Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 30 June 2015

“I will call upon The lord, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from my enemies.”  Psalm 18:3

In the Bible and in our own lives, we can usually recount the times when we deliberately set out to “call upon The Lord”.  The psalmist seems to be at a pretty low point in life, but there are other instances of extreme joy when we feel so blessed we cannot help but to shout out to The Lord!  But what about those times in between the lows and the highs, say around 2pm on a Tuesday?  There is nothing special about Tuesday afternoon; it’s just another day, another afternoon of work.  What about then?

We typically run in cycles between the lows and the highs, but the drudgery of daily living can often just wear us down.  We go through the motions of our daily task without thinking much about The Lord at all.  It’s just life.

In the Scripture, however, we are constantly reminded of The Lord’s presence – even in the mundane; but because we are often so caught up in whatever is right in front of us, calling upon The Lord seems … out of place.  Unnecessary.  After all, this is our “real life”, right?  No need to get caught up in religion.  What will our co-workers or golf partners or fishing buddies think of us?

It seems to me that the many promises of the Bible get lost on us most of the time precisely because we have never really taken The Lord at His word; e.g., “I am with you always …”  We deliberately get caught up in gossip without fully realizing the depth of this Assurance.  We get lost in our anger whenever things do not go the way we intended, and fail to realize the breadth of this Assurance.  And we get bound up in the mundane things of “real life” without realizing His assurance is directly connected to any sort of life we can hope or expect to have.

Moses encouraged the people of Israel to be mindful of The Lord’s presence always: “You shall teach [the Law] to your children diligently, and shall talk of [the commandments, statutes, and ordinances] when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).  In other words, pick a moment of daily living when it would not be appropriate to give The Lord His due.

Israel was about to enter into “everyday living”, and Moses was concerned that mundane life would soon overtake them to the point of forgetfulness and taking each precious moment of life for granted.  Looking around, it is easy to see that the Church (the WHOLE Church) has become so complacent, taking Jesus’ life and Death for granted.  It is time to wake up, and see the glory of The Lord even in the mundane.  No need to wait for high points, and we certainly should not live in fear of the low points!  See Him now, right now!  “For I am with you always.”  This afternoon at 2pm, you have a Date!



Monday, June 29, 2015

A Thought for Monday 29 June 2015

It’s always the same thing.  One guy says, “God’s not dead” (and yes, this is also a movie title), and suddenly the flood gates burst open with Christians declaring their allegiance … until an atheist/agnostic/internet troll demands, “Prove it”.  It makes me think of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day demanding “signs” (Matthew 12:38).  In that particular text Jesus refers to Jonah and his message to the people of Nineveh, the people who repented and turned to The Lord after hearing Jonah’s message.  The people of Nineveh, Jesus says, “will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah” (vs 41). 

What is it that makes a devout atheist demand a “sign”?  And what sort of “sign” would it take to make an atheist come around?  What sort of “sign” would push an agnostic off the fence?  Come to think of it, what kind of “sign” would bring complacent Christians around and back into the fellowship of the Church?  What sort of “sign” would convince Christians that being “saved” does not give us license to do as we please when we please?  That being “saved” does not make adultery, idolatry, lust, slander, hatefulness, vindictiveness, and vengeance somehow magically righteous? 

When the rich man died and was “in torments in Hades” (Luke 16:19-31), he begged Abraham to allow Lazarus, who had also died and was resting in the “bosom of Abraham”, to go back and warn his family about what awaits them (apparently his family was as selfish and uncaring as he).  Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (vs 29).  The formerly rich man insisted that nothing short of the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus would convince them, but Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead”.

Remember Jesus was telling that story.  More than simply imparting a parable, however, Jesus was indicating that even upon His own Resurrection there will still be many who will not believe.  If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will a resurrection get through to them.

In both instances (Jonah/Nineveh and Lazarus/rich man) Jesus points backward as the way forward for the people of faith.  What we need to know in order to serve Jesus and His Church faithfully is in the Law (not just the Ten Commandments) and the prophets, both of which Jesus came to fulfill/perfect.  That Law from which Jonah preached saved Nineveh.  That same Law, from which Jesus taught and which affirms that “the first will be last, and the last first”, saved Lazarus and condemned the rich man. 

So what is the “sign” we all desire?  And let’s face it; from time to time even the faithful would really like to have some kind of affirmation, some sort of validation for enduring this life, taking the punches we sometimes take!  Jesus teaches that a “sign” was given long ago and that if we are unwilling to believe that, there is likely nothing else – not even a resurrection – that will convince us. 

But what are we trying to be convinced of?  Or what are we trying to convince others about?  The plausibility of a living God?  Or the reality of a loving God? 

I think that question must be answered first before we can even begin to answer questions of unbelievers.



Sunday, June 28, 2015

The world is on fire - and all I have are matches

Leviticus 19:14-18
Romans 14:14-21
Mark 9:42-50

“A tree is known by its fruits; a man by his deeds.  A good deed is never lost.  He who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”  St. Basil

“Looking to The Lord rather than to any crisis at hand is a timeless principle in Scripture”, says one systematic theology professor (Norman R. Gulley, “Focus on Christ, not the crisis”, Ministry: a journal for pastors, July / August 2015).  As one only example, he cites Judah’s King Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20) who was facing an overwhelming invading army.  Rather than make preparations for war, the king and all of Judah turned immediately to The Lord in prayer and fasting.  In part the king prayed: “If disaster comes upon us … we will stand before this temple and in Your presence (for Your Name is in this temple), and we will cry out to You in our affliction, and You will hear and save” (vs 9 NKJV).

Come what may, then, according to the prayer of the faithful, we will cast our gaze continually upon The Lord – in victory and in defeat, in success and in failure, in good times and in bad.  Come what may, O Lord, teach us to always look to You! 

