Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 26 February 2015

“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am The Lord.”  Leviticus 19:17-18 NRSV

Before Jesus defined our “neighbor” by raising the bar substantially to include anyone in distress whom we are in a position to help (Luke 10:25-37), Moses had decreed to the people of Israel that each person is responsible for, and accountable to, the other according to what The Lord had revealed to him.  That is, while there is certainly a personal component to our relationship with The Lord, that relationship falls flat if we do not allow our love for The Lord to manifest itself outwardly.  Indeed, “He who says, ‘I know Him’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).

So how are we to answer the contemporary notion that the Commandments of The Lord have no meaning for New Testament or “saved” Christians?  How is being obedient and faithful to the One who “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9) somehow being “legalistic”?  How can we say turning a blind eye to the despair many experience is ok as long as we’re “personally saved”?  “We deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

When we question the usefulness of The Law, we question the very Word itself which was manifested in Christ Himself.  And when we dismiss the usefulness of The Law in our daily living, we dismiss the doctrinal and covenantal reality that we are Christ in the world today; the Living Word in all its glory and in the full Light of Christ in a world filled with darkness!

We must not worry ourselves about whether we “have to” do this or that.  Rather we must acknowledge this certain reality: the Word means nothing if that Word is left in the Book itself.  The Word is not a list of things we must do or “shalt not” do; the Word is who we become when we are baptized into the Covenant and strive toward perfection, becoming sanctified in the Word.  “Each person is imbued with the divine spirit of The Word; the words we speak and the actions we undertake are all manifestations of the Word, commandments in motion” (Dr. Eitan Fishbane).

“Do not be deceived; The Lord is not mocked.  Whatever one sows, that will one reap” (Galatians 6:7) … and the Word we are entrusted with becomes, by our own actions or lack of faithfulness, meaningless … not only to ourselves but also to those we are called to bless and to bear witness to.

We have a lot of living to do between now and the time of our death; so let us live fully and faithfully!  Not in the darkness of despair and the lies we create for ourselves, but in the full Light of Christ who beckons us to live fully and faithfully!  For He is the Law and the prophets fulfilled – so must we be.



Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 24 February 2015

“What shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before The Lord.  For what does the Scripture say?  ‘Abraham believed The Lord, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’  To him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.”  Romans 4:1-4 NKJV

What can we suppose to have happened had Abraham only “believed” The Lord but did nothing?  Sometimes we make too much of “works” as if doing for The Lord in response to The Lord’s mercy somehow brings a curse.  Or the “works” we do through and in the Church can somehow be perceived as a futile effort to gain Divine favor. 

To be sure, The Lord cannot be bought nor can The Lord be impressed by the “works” we may choose to do only to justify ourselves as a “good person”.  However, the gift of Life requires much more than an intellectual acknowledgment – as to simply “believe” something.  Trust is the issue, and a solid response is required.  Abraham was already long gone from his homeland before this moment St. Paul quotes from (Genesis 15).  The Lord issued a proclamation to Abraham and, yes, an order; and Abraham responded in faith by leaving behind everything he had become accustomed to and comfortable with.  Not being exactly sure what was in store for him, Abraham nevertheless packed up and ventured out in faith.  It can be easily said Abraham clearly “believed” The Lord, but that belief manifested itself in something more tangible than simply believing.

We must not get so caught up in a false or misleading notion of “works” to the point that nothing ever gets done.  The very foundation of our faith is through Abraham’s willingness to follow The Lord wherever The Lord would lead him; “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).  Abraham did not simply “believe”; Abraham trusted The Lord.  There is a profound difference.

Pray we may learn the difference before The Church disappears altogether from the spiritual wasteland our country seems to have become.  The Lord is counting on His people to trust Him enough to follow Him.  Do we?  Shall we?  Indeed we must.



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Getting ready for Lent 2015

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.  It is a time of prayer, fasting, reflection, and repentance.  We are called to consider the past year, our service to the Church, and the testimony (and perhaps the strength) of our faith.  Like Advent which precedes Christmas, Lent does not allow us to simply count down the days until Easter.  That is, the practices and the life of a disciple cannot be defined by a limited number of days as if we can end them when we tire of these practices.

Lent commands our attention and demands more from us than we are often willing to give.  And because we often give so little to the opportunity presented, we derive very little spiritual satisfaction from it.  It is just a season, a spot on the Christian calendar – all because we are willfully short-sighted.  We know Messiah is already risen – so the Holy Day of Easter seems … redundant.  In actual practice, it is just a “thing” we do only once a year.

The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel is important for us as we prepare for the Season because Jesus is not merely recommending things we ought to do.  Rather He presumes the practices already to be a significant part of the life of the faithful; that is, if we are actually “faith-filled”.  Fasting and prayer are not strictly New Testament ideas.

When you are praying”, our Lord says (6:7).  Not “if”.  As John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, once observed, if Jesus as The Word Made Flesh, The Almighty Himself Incarnate, speaks, His words have the force of “commandment”, as sure and as certain as “You shall not kill”.  As when Jesus, during the Last Supper, “commanded” His disciples to “do this and remember Me”, the words spoken by our Lord not only assess our commitment to Him but they also challenge us to reach beyond ourselves.  As one preacher once said, “Get over yourself; it ain’t about you!”

