Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Terrible Twos

Hosea 11:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

“Back when I watched two-year-olds acting up in public, I was determined that my children would never act that way … then I became a parent.”  Every Parent

It has been said that the only reason parents survive the “terrible twos” is because toddlers are not strong enough to kill with their bare hands and are not capable of handling lethal weapons!  Toddlers possess a natural strength, however, that leaves many parents – maybe most, probably all – questioning their own sanity when they once thought having kids would be a great idea.  It is the strongest sense of irony that we spend two years teaching them to talk, spend the next twelve years wishing for a little peace and quiet, and then perhaps the next couple of years praying they will open up once again.

We know, of course, being a parent brings our greatest joys, a sense of immortality, and also some of our greatest fears, sleepless nights, and most profound heartaches.  When we get older and our children become more and more independent and soon leave the nest, we spend considerable time adjusting to the so-called “empty nest” syndrome, learn to enjoy it, but then hope the kids will call or visit from time to time.

Raising toddlers and getting past the “terrible twos” is a cycle of ups-and-downs, constant adjustments, and a lot of introspection in wondering whether standing our ground in the midst of an earth-shattering tantrum is worth the hassle, often giving in for just a few moments of peace.  Yet we also know that teaching our children the meaning of “no” means we are in for the battle of our lives – sometimes to the point that many children do not grow up understanding life has limits, and rights always come with boundaries and great responsibilities.

Take all this in, all the ups-and-downs, all the heartaches and heart breaks and headaches, all the joys, and all the fears – and only then can we get even a glimpse of what our Heavenly Father endures … constantly.  We only have to deal with one, maybe two toddlers at a time; and as grandparents we have the privilege of calling our kids and telling them to come get their little … cherubs when we’ve had enough. 

Our Holy Father deals with the shocking reality of the “terrible twos” constantly and in perpetuity.  For our Lord, it never ends.  And I think He would have it no other way.

It's not easy understanding the mind and heart of The Lord when we separate Him from our own realm and the realities we face.  We envision Him as some distant Being far removed from daily living because we more easily see the greed and hear the hatefulness of the world.  It becomes worse when such things come even from within the Church herself when we get a little too full of ourselves.  Often like toddlers, we mistakenly believe the Church exists to serve us rather than that we are called to serve one another. 

Yet we must also understand we have grown beyond the “terrible twos” ourselves in our spiritual being, we’ve been taught and trained in such a way that we are capable of bringing honor and glory to our Holy Father just as we are commanded to honor our earthly parents – one of those “no latitude” commandments.  Capable, but not always willing.

What we choose to do with what has been imparted to us, however, may be another story altogether.  And much of it depends on how firm a hand guided us in our spiritual infancy just as we needed when we were growing and learning to walk and talk, constantly testing our boundaries, and ultimately testing our ability to trust those charged with our well-being.

Think about this.  When a toddler is moving away from us and toward something that could be dangerous or may only annoy us, we call out to them.  We warn them.  We may even threaten them.  As they continue toward that thing, whatever it is, they look back.  Then we are left to wonder: are they only making sure we’re still there to rescue them?  Or are they testing us and their boundaries??

How is it that we cannot see ourselves and the Church in the life of a toddler?  We might think that being so inwardly directed – as a toddler often is – we might be more self-aware because we have the maturity to be so introspective.  We should see that in spite of our sense of entitlement, life really does not revolve around “me”.  We know it, but we just don’t really want to believe it. 

As it was Israel.  “Out of Egypt I called My Son – yet the more I called them (not “Him”), the more they (not “He”) went from Me” (Hosea 11:1-2).  Though Israel was surely eager to escape that life of degradation and maltreatment in the beginning, it soon came to be Moses’ great challenge to drag the people of Israel kicking and screaming across the wilderness!  How often they wanted to go back!  Independence became too difficult especially when they had a distorted recollection of having once been spoon-fed by their Egyptian task-masters.

And how often did The Lord have to put His foot down?  Not quite as often as He gave His “son” enough latitude to stretch their legs and test the boundaries.  As with a toddler, though we must always be there to protect them from real harm, we also know they must make their own mistakes and explore and learn.  Sometimes the correction for Israel was quite severe when they went too far off the grid; at other times over the course of those forty years in the wilderness, it took a very long time to realize that their rebellion had harmed the community as a whole and had caused the Father – surely expressed in Moses’ exacerbation! – a lot of grief along the way.

Fast forward to Jesus’ time, and it appears the tantrums have not abated!  “Tell my brother to gimme …” (Luke 12:13).  Like a toddler who believes he or she is owed something according to the culture’s standards and their own desires, the person in the crowd still did not quite get the idea that we are owed nothing.  It must be said, however, that Jesus’ parable of the rich man with the storage problem was as much directed at the one complaining as to the one withholding the family inheritance.

Known as the “property laws of toddlers”, the list goes something like this.  “If I like it, it’s mine.  If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.  If you have it and I want it, it’s mine.  If I had it a little while ago but set it down, it’s still mine.  If it looks like mine, it is.  If I saw it first, it’s mine.  If you are playing with it and I want it, it’s mine.  If it’s broken, it’s yours.”

So with gentle (and sometimes forceful) correction, we teach our toddlers a life of virtue.  We teach them about community property (sharing), about being kind in the company of other toddlers (hospitality), and we teach them even to give up a thing when it seems to mean so much more to the other little cherub (charity, self-sacrifice).  Somewhere along the way, however, the lesson is lost; and like a toddler who worries more about what’s “mine” than the abundance of what can be shared, we soon end up with nothing when the thing we were willing to protect at all cost is taken from us – as with the rich man and his storage bins.

“The more I called them, the more they went from Me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:2). 

Call it “pitchin’ a fit”.  We do what seems right to us without realizing that everything we do – and even everything we don’t do – is a reflection of not only what we’ve been taught, but is also often a measure of our rebellion, a testing of boundaries to see what we can get away with.

