Monday, September 26, 2016

Growth Spurt

Ephesians 4:10-16
Romans 8:18-27
Mark 12:28-34

“The gifts He gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

We may get a better sense of what Confirmation means in the United Methodist Church if we consider the analogy of the Exodus.  As the Journey began with babies being carried, along the way these babies became toddlers and then youth.  Soon they were encouraged to join the Journey on their own as they were able.  Their parents no longer needed to carry them the whole way; they were strong enough to begin walking and exploring that same Journey on their own – BUT still with parental guidance and the care and watchful eye of the entire community.

The mark of the Covenant with The Lord for the Hebrews was/is circumcision, and this was done to baby boys at the age of eight days – long before the boys could make their own determination.  The decision to bring their children into the Covenant and offer them to The Lord was solely that of the parents with the encouragement of the community

As with our practice of infant baptism, the vows were made by the parents and the community to work together to bring the children up in the Covenant, learn of The Covenant, and grow in faith – all within the community, the congregation of The Lord. 

Yet though they are considered “members”, they do not know everything they need to know nor can it be said their faith is really their own.  So this important moment for them simply means they begin to take some responsibility for themselves and begin making their own contributions to the building up and the well-being of the entire community.

So it is with Confirmation in the United Methodist Church.  These confirmands have done a lot of serious study, work, and preparation for what is a very big moment in their lives and in the life of the Church.  Yet as much as they have been taught, I hope they have also affirmed – on their own, with parental guidance and the advice of their teachers and pastor - that there is still much to do.  With the help of all these AND the congregation, I hope they are committed to a lifetime of learning in discipleship.  Religious studies are at least as important as secular education.

Study is still required because, like the Jews of the Exodus, we all still have a long way to go.  In this Journey of Faith, we grow stronger as individuals but within the community of faith.  In the United Methodist Church, there is no such thing as “private” faith.  We may not always agree with or even understand everything the Church holds and teaches as doctrine, but this only means we must look closer and try harder.  We must also appreciate that even the most mature Christian knows he or she does not fully understand everything the Church teaches.  The true measure of spiritual maturity is not in deciding we know “enough” to get by; rather it is to understand that as each layer is peeled back, there is always more.

There is also something young confirmands need to know before becoming Professing Members.  You will make your own vows as disciples committed to the way of Christ as members of the world-wide United Methodist Church and members of this United Methodist congregation.  This means you have some say in the life of this church.  It also means this congregation has some say in the way you order your life in discipleship.  You not only have an entire community united in the very same Covenant pulling for you, praying for you, and worrying about you; you also have a community of faith willing to jerk a knot in your young tails to put you back on the path of Righteousness!!  That is true love!

So we must not understand Confirmation as the “end” but, rather, as yet another “means of grace” leading us to the Glorious End of the Journey toward the Eternal Kingdom.  As it must be with us all, reaching the point of Confirmation is a big step in discipleship.  From this moment, then, there is even more to do as confirmands begin to explore and understand their strengths and their weaknesses; this to the purpose of discovering what The Lord has gifted each individual to do and strive to become.  It is not at all about what we choose to “settle” for.

We are not all gifted to be preachers or even teachers, but we all have some spiritual gift intended, as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, for the “building up of the Body of Christ”; that is, the Church.  Our spiritual gifts have little to do with what we can gain for ourselves in this life, but everything to do with enhancing the life of the Christian Covenant community.  Our individual gifts are meant to help others to get in touch with their own spiritual gifts as we continue to grow together in knowledge, in wisdom, in faith, and in love.

In the early days of the Methodist movement, anyone willing to repent of their sins was welcome to join.  To stay in the society, however, there were/are the General Rules which regulate and inform the individual members and the group.  As a matter of accountability, one was committed to a) Do no harm, b) do good, and c) attend to the ordinances of God.

Each Rule is important and has its place within a community, but no single Rule can stand on its own.  It is not enough, for instance, for a Christian to commit to only refraining from doing harm to someone; one must also be willing and committed to do good for the community, even for an enemy.  To build into any of these Rules, then, is the need, the absolute necessity to “attend to the ordinances of God”. 

These ordinances are the means of grace established by Scripture to teach us the Way of The Lord, the Law of The Lord, and how we are to live with and for one another.  These ordinances also build up our spiritual strength as we are in “constant communion” with The Lord and with one another by regularly participating in the Sacraments of the Church, instilling the discipline to pray alone and with the community, fasting, worship, and studying the Scriptures. 

