Thursday, July 23, 2015

Donald Trump and the (very) Silent Majority

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is leading, or is near the top among Republicans, in most polls.  His heated rhetoric is enraging some and at least disturbing others; but if the polls are any indication, Mr. Trump’s brutally honest observations are resonating.  He is saying out loud what many seem to be thinking silently.  And though he is leading in the polls, it is difficult to find anyone who will say, equally aloud and equally enthusiastically, “Trump’s the man!”

Most political candidates tailor their messages to the broadest appeal possible especially so early in the campaign because the last thing they want to do is to completely shut out any particular demographic or voting bloc.  Most political candidates seem determined to offer a little “something for everyone” while trying to stay on point – whatever that point may be.  And political correctness having been elevated to the national religion it has become, it is very difficult to sift through so many milquetoast political speeches and determine what a candidate really means or stands for, they deliberately choosing to be so vague as to avoid painting themselves into a corner.

Not so with Trump.  He says aloud what he thinks, and it seems very likely he is saying aloud what many are thinking but would not dare speak so boldly.  There is no middle ground with Donald Trump; one will love him, or hate him – and he seems to be ok with this.  However, even as Mr. Trump seems to be mastering the polls, it is difficult to find anyone (for me, anyway) who will openly admit they are among the “silent majority” representing those leading numbers. 

Speaking strictly for myself, I find Mr. Trump’s speeches brutally honest though not quite refreshing.  Maybe I have been so thoroughly indoctrinated in political correctness to the point that I try to choose my words and turns of phrase more carefully than before.  Yet I also find for myself a voice in Mr. Trump’s observations because I am often as frustrated as he sounds angry.  I am as frustrated with a government in which I have no real voice as he seems to express.  I am very tired of worrying about how easily offended we as Americans have become to the point that litigation seems our only solution.

I am tired of being labeled as a homophobic, knuckle-dragging mouth-breather because I do not agree with kumbaya politics.  I am tired of a president who seems determined not to merely undermine some fond conservative traditions but to codify social progressiveness, that ideal being solidified by lighting up the White House in rainbow colors when clearly half the nation did not and will not agree with the Obergefell decision. 

I am not so na├»ve as to suggest our national borders can be completely closed without imprisoning ourselves (see the Berlin Wall), but I am not satisfied with our borders having become so porous as to render the US Border Patrol a virtual non-entity despite their best efforts.  I am tired of a mighty and dedicated US military being hamstrung in the face of such a world-wide threat as ISIS, what our president once termed a “JV” wanna-be.  I am profoundly disturbed that disabled US military veterans are forced to depend on outside sources for help because the VA has become so impotent.

I am tired of being labeled selfish and uncaring because of my objections to so many social programs that create whole new generations of social dependents.  I am tired of being made to feel as though I am not paying enough in taxes to sustain such massive social programs that seem politically designed to pit the “haves” against the “have-nots” for purely political gain. 

Donald Trump is not known for his tact or his diplomatic skills.  His public persona rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and his seeming arrogance in his “my way or the highway” attitude concerns a great many who know a president must find a way to work with Congress rather than spend a term or two deliberately trying to antagonize the Congress.  Yet we also know Mr. Trump has not spent a lifetime in politics.  He is a businessman - apparently a pretty successful one.  That success does not come from trying to be all things to all people.  That level of confidence (or arrogance) comes from having won big and lost big – all on one’s own terms.  

Donald Trump believes what he says.  Given the collective angst of a nation expressed in the poor and working-class and middle-class that cannot get enough as well as the rich who cannot give enough to satisfy everyone, it stands to reason that Trump resonates with so many who are tired of being beat over the head with a politically correct stick.  Maybe it is high time political candidates would be so candid.  At least with Trump, for good or bad, we can be pretty sure what we will be getting.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Good Idea that isn't

2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Acts 7:44-53
Luke 12:1-7

“Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God; Your Spirit is good.  Let Your good Spirit lead me on a level path” (Psalm 143:10 NRSV).

