Sunday, November 27, 2016

Near the End? Or at the Beginning?

1st Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

"Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [one] must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs [our] life, and it is grace because it gives [us] the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and [it is] grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God so much cannot be cheap for us.  Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His own Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us.  Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

This is “costly grace” as opposed to what Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace” which, among other things, promises forgiveness without repentance.  That is, believing ourselves to be saved in our sins rather than freed from them.  And if we think about it in the light of the chaos our world and our nation face today, it makes no sense that salvation from all this can be found without a resolve on our part to fully repent, to willfully turn away from the path of death and into the glory of Life.  The ugliness, the hatefulness, the spitefulness, the vindictiveness, and the violence we are sunk into up to our necks?  No one in his or her right mind would care to be left in that swamp of self- and social destruction!  We should wish to be delivered from it!  That is, unless we are actively engaged in it and take some perverse pleasure from the destruction of others.

Yet there must be a reason for wishing to be delivered from this peculiar and not-so-subtle evil we face today.  Humanity is in an extreme mode of self-destruction.  Authority at all levels has been called into question so much so that some feel free to take shots at police officers whose sole purpose in our society is to keep the peace and enforce the laws.  The badge, which should serve to represent the community, has become little more than a target.

Violent protests can crop up at any time and at any place without warning to the point that we cannot plan a day trip without at least being mindful of the possibility of being caught in the cross fire.  Every little thing said – in politics and perhaps especially in the pulpits – can be easily twisted and manipulated to our “offense”because we have not only lost our ability to reason; we have surrendered our willingness to even listen except to hear only what we wish to hear.

We should be so lucky that The Lord would return today!  But we are also compelled to ask ourselves the very question Jesus posed when He taught about The Lord’s demand for justice and our need to pray constantly: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).    

This is the question of Advent because what we must actually be preparing ourselves for goes far beyond the celebration of the birth of Messiah; we are awaiting the return of the Son of Man who will “judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed).  And as St. Paul sounded the alarm to his Roman audience; the time is “nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11b).  Nearer with each passing day.

In our world and especially in our churches, however, we face a much more sinister force than open violence.  We face the insidious deception by means of manipulation of the Bible and what is written for our instruction to build up the whole Body of Christ beyond each individual.  Maybe there were once noble intentions of telling people only what they wanted to hear initially so they would come to church and fill the pews (and maybe even the collection plates!); but as it is often said, the road to hell is paved with noble intentions.

So what to do?  The first Sunday of Advent is to celebrate Christ our Hope.  So what do we hope?   That when “two are in the field and one is taken”, we are not the one who is left?  Sure, but I think we will have to go a little deeper and look a little closer.  We will have to do better than this not only for the sake of our own souls but for the souls of our children, our grandchildren, our great-grands as well as those whom our Lord defines as our “neighbor” – those in distress, those whom the world has beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead! 

We must also not get caught up in the doom-and-gloom mindset that we are only preparing for the End because this is not at all what Advent is about!  The very nature of repentance itself is not to prepare for the End; rather, it is the start of a whole new life, a whole new way of thinking and doing that not only prepares us for an unknown End to a world we once knew but a known and well-defined Beginning of a whole new life and a new world!  It is the Beginning of a sanctified Life, the Life which purposefully grows in more godly perfection with each passing day!  Not accidentally or incidentally, but purposefully.

Every day is a new Beginning when we enter into that day with a profound sense and spirit of Hope rather than of dread.  And if we are only trying to avoid hell for ourselves, every day is a day of dread and fear!  Yet we cannot overlook Jesus’ warning in Matthew’s Gospel.  We cannot pretend this is not written.  That Day, that “unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44) will come with certainty, but note what precedes Jesus’ warning about those who will be left behind and how they will come to such a state of being unworthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

False messiahs with false messages of false hope.  Our willingness to believe anything which sounds good, requires nothing from us, and fits our own life’s narrative but is not measured against the weight of Holy Scriptures.  All “good news” with no warnings, no cautions.  Personal salvation with no concern for others.  A sense of forgiveness without having repented.  Baptism without church discipline.  Communion without confession.  Grace without discipleship.  Grace without the Cross.  Life without a sense of having died to oneself so we may live fully in and for Christ

This is Bonhoeffer’s take on Matthew 24 – and then some!  I dare to say Bonhoeffer’s message was directed to the Christians of the world – and perhaps especially to those of Germany during the Nazi era – who remained silent in their fear while “others” – those whom Jesus defined as our “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37) - faced unspeakable evil.  A calling of conscience for those who claimed – and still claim – an affiliation and “personal relationship” with Messiah but with a blind eye and deaf ear to those who suffer, to those who struggle for justice and mercy.

And when Advent is just another “count-down to Christmas” without a closer look and profound resolve and when Christmas itself remains more about family, favored friends, Santa Claus, and gluttony than about The Lord (but we feel perfectly ok about this), we have lost our resolve for any sort of a “beginning” and have rejected the prophetic “Light of The Lord” as spoken of by Isaiah (2:5).  We have chosen instead the darkness of a godless culture; a culture which presumes “all is well” and that “no harm will come to us” (Jeremiah 23:17).