And in spite of our rebelliousness, our Holy Father still speaks: “I took them up in My arms; but they did not know I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:3-4). 

None of this is to suggest willful rebellion will always be met with Divine kindness or patience.  We will not always be “lifted to the cheek” of The Lord, but it does seem He will always be at the ready to “bend down” to us in order to feed us, to teach us, to strengthen us, and also to correct us.

The New Testament borrows the flight from Egypt to refer to Jesus and the Holy Family having fled to escape Herod but soon being called back when it was safe.  There is certainly that reference which cannot reasonably be disputed.  As it pertains to the full meaning of Jesus’ life as a reflection of the Holy Word become flesh, however, I prefer “I bent down to them and fed them”. 

It is not enough to simply know Jesus came; it is more to us to know – and to appreciate – why Jesus came, why the Holy Father deemed it necessary to reach out to His Beloved in such a life-changing way, and what He was willing to do for our sake: “I bent down to them …”

I suppose we will always struggle against certain boundaries as long as we do not break completely the “cords of kindness” with which we are led.  Every moment, every trial, every tribulation, every challenge, every heartbreak, every moment of fear and uncertainty is a test and a preparation for what more will soon come. 

In the end, may we come to know what we are called to and prepared for.  Not what’s “mine”, but what is always His: our very lives, the Life of the Church, and the purpose for which we are taught – always to give honor and glory to The Creator.  Always.  Amen.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Thought for Thursday 28 July 2016

“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  James 5:16

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  1 John 1:9

If we thought giving ourselves to The Lord and His Church was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, try honest confession!  Having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I never quite understood the Sacrament of Penance until I faced a priest who didn’t do the private curtain thing.  I had to look him in the eyes!  Those eyes, however, were looking deeply into a tarnished soul with compassion and pity.  I was talking to a friend who seemed to understand not my individual sins but my spiritual struggle with finding a deeper connection that had long escaped me.  By his wisdom and gentle counsel, he helped me to further understand why the Sacrament is now referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation – because that is what was happening.  The priest, by his faithfulness, was leading me back into relationship by helping me to break free from the chains which previously had me bound.  I could not live into my full, God-given potential because I was separated from Him by my own acts and my own neglect.

Protestants don’t do formal confession as our Catholic brothers and sisters do; and, frankly, more is the pity.  The preferred method is a general “forgive my many sins”, or something along those lines without actually naming our sins.  And why not?  There is no one sitting with us challenging us to look deeper and be more open and honest.  I don’t think the priestly thing is as much about a heavenly “proxy” more than it is about a gentle shepherd leading us to the “rivers of living water” we so desperately need.  Yet if we leave even one transgression unspoken (and we may believe it too terrible to speak aloud!), our hands may be freed from the shackles but our legs are still bound.  Something is still holding us back from the banks of the “rivers”.

Our Jewish friends take it a step further.  In the week preceding the Passover, such contemplation is encouraged for this reason: if one becomes aware of someone harmed in any way by one’s own hand, it becomes necessary to go make restitution and/or peace.  We must, as Jesus taught, make peace with our neighbor, our friend, even our enemy before we can offer our gifts to The Lord (Matthew 5:23-24).  It isn’t a Jewish thing or a Christian thing; it is the righteous thing spoken of by Messiah Himself of coming directly from the Mouth of The Lord.  In the Passover, one cannot be forgiven by The Lord if one is not truly repentant.  Not just saying “I’m sorry” but doing the hard work of making it right.

St. John does seem to speak of going directly to The Lord and seeking forgiveness, but Jesus teaches there is something which must first be done before we can even be “purified”.  We have to right our wrongs.  I know this isn’t the popular choice, but let’s face it: being faithful to The Lord is not such a crowd-pleasing choice because our God, our heavenly Father, expects us to take responsibility for our own actions and fix what we broke – including relationships.

We need only to watch the circus which is the presidential contest to see that what ails us most are the many broken relationships we are too proud to mend – not “them”.  US!  The constant finger-pointing and name-calling even from those who call themselves “Christian” is evidence enough of what is really wrong in this country.  Within the Church, men and women are leaving so much in tatters because of broken relationships, broken trust, broken hearts – and many (maybe most) are too proud to admit their own part, too proud to confess it, and/or too self-righteous to admit it. 

Wisdom must also play a role as well because it is quite possible to do more harm than good by being completely honest – especially if our intentions are less than noble in being “completely honest”, when we just want to find fault in others - but reconciliation is still possible.  St. James encourages the Church as a body, as a congregation to reach out within themselves, but this same Body must be of such a nature as to be open and encouraging (and discreet with confessions!) enough to lift up those among us who are still struggling with their own chains.  They don’t need lectures, and they certainly don’t need us discussing their failures over coffee with others!  They need help.  They need friendship.  They certainly need accountability, but they need compassion as well.

We must be afraid enough of our sins to respect the raw power of sin.  We must not diminish the power of sin by brushing it off like so much dandruff without first being honest with what is causing the “dandruff”, facing it, and dealing with it.  This is the heart of honest confession; but this confession cannot come until we are first willing to be honest with ourselves and with one another.

Forget the platitudes and the bumper sticker slogans and the memorized verses that “prove” we are forgiven without effort, without struggle, without honesty, without real repentance.  Remember The Lord.  In doing this, we will be reminded He not only wants what is best for us; He also wants what is best for those we’ve harmed.

The Lord is great, is He not?