We would like to believe every idea we think is good will be blessed by The Lord; that if our desire is so strong and we can see any benefit, whether personal or social, The Lord will surely give us the green light since our intentions are, if not noble, at least pure.  That is, we don’t mean to do harm even if we only benefit personally.  Many seem to believe if it is foremost on our minds, it must be a sign of the Spirit stirring within us.

I wonder, though, how many such “signs” did not quite pan out.  And if such is the case, was the failure because we misunderstood the “sign” – OR – is it because we just decided we didn’t want to do it anymore, whatever “it” was?  Maybe it became too much of a hassle or too much of a personal commitment for so little personal satisfaction. 

King David’s heart was in the right place in his desire to build a Temple for The Lord.  Given his military and political successes leading to this period of “rest” in a unified kingdom, it would be understandable that David would want to express his gratitude to The Lord in such a magnanimous way.  He even had The Lord’s prophet on his side, but Nathan’s proclamation that “The Lord is with you” (2 Sam 7:3) was apparently spoken out of turn.

I sometimes wonder about the depth of Nathan’s involvement in that moment with such a casual observation.  That The Lord was “with” David and with a united and faithful Israel in covenantal terms is without question.  That The Lord was with David in that moment, however, and in that particular idea was clearly off the mark since The Lord came to Nathan later and put a stop to David’s well-intentioned but clearly misguided or ill-timed idea.

Given that today there is only a remnant of this once-mighty Temple still standing (the Western Wall), having been destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, we might suspect that the “building of a house for The Lord” was perhaps misunderstood from the beginning.  Considering that The Lord intended to “make David a house” (2 Sam 7:11), meaning the enduring Covenant fulfilled in Christ Jesus rather than a physical structure, it is hard to read this text as a commission to David’s son, specifically Solomon, to build this massive Temple even though the wording is suggestive in that “your offspring” (vs 12) … shall build a house for My Name” (vs 13).  Moses even spoke of a designated “place” at which offerings and sacrifices would be made once Israel got settled (Deuteronomy 12:8-14).  We get from all this a geographic “spot”, a specific location for worship, a physical “house” worthy of the Almighty’s Presence.

But the point to be made is not whether the Scripture or our traditional interpretation has been accurate.  Rather the point to be made is that we have to be mindful that not all our ideas can be or should be construed as “signs” of Divine origin generated from our own personal or corporate (church) desires nor should we always expect Divine blessing.  Our challenge is in coming to know, understand, appreciate, and prayerfully discern the difference between what we want for ourselves (or what we think others should be doing) - and what we are willing to invest in for the well-being and the mission of the Church for the sake of the Gospel of The Lord. 

I’ll grant you it is not always easy to tell the difference; and if all we use in our discernment is our own minds and a “pro/con” list, it is impossible to tell the difference.  This does not mean we cannot exercise good judgment or have good ideas apart from The Lord.  Even atheists have good ideas – not for the Church, of course, but the human mind is an incredibly powerful tool and mysterious mechanism that, coupled with the desires of one’s own heart, can achieve remarkable things even for the benefit of humanity. 

However, we are in the business of religion and faith in mission, specifically being Christ in the world today; and our task, according to our baptismal and membership vows, is the building up of the Church, the community of the faithful – not to make grander buildings but to make the community stronger in faith and in love.  Yet we must recognize that The Lord has His own ideas of what He needs from a particular church in a particular region.  That is what we must first desire, and then we must learn to seek it diligently, faithfully, and above all else, prayerfully. 

And we know why we must be so diligent, though we may not always admit it or readily agree to it.  Though things may seem fine in our own backyards or in our own private worlds or in our private pews in a half-empty church, things clearly are not fine.  Things are not fine in a half-empty church.  Things are not fine in a divided community.  Things are not fine in a dangerously divided nation at war within itself. 

Our country is in dire spiritual straits, and no politician is going to concern himself or herself with the spiritual well-being of the nation.  Not one.  Probably especially not those who carelessly and casually toss the Holy Name about.  Legislation cannot fix all what is wrong with this country and for this reason alone: legislation comes from human ideas reached by compromise with opposing ideas.  Our God does not compromise for the well-being of His people nor will He be restricted in His glory by people or laws or courts that defy His Word.