It does not have to be this way, though.  The point of Grace – the very merciful and forgiving nature of our God and Father – is that it is never too late to begin anew – this New Beginning which always involves “others” where once it never did.  It is never too late to repent – and no one of us is above a need to repent from something.  We are never too old or too set in our ways that we cannot embrace the “costly” nature of Divine Grace by which “God did not reckon His own Son too dear a price to pay for our life”.

There is a catch, though.  It is “costly” Grace because it requires our whole life (not just our “Sunday life”) and yet offers to us the fullness of a Life worth living in the here-and-now and worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven when the “Unexpected Hour” (Matthew 24:44) is upon us.  For in Christ Jesus, the Eternal Word, every day can be the very Beginning of something wonderful.  Let it begin here.  Let it begin now.  Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

At the Feeding Trough

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:9-18
John 1:1-18

“The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it.”  John 1:5

The first chapter of John’s Gospel is always fascinating for me because each time I read it, I get a broader perspective on the Person – and persona - of Jesus.  In John’s words, Jesus is the “Word which became flesh”; “the Word which was with God, and the Word that IS God” (not to be confused with a Man who became the Word).  This is the very Word which spoke and set into motion all of creation.  The natural order – and, subsequently, the Natural Law - was established in The Word spoken by The Eternal One.

Yet more than only the Eternal Word of the Eternal God, Jesus is also offered to John’s readers as “the Light which shines in the darkness”; the Light by which the Word is fully revealed.  As when the sun was set at the center of the universe and gave its warmth and life-giving light which established the First Day; so in Christ Jesus does the Word Made Flesh enlighten the heart and give light and warmth to the soul by the revelation of the Word which then became flesh and walked among us.

And yet … though “He was in the world and the world came into being through Him … [that same world] did not know Him” – not even “His own”.  This is the part which always gets me because although I have reasonable knowledge of The Written Word – that is, the words printed on the pages of the Bible – and reasonable knowledge of general doctrinal concepts, I wonder how familiar the Real and Genuine Word Which Became Flesh is to me; that Word which spoke the world into being at the Creation and then turned that very world upside down in the Incarnation.

As we prepare ourselves for the season of Advent which begins next Sunday (27 November) – and we must prepare - there is one compelling question we must ask ourselves to guard against Advent and Christmas being just another mark on another calendar year: as we quote a favorite verse from the Bible to serve a particular purpose, regardless of that purpose, do we really know and understand The Word as coming from the Mouth of God Himself?  Do we really understand what it means that “the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it”?

Jesus as the Word of God in the flesh fulfills many roles and has many names, but I think maybe for the sake of getting the most out of understanding John’s “darkness”, let’s replace “darkness” with “hunger” for the time being, and “Light” with “Bread”.  Now we read, The Word became “Bread”, but the “hunger” did not comprehend it. 

We must learn to think more broadly beyond what is literally written – especially in replacing “darkness” with “hunger” – because of the times in which we live.  Darkness no longer has meaning because Sin is no longer something to be concealed.  With a good “selective reading” spin, a healthy dose of pop-culture, and a deep desire to fit in with the popular crowd, there is no longer any shame associated with sin.  John wrote, “This is the judgment; that the Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the Light and do not come to the Light, so that their deeds may not be exposed” (John 3:19-20). 

Those days are long gone.  Because sin itself has become culturally relative and politically correct, “darkness” is no longer deemed necessary to conceal what once brought only shame but now seems to come with a lot of pride.  Sin has found legitimacy even within and among the ekklesia, the congregation!  Oh, we will quickly point out the sins of others if they are not part of our “group” or if we do not personally “like” them.  Those among the “in” group not only get a pass but also a pat on the back, sometimes even congratulated!  They are not challenged or held accountable for their destructive acts or their hateful words.  To the contrary, they are agreed with and encouraged!  The “darkness” no longer has meaning, and churches are closing by the dozens every year because of it. 

But they – and we - are still hungry!  And it is the Light of the Word which reveals our profound hunger.  The Lord’s condemnation of the “shepherds” (priests and prophets, Jeremiah 23:1-6, 11) runs very deep because of the false, comforting, and “happy” messages they convey: “They keep saying to those who despise the Word of The Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, ‘No calamity shall come upon you’ (Jeremiah 23:17)”.

It must be observed, however, that St. James offers a stern warning to those who would propose to be “teachers” and not just prophets and priests; “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). 

How are any of us removed from that challenge?  When Moses commanded everyone to know and be faithful to The Word, he was not speaking only to classroom teachers: “Keep these words I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).  In other words, BE the Word – all of it, and not just the cotton candy portions – because even the cotton candy portions have no spiritually nutritious value apart from the meat and potatoes.

Every baptized member of the Covenant has a teaching role – formal or not, as the “priesthood of believers”.  Parents, neighbors, and friends are commanded not only to know The Word; we are compelled to live The Word.