This was the prayer of the faithful then, and it must become once again the prayer of the faithful now – because The Lord answered the nation’s prayer: “Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this [approaching army], for the battle is not yours but The Lord’s” (vs 15).  Judah would still be required to face this crisis head-on, in faith, in person, and in reality; but they were also instructed, “Position yourselves, stand still, and see the salvation of The Lord, who is with you, O Judah!” (vs 17)

It seems lately we are jumping from one crisis to another, and Friday morning put icing on the cake.  The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-gender marriage, knocking down the last of the remaining 17 US states’ prohibitions; and Islamic terrorists entered into their holy month of Ramadan – which is supposed to be about fasting and repentance - with sweeping terror attacks around the world, urging the “faithful” to bring calamity on the “infidels”. 

It occurred to me, however, that as much as Christians are “accused” by unbelievers for being more about what we are against rather than standing up for what we believe in, actually trusting The Lord, crises have enormous potential for not only challenging our faith and our beliefs but also for refining our faith in daring us to draw closer to The Lord rather than to try and set traps of our own making for the wolves at the door – traps we and our loved ones could just as easily fall into. 

It may well be the “beginning of the end” as so many doomsday prophets are fond of saying, but that is not our business nor does it pertain to our mission and our purpose for being the Church.  Just as Judah was compelled by The Lord’s blessing to position themselves to face the impending crisis of invasion, they were equally compelled to “stand still” and let The Lord do what The Lord will do – not to their own satisfaction but to The Glory of The Lord.

The psalmist writes, “Be still, and know I am The Lord.  I will be honored by every nation, and I will be honored throughout the world” (46:10 NIV).  An interesting translation of that same verse in the New American Standard Bible reads: “Cease striving …” Another translation from the Holman Christian Standard Bible reads: “Stop your fighting …” Still another reads: “Let go [of your concerns] …” (God’s Word translation).

In the end the message is the same: Let Me be The Lord, let Me be the Almighty and Eternal, let Me be Large and in Charge.  TRUST ME.

St. Paul encourages us to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:14-15).  In other words, our business is taking care of and looking out for our “neighbors”.  In this, then, the Law of The Lord is admonishing us to do those things that are within our power to do; but to those things over which we have no control whatsoever, we must not try to gain any measure of control – lest we end up doing more harm than good.

As in the case of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), the zealous and devoted workers can clearly see the “weeds” invading the good “wheat” and are ready and willing to go jerk out those “weeds” lest they spread.  The master, however, tempers their enthusiasm by pointing out that in the early stages of development, it is often hard to tell the difference between the good wheat and the weeds.  Once the wheat is fully grown, then the “harvesters” will take care of the weeds – when the time is right.  When The Lord declares the Time to be right.

It’s a pretty tall order for us to hold our tongues and refrain from actions we believe to be appropriate and necessary.  It is especially hard to “turn the other cheek”, “bless” those who mistreat us, and resist returning an evil act with yet another evil act – especially as we justify our aggressive responses biblically.  In our burning passion for righteousness, we do not often see this only perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred we and our children and our children’s children have become all too familiar – and entirely too comfortable – with!

We must not ignore what is actually happening in our responses; not what we hope will happen.  To perpetuate the cycles of evil not only makes things worse instead of better, it also places that dreaded and cursed “stumbling block before the little ones” (Mark 9:42).  Not only the children but also the new Christians “young” in the faith who are watching us for direction and inspiration. 

Whenever we take strong and aggressive measures to fight against something – especially something over which we have no control and no right to control – we deny The Lord His own sovereignty over such overwhelming matters AND we teach the “little ones” that to “be still” and let The Lord be The Lord is not the American Way.

We face the “fires” of our culture with only more matches – and maybe a little gasoline for good measure ... and in so doing, our lack of faith is being exposed.

There can be no denying St. Paul’s writing is specifically referring to the issue of clean and unclean food; but we must also not deny that the principle to which Paul is appealing is much broader than its application toward what is fit to eat and what is not.  He is asking, What are we teaching people, believers and unbelievers alike?  What is it exactly that we are testifying to?

That terrorists are a threat to our safety and national security?  That same-gender marriage is a threat to the Church, to religious liberty, and to the stability of the institution of marriage itself?  Or can more be done by “standing still” and trusting The Lord to be The Lord?  Like, say, testify to the Truth of the Holy Scripture as it is written and as it is being revealed

Like when Jesus told His disciples the world would hate them, can we not see our Lord was telling the Truth?  Like when Jesus taught that His faithful would have a hard row to hoe, can we not now see that He was telling us the Truth?  Like when St. Paul said a time of apostasy and sacrilege would come to pass, when many will trade the Truth for a lie, can we not see that he was teaching the Truth?

I am not going to tell you we are living in the Last Days, my friends, for that is not my call … nor is it yours.  What I can tell you is that what we are seeing is what our Lord told us we would see.  We are now first-hand witnesses to The Truth which we can now easily prove to be True!  And if our Lord was telling us the Truth about these things which have come to pass, can we not also take Him at His Word that when the smoke is cleared and the sheep and goats are separated, that the faithful will find themselves on the Right Side of The Lord?  YES!

Our world is not falling apart, for this is not “our” world.  We are merely passing through on our mission.  Our Lord has shown time and again that He is good for His own Word.  While it may seem a hopeless and dark time for the Church, surely we can see now that something more is being revealed.  It is not now a better time for threats “before it is too late”. 

Rather it is time now to see that what is written in the Scripture is not some fairy tale!  More than threats to unbelievers is the Promise to all who would trust The Lord completely by taking Him at His Word!  We are seeing the Truth laid out before us, and it is a great and wondrous Gift to “be still, and see the salvation of The Lord” who will fight these insurmountable battles for Himself … and for us – if we will let Him!

It is time to put down the “matches” of our anger and the “gasoline” of our despair lest we burn ourselves and other innocent persons.  It is time to put on the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18) and stand firm in our faith and in His righteousness.  “For the battle is not yours but The Lord’s – who is with you” … even until the end of the age.”