And “when you fast” (6:16).  That is, “when” we deny ourselves one thing for something greater.  This is the BIG ONE because we have likely spent the last 2000 years trying to figure out exactly how much we need to give up – and for how long.  Many give up sweets or chocolate or tobacco or TV – but ONLY for the 40-day period and ONLY for as long as it is not too uncomfortable.  The commitment to something greater is lacking because we also give up these innocuous things strictly for self-improvement rather than spiritual enlightenment or fulfillment. 

Still, these can be a good start, but simply giving something up only for a finite period misses the point of the season devoted to genuine spiritual reflection.  Is chocolate getting in the way of our devotion to our Lord as it may get in the way of us seeing our toes?  Are sweets preventing us from spending more time in The Word?  Does TV prevent us from attending worship?  Does tobacco deny our needed time in fellowship with other Christians?  Do these things – or any other thing – inhibit our life as disciples in any way?

These are the questions we must ask ourselves, for this is what the season of Lent to be entirely about.  It is not simply a “test” to see if we are willing to give up a “thing”; it is a practice and a discipline that calls us into something much greater.  We will never know what “greater” thing there can be, however, if we never take part.

Divine Mercy (as “grace”) has come to be a marketable product that can be packaged and sold with clever advertising that promises something for nothing.  It pleases the senses in the false promise that we do not have to do anything or give up anything for spiritual gain. 

Mercy that cleanses, however, Mercy that purifies often by “fire”, Mercy that is never comfortable but is always comforting is not so easy – and not at all marketable.

For, you see, we cannot package “mercy”.  It can never be “new and improved” although genuine Mercy from the very heart of our Holy Father will seem new to us if we are willing to draw so near, if we are willing to get rid of the excess baggage we’ve taken on for the sake of “personal comfort” or in trying to live the “good life” or to claim our share of the so-called “American Dream” which has become, for too many, a nightmare when trying to “keep up with the Jones’”.

Lent is hard.  Pure and simple, if Lent is practiced for all it can actually do for the Holy Church, regardless of denomination, if we are mindful of our genuine need for Christ and our own part in the Life of the Church which is the Body of Christ, Lent will be the single, most difficult thing we will ever do.  And here’s the real challenge to it: it will not end on Easter!

So Jesus is not merely commanding us in such a way as to see whether or not we are serious as disciples.  Rather these means of grace are offered to us as Gifts; sacramental moments when we are truly and fully touched from Above and from deep within. 

Like a parent who knows what is best for our children, Our Lord is seeing to our well-being by requiring of us to “take a nap”, to “go into your room and shut the door” from the noise of a world that draws us away from – rather than toward – our very Source of Life.  And like a child who must eat vegetables instead of sweets, a child who must be denied some things that will do more harm than good, we are those very children whose well-being is sought after.

Regardless of your denominational tradition, let the season of Lent be for you all it is intended to be.  Do not be misled by those who insist such practices are no longer necessary or are “made up” by the Church as “works”.  Rather the Church as the Body of Christ takes up the very practices our Savior took up for Himself and for those who dare to follow Him to the Resurrection! 

Prepare to be blessed, dear friends, but do not believe it will “just happen” in a void.  Know that it will be given to those who prove their trustworthiness, their faithfulness, those who truly love The Lord our God.  Amen.

A Thought for Tuesday 17 February 2015

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’.  But I say to you, Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?”  Matthew 5:43-46 NRSV

I must admit I have been tossing this portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount around in my head since the latest ISIS video came out showing the beheading of Coptic Christians.  I was extremely disturbed at the video released earlier showing the captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive while trapped in a cage, and I have seen other videos of the mass beheadings of so many others.  Maybe I am a glutton for punishment, but I simply cannot wrap my mind around such brutality.  Even in my former life I could easily hate someone with a red-hot passion, but I never experienced such a level of hatred that I could even imagine physically brutalizing someone so mercilessly.

We are dealing with an enemy that has changed all the rules of warfare (as if war itself can somehow be humane or civilized).  In order for these terrorists to be successful, they need to horrify and thus attempt to weaken the resolve of those who would oppose them.  “Terrorism” counts on such horror because they know it often works.  Many would much rather attempt to appease such men than to risk the possibility of a loved one falling into their hands.

The fact remains, however, that these people cannot be appeased – frankly, I’m not even sure they wish to be appeased.  Peace cannot be negotiated because it does not seem to be peace terrorists are seeking.  In fact it seems the only thing they will be satisfied with is if the western powers leave the Middle East entirely so they can obliterate Israel (or so they think).  

They are clearly “enemies”, and they are perfectly happy in that role.  So how do we deal with someone who does not incidentally fall into the role of “enemy” but rather seems to take some perverse pleasure in their purposeful and brutal treatment of their own “enemies”? 

The people of Israel were dealing with a rather brutal enemy during the time of Jesus.  The Roman Empire often dealt harshly with them as a means to control the masses, so it would seem Jesus was speaking within this context.  “Do not resist an evildoer” (vs 39). 