Baptism, confirmation, being justified or born again comes with a whole lot more than a formal setting or personal privilege – just as Advent and Christmas cannot be mere “days” on a calendar marked off as a check-list of things to be done.  These celebrated days are part of what can “feed” us throughout the calendar year.  These events mark a part of our being which can never be removed from us – but only if they become fully as much a part of our being as flesh and bone.

The world is enveloped in darkness still; but as the theory of evolution keeps trying to convince us, we have evolved to the point that we do not even know it is dark.  Yet even within that darkness, we can still know hunger which can never be satisfied with junk food.   And I must say there is an awful lot of junk food being offered in churches and by ministries all across this land.

What is much worse is the treatment of Jesus as not much more than a “candy bar” rather than the Full Meal He truly is; and we do this by our selective, “happy” quotes rather than by full contextual understanding.  The good stuff can have no meaning apart from the bad stuff.

There is no “buffet” offered in the Scriptures.  The Banquet of The Lord is a full meal, but it is a meal which is set before us.  We can still pick and selectively choose from what is already on the plate; but if we do not trust The Lord to set before us all we truly need, even the brussels sprouts, we will walk away from the Table hungry, less-than-satisfied, and a lot less nourished – and spiritually vulnerable to the “darkness”.

Our God, our Heavenly Father knows what His own children need for sustenance, but we must first be willing to take our seat at the Table and allow ourselves to be fed – because it isn’t your desire or my menu; it is always the Father’s Way – and that Way is Christ Himself in His fullness as The Word, the Light, and the Bread.  All we need … for here, for now, and forever.  Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Case for a Special Prosecutor

Is there a New Sheriff in Town?  Or are we looking at the same game but with different players?

Should the new president appoint a special prosecutor to look into the allegations still standing against Hillary Clinton, what happened in Benghazi, and the Clinton Foundation’s connections to the US State Department during Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State? 

In a word, yes, but probably not for the reasons one might think.  Republicans have been after the Clintons since 1992 when Bill stepped onto the national stage to run for president.  Yet even with those allegations of financial impropriety in those days, the best indictment the special prosecutor could seem to scare up leading to an impeachment was President Clinton’s illicit affair with Monica Lewinsky.  Though that “charge” was true – as per then-President Clinton’s public admission – the Senate did not convict.  Strictly along party lines.

Special prosecutors are not so impressive after that debacle.  During the latest campaign, however, there were more serious allegations made against then-Secretary Clinton about “pay to play” in foreign governments giving millions to the Clinton Foundation in exchange for State Department favors in addition to Secretary Clinton using a private email server through which official and sensitive State Department information flowed.  The accusations back and forth and the proven unreliability of the news media seem to favor an independent review and investigation especially in light of the FBI director’s seeming bungling of the affair and his public announcements as the presidential campaign was winding down.

The counter-charge was these accusations against Secretary Clinton were baseless and little more than political efforts to derail her presidential campaign.  Fair enough.  We’ve seen plenty of this and more from so many politicians who end up best buddies with political favors coming from the winners.  The explanation is always, “That’s how the election process/game works”.  Well, none of it is a game to voters who try to discern a good choice but are forced to wade through the muck of a campaign to try and ascertain the truth – or what comes closest to resembling some measure of truth.

With that said, then, there are a couple of reasons why the new president must appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations against Mrs. Clinton.  Not least among the most important reasons, Secretary Clinton proclaimed her innocence.  Fine again.  If there is found to be no fire underneath all that smoke, then justice demands she and her family be finally and completely exonerated.  As with everyone else, she is entitled to justice; but also as with everyone else, her word alone is not good enough just as an accusation made is not good enough.

On the flip side, however, because there are too many doubts and too many conflicting accounts and because FBI Director Comey’s and US Attorney General Lynch’s credibility are all but shot in the eyes of the public, justice demands an independent review for this simple reason: if there can be proved any measure of impropriety or outright illegal or treasonous activity in all this mess, the nation deserves justice – not because we finally get to “bring down a Clinton” but because the nation has been shown time and again that there are political favors only to those who are moneyed and well connected.  There are good men who are doing time and/or have lost everything for much less than what Mrs. Clinton has been accused of.  These men deserve no less than the US government’s full attention to the allegations against the former Secretary of State.

Mrs. Clinton is not too popular or too rich or too moneyed or too connected or too sick to stand up to such scrutiny; and if she is, so much further does the credibility of this government sink even before the new president can take the oath of office.  It will also be affirmed to America that all these allegations against Mrs. Clinton were little more than political efforts only to derail her presidential campaign; just “politics as usual”, and not at all about justice or national security.  The Republicans are sitting on the edge of credibility.  If we discover they really were just “playing the game” by slandering an otherwise innocent person, they have nothing left to offer.

Ultimately, justice – for Mrs. Clinton and for the American voting public – demands our full attention.  Anything less, and this will always hang over the Clintons and their Foundation – and Americans will never trust their government again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Light at the end of the tunnel

Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

“You will be hated by all because of My Name; but not a hair of your head will perish, for by your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Luke 21:17-19

If there was ever a time we need to see light at the end of the tunnel, it is now!  This campaign has done more to damage and betray the Christian witness than any other I can recall in my own lifetime, and it is apparently far from over!  The Electoral College has yet to officially cast its ballots, but I doubt things will settle even then.   But we have also discovered the world is still spinning on its axis.  Our nation is still sending her sons and daughters into battle zones, poverty continues to haunt our neighbors, complacency is still a problem in the Holy Church – and The Lord is still The Lord.