It is time to “position ourselves and be still”; for the Truth is being revealed to us - one crisis at a time.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 25 June 2015

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and a house divided against a house falls.”  Luke 11:17 NKJV

Watching and reading the continuing controversy of the old Confederate Battle Flag in light of last week’s horrific shooting in Charleston SC, it occurs to me that we are not so much mindful of the eternal Word of The Lord revealed in Christ as we are our own individual agendas and personal demands.  We are also perhaps not so mindful of who we really are – especially as so many insist we are a “Christian nation founded on Christian principles”.

The Stars and Bars represented an ideal that, unfortunately, divided a nation and pushed it to war, brother against brother.  We can insist upon “state’s rights” in the heritage of the Confederacy and the flag that represents it, but we cannot deny that these few states insisted upon their own sovereignty as it pertained to their insisted-upon “right” to buy and sell human beings who had been kidnapped from their homelands, captured and forcibly removed from their own sovereignty.

The Stars and Stripes also represent an ideal, but that ideal has been less than ideal throughout the course of this nation’s history.  Under the Stars and Stripes, slavery was condoned.  Under the Stars and Stripes, the genocide of Native Americans was practiced as a matter of official US government policy.

Yet under the Stars and Stripes came the Emancipation Proclamation.  Under the Stars and Stripes finally came the understanding that “all are [truly] created equal”.  Under the Stars and Stripes, women were recognized as possessing the right to vote.  Under the Stars and Stripes, the Civil Rights Movement opened our eyes – if not our hearts.  Under the Stars and Stripes, the tyranny of Nazi Fascism and Japanese Imperialism was turned back and soundly defeated, surrendering to the ideal of the Stars and Stripes “without condition”.

A house united can do remarkable things, and a nation united in Christ can do miraculous things; but a “kingdom divided against itself” represented only by a piece of cloth but personified by hearts of stone will soon bring “desolation” upon itself.  And the reason Jesus brings this to our attention, I think, is within the reality that while we are individual beings, we are more predominantly communal beings created in the Divine Image.  We have families, we have churches and synagogues, and we live in communities in which the well-being of the whole community depends on our ability and willingness to see to the well-being of others.  If we are only concerned about ourselves and our own rights with no mind or heart toward the rights of others, the “house” (such as it is) cannot help but to fall.

The heritage of a mighty nation as the United States must not be defined strictly by the past, for it can truly be said our past as a nation is not so pretty or noble.  Rather the heritage, whether of Stars and Stripes or Stars and Bars, informs our present and directs our future.  If we are the “Christian nation” we proclaim ourselves to be, we must embrace the Christian elements of the Holy Scripture in which it is written, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  We must not focus on “if it is possible” and look for reasons to be hateful or vindictive, however, for our Lord Jesus commanded that we never “return evil for evil”.

“Why do you worry about clothing [or a piece of cloth]? … Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and [all you can possibly need] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:28, 33).  As many have said, “Let the Main Thing be the Main Thing always”.  Not the crisis at hand, but Christ always – the Eternal Word of the Living God!



Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 23 June 2015

“Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God, but exhort one another daily while it is called ‘Today’, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”  Hebrews 3:12-13 NKJV

Mutual accountability is a very hard concept for probably most Christians, and it has become more difficult in a society that loves to quote the Bible (“judge not”) but does not understand the “God breathed” element of the Holy Scripture.  It may also be said that we find it difficult to tell the difference between “judging” and “discerning”.  To “judge” is to render a final decision as if we know all we need to know; to “discern” is to know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, that which is “God-breathed” and that which is determined by the dominant culture.

What is more difficult to understand about mutual accountability (especially for those who are being challenged or called on their less-than-godly actions or words) is the depth of love required to call someone to account.  We know we risk what we believe to be valued friendships, but how much of a friend can we consider ourselves to be if we refuse to call a friend on his or her behavior that is demeaning and damaging to the Church and to their souls, challenging their gossip and hateful, hurtful words?  How much love can we be said to have for a friend if we can clearly see them running toward the edge of a cliff but do nothing to stop them before they fall into the abyss?

The truth is that whatever ‘love’ we may think we are feeling is actually ‘love’ directed at ourselves.  That is, we are unwilling to make an uncomfortable situation not because we don’t want a friend to feel badly but because we don’t want to feel badly ourselves.  It cannot be said we ‘love’ our friends or family members if we are unwilling to protect their immortal souls but are more concerned with our own feelings.

When we are among unchurched friends, we typically shy away from discussions about religion in general and The Lord specifically because we do not want to make our unchurched friends uncomfortable, but this cannot be construed as ‘love’ if we do not want to offer to them what we believe has given depth and meaning to our own lives.  This, too, is a form of self-love in that we are more concerned about how we will be personally affected, how we might alienate someone who will no longer want to spend time with us.

The Church today has gotten entirely too wrapped up in trying to be so ‘relevant’ to the unbelieving culture that we have freely surrendered our capacity to be faithful to The Lord and His Church.  We want to be ‘liked’, we want to be ‘popular’, we want people to invite us to their homes and their parties.  We don’t want to be considered a ‘downer’ or a Jesus freak.

Jesus assures us of many things, good things, things of life and joy and peace; but Jesus also assures us that being faithful to Him will bring dissension and conflict even among family and friends, and even loneliness and despair – IF we are too wrapped up in our own little world and not fully connected to Him and His Church, His Body, the “ekklesia”, His faithful.  It is a tall order for many of us because, frankly, Jesus is not so real to us.  He is a comfortable Sunday concept, but even this idea is not quite so clear when we consider how easily we can be swayed to not attend worship and Bible study and prayer gatherings.  The truth is we do not want Jesus ‘Today’; we only want Him at our deathbed.

But ‘Today’ is the only Day we can count on.  ‘Today’ is the only certainty we have in this world, in this life.  We are not promised ‘Tomorrow’, so ‘Today’ is our moment, our opportunity to turn things around for our families, our friends, our children, our grandchildren.  If we really want them to understand the fullness of life in faith, we must be living and breathing the reality of that faith and the joy it brings.  Faith and religion must never become incidental to us, our lives, and our daily choices.  Our faith and our religion must always be primary to everything else.  It is everything else which must become incidental.

