Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ministry of all Christians, V: Communion, the Spirit of the Body"

Exodus 12:1-11, 14
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Luke 22:7-23

“The Supper of The Lord is not only a sign of the love Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather is a sacrament [a sign] of our redemption by Christ’s death …” ¶104, Article XVIII, pg 68, Book of Discipline 2012

Like baptism, The Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion) is a sacrament of the Church.  Understanding a sacrament as an “outward sign of an inward grace”, we can then “see” the abiding principle of sacrament unfolding before our eyes when we gather “together” for Holy Communion.  And I must say there is no more precious sight than when married couples receive Communion while holding hands.  I wish we would all be so willing to hold one another’s hands while partaking of this extraordinary Gift!

Still, the question must be asked: do we really understand all Communion signifies, or is it just a thing we do?  For that matter, can Holy Communion be so narrowly defined as to mean only one thing in only one single moment of participation?

The answer, of course, is no; but this does not necessarily mean Communion can mean different things to different persons as if we can make something up independent of what is written in the Scripture and expressed in doctrine and still remain true to the Spirit of the Gift.  Like all doctrines of the Church – and this can never be overstated – if there is no outward, visible expression (sign) of what is taking place within (and we can mean within the heart AND within the building in which we worship), the doctrine is incomplete, empty, or downright false – utterly useless to the Kingdom and the mission of the Church. 

And we are nothing if not “Kingdom people”.  So if the doctrine of Holy Communion can be reduced only to what it means to “me” personally, then it also might be said the doctrine is not biblically thought out or spiritually understood – and the gift is received “unworthily” (1 Corinthians 11:29). 

In the matter of Holy Communion, which is a practice largely done “in house”, expressing its meaning outwardly as a “sign”, a true sacrament – beyond the walls of the Church – becomes even more important lest we reduce it to only a “thing” we do once in a while.  That reduces The Lord’s Supper to little more than a memorial.  By the very sacramental nature of all it means, however, Holy Communion has to be much more than this – or there is no point in doing it at all since we “remember” The Lord every Sunday when the Scripture is read.

We are already at an awkward place within the Christian faith in which the very means of grace (i.e., the sacraments, worship, fasting, prayer, Scripture study, fellowship; all done alone AND together) have become largely “optional” even for many who otherwise call themselves “saved”.  That is, we don’t really believe these things to be necessary or even useful to spiritual growth. 

We don’t believe we can be made more “perfect” than in that moment when we were “pardoned” (justified).  We don’t really believe the Bible to be the Word of the Most High God.  We are much more comfortable with man-made “talking points” born of the Enlightenment period of the 18th century in which all authority was questioned and community life became “every man for himself”.

Such a narrow mindset and vision misses the entire point of the sacraments of the Church and, consequently, misses or ignores altogether the overarching doctrine and mission of the United Methodist Church: that all baptized Christians are “called” to a ministry within the overall mission of the Church – it’s what makes it the “Body of Christ”.  We all have a place, in some capacity, specifically to “make disciples who are equipped to make disciples”.

Can religion be so practiced and faith taken so personally if we truly understand that it is not now, nor was it ever, nor will it ever, be strictly about “me”?  I think about it in terms of being a member of a human family.  There are certainly those special moments our parents (and we as parents) have devoted to one person or another, as on birthdays; but every other day (including the birthday) is about the well-being of the family as a whole – not a single person, certainly not a “favored” child just as our God “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) as St. Peter came to know. 

Of course there will always be moments when a single person may require a little extra care or attention from time to time – especially when our babies are sick and our children enter those awkward and often traumatic teen years - but even then the other members of the family are not pushed aside nor are their particular needs ignored.

This is the reality of the human family we willfully embrace.  So how have we come to understand the Christian religion and Christian faith as strictly about “me”?  The fallacy of such a notion is if it is only about “me”, then faith itself and its expressive religion become “optional”.  Not really necessary but kinda nice to have from time to time … as it suits “me” and as it fits “my” own personal agenda.  However, we are justified and baptized and called into a whole “family” when we become brothers and sisters to one another AND of Messiah Himself – as we also become children of the Most High God whom Jesus taught us to address and come to know as “Father”.

The concept of “personal” (and very often private) faith to the exclusion of all others is so far off the spiritual grid that it may be considered unimportant and inconsequential – except that the Church as a whole has become this mish-mash of “individuals” who refuse the idea of “mission” and who deny (or defy) the commandment of our Lord who spoke to all His disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must also love one another.  By this all will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 NKJV).  

In the context of the kind of “love” to which Jesus is referring, it is not insignificant that before Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, He had washed their feet, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

Holy Communion is not exclusively a “private” moment only between ourselves and The Lord.  That notion prevents the word “communion” from having any meaning altogether as the sacrament, the “sign” it must necessarily be.  As we are indeed receiving “real food and real drink” (John 6:55) for the soul and for the journey, it is important to the life and mission of the Church that we are assured we are not undertaking this Journey alone and only for our own salvation’s sake.  Think of Uriah whom King David ordered to be sent out in battle away from the army.  Without the safety and support of the whole army, Uriah was killed (2 Samuel 11:1-27.

This is the Ministry of All Christians, so profoundly expressed when we are bound together in the Body of Christ by the very Body of Christ in Holy Communion; for the doctrine of the United Methodist Church holds that we are truly in “communion” not only with the Savior of the world in and with one another – but also with the world itself, and for this reason: so that none would perish” (2 Peter 3:9).

In the Spirit of the Body of Christ in the union of Communion, let the Body of Christ say together: Amen!

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Thought for a blessedly RAINY 23 October 2015

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’.  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  Matthew 5:43-45 NKJV

This passage crossed my mind this morning as I am overwhelmingly grateful for this much-needed rain!  But thinking of the rain which comes from The Lord’s Hand and by which the “just” as well as the “unjust” will benefit, what underlying principle could Jesus have been conveying?