And this, I think, is where we find out where our allegiances are.  If we demand an “eye for an eye”, what are we really seeking; revenge or justice?  This is important for the faithful to discern because the “eye for an eye” is, in fact, written in The Law (Exodus 21:24); but it has nothing to do with vengeance.  It is part of an evolving legal system in which it is required that the punishment must fit the crime.  Those who would impose a sentence must be as impartial as they can possibly be.  Those who would hand down a sentence must contain their passion, and those who have been harmed must allow the legal system to work as it can.

So “eye for an eye” is a legitimate requirement within the Law, and Jesus is not dismissing the Law!  He is speaking to something that goes much deeper, for we are also reminded (assured?) that “Vengeance is Mine, says The Lord; I will repay!”  (Deuteronomy 32:35)

The bottom line is, in a word, trust.  Do we trust The Lord?  Do we believe He “will repay”?  Or do we somehow believe we can see something or know something The Lord does not know or cannot see?  For faith (which is profound trust) requires much more than to simply believe we will be “saved” on the Last Day.  Faith demands our unqualified trust in the Word of The Lord in our daily living.  Jesus never said it would be easy! 

But those who live by their own brutal treatment of their fellow human beings will be judged.  This we must trust; this we must believe in, for it is also written, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”.  This applies to everyone, including those who would seek vengeance and not true justice.

None of this is to suggest our own government must “turn the other cheek”, for a legitimate government “wields the sword” for a Divine purpose: to keep order and to protect those who cannot protect themselves.  Yet come what may, Jesus challenges us to trust Him regardless of how things may play out. 

Do we?



Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Lord's Prayer, Part 2: The Holy Name

Exodus 3:13-15
Exodus 20:1-7
Luke 11:1-8

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say, The Lord … has sent me to you’.  This is My Name forever, and this My title for all generations.”  Exodus 3:15

Language is everything.  Lack of effective communication has led to more conspiracy theories and misunderstandings than anything else I can think of.  The secret nature of the Masons and the Scientologists, for instance, means we are left to guess exactly what it is they actually do or believe, and most of what we read about these organizations is not favorable.  I’m not comparing Masons to Scientologists, by the way!  That is not the point.

It seems if we do not know what we think we need to know, we’ll often just make something up based on what few tidbits of information we may have without going to any real trouble.  Before we can hang our hats, a full – and very often untrue – story has evolved.  Because it satisfies our curiosity, makes any sort of sense, or belittles and slanders someone we don’t like or something we don’t understand, we leave it standing.  The matter is settled.

But not really.  It is what we do not know that more often causes problems – especially in the Church and in the Holy Scriptures – regarding the Holy Name.  Ancient Hebrew did not have vowels, so the actual pronunciation of The Lord’s personal Name – if there is one - is not known.  The Name was not used maybe because other designations such as “the God of our fathers”, “the God of all creation”, or “the God of our redemption” were – and still should be – used to understand our very being as contingent upon The Lord’s very being, the essence of His Nature, the fullness of Himself.  That is, if there is no Creator God, there is no creation. If there is no God of our redemption, there is no redemption.  Everything about us stems from Him, and none of it has to do with a simple “name”.

I am often left wondering what the original languages reference to in place of simply “God”, if there is some language commonality by which translators and interpreters have “settled” for the easiest and most convenient term rather than to acknowledge, understand, and properly convey this immutable fact: we do not know The Lord’s name as we know “Billy’s” or “Sally’s” name – AND – it may even be better for us not to know. 

We also live in a time in which “Father” and “Lord” and “King” have been largely dismissed by too many only because of the uniquely masculine reference.  So to be politically correct, to strive for full inclusion, and in deference to those who perhaps had an unhappy childhood at the hands of a brutal and sadistic father, we are encouraged (if not outright required, as at some seminaries) to simply go “God”.  After all, it is a very general term by which everyone knows and understands whom we are talking about – AND - without “offending” anyone.  Right?

Not so fast.

I submit if “God” has become so “general” a term we’ve simply settled for, then something has gone wrong and we have rendered a “name” (which actually is not a name) - referring to the Holy One - as common as dirt.  It is little wonder that even in the Church, The Name does not evoke reverence.  “God” has become a word as common and as misunderstood (and perhaps as misapplied) as “grace” (which has come to mean “excused”) or “love” (which is better understood as a “good feeling” about something or someone as long as they suit us). 

The “name” we have designated for the Creator has no impact and virtually no real meaning.  It should therefore be no surprise to us that those who are outside of the Church have no more respect or reverence for the Holy Name than we of the Church who consider ourselves “children” of the Most High – and yet are afraid or ashamed to call Him “Father”.

In Hebrew and throughout much of the Tanakh (First Testament), the common designation for The Name are the Hebrew letters “YHVH” which the English language had rendered “YHWH” and reduced to “Yahweh” (or Jehovah).  This designation comes from Exodus 3 in which The Lord makes Himself known to Moses.  We read “I Am Who I Am”. 

