Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy Week Thoughts, Tuesday 31 March 2015

“The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of The Lord.  For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).

As we continue our Holy Week journey on the pathway of the Cross, we must accept the reality of common “myth” – especially as it relates to how Christians are perceived in the world today.  While we may attend our Holy Week worship services here and there, we typically keep our devotion relatively low key and in house. 

We are aware that our culture will only accept our Christian faith as long as we continue to keep it low key and out of sight.  That is, “those who are perishing” may be offended by the very presence of a church building, but they acknowledge the church’s right to exist.  What these “perishing ones” will not acknowledge or accept or respect is the Church’s duty to not be low key, to not be silent, to not be ‘set apart’ from the dominant culture.  As we see more and more in the public arena, the culture is demanding that the Church “get with the times”.

We cannot.  We must not “get with the times”, for the time in which we live is a passing time with a very short life (and attention!) span.  This is not necessarily to insert some apocalyptic warning about the End of Days, though there is that.  It is more to acknowledge so many passing “fads” that fade with time when people lose interest in favor of something newer, shinier, and with a little more excitement.  What is for now is good for now, but it will not last.  This is the reality of history.

The world understands “myth”.  There is the myth of Bigfoot, the myth of Loch Ness to name only two.  Yet these myths do not serve humanity nor do such myths speak to the human condition (unless that condition is “gullible”).  The “myth” of the Cross, however, goes far beyond some legendary story that serves no useful purpose.  This “myth” breaks into reality when the faithful live as though it is true.  The Story of Christ is “myth” only because discipleship has lost its substance.  This is not the fault of those who do not believe.  It is the failure of those who claim to believe but choose instead to live as though it is only a “myth”; a story that may be interesting but does not require anything of us.

The Cross becomes reality only when the Faithful live as though it is real.  It is not a Story which can be read from a safe distance; it is THE Story that defines life and living, every facet of our being and our doing.  The world which is “perishing” cannot understand what they do not see, and perhaps it is the failure of the Church that has become so enamored with social media that real (rather than virtual) relationships no longer exist.  Just post a “Jesus thing” on Facebook, and call it a day.

This is not who we are called to be.  If we are the Body of Christ Himself in the world today, there has to be more.  Yes, Jesus would probably use social media if He were walking with us today, but His message would be more like, “Meet Me in the Garden, and we’ll talk … but you need to show up”.  For Christ Jesus, in order to be the Great Shepherd and the Savior of the world, must be experienced face-to-face. 

This is why the Church exists.  Myths and legends have their place in American lore, but our Shepherd is very real.  He cannot be followed “virtually”, for this is what makes Him a “myth” in the minds of a “perishing” world.  When He is experienced first-hand through the power and the fellowship of the Church, He becomes the New Reality for those were once “perishing” but are soon “being saved” from the brink of the abyss.

This is our journey.  This is our Reality.  This indeed is our Life.



Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy Week Thoughts, 30 March 2015

So begins Holy Week.  Depending on one’s tradition, it began on Sunday with a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) or with a closer look at the Last Supper (Passion Sunday).  Either way, we are compelled to look more closely than before.  We are called not to parrot “talking points” of particular doctrines.  Rather we are challenged to evaluate our spiritual growth from last year to this one.

Simply “believing” in a certain thing can enable us to acknowledge a certain reality, but our faith in The Lord’s Eternal Covenant - for which Messiah Jesus is the “mediator” (Hebrews 9:15) – calls forth from us much more than an intellectual ascent.  In looking more closely at the Triumphal Entry or the Last Supper, we are compelled not to simply look at the stories from a safe distance; we are challenged to insert ourselves into the stories and evaluate our lives from that perspective.

Would we be welcoming Jesus into our city?  Would we be the one who betrays Him?  To look at ourselves honestly within the context of the human condition (which is fickle, at best) is to decide whether we would welcome Him according to our own expectations and demands, and then turn so easily on Him when we learn He is not meeting our personal expectations. 

In both stories we see a group (whether the throng in Jerusalem, or the small group in the Upper Room) excited about the possibilities or confused about what it all means, people who had seen or had heard about Jesus, friends who had traveled with Him.  Only days later will we watch the throng turn on Him and the small group abandon Him. 

Why?  Why would we today do as they did then?  To say we would not dare do such a thing is, I think, to be less than honest about the reality of our humanness and our assimilation into a culture that demands “e-z credit”.  That is, we want what we think we are entitled to now, but we will probably balk when the bill comes due.  We want all the goodness of this life, failing to remember we are only passing through.  There is much of this life we will not be able to take with us when our time is over, including our personal wealth and our loved ones.

To answer the question, however, as to why we would more likely repeat the destructive cycle is to admit we will not relive the experience ourselves.  We have, in the name of grace, deemed it to be unnecessary “works” that do not profit the soul.  We are to simply bask in the glory of our redemption.  Remember it, yes.  Relive it?  Eh.

As we reflect on the final days of Jesus’ life and ministry on this earth, we must be committed to learning more about ourselves and our commitment to The Church, the Body of Christ, and our commitment to one another.  In the Jewish Haggadah (the telling of the Exodus story at the Passover Seder), the faithful and their families gathered are called to “see oneself as though one had gone forth from Egypt."  Though “Haggadah” means “telling”, through the Seder the faithful are actually reliving the Story itself.  The faithful are not merely remembering but are attempting to relive the drama and the sorrow so as to be able to see and appreciate the blessing.