There are two ways to look at it.  One, we may consider that the lack of rain as a curse is unfair toward those who are truly “just” even if the “unjust” were somehow being punished.  Or two, we may consider that the genuine blessing from Above is just that: a blessing for its own sake whether one is worthy or not.

I think we should move toward #2, and for this reason: Jesus was sent to a world enveloped by and in love with darkness.  He did not come to save the righteous; He came to heal the sick and save the lost.  Even as He was largely dismissed, Jesus persevered toward the greater end – that of redeeming all of humanity according to the Father’s will.  The “just” and the “unjust”, the “evil” and the “good” benefited from Christ’s willingness to give His all.  There are none more favored than others.  Jesus does not love “you” more than He loves “me”, and He does not love Christians more than He loves atheists.

So when we speak of sanctification (i.e., “going on to perfection”, Hebrews 6:1), we speak of and learn to convey ourselves an Eternal Love that reaches out to those who are, by our own standards, undeserving of such love.  Given that biblical Truth, then, can we offer any less?

Enjoy the rain, and give thanks from whence it comes!  And let us always be mindful that what is offered to us without price is offered to all, and it is the privilege of the Church to offer it.  Let the people of The Lord then declare: AMEN!



Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Audacity of it all

Yesterday (20 October 2015) a 4-year-old was shot in the head and killed in Albuquerque NM by someone who drove by the car in which the child was riding and opened fire.  The police are looking for the killer and asking for the public’s help.  “This is a complete disregard for human life”, states the police.

A few years ago in Libya, the consulate in Benghazi had asked the State Department for more security personnel, fearing an uprising that did not bode well for the American presence.  The request for additional security was denied.  As in Iran over 30 years ago when our Embassy was under siege, the US Government did not want to “offend” anyone.

Police officers across the country are being gunned down in cold blood only for wearing a badge, and there is even a group boasting the mantra, “Kill a cop; save a child.”

Planned Parenthood has been seriously challenged for its operational practices pertaining to the disposal of unborn children taken from the mother’s womb; and in too many other instances, abortion has been exposed for the horrific, violent, reprehensible practice it is – even as some components of our culture insist such practices are “rights” protected by law.

And we have the audacity to ask why there is so little regard for human life.

I will dispense with the religious argument that speaks to the reality of human sacrifice in an ancient culture when live children were sacrificed to a Canaanite deity called “Moloch” for the sake of a more prosperous society.  Religious beliefs don’t seem to go very far these days anyway – especially when the beliefs of religious people don’t always coincide with the practices of those same religious people.  Besides, why be religious when being popular is so much more personally rewarding?

So what can we finally admit to in this “culture of death” we have embraced for ourselves?  Can we not finally admit that a genuine and earnest respect for human life cannot be culturally conditional or socially subjective?  Can we not finally admit that the sacred value of all human life is beyond human measure?

We have citizens and elected representatives who see nothing at all wrong with Planned Parenthood’s unspeakable practices.  Rather than to let the recently released undercover videos slap us in the face with the harsh truth of what we have learned to embrace – and even celebrate! - as a “right”, many are stepping up to defend PP and condemn the video’s producers.  We are allowing excuses to be made, and we are actually giving more attention to these excuses than to the horror that has actually been revealed in the videos!

And we have the audacity to ask why there is so little regard for human life.

Our children and grandchildren are being raised in a culture in which these proponents of death are given so much press time and attention while our churches are more concerned with what is politically correct, desperately trying to find a position we can all agree on politically (and keep seats in the pews!) and vainly trying to please everyone while ignoring the reality that our society would judge the value of an entertainment celebrity’s life as much higher than that of a child born to a “welfare mom”.

We have created new political terms and phrases such as “reproductive justice” and have learned to push birth control rather than to encourage and practice self-control.  We have lost all respect for the very act of procreation itself and have turned even that sacred act into recreation.  We are more inclined to hedge our bets with birth control that, at best, may be only 95% effective but then assuage our anxiety about bringing “unwanted” children into the world with abortion – the “final solution” to our fears and uncertainties about the future while willfully ignoring the horror of the present.

And we have the audacity to ask why there is so little regard for human life.

The “complete disregard for human life” should come as no surprise to a people who have boldly and even proudly proclaimed themselves as “personally opposed” to abortion but politically “pro-choice” as if the sacred and social value of human life is subjective to cultural norms and terms of utility.  We teach in schools across the country of a young person’s “duty” and “responsibility” to practice birth control so as to avoid bringing an “unwanted” child into the world, a child who would “ruin your life” with an unexpected (??) or unwanted pregnancy.

We are teaching our children that children are themselves a curse

And we have the audacity to ask why there is so little regard for human life.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians, IV: Baptism, where it all begins"

Genesis 1:1-5
Acts 2:36-42
John 1:1-5, 10-14, 16-18

“We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship.”  ¶104, Article VI: The Sacraments, pg 72, Book of Discipline 2012

The Word did not merely create a world we no longer know.  (Think, for instance, of how much money is spent trying to go “back to nature”!)  The Eternal Word began a whole process in which nature itself was set into motion.  The Word is thus dynamic.  It is not static; it does not just sit on the pages of a book.  The Word is transformative.  It not only created but is always creating and restoring and renewing!  The Word is moving forward and is constantly beckoning us to something which can be restored, the ideal of purity to be rediscovered.

The world of commerce cannot restore to us this world we can no longer envision.  No government can grant to us more power than we already possess by The Word.  It is the restorative power of The Word alone that can show us what was once known to humanity but was ultimately lost due to humanity’s distorted notions of usefulness.

The Church celebrates baptism in much the same way.  The entire congregation not only rejoices in the baptism of a baby, a youth, or an adult; the entire congregation also takes its own vow collectively to nurture these new members in the faith, to love them, to look after them, to care for them, to inspire them by examples of piety and mercy and justice, and if necessary, to call them to account for the vows they made – or the vows made in their behalf, notably parents who have their children baptized but do not raise them in the Church.