In Judaism, then, “YHVH” is rendered as “Hashem” (The Name which is ineffable {too magnificent for human comprehension} and unutterable {not only without a proper known pronunciation – perhaps for good reason! - but also not to be spoken carelessly or casually}).  That is, the Holy Name should be treated with the utmost respect – even there is “just a name”. 

Moses was left with, “The Lord … has sent you; this is My Name forever, and My title for all generations” (Exodus 3:15).  The Lord is “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob” … that is, THE God of the Covenant, The Big Boss, His “title”, but we are not told His name is simply “God”.

We must also not overlook the essence of the first few Commandments which deal exclusively with Israel’s and the Church’s relationship to The Lord, not least of which is the prohibition against making “wrongful use of the Name of The Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7a).  And although it is not generally thought to be so, it is interesting that the language in the rest of the passage comes as close to identifying the “unpardonable sin” as anything else: “The Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses His Name” (Exodus 20:7b).  The sin of “wrongful use” of The Holy Name is not strictly the vulgar word we know too well, or “OMG”.  Using The Holy Name to justify our own personal actions and self-serving choices that clearly violate biblical precepts are examples of “wrongful use”.  The Bible defines such as “blasphemy”.

So Jesus teaches us to first address the Holy Father not by any designated “name” (as if The Lord will not know we are talking to Him) but by a title which offers to us the assurance of His relationship to us (“our Father”).  We acknowledge His “place above all places” (Heaven), and then we are reminded of the reverence due The Holy Name by its “hallowed” nature; holy, sacred, sanctified, honored, divine, ineffable – in other words, above and beyond human comprehension – but, in a word, “wonderful” ... not common at all. 

Jesus teaches us, encourages us, invites us to come to “our Father” with and in this Prayer, this remarkable Gift our Savior has entrusted to the Church – not strictly to be memorized and merely recited as part of the worship liturgy, but to be “internalized” so as to become as much a part of our being as disciples of Christ as our lungs and our hearts – that which is intended and designed to keep us alive!

Old habits die hard, of course, and this old habit of simply “God” should be seriously reconsidered.  I am not going to suggest to you that saying “God” in our prayers is sinful or disrespectful; rather I am going to submit to you that any form by which we choose to refer to or address The Almighty must be with all due respect and reverence.  For I will also submit that it is our very lack of reverence and respect that is at the core of the contemporary Church’s problems – not lack of advertising nor lack of proper “family values”.

Let us through our prayers and worship and devotions rediscover the wonder of The Holy Name, for the essence of Our Father cannot – must not - be contained in a single word.  And for this we may be eternally thankful.  Amen.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Anatomy of Opinion

Film director Michael Moore created a stir with his “I was taught that snipers are cowards” comment in response to the movie “American Sniper”, and there have been plenty of opinions written about why Michael Moore is right and why he is wrong.  Moore, however, was not necessarily expressing his own opinion.  Rather he was perpetuating an opinion offered to him from his childhood.  That is, from an early age he was conditioned to believe a thing.  At least, that was his story.

“If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”  Movie line, “GI Jane”

One might say, then, that Moore has embraced the opinion of another without properly vetting that opinion or drawing his own conclusion based on his own research and analysis.  Had he ever met a sniper?  For that matter, has Michael Moore ever met a soldier, a Marine, a sailor, an airman?  More specifically, has Mr. Moore bothered to sit down with combat veterans?  Has he ever taken the time to understand these men and women are the ones standing between his opinion and a system that will tell him what opinions he may express?

It is said that a lie becomes the truth only when we decide to accept something we've “heard” without question.  We are also inclined to pass on this new “information” without going directly to the source for clarification, choosing instead to believe what we've “heard” based on … what?  The source?  Or the substance?  Do we more readily embrace and share derogatory information than uplifting news, especially when it is only something we've “heard” about another whom we may not particularly like?

“Who is the more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows the fool?”  Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Star Wars, episode IV: A New Hope”

The Bible’s Book of Proverbs expresses the same sentiment about those who believe anything without question, but the wisdom of the Scriptures also holds that those who believe and pass on information from “fools” are at least as foolish as the one expressing an opinion as fact.  Yet even Christians gleefully get on board with the whole idea of sharing unvetted and unconfirmed “information” while completely ignoring not only scriptural wisdom but also a direct Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 NKJV).  And yes, it does matter that one knows whether the information is false.

The “72 virgins” westerners gleefully promote as the corpus which drives Islamist suicidal/homicidal maniacs to their deaths (while taking many innocents with them) is a careless interpretation of what is actually written in the Quran (78:33).  As it is with so many other translations to English, there are few word-for-word translations from Arabic to English just as there can be no reliable word-for-word translation from Hebrew to English. 

Yet we profess our “scholarship” by promoting this false notion.  I challenged a newspaper columnist who wrote constantly about this very topic.  When he was challenged, he responded simply (via e-mail) that “it’s true”.  When I asked him to cite his source (he failed to do so in the article in question, only perpetuating what he had “heard”), I heard not another word.  A “fool who follows a fool” is himself the greatest among fools, is he not?  What rubbed me the wrong way was not merely that the writer could not/would not cite a reliable source but that the writer was being paid to write such nonsense as political opinion as an employee of that publication!  An opinion that perpetuates false information misses the substance of what it means to have an opinion.