It was understood and established from the very start that one cannot simply “be” a Christian without actually doing Christian stuff with and within the community.  I’m not sure where along the line we got the idea that Christianity is nothing more than a series of events rather than a life committed to Christ and His people, but these young men deserve better and it is long past time that we break away from this self-contained bubble of “personal salvation” and start acting like the community we are called to be.

These boys are well on their way to manhood and their teachers have given them a good start toward what it means to be a United Methodist disciple of Christ Jesus, but it takes the entire Christian community to teach these boys what being a “man of God” really means – and it means much more than being only a self-designated “good person”.  By The Lord’s own reckoning and according to the vows we will take as a community, we can do no less than to give these young disciples our very best; for the future of the Church – and our immortal souls - depend on it.

“You shall love The Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”; and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.  More than simply biblical phrases to be memorized, this is the life The Lord our God demands of His people; for “loving” The Lord and our neighbors is much more than a state of mind.  It is a state of “being” and “doing”.  Jesus affirmed it, and the Holy Spirit compels it still.  Let us resolve to teach one another what these “great commandments” really mean.  By this commitment will we find Life renewed within ourselves and within the Holy Church.  By the Grace of Almighty God, we will.  Or we will die trying!  Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pure Religion

Isaiah 1:1-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 2:23-28

“I will praise The Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long!”  Psalm 146:2

This past week at school – “preacher” school, I might add, for the point I hope to make - was wholly devoted to the study of Methodist history.  I have to say, though, I came away with much more than an immersion in church history.  For all the secondary issues we discussed, secondary issues which led the Church from one point to the next, secondary issues that constantly threatened the unity of the Church and led to more than one split, there was – and still is, I think – one primary issue ignored then and now.  And the reason we continue to struggle with so many secondary issues is that we are distracted from this primary issue that gives the people of the Covenant their true identity - and gives religion itself substance and meaning.

That issue the Church has taken for granted for so long – and struggles with still today – is Sabbath.  And we must not think it “no big deal” or only an “Old Testament” concept.  The Lord spoke to Judah while they were in captivity: “I gave [My people] My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Ezekiel 20:12).

What makes this essential component of religion so important, so integral to the total life of the Church – the whole Church, not only Methodism – is the life-giving, life-sustaining, life-nurturing substance this profound means of grace offers not only to The Lord’s people but to all who would draw near to know!

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is most often cited in the Methodist doctrine of sanctification as the way of “going on to perfection”.  Recall the author writes, “Let us go on to perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings about Christ” (Hebrews 6:1); but the text goes on to say, regarding the dangers of not progressing in practice, in faith, and in love, “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away since, on their own, they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding Him up to public shame” (1:4-6 CEB). 

All this is done when we fail to observe fully this Practice of Sabbath, this wondrous Gift from Above.

I cannot say I’ve had much use for polls and surveys since those numbers can often be suspect.  Yet “surveys and other polls are a bit like running a series of tests during an annual physical. The scale, stethoscope, and blood tests don’t lie. There is no positive spin on your increased weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol (speaking of a church that has become largely sedentary).  Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape study … found that about 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  By 2015, that number had grown to 23%, almost one in four Americans.”  Ed Stetzer, “The State of the Church in America”

Why?  In such a short period, a significant number of Americans who have pushed religion aside – and maybe more to the point, “organized religion” – has grown substantially.  This trend should disturb all Christians who have genuinely shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God”. 

Because it is no longer about “personal salvation”; not once we have “tasted” all that is good.  I question whether it ever was if “personal” comes to be translated as “exclusive”.  The “goodness” we taste in the Word and in the Spirit has everything to do with those who are not yet – or not quite – connected to The Body.

Sadly, this increasing number of those disconnected (probably including many seated in the pews today) seems to be only a small, annoying blip on the Church’s radar screen that the preacher brings up every now and then.  And when I say “church”, I mean the congregation, the community of the faithful, the ecclesia which claims to have once “tasted” all that is good in, and gives real substance to, religion.

This is not entirely about who does and who does not attend corporate worship, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the value or the worth of the preacher or the priest or the rabbi.  This is entirely about all who refuse to have any part in the Church altogether, and why they want no part of being the Church even if they attend worship once in a while.