Baptism does not strictly signify membership in a local church.  In our tradition and according to the doctrine of the United Methodist Church, the newly baptized become full members of the worldwide Church universal – for it is not merely “a” church we enter into, but The Covenant of The Lord in the Body of Christ.

So baptism is a very big deal and is so emphasized because it matters in the life of the disciple and the Church.  Baptism is in no way “incidental” to human notions of salvation.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as having said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (16:16).  The Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel contains the phrase, “baptize them”, each seeming to indicate baptism as necessary to discipleship and salvation. 

But was Jesus referring to an event of water baptism?  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus corrects the thinking of disciples who are requesting their own special place with Him in the Kingdom to come (Mark 10:35-40).  If they want that, Jesus said, they will have to be “baptized with the baptism I am baptized with”.  It would be a stretch to suggest Jesus was referring only to His own water baptism – on that one day – in that single moment. 

It must be said that baptism in the United Methodist Church is not merely a “thing we do”, such an ordinance or a rule.  As it has been held before, no doctrine is useful if it lacks outward expression.  So baptism is to be understood as “beginning to become”. 

We do not baptize because we think we’re already there (as some traditions seem to insist one must be “saved” first.  This does not mesh with Jesus’ words at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved”.  So we baptize to signify we are on our way.  And we do it publicly so the whole congregation – which is itself renewed with every baptism! - can know they have a new charge, a new responsibility, a new opportunity to expand the Kingdom in their own renewal.

If we ask the question of whether personal salvation depends on being baptized, we’re probably asking the wrong question and consequently missing the whole point.  Recall that Jesus redirects the rich man’s very question of what is needed for eternal life (Luke 18:18).  Our Lord affirms our need to respect and obey the commandments, as the rich man said he was already doing.  But then Jesus raises the bar: rid yourself of this world’s encumbrances, then you can follow Me rather than to expect Me to follow you

There is no single momentary “event” that defines the life of a disciple.  Discipleship is a series of “events” in a life-long, disciplined commitment to The Living Word which is Christ Jesus.  It is not only acknowledging a relationship – it is diving headlong into that relationship with the Whole Body and not just the Head!

Our Lord’s claim is total.  He does not want only a piece or a single moment of our lives in the here-and-now while we spend the rest of our lives waiting for death; He wants the whole enchilada, every waking moment.  Not so He can “command and control” us, but so He can truly lead us and guide us into blessedness and into the only real Promise we can believe.

We should also bear in mind that Jesus taught such things knowing He would soon be delivered up to His own death.  Nowhere does our Lord suggest this holistic approach to discipleship will no longer be necessary once He is crucified and then raised up.  We can do some linguistic gymnastics with the epistles – and we do! – but we cannot overrule the principles of discipleship taught by Jesus Himself! 

The commandments still matter.  Discipleship still matters.  Accountability within the Body still matters.  Seeking treasure that “will not rust nor moth destroy nor thieves can steal” becomes a life-long quest – meaning we will not sufficiently “arrive” in this life that we stop “going on to perfection”.

We do know Jesus was baptized, but we do not know exactly how Jesus was baptized.  We should then not be distracted by human interpretations of what we think took place in that moment “down by the riverside” between Jesus and the Baptizer.  It is important that we know Jesus was baptized; it is apparently not so important to know what method was used.  What is most significant to us is to know that Jesus was baptized before He went into the wilderness to confront the evil one.  It began in that moment.

The doctrine of the United Methodist Church holds baptism as a sacrament of the Church, a necessary rite of passage for all Christians when Divine Grace is bestowed and one becomes a claimed member of the Covenant.  It is a Divine Act marked by a human act.  And because we believe it to be a Divine Act rather than a human one, we believe baptism is better done sooner rather than later. 

Why delay accepting the Covenant offered to Jews and Gentiles alike?  We maintain, however, that it is never too late to be baptized into The Lord’s Covenant.  And because “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (Apostles’ Creed), the doctrine of the United Methodist Church prohibits re-baptism – but - affirms our need to revisit our baptismal vows on a regular basis. 

“Baptism starts that process of breaking us away from sin’s power,” Director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards clarifies, “but it is sanctifying grace throughout our lives that actually accomplishes it.”  Burton-Edwards explains, “Baptism is the ordinary means of rebirth and initiation into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Baptism is not an act that imparts something only to [the individual],” Burton-Edwards clarifies. “It is an act that brings one into a spiritual relationship with the whole body of Christ, in which one is becoming one with the Body and the Body becoming one with the individual.”

There can never be enough said about the importance of baptism not only as a rite of the Church but as initiation into the Covenant.  It is not for us to decide whether it should be done at all, and it is certainly not for us to decide others are doing it “wrong”.  It is, however, important that we not overthink it to the point that we decide for ourselves it is not necessary.  That option is not on the table for those who will devote themselves to The Living Word of God in the United Methodist Church.

We become one with the Holy God in Christ Jesus not because we choose Him but because He loved us first.  This is what makes it sacramental – an act of God to restore that which was once deemed “good”.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 15 October 2015

“Either make a tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for a tree is known by its fruit.  Brood of vipers!  How can you , being evil, speak good things?  For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.  A good person out of the good treasure of the heart brings forth good things, and an evil person out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.  But I say to you that for every idle word you may speak, you will give account of it in the day of judgment.  For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  Matthew 12:33-37 NKJV

A Catholic writer, speaking of a Christian “going on to perfection” (sanctification), observed: “You are not called to do; you are called to be.” 

A rabbi was teaching his class about the power of words when he said to his class, "Everything that has been created by God's word has a lesson to teach us." Thinking the rabbi was using hyperbole, a member of his class called out:  "And what can we learn from the telegraph?"  Quickly the rabbi responded, "That for every word you pay."  Another asked, "And what can we learn from the telephone?"  Thinking for a moment, the rabbi said, "That what we say here is heard there."