This exchange was more than a few years back.  The sting of 9/11 was still fresh in the hearts and minds of many, so nearly anything written against Islam in general was considered golden and sacred truth.  It was during this period, in fact, when I purchased an English-language translation of the Quran.  I was not (and still am not) fascinated with Islam specifically, but I found it difficult to believe the things I had “heard” about Islam after 9/11.  What I have discovered since is little more than a perversion of what is actually written (not unlike the way too many Christians pervert what is actually written in the Bible). 

Make no mistake.  I, like many, have plenty of opinions about many things; and like so many others, I am at least as guilty of sharing something I “heard”.  It often is, however, that what I “heard” is directly conflicted with something someone else “heard” about the same subject.  This should be our first clue; that what we've “heard” does not mesh in the slightest with what someone else “heard”.  That in itself should stop the conversation for lack of real substance.  Yet it often only fuels the fire and hardens our resolve to defend what we've “heard” because even though the information may not be reliable or even true, it has now become not the information itself but our credibility which is on the line.  This, I think, is why it only gets worse, never better; few willing to admit that what they “heard” may have been misrepresented, misunderstood, or completely false.

The latest thing “heard” is the release of the movie based on the book entitled, “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  It has come to be referred to as “mommy porn” because women seem to be the primary readers.  Now that the movie is out (on Valentine’s Day, no less!), even more is being said about the exploitative nature of the intimate acts between two consenting adults (in a word, bondage) – except the only one being bound is the woman.  The man controls the act; the woman only gives her consent (or so I've “heard).

Now we can argue about whether the story is about bondage, control, sex, or exploitation; and we can argue about what is appropriate between consenting adults behind closed doors.  Both, in my humble opinion, miss the point entirely.  Yet it is only an opinion I can offer based strictly on what I've “heard” because I've not read the book (and don’t plan to), and I've not seen the movie (also don’t plan to).

So if/when I am asked my opinion about the subject, I am compelled to ask which “subject” is on the table.  If it is the book itself (or the movie), regardless of my opinion, it would serve most well to remain silent.

As with Islam (and many other subjects), what I do not know can in no way be constructive in a conversation; and my opinion may matter even less because it may not be my very own “opinion” being offered but, rather, an opinion I was taught to have from many different sources.  As it is unfair for Michael Moore to denigrate all snipers and combat veterans and capitalists and Republicans based only on what he thinks rather than on what he knows (especially as a wealthy capitalist himself), so it is also unfair for any of us to allow confusion between what we think and what we know with absolute certainty.

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, of course, and there is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion when called upon.  What is wrong is failing to recognize and understand where that opinion actually comes from, and whether or not there is any truth to what we share. 

Like the human body’s anatomical make-up, an opinion must have a structured level of substance that offers a perspective; but like the human body, if there are significant parts missing, the body itself will struggle to function and may come up short.  Those who are missing body parts do compensate magnificently, but their efforts – unlike an uninformed opinion – are not in vain nor are the valiant efforts an outright lie.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 12 February 2015

“I waited patiently for The Lord; He inclined to me and heard my cry.  He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.  He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear, and put their trust in The Lord.  Happy are those who make The Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.  You have multiplied, O Lord my God, Your wondrous deeds and Your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you.  Were I to proclaim and tell of [these wondrous deeds], they would be more than can be counted.”  Psalm 40:1-5 NRSV

The Promise proclaimed throughout the Scriptures is clear: The Lord will reach out to and touch all who stop, come to their senses, and turn toward The Lord.  Though we often allow ourselves to become so busy with daily living to the point that we go days without even thinking of Him, He nevertheless is faithful and thinks only of us – His beloved Creation!

Notice how easily we can get caught up in the “miry bog” or feel trapped in the “desolate pit” when we only think of things we do not have.  Yet when we stop to consider the whole of the Scriptures and the countless stories of redemption when The Lord saved His people – especially those who had gone “astray after false gods” – there is nothing to find but peace and contentment.  We don’t worry so much about what we do not have, and spend much more time taking stock of all we really do have.

Don’t let the day drag you down, and don’t allow the news to convince you we live in a hopeless world.  Find the “patience” within and realize The Lord works in His own time, not ours, and always for the Greater Good; but know this: The Lord will come always to those who cry out to Him, to those who finally realize the profound spiritual need and longing we all have.

The Promise is sure, and the Promise is ours!



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 11 February 2015

“Jesus said to the [Pharisees], ‘You are from beneath; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world.  Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe I am He, you will die in your sins’.”  John 8:23-24 NKJV

Jesus’ life on earth was as much marked by His blessings and healings as it was His constant challenges from the Pharisees.  They had clear notions about the Law of Moses and they were diligent in their observances, but there was one component of the Word that seemed to get past them.  It is the same component that escapes too many of us.

There is a clear and discernable difference between religion and faith, but this is not to suggest one supersedes the other.  Rather we should understand our religion as an expression and practice of what we claim to be true.  As St. James had written (1:27), “Pure and undefiled religion before The Lord is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

There is that personal element of religion through which we strive to stay “unspotted” by sin through fasting and prayer and study of the Holy Scriptures, but there is also that clear social component that commands we “visit [those who are mistreated] in their trouble”. 