Think for a moment about the Church as we know it.  What distinguishes the people of YHWH from the rest of society?  What is so unique about the Church that anyone would care to be a part of it in a way that will transform their lives, the lives of their families, and restore their marriages and strengthen their homes? 

Sadly, what predominantly defines the Church today is not a new phenomenon.  Civil religion – attaching Church to State (politics) - has been a component of the Church for a very long time, centuries in fact, and has wrought nothing but trouble and division.  It has been difficult for the Church to separate itself from the very government which, more often than not, regulates its practices not by the force of law but by the political beliefs and practices of its people.  There is no covenantal “sign” distinguishing the people of The Lord from everyone else.

When I was at school, we were going at it from 8:30am to 8:30pm (with breaks for meals, of course).  After that was more studying, more reading, more reviewing.  My classmates and I often stayed up beyond 11pm, and then rose early the next day for more study and prep time before class. 

It isn’t the hard work that got my attention, though.  It was the very fact that even Sunday, the Day of The Lord, was as intense as the day before and the day after.  We began at the usual time, but we then got a break long enough to go to church and have lunch.  The usual day resumed early in the afternoon.

We had plenty of prayer time and worship with one another, but there was no real Sabbath engagement.  You get that?  A bunch of preachers who should be preaching Sabbath were not practicing Sabbath!  Worship attendance was only a break in an otherwise rigid routine. 

On the way home, I began to think about how our own Sunday routines often go; and though our schedules may not be so rigid as a structured class, we have no fewer things to do.  The Day itself is not devoted to worship and prayer and Sacraments and study of the Scriptures.  Worship itself may not even be considered a time of devotion for many, but rather an interruption in what would more likely be just another day.  And we cannot live on that.

Sabbath involves much more than mere worship attendance.  Sabbath is a gift from the God who recognizes and even appreciates the busy-ness of life and what it takes to make a living and try to keep our heads above water.  After six hard days of making and creating and moving and maintaining, our God knows better than anyone how badly we need a break from that busy-ness. 

Make no mistake, however.  Sabbath is much more than a break from the work.  In the midst of that work, we must consider how easily we can become disconnected from our Holy Father AND from one another through the course of the work week.  This Gift, then, comes to us as much more than a break from our work; it comes to us as the primary means of reconnecting to the One who gives meaning to our work, however routine or mundane our work may often seem to be. 

The fullness of this reconnection gives meaning to our prayers and our gifts and tithes when we gather together as the Body of Christ.  Praying, on the fly while driving or otherwise engaged, may keep us mindful of The Lord’s presence in our daily business, but it is the focus of worship and Sabbath to reconnect us to that Presence in a meaningful way. 

More than merely being reminded of His Presence, Sabbath practice is intended to draw us to reconnect to that Presence rather than giving our Lord only a nod or honorable mention.  Instead of only being aware of His Presence, we are invited to engage in His Presence without distraction before AND after worship.  And as St. James points out, the fullness of that connection in our religion necessarily involves others.  There is no such thing as “private” religion within The Covenant of The One True and Living God.

As far as we are to be concerned, the busy-ness of the world is not going away.  But glory to His Good Name, neither is our God and His remarkable Gift.  Sabbath practice, then, is given to offer us rest from the past week and to prepare us for the week to come. 

It is our Father’s assurance that He goes before us always.  It is left to us as a Body to follow Him to the blessedness of His Glory because that is where He is taking us.  We must not merely admire the beautiful gift wrapping and fancy bow; we must RE-learn to open this Gift each and every week and receive it as it is offered: as a Gift of Love, a Gift of Grace, the Gift of Life itself.  Life in the Father, Grace in The Son, Love in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Thought for 15 September 2016

In her book, One Faithful Promise: the Wesleyan Covenant for Renewal, Magrey R. deVega wrote; “The sum effect of composing your spirit is that you realize you are of equal standing with everyone else in the human community, and we are all connected to each other”.

She was responding to John Wesley’s thoughts in speaking to an over-inflation of our own individual worth: “As Christ will never be accepted, so can the sinner never be received by Christ until the sinner lets go of all other props …”, those “props” being the components of our inflated sense of worth in comparing ourselves to others.