We must not underestimate the value and the power of the words we speak.  Especially in terms of vows we make to The Lord, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes maintains, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for The Lord has no pleasure in fools.  Pay what you have vowed.  Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.”  Then he also writes: “Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error.  Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hand?  For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity.  But fear God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-8).

So when we consider the vows we make when we join the Church or become baptized into the Holy Covenant, or in anger speak words hastily and lash out at someone, the power of those words are immeasurable.  The Lord will not let us off the hook, for words spoken in anger do far more damage to the soul than a broken nose does to the body.  We can always apologize, of course (and we must), but the words cannot be taken back.  The nose will heal but the soul, not so quickly because of the incomprehensible power of our words.

And why is that?  Because from “the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”.  The victims of our verbal assault know where those words come from even if they are not familiar with Jesus’ own words.  Much in the same way we say we are Christians, but our deeds and our evil words (such as slander and idle gossip) actually define us.  Now we might (and many do!) try to convince ourselves that “Only Jesus knows what’s really in my heart”, but Jesus clearly does not agree with that sentiment!  Ultimately what we say reveals what we actually are.  We will, as the rabbi pointed out, “pay for our words”.  In terms of slander and idle gossip, “What you say here will be heard there” (isn’t it funny how quickly we will share gossip but not Gospel??).

This is why prayer, praise, fasting, contemplating Scripture, and worship are so important to the devoted disciples.  What we are called to be is revealed not only in what we choose to say but also in what we do, for “the abundance of the heart” will be revealed whether we like it or not.

We must guard our hearts!  There is real power in our words, whether these words are spoken hastily, arrogantly, or carefully.  Our words will always reveal what we have chosen to be, and our Lord teaches that we will be justified or condemned by those words.

So “speak softly” and carry a “big heart”!



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 14 October 2015

“Restore us, O God of our salvation, and cause Your anger toward us to cease.  Will You be angry with us forever?  Will You prolong Your anger to all generations?  Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?  Show us Your mercy, Lord, and grant us Your salvation.”  Psalm 85:4-7 NKJV

A plea for mercy.  A prayer of forgiveness.  The psalmist begins with a prayer of thanksgiving to The Lord for having “forgiven the iniquity of Your people” (vs 2), but now the prayer continues in acknowledgement that while the sin of Israel has been “covered”, there is still a matter of “restoration” and “revival” so the people of Israel may not “turn back to folly”.  If the sin of the nation has indeed been “covered” by The Lord’s mercy, what need is there for “restoration” or even “revival”?

The whole of humankind has been “covered” by the Crucifixion of Christ, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God.  What is left for us to do? 

We must respond, but that response must be more than a “one-and-done” prayer of confession.  To be truly “revived” is to have a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed determination to actually begin to live deliberately as a people of The Lord.  We must not simply take the Gift of forgiveness and only go back to that which caused Divine Anger and Wrath in the first place.   Vice does not suddenly become virtue, and the destructive nature of sin has not been transformed.  It is we who must be transformed in such a profound way that we have a genuine disdain for sin and pity for those so engaged.

In the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, we understand that the act of Mercy by which we are “covered” is by The Lord’s hand alone.  We are “justified” before the Throne of Grace and pardoned for the sin of our past.  “Restoration” and “revival”, however, can only come with our best efforts to live and to work and to worship as though the Kingdom of Heaven depends on it … because it does!  No, we are not “earning” spiritual points to find favor with The Lord.  We are “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (sanctification), we are growing in faith and in love by renewed efforts toward goodness and virtue rather than to “turn back to folly”.  We are, by our faithful witness, showing others the way of salvation and inviting them to join us in this remarkable journey.  We finally understand they will not believe our empty words – only our acts of mercy and justice.

There is nothing magical about a relationship with The Lord and with The Lord’s Church.  Nothing will “just happen”.  We must be actively engaged in genuine relationship.  By the many means of grace (prayer, worship, fasting, Scripture study, etc.) we grow stronger each day to withstand the shifting winds of a culture that calls sin “progress”; and it is a culture that threatens to swallow us – and “all generations” – up.

Remain steadfast in the faith.  Wrestle with that faith as Jacob wrestled with The Lord.  We may walk away with a limp, but we will also walk away with His blessing.

Grace and peace,


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 13 October 2015

“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words as the Gentiles do.  They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard.  Don’t be like them because your Father knows what you need before you ask.”  Matthew 6:7-8 Common English Bible

Praying is probably the most difficult and challenging of the means of grace we have at our disposal.  We are often taught that it is in prayer when we pour out our hearts before The Lord, so we wait until we have a lot on our minds so we can just unload.  There is that, of course, but there are also a few things we must bear in mind before we enter into a time of prayer.

Often we go to prayer with an agenda of our own.  We have sick relatives or troubled friends whom we want to lift up to The Lord, or we have our own issues we are facing such as unmanageable debt or the loss of a job.  Whatever the case, and it is not altogether a bad thing, we still approach the Throne of Mercy with our own agenda.  The words we already have in mind are hardly considered “empty”; they have meaning for us and for those we love.

But what exactly is Jesus teaching when He advises us against “empty words”?  If The Lord already knows what we need before we even ask, why bother with prayer at all?  What is prayer if not talking to The Lord?  And Jesus is teaching these things just prior to prescribing to us what is now commonly referred to as The Lord’s Prayer, so He’s giving us something to say! 

There are two things to consider.  The first is that the prayer we are given has become so familiar to us as to be rendered routine, mundane, and therefore virtually useless.  We say it (most often in Elizabethan English, which we don’t really understand in the first place), but we don’t think it.  We don’t reflect on the meaning of the words.  We’ve memorized the words, but what we are being called into is often lost on us because we are not listening; we’re talking.  Even then we may consider these to be little more than “empty words”.