The fullness of what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, then, cannot be singularly summed up as only believing Jesus is the Messiah as sufficient for faith.  The fullness of the context is the contrast between “this world” we are too much a part of even as we consider ourselves “faithful” Christians, and “not of this world” which is the Holy Word of the Holy God personified and expressed in Messiah. 

A priest from my childhood once said, “If you find religion and faith to be easy, you are either not doing them right or you are not doing either at all.”  It would be easy to say Jesus is the Messiah – as long as we don’t have to do anything else.  And it is easy to be charitable as long as we don’t have to actually interact with people we don’t know or even like.  Just as “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), so surely is religion as dead if it lacks a social component of expression.

If we believe Jesus is The One, then, this belief requires not only a commitment to all Jesus teaches and represents and fulfills (the Law and the prophets), but it also requires a response not only in private but also in the lives of others – especially in the lives of strangers, the “widows and orphans” who are marginalized by the secular world, the “aliens” (as clearly written in The Word since “you were once aliens”), and even those whom we consider to be “enemies” since we were once enemies of The Lord ourselves.

Jesus is, or He isn’t – not strictly the “person” but the “personification” of all that is good and true and righteous.  And we are, or we are not the personification of all that is good and true and righteous – not only in the eyes of the Holy Father but in the eyes of those trapped in their troubles and distress.  It is the choice we resolve to make each morning as we pray, “This is the day The Lord has made”.



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 10 February 2015

“If I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.  When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace.  But when one stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils.  He who is not with me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.”  Luke 11:20-23 NKJV

There are few among us who consider ourselves “against” Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven any more than we would consider that we “despise” The Lord or “abhor” His judgments and statutes (Leviticus 26:15).  That is, we would find it difficult to believe we “hate” The Lord in any way.  Yet when we are challenged by the Scriptures and by the world (and we are!) to show what our love for the Kingdom looks like, that is quite a bit more difficult because Jesus expresses nor offers any “middle ground”.  There is no gray area or third choice when it comes to defining who we are as the people of The Lord, the people of The Church, the very Body of Christ in the world today.

The challenge for us, then, is not to prove we do not “despise” The Lord; rather our sanctification depends upon our willingness, our eagerness to show to the world why Love is worth the trouble. 

Jesus could have very easily faded into the culture and assimilated Himself in such a way that no one would have even noticed Him except to maybe refer to Him as a “good ol’ boy”.  He could have tried to make changes from within very quietly, very moderately, and few would have noticed.  Yet The Word Made Flesh cannot – must not – be so ambivalent.  The very nature of the Gospel itself defies everything we have been socially conditioned and taught to believe; i.e., “just be a good person”.  Unlike the Good News itself, being a “good person” is arbitrary and completely subjective.

So it is not about whether we hate The Lord or simply refrain from committing evil acts (being more mindful of social consequences rather than spiritual ones); it is entirely about whether we love The Lord and are willing to stick our necks out for the sake of the Good News.  Jesus did precisely this while He was being followed and observed so those who would follow would learn and eventually hear that “he who does not gather with Me scatters”.

A quote attributed to Billy Graham pretty much sums up what it means to be a “social” Christian: “We are much more afraid to offend our neighbor than we are to offend The Lord”.  I think, however, that if we are more diligent about what it takes to Love The Lord by “loving our neighbors as ourselves”, we will find our neighbors much more receptive to our “gathering” rather than the world’s “scattering”.

Therefore Jesus asks, “Who is with Me?”  The Church responds, “We are!”  The world will respond, “MYOB (mind your own business)”.



Sunday, February 08, 2015

Why Pray?

Ecclesiastes 5:1-5
Romans 8:26-30
Matthew 6:5-15

“Prayer is an act of love; words are not [always] needed.  Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.”  St. Teresa of Avila

“The Lord’s Prayer is the disciple’s life.”

A few years ago I had the privilege of sharing the “Liturgy of the Hours” with the Benedictine monks in Subiaco AR.  The “Liturgy of the Hours” is an order of worship that focuses strictly on prayer for the worldwide Church.  The monks gather five times per day, so I was only able (or willing) to gather with them during evening prayers. 

Looking back, I wish I had made the time to gather with them each time – including their 5am gathering!  These were long periods of silence, singing the psalms, and Scripture readings – with a soft bell to mark the transition from one period to the next.  Watching (more than praying, I’m afraid) these monks’ faces in their intensity, struggle, and utter peace, a thought crossed my mind that has stuck with me since.  

A little background first.

After Peter had proclaimed Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 16:15-18 NKJV), Jesus responded: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”

The emphasis – and promise – of Jesus’ proclamation is centered on His assurance that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail”, but the awkward passage of how Jesus uses Peter’s name (which, in Greek, is translated “rock”) has led to a lot of speculation about exactly what Jesus meant by building His Church upon this “rock”.   What exactly is the “rock”?