So must we relive these final days as if we are following Christ all the way to the Cross, for indeed this is the way of the disciple – for in Christ’s death do we find the Fullness of Life.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 17 March 2015

“Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in Heaven.  Your faithfulness endures to all generations; You established the earth, and it abides.”  Psalm 119:89-90 NKJV

I saw a thing making its rounds on Facebook recently which stated, “The Bible does not need to be rewritten; it needs to be reread.”  What comes immediately to mind are those editors who would strive for gender-neutral and more fully-inclusive language – and yet many of these would still, strictly from memory and with no real thought, lift up “Our Father who art in Heaven …”  Some of these same self-declared editors would quote Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, St. Augustine, and many others verbatim but will also insist upon editing what is written in the Scriptures so as to make what is written in and for the ages somehow “less offensive”.

Yet these editors are not the only ones who distort what is written.  The Christians who claim to love Jesus but are willfully ignorant of what is written in the Gospels about our Lord do a grave disservice to what is written for us to know, and betray what has been handed down through the ages for the good of the Church – the whole body of believers.  These are the ones who do not “seek” at all, choosing instead to make it up according to what makes sense to them in any given circumstances.

The stink of this, however, is that most of us are guilty to one degree or another of trying to edit the Scriptures to fit our own lives rather than to adjust our own lives in accordance with what is written for our well-being.  We have become a little too independent for our own good.  The damage is not strictly what we are doing to ourselves in our pride or willful ignorance; it is the lasting damage we do to our children, our grandchildren, and our unbelieving neighbors when they hear us claim the Christian faith but watch us distort (or edit) what is actually written and “settled in Heaven”.

Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 11:23).  Jesus, speaking as the “Word which became flesh and dwelt among us” is teaching in accordance to the same Word which “is settled in Heaven”.  Yet we dare to suggest we can somehow make the Eternal Word more relevant today by denying 2000 years of sound doctrine.  It is little wonder we watch the TV news with horror and disgust while lamenting a “lost generation”!  

Jesus assures His followers that if we will “seek, we shall find”.  If we do not bother to seek, however, we will find nothing.  Without Christ we already have nothing – there is no need to look for more of “nothing” in a world that does not know The Word.  Let us diligently search together for that which “is settled in Heaven” and will “endure to all generations”.  The Bible has not become outdated or irrelevant to our time and generation; we’ve just become a little too big for our spiritual britches!



Monday, March 16, 2015

A Thought for Monday 16 March 2015

“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come to You.  Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my trouble.  Incline Your ear to me; in the day that I call, answer me speedily.”  Psalm 102:1-2

If anything, this psalm indicates a proper form of prayer especially for those who have had a bad day; a day when nothing seemed to go right, and no friends seemed available at all.  The psalmist goes on about the misery he is enduring, and the enemies who seem to have him surrounded.  In short, the psalmist appears to be at the end of his rope!

As for a proper form of prayer, however, I do not suggest this psalm should be memorized.  Rather our time of devotion for joy or for lamentation should include a full and honest assessment of the day.  Count the many blessings we enjoy, or go through the list of those things that are hurting us.  Either way, the faithful must not get to a point of a blanket generalization.  Recall the sorrow, remember the hurt feelings, relive the joyful moments – and let The Lord come into that time of devotion and walk us through it!

Once we are able to do this, to recount ALL the bad and ALL the good things we experience, we will learn how to let The Lord experience them with us.  In the end we will not lament that The Lord had “hid His face”.  We will instead discover He was there the whole time, that it was we who had let go and tried to go it alone.  Much like the study of the Scriptures can be confusing and overwhelming if we try to bring human understanding to it, we also discover that seeking human resources to human problems will always come up short even if some source of comfort may have been found in any particular moment.

As we have been exploring The Lord’s Prayer these past few weeks in worship, hopefully we will soon discover that each word written in the Scriptures requires our attention and full devotion – including the psalms in which we share the prayers of those who went before us.  We learn from their experiences that if we will take the time to work through the sorrow, the misery, and the grief life often brings, we will draw the inevitable conclusion: You, O Lord, “will not forsake” Your faithful ones.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forgiven is Forgiving: The Lord's Prayer, part V

Isaiah 1:14-20
Colossians 3:12-17
Mark 11:22-26

“To forgive is [for you] to set a prisoner free and [then] discover you yourself were the prisoner.”  Laurence Stern, 18th-century Anglican clergy

“Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  Matthew 6:12 NRSV

Christian theology is impossible to understand if taken in ‘sound bites’ (bumper sticker slogans and Bible verses removed from context).  Jesus’ statement in Mark’s Gospel is a case in point: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”  11:24 

Who has not prayed for things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven or the Church?  Personal wealth?  A particular job?  A certain love?  Healthy children?  The sparing of a loved one’s life?  An argument can be made that the Kingdom could shine in such circumstances, but it is doubtful we would even care about the Kingdom or the Church since our initial prayer request was made for purely self-serving reasons; no evil purpose as we understand evil, but no Kingdom purpose, either.  Still, Jesus does not offer a caveat here.  In fact there seems to be no condition at all except to “believe you have received it”.

Socially- and self-aware Christians will pray often for forgiveness; because it truly can be said that at the end of any given day, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, there is always something we need to be forgiven for – a harsh thought, a cross word, repeating gossip or unsubstantiated rumors, denying a stranger a charitable request.  Yet if we “have no doubt in [our] hearts … [our forgiveness] will be done.” 