What this means is simply this; we have no standing apart from the value we assign to others.  That is, if we think too highly of ourselves in comparison to others (i.e., “at least I’m not gay”, “at least I don’t cheat on my spouse”, etc.), we subject ourselves to a form of spiritual deception even we soon come to believe to the detriment of our souls and to the community of the Church.  St. Paul wrote, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” (Romans 12:3, NIV).

It is one thing to finally come to know of the saving grace of our Lord; it is another thing altogether to convince ourselves that our Lord so loves an individual that He has no regard for another.  We know (but probably choose not to believe) that “their” sins are no worse than our own.  If we can truly get next to that, it is no telling what the Church community can come to look like, no telling who may choose to become a part of that community, and certainly no telling what The Lord can do for them AND for us!

We are the witnesses to the Truth revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and the plain Truth is The Lord does not love “us” more than He loves “them”.  Wesley would have said to those with an inflated sense of worth, “Get over yourself; you ain’t all that!”

Celebrate the reality of your worth in the eyes of our God and Father!  Celebrate the reality that our sins were once so deep, so scarring, so debilitating that He chose to put Himself on the line for us … for all of us.  This is the essence of our embrace of “universal atonement”: Christ died for all, not a few!  So know this: in His eyes, you really are “all that” … and so is your “neighbor” … and the “alien” … and the “stranger” … and your “enemy” … and …

The Lord is great, is He not?


Monday, September 05, 2016

Finding our Identity

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

“How can we live in harmony? First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God.”  St. Thomas Aquinas

It has often been said that believing a thing is not the same as living a thing.  In the Church this would necessarily challenge the notion that simply believing in Jesus Christ – that is, simply believing He exists as the Son - is sufficient for faith; but as I have maintained and as I believe the Bible and our United Methodist heritage bear out, there is a profound difference between belief and faith

A willingness to believe is the beginning, of course, but this profession must also lead us somewhere other than where we are.  Indeed, as Jesus teaches, we must be prepared for the fact that we will be led somewhere.  Even then, we must be careful about where we allow ourselves to be led – and by whom – “testing the spirits” as we must (1 John 4:1). 

In the early Church, catechumens (candidates for baptism and subsequent membership) were required to study the doctrines (beliefs) of the Church in preparation for membership.  They had to be sure they were fully on board.  Although I cannot say with certainly that today’s portion of Luke’s Gospel was the basis for this requirement, I can confidently say this principle had to be taken into consideration.  People needed to know (and still need to know) what they are getting into, what is expected of them as members of the Church, and what they can reasonably expect as members and disciples.

In many larger United Methodist Churches (and in all Roman Catholic Churches), there are regular required classes for interested guests as well as for those who have expressed an interest in joining the Church – and for good reason.  The ideal requires we all move beyond the “basic teachings” and prepare ourselves – and one another - to “go on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1).  The historic doctrines of the Church – and Methodist doctrine in particular – must at least be acknowledged and wrestled with, for this is the only way new disciples can be shown exactly what is in store for them.

For decades, however, the path to full membership even in some Confirmation classes I’ve witnessed (2-3 weeks in some cases) has taken substantial short-cuts over the years.  Children have idea what they are buying into, and adults enter the Church with low or no expectations.  Strictly for the sake of numbers, too many churches have gutted almost entirely the real meaning of “membership” in the Holy Church (which is not, incidentally, a position of privilege), have watered down substantially the meaning of discipleship so as not to lose any potential members, and have almost completely pushed doctrine aside, allowing, perhaps even encouraging a “whatever” approach to doctrinal understanding. 

You’ve likely heard the old joke about how easy it is to be a Methodist because it doesn’t matter what you believe.  It isn’t even close to the truth, of course, but the accommodation and appeasement by the Church over the past decades has made this lie a truth.

As a result, accountability for spiritual growth and for the well-being of the Church is virtually non-existent, and the constant demands from “this” faction or “that” individual threatens the unity of the UMC as we are witnessing from the Western Jurisdiction and nine other Annual Conferences, all having chosen to go their own way while still claiming to be United Methodist Christians. 

Ultimately it may be said – because of all this - the Church today has lost all sense of its identity as the fullness of The Lord’s Presence in the world today, and the “chickens are coming home to roost”.