Some have speculated Jesus was literally referring to a specific spot He was standing on near the entrance to a cave traditionally believed to have been the entrance to the underworld.  Others believe the “rock” is the foundation of Peter’s faith-filled proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah upon which the Church would be established.  While there is that, of course, there still is something else the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther observed: “Prayer is a strong wall and fortress of the Church.”

It is that “fortress” of prayer I observed and felt with the monks and their wholehearted devotion to the task at hand – not the petitions but the prayer.  While many of the monks are teachers at the private school in Subiaco, they are all called first to a life of contemplation and prayer.  That’s what they do.  They are the “prayer warriors” for the entire Church universal! 

They are not all ordained as priests, and they do not move from location to location.  When they join a particular order at a particular monastery, that place is where they will stay to live, work, pray, eat, sleep, and die.  And part of the work they do – actually, THE work – is to pray.  That “fortress” I witnessed with the monks was, in that moment at least, the “rock” against which the “gates of Hades will not prevail.” 

The experience left me with the deep impression - especially in light of Jesus’ statement to Peter - that the “gates of hell” are constantly pushing against that “rock”, always struggling to get past, looking for the weak spots, perhaps waiting for a time when we may drop our guard.  That “fortress of prayer” vigilantly maintained by the monks – with others around the world – may be the only thing standing in this world between us and the sheer power and terror of hell itself.

Still, we look ahead into The Revelation (sometimes dangerously so, I might add) to see that this cosmic battle between Heaven and hell must take place.  It is going to happen.  That concept, then, seems to suggest that no matter how diligent we are in our prayers, “the gates of hell” will one day coming bursting through; and it will not be prayer that restores the Kingdom of Heaven but The Eternal and Almighty God Himself. 

His will be done.

So why do we pray?  Why must we pray?  Prayer is important enough that Jesus prescribed a prayer which we now know as The Lord’s Prayer.  It seems, however, the biggest mistake the Church has made over time with this remarkable Gift is that we have devoted ourselves to memorizing the Prayer – but perhaps we have not done enough to internalize the Prayer.  We can recite it (in Elizabethan English) in our heads and with our mouths, but I wonder if we can recite it from within our hearts; that is, to embrace the Prayer as our own, not simply as a commandment of Jesus.  A prayer that expresses our own deep longing, our own desire that The Lord’s “will be done on earth as The Lord’s will is done in Heaven” itself?

In the Prayer itself are the essential components of prayer we are to observe – if for no other reason than that Jesus said to “pray in this manner” (NKJV), “pray this way” (NRSV).  At no point does Jesus recommend that we memorize the Prayer itself, though I suppose it could be implied – and there is nothing wrong with memorizing the Holy Scriptures, of course … until we miss the point and power of what we have memorized. 

There is much more to this Prayer than meets the eye, much more than the words themselves; and considering the challenges the Church faces in the world today, it is long past time we take our collective prayer life as The Church - as the “rock” against which the gates of Hades shall not prevail – much more seriously; as if “the gates of hell” are pushing directly against us … because I believe they are.  Looking around, it would appear more than a few of hell’s demons have already gotten past us because we’ve gotten careless, complacent, and have dropped the ball in our task as “the rock”, maybe choosing instead to be a bunch of individual pebbles.

Yet we must not overlook Jesus’ assurance that the Holy Father “already knows” of our needs, so we cannot say we are telling The Lord something He does not already know.  So we are still left with the burning question: “Why pray?”  If The Lord’s will is The Lord’s demand and things happen only because The Lord ordained them to happen, how can what we say somehow change this?  Surely if The Lord already knows of our needs, then it can be said The Lord knows more than we will ever know – or need to know!  Yet Jesus calls us to this collective prayer because it is not strictly about “personal” needs or “personal” desires.

The answer to “why” we must pray “this way” individually AND as the collective Body of Christ is, I suspect, contained in the components of the Prayer and the Prayer itself.  This we will explore over the course of the next few weeks.  It is enough, for now, that we recognize Jesus’ exceptional Gift to The Church, to learn this Prayer, to embrace this Prayer as our own, and to profess this Prayer in our daily living.  For we The Church are the “rock” … and “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against [the Rock]”!  But it can drive over a bunch of gravel.

All Glory and Honor to the Father, to the Son, to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forevermore.  Let the Church say, “Amen”.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The Rudder of Conscience

1 Corinthians 8

“Conscience and reputation are two things. Conscience is due to yourself, reputation to your neighbor.”  St. Augustine

Sometimes the Bible comes across as written in a completely unfamiliar language – especially when we read portions literally (giving the words only “face value”) with no critical analysis, no reasonable interpretation, no attention to the greater context, and no prayerful consideration. 

The eighth chapter of First Corinthians is only one of many such sections that, when taken literally, can be easily dismissed as useless or irrelevant today because Christians have come to believe there is no longer any such thing as “unclean” meat.  As for food offered to an “idol”, we don’t really see so much of that, either, and likely don’t even know what Paul means.

We also live in the “land of the free”; and while we can appreciate that our own individual “rights” may end at the tip of another person’s nose, we nevertheless demand they move their nose lest they interfere with our rights!  We want to be free to make our own choices without any outside interference.