Secondly we must consider how much time we actually devote to “being still” in the Presence.  We might go through the motions of prayer and sit with a prayer list so we don’t forget anyone or anything, but how much time do we sit still and listen?  Even if we do not hear anything?  How often do we actively “wait” for The Lord?  Jesus admonished His disciples to “wait” and “keep watch” while He went off to pray alone, but they kept falling asleep.  Of course they were tired, but they failed to understand exactly what Jesus was even then trying to teach them.

The trick to prayer (and it is no real trick) is not in what we say.  It is in how well we listen and how willing we are to listen.  And while we might think about prayer, religion, and The Lord while driving or performing any task that requires our full attention, it is disingenuous and downright lazy to say we do all our praying while we’re driving or are otherwise occupied. 

What does it say about our relationship with The Lord if we are unwilling to deliberately, even greedily, carve out time in the day only to be in the Presence?  It says exactly what we say when worship and Scripture study and fellowship with other disciples become less important than our own agendas: “Follow me, Lord; I am a little too busy.”

So we propose our own agendas and we follow our own agendas and we expect The Lord to bless our own agendas, but we give The Lord no real time except what may be incidental to the time already devoted to something else.  Ultimately we miss out on blessings we cannot begin to imagine, or a task The Lord needs us to take care of for Him because we are too busy and entirely too devoted to our own agendas.

This is what makes prayer so difficult; it is about putting self aside and learning to listen.  It is a discipline.  There is nothing magical about it, it does not come easily or naturally, and we won’t “just know” how to do it even as simple as it sounds.  Put down your cell phone and sit for just five minutes in complete silence.  In less than a minute our minds will have already wandered off and away from The Lord and back toward our agendas.

Love is doing for someone even when we would rather be doing something for ourselves.  So how much love can we say we have for The Lord if we cannot or will not freely give Him some uninterrupted time?  The Lord has something to say to each of us, and it likely has something to do with building up the Church or looking after a neighbor who is down and out; but if all we really care about is ourselves and our own agenda, we will never hear this.  It is likely we don’t really even want to hear this.

I dare say, based on what Jesus teaches, that prayer is not a “conversation” we have with The Lord because a “conversation” implies both parties actually speaking AND both listening.  No, I think Jesus is offering to us a most profound gift we decline much more often than we accept.  And we are the poorer for it.

“Be still” today.  Find the time, make the time, do whatever must be done to carve out some time.  I think we will all be surprised at what we may discover.

Pending a blessing,


Monday, October 12, 2015

A Thought for Monday 12 October 2015

“The most cunning heart – it is beyond help.  Who can figure it out?  I, The Lord, probe the heart and discern hidden motives, to give everyone what they deserve, the consequences of their deeds.”  Jeremiah 17:9 Common English Bible

I have remained largely silent about gun control in the wake of the recent shooting in Oregon, not because I had nothing to say but because political passions were running too high.  We all share at least some of Oregon’s pain regardless of our political persuasions.  Whether the shooter actually went off his nut or had deliberate designs to kill only certain people (Christians, as the stories go), it still hits too close to home for us because there is nothing so unique about Oregon that such a tragedy cannot happen anywhere else (and has).

There were no concerns about guns when I was growing up.  Even in high school, boys would drive to school in their trucks with rifles and shotguns hanging proudly (or incidentally) on their gun racks.  Some would bring out a new rifle or shotgun on the school parking lot to show it off.  Even teachers would stop by and admire the new acquisitions.  Some kept their weapons loaded because if a deer happened to run across the road, well … you know.

Guns were everywhere!  Guns were bought, sold, and traded with cash and a hand shake.  There were also some very nasty people with evil intentions.  The problem we face today was not so much a concern then, so what changed?  How have we reached such a point that we actually blame inanimate objects for humanity’s ills? 

Judah’s grave sin had nothing to do with weapons; it was (and still is) the “cunning heart” with evil intentions.  It was the lack of justice, the lack of mercy, the lack of care and concern for one’s neighbor.  The curse was upon those “who trust in mere humans, who depend on human strength and turn their hearts from The Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5).  This would surely include such self-reliance as to become convinced there was no need for The Lord; that all “I” am and all “I” have is due to “me”, “my” own efforts, “my” own cleverness, “my” own … “cunning”.

It must be said, however, that what is happening today is not strictly that hearts have become so “cunning” as to be “beyond help”.  It is that we have lost any real concern for our neighbors.  Even in “Christian” America we are more inclined to stick to our own kind but still be armed for trouble.  So what is more merciless: to shoot someone?  Or to deliberately turn our backs on those who are lonely, marginalized, hungry, sick, imprisoned, or homeless?  And to feel perfectly justified in doing so since they likely brought their misery upon themselves

The curse is not in our weapon of choice.  The genuine curse that plagued Judah and still plagues us today is a hard heart with no regard for others. 

Even though the prophet was speaking to the people of Judah regarding their hard hearts, perhaps Jeremiah himself was at least as concerned for his own spiritual well-being when he prayed, “Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed.  Save me and I will be saved, for You are my heart’s desire” (17:14).  For The Lord had also spoken against Judah: “I will make you slaves of your enemies” (vs 4).  Perhaps as Jeremiah was facing persecution for facing down the “hard hearts” of Judah, he was fearful that he might be inclined to “fight fire with fire” rather than rely on The Lord for his safety and well-being.

Do we not become “slaves” to that which frightens us most?  Do we not order our lives according to what we feel is the primary threat?  Why, then, do we not realize the true enemy is evil itself lurking in the shadows of our despair and our inmost fears? 

We are Judah.  We mean well.  We speak The Lord’s Name; but judging by our culture, something is clearly amiss.  Yet “those who trust in The Lord ... will not fear … will not be stressed” in the time of our despair or in the face of whatever it is we fear most (17:7-8).  We do not have all the answers for what ails us, but we can still learn so much about ourselves and our God through the ancient prophets.  For if The Lord had simply turned His back on His own people who had betrayed Him, why would He have bothered to send prophets? 