We must learn to redirect our attention, redirect our focus, and be unapologetic for being faithful to The Lord, and for this we need our friends, our true friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ; for in all of Eternity and whatever that may mean, The Lord is all we have.  He is our ‘Today’, and only He can assure our ‘Tomorrow’.



Monday, June 22, 2015

A Thought for Monday 22 June 2015

“When you come to serve The Lord, prepare yourself for testing.  Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity.  Cling to Him and do not depart, so that your last days may be prosperous.”  Sirach 2:1-3 (The Apocrypha)

It has long been known that turning to The Lord and giving our lives over to Him will bring challenges.  When we make that decision to repent of an old life, even those who were once considered our friends may well turn against us.  The more determined we are to serve The Lord and Him alone, the more temptations we will face because in our old life those temptations were just a part of who we once were and what we once did.

To be tested by The Lord, however, does not mean we will face obstacles for their own sake.  Rather we are being prepared for even more obstacles that will certainly come.  The test is not an attempt to hold us back.  The test is to help us to grow stronger so that as we face even greater obstacles, we will be prepared and enabled to overcome them.

Sometimes it is hard to decide whether we are being tested by The Lord or by the culture that considers “godliness as an abomination” (Sirach 1:25b).  What we must understand is that transformation from our old selves to the New Creation in Christ means there will be challenges and growing pangs.  Like ancient Israel in the wilderness, it will seem much easier to turn back to the old life when we functioned more by instinct – always going for what pleases us - than by purposeful decisions after thoughtful consideration and deciding we are better off without those temptations.

The reality of these challenges, however, always reminds us of our need for the Church, the “ekklesia”, the congregation of the faithful.  Our need is always for fellow disciples who are prepared and willing to help us to endure the storms we will certainly face – and to hold us accountable to a life of faith.  This is the strength of the fellowship and is part of why the Church was called forth.

Hold fast to what pleases The Lord, for “fidelity and humility are His delight” (Sirach 1:27b).  His Wisdom alone will reveal our next steps.



A Method (ist) to our Madness

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
1 Peter 1:10-23
Matthew 22:34-40

“As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.  So that whatsoever these opinions are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.”  John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist”

The common joke about and perhaps among largely uninformed Methodists is the presumed lack of defining doctrine.  It is (or once was) a running joke that it is easy to be a Methodist because we can believe whatever we wish!

This notion may be an allusion to John Wesley’s “think and let think” observation, but Wesley was generally referring to anything that did not “strike at the root of Christianity”.  So it cannot be said that Methodists don’t believe anything – OR – that Methodists believe anything or everything.  This may be true of some who identify as Methodist, but it is not the mark or the character of a Methodist.

Our doctrinal heritage distinguishes us in that we do not “look like” Catholics OR Protestants even though we share much with both.  Our heritage does not make us better or worse than any other denomination, and it certainly does not make us closer to “right” or further from “wrong”.  Being Methodist does not exclusively bring us closer nor does it push us further away from the Truth itself which is claimed exclusively by Christ alone.

In the early days of the movement (and it is a MOVE-ment!), “Methodist” was a term of distinction … but not in a good way.  It was a derogatory term that did distinguish those early disciples of John Wesley who had approached the priest to help them to discover a more disciplined and purposeful approach to discipleship and spiritual growth.  There was no existing “method” involved (at least in their eyes); it was enough to simply “believe” and show up for church.  They were hungry for more, they knew in their hearts there was more to be had, and they wanted it.

It is fair to say, then, that a “method” was born from this encounter – not from Wesley’s answer but, rather, from the hunger of those who were seeking!  This, my dear friends and fellow Methodists, is our heritage - born of spiritual hunger rather than opinions!

We must not misunderstand what is implied in “method”, however, lest we lose sight of the unique nature of the relationship we are to pursue within that “method”.  We must not be trying to become “holier than thou”.  Like the married relationship, we know (or should know) that active engagement in that relationship EVERY*SINGLE*DAY is of the utmost importance.  We must not take for granted that our spouses will just love us for simply being there, and we should not take a whole lot of comfort in what can often be the empty and habitual words, “I love you”.  The engagement in the relationship requires effort and devotion and DOING and sacrifice lest that relationship disintegrate into nothingness.  This active engagement is the very heart and heart BEAT of the Methodist movement.

It might also be noted that the beginning of decline in Methodism came when Methodism stopped being a “movement” and became more of an “institution” of brick and mortar and social respectability, when its foundation became concrete rather than Christ Jesus.

Of course “brand name” in denominations does not have the impact it once had.  In the so-called “good ol’ days” Methodists went to Methodist churches, Catholics went to Catholic churches, and Baptists went to Baptist churches.  The churches were full because it was the socially acceptable, responsible, and expected thing to do; to take the family to church on Sunday. 

But it might also be said there was truly nothing else to do on Sundays.  Blue laws in some states discouraged or prohibited buying and selling on Sunday, particularly products that promoted vice or labor.  Pot lucks and family gatherings after worship (rather than instead of worship) were the norm, children played in the yard, and adults drank lemonade and iced tea on the front porch. 

The “good ol’ days”, very idyllic, very Norman Rockwell … and more likely than not, the “faithful” had no real doctrinal knowledge and did not want any.  For them it was enough to simply “believe”, go to church, and then completely disengage until the next Sunday.

But a funny thing happened over the years.  As the kids grew up and began to ask more in-depth questions about the Bible stories they were taught in Sunday school, they were – more often than not – being told (in a nutshell), “It’s in the Bible and just needs to be believed”.  It wasn’t an untruthful answer, of course, but the kids were asking “why” questions rather than “what” questions.  And they were asking because they were unable to make the stories of the Bible connect in a real way.  So in an understanding of the Church’s God-given and Christ-directed duty to the faithful, the children (and likely also their parents) were not being adequately “fed”.