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Thought for Tuesday 26 July 2016

“Go to the ants!  Consider their ways and be wise.  Having no captain, overseer, or ruler, they provide their supplies in the summer, and gather their food in the harvest.  How long will you slumber?  When will you rise from your sleep?  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep – so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man.”  Proverbs 6:6-11

It may be easy enough to see that the Teacher is speaking of daily work, the kind of work by which we earn our own wages.  The integrity of the worker is measured by knowing what needs to be done and then going about doing it without having to be prodded or threatened.  The need for the work exists by the very fact that we are employed to do that necessary work.  Failure to do the work or being determined to be one who will not work unless threatened, the employer will soon realize the employee must be watched and managed constantly, sometimes even threatened before the work will be done.  Sooner or later, and probably sooner, and the employer will decide the worker is himself too much work; and the employer will find another who is more dependable and determined.

The same may be said of sanctification; that is, growing in faith and love, the fruits of which are mercy, justice, and compassion.  Knowing we become part of a community in our baptism, we should come to understand more about what happens when we are justified by The Lord.  We are not merely “saved” from the sins of our past; we are set free!  The chains have been broken, and we are thus enabled to live into the Covenant, the Promise of our Lord that better is always ahead of us. 

This justification, then, calls us to work and determination.  It isn’t that we can earn Divine Favor, for this Favor has already been revealed in Christ on the Cross and in our justification.  The work, the determination to do well comes to be understood that the well-being of the community we are baptized into depends on us all doing our own part.  Ultimately it is our task, our charge as a community to reveal the Glory of the Merciful One who calls us all to bigger and better things.  It is not work for its own sake.  Rather, it is a means to a glorious end.

This involves not only worship (that is, just going to church), but also Scripture study, fasting, receiving the Sacraments of the Church with one another, and ultimately making disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves; teaching them to do the work necessary to sustain and strengthen the community of faith.  The “poverty” of spirit comes upon us almost without notice – until it is too late! – when we do not sustain our growth and, consequently, the growth of the community by encouraging one another.  Our justification in The Lord must never be considered so personal that it becomes so completely private as to be construed as pure selfishness and self-serving; because soon enough the community will suffer as a result.

Let us learn from the ants, then.  Let us understand that seeking the betterment of the community depends on each of us doing our own parts.  It is not the burden of one or another; it is a community privilege that brings forth opportunities we cannot begin to know or appreciate until they are revealed in due course.  And they will be revealed!  That is faith informed!  And no poverty of spirit shall come upon us.

The Lord is great, is He not?

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Thought

“Yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” Proverbs 2:3-5

Often in our prayers we lose our voice and cannot find the words to express the many things and persons on our minds.  Indeed Jesus taught us how to pray with The Lord’s Prayer, teaching that “your Father already knows what you need”.   So if there is only confusion in our hearts as we take in all the brokenness of this world and cannot find the words for our prayers, we have a prayer at the ready that is more than obligatory, more than petition, and more than confession; it is praise and an acknowledgment that we lack the capacity to speak to all the pain in the world.  It is a plea for help!

More than merely reciting this prayer, however, there should be reflection on all that is revealed within the prayer itself.  More than anything else, we need peace of mind and heart and spirit.  We need assurance that in spite of the chaos that surrounds us, there is order beneath it all.  In a word, we need wisdom rather than favors.  And this we need because as much as we might wish to pray away all the heartache in the world and leave it at that, we may discover what The Lord means for us to do in His behalf.  “Your will be done” cannot mean only that we wish The Lord would change the hearts of others.  If we truly seek His will “on earth as in heaven”, we must be open to the reality that The Lord calls upon His own to deal with the chaos, the disorder, the pain, the loneliness, the starvation, and the weeping. 

Maybe first we should “call out for insight and raise [our] voices for understanding” and find out that what we truly “seek, we will find”.  Not personal favors.  Wisdom.  Insight.  And finally, peace of mind and heart and soul – because I think at this time, this is what we probably need most.

The Lord is great, is He not?


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Benedict Option, final chapter: Finding the delicate Balance

American Conservative, "Benedict Option", Rod Dreher
Daniel 4:19-27
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 16:1-13

“A community that is too lax [in its principles and standards] will dissolve, or at least be ineffective [for its purpose], but one that is too strict will also produce disorder.  A [community devoted to The Lord] must be joyful and confident, not dour and fearful.”  Rod Dreher, “The Benedict Option”

If all the churches did what they were supposed to do, we wouldn’t need the Ben Op. Thing is, they don’t. The term “Benedict Option” symbolizes a historically conscious, antimodernist return to roots, an undertaking that occurs with the awareness that Christians have to cultivate a sense of separation [from the rest of the world] as “resident aliens” within a “Christian colony,” in order to be faithful to our calling.”  RD

St. Paul encouraged the Christians in Rome to be “transformed by the renewal of your minds” rather than to “conform to the pattern of this world” (12:2).  This “renewal” Paul speaks of must be taken as something more than a single event in which we think this “transformation” is instantaneous with no effort on our part.  Paul was encouraging the Roman Christians to participate in this process of transformation.

So the broader context of this “renewal” should be considered with the depth of the Letter to the Hebrews in which believers are encouraged to grow beyond the basic teachings and start looking deeper (chap 6).  In other words, don’t think of doing “just enough to get by”.  Otherwise we may think of ourselves in terms of the “rich man” who came to Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22) asking essentially the same thing. 

The rich man seemed only to be concerned with a particular thing that would involve no one else but that would assure his eternity.  And judging by his response to Jesus, he was also seeking a deed that would not be very costly or too inconvenient.  As we know, Jesus didn’t let him off the hook so easily.  His comfort and trust in his material wealth would have to be the first to go.  Only then would he be freed and thus able to “take up his cross” and follow The Lord.  His loyalty was divided; and as much as he may have desired the things of the Kingdom, he could find no balance when the scales were tipped too heavily to one side.  He “believed”, but he was bound to this world by his wealth.

We have long comforted ourselves with a very basic belief, knowing just enough to get by, but genuine commitment to the Church and to one another has evaded us.  The idea of any radical change in our lives to reflect our commitment to Christ has been watered down to the point that we comfort ourselves with the notion that “only Jesus knows what’s really in my heart” even as Jesus teaches that our mouths will reveal what is really in our hearts (Luke 6:42), and the fruit we bear (good or bad) will testify to what we believe to be true (Matthew 12:33).