I dare say our God has not given us completely over to evil.  We make our own choices, and today our choice must be for the God of our salvation, our Rock, our Redeemer.  He still calls out to us today, for He alone knows what we fear most.



Wednesday, October 07, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 7 October 2015

“When you pray, say ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come, You will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us day by day our daily brad, and forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.  And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’.”  Luke 11:2-4 NKJV

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, has been a thorn in the flesh for many.  Maybe even more aggressive than the ACLU, this group sets its sights on anything religious within the public realm.  I personally find their tactics and their arguments shallow at best, and I personally think those who contact this group to complain about being “offended” by Christianity or Christian practices in public will find something else to complain about if they manage to successfully drive Christianity completely out of public.  I can easily say this, however, because I am a Christian.

Something occurred to me this morning, however.  By the way the text is written, Jesus seems to be asking His followers to commit this prayer to memory when He tells us to “say” it.  No harm in memorizing Scripture.  The Lord’s Prayer is (or should be) a significant part of worship liturgies, but I think there is much more to this Prayer than just being able to recite it from memory.  Like most Scripture passages we commit to memory, we do more harm to the spirit of the passage when we remove it from its context or if we do not look more closely at the passage itself to find even deeper meaning than what is only in the words themselves.

In the case of The Lord’s Prayer, there is much more than a memorized portion of worship liturgy.  There is a principle being conveyed to Jesus’ disciples (then and now).  We are being asked not to merely “say” the words; we are being challenged to fully submit to The Lord.  We are asking The Lord for mercy as we extend mercy.  We are asking The Lord to provide for our needs.  We are praying for The Kingdom to come, and we are asking that The Lord protect us from evil’s influence.  The principle of the whole passage strongly suggests we must be prepared to fully submit to the sovereignty of the One who can provide all these things – and – that we are willing to put self aside in order for our prayer to bear fruit for the glory of The Lord.

What happens to the principle, then, whenever we pray strictly in defiance of those who propose to silence us?  What happens to our hearts if we are not earnestly seeking The Lord’s “will be done” but are instead expressing our own will only because we can?  The prayer itself then becomes an act of political protest rather than an earnest plea.  We are not submitting to anyone or anything but are, more often than not, simply bucking for a fight.  We are still “saying” the words, but the principle of fully submitting to The Lord is lost on us. 

This is not to suggest we should be afraid to pray in public (incidentally, there is no law that prohibits praying in public) nor should we ever refrain from calling upon The Lord for help, for guidance, for strength, or for mercy.  What must be considered, however, is what we intend by our public prayers.  Is our primary purpose to stick a finger in the eye of the ACLU or the Freedom from Religion folks, or are we fully prepared to submit to The Lord’s sovereign authority?  Like by showing mercy even when mercy does not seem warranted?  You see?  The Lord is asking much more from those who claim to trust Him than from those who do not know Him at all.

“Pray without ceasing”, indeed, but let us be fully about calling upon The Lord “without ceasing” and earnestly being prepared to abide by His Will rather than our own.  Our God “shows no partiality”, so we should not expect The Lord to show us favor if we only invoke The Holy Name to serve a political purpose.  To merely “say” a prayer is not quite the same as being fully prepared for how The Lord may answer our plea.



Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 6 October 2015

“After the crime, God intervenes to avenge the one killed. Before God, who asks him about the fate of Abel, Cain, instead of showing remorse and apologizing, arrogantly eludes the question: "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9). "I do not know": Cain tries to cover up his crime with a lie. This was and still is the case, when all kinds of ideologies try to justify and disguise the most atrocious crimes against human beings.  "Am I my brother's keeper?": Cain does not wish to think about his brother and refuses to accept the responsibility which every person has towards others. We cannot but think of today's tendency for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters.  Symptoms of this trend include the lack of solidarity towards society's weakest members - such as the elderly, the infirm, immigrants, children - and the indifference frequently found in relations between the world's peoples even when basic values such as survival, freedom and peace are involved.” 

9. “But God cannot leave the crime unpunished: from the ground on which it has been spilt, the blood of the one murdered demands that God should render justice (cf. Gen 37:26; Is 26:21; Ez 24:7-8). From this text the Church has taken the name of the "sins which cry to God for justice", and, first among them, she has included willful murder.  For the Jewish people, as for many peoples of antiquity, blood is the source of life.  Indeed "the blood is the life" (Dt 12:23), and life, especially human life, belongs only to God: for this reason whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God himself.”  Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II, 25 March 1995

The observations of John Paul II in this encyclical are ultimately directed toward the reality and scourge of abortion.  Like with many encyclicals, however, (at least the ones I’ve actually read all the way through!), the popes never seem to go straight to the issue being addressed.  Rather they build a case for what they will ultimately write for (or against).  There is some lengthy and very involved reading in these encyclicals, but each of them speaks of our need to not merely address the issue at hand; we must build a biblical case based upon the Scriptures, sound reasoning, the traditional teachings of the Church, and experiences we share (which, by the way, is very Wesleyan).

What limits us, however, is a strictly literal interpretation of the text to which John Paul II refers, in this case Genesis.  We read that Cain literally murdered Abel, so we reason we do not share Cain’s sin of actually spilling the blood of another.  Yet we cannot slide past Cain’s refusal to take responsibility not only for the literal murder of his brother, but his more acute denial of being his “brother’s keeper”.

Even in that context we are able to remove ourselves from the story because we will look after our biological siblings and, though to a lesser degree, those of our friends whom we “like”, but to care for those of our “human family” or even our church family?  Not so much.  Not if we don’t “like” them.  Not if there is nothing to be personally gained.  We have our own lives, our own agendas, and we seek after our own pleasures.  We feel somehow secure in our “saved-ness” while ignoring what is actually written in the Scripture, quite possibly about us: “In the last days perilous times will come.  For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power …” 2 Timothy 3:1-5

Nowhere in the Scripture is it written or even inferred: “except for those who call themselves saved”.