I don’t know what it will take for spiritual revival to awaken the Church, let alone the nation.  Frankly I’m not even sure it is possible at this point considering the continued rise of the “none’s” (those who have no religious affiliation) and the “spiritual but not religious” – both inside and outside the Church – all of these more individually attuned to “mine” rather than “ours”.  An author recently observed, quoting Isaiah 13, that this election was actually The Lord’s judgment on us.  The election itself – since he wrote his piece before the election!

He wrote, “I look at the headlines, our candidates, our political parties, our civic life [including church life], and mostly what occurs to me is that The Lord has given us over to ourselves in this election, and He lets us make fools of ourselves with it.  And not just this election.  All the signs of Divine Judgment of a nation, or a civilization, seem to be on us … Many civilizations have disgraced themselves with the murder of their enemies.  But my own [civilization] is one of few so debauched that we kill our own children and call it good.” – Michael Brendan Dougherty, “This election is God’s Judgment on us”, 7 November 2016

He sees all this and more from the context of Isaiah 13:9-11a: “The Day of The Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.  For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.  I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity.” 

Many of us have made flippant statements about The Lord’s wrath, but we usually mean His wrath toward “others”; more specifically, non-Christians.  We do not often consider Jesus’ declaration to His own followers: “To whom much has been given, more will be expected” (Luke 12:48). 

But we also must not dismiss what Jesus was teaching His followers in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel: “You will be hated by all because of My Name”.  But I seriously doubt Jesus was referring to a militant Christian attitude by which “values” are forced upon others by government action rather than taught to them by faithful living and human engagement as the Great Commission requires of us; Teach them to observe all I’ve commanded …”

The selective reading from Isaiah 65 requires an appropriate context before even the Good News can have any real meaning for us – especially because The Lord is revealing to His people the “light at the end of the tunnel”; more specifically, it is revealed to The Lord’s “servants”.  Actually, part of the problem of “selective” readings prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary and many devotionals is the loss of context in selective reading. 

The burden falls on the preachers and priests AND readers to be honest with the text – rather that to quote selectively to create a preferred and somewhat false narrative - and fill in the blanks so congregations and we individually can get a full taste of what is really being expressed.  And none is more important than the full context of Isaiah’s 65th chapter.  There is Divine anger and judgment expressed, but this must be considered as part of our own journey as we venture toward – and search diligently for – the “light at the end of the tunnel”.

Before the “fuzzy puppies and fragrant flowers” portion of Isaiah’s ‘happy’ discourse is The Lord’s indictment of His own Chosen People.  The “fuzzy puppies” portion is what is offered to those who remain after The Lord’s wrath has judged an entire nation and “sinners have been destroyed”.  The chapter begins with The Lord’s plea; “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, [ready] to be found by those who did not seek Me.  I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’ to a nation that did not call on My Name” (Isaiah 65:1).

Continuing to accuse those who “who provoke Me to My Face continually” (vs 3), The Lord says, “I will repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together” (vs 6,7).  Then He says, “My servants (note it does not say, “My people”) shall eat, but you (who have provoked Me) shall be hungry” (vs 13). 

Then we move into the assurance of “new heavens and a new earth” (vs 17).  Those who survive, those who “endure [faithfully] to the end”, as Jesus teaches, will not even remember these “former things”; those who were truly “servants” of The Lord for whom these “former things” never had meaning – or if they once did, we saw the Light and turned away.  There seems no mercy for those with only a loose and ill-defined affiliation to The Lord – those who live on their “chosen” status in arrogance but do not live into the Covenant itself with mercy and justice toward both “neighbor” AND “stranger”.

These “former things” must be considered, also, as more than the Judgment itself.  The Faithful, those who truly “serve” The Lord, have endured – and will continue to endure - the persecutions and other hardships endured by the faithful, the temptations experienced and overcome, the ministries that sought to call the land to repentance in mercy and justice rather than by verbal demands or hollow spiritual threats, the faithful who stood firm when the cultural tide of “whatever feels good and seems right” threatened to overwhelm them, refusing to follow the practices of men and women – including oneself - and choosing to purposely follow Christ.

We must also be more aware that “persecution” must not be construed as not getting our way or getting our feelings hurt because folks disagree with us or mock us for our faith (or, more likely, our hypocrisy).  First we must determine whether we are being disagreeable in a less-than-holy, less-than-Christ-like manner.  Then the manner of our perceived persecution must be measured against those around the world who are literally being executed – or are suffering the unspeakable horror of watching their loved ones being executed - for being Christians, for being Christ-followers.

Isaiah portrays a harsh Judgment on the complacent who will bring judgment upon themselves by their own complacency and not by the acts of others - and Jesus portrays a less-than-appealing vision of what the faithful may be forced to endure.  Then St. Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, sharply distinguishes between those who earnestly “work” and those who expect all the goodness without putting in the work necessary to produce that goodness. 