So wouldn’t you know it?  Our Lord never seems to mention a single “thing” we must do to inherit eternal life, but the traditional Church has come up with a simple, single thing: just profess Jesus as Lord and Savior.  True enough, but we cannot ignore the fact that Jesus spent three years teaching His followers what that really means; and how costly and inconvenient it really is!

There are no “gray” areas when it comes to religious faith and commitment to Christ, and yet we must also acknowledge that those “gray areas” we believe to exist are created often by our inmost desire to “have our cake and eat, too”.  That is, we want spiritual assurance in our worldly comforts and personal desires.  We can accuse so many of watering down Christianity to the point that it is every man for himself, but we cannot escape the same accusation when our own sins may not be sexual in nature but are still lustful; our slice of the American Dream pie.

Can it be that our required commitment to The Lord through His Church is very clear, very “black-and-white”, we is or we ain’t?  Yet we struggle because we may be too heavily invested in this life to the point that we only give the Kingdom of Heaven a passing glance.  Life is right before us, is very real, and demands a response.  The Kingdom is often abstract and not always so clear, and yet still requires a dutiful response.

We cannot live as though this life has no meaning for us, for our families, our friends, our society.  Like the steward in Luke’s Gospel (16:1-13), however, we may worry more about one than we do the other because decisions we make in this life often have immediate consequences, immediate results.  I don’t think it is that the Kingdom is not real to us, but we are often compelled to make choices based on what is right in front of us according to what the human culture demands of us. 

But how can we find that necessary balance between what is sacred and what is common?  Can we make decisions at all that do not always take into account the fact that we are on a spiritual journey headed some place, that the decisions we make must first be informed by our commitment to The Lord, and that the “fruit” Jesus speaks of often (good or bad) will certainly come according to our decisions every single time, that our carelessness or our faithfulness will reverberate for generations to come?  We cannot deny that our children are watching more than they are listening.

That balance is necessary for us to find because, as Jesus states in Luke’s Gospel, if we show we cannot be trusted in little things (and measured against the Kingdom of Heaven, everything in this world is “little”!), it is very unlikely we can be trusted with big things.  As it is said, the mark of one’s character is measured in what we do when we think no one is watching. 

Yet if Jesus’ assurance is true that He is “with us always, until the end of the age”, then it must stand that He is “watching”.  Even with that profound statement, however, we must not take it out of context to be perceived as some sort of threat.  Rather, let it be the assurance it was meant to be from the beginning – in our daily living. 

Let it be a proclamation from our Shepherd that this statement is one of offered assistance rather than of judgment!   That when life hands us difficult choices, He is there to help guide us through those choices … on Kingdom terms – because the Kingdom is where He wants us to be.  Not later … NOW!  “For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”

So Jesus’ declaration that we “cannot serve two masters” is also not a threat or a challenge.  Rather, our Lord is stating the obvious and is offering us some very good advice about how to navigate this world ON KINGDOM TERMS.  We cannot separate our allegiances any more than we can divide our emotions.  “Love one, and hate the other”.

If there are two things directly opposed to each other, it is impossible to commit to both without compromising our integrity.  It is like the myth of multi-tasking. We possess the capacity to do several things simultaneously, and our bosses may well demand this of us, but we will not do any one of these things well.  Something will be missed because we are distracted by some other thing hanging over our heads.  We may do just enough to get by, as the rich man in Matthew 19, but we likely give short (or no) attention to the one thing that matters most.

It is as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10); we have all been baptized into one baptism and we all drink the same Spiritual Drink, but many among us are “scattered in the wilderness” of life in this world by trying to embrace a spiritual assurance while purposefully pursuing worldly comfort.  And what is missed when we are so “scattered” is the one thing that stands between us and the Kingdom: our inward desires informed by our outward demands.  In a word, it is “lust”.

When we commit ourselves to prayer, both private and communal, Scripture study, and fasting as well as the Sacraments of the Church and the other means of grace given for our well-being, we will still have to make these choices.  These will not go away, but we can learn to navigate these choices on Kingdom terms – together - when we align ourselves and the practices of our community to fully engaging the Kingdom.  In other words, we fully trust The Lord rather than to merely believe He exists.

I cannot tell you in simple terms that a little of this and a little of that will be compatible with the Kingdom, but I can tell you The Lord has already shown us the Way.  It is within the community and fellowship and faith of the Church in which accountability comes when one of us becomes too “lax” with Kingdom standards and another among us may become too rigid.  The balance is found within a common community with a sacred purpose and trust; to “love one another” as Christ has loved us. 

Remember “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”, but we must also remember the Kingdom comes on the Kingdom’s terms – and that comes with a price; our whole life, and not just a piece of it.  Only in this will the proper balance in our lives be found and finally restored to the whole Christian community.  Only then can our nation have any real hope. 

The Lord be with us as we move forward from here.  Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Benedict Option, part V: hospitality

American Conservative, Rod Dreher, “The Benedict Option”     
Genesis 18:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 9:9-13                                              

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space (not necessarily “safe” space!) where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”  Henri J.M. Nouwen, “Reaching Out: the three movements of the spiritual life”

The Lord and His Word are perfectly clear what the mandate is for helping those in need.  Yet in spite of what is clearly written in the Scriptures, too many Christians and churches continue to remain apathetic, passive, and even aggressively hostile toward those who are not like us or who disagree with us because we feel threatened.  In other words, we are not living by faith; we have instead submitted to our deepest and darkest fears.  And make no mistake; I am right there with you, struggling every single day with this particular ‘demon’.  The key, however, is to continue to struggle rather than to ever submit.