Well, not exactly.  The one thing we Christians are pretty good at is embracing and talking about (but not necessarily sharing) The Lord’s “unconditional love” … for me.  My personal Savior is eager, waiting, and willing to forgive … ME … so much so that I don’t really even need to ask since The Lord’s love “for me” is unconditional.  And since Jesus’ blood is our Atonement, there is nothing we need to atone for.  Taking something that clearly is not mine?  No need to confess or return it since that may create more problems for “me”.  All is forgiven.

Well, not quite.  Jesus throws a curve: “If you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone – so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (vs 25-26 NRSV).  In NKJV it is written: “If you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive you.”

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus denies our offering of a gift to The Lord: “If you remember someone has something against you (knowing you’ve deliberately set out to hurt someone), leave your gift [at the altar], go make peace, and then come back to offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Either way, it seems clear that no matter how deeply we believe in and desire (or expect) our own forgiveness, Jesus does not let us off the hook so easily.  As with most other of the commandments of the Law, not only does Jesus not “do away with the Law” (Matthew 5:17) – He raises the bar on the standards of the Law! 

It is no longer simply “committing” adultery as a purely physical act that violates The Lord’s Moral Law; it is thinking lustful thoughts!  It is no longer simply murder as the literal taking of another life; it is having a genuine hatred in one’s heart for another.  We still have “enemies”, but we are now compelled to pray for and bless these potential friends!

It has been said: “If you find Christianity easy, you have not found Christ.”  Because if Jesus is the perfection and the example of what the Moral Law calls from us – and He must be – there can be nothing easy about it.  Wholly possible, but not easy.  And forgiving someone who has deeply hurt us – even when they have not apologized or made a move to make it right – is the single most difficult challenge we face as Christians, as humans! 

Can it be said, then, that The Lord finds it difficult to forgive us when we are acting unforgivably or unrepentantly?  Judging by Jesus’ words, it appears we create a barrier within ourselves that can actually prohibit Divine forgiveness – “forgive … so that your Father may also forgive you”.  So it may be our intentional and deliberate refusal to forgive others creates a less-than-fertile field in which no good seed can be planted, let alone grow.  Jesus says we have to do this thing for others so that another, much greater thing can be done for us.

Actually it IS said that if we will not forgive others, The Lord will not forgive us.  “Will”.  That small but powerful word which indicates not a capacity but an allowance.  We have it within us by the power of the Holy Spirit to do impossible things (our spiritual capacity) like “move a mountain” or even love an enemy; but a stubborn and closed mind, a willful pride, a heart of stone, an arrogant faith will not allow us to do what must be done.  We have the capacity, but we will (freely choose) not to exercise that capacity.  Thus in our deliberate refusal, we spiritually hobble ourselves by indicating we do not care for The Lord’s forgiveness since we do not care to forgive others.  We remain in our own self-imposed “prison”.

Yet we often have the gall to declare, “Christians are not perfect; only forgiven.”  This cheap “bumper sticker slogan” is a blatant denial of Jesus’ commandment to pursue “perfection” (Matthew 5:48), and is also a defiance of Jesus’ admonition that if it is truly forgiveness we seek, it is forgiveness we must offer.  “You shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.

There are clearly spiritual enemies we must keep a safe distance from, those who have repeatedly by word and deed declared themselves to be enemies of the Gospel and the Church – even those “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who insist on their Christian faith in spite of their unholy vindictiveness.  So if there are those we are to keep a safe distance from due to their deliberate hostility to the Word of The Lord, how are we any less hostile to The Word if we defy that Word and deny its applicability to us?

In the end it must be said and acknowledged that to be a “forgiven” person, one must become a “forgiving” person - for these are two sides of the same coin.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, the depth of The Lord’s Prayer involves much more than merely saying the words.  This Prayer must become for us the deepest expression of our own inmost desire – in this case, not only to be forgiven but to also be given a heart willing to forgive that which we had previously declared unforgivable.  We must never bring that curse upon ourselves.

Before The Lord’s Prayer can mean anything to us at all, we must be able and willing to understand, embrace, and abide by its deepest meaning; and the only way to come to this level of spirituality is to dig deeply, ask constantly, seek fervently, and knock incessantly.  It is the assurance of our Lord that forgiveness can be found when we find it within us to forgive, no matter the harm or the depth of the wound.  There are far greater things being offered to us than whatever perverted satisfaction we may think we gain from holding a grudge.  Now is the time to find out what it is.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Let it be so, Lord.  Amen.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 12 March 2015

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, and plead for the widow.”  Isaiah 1:16-17 NKJV

Just prior to this proclamation and affirmation of the Law of Moses, the prophet handed down some rather harsh words that seemed to declare the Law void: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle.  I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:11).  On the one hand the Law speaks very plainly; on the other, not so much.  After all, these sacrifices had been commanded by The Lord, but now The Lord is saying “enough”.  What gives?

The religious practices of the faithful have no meaning to The Lord if the “faithful” are unwilling to have and show any care or concern for their “neighbors”.  Even those who today boldly proclaim that “I know The Lord loves me and has forgiven me” without looking deeply within may be speaking prematurely – or kidding themselves – if they hold something against someone else.  That is, someone had done them harm for which they refuse to forgive – and yet declare themselves forgiven. 

It’s a nice thought, but there is no biblical justification for it.  In fact the very words of Jesus deny this sentiment: “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours” (Matthew 6:15).

Someone once said forgiveness is only for the strong and the brave; that it is the weakness of cowards and fools who refuse to forgive others.  Though we may not consider ourselves cowards or fools, we must still acknowledge that forgiving someone who has harmed us or facing someone we have harmed is perhaps the hardest thing of all.  We have to get over our pride, stand on our own two feet, admit our wrong done, and face the reality that we are not as perfect or always right as we might like to pretend.  Forgiving someone who does not deserve to be forgiven (at least in our eyes) makes us seem weak and vulnerable.