They should go hungry as they most certainly will “be hungry” on The Day of The Lord (Isaiah 65).  I dare say the broader principle in Paul’s writing has little to do with temporal wages to be spent only on oneself for one’s own sustenance – because our Lord Himself says “I am the Bread of Life; those who come to Me will never hunger … [for] My flesh is real food and My blood real drink” (John 6:35, 55).

This is the sustenance we require to persevere through this dark tunnel of life; not just the Bread we celebrate at Holy Communion but also the Bread that is The Word Himself.  And we need each other, for that is the strength of the Holy Church sufficient to endure the Journey, to serve with one another as a “sanctuary” against the chaos of a world imploding in its violence and degradation, injustice and exploitation, the place to come and be fed – IF we are willing to take our places at the Table to gain strength for the Journey.

And if, during this Journey, our own light begins to flicker and our strength begins to fade – and it will! - we with the encouragement of our fellow disciples and sojourners will look up – and we will remember that the True Light had already pierced the darkness when Messiah was born.  It is that Light in which we will find our way Home.  Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why Fathers should take their families to church: the state of the world and our part in the mess

Looking at the aftermath of the election is more than a little disturbing.  Folks for whom the election did not go their way are protesting in the streets and threatening violence until they get their way, and those for whom the election results were satisfying are gloating.  For a long time, our society has been devolving into a mass of crying, screaming fit-throwers ill-equipped to deal with reality and offer even a small measure of respect to others.  Today we are reaping what has long been sown.

There is a lot of speculation about how this generation has become so entitled and so sensitive – sensitive only to their own demands, not for their “neighbors”.  One person suggested it began when pee-wee teams began giving “participation” trophies to every player.  Many have suggested that we fall all over ourselves to get our children the latest and greatest toys or electronics devices for Christmas, birthdays, or just because they want it.  It does not seem to matter whether we can afford it.  If someone else has the “latest and greatest”, we feel cheated and entitled.

I think maybe the problem goes even deeper.  We always say (and quote the Bible) that this nation needs God.  “Blessed is the nation whose God is The Lord”.  The problem is that too many of those who post this quote on social media are not engaged in the life of the Church.  The popular saying is, “We don’t need to go to church to worship God”. 

Fine.  It is true enough that many church-goers have no real idea why they’re there, and too many others go to church with their own demands and expectations.  It is equally true we Christians are among the world’s great hypocrites.  I freely admit it and own it.  I don’t settle for it; I strive to do better.  And I fail often.  Were it not for the Church, who will hold me accountable for my actions if I am my own “god”, pretending I am my own “church”?  According to biblical standards?  According to Jesus’ teachings?

Here’s the thing.  When we do not take our families to church and teach them why we are there and how to be an active part of it, we teach our children something else without even realizing it.  We are teaching our children that self-pleasure (“hedonism” is the word for it) is primary above all things.  We teach our children that they don’t have to do something they don’t want to do because this is what we do.  And if the parents do not feel like it, they teach their children that enjoying their life on their own terms is what “America” and/or “freedom” are all about, and that our “feelings” should always serve as our moral compass.  Being a “good person”, very subjectively defined, becomes the primary religion (the “New Age” religion by which one declares oneself one’s own god).

The abyss goes even deeper.  Taking our families to church without teaching our families about worship and the true life of the Church and what it means to serve The Lord and one another (remember the Great Commandment and the other great one that is like the first, according to Jesus?) makes “going to church” the end itself rather than a means to a much great End.

Church is not about “going to heaven”.  Life in the Church is bigger than even this because Eternity does not begin only when we are dead.  We are in the midst of eternity this very day, this very hour!  One day The Lord will return and judge us all, and church attendance is not strictly listed in the Scriptures as one of those things by which we will be judged.  Then again, our own subjective, cultural notion of being “a good person” is also not listed.  There is more, much more; and our children have already been missing out on the “more” of what life in the Church can offer because we have been teaching them the world is their oyster without realizing the oyster is dead.

We must do better, and it begins – yes, I’ll say it – with the father because our children – in fact, our entire society - are digressing despite all the “progress” we think we’ve made.  Our children do not know why the world does not revolve around them because life in the home does, in fact, revolve around them.

“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek Me.  I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on My name.  I held out My hands all day long to a rebellious people who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices …”  Isaiah 65:1-2 NRSV

Maybe we are already facing the Judgment.  Maybe there is a reaping unfolding before our very eyes.  Yet The Lord was – and still is - calling out to His people that a New Day will soon be upon them, but only the faithful – those who “seek” and “ask” and “knock”, those who hungrily follow the Good Shepherd rather than expect Him to follow us – will survive what will soon be the “former things”.  Those who “look back” to a life selfishly sought after and coveted will be left to “their own devices”.

Fathers, take the lead in your homes.  Repent of the former life that has helped to spawn a godless generation.  Teach your children the more excellent way.  Learn about the more excellent way yourselves.  It will be hard to reorient yourselves and your children toward others, but that is exactly where the Church will find The Lord.  Only then will we find the Life we were called to in the first place.