There are legitimate questions as to how a 4th-century monastic (St. Benedict) could possibly be relevant to the 21st-century Church.  As I have shared, however, the only reason why such practices seem so “radical” to us now is that we have become more in tune with the dominant culture than with The Lord.  The fact that our lives – and the collective life of the Church – are almost solely devoted to “personal” comfort or satisfaction, “personal” safety, “personal” security, “personal” wealth, “personal” demands, or even a “personal” Savior is a pretty fair indicator that we have lost our way as the Body of Christ.

This may sound harsh, but who can we be honest with if we are not first willing to be honest with ourselves about what really matters … to The Lord rather than what matters only to ourselves?  “What matters at this stage is forming the kind of community within which civility and [morality] can be sustained and even thrive through the new Dark Age which is already upon us.  If the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last Dark Age (as the Empire itself crumbled around them), we are not without hope.  Unlike the Middle Ages, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for quite some time.  It is our lack of consciousness of this fact that constitutes part of our predicament.”  Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue”

We have explored the steps of the Benedict Option, beginning with an established “order” for the community, followed by the “prayer and work” necessary to sustain that order, “stability” in learning to stay put and not worship ourselves by seeking that which was probably never lost and thus will never be found, and then the importance of a genuine sense and purpose of “community”, when we finally admit no “one” of us can always get it right, and no “one” of us, armed or not, can keep the wolves at bay; when we finally admit we need each other because we are created for one another. 

Now we must examine how all this leads us to our next step: regaining a genuine and heartfelt sense of “hospitality”, the kind of hospitality that allows anyone to enter and makes clear to them they are welcome in this “free space in which change can take place”; but with the caveat of the Benedictine Rule: as long as they respect the established order of the community.   

The case of Abraham is an interesting read (Genesis 18:1-8) because I wonder if we have assumed too much.  The text reads, “The Lord appeared to Abraham”, but it does not say, “Abraham saw The Lord approaching”.  We are told “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him.”  Not ‘two men with The Lord’.  What this could suggest is that the reader is being told The Lord showed up, but it only seems to occur to Abraham later. 

The distinction is important to us in understanding Abraham had already proved himself to The Lord.  He had followed The Lord’s direction and had gone where The Lord had sent him without question.  In chapter 17 The Lord, due to Abraham’s faithfulness, had declared him “Abraham”, the father of nations.  Abraham had done enough to this point to show The Lord he could be trusted, although we do also know the test with Isaac is still yet to come. 

The point is we do not give enough credit to Abraham who is consciously aware of his status in The Lord.  He is The Lord’s man; and though he surely knows it, he does not see his standing as a matter of personal privilege, but one of duty and honor.  If we can accept Abraham’s humility, we can see a man who is faithfully aware of his duty to anyone seeking rest and respite from their travels. 

The question remains, however, whether we are willing to receive strangers “as angels” (Hebrews 13:2), messengers who come to us directly from the very Presence of The Almighty.  Those who not only bear Divine Witness but who also report directly to The Throne of Judgment. 

For, you see, we must not receive strangers “just in case” The Lord or His messengers may be among them: we must learn to receive and appreciate the very Image in which we are all created and assume The Lord is as with them as with us.  As Jesus teaches us, “What you do – or do not do – for the least of these (those we would not normally welcome), you do for Me” (Matthew 25:40,45).

So it is not a matter of how we might treat The Lord if and when He shows up; it is about how we are currently treating The Lord in how we treat one another, especially strangers.  As it is written in the Letter to the Galatians, “You have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.  But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another” (5:13-15 NKJV).

So we must understand our duty in our liberty to embrace the Present Reality in which Jesus assured His Church, “I am with you always”.   This means that even as Jesus will one day return to “judge the living and the dead”, He is nevertheless with us even today – and probably in the most unlikely form, not the kind of form we might prefer.  So it is not a matter of how we will treat Jesus when He returns; for it is written that “every knee shall bow”.  It is rather a question of how we currently treat The Lord as we deal with those we would not normally deal with or would avoid dealing with at all cost.

The Lord has entrusted to us a “free space” (though not a “safe” one) in which change – that is, transformation of the human soul – can take place.  It is our liberty, our privilege, our freedom, our duty, our honor to be the sort of “change” we expect and hope for.  Not because society desperately needs it (though they do!), but because our Lord, our God, our Savior, our Shepherd will accept no less.

“Behold, here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20   

As we pray, come on in, Lord Jesus.  And the sooner, the better!  Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Benedict Option, part IV: Community

Genesis 12:10-13:4
James 1:1-10
Matthew 6:19-26

“We Americans have to unlearn some of the ways of individualism that we absorb without thinking, and must relearn the craft of community living.”  Rod Dreher

Suffering is a real and unavoidable part of living; and although Peter uses the word “suffer” more prominently than does James, James better conveys the essential meaning more appropriately when he encourages his audience to “let endurance have its full effect”.  For what reason?  “So you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4). 

It is like physical exercise as a means to a specific end: we exercise to get stronger, to increase our ability to endure physical exertion for a longer period of time.  If we quit, we will not only not get any stronger; we will, in fact, become weaker over time. 

It is the same with Scripture study and the faithful use of the other means of grace.  We can become stronger in The Word though not without substantial effort; and we can depend on our faith to serve as a means to a much greater end.  We can learn to let the world take its own course without our being dragged into the muck.

In more common language, however, we understand suffering as misery, something to be avoided at all cost.  A very popular and compelling component of the so-called “prosperity gospel” insists that suffering is inconsistent with Divine Promise and is incompatible with Christian living; the idea being that if we are somehow suffering, we must not be living faithfully.

It is nonsense, of course.  When we “suffer” something, we are miserable only if we think we are somehow entitled to perpetual happiness or that nothing bad should ever happen to us.  When we suffer faithfully, however, we are “enduring a particular reality”.  It may not be the reality we would choose for ourselves or our loved ones but when we are confronted with it, it becomes a reality we are forced to deal with.  It is no less the reality our children must face as they grow and mature, enduring some things we would much rather protect them from. 