It takes no effort or thought or strength to hold a grudge, but it takes godly strength to “cease to do evil, learn to do good”; to “seek justice, rebuke an oppressor”, or plead and advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves.  All these things, however, are required of us from The Lord if we expect to find and receive forgiveness for our own past.  Christians are fond of saying, “We don’t have to do anything to receive The Lord’s love”.  While there is a kernel of truth in that The Lord made Himself vulnerable for us at the Cross “while we were still sinners”, it is not even close to true that we have to do nothing!  We are indeed commanded to do … for those who cannot do for themselves.  It is our doing that helps others to understand and believe the Good News, not our empty words or religious practices!

Our relationship with The Lord began with forgiveness, but our relationship with the people of the Church (and Christ!) continues and grows even stronger as we forgive those who have harmed us – and actively seek forgiveness from those we have harmed.  It means we seek the well-being of others before we worry about ourselves.  If we refuse to believe this takes real strength, it may be because we’ve not really tried it!

Let go of those things holding you back.  Offer forgiveness.  Beg forgiveness.  Use the spiritual backbone we’ve all been given, and stand tall in the name of the One who stood tall for us – even as He made Himself completely vulnerable.  The Bible says there is no greater love than this.  Surely we can agree there is no greater show of strength than this.



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 11 March 2015

“If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.  None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.  Do I have pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord God, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?” Ezekiel 18:21-23 NKJV

From the beginning, even before the time of Christ, The Lord has continually called upon His creation to “live”.  The Lord spoke creation into being and since that time has reached out, called out, and virtually begged that His human creation trust Him and find their true life in Him.  What brings The Lord genuine pleasure?  “That the wicked should turn from his ways and live!”

Clearly repentance is not strictly a New Testament idea nor is Divine Mercy found only in the New Testament.  These are universally from the Eternal One.  So where is salvation found?  Only in The Lord who made the heavens and the earth, and it is in His Eternal Word “which was in the beginning” (John 1:2). 

It is important for Christians to understand that Jesus was not a “new” word; He is THE Word which offers a “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19).  This “new thing” would include even the Gentiles who are called into the same Word “which was in the beginning”; that is, the Messiah who is “the Word which became flesh”.  This is the same Word that calls all to repentance, giving the Eternal God the “pleasure” He takes from seeing His beloved creation turn away from the world that has enticed humans even from Paradise; the world that draws us away from The Lord.  Yet it is the Word that beckons us into the fullness of Life; that fullness which comes only from Him.

Just as The Lord’s Prayer is only a collection of words if we do not understand what the Prayer means, so is “Jesus” just another word if we do not understand and embrace all He taught.  Some say Jesus was born to die but I would suggest if this were true, Joseph would not have been warned in a dream to flee from Herod who was determined to kill Him.  It was not a tiny “child” who was a threat to Herod; it was the Word which is a threat to all who insist on their own ways, their own means, their own desires.

I do not seek to diminish the power of Christ.  Rather we must understand the fullness of the Word from the beginning, the Word which calls us to do “what is lawful and right”.  The Law demands as much, and so does Jesus.  Yet were it not for Jesus, we Gentiles would still be covenantal “outsiders”.  That is the fullness of His Love.

Jesus is not a “thing” we declare to the exclusion of all He taught.  Christ is the fullness of all that is being taught to us even today through the Holy Spirit, and it is this fullness we former “outsiders” have been invited into; “for there is no partiality with God” (Romans 1:11).

Just as there cannot be one devotional or one sermon that can cover all we need to know, there also cannot be one phrase or one verse that brings the fullness of the Word into clarity for us.  The Word invites us into something much greater and more joyful and more lasting that anything we know now.  Embrace the Life you have been called into, and revel in the Word which has invited you in!



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 10 March 2015

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”  1 John 1:8-10 NKJV

The Roman Catholic Church expresses and upholds seven sacraments, two of which are retained in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition: baptism, and holy communion.  Among the other five is the sacrament of reconciliation; aka, “confession”.  Even among Catholics, this sacrament is not often observed for a variety of reasons, not least of which is likely a misunderstanding of the depth not only of “confession” but also of “reconciliation” and probably also “sacrament”.

Yet the Church’s liturgical calendar repeats Lent year after year – and will continue to do so until The Lord returns – for a very specific reason: “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves …” 

Deception is all around us especially in doctrinal matters, but it is not the Church that is deliberately trying to deceive the faithful and the not-so-faithful.  Rather it is our misunderstanding (or our willful ignorance) of the Scriptures and our insistence that forgiveness by the heart of The Lord is a one-and-done deal; that once He wipes our sins away, they are gone for good.  While this is true of those past transgressions, it is hard to justify a belief that this forgiveness extends to those sins we will certainly commit later.  We are, after all, very fully human, so we struggle between the Spirit and the flesh constantly and very often lose that battle.  We should also bear in mind that if we have transgressed against those we love and have been forgiven for our past, hurting them again means we have to come clean all over again and ask for forgiveness again – that is, if we care to be forgiven or if we care that we have truly hurt them.