Churches and pastors today are under enormous pressure from all sides to “keep up with the Joneses” in terms of what the pop culture - or individual members - demand.  In this upside-down equation, then, our children and other potential disciples are not being taught or shown what it means to be followers and students of Christ Jesus.  Rather it is the Church allowing itself to be led around by the nose according to the fickle demands of the ever-shifting culture.  Needless to say, clergy burn-out is at an all-time high because it is impossible to know what people want from one generational moment to the next – yet churches and clergy desperately try to keep up.

The Lord, on the other hand, “is the same yesterday, today, and forever”, so we must not allow ourselves to be “carried about with various and strange doctrines” (Hebrews 13:8-9a).  Our Holy Father made Himself clear to His people Israel when He stood firm Himself on the foundational integrity of His very Being: “I am The Lord; I do not change” (Malachi 3:6).  And for this reason – for our sakes - The Lord stands firm: “Therefore you are not consumed”.  Consumed by what?  By the constantly shifting standards of human demand.

Yet because we are constantly trying to live into standards imposed upon us instead of embracing the Kingdom standard into which we are invited, we as the Body of Christ have no sense of our identity as the Body!  We have no idea who we are as a people.  We think we have “Jesus loves ME, this I know” down pat, but even that simple hymn has no meaning if we do not have a sense of who we are – indeed who we must be – as the Whole and Holy Body of Christ. 

We are a bunch of individuals who happen to go to church on Sunday (if we feel like it), toss a few bucks into the collection plate (if we can spare it), and happily confront the pastor before and after worship if our individual standards and demands have not been met.  We enter into the sanctuary of The Lord with low – or no – expectations of encountering The Lord because we have our own individual expectations, our own demands of what should or should not happen in worship and in the life of the Church.  Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, the very Head of the Church, does not even factor into our personal demands!!

As a result, once worship is done, we’re done.  We have largely fulfilled an obligation and have reduced any notion we may have of Sabbath (that great and wondrous Gift we spurn!) to one hour, maybe two if we are also engaged in some Bible study class. 

Part of our United Methodist doctrinal standard and theological task states: “While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum” (2012, ¶104, pg 78 BoD). 

This may seem to encourage us to consider other theologies, other doctrines than our own, but it cannot be ignored that our Discipline, our Order first requires that we have a strong sense of self lest we be tempted to be carried about in any and every direction.  The restriction of “official changes” means the General Conference AND the many Annual Conferences must first jump through a lot of hoops if there is an attempt to change the essentials of our unique identity as United Methodist Christians in the Church universal.

Jesus Himself teaches hard Truth, but the only reason it is considered “hard” is that His Truth – the very nature of His being as the Truth itself - does not allow individual interpretations to be settled as “personal truth”; not because our Lord wants to restrict our freedom to think independently but because swaying whichever way the cultural wind happens to blow on any given day will inevitably break us.  And I dare say – “broken” may be exactly where we are today as the Body.

The Lord our God, our Creator, is the “molder” and “shaper” of what He needs us to be – even when we, as Israel was, are at our worst.  This is to be engaged in His Eternal Word and allowing ourselves to be “shaped” and “molded” for His use and for His mission rather than trying to reshape and remold the Word or the doctrines and practices of the Church to fit our own demands.  Even St. Paul appealed to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, who was a legitimately owned slave, to allow Onesimus to grow as The Lord needed him to grow – not as Philemon would demand of him but as The Lord would have need of him.

These principles of identity in The Lord fit very neatly into what Jesus teaches about preparation, getting a real feel for what the “mold” is about and what purpose it intends to serve.  And hear this: I guarantee you some measure of “pain”; but as with physical therapy or intense study, there is no gain without some measure of pain.  It may be spiritual or social or cultural discomfort to an extreme, but our God and Father means for us to grow more purposefully and intentionally into that Perfect Image in which we were created in the beginning. 

This, I think, is the overriding principle of Philemon.  From a spiritual standpoint, it could be considered the demand of our Holy Father to the “ruler of this world” to let go of us – as He demanded of Pharaoh – not strictly for the sake of our personal freedom and license to do as we please, but more for the purpose of growing into what our Lord and God desires for us … as … His … people. 

We celebrate the Food prepared for us in the Eucharist as we must be prepared to go from this Altar in The Lord’s Name and for His purposes; for it is in this that we come to know who we really are.  We are the Body of Christ redeemed by the lifeblood of the Eternal Word which became Flesh for our sake!  Now we must resolve – TOGETHER - to live for His Sake.  Amen.