Yet we should know the only way our children will be ever be able to stand on their own two feet when the time comes (not if) – knowing we will not always be there to guide and protect them - is to let them learn to work through and endure life’s many discomforts.  Working through these moments, these challenges, however, must be learned from within a particular context: that of the Holy Scripture within the community of faith.  For the popular maxim cannot be denied: if we do not teach our children to live in Christ, the world will teach them not to. 

So as we and our children learn to respond to the challenges we will certainly face, we must choose how we will respond, helping our children and one another respond not according to how a godless world would teach or expect us to respond, but how children of the Most High God must respond according to the Holy Covenant.  What would The Lord ask of us?  To fight?  To flee?  Or to fold?

Those are actually false choices.  Though psychology teaches that we are all equipped with either “fight or flight” modes, the Bible teaches and encourages us to rise about our own base human nature even as we must deal with the nature of others who choose not to rise.  So when we are faced with an inescapable reality, we are biblically and spiritually compelled to ask not ‘how we can get out of this’ but, rather, ‘what we can get out of this’.

Make no mistake.  The question is not one encouraging us to always consider and strive for personal gain as in “What’s in it for me”.  As a Covenant people living with The Lord within The Lord’s community, we must learn how to ask this question according to what it will take to build up and strengthen the people of The Lord, the Body of Christ … the Church.  Not to only increase in numbers but to increase in strength, in faithfulness, and in the strongest sense of what it means to be a community in Christ.  This goes far beyond merely “liking” each other and choosing our favorites.  This is actually what tears at the fabric of a community.

Especially within a culture of hyper-sensitivity and hyper-individualism, we must learn to be unafraid to speak the truth in love – and to do so within the greater community; that unpopular and very unpleasant truth being that it isn’t about “you” … or “me”.  It is always, first and foremost, about The Lord.  Then it is about the “neighbor” entrusted to our care, the neighbor we are compelled to love, to care for as surely and as faithfully as we love ourselves.  We as individuals are a distant third.

Challenging ourselves and one another to consider “what we can get out of” whatever it is we must face, and face together, we must first learn to appreciate what James is saying to his congregation: “the testing of your faith produces endurance …” (vs 3).  Peter says pretty much the same thing: “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). 

The Lord even tested His beloved Abraham with Isaac (Genesis 22:1).  All this wrapped up neatly in the Proverbs: “Do not regard lightly the discipline of The Lord, or lose heart when you are punished (or tested) by Him; for The Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and chastises every child whom He accepts” (Proverbs 3:11-12, Hebrews 12: 5-6).

So we are being less than biblically honest with ourselves and with one another when we convince ourselves The Lord already knows what is within us by that one-time profession of faith.  His faithful have always been tested – by The Lord Himself AND by the world.  Tested by The Lord to determine the depth of our faith and to prepare us for what we will certainly face sooner or later.  Tested by the world to determine whom or what we are most loyal to.  And if we fight, flee, or fold, our witness becomes void and our faith will be found non-existent.

This is why we are tested.  This is why we are disciplined; so that our lives are so ordered in such a way that we become a “holy people”; not a bunch of self-righteous persons.  And I say that to say this: “holy” means complete, perfected.  This means we cannot expect to be holy or perfected or even complete apart from the greater Body of Christ.  As it is written in Deuteronomy (7:6 & 14:2) and 1 Peter 2:9, we are a “people” united in The Covenant; branches connected to one Vine (John 15).

What we may reasonably expect to gain as a people when we are confronted with less-than-holy realities is the greater strength of the community contributed to and made even stronger by the trials we often endure alone.  I sometimes wonder, though, if we face these trials alone, more often than not, because we have forgotten how to live in community. 

That is, we face these trials alone because we have distanced ourselves from the community, from one another, and are therefore weakened by our refusal to be made “whole” or “holy”; that biblical reality which has long been lost in the concept of “rugged individualism” or the New Age “spiritual but not religious” – within both by which we declare ourselves our own “gods” with no need for a Savior or a Shepherd to show us “the more excellent way”. 

So this is the biblical reality we face: trials and tribulations in some measure, great or small, we will not escape.  Jesus is not a “magic pill” that makes all the unpleasantness of the world dissipate.  He is THE Teacher; and He teaches that we will have our trials, and we will have our errors.  These are inescapable.  What we will have during and after these trials and errors, however, will be measured by what we gain from these trials as a people

So what can we gain from our tribulations, sufferings that have the capacity to weaken or hobble us as individuals?  Well, if we will swallow our foolish pride and allow it, what we can actually gain that is useful for the whole Body, the whole community, is the sure knowledge that we are not alone.  We are made for one another.  We as individuals are the arms OR the hands OR the legs OR the feet, individual members of the whole and Holy Body of Christ; but we are created to be with and to need one another, to work in conjunction with one another.  We are called forth as a “holy people”, a whole Body.

So our prayer must never be that The Lord would spare us our sufferings.  Rather, we must learn to be thankful for the trials we face; for what we get out of these tribulations is simply this: we are reminded that we can stand taller and longer WITH one another in communion with Christ Jesus for the sake of His Church.  For as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church (1:24).  

So the reality is we are not suffering simply because life is treating us unfairly.  We suffer, we endure because our Holy Father is preparing us, teaching us, leading us, strengthening us for what is surely to come.  Our parents spanked or grounded us to teach us and correct us because they love us.  Surely we can come to appreciate the depth of the Holy Father’s love when we get no less from Him.  And learning to put The Lord first by how we deal with our neighbors and with one another, we will surely find immeasurable joy, yes, for ourselves.  “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).  Amen.

