in his epistle to the Romans when he writes, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (2:4b)” - and that in order to provoke good works as witnesses of "God's kindness".  By the context in which St. Paul writes, that repentance involves “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” as St. John the baptizer held out for those who asked what must be done for salvation’s sake (Luke 3:8-14).  "Repentance" requires much more than an apology.  "Repentance" is a whole new direction, a whole new life - AND as St. John points out - righting our many wrongs.

Too often we take that bold first step – which is good – but we step no more.  We stop because "cheap grace" has convinced us the Journey is done for us.  Like the Israelites, we cross over under The Lord's guidance but soon forget Who made that first step possible … and relatively safe.  Worse, we fail to remember what we are stepping into (assuming we are ever told what we are stepping into); the “social contract” of the Church, the Holy Covenant.

“Responsible grace” is not about having all the right answers for all the social “hot button” issues and personal challenges we face.  “Responsible grace” is, for the Church, entirely about learning to ask the right questions as we venture forward in what can be a most exciting and engaging life in Christ and His Church.  It is about what we can do for The Lord, for His Church, and for His people – that is, for one another; and doing this in the Light of what The Lord has already done for humanity at the Cross.  That is our reality.  So if we claim to believe that, we are required to live that.

“Responsible grace” acknowledges the reality that we are not independent travelers in this Journey of Faith, but are rather inter-dependent on one another so we may continue the Journey with the confidence of knowing that when we stumble (and we will!), there will be someone there willing to help us up.  "Responsible grace" not only requires that someone help us up, but it also requires that we get up!  But if one voluntarily removes oneself from the Body, how can the Body know help is needed??

The unbelieving world that is in darkness will try us, will test us, and will demand from us an accounting of what we claim to believe, as they did Socrates.  Socrates was not afraid to face his sentence because he believed in his concept of "social contract" enough to live it, but he also believed in life after death. 

As Socrates BELIEVED, Jesus was not afraid to face His sentence because He KNEW there is Life Eternal!  And He showed us in The Resurrection so that we can know what we need to know in order to persevere.  Our Lord showed us what "Responsible grace" looks like in which what is freely given will be abundantly received - in this life and in the Life to come.

This is the grace, dear friends, that requires a response - in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A Thought for Monday 3 November 2014

“My lovingkindness I will not utterly take from [David], nor allow My faithfulness to fail.”  Psalm 89:33 NKJV

The Protestant doctrine that is commonly known as “once saved, always saved” has been turned on its head by human misunderstandings, but it nevertheless speaks a profound Truth as it is written in the psalm: “I will not allow My faithfulness to fail” and “My Covenant I will not break” (vs 34)

Lest we begin to think The Lord’s faithfulness is all about “me”, however, we are compelled by the Spirit and the Word to draw closer and read more carefully.  When we dare to do so, we will find the one thing that had endured through the ages and will endure forever: The Lord’s Covenant, The Lord’s own faithfulness.  Us?  Well, not so much.

We have the “hope that is within”, however, not of some blind belief but of what is written for us to know.  Abraham was called to give up his beloved Isaac, but the Covenant was to endure.  David was an adulterer and a murderer, but the Covenant was to endure.  John the Baptist preached faithfully and was beheaded for it, but the Covenant walked among us.  Even when humanity tried to destroy the Covenant at the Cross, the Eternal Covenant was resurrected on the third day and now sits at the Right Hand of the Most High.

We continue to face our challenges especially during an election season when we are forcefully, aggressively, and constantly reminded of our imperfections, our outright hatefulness, contempt, and spite; but we persevere because the Covenant will endure with us or without us.  It is for us to decide whether we will be so faithful, for we have the Promise which will endure for those who “endure to the end” (Matthew 10:22).

The election season is about to (mercifully!) come to an end but the Church still has much to do, for we are the “voice of one crying in the wilderness”.  In the light of the Covenant, you and I must make a choice that is not both/and; but rather either/or.  We are of the Covenant which is not of this world, or we are the world which tries to have its cake and eat it, too – utterly rejecting the Covenant. 

We are fully in or fully out; there is no third choice.  Let us then resolve to reflect the faithfulness of The Lord so that others can share “the hope that is within us”.