Sin hurts our Lord, and intentional sin angers The Lord; but the sins we commit in our day-to-day encounters with our neighbors, our friends, and with strangers while claiming to be somehow “covered” by a single confession made long ago means “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”.  Worse than this perhaps is going from day to day with very little thought as to how we may intentionally serve The Lord, with virtually no thought or acknowledgment of His presence in our daily living.  We simply take His mercy for granted to the point of abusing His mercy, denying His Word, and convincing ourselves that “we have no sin”. 

If we understand “sacrament” as The Lord’s giving of Himself so freely, we see The Lord’s hand in virtually every facet of our lives.  Even the sacrament of “confession” has been thought through more carefully so as to understand the depth of the “sacrament” which involves much more than simply “confessing”.  Confessing is what we do, but the full sacrament of “reconciliation” is a Divine Act.  It is what The Lord does when we confess: “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

If we would stop deceiving ourselves – or allowing ourselves to be deceived by the “father of lies” – we can finally admit that yesterday alone was filled with sin whether by the acts we deliberately committed, the cross words or thoughts we spoke against others, or the omission of mercy we denied someone by “minding our own business”. 

You nor I would stand long for someone who would constantly take us for granted.  How have we reached such a point at which we claim to “love” The Lord but take Him and His mercy for granted by refusing to pray, refusing to confess, and refusing to stand before Him by the judgment we proclaim against ourselves?  Why would it never occur to us that “reconciliation” is much more than a single act?  Just as we know neglecting our human relationships will adversely affect those relationships, so can we also neglect the Divine relationship we have with The Lord and with one another!

Is it “just” that The Lord would somehow automatically forgive or even overlook our sins without our having spoken a word to Him?  NO!  The “justice” in accordance with the Written Word is the fulfillment of His promise to forgive those who search for Him with their “whole heart”. 

Confession is never easy nor is it meant to be.  It is not about bearing in mind a single act; it is entirely about recognizing a less-than-pleasing pattern of living that denies the Eternal Presence assured in our baptism.  The Lord is clearly faithful.  Pray that we can be as faithful.



Sunday, March 08, 2015

Against the Grain: The Lord's Prayer, part IV

Galatians 1:3-10
Matthew 6:24-34

“Religion is meant to be bread for daily use, not cake for special occasions.”  Unknown
“Give us enough bread day-by-day.”  Didache 8:2

Continuing our series in examining The Lord’s Prayer and its basic components, let us consider what we are to ask for when we pray for “our daily bread”.  We must always bear in mind when Jesus was teaching His disciples to “pray in this way”, and at their request as it is written in Luke 11, it seems unlikely our Lord would be challenging His followers to simply memorize the Prayer. 

I am more and more convinced we are to internalize this prayer so it becomes the fundamental expression of our inmost desire; that of faithfully representing Christ in the world with every breath – and - the means to do so … and not just on such “special occasions” as we deem it necessary or when things start going badly for us.

The first thing we must do is distinguish between the “bread” we truly need and the “cake” we probably desire more.  Which “master” will we serve?  My first thought was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “cheap grace” in which he observes: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession ...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap grace is, as John Wesley once observed, “a form of religion but having no real power”.  In the Scriptures it is written in 2 Timothy 3:5 as “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power”; just going through the motionsThere are other similar biblical references such as Jesus’ analogy of “white washed tombs which, on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27). 

In other words, cake is much more appealing to the eye and the palate than plain ol’ bread; and while there might be limited nutritional value to the cake, we know our bodies cannot function as well absent a balanced diet.  It should also be noted that some of the worst cakes I have tasted have been disguised by beautiful icing!

Comparing religion to bread, however, seems distasteful because we live in a generation that is doing its level best to distance itself from religion altogether; not only the form of religion but also consequently the substance.  And I would suggest while there can be a form of religion without substance, there can be no substance in religion without some form. 

My guess is, however, many have no idea what the substance of religion really is; all they know is they don’t want to be bothered with attending worship on Sunday, they want the “icing” that has become grace, and they want church folk to mind their own business.  They would much rather sleep in, live life on their own terms, post a religious ditty on Facebook from time to time, and pat themselves on the back for their spiritual “awesomeness” and witness.

Even Christians are developing a distaste for religion, but my guess is few of us have really drilled down deep enough to understand the foundation and the substance of religion – and religious expression.  It involves much more than “getting saved”, much more than merely attending worship services once in a while or watching a service on TV, and much more than dropping a few nickels in the collection plate when we think we can spare it.

Bonhoeffer says grace comes from proper religious expression, specifically from the Christian religion and the necessary discipline.  There is grace, more mercy than we can fathom but we have somehow managed to convince ourselves that since Jesus “paid the price”, there is nothing left for us to do but to enjoy the “cake”.

But we must ask: why would Jesus teach us to pray “like this” and specifically ask for “daily bread”?  It is not an incidental part of the prayer.  And why would the apostles later encourage disciples to pray like this “three times daily” (Didache 8:3)? 

Jesus declares “I am the bread of life … the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:48, 51).  So the bread we are to seek, the bread we should desire is Jesus Himself.  Yet we must also bear in mind that when we seek Jesus, when we desire Jesus, we must seek and desire much more than a person as if Jesus were an alternate, and more user-friendly, “god”; we are seeking after the personification of The Most High God, our Creator, the very foundation and form and power of our existence.  And we experience this personification in The Word – the whole, holy, and entire Word - “which became flesh” in the person of Jesus; that Word which can and must become flesh (incarnate) in our own faithfulness.