A Thought for Monday 11 July 2016

“Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.  Trust in The Lord and do good; so you will live in the land and enjoy security.  Take delight in The Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.  Commit your way to The Lord; trust in Him, and He will act.  He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”  Psalm 37:1-6 NRSV

The bad news is inescapable, and we see so much of it that many wonder if there will come a time when we become desensitized to the point that we will no longer be shocked or even disheartened.  There was a time when we marveled at the “uncivilized” behavior of other nations, “third-world” countries in which anarchy reigns and no one is safe.  Now that anarchy seems to be the order of the day in our own country, we are still shocked and saddened, maybe even afraid that we cannot always know our loved ones will be safe.  There is no worse feeling than that of having virtually no control over our own lives as we order our routines in such a way as to avoid dangerous, or potentially dangerous, areas and situations only to discover there is no way we can possibly know if something as harmless as a trip to a shopping mall may turn into a disaster.

Yet the psalmist advises us not to lose our religion over it!  We are encouraged to take heart, for “the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there” (vs 10).  This does not necessarily mean, however, that in our time evil will suddenly dissipate without our notice or some effort on our part.  I think the psalmist is suggesting that before this can take place, something else must happen first.

“Take delight in The Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (vs 4).  Prosperity preachers have hijacked verses such as these and twisted their meanings in such a way that rather than evil being magically removed from our lives, material wealth will be magically added to us; that the “desires of your heart” are strictly limited to big cars, fine homes, luxurious vacations, and more than enough money to enjoy all these things.  What is not mentioned by these prosperity preachers is that such things come only from hard work and diligent financial planning.  Nor do they warn us that material wealth can be as much a curse, if not more, than a blessing.  No, they seem to suggest that the more money we send them, the more magic money we can expect to receive. 

This is not at all what we are being told in this word of encouragement.  Prosperity in the Bible can in no way be construed as wealth without work.  Rather, our “prosperity” can be directly linked not only to the “delight” we find in The Lord, but what kind of “delight” we actually seek.  Do we “delight” only in the idea of more money than we can count?  Eternal salvation for ourselves?  Or can we find “delight” in the possibility of being so “transformed” as to possess the mind, the heart, the affections, the compassion, and the temperament of The Lord?  Do we “delight” in the reality of Divine Law that not only prohibits certain actions but actually encourages other actions in which we look out for one another?  Do we find “delight” in the idea that we are not encouraged at all to “look after #1”?

The safety and security of The Lord’s people are, I think, directly linked to what kind of God we think we serve, what kind of prosperity is offered, and what sort of delight we may find … on HIS terms rather than our own.  The promises of Scripture are sure and certain, but there are conditions in spite of what “cheap grace” theology may suggest.  It is not a matter of simple obedience with no thought as to why obedience is even important.  Rather, we must learn to find “delight” in our obedience to The Lord, learn to fully trust that He is actually eager to show us the more excellent way!  For this to be possible, however, we must be willing to trust The Lord enough to follow Him, literally and metaphorically.  Only then will we find the “delight” offered.  Only then will “the meek inherit the land, and find delight in abundant prosperity” (vs 11).    

The Lord is great, is He not? 


Wednesday, July 06, 2016

A Matter of Trust

Lewis: People want leadership.  And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone.  They want leadership, Mr. President.  They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage; and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
Sheperd: People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty, Lewis. They drink it because they don’t know the difference. – “The American President”

This scene from the movie, “The American President”, pits the US president and his private life against his closest advisers in the heat of a re-election campaign.  The widower president does not want to publicly discuss his relationship with his new girlfriend, but his political opponents are trying to get as much traction out of the “scandal” as they possibly can.

Aside from the nature of the fictional “scandal” faced by a fictional president, the essence of Lewis’ concern centers on the perceived lack of trust on the part of the voters and their thirst for “genuine leadership”.  During an election year, and maybe even more so in this particular election year, trust is always the foundational issue.  Every other issue is subordinate to our fundamental need to trust those whom we elect to office.  Without that confidence, a republic can quickly descend into chaos when the general public will be inclined to take matters into their own hands.  “Every man for himself” becomes the mantra of a nation unraveling.

This lack of confidence in our government institutions and the nation’s laws is even more acute following the FBI’s decision not to recommend indictment against former Secretary of State / current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.  As the FBI director laid out the findings of a year-long investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s use of her own private e-mail server while serving as Secretary of State, the nation (including even some Democrats) was incredulous that violations of the law regarding the handling of classified information seemed so clear.  Yet the FBI director stated that “no reasonable prosecutor” would pursue such a matter in court.

Only days prior to Mrs. Clinton’s meeting with FBI investigators, the US Attorney General had a private meeting with former president Bill Clinton; a meeting described as mere coincidence but a meeting the Attorney General admitted later should not have taken place under the circumstances.

These are real issues of trust.  The Attorney General of the United States acted without thinking – by her own admission.  The former Secretary of State showed clear lack of prudent judgment in her “extreme carelessness” and would certainly do things differently if she had them to do over again – again, her own admission – even as she blatantly lied to the public about what was classified before the fact, not only by the nature of the information passed but by the clear markings of some pages – this according to the FBI’s findings.  In each instance, the people are supposed to write it all off and - wait for it – “trust” them to do the right and prudent and ethical thing from this point forward. 

The very fact that they would act with such disregard and with such impunity is a clear indication that they have no regard for the people who have entrusted this nation’s well-being and security to them and no respect whatsoever for the offices they hold or once held.  Yet these (who are only the tip of the political iceberg, mind you) are seeking higher office; and why shouldn’t they?  There are too many voting citizens willing to turn a blind eye to the reality we are faced with in no uncertain terms, and write it all off as a political witch hunt or “vast, right-wing conspiracy”.

I have no longer any hope that this nation can stand much longer because my hope is in the One who said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.  The reality of this division, however, is that the “ruling class” is aware of it and is actually exploiting it for their own political, professional, and personal gain. 

We seem none the wiser.  It’s like this big, national cock fight in which the “ruling class” tosses us into a ring with our fellow citizens after having so provoked us to the point that fighting and destroying an opponent is all we think we have left.  And while we are destroying one another, the “ruling class” is making side bets because they will be the only winners. 