John 21:14-17: “Do you love Me?  Then feed My lambs … tend My sheep … feed My sheep.”  Over the course of time, the Church tried to do this very thing through coherent and meaningful doctrine; the human response to the Divine Mystery.

Doctrine can be a tricky thing, though.  It seems doctrine has done more to divide the Church into denominations rather than define the Church Universal as one Body because of the implication that if “this” is the doctrine of the Church, we must believe it – and not everyone did or even could because they were given the “what” rather than the “why”.  Still being told a series of “stories” rather than THE Story.

Yet there is the Mystery of the Revelation in Christ which requires a human response.  Sometimes there are no words sufficient to express our response, so we struggle.  Sometimes the struggle becomes so overwhelming that we just quit.  Like the sad and regrettable dissolution of so many marriages in our “it’s-all-about-me” culture, it becomes easier to simply walk away. 

Still others choose to explore and dig deeper.  We ask questions and seek answers.  And when we do not find the answers we’re looking for (or find no answers at all), we make something up that makes sense to us.  And we “adjust” our opinions over time as we mature (but not necessarily in the faith) and somehow convince ourselves we are that much closer to The Truth – or worse, that we have arrived and that our journey is somehow complete.

But Wesley’s understanding of the “Character of a Methodist” had nothing to do with drawing any definitive conclusions except for perhaps one: “We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith AND practice.”  Yes, our Methodist understanding of the written word in both First and New Testaments is that all we need for salvation is written for us to know.  However, to simply arrive at the conclusion of “saved by faith alone” misses the mark of what Wesley understood about an enduring and progressive relationship with the Lord in sanctifying grace.

To the belief of “saved by faith alone”, Wesley answered, “You do not understand the terms.  By salvation it is meant holiness of heart and life”.   Wesley (and ultimately Methodism) rejected the notion of any religious “silver bullet” or doctrinal “magic pill” that defined salvation even as he maintained that faith alone does breed and give rise and strength and meaning and purpose to “holiness of heart and life” that included a broad understanding of The Torah, what we Christians shallowly refer to as “The Law”.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith?  Certainly not!  On the contrary, we uphold the Law” (3:31 NRSV).

Yet the “Character of a Methodist” is also not defined strictly by our observance of and strict obedience to The Law as a list of “rules”.

What, then, is the “Character of a Methodist”?  What can we expect or hope to gain from such disciplined devotion to worship, the Sacraments, the study of Scripture, fasting and prayer, and fellowship in and with the Church, the “ekklesia”, the congregation of the faithful?  Wesley’s answer: “A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit given unto him, one who loves the Lord his God will all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.  God is the joy of [the Methodist’s] heart and the desire of [the Methodist’s] soul which is constantly crying out, ‘Whom have I in heaven but You, O Lord!  And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You, My God and my All!  You are the strength of my heart, and my portion forever”.

The whole of religious faith, then, and the genuine “Character of a Methodist” is in the reality of the “Greatest Commandment” that is within us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  We must be head-over-heels in love with our God and Father in order for Him to be our All-in-all!   This depth of love can only be realized and appreciated for what it is through daily, active engagement.

This love is comforting but is never comfortable.  It is love that is personal AND at the same time publicly professing in outward daily living.  It is love that is both sacrificial and satisfying.  It is love which lifts up others FROM their own self-imposed hell rather than leaving them affirmed in their sins.  It is love which leaves nothing undone and nothing unsaid.  And it is love felt and appreciated only when expressed outwardly – “shed abroad” from within the depth of one’s soul.

It is the “yoke” of Christ Jesus we bear gladly, the burden that is lightened only by our willingness to share in that burden.  It is love which is evidenced only by our eagerness and enthusiasm and faithfulness to a greater and higher ideal than one’s own.

If this love does not exist within you in this moment and in this hour, then TODAY “is the day The Lord has made” … just for you.  So you may look up from the depth of your sorrows, from the chains of your past, from the burdens of your discontent and doubt.  It is love and redemption which is offered to you today and each day when we as The Body of Christ are willing to sing His Praises and Bless His Holy Name! 

This is the “Character of the Methodist”, for this is the character of the Cross of Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, June 12, 2015

An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth

Why does a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient God allow evil?  If the Master and Creator of the universe is all-powerful and all-knowing, who is defined by the Holy Scripture as “love” itself (1 John 4:8), how can evil even find a place in this merciful God’s realm?

This is the prevailing question among atheists who have rejected religion outright, among agnostics who question reality within an otherworldly realm, and even among dutiful Christians who struggle to answer this legitimate and age-old question - for themselves as well as for those who really desire an honest answer. 

It is both an honest question that deserves thoughtful attention – and a snarky question posed by those who are more often asking rhetorically, not expecting a serious answer because they neither seek to know nor want to know.  It is the “gotcha” question of the so-called “none’s” who claim no religious affiliation.  It is the question that often silences the Church.

It is hard not to ask such a question in light of all we are surrounded by today.  In the United States alone, arguably the most religious nation on earth (or, at the least, the most religiously diverse), we seem almost completely enveloped by a culture that has lost all sense of religion.  Our children do not understand “love” unless sex is involved, but they seem to understand what it means to be entitled.  The Church is struggling to find its moral voice in the face of cultural opposition in terms of marriage, same-gender relationships, gender-confusion, and abortion, to name only a few. 

The Church, adrift in a sea of such confusion and angst, struggles to be relevant – but relevant to whom or to what seems to be what escapes us.  On the one hand, the Church must acknowledge the cultural reality and equip itself to speak within that reality.  On the other hand, relevance must not be subjective to human standards or ideas.  I dare say the Church has completely lost its identity. 

If the Church is Christ in the world, the Church must first be biblically relevant and must not allow itself to become convinced that the Bible is forever lost to antiquity; that it has no relevant message for the world today.  Unfortunately, even within the Church, there are those who dismiss or reject outright “ancient documents written for an ancient people”, as seems to be the mantra of the so-called “progressive” theologians.  But even the fundamentalist reads so narrowly and refuses to think more broadly that they fall as far off the grid as those who make it up to fit the modern culture.