If we really believe our God will not be stifled by human action or indifference, we are forced to ask ourselves this question: whom will we go along with?  Who has the better idea?  Will we play along with the secular culture so we may protect our property, our jobs, or our standing in the community?  Will we remain silent in our indifference while human ideas have created and seek to expand this despicable act of infanticide known as abortion? 

Will we remain silent as we now suspect a leading agent of that horrific idea is not only selling the parts of discarded little bodies brutally and painfully murdered - but is doing it with our financial support through state and federal grants?  Will we be silenced and stilled by a culture that now seems to dare us to speak aloud AND act boldly yet compassionately in the Holy Name?  

St. Stephen (Acts 7:51-53) refused to be silenced, especially when directly confronted; and by his boldness he changed lives.  Yet when the council challenging Stephen got their drawers in a knot when confronted with the Truth, rather than to find their place in The Story which Stephen recited faithfully from the beginning, they had decided to hold fast to a story they had already created for themselves.  They had their own ideas, and they were willing to believe their own lies in order to protect themselves - even at the expense of a man’s life.

Jesus declares that if this is so, if we have truly been fearfully silenced and stilled and have become indifferent accomplices of death by proxy (by whatever means of death, whether spiritual or physical), then we are afraid of the wrong things and our immortal souls are in danger because we are more afraid of being unpopular than we are of being unfaithful.

“Beware the yeast of the Pharisees”, our Lord warns.  For us today, we might take caution to beware the yeast of the popular culture.  For everything we try to hide, such as our fidelity to The Lord, it will one day be exposed – and we will be forced to choose sides.  And yet even as Jesus tells us to “fear Him who … has authority to cast into hell”, our Lord still tells us to “be unafraidfor you are of more value than the sparrows” The Lord equally provides for.    

We are not always going to get it right, whatever “it” may be, because we cannot escape our humanness.  Even in our prayers we can be easily led away by our random thoughts.  This is why prayer must be a disciplined corporate and private practice; it does not come easily or naturally.  Yet it is by diligent prayer coupled with Scripture study in which we find out what is truly on our Lord’s mind.  It is in our due diligence – rather than our own well-intended ideas – by which we find the courage to stand once and for all time with Him, for Him, and in Him.  And we will be, by The Lord’s mercy alone, “unafraid” to face a hostile world.  For the Church there can be no better idea.  Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Thought for Friday 17 July 2015

“O, how I love Your Law!  It is my meditation all the day.  You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me.  I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation.”  Psalm 119:97-99 NKJV

Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms (176 verses), but that is not what is so remarkable.  What is remarkable is that the psalmist puts so much thought and effort and zeal into praising The Lord for His Word, the “Law”, the “Torah” (the psalmist is not praising only the Ten Commandments; the “Torah” is much bigger than that!).  But why?  Christianity has come close to suggesting the “Law” (again, the entire “Torah”) no longer has meaning for the Church in the light of the New Testament, the New Covenant (we do know we are very selective in which verses we will embrace!).  I submit, however, that the New Covenant has no depth, no real context or meaning apart from “Torah”, the “Word”; for St. John said it best: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”.  Not a “new” word; THE Word.

Incidentally, “Torah” is the Hebrew word for the first five books of the Bible.  I personally choose “Torah” over “Pentateuch” because it rolls off the tongue much easier (and is easier to type!).

There can be no doubt the “Law” is so easily misunderstood as unduly restrictive, probably because it is so easy to get caught up in “thou shalt not”.  By the time of Jesus the religious leaders had created such an overbearing Law that it was virtually impossible not to run afoul of that Law.  It has been said the Law became so restrictive after the Exile as a way of overcompensating – just making sure no unnecessary risks were taken with the well-being of Israel.  Maybe, but even that clearly missed the entire point of “Torah” which was, incidentally, Jesus’ own “Bible”.

I have often wondered if that is “the law” (the man-made one) St. Paul so often refers to in a not-so-uplifting way, rather than “Torah” itself.