Someone will lose, to be sure, but there will be no clear winner in the ring precisely because there is a loser.  The “ruling class” will continue as they always have, regardless of political affiliation, because they seem to know what obviously escapes us: we will “drink the sand” – as we have been for quite some time - because we do not know the difference between what the “ruling class” allows us to have and what we truly need.

So put on your spurs, fellow roosters, and prepare for your turn in the fighting ring.  We can be sure of only one thing: we’re playing according to their script.  Trust that.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Benedict Option, part III: stability

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
1 Timothy 6:1-10
Matthew 10:1, 5-15

“Stability refers to the importance of community and commitment in life ... While we all may not be a member of a monastic order, we can make our vow of stability to our families, to our faith communities … and to our fellow pilgrims along the journey of faith.”  Friends of St. Benedict

The community can always count on us; this is the essence of the vow of “stability”.

The “journey of faith” we share in discipleship as a community in Spiritual Revival is measured, as our own Bishop Mueller said at Annual Conference, not as a moment, and not “another [dadgum] program” … but as a movement, consistent with our Wesleyan heritage.  Yet it is only in “stability” by which we can and must first reconnect to our essential “Vine” from which we as spiritual branches grow (John 15:5).  It is those who are stuck outside of this community, trapped in chains of their own making to whom Jesus commands of His Twelve and of His Church to share, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 10:7).

What is significant about this - for us and for those trapped outside the community - is the assurance that “the Kingdom has come near” right where we happen to have been found.  Good News indeed!  Yet it has also been so well stated that even though this Divine Love sought us out and found us with much joy – like the lost coin or the lost sheep (Luke 15:8-10) – we are nevertheless too deeply loved to be left where we were found, because where we were is not where we are to stay.  Whether literal or metaphorical, The Lord has redeemed us by His own Sacrifice and therefore calls us out from our bondage – to serve His purposes, not our own.

This is the most interesting component of the early monastic movement in which the faithful removed themselves from the decadence of the Roman culture (much like our own today) to more deeply connect to The Lord.  Yet the faithful found themselves called and equipped to teach and then to send back into that decadence devoted disciples who would also call others out of the immoral darkness of that cesspool and back into fellowship with The Lord and His ekklesia, the community of saints, the Church.

This can make the idea of “stability”, of staying put, seem somewhat contradictory until we consider more carefully what is implied in “stability”.  “Staying put” in the literal sense is not a fair summation, yet there is an undeniable spiritual component that keeps us connected in a meaningful way as a community even if The Lord compels us to physically relocate – not for a better job or a bigger home or a more enjoyable retirement, but for the sake of a vocation to which each of us is called according to our spiritual gifts – and all for the sake of creating and preparing the next generation of disciples.

We live in a transient and somewhat entitled and self-centered society, however.  Not only do we relocate as our jobs sometimes require, but many switch churches almost as often as they change fads in clothing!  And for the same reasons!!  Keeping up with the “popular” crowd.  Often the change is not out of necessity due to a lack of holy function but because we are seeking only to please ourselves, not The Lord.  And we tell the community we were once devoted to; “No, you cannot count on me after all”.

The usefulness of “stability” can only make sense, then, if we first understand the necessary “order of the community” and our necessary place within that community, the ordered life of the congregation centered on appropriate worship of The Lord, growing in discipleship, and making disciples ourselves.  This is what makes the ordered life, the 1st point of the Benedict Option, fit neatly into a life devoted to “prayer and service”, the 2nd point. 

Then comes our connection to that order and embracing the purpose it serves, the 3rd point.  Though our United Methodist vows of membership do not specifically state “stability”, it is implied.  The vows we freely take, much like our marriage vows, are centered on the “ordered life” of the faith community in “prayer and service” in support not of “clubhouse rules” but as members supporting the church devoted to making and equipping the next generation of disciples; and we do this by declaring – through word and deed – that The Kingdom has come near

There is no place in the ekklesia for the so-called “spiritual but not religious”; individuals devoted only themselves – not unless or until they are willing to embrace and abide by the Rule of the community.  Though the root of the Latin “religio” is disputed as to whether it only means “piety” or “religious practices”, there are other linguists who maintain the deeper root of “religio” may be “ligare” from which the English word “ligament” is derived.  This means to be not only connected but connected in a purposeful way.  That is, our ligaments connect our muscles so our muscles can function together within the framework of the whole body; “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function” (Romans 12:4).

Not the same function individually, but within the connected community the same shared purpose. 

Many think of “freedom” in terms of being free and able to move from church to church as they please in search of something they cannot and do not define theologically, but the deeper truth is this relentless pursuit of the BBD (Bigger, Better Deal) is itself a subtle form of bondage to hedonism, the pursuit of self-pleasure.  “The idea is that moving around constantly, following our own desires, prevents us from being faithful to our calling.  The far greater challenge for us in the 21st century is learning how to stay put — literally and metaphorically — and to bind ourselves to a place, a tradition, a people [with a shared purpose].  Only within the limits of stability can we find true freedom.”  (Rod Dreher, American Conservative, “The Benedict Option”)

The practice and discipline of “stability” helps us to focus more on the mission and purpose of the greater Body and exert less energy and devote less time to a relentless search for that which will likely never be found outside of what we already know to be good and true and right.  As Paul wrote to the Romans: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped the creature [self and others who suit our own purposes and desires] rather than the Creator” (1:25).

We must find ourselves within and as the Body of Christ with mission and with purpose – just as our Lord Jesus was so completely focused not on “personal” salvation but community purpose and support.  This requires of us, however, the discipline to focus less on ourselves and our own demands and more on the Gospel and the Kingdom.  For only in our binding together in Christ will we find true freedom at last.  Happy Independence Day, indeed.  Amen.