As elusive as defining “love”, however, is the definition of “evil”.  From one generation to the next, what is once considered “evil” becomes tolerated until it is fully embraced as a “right”.  So it seems the question of why The Lord allows evil misses the point – especially if we are as confused about what constitutes “evil” as we are about what “love” really means.  The more direct and appropriate question may be, Does The Lord allow evil? rather than to ask why He allows it.

Judging by what is written in the prophets of Holy Scripture (speaking of the relevance of Scripture today), ancient Israel had the same problem discerning between what is evil and what is love.  At the core of their confusion was their very identity as a “holy nation of priests”, the same confusion the Church struggles with today.  The desire (or the temptation) to pander to the dominant culture, the consumerist culture, has overwhelmed the Church as it must have overwhelmed the religious leaders of pre-exilic Israel. 

“Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophecy deceits” (Isaiah 30:10).  The “itching ears” that will reject “sound doctrine” written of in the New Testament as a “time to come” (2 Timothy 4:3) “has already been” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and was alive and well in ancient Israel as it is now in the United States – and in the Church. 

“If [the prophets] had stood in My counsel and had caused My people to hear My words, they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings” (Jeremiah 23:22).  It seems the Church today is not giving the people half a chance.

“You [prophets and shepherds] eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool.  You slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.  The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost” (Ezekiel 34:3-4).  Everyone for self-satisfaction first.

Does The Lord allow evil?  It seems for a “season” humanity will have its own way, will do its own thing.  Why does The Lord allow it when it is clear by this type of culture that the “weak”, the “hungry”, the “sick”, those most in need of mercy will be neglected, oppressed, and marginalized.  It was once, and it will be again.  And it will continue to be so until the Word of The Lord finally finds its way into the hardest of hearts, until those who claim to be “saved” begin to live as though they have truly been “delivered from evil”, those who claim to be disciples or faithful begin to live as though they really are.

And if we do not turn away from our own selfish ends and self-serving desires, we who had much to share will lose it all.  Make no mistake.  The Lord will have His way; and His Church can choose to be the conduit through which this grace and mercy can flow – or we will be judged by what we did (or did not do) according to what we claimed to know.

No, The Lord does not “allow” evil; we do as much as those who demanded Jesus’ blood!  As the philosopher Sir Edmund Burke once observed, “Evil cannot prevail unless good men do nothing”, we cannot assign blame for evil if we do not stand firm against evil.  It is often said that if one is not part of the solution, then one must be part of the problem.  There is no grey area, and there is no “worse” evil nor a “little” evil.  Evil dominates because we do not understand “good”, and we reject any notion of inconvenient love that does not offer any return on our investment.

Those who reject The Lord will not understand until those who claim to embrace The Lord live as though we understand.  Is The Lord allowing evil because He does not care, or is He allowing us just enough rope to hang ourselves or climb out of the hole? 

It is not a simple yes/no answer to a question that requires a lifetime of engagement in search for the Truth.  The answer will not suddenly occur to us if we never bother to ask the question – and then be prepared to search for honest answers rather than convenient ones.

Lord, grant us the courage to ask.  

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 9 June 2015

“The primary task of Christian ethics involves an attempt to help us see.  For we can only act within the world we can see, and we can only see the world rightly by being trained to see.  We do not come to see just by looking, but by disciplined skills developed through initiation into a narrative.”  Stanley Hauerwas

The whole idea is to try and understand exactly what is the Christian narrative into which we have been initiated through baptism and confirmation.  It is not enough to merely identify oneself as a Christian and let it go at that.  There must be more, but it is the “more” that escapes most of us or intimidates all of us.

Is Christianity identified by a creed or a set of ideas (doctrine)?  Or is Christianity better defined by a way of life?  If it is the former, the ideas we are more likely to embrace are “sold” to us by dynamic and charismatic preachers – especially those who make this “initiation” so easy – AND if that initiation fits into our own narrative.  If it is the latter, then the “way of life” is defined from the very start.  Our infants are baptized into the Covenant, and from that moment begins the narrative leading to confirmation and discipleship.  Even if a particular tradition or individual idea does not accept infant baptism, the initiation must take place soon and deliberately within the existing narrative.  The narrative will not reveal itself to one not initiated or invited into that narrative.  This narrative also will make no sense to those not so initiated if the narrative does not exist in the life of a self-professed Christian.

The narrative need not be confusing, but the narrative must be lived.  And make no mistake: the narrative does not begin with Matthew; it begins in Genesis!  Jesus did not create a new narrative; He lived within the divinely appointed narrative.  And in so living that narrative, Jesus invites us into that story.  He does not encourage us to find our own narrative; in fact He prohibits it (“Enter by the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction”, Matthew 7:13).  The “narrow gate” is the existing narrative; the “wide gate” is the narrative many create for themselves.

It is very unlikely we humans will ever settle any matters under the sun, for the narrative goes until the Day of The Lord.  Remember, it is HIS narrative – and it is the narrative that brings Life beyond our own.  Let the Church rediscover this narrative, and so order its life and mission accordingly.



Monday, June 08, 2015

Faith is not Gullible

Isaiah 30:1-11
2 Timothy 4:1-5
Matthew 18:15-20

“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end.  If you look for comfort, you will not get comfort or truth; only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin - and in the end, despair.”  C.S. Lewis

Mr. Lewis was not suggesting comfort can never be found.  What he was saying is that while whatever comfort we may find might give us some sense of gratification, it will not last because what we should have been looking for first has been pushed to the last.  As with the virtues, it is knowing the difference between genuine need and personal desire.  And it must be said our desires do not always serve us well.

We see the confusion in our daily living.  We see it in the news.  We see it in the colossal consumer debt in this nation.  If we are willing to look closely enough, we also see it in the empty pews and collection plates in every church across America.  And we see it especially when we read a story in the mainstream media and immediately believe it – IF it is something we already believe or want to believe.