Jesus did not “do away” with THE Law (His own words), but He certainly can be said to have turned the interpreted Law upside down!  By what is written in the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ constant clashes with the religious leaders, the interpreted Law was indeed a burdensome list of “thou shalt not’s” - and “taxes” rather than “tithes”.   And that’s what is happening today in our so-called “culture wars” even within Christ’s own Body, the Church.  And lest we forget, those who are outside of the Covenant cannot be expected to abide by the terms of that Covenant – until they are earnestly invited into the Covenant according to its genuine terms, the “Word which has comforted me in my affliction, and has given me life” (119:50).

The “Torah” (Law) is not a hammer to be used against those with whom we disagree, though The Word is “sharper than a double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) – BUT only in the Hand of the Almighty.  We have been given a great and enduring Gift in The Eternal Word.  It is long past time for us to embrace and appreciate it as the true Gift it is rather than a restrictive burden; for it is The Word which has “given Life” to a dying world.  It is The Word which will restore the Church to its true Self.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 15 July 2015

“It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.  The Lord is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”  Kallistos Ware, Eastern Orthodox bishop, UK

But isn’t it always the “easy answers” we seek?  How often do we read the Scripture with an open and prayerful heart rather than to search for answers to specific questions or to try and prove a point to someone? 

We are typically not comfortable with an incomprehensible yearning from within that may well be the Spirit speaking to us, so we fail to simply submit to that yearning and let it become whatever it may be.  More often than not, we attempt to answer that yearning in a tangible way that makes sense to us and benefits us personally.  We let our own internal mechanisms lead us, often, in the opposite direction from that of the Spirit of The Lord.

What accounts for the dwindling numbers in the Church?  Why are so many leaving the Church altogether?  A quick search on the Internet will gain countless opinions and insights from “experts” who seem to think they know, and much of the problem they think they find is a lack of adequate “programs” for a particular demographic.  While there may be some truth to this, I think the problem the Church is experiencing goes much deeper.  I don’t think it can be reduced to just one thing, and I am confident the solution will never be humanly inspired.  

“Hope that is seen is not hope, for why does one still hope for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.  So the Spirit helps in our weaknesses.  For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:24b-26 NKJV). 

In other words, we must allow the mysterious to remain a mystery until The Lord sees fit to reveal it for the sake of the whole Church.  Of course there is one thing we must do: we must first actually care about the whole Church rather than just our own personal little corner of it.

That, I think, is the missing element; the concern for something beyond ourselves.  When we find it within us to care and to pray for the whole Church, we will find so much more than we ever thought we were looking for.  That is a Kingdom Promise that comes from trusting The Lord fully and unreservedly.



Sunday, July 12, 2015

Who's really watching?

2 Samuel 11:26-12-10
James 1:1-12
Mark 6:14-29

“St. Mark says Herod exceedingly honored John the Baptizer, even when he was being reproved … yet so captive was Herod to his passion that he would surrender half his kingdom and the honor he held for John for only a moment of illicit pleasure.”  St. Chrysostom

I think by now we are just about up to our chins in “doomsday” opinions and predictions regarding a certain US Supreme Court decision.  Though we have our share of legitimate concerns about the potential fallout and wonder exactly how this ruling will affect the Church in general, one Catholic writer suggests we are not looking closely enough if all we see is doom.

In a recent essay in Crisis magazine, Jason Morgan observed that the jubilant attitude of those who applaud the decision of the Court can hardly claim a moral victory given their immoral demands and immoral actions and comments such as one by a former TV actor who referred to associate Justice Clarence Thomas as a “clown in black face” because of what Thomas had written in his dissent of the majority opinion!

The actor got what he wanted (a favorable ruling), but he somehow found it necessary to take a cheap shot at someone who disagreed with the ruling.  For the record, Justice Thomas was only one of the four who opposed the ruling.  The actor did later apologize, but his passion in his spiteful comments may be indicative of what we face. 

It is not enough to gain a perceived victory.  The mindset may be geared more toward obliteration of all who stand opposed.  And such conflict may well be inevitable, for the Church cannot – must not – give in to morally questionable demands.  The Church must not further attempt to assimilate itself to the secular culture that lives by the demands of the flesh and ignores the call of the Spirit.