Are we the keepers of our brothers and sisters?  Absolutely.  Jesus affirms the Law in which it is written: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” as surely as we “shall” not murder and “shall” not commit adultery and “shall” not steal and “shall” not covet.  If we consider such a responsibility as caring for someone to be only a burden, a “have to” proposition, we are not looking at it correctly.  We are missing what John Paul II observed when he wrote, “Whoever attacks human life in some way attacks God Himself”.  If that is true, then it must be equally true that Whoever loves human life (neighbor, stranger, alien, friend, etc.,) in some way loves God Himself. 

Actually it is the only way to truly and fully love God, when we joyfully and thankfully assume the role as “my brother’s keeper”.



Monday, October 05, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians, II: Speaking the Truth in Love

Malachi 2:13-17
Ephesians 4:1-6, 11-16
John 15:1-8

“As servants of Christ we are sent into the world to engage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.  We seek to reveal the love of God for men, women, and children of all ethnic, racial, cultural, and national backgrounds and to demonstrate the healing power of the Gospel with those who suffer.”  UM Book of Discipline 2012, ¶124, pg 93

To “demonstrate” the Gospel’s power – not just talk about it.  So when Paul encouraged the people of the Ephesian Church to “speak the Truth in love”, he was not telling them to “straighten out” those who were engaged in immoral conduct.  There is that, of course, which requires the people of the Church to stand in the integrity of the Gospel and the Moral Law.  There is another side of “speaking the Truth in love”, however, and it requires not only a working knowledge of the doctrines of the Church but also a deeper understanding of what is actually written in the Scripture so we may faithfully “demonstrate” the Gospel’s real power.

“Speaking the Truth in love” is entirely about the Good News, the Gospel of The Lord.  That is, we are not charged with making people afraid of hell; rather we have the privilege of helping people to yearn for Heaven by “demonstrating” Heaven’s mercy.

So in that charge we must not be strictly of a mind to criticize the thinking or behavior of those with whom we disagree; there must be a positive alternative to negative behavior.  Rather than to criticize others, we have to make the case for The Word of The Lord.  And we do this by “demonstrating” the positive rather than criticizing the negative.

“We affirm our unity in Christ, and take faithful steps to live more fully into what it means to be a worldwide church in mission for the transformation of the world” (¶125), “in covenant with our God and with each other”. 

Now I will grant you that the “transformation of the world” is a lofty goal – not unworthy of our consideration, of course, but not worthy of our sole focus to the point that we are overwhelmed with a seemingly impossible task.  Before we can mean anything to the whole world, we must first have meaning for the communities we are called to serve.  The churches are not strictly ‘meeting places’ for like-minded people who “fit the mold”; we have a charge and a calling to those who don’t.  But before we can have real meaning to the community at large, our faith in action must have meaning within the congregation of which we become a part by baptism.  No one is so “personally” saved as to be excused from one’s active role in that Covenant.

Sometimes, however, we become distracted especially by tragedy.  Like many of you, I have been thinking a lot about the recent tragedy in Oregon.  A young man went off his hinges, armed himself, and invaded a college campus with evil intentions.  Innocent persons were wounded or killed, and we’re left in the wake of this tragedy to deal with the aftermath.

Politicians on both “sides” have shamelessly invoked this most recent tragedy to further their own political interests.  Some have been made afraid because of the sensationalism of the shooter allegedly having designs only on killing Christians.  There is confusion and anger and a profound sense of helplessness among those who survived.  And of course there is the clarion call to arm ourselves to prevent similar tragedies in the future – while others insist further efforts to control the flow of weapons in this country is our only reasonable recourse.

I cannot help but to wonder, however, where has been the call for our collective need to mourn?  Where has been the call for us to go to the Gospel of The Lord for answers?  For comfort?  For safety?  For guidance? 

Our Lord Jesus lamented that His desire to gather His people and protect them was rejected by their unwillingness to trust Him (Matthew 23:37).  I submit this passage is as meaningful for us today as it still is for our Lord.

You may recall that immediately after 9/11 people were flocking to the churches.  Out of fear, out of uncertainty, looking for … answers?  I don’t think many were earnestly seeking The Lord Himself because in a matter of only a couple of weeks, the pews were left empty again.  Because these mass shootings now seem to have become so commonplace, we are skipping the church thing and the necessary mourning and the tears and are going straight to anger so much so that retribution and vengeance have become our national doctrine.  And while these are perfectly natural and understandable human responses, these do not “demonstrate” our Christian faith nor the power of the Gospel.

Jesus says HE is the Vine, and we of our respective churches are a branch of that Vine (John 15:5).  It is that Vine alone from which goodness and mercy and justice and righteousness flow.  And even though we may claim “righteous anger” (again, perfectly normal and understandable), how many of us have actually turned to The Lord for answers?  For guidance?  For instruction on what we must do next?  How many among us who call ourselves Christians have actually asked The Lord to show us our individual roles in the collective Church to assuage the grief and calm the fear so many feel?  How have we come to understand the need to “speak the Truth in love” especially in the face of tragedy and evil?

The truth probably is that we have not done so.  And because we have not done so, because we have chosen to arm ourselves and stock up on ammo, because we bravely thump our chests and declare we will kill anyone who threatens our families, we are bearing no fruit whatsoever.  And because we are deliberately choosing not to bear fruit for the Kingdom, we as a “branch” of the Eternal Vine are slowing withering into nothingness and are in danger of being cut off completely (vs 6).

As far as we may have slipped, however, there is still hope because there is still the Gospel and there is still the Church charged with “demonstrating” the power of that Gospel.  We who have slipped so far away and have only begun to wither can be “pruned” to fruit-bearing fullness!  And this may be exactly what is happening now!  This is the real power of the Gospel of our Lord; and it is that power we are called and equipped to “demonstrate” to a world still searching for answers they may never find without us. 