It is too common, however, that we get stuck on the Name itself but look no further; that is, we deliberately distance ourselves from the Church, which is biblically defined as the Body of Christ, and the corresponding discipline, the fellowship, and the Sacraments – all intended to build up the Church, not weaken it.  We have been traditionally taught to reach out to and call for “Jesus”, but we've not been taught what we are really asking for.  It has become much easier to simply offer “cake” – that is, the “form of religion” but withholding the power and denying the substance.

As a consequence of our own carelessness and complacency, we have become so deeply engrained with a “wicked and adulterous generation that looks for signs” (Matthew 16:4), tangible things which can be proved, that we have forgotten that we “cannot live on bread alone (“signs”), but on every word that comes from the mouth of The Lord” (Matthew 4:4), even those “words” we often do not understand because they do not seem culturally compatible. 

Jesus is much more than a mere man; He is that Word which existed before the foundation of all creation!  Jesus is not a new word; He is The Word who became mortal for our sake – not only at the Cross but with every lesson taught, every sickness healed, and every prayer uttered.

Much more than a man, then, there is an Eternal element to Messiah we must learn to strive for, to become hungry for, to greedily reach for; the “word that will not pass away [though] heaven and earth will pass away” (Mark 13:31).  Since we know Heaven will never “pass away”, we should then appreciate the depth of Jesus’ persona as “the Word” and the proclamation He makes as to the enduring nature of the “bread” we are to seek after, the ‘bread’ we truly need.

This is why discipleship cannot be separated from sanctification, and the Sacraments of the Church cannot be separated from discipleship.  We cannot be simply “saved” and then go about our business as if nothing had happened, as if nothing is being asked of us, as if the “father of lies” is our master. 

We cannot “have our cake and eat it, too” (that is, to cherry pick the best of both worlds and believe them to be compatible), and then expect to be received upon the Day of The Lord – because the choices we make each and every day are our enduring and continuing responses to The Lord’s Mercy.

We must go “against the grain” of the social context we live in if we are to be “set apart” for service to The Lord.  The only way we can expect to have the strength, the resolve, the vision, the discipline, even a reason for being “set apart” is to ask for our “daily bread” from Heaven – AND truly desire it! 

The enduring Promise is that we will get exactly what we ask for … in this world and in the world to come.  Let us be sure we seek and ask for the right thing!  Amen.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 4 March 2015

“Deal bountifully with Your servant, O Lord, that I may live and keep Your word.  Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your Law.”  Psalm 119:17-18 NKJV

The biggest difference between Judaism and Christianity seems to be our understanding of the Law (Torah) and its practical application.  As St. Paul writes that Christians are “not under the Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14), we get a misguided sense of what St. Paul intended to convey – especially when we quote a passage fragment only.  St. Paul still maintains that “to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slave” (Romans 6:16), so a “slave to sin” can be no friend of Christ.  In other words that “master” to whom we submit is righteousness (justice and mercy and faith), or it is sin; and sin is still clearly defined by the Law – and for a reason!  If the Law says “don’t” but we still choose to “do”, or if the Law says “do” and we choose not to, we are in a state of sin and are thus separated by our own choices from The Lord.  The Lord can save us from sin, but it is questionable as to whether He can save us from our own hardened hearts!

A religion professor once asked, “Is Christianity defined by a set of rules?”  Of course it is not a fair question because Christians do have moral rules to abide by and some standards of worship; they are the same moral rules and standards our Jewish brethren are to abide by.  These “rules” in themselves, however, do not define us.  Rather our response to these rules, how we approach and observe the rules (or how we search for excuses and loopholes around these rules) DO define us and our relationship to The Lord and to The Church; to one another.  For good or for bad, these “rules” (and our embrace or our deliberate distance from these rules) tell the world who we are and what we are. 

More importantly, they tell The Lord how important He is to us.  As I shared previously, do we see these “rules” as strictly commandments, i.e., “rules to obey”, or can they be considered Divine Gifts?   If the Sabbath is truly a Gift to be enjoyed and shared, how can the character of this commandment be somehow different from the others?

There is much more to the Law (Torah) than a list of what we “shall not” do, and this is the whole point and importance of the study of the Scriptures.  “One and done” will never be for us what The Lord intended when He revealed Himself in the Law, through the prophets, in Christ Jesus, and then finally the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  The Word in its fullness is our sanctifying quest, our pursuit of spiritual perfection.  It is not about memorizing certain passages of the Bible to get by (there is no minimum standard!); it is entirely about internalizing the Word so that it becomes as much a part of our being and our witness as drawing our next breath.

If we find discipleship to be easy, we are not being disciples.  If we find The Word (which is Christ) easy to understand (including the Law), I submit we are not drawing closely enough.  And if we find the study of the Scriptures or prayer an unnecessary “burden”, then we do not know The Lord at all.

“Wondrous things” will be revealed to us as we dare to draw closer to The Lord through the Written Word, but we must draw closer to see.  This is why Jesus established His Church, so the wondrous nature of The Eternal One will continue to be revealed throughout the generations.  Let us be that revelation!



Tuesday, March 03, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 3 March 2015

“Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to The Lord your God.  You shall do no work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days The Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in the them, but rested the seventh day.  Therefore The Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”  Exodus 20:8-11 NRSV

We have become a Sabbath-less nation; indeed we have become a Church that defies the Sabbath.  It occurs to me, however, that it is not strictly about defying a direct and specific commandment of The Lord. What reaches deeper is that we deliberately decline a profound gift.  Yet what we may call a Sabbath for ourselves such as in going out to eat, going to an amusement park, or doing any other thing that compels others to work, we deny them this extraordinary gift even the “livestock” are entitled to!