Given the potential conflicts we may face, how can devout Christians see this ruling as good in any way?  Well, we may consider the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord.  Surely there were many then who cheered Jesus’ torture and death only to discover later that their perceived victory was no victory at all.  Evil may seem to have its day as we often see in the news but even if evil can claim a temporary political victory, it will never be able to claim a long-lasting moral victory – not if power is their only means to an end.  Not in this life nor in the Life to come. 

Yet even these claimed “victories” that violate everything we know to be good and righteous are not the great challenges we face as Disciples of Christ.  Our world is not crumbling, for this is not our world!  These immoral social demands only get a piece of our lives when we allow it to happen because we are indeed “free” men and women - in Christ - regardless of which flag we may claim as our own.  We also know – and can take comfort in if we will – the reality of our Lord’s return when we are invited by our Lord and encouraged and even admonished to “keep watch, for [we] do not know the day or hour” of The Lord’s return.

But we are also called to “keep watch” for much more than the return of Messiah, even though this should be the prayer we share with St. John of the Revelation: “Come soon, Lord Jesus”.  We are commanded – warned! - to “keep watch” for that which can so easily trip us up, can so easily entangle us in hatefulness, vindictiveness, spitefulness, and lust for the power to control our environment and a world that is not ours. 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus in the hours leading up to His arrest - warning His disciples to “keep watch lest you fall into temptation”.  This warning is a key component of The Lord’s Prayer; that we pray fervently not to be led “into temptation” or abandoned in “the time of trial”. 

You see, keeping watch for temptation is not about what other people are doing.  It is about how easily we can be drawn in.

Though King Herod is certainly not an example of discipleship, we may be able to see that the temptation Herod faced in Mark’s Gospel is not unlike the temptation King David faced, or the many temptations we face almost daily.  As St. Chrysostom observed, Herod held John in very high regard – with respect and even fear; the same respect and fear David had for The Lord.  Yet the Word of God had no real or lasting impact on either, so enslaved were they to their passions and perhaps their power. 

Herod allowed his passion and a false sense of duty and honor to convince him that executing St. John was his only option - socially, even politically speaking - according to a vow he had made in the heat of his passion.  In his sinful passion he probably wanted the dancing girl as David wanted Bathsheba, but political power – fueled by carnal passion - led them both to the much graver sin.

Sin, as has been observed, is the saltwater which enhances our thirst but will never quench it – but because we are so spiritually thirsty, we will continue to drink.  The meaning is clear.  Though we may consider “lesser” sin that does not do real harm and for which we can grant ourselves some justification, we cannot ignore the very real spiritual threat which exists when we allow even a little sin to go unresolved or unatoned for in our lives.  And it is for this reason: sin, in whatever form and however seemingly insignificant, always opens the door for much greater sin.  It is often so subtle, we hardly notice – especially when we allow ourselves to become acclimated to it and comfortable in it.

In Herod’s case we should note his twisted sense of social and political honor.  I suspect Herod carried some measure of guilt in his morally “unlawful” marriage to his brother’s wife; and David was so caught up in his own passion that he did not recognize himself until he was confronted! 

Though there may have been no real cultural objection to Herod’s marriage (particularly in the Roman culture), there is always a point at which we must discern between the cultural and moral expectations – and Who is really watching us, Who really regulates our lives, to Whom we are fully accountable.  If our sense of morality is based strictly on subjective cultural expectations, then we reason no harm or foul since cultural standards of morality shift from one generation to the next. 

As we have clearly seen since the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 60’s, once that door was cracked open there was no longer any protection from a full frontal and overwhelming invasion.  A little sin has become such grave sin that the line dividing right from wrong has been not only blurred but removed altogether. 

Nothing shocks us anymore though many claim to be so easily “offended”, but here’s the stink of social or cultural offensiveness for the faithful: we don’t seem to be so concerned about what is offensive to The Lord and His Law as we are to what is offensive to us personally.  This may be because even Christians disagree about or don’t understand the importance of the Divine Law in daily living even though we will not hesitate to quote The Law here and there to “prove” our point of being “right”; but are we defending righteousness and the Divine Law for The Lord’s sake and glory - or are we only defending our personal sensitivities?