Junk science.  Junk journalism.  Junk theology.  Each of these can have some measure of credibility, but that credibility largely depends on the subject matter, who is talking, and who is listening.  “Junk” implies a lack of tangible worth, but the measure of worth depends on relative need or desire.  One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and all that. 

Junk science is much more difficult to spot for the average lay person because there are scientific factors involved that only scientists can really understand.  For instance it was reported last year that dark chocolate can actually accelerate weight loss! 

Who does not want to believe this??  Now, however, that finding has been shown to be less-than-true – BY THE GUY WHO HAD INITIALLY REPORTED IT!  Here’s the thing, though.  He was not trying to prove anything about weight loss OR the benefits of chocolate.  He set out to prove how gullible the public is.  And even he was apparently pretty surprised that his findings were not seriously challenged – by anyone!

There have been other social studies done recently not to prove how easily the public can be swayed or outright duped – but to use that presumed gullibility to further a particular cause.  There proved to be a lot of junk science involved in both studies, the junk being the small number of subjects used in the study.  The bottom line is that if there is to be shown a cultural shift or any measure of truth, the numbers must be much greater than those actually used.

Junk journalism jumped on these “scientific studies” and propagated their findings in their quest to make headlines, to be the first with the “scoop”, without checking the sources or the science.  Worse than this is readers ate it up because each “finding” was something many wanted to believe.  Even now, after both studies have been largely dismissed, there are some who are hanging on to any measure of satisfaction they can find – however small – as long as that relative satisfaction will affirm what they already want to believe. 

Seeking comfort – not truth.

Junk theology is equally as subjective to personal desire, but it is even more insidious and diabolical because it has led too many down a very dark path and has given them the comfort they seek and the affirmation they desire to continue on that dark path – even if by our knowledge of the Scripture, our ability to reason, and 2000 years of tradition have pointed out that death awaits them on this dark path ... if they are not already dead.  G.K. Chesterton once observed that “a dead thing can flow with the stream, but only the living can go against it”.

We don’t always get to hear what we want to hear, and it is even more rare today that we hear what we need to hear because too many churches are afraid of losing more members, afraid of offending someone.  Churches have largely turned to consumer marketing ploys to give the people what they want, neglecting scriptural wisdom: “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:5). 

When we think of friendship, we think of persons who will back us up no matter how wrong or misguided we prove ourselves to be.  When we think of love, we think of tolerance and lack of judgment and giving us what we want; but these notions are what the world has created for itself.

JUNK THEOLOGY has tried to make these incomplete or outright false notions somehow fit into the Gospel narrative.  Like C.S. Lewis observed, we’re not looking for truth.  We demand affirmation for the careless choices we make; and when our choices blow up in our faces, we demand someone else to be blamed.  We do not want to be held accountable – we want to be told, “It’s ok.”  We are willing for fall for anything as long as it fits our personally chosen narrative.

As the prophets faced ancient Israel with Divine Truth and a call to repentance (The Lord’s real love), they heard from the people of Israel: “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions … let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 30:10-11). 

It is disturbing how history repeats itself.  Yet we have bought into such junk theology that a person like Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt can be convinced he is “born again” in Christ but never repented of his exploitation of women in the publication of pornography – and never had intentions to do so.  While he may be an extreme example, there are many other, more subtle nuances of some of the most vile and hateful people we can imagine who insist they are baptized, confirmed, saved, justified – whatever word chosen that provides them comfort – but are no closer to the Truth than before.  And God help a “friend” or a church that would dare to confront these persons and tell them the Truth!

The sad thing is we are all guilty to one degree or another - not of loving our own children too much but of caring, truly caring for our neighbors too little.  And we have allowed a rebellious world to use The Scripture against us, as the evil one tried (and failed) with Jesus in the wilderness!  “Judge not”, we hear most often.  But because of our own shallow understanding of anything that cannot fit on a bumper sticker, we allow ourselves to be intimidated and silenced!  Or … we just don’t know any better ourselves.

Jesus does not allow us the luxury of “to each his own” – not without first pulling out all the stops to restore our neighbors, our family members, our church members to the fellowship of the Covenant Community in which we are to love and care for and look out for one another.  Our Lord demands that we hold one another accountable, and our Methodist heritage demands no less!  Not to be overbearing or judgmental or proved right, but to be loving and supportive and nurturing in the Faith and the Truth. 

Before we can demand repentance, however, we must first repent ourselves and choose the more righteous and spiritually responsible path of discipleship, that life which transcends “personal salvation”.  To grow beyond our own gullibility and embrace the faith that knows only the Truth and does not fall for the “song of fools”.  Our neighbors our friends, our children, our grandchildren have fallen for, or are in danger of falling for the world’s lies – and so have we if we allow those lies to reproduce unchallenged.  Even too many within the Church universal have fallen for the false promises of comfort in junk theology that only gives but asks nothing of us.

What must we do to inherit Eternal Life?  Jesus was asked this very question (Mark 10:17), but the answer our Lord gave did not offer this man who was asking very much comfort at all – only The Truth.  In that Truth, however, had the man had the patience and the faith to persevere, he would have found the spiritual comfort he sought.  Yes, there are other passages in the Acts of the Apostles and in the epistles that tell us to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” to inherit Eternal Life – but to believe in Jesus is to believe all Jesus taught, not to merely believe He existed.  “For even demons believe”.

Discipleship is the never-ending quest for Truth, not only to learn for ourselves but so we may also teach others – as the Great Commission requires.  As to junk theology that has convinced us we don’t “have to” do anything, let me be the first to offend – yes, we do “have to”.  More important than the perceived burden, however, are the very real possibilities and opportunities undiscovered in believing in Jesus enough to obey Him.  But first we must be willing to trust Him.

Only then will we find Truth – and only then shall we be truly comforted.  Amen.