Some have said Sabbath will not mean the same from one to the other, while others might suggest the Sabbath does not necessarily have to be on a particular day.  The Word, however, does not allow this ambiguity and, in fact, goes a little deeper when Moses again emphasizes the deeper meaning of what Sabbath is about: “The Israelites shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.  It is a sign forever between Me and the people of Israel …” (Exodus 31:16-17)

In other words, it is not only the means by which we are permitted (commanded) to distance ourselves from the secular world; it is entirely about reconnecting to the Divine and Eternal world which is to come.  We are to “remember” the Sabbath, “keep” the Sabbath, and “observe” the Sabbath not only as a day of rest but also as the “perpetual covenant”; that is, we carve out an entire day to remember who we truly are “forever”.

Those six days are what we do, but the Sabbath Day reminds us of something much bigger and which goes much deeper: we are connecting not only to The Eternal One, we are also staying connected to our Eternity!  And we know too well how easily we forget.  This is why we are commanded to “remember”, then “keep”, and then “observe” in the way we order our lives on that day. 

Only when we practice this absolute commandment can we ever come to fully appreciate the Gift that is within.  It is not something to be taken lightly, for “whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people” (Exodus 31:14).  And lest we forget, Jesus came “not to do away with The Law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17) – to show us how to honor and observe and rejoice in what we’ve been given: the only real way we be constantly mindful of who we truly are beyond the grave!

Honor The Lord by “remembering”, “keeping”, and “observing” all that has been handed down to us by our faithful ancestors.  It meant enough to them to do all possible to help us to remember and to stay connected.  Like all commandments, it is more than an “order”; it is a Gift meant to be used and shared.  When we learn to use it properly, we will learn to share it generously.



Monday, March 02, 2015

A Thought for Monday 2 March 2015

The works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like … those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God … those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  Galatians 5:19-23a; 24 NKJV

In last night’s study of Joshua, we encountered the battle of Jericho.  The city and much of what was in the city was “devoted to destruction” (6:18).  The people of Israel were warned to leave those things “devoted to destruction” alone, tempting and harmless though they may seem.  One man, however, was so tempted; and having taken some of those things “devoted to destruction”, he became himself “devoted to destruction” because these forbidden things were in his possession.

So the question was posed: what are things in our lives “devoted to destruction”, yet we embrace without a thought or believe them to be harmless?  Those things we hold on to for any number of reasons and have taken for granted for so long that we hardly notice these things and their potential for spiritual destruction?  I dare say there may be more in our lives than we probably realize, and little has to do with ‘stuff’ though there is that as well.

When The Lord returns, that which is “devoted to destruction” will be finally and completely destroyed.  So we are compelled, especially in the discipline that is the season of Lent, to evaluate every facet of our lives, our homes, our being to determine what we embrace that is clearly “devoted to destruction”, and those practices or things that by our own doing lead us to destruction.  Of St. Paul’s list, little of it has to do with ‘stuff’.  It has more to do with attributes, or “works”, of the flesh; the things we do with hardly a thought.  Yet “those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God”!  (Do you notice St. Paul does not mention “chocolate” at all??  Nor does he offer excuses or exceptions to those who claim to be “saved”.)

We must not make light of spiritual practices and put forth no effort to learn more about ourselves and our devotion to The Lord (or lack thereof).  Giving up chocolate or other such innocuous things for Lent means we do not take the spiritual practices seriously, and we fool only ourselves.  Those things that directly contribute to our spiritual destruction or those things that have potential to lead us and our children away from The Lord are those things which much be seriously evaluated and, if necessary, intentionally destroyed.  .

So what in our lives is already “devoted to destruction”?  Those things we must get rid of before The Lord gets rid of those things – and those who embrace them? 

Sorry to be a little heavy, but sometimes we make too much light of things that must be taken more seriously; and a life of faith is no joke nor a walk in the park with no thought and no effort and with only fairies and magic dust; and sin is no punch line.  Marriages fall apart every single day because one spouse took the other for granted for too long.  Why would we think the marriage between the Bridegroom (Christ) and the Bride (the Church) would be no different by serial neglect?

We must not redefine love in a vain effort to accommodate those things that clearly drive a wedge between us and our devotion to The Lord and to one another through the Church, and we must finally and completely reject the “bumper sticker theology” that has no biblical merit but makes us feel good about ourselves!  You want people to stop laughing at Christianity?  We must stop playing ourselves as fools and jesters to be laughed at.

And that is the plain truth.


Sunday, March 01, 2015

Thy Kingdom come ...

Genesis 17:1-7
Mark 8:31-38

“Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in the gospel: ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us enough bread day-by-day. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one’.  Pray this three times each day.”  Didache 8:2-3 (2nd century)

Question: when we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven’, are we really asking anything at all, or are we merely reciting the prayer because Jesus said to?  And only during worship (once per week) as opposed to the recommended three times daily as the early Church taught?

Of course this recommendation of the apostles was not simply for the sake of saying the Prayer.  They were encouraging the faithful to remember the essential components of the Prayer as well as to make the Prayer an essential part of discipleship, to help us to be mindful of the things of The Lord, to stay connected to Jesus, the Living Word.  This means we are not only required to recite the Prayer itself as Jesus commanded; we are to understand it and embrace it as our own desire.  To believe in its substance, however, is not coming to believe prayer solves our personal problems.  If we believe this, we miss the entire point of praying at all.