A Thought

“Walk prudently when you go to the house of The Lord, and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know they do evil.  Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before The Lord.  For The Lord is in heaven, and you on earth.  Therefore let your words be few; for a dream comes through much activity, and a fool’s voice is known by his many words.”  Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 NKJV

One of the many things said to be destroying the Church from within is the consumerist mentality.  That is, we do not often attend worship for The Lord Himself.  Rather, we go – and have probably been so conditioned for a very long time – to get something from The Lord.  And if a particular church does not give us what we demand for ourselves, we slander the preacher and brand him/her a fool, and simply move to the next one … and the next one … and so on until we get what we demand.  Many leave churches claiming not to have been “fed”; but it must be observed that the “food” is being offered in abundance, but these consumers only want dessert.  So they refused to even sit at the table as the meal was offered.   

But what does the Teacher/Preacher (depending on the preferred translation) mean by walking “prudently” when entering the house of The Lord?  To be “prudent” is to be, among other things, “advisable”.  That is, we are encouraged to enter into the house of The Lord with a willingness to “be advised”.  What we get may not be at the top of our list of demands; but coming from The Lord through His Word, we can be sure it is what we need most desperately.  Faith, then, is a level of trust that what we need most is what we will get.  It may not fit our personally construed narrative, but we can be sure it is His narrative because this is exactly what we are being invited into: the New Covenant.

This is why “prudence” is of the utmost importance.  It is not unlike being hired for a job with a company.  That company has its policies, its requirements, and its expectations.  When we are hired, we are invited into an already-established narrative.  We should not expect that the company will suddenly change its long-standing practices to accommodate us only because we find ourselves unable to embrace the narrative as it stands.  Like the Covenant narrative, we are also free to walk away if we cannot – or will not – live into its terms.

Yet unlike the job which was very likely not so easy to get, the Covenant is an open invitation with no prerequisites!  There are indeed terms we must be willing to embrace and live into, but we need not worry about “impressing the Boss” because that Invitation was issued long ago with no requirements except an open willingness to be loved!  Yet if we already have our own terms set, our own demands listed, we cannot hear the invitation because we are too busy laying out our own desires.  We are not “advisable”.

To be perfectly honest, this is a very difficult kind of love to conceive of because we do not see much of it in our world, in our culture’s narrative – especially during election season!  Since we cannot see it and rarely experience it, it is hard to believe such a depth of love exists because we try to compare Divine Perfection with human imperfection.  Yet if we are willing to be “advisable” and fully open to such a possibility, The Lord assures us He will go to great lengths to make us aware and help us to experience this new life!  There is no action, there are no words on our part necessary to attain this Love because it is already given, and very freely so; but if we are too full of ourselves and our own demands, we cannot be “advised”.

“Be still and know I am The Lord”.  He beckons us in our humility and in our silence.  Do you get this??  “Be still” in the Scripture not only speaks of physical movement but also of speech.  “Be still”, our Lord says, “and just let Me love you”. 

The Lord is great, is He not?


Tuesday, November 08, 2016

A Thought for Tuesday, 8 November 2016

“As Jesus was speaking, a cloud came and overshadowed them (Peter, James, and John), and they were fearful as they entered the cloud.  And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son.  Hear Him!’  When the voice had ceased, Jesus was found alone.  But they kept quiet and told no one in those days any of the things they had seen.”  Luke 9:34-36 NKJV

Election Day.  Especially this year, many are just relieved it’s finally over.  Regardless of the outcome, these (including myself) are simply grateful we no longer have to suffer the plain nastiness of these candidates and their minions.  Of course we all have a preferred candidate (even though many claim to have held their noses while they voted!); but regardless of who will be declared the winner by the Electoral College, we can finally go on about our lives.

This interesting scene from Luke’s Gospel takes place immediately following the Transfiguration.  The three apostles had witnessed Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus about His impending death, and they had been overwhelmed by the experience.  Peter wanted to build three tabernacles; one for Jesus, one for Moses, and the other for Elijah.

Rather than to worry about structures to memorialize the occasion, The Lord spoke through the cloud and gave them the only memorial which would matter long after the structures had failed: “This is My beloved Son.  Hear Him!”

These past few weeks we have heard nothing but charges, accusations, innuendo, and downright blasphemy – which is what happens when we slander someone who is, like us, created in the Divine Image.  And yet, for as loud as the screaming is as we demand to be heard, The Almighty speaks through this obstructive “cloud” of noise and vitriol: “Hear My beloved Son.  He has something worth hearing!”

Be grateful for the privilege we have as citizens, but always hear our Holy Father; for His enduring Word is that which will find no ending.  The nastiness of these bitter days will not even be a memory. 

The Lord is great, is He not?


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Visions of Salvation

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

“The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever.”  Daniel 7:18

If the prophet Daniel is correct in his vision, then we must understand that “possession of the Kingdom” does not begin only when we breathe our last in this life.  This possession is marked by how we fit into the narrative of Jesus’ Beatitudes as “saints” of the Church – right here, right now, from this very day and onward.