Being a Christian does not prevent tragedy nor does the Gospel make suffering go away.  Being a Christian devoted to the Gospel, however, gives us the only reason we have to rise above the ashes of human despair and “demonstrate” to an unbelieving world what the fullness of Life is about.  It is the fullness of what it means to “speak the Truth in love”, and it is the difference between trembling in fear and walking in faith.  For as long as we are afraid, we will never be truly free of evil.

It is past time to stop giving the devil his due, and to begin “demonstrating” the power of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior as we faithfully “speak the Truth in love”.   The doctrine of the Church is not only about knowing that Truth; it is entirely about “demonstrating” the Truth.  For that is the Life we are called to.  Nothing less will do.

In the Eternal Word to the Glory of our God and King, let us say – amen.

A Thought for Monday 5 October 2015

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

We have to be aware of the presence of sin in our lives, but we should not convince ourselves that every little thing is sinful and that this God simply cannot be pleased.  But there is another, often overlooked part of this passage that may require more attention.  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive …”  What is “just” about committing sin and being given a pass?  If there is to be real justice, would it not be “just” that a wrong would have to be made right?  That Jesus paid the price for sin is not in question.  What is highly questionable is how we have chosen to interpret that doctrine to serve our own purposes. 

Jesus’ death on the cross cannot be said to have removed our need to understand justice and our part in it because sin must be understood not as an insult to The Lord alone; sin very nearly always involves harm to someone else.  Someone we harmed physically as well as emotionally – deliberately striking or gossiping.  Someone we harmed inadvertently by our neglect and inward focus on “me only”; self-indulgence and gluttony when we know there are hungry children.  Justice in the objective sense, then, requires that if someone is harmed or hurting through no fault of their own, they become entitled.  They are owed something especially if they were harmed because of a) our evil intentions, or b) our deliberate neglect (that is, never giving a mind to someone else, thinking only of self). 

None of this is to say The Lord cannot or will not forgive our neglect or our deliberate designs on harm in our irrational anger when we act before we think.  We should understand, however, that before it can be said to be “just”, the wrong has to be corrected – by us.  When St. John the Baptizer was speaking of “bearing fruit worthy of repentance”, making right our wrongs done to others was precisely what he was referring to.  That is, prove to The Lord and to our neighbors that we really are sorry enough to make up for what we did.  Too often we think of “repentance” as strictly apologizing to The Lord, but apologizing is only a small component of the whole process of “turning about”, choosing a whole new direction, a whole new way of living.  Part of the process of repentance is not only the apology we must make to The Lord as in a prayer of confession; we must also be prepared to correct what we have done wrong and, if necessary, pay a civil price as in paying a fine or serving time in jail.

Sin has consequences – not only spiritually but socially.  When we use Jesus’ death on the Cross as our excuse for refusing to make right our wrongs, we “make Him a liar, and His word is not in us”.  It is a huge mistake to become convinced that sin magically bounces off us or that the Cross has provided some magic “force field” that prevents sin from penetrating our hearts.  We still have an active spiritual and social role, as in “you must love your neighbor as yourself”.  See?  Our responsibility to one another has not in any way been removed or altered by the Cross, and no one is so “personally” saved that they need not concern themselves with the well-being of one’s neighbor.

So if we “confess our sins” with earnest sorrow, The Lord is “faithful” to forgive.  Let us not, however, neglect His demand for justice.  Let us look to The Lord so The Lord may show us what is required of us so true justice may be served.



Thursday, October 01, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 1 October 2015

“Christianity is not about theological purity.  It is about following what Jesus taught us and exemplified with His own behavior.  Throughout history, Christians have disagreed with each other on many different points.  The Practical Christian does not seek to have all come to agreement on these various points, but seeks agreement on only one thing:  If you are following the teachings of others and applying the name of Jesus Christ to them, you are essentially committing fraud.”  Rev. Guy Lynch

For many of the so-called “millennials”, Christianity is not very practical.  This young generation is not falling for the magic prayers of the faithful nor are they biting any longer the empty rhetoric coming from the pulpits of many churches that call people to “get saved” but does not call people to actually imitate Jesus’ very life.  The Wesleyan Methodist tradition refers to “practical divinity” in that we are compelled by Christ to put faith and love into action just as St. James condemns “faith without works”.

For too long the Church has gotten caught up in the Sacraments (or ordinances) of the Church as sort of a “check list” of pious things we must do – and indeed Sacraments do feed the soul! – but “holy” living is about much more than what we can do or gain only for ourselves.  If our concept of “holy” living means only to “go to church” once in a while and does not involve others, especially the “least of these” to whom Jesus refers, then our living is not very “holy” but is, in fact, very empty when measured by the standards established by our Lord.  And if there is some misbegotten statement that “Jesus did these things so we don’t have to”, I submit the one making such a shallow statement has not actually read and studied the Gospel accounts themselves.

“I never knew you”.  If Jesus is good for His word, we cannot overlook this statement and the context in which our Lord was speaking (Matthew 7:23).  But Jesus also continues with, “Whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who build his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24); the rock upon which the solid foundation of faith can be built, the faith that will not be swept away by the storms of life.  What this could easily mean is that what we believe has no meaning, no real foundation, if there is no “practical Christianity” putting this faith into action.

The “millennials” are not missing the boat.  Rather they are choosing not to jump aboard a less-than-seaworthy craft.  They can see the leaks, and they have noticed the absence of a compass on a ship that will be completely at the mercy of the currents of a very fickly worldly culture.  Let’s face it: the “millennials” are challenging the “ekklesia” to show them Christ in the world today.  They’ve heard all the stories and they want to believe it all to be true, but they need – need – the faithful, those who claim to know, to show them the way.

Christ is “the Way”, and we claim to know Christ.  How about we begin to show them what we’ve actually been missing for quite some time?  Only then will it be declared, “Well done, My good and faithful servant.  Now enter into the joy of your Lord.”

For the fullness of life,