It is the measure of Herod’s challenge – and ultimate downfall – that was not so concerned with what is eternally and objectively “wrong” (murder, adultery).  It was Herod’s standing among his contemporaries he was most concerned with – which we must be concerned with.  In his passion he made a pact with the dancing girl, and in defending his pride it became necessary to make a pact with the devil.

So we look to the story of King Herod much in the way we should view this Supreme Court decision; not with disdain, not with anxiety, and certainly not with contempt – but maybe with compassion and pity for all who are so easily enticed.  But we also need not look at the verdict as something that does not have the potential to do more harm in the interim between now and the Day of The Lord when Christ returns “to judge the living and the dead”.  Our concern should not be that we or our children may be somehow “converted” – but that we become aware of how easily we can be sucked in to the useless arguments and forgetting not only Whom we serve but Who has promised to fight for us if and when the time comes rather than to take the fight upon ourselves. 

“We live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have Divine Power [in our faithfulness] to destroy [human] strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.  We are ready to punish every disobedience [only] when your obedience is complete” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6 NRSV).  Notice whose obedience must first be dealt with before we worry about the disobedience of others?

It doesn’t matter what we face in the coming days.  It matters Whom we choose to face the world with – because it always matters Who is really watching over us … faithfully and eternally.  Amen.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 9 July 2015

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.  Abide in Me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.  If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.  By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (John 15:1-8 NKJV).

If there is any single passage of New Testament Scripture that defines the Church’s mission so clearly, this would be at or near the top of a list.  The “fruit” to which Jesus refers are new disciples.  More specifically it may actually refer to disciples who are also equipped to make disciples themselves.  That is, we don’t simply make benign believers or get more people to come to church or Sunday school; we make disciples, members who are devoted to a vital and healthy and missional Church. After all, a fruit-bearing tree does not bloom only for a single season – unless, of course, it is invaded by parasites that make it necessary to cut the tree down.

The analogy is compelling when it is taken within the context of the challenges facing the 21st- century Church in America.  We’ve heard the numbers and we’ve watched churches of all denominations finally close their doors, but even this does not tell the story.  Thanks to Steve Harper, a religion professor, we must now look at the declining numbers within a whole new – and positive! – framework.  We must also explore this passage with much more depth than in the past and stop thinking in terms of “personal” theology or “personal” salvation, think in much broader terms, and consider whether – and how – Christ “abides in us and we in Him” – as the Church, the very Body of Christ.  Not “you” – but rather ya’ll!

Bottom line is that Mr. Harper suggests we follow his lead and think of the Church not in life or death terms but look, instead, at a very biblical third alternative.  What if, Mr. Harper asks, the Church is merely being “pruned” by the Vinedresser Himself?  What if, in the face of such gloom-and-doom numbers and instead of blaming the devil, Muslims, or homosexuals, we are being prepared by the very Hand of God Himself for something much greater that makes it necessary to cut away the “dead wood” – that is, complacency? 

To this end Jesus surely must be assuring His disciples (that would be us) that if our “desires” lead us to ask for more of what The Lord would entrust to us, having proved to Him that we are good and responsible and faithful stewards, that He will grant it!  Prosperity gospel preachers have tried to hijack this passage as a means to their own fund-raising ends, of course, but we can surely see that what Jesus is promising us is not opportunities for personal gluttony or get-rich schemes!  Rather He is demanding “much fruit” beyond ourselves – and from each of us!

This does not mean we can rest on our laurels or on some smug sense of “personal salvation” as if we are somehow above the pruning efforts of the Vinedresser.  No, our Lord is pretty clear that the non-fruit-bearing branches will be “cast out”, will “wither”, and will be “burned”.

This does not mean we become desperate, for we know desperate people are often irrational.  It means we pay more attention to the “word that cleanses” and go about the real business of the Church: making disciples who can also make disciples themselves.  Whatever may be “pruned” away is a necessary Gift so we no longer have to work around or step over the “dead wood”.  We can go right to the task at hand.  And in and by the power of the Vine, we can.

Indeed we must.