So what is a “saint”?  Very simply put, a saint is a “steward of The Lord's goods”.  Getting past the not-well-understood and often-maligned Catholic doctrine of the “intercession of the saints”, there is in the Catechism a very good and well-thought-out understanding of how the Bible describes a “saint”.  And the description has little to do with one’s death.  It is much more about how one chooses to live and honor “The Lord’s goods”.

The substance of what makes a saint, according to the Catechism, is found in the Acts of the Apostles; describing those who devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings and who share all they have with one another so there is not be a needy person to be found among them (AA 2:42-45). 

It happened in the aftermath of the Spirit’s Presence at Pentecost, and it must be happening today; for there is a progression from the Beatitudes through the Resurrection, through Pentecost, and finally landing at our feet – the eternity of the Kingdom alive and well in the Church.  To be defined as a biblical saint does not require a miracle to be performed by us nor do we have to wait until we are passed from this life. 

It must be said, however, that the life of a saint – dead or alive – can be nothing short of extraordinary; for there can be no such thing as an “ordinary” saint.  And what makes a saint extraordinary in this life is according to what we choose to pursue.  So a saint cannot be construed as a mere believer; a saint is a “doer of the Word and not a hearer only” (Romans 2:13; James 1:22).

This state of saintly being does not happen in a void, however.  The source of what can make us extraordinary are the Sacraments themselves from which we derive our spiritual nourishment.  Especially as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we must look beyond the ordinary “practice” of Holy Communion as only a thing we do once in a while to remember Jesus’ Extraordinary Death.  We must gain for ourselves and for one another a much better understanding of the great need we have of the Sacraments as much more than a mere memorial, much more than an ‘ordinance’ we are commanded to do only for the sake of doing it.

The saintly life cannot be disconnected from the Sacraments, the Church, or the Scriptures lest we come to believe we can attain genuine sainthood by mindless participation or simple church membership.   Rather, we must understand we are being fed and nourished for much more than just our own sanctification (for our Lord says, “My flesh is real food and My blood real drink”, John 6:55) because a true saint understands his or her place in the Church, not as a passive observer but as an active participant in the life of Christ Jesus intimately connected to the work of His Church.

In other words, we actively practice the Presence of The Lord as if He were physically standing before us.

In our own United Methodist tradition and doctrine, then, we must understand sainthood within the doctrine of sanctification.  And I think it is more important now than ever before that we United Methodist Christians pay very close attention to what sanctification is, how culturally costly it is in terms of living into the sanctified life, and how easily we can be drawn away from it by our own traditions.

Recall St. Stephen (AA 6-7).  The culture into which Stephen was speaking was not open to the idea of an extraordinary life, a life which would draw one away from what had become ordinary.  Stephen came from within this renewed ekklesia which had been kissed by the Spirit of the Living God.  The ordinary culture was so disturbed by what was coming from this renewed Movement that they “instigated some men” to claim they had heard Stephen speaking “blasphemous words against Moses and against The Lord” (AA 6:11) because they “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (AA 6:10).

We know – or should know – what eventually happened to Stephen.  He bore his extraordinary witness to the very ordinary council and ultimately pointed out to them that they were “forever opposing the Holy Spirit – just as your ancestors used to” (AA 7:51); condemning not only their own traditions in their determination to hold on to their ordinary positions of privilege but in their actual opposition to “practicing the very Presence of the Most High God” by their very ordinary and traditional cultural choices – living in the traditions of men rather than in the Spirit of The Lord.

So they murdered Stephen; but before they stoned him to death, they became even more enraged when “visions of salvation” overwhelmed Stephen.  “Look!  I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the Right Hand of God!” (AA 7:56).    

It must be understood, however, that this “vision of salvation” did not come only when Stephen’s death was imminent.  It is written in AA 6 that “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people”.  

It was those extraordinary “wonders and signs” which infuriated the very ordinary people and the very ordinary culture they not only claimed as their own but had perpetuated for generations for themselves, for their own sakes, their own comforts, and their own privileges.  The problem with this ordinary culture, however, even though they still tried to claim the privilege of “God’s chosen”, was that they were unwilling to reach for the extraordinary.  They chose – and settled into – the very ordinary.

Their own “visions of salvation” were contained in their own self-righteousness, but their practices – by the very nature of those practices – necessarily marginalized and minimized those whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these” – as though we cannot be lifted up unless someone is beaten down.  

So when our Lord and Savior lifted these up, He lifted these up, who had been marginalized and exploited by an ordinary culture and an ordinary people, not only to His Favor – He commended these to our care in perpetuity, just as our Lord and Savior also said, “The poor you will always have” (Matthew 26:11) – which must be understood as much more than a cultural reality.  It was – and still is – a charge to the “stewards of The Lord’s goods”.  

If the practices of the Church have become ordinary, then we’re doing Church and the Gospel wrong.  The practices of the Church must be so extraordinary that those of the ordinary culture will either join us – or oppose us.  They will either stand with us – or stand against us.  The Church must never settle for an ordinary response of “meh” – as if the ordinary can take us or leave us!  For it is only the extraordinary from within which we may experience AND SHARE “visions of salvation”!