Christian Ethics and the Virtues of Faith, final chapter: Temperance

Habakkuk 2:3-11
1 Corinthians 10:13-23
Luke 4:1-13

St. Thomas Aquinas (13th-century) once observed, “We can certainly never believe, trust, or love God more than, or even as much as, we should. Extravagance [in goodness, mercy, and charity] is impossible. Here there is no virtuous moderation, no measurable mean; the more extreme our activity [in virtue], the better we are.”

In other words, loving The Lord by obeying His commandments (John 14:15), and thereby testifying by our lives of His goodness, does not have a measure of moderation.  Living in the world and navigating life’s temptations, however, are other matters.

Temperance (another word for moderation) is the control of one’s desire for pleasure.  This does not mean Christians are to deny themselves any sort of pleasure; rather it means our deliberate quest for personal pleasure does, more often than not, cross a fine line to gluttony, lust, and covetousness, to idolatry – even spiritual complacency and apathy.  Temperance is our prudent response to the Commandments that prohibit covetousness; that overwhelming desire for things or persons we do not need in our lives and must not desire for ourselves lest they tempt us away from The Lord and lead us toward neglect of and harm to one another.

In a life of discipleship in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, it is the discipline of sanctification, the spiritually necessary and deliberate measure of our growing (but never settled) relationship with The Lord and His Church.  We do not become better human beings, better husbands and wives, better parents or siblings, better friends, better disciples; nor do we grow in faith and in love except by embrace of the means of grace, our deliberate choices and intentional acts, these values taught to us from an early age by our parents AND our Holy Mother the Church; the very Bride of Christ. 

The measure of genuine virtue and the ethics of discipleship is in the knowledge and practice of the Living Word and the embrace of the many means of grace at our disposal not only for personal spiritual growth and fulfillment – but also as the means to the end of “making disciples who are equipped to make disciples”.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of temperance, a challenge we face almost daily, is the measure of “good enough” and whether our standard of measure takes others into account, including our God and Father.  It is not enough to merely deny oneself; it is about what we will give of ourselves to The Lord and His Church.  In the more common language, complacency, or apathy in the Church today, are we saved just “enough” to avoid hell without really breaking a spiritual sweat or going out of our way for the Church’s mission, let alone for a complete stranger? 

Even then we are missing the boat – and probably the point.  St. Thomas also pointed out that it is “better to illuminate than to merely shine, better to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate”.   Is this not a good illustration of Jesus’ encouragement to His followers to “let your light shine before all, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:16)?

Yet we must also understand that temperance is not about gaining “enough” for ourselves first with the intent of giving more later – because later never seems to come.  As is commonly stated, the road to hell is paved with such intentions.  Rather we are compelled by virtue and the Spirit – as our Lord in the wilderness – to discern between our legitimate needs and personal desires.  The need for temperance as a cardinal virtue in discipleship means we discern between that which is of the world and may meet bodily needs but will never meet spiritual needs. 

We see in our Lord’s confrontation in the wilderness with the evil one the way in which we will inevitably be faced with difficult choices, temptations that have the potential to lure us away from the Light of the Word and into the darkness that is the world, its false promises, and its emptiness in striving only for that which is temporal, that which can be taken, that which will rot or rust.  We are often experiencing not a demonic compulsion or possession – but the curse of free will in the face of personal desire.  And our relationship with The Lord, if it even exists, will be severely tested.

What we are seeing in this exchange between Jesus and the evil one in the wilderness is not merely some cosmic confrontation by which the tempter is trying to decide exactly who he is dealing with; we are also seeing the course of our own lives and the choices we are confronted with if or when we decide to follow Christ in His life rather than to merely believe in His existence and death on the Cross (and, yes, there is a profound difference) – because what we are seeing in the wilderness, in our more contemporary context, is a choice between “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1) in discipleship – OR – pursuing the so-called American Dream.

The contemporary and socially respectable Church has managed to convince us over the years we can have all the American Dream promises AND have blessings from Above, but the teachers of the early Church, including St. Augustine, would have challenged such an impossible balance in that “Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation” – as it pertains to worldly goods and personal desires.  In other words, we kid ourselves when we somehow become convinced we can indeed “serve two masters” when Jesus clearly states this is impossible (Matthew 6:24); “for either you will hate the one and love the other, or else be loyal to one and despise the other”.   

Dare we suggest we can somehow prove the Savior of the World, The Living Word wrong??

Life is filled with choices, and not all of them are good.  Often we feel compelled to choose between the lesser of two evils when in reality, there are other alternatives.  But when we choose to become disciples, we must understand that perfection in spiritual liberty can be tarnished, damaged perhaps beyond repair. 

The difference in denominational understanding suggests once we are in grace, we cannot be removed from grace; but I think we are asking the wrong questions when we manage to bring up such a biblically incomplete answer.  For then we are only trying to decide whether we can have our cake and eat it, too.  We are solely focused on “me”; The Lord and His Church are merely incidental to our personal desires – and that, my dear friends, is the “way of death” (Proverbs 16:25).

Temperance demands we discern between spiritual need and personal desire, for the carnal desire is destructive to the spirit.  In absolute terms, it is about asking whether an evil act with good intentions can somehow become an act of virtue.  St. Paul answers this question to the Romans (6:1-2): “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in sin?”  Being justified before The Lord does not somehow magically alter the destructive nature of sin!

Temperance is the acknowledgment that we do have bodily needs that can be met by worldly goods and services, but temperance also demands that the other virtues play a role in our decision-making process in learning to discern between need and desire.  Being justified before The Lord does not automatically make our choices and actions righteous – we still must be actively engaged in that Relationship through the means of grace which build us up and inform our choices and actions by drawing us closer to the Mind of Christ.   

It is not always going to be easy; in fact it may never be, for the “flesh is weak”.  In discipleship, however, as we are actively engaged in a relationship with The Lord and His Church, we will find ourselves making more deliberate choices toward the good of others – choices by which we deliberately glorify our Father and testify to His Truth and our faith.  This is the ONLY way to build up His Church.  This is our calling, this is our commission from Christ Jesus Himself – for this is our life in this world, and in the world to come.