Monday, July 06, 2015

A Thought for Monday 6 July 2015

“You, brothers and sisters, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather serve one another humbly in love.”  Galatians 5:13

Freedom.  Liberty.  Whichever word we choose to embrace, if there is no sense of duty or responsibility associated with either, it cannot be said we are truly free – not if we are in fact slaves to our own personal desires or selective in whom we are willing to serve.  The saying, “Your freedom ends at the tip of my nose”, is more than a demand for boundaries, which must also be respected.  It is an acknowledgment that freedom and basic human rights for one means freedom and basic human rights for all.  There cannot be a little freedom any more than there can be a little justice.

When The Lord set us free from the bonds and chains of our past, it was not His intent that we would trade one set of chains for another.  To exercise the freedom we hold so dear means we must understand our commitment to the whole of our communities – but to also understand that if we are unwilling to commit to the well-being of the community, we should not expect the community to concern itself with our well-being.

Christ called forth the Church, the “ekklesia”, the congregation of the faith, the community of believers.  In order for us to understand the depth of this meaning, we must learn to read the Scripture not as “love letters to me” but as encouragement to the entire community of saints.  Then – and only then – can we begin to understand the true nature of liberty.

This is the reality of Christ.  This is the nature of the Covenant of The Lord.  Thus it must become the very nature of our being if we are to pretend we are somehow connected to Christ.  “Love your neighbor as yourself” is more than a commandment; it is the very foundation of the community.



Sunday, July 05, 2015

Strength in Weakness

1 Kings 19:9b-12
2 Corinthians 7b-10
Mark 6:1-13

“To wish for nothing more than need demands is rest supreme, with simple food and dress to feed and clothe our bodies and to seek no more than is prescribed by nature’s wants.”  “The Spiritual Combat”, Prudentius (348AD-405AD)

There is the most incredible irony in this brief passage from Mark’s gospel that had not occurred to me before.  Verses 1-6 speak of Jesus’ limitations in that “He could do no deed of power …” (vs 5) even though there were apparently some He was able to heal; but the passage ends with Jesus being amazed at their unbelief” (vs 6).

Then we move into the second portion of the reading in which Jesus commissioned the Twelve to go out “two by two and gave them [presumably HIS] authority over unclean spirits” (vs 7).  The disciples were given explicit instructions on what to take with them and how to act; so apparently following Jesus’ careful instructions, “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them” (vs 13).

Can we not see the strange irony?  The Messiah Himself was working with His hands tied behind His back and was only able to heal a “few”, but His disciples were endowed with [Jesus’] authority over unclean spirits” (after all, whom else can even have that authority?) and were able to heal “many”.  How can it be that the One who inherently possesses that kind of Power can change the lives of only a few while those so endowed with that same Power were enabled to change the lives of many?

The first part of the reading gives us a clue, but it’s still a little hard to understand how the people can so easily reject a “home town boy” they have apparently known for most of His life, maybe having grown up with Him.  What is interesting in this context, however, is that the setting for this rejection may be found in a collection of ancient books known as “The Lost Books of the Bible”. 

In one particular “Lost” book entitled, “Thomas’ Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus”, Jesus is written of as a rather mischievous child who had to be checked by Joseph more than once.  Some of the stories would be far-fetched for the average Christian reader, of course, because we have been acclimated by Luke’s Gospel (2:41-51) to an ideal child who got into trouble with His parents only once, when He became separated from them in Jerusalem during Passover at the age of twelve years.  When the Boy was finally found, He was in the Temple involved in discussions with the teachers who were amazed at His understanding and His answers” (vss 46-47); perhaps much in the same way Jesus was amazed at unbelief in Nazareth.

So we Christians have a traditional understanding of an exceptional Boy who never got into mischief, who never gave His folks a hard time especially after the Jerusalem incident (“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to [His parents]”, vs 51) – a Babe who didn’t even cry in the manger, according to the popular Christmas hymn!  The One who was without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We are still left to wonder how it could be that Jesus was being rejected by the hometown crowd while preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Even if we will not embrace or even acknowledge the extra-biblical accounts of “Lost Books”, there is still something amiss in a crowd that is being told of Good News, a crowd that has apparently seen or at least has heard about Jesus’ “deeds of power” (vs 2).  And yet this son of a carpenter who was a working man, son of Mary, brother of other local town folk, had somehow “offended” the hometown crowd (vs 3). 