The Lord’s very Body, the Church, must never again settle for the ordinary traditions of our culture, for Our God is extraordinary; and so is His Good News and the Life we are invited into.  So let us go on faithfully in our stewardship of The Lord’s goods.  It is never too late to reach for the Extraordinary and settle for the ordinary no more. Amen.

Friday, November 04, 2016

A Thought for Friday, 4 November 2016

“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.  Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.  For Christ did not please Himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on Me’.”  Romans 15:1-3 NRSV

Many have heard it said – and have said it themselves – that the United States is a “Christian nation founded on Christian principles”.  A consensus of polls puts the Christian population in the US at about 70%.  So how can it be that a “Christian nation founded on Christian principles” standing at 70% of the population is so darn mean-spirited, hateful, and spiteful??  Republican or Democrat.  Catholic or Protestant.  Jew or Gentile.  Conservative or Liberal.  It makes me wonder exactly what we mean when we say “Christian principles”.

We hear a great deal about “tolerance”, but I doubt many on either side of the argument really understand what the word itself means.  The Latin root of the word means “endurance” (, which is to say we “tolerate” something as a matter of acknowledging its reality.  It does not in any way mean we express support or agreement.  St. Paul challenged his Roman audience, comprised of Jewish and Gentile Christians, to “acknowledge” the reality of disagreement without being disagreeable.  Based on what is written in the previous chapter regarding kosher regulations, Paul says, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (Romans 14:20). 

Even though Paul mentioned food specifically, we are compelled to consider the broader context throughout the letter which stipulates that whatever we choose to do which may cause distress or grief (or temptation!) for those who do not share our beliefs, we should refrain from that practice – at least while they’re present.  At the very least.  That they do not agree does not necessarily make our own practices wrong in themselves; but when our practices or beliefs are forced upon others only for the sake of trying to prove ourselves right and with no regard for their own “weakness”, we are wrong - not necessarily in the belief but certainly in the practice of that belief.  The practice in question causes distress, we know it may cause distress, but we do it anyway by claiming our “rights” while failing to understand the “Christian principle” of building up – rather than trying to tear down – one another.

Right or wrong, “each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12).  And it seems most likely that we who try to claim “Christian principles”, regardless of which side of the political aisle we choose to stand, had better try and more fully understand exactly what “Christian principles” are and how they are best expressed.  That guy Jesus might be a good place to start in trying to better understand “Christian principles”; you know, the One who “did not please Himself”

Yes, some things are as wrong today as they were thousands of years ago, and some things are still as right today as they were when Jesus walked the earth.  It just is that the “principles” in which Jesus abided are not so popular today – even among the 70% who claims some sort of affiliation to Him.

There is no need to worry about how others choose to live and to act.  Even if we are afraid of the examples “they” may be setting for our children, we need not live in fear if Christ is present in our hearts, in our homes, in the churches in which we worship, and in the work we do.  Trying to live as a true disciple fully devoted to Christ is hard enough without trying to force others to also live.  For “those who humble themselves will be exalted”.  So says the One upon whom our insults fall.

Let there be peace,


Wednesday, November 02, 2016

A Thought for Wednesday 2 November 2016

“Get wisdom, get insight; do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth.  Do not forsake [wisdom], and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.  The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight.  Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you will embrace her.  She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown” (Proverbs 4:5-9 NRSV).

So “the beginning of wisdom” is to “get wisdom”?  Well, if I were wise, would I not already be in possession of wisdom?  Not quite, because it is also written, “Do not be wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7a).  This may be a polite way of suggesting to us that if we believe ourselves to be wise, we may be fooling only ourselves; and consequently, cheating ourselves out of one of The Lord’s most precious gifts. 

We all probably know some incredibly smart, very well-educated persons who know a lot of stuff and have read a lot of books.  Here’s the thing about wisdom, though; all the knowledge in the world is useless if we do not know how to use that knowledge.  And if that knowledge we do have we believe to be for our own personal gain primarily or exclusively, we are still trying to balance on a two-legged stool.

There are a lot of ways in which to be wise, especially as we try to navigate this crazy world!  Worldly wisdom, however, does not quite do if we only know how to beat others at their own game – again – for our own personal gain or amusement.  The wisdom of what is written in the Scriptures teaches us much more than “how to get to heaven”.  Indeed, if this is all we are looking for, well, we may consider that true wisdom cannot exist in such a shallow pond.  There is much more.

Jesus teaches more than once that those who “exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”.   Humility is a constant reminder to us that we simply are not “all that”.  We can indeed learn a great deal from well-educated teachers, but the best teachers also realize they can learn a great deal from their students.  Those who possess true wisdom can reach only one irrefutable conclusion: there is always more to learn.  And we learn by listening and observing; never by talking and certainly not by arguing.

Let wisdom in, and we will find treasures we never dreamed existed.  We will indeed find a “way to heaven” in our quest, but we will also discover more about ourselves, one another, and our God when our minds and hearts are open.  For there is a profound difference between “facts” which come from knowledge, and “Truth” which can come only from wisdom.

The Lord is great, is He not?