It still bothers me somewhat that when the wet/dry issue was becoming an issue in Columbia County, I simply could not get stirred up about it.  I've shared with you that I stopped drinking a long time ago and am much better off without it (as anyone would be), but having bars and liquor stores in town is, to me, unsightly but not worth getting in a twist over.  Yet even though we know alcohol poses a real danger to some, we demanded our own “rights” to purchase locally.

When the lottery became an issue, the United Methodist Church stood against it.  I can’t say I was really ever stirred up about it then (though I advised against it), but I could (and still can) see that such “pie in the sky” promises never materialize, that “too good to be true” really is “too good to be true”, and many states have found that lotteries never live up to the “Promised Land” hype – but they always exploit the weakest among us.   

Yet we demand the “greater good” of helping some even if it may harm others.

There is legalized marijuana in some states; legalized euthanasia in other states; and legalized prostitution in some counties in Nevada.  Alcohol and abortion are legal in all fifty states, but we still struggle with what some believe are necessary restrictions we should impose for the sake of public health and safety.

The Living Word, however, is not about what we can do or what we may do and does not recognize “individual rights”; the Written Word is, for the redeemed soul, entirely about what we must do in accordance with what is written in the Scriptures for us to know – and for reasons we do not often understand … unless we take a closer look.  It is a developed conscience within a sanctified life which can know the difference between right and wrong based on human reason, the Written Word, the traditional teachings of the Church, and experiences we have had ourselves. 

We must also consider the experiences of others as well – especially those who are weak and have suffered as a result of our individual demands. 

So even the freedom we Christians celebrate is not absolute; at least not in Divine terms.  “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor 8:9). The late John Paul II once said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do as we should.”

So what should we be concerned with?  It is easy to say it is for the individual to determine his or her personal limits and be responsible within those limits, but we do not always consider that some among us simply have a weak constitution. 

These “weakest among us” desire and need – and, by Scriptures and a developed conscience - are entitled to - our full consideration.  St. Paul seems to require that we be more concerned about their weakness than with our own rights.  St. Paul is holding the entire community of the Church responsible for the well-being of the weakest among us.   

Incidentally, so does Jesus hold His disciples responsible for “causing one of these little ones to sin” (Matthew 18:6).

Paul’s discourse is clearly not about food since “Food will not bring us close to God.  We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Cor 8:8).  Food offered to idols is only the contemporary example Paul chose to use, an example that would likely be locally understood.  To summarize the entire chapter, then, “Paul formulates a general ethical principle that the [measure] of [acceptable] personal behavior is its effect on others …” (Notes, NRSV, New Oxford Annotated Bible, pg 279 NT).

So if we do harm by what we do – in any way whatsoever, by design or neglect by lack of concern or care for others – our personal behavior becomes unacceptable.  It boils down to the summary of the ENTIRE LAW: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).

This means we as members of the Body of Christ are the “rudder” on the great ship which is the Church, and the means by which we are guided is obedience to The Word and the collective developed conscience of the community.  We operate under the authority granted to us by The Captain (who is Christ) who calls the orders for the Ship from the Bridge (Heaven).  It is then the “rudder” which guides the Ship.  Ideally the “rudder” will function strictly according to the “command” given, but even then all things have to be in place and functioning as they must – according to our individual spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11).

The Titanic is a good example.  Lots of things went wrong leading into that fateful night, but what ultimately sent the ship to the bottom of the ocean was a “rudder” too small for the ship’s size and capable speed.  It could not dodge the iceberg in time. 

Even on a river boat pushing several loaded barges, the rudder has to be turned early enough to give the heavy load time to respond.  This means the boat’s pilot must always be looking and thinking ahead long before the boat enters into a river’s bend – lest the boat run aground.  River sand is incredibly unforgiving.  So nothing can be taken for granted – as the “unsinkable” Titanic that arrogantly plowed into dangerous waters with known icebergs at full speed.

We have to decide which way we will go and by what means as we continue to navigate waters known to be dangerous.  We can go arrogantly by our own standards at full speed which is essentially no standard at all since we cannot possibly agree completely, or we can be guided by the Great Standard which is long and eternally established by The Almighty Himself and affirmed by Jesus … which, I will grant, does not always seem so clear.   Yet even if we cannot find our collective way as One Body, there is one standard by which St. Paul challenges the Church to measure itself and its effectiveness as The Church: how much (if any) consideration is given toward those among us who are weak?

There are no easy answers to be given in a sermon or written in a book or essay.  The “mega-church” pastors who seem to be enjoying great success are good for perspective, but even they are not the definitive standard by which all churches can be measured – no matter how large their churches or how many books they've published.  Even these are only a very small part of the collective Whole and Holy Body of Christ.

Our direction is not about what Adam Hamilton or Mike Slaughter or Rick Warren or Joel Osteen may suggest – or even by what we may demand individually.  Our direction is determined by our collective developed conscience in accordance with where The Great Shepherd will lead us – and – always with a compassionate eye on those who are weak among us – lest we hit the iceberg and sink – and put everyone at great risk.