Mark doesn’t give us a lot of background before Jesus is rejected by His hometown, but Matthew’s Gospel offers several parables in chapter 13 leading up to Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth.  This at least helps to explain how the crowd had such a hard time accepting Jesus in this new role as “rabbi” or teacher, having been the son of a carpenter, having been a working man Himself.  We are given no real account of Jesus’ education in the Gospels, though the “Lost Books” mention Jesus having been so instructed – but even then Joseph had been told by the rabbis that Jesus already knew the stuff they were trying to teach Him, including the Scripture! 

Whether of the Lost Books or the Bible we are more familiar with (as well as our own home-made traditions!), we’re left with the understanding that Jesus can be no less than what He was born to be.  If He is indeed “Emmanuel” (God with us), then what can it be that He does not or would not know?  How can we mere mortals amazethe Son of God?

Well, apparently just as the elders in Jerusalem were amazed at the wisdom of the Boy Wonder, even the Son of God is amazed at … unbelief”, whether “theirs” at Nazareth or ours in hometown Arkansas USAAnd perhaps it is that the Son of the Most High God, for all He has done and will do when He returns, is still somewhat restricted in what He fully desires to do today in the here-and-now – not because the evil one has Him ham-strung, but because The Church – His very Body - continues to struggle with taking Him at His Word.

Or perhaps it is that because we are already comfortable with whatever it is we’ve settled for in the way of knowledge or what we choose to believe, any “messenger” who challenges our fond traditions – say, a messenger who lacks any acceptable-to-us credentials, such as denominational or political affiliation or nationality or gender or age or color or any other imperfections (at least in our eyes and minds) – is not a messenger worth listening to.  It could even be that we become a little too familiar with a messenger and his or her real imperfections to the point that we will no longer listen. 

Regardless, that messenger had better be plugged in to what his or her crowd already believes if he or she wishes to be taken seriously – which is impossible but apparently necessary - because anything outside the realm of what we have already established for ourselves as “fact” or even truth will be soundly rejected without having heard the first word.  Yet we remember it is perhaps The Lord Himself being rejected, not the messenger – as written in 1 Samuel 8, Luke 10, and 1 Thessalonians 4

But we cheat ourselves.  For our strength is not in whatever it is we’ve already settled for, however.  In matters of theology and biblical doctrine, reaching any “conclusion” as if it is settled is a profound weakness, and a spiritually debilitating one at that. 

No, our real strength comes only from our desperate need; as in our refusal to settle for “basic knowledge” (Hebrews 6) and our prayerful determination and never-ending quest for spiritual “perfection” for which we strive as though we may actually attain it in this life as the Divine Treasure it truly is.  Our real strength is to be found only when we admit we are not so strong after all.

None of this is to suggest we should believe everything we’re told, not at all.  We must still prayerfully discern between what is consistent with the whole Gospel (of course, this requires prayerful study in The Word) and what strikes at the heart of genuine faith, that exclusively God-given capacity to fully trust The Lord, the One we cannot see, not only with our immortal souls but also with our daily living in devoted and faithful obedience.  When we choose to live only with what we have chosen to believe based on our own desires, there is the inherent danger of trying to stand only on the strength we try to achieve on our own – which can be better translated as misplaced spiritual arrogance.

But when we fully surrender to the reality of The Lord and His mercy and fully submit ourselves to Him and His sovereignty, then we are enabled to stand on and in HIS STRENGTH – not our own.  Only then we will become formidable.  Only then can we even hope to become immortal. 

The Lord is not our “co-pilot” as if we may be in charge of our lives until we get into trouble or become incapacitated.  The Lord our God is THE Pilot in whom we must fully trust – and it must be more to us than a cheap slogan posted on social media, printed on money or on a bumper sticker!  Only in that will we find the Strength to endure and, ultimately, the Strength to overcome all we must face in the world today.