“In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.”  C.S. Lewis

Understanding that in the end Jesus fully understood and trusted that even that prayer in that moment would not yield personally pleasing results, means we can understand that a genuine yearning for The Lord’s will to be done – regardless of how we will be personally affected - will yield greater results than we can possible imagine.  That, dear friends, is the substance of real prayer.  It is the very heart of The Lord’s Prayer.

When we face death – and we always do – we will eventually succumb to the sorrow that accompanies death and the loss of a loved one even if we saw it coming.  Sometimes we are ok to attribute that death to Divine Will rather than to nature or to an accident or illness, but often doing so puts more blame than credit on the shoulders of the Most High.  Death seems so cruel; but following a long illness, death can seem merciful, welcome, the Final End of a long and tiring journey.

But where was The Lord in the ordeal?  Did He will the undue suffering and anguish?  Did He will the child to suffer leukemia before that child’s life even really began?  Did The Lord will that the drunk driver would cross that center line on that particular night on that particular stretch of road when someone was killed?  Was it The Lord’s will that the twenty-one Coptic Christians lose their lives so mercilessly and horrifically at the hands of cruel barbarians whose only intent is to terrorize others? 

Whatever the cause or timing of death, we are often left with such questions for which there are no human answers; only speculation.  And when we wait until the final hours to ask such questions, we discover we miss so much more in the interim and are thus unprepared for those final hours, unprepared to face those tragedies, unprepared to face the reality that people – young AND old - die every single day … even those we love. 

We forget Divine Will is not strictly an end-of-life issue.  We forget that Divine Will is the substance of our daily living, our daily work, our daily struggle.  And I will suggest to you that if there is no struggle with Divine Will in our daily living, we are not seeking Divine Will at all.

That may sound unfair, but the truth is we struggle against ourselves, our own flesh, our own hearts and being and desires because what we want has nothing to do with Divine Will.  What The Lord may want from us is ok … as long as we don’t have to go to much trouble to seek The Lord’s will – OR - it does not interfere with our own plans.   

But ultimately, what is the Will of The Lord?  What does The Lord want from us?  To love Him because He loves us?  To strictly obey Him?   To do unto others …?  To just be a “good person”?

Many would say The Lord’s will is not going to be the same for you or for me, that The Lord wants different things from different persons according to one’s spiritual gifts.  Still others might suggest Divine Will cannot be so arbitrary; that what The Lord wants from one of us, The Lord wants from us all, because we are “branches of the same Vine” (John 15:5); we are The One Indivisible Body of Christ.  We as The Church are The Word Made Flesh in the world today.  If this much is true, then, it cannot be said The Lord wants different things from different persons to different ends because this would defy the unity of the Holy Church’s mission, the unity of the Holy Trinity.

Essentially it boils down to this: we as One Body are to make disciples of Christ, as Jesus Himself directed in His final moments on this earth.  More than this, we are to make disciples who are then equipped to make disciples themselves.  That is, there must be more than to simply invite someone to church.  They must be encouraged – and shown by example - to engage in worship AND in Bible study AND in fellowship – all essential components of discipleship.  These “potential” disciples must be led, encouraged, taught, and held accountable.

It’s a tall order, of course, but this is why we cannot allow this burden to fall on only a few shoulders.  Not one baptized soul is excused from this Holy Commission.  We can walk away, we can grant ourselves all kinds of excuses, but we do so at great spiritual risk and we fool only ourselves – and other fools! 

It is the charge, it is the privilege and the very Life of The Church to make disciples who are then able to make disciples themselves.  The next generation of discipleship is entirely on our shoulders, and everything we do must be toward this solitary end!  If we are not making disciples, we are not living in Christ.

Contrary to what many may suggest or demand, Divine Will is not a moving target nor is The Lord’s Will so arbitrary as to be only individually defined.  The reason we find Divine Will so difficult to understand is that we do not earnestly seek Divine Will; not really.  We want our own will to be done, and we want – we expect - The Lord to bless our chosen endeavors.  

Or maybe it is we don’t truly seek The Lord’s Will in our lives because we are more in tune with that old saying, “Be careful what you ask for” … you may find yourself a kidnapped Methodist missionary in Nigeria (Phyllis Sorter).  I submit, however, that the truth is we do not seek Divine Will because we do not care about His Will more than we care about our own lives.

We have made faith and faithfulness completely one-dimensional, and in this we have rendered prayer as strictly self-serving.  If we pray at all, it is in order to feel better about ourselves, but it is doubtful we pray solely to seek The Lord’s will.  If we did, churches and Sunday school classes would not be half or completely empty.  Marriages would not be failing, children would not be left to fend for themselves spiritually, abortion would not be considered a “right” but would be known as the scourge and curse on this nation it truly is, and the elderly would not be left to wallow in their loneliness. 

The discipline of Lent – and the context of The Lord’s Prayer – compels us to look closer and to go deeper than we ever have before, far beyond merely giving up chocolate for Lent.  The early Church took the apostles’ teachings very seriously (Acts 2:42) as the early Church grew by the thousands.  One writer recently observed that the reason the modern Church has no real power to transform lives is because we don’t try; and we don’t try because we are entirely disconnected from the discipline and the power of the early Church, the Church that was not so far removed from the Life of Christ and seemed to take nothing for granted. 

Let this become our reality.   Let our blinded eyes and self-serving hearts not continue to be our curse.  Let this disconnect we allow not be our death.  For we are called to Life everlasting – and real meaning and purpose in the life we face and share today.

Glory to You, Lord Jesus Christ; King of endless glory!  Reveal to us the Way and the Will of the Eternal Father as we are gathered, and as we pray, in Your Most Holy Name.  Amen.