Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Sinking Ship

“I have said [many things] to you to keep you from stumbling.  They will put you out of the synagogues.  Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so, they are offering worship to God.  And they will do this because they have not known the Father or Me.”  John 16:1-3 NRSV

When President Obama was in office, the Republicans stood fast against much of what he sought to do.  There was no cooperation NOT because he is black but because there were vast disagreements.  Now that President Trump is in office, the Democrats are promising to do the very same thing and for the same reason: vast disagreements.  This is all done for one reason and one reason only: to do their level best to win back (or retain) majority power in Congress.  They only think they are doing a “service” (worship) to the nation.

Unfortunately, when we do so in the name of religion and/or social justice, we do not stop to consider the actual harm we are doing in the process to the very process by which this nation is governed.  We think we are doing a “service”, but in fact we are doing great harm.

To be sure, Jesus was talking specifically about religious persecution.  Those disciples of Jesus will certainly run into trouble with the religious authorities, and those authorities will pull out all the stops (think of parliamentary procedures in today’s Congress and in the streets) to damage or destroy the opposition – and all to the same end: to do what they may think is a service.  To God, to the Party, ostensibly to the people or their particular cause.  All because we refuse to listen.  All because we embrace our emotions, dismiss the facts or the reality, and seek only to discredit the “other”.  All because we are not really trying to do what is right but only because we are trying to stop the “other”.  All because we are more attuned to “rights” than we are to “respect”. 

This short-sightedness is going to destroy us all because one cannot sink only half the ship.  Jesus knew it and tried to teach it to us; but we are so certain of our own task and mindful only of our individual rights and/or cause that we fail to realize (or care about) the real harm we are doing.  For to do harm to the “other” is to do harm to ourselves. 

Let us agree that Jesus was talking to “us”; not only to “them”.  Maybe then we can begin to let the smoke clear, assess the damage long ago done, and begin to rebuild.  For the nation.  For our children.  For one another.  For our God.

May He show mercy,


Monday, January 30, 2017


“The King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink.  I was a stranger and you took Me in, was naked and you clothed Me.  I was sick, and you visited Me.  I was in prison and you came to Me’.”  Matthew 25:34-36

There is a lot of political and social hay being made about the president’s recent action regarding immigrants, but I do not wish to change anyone’s minds about whether or not the travel ban is improper, illegal, immoral, or a matter of national security.  I have my own thoughts about that, but I have been to share the Gospel – not enforce the law.

We had the privilege of welcoming representatives of The CALL (Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime) to share a word with us in yesterday’s worship, and the statistics regarding the number of children in Arkansas in foster care as opposed to the number of foster homes available is staggering.  For a good, round number, there are 5000 children and only 1000 homes set to welcome them.

I have seen some Arkansas churches proudly displaying on their outdoor signs and on social media that they “welcome refugees”.  In light of what was shared with us yesterday, I cannot help but to wonder how many of those church members offer foster care.  Are these 5000 children not “refugees”?  Or are these churches only willing to open the building’s basement but not their own homes?  There is a big difference; for the “church” is the congregation – not the building.

There is no judgment here.  Believe me when I say I have struggled with serving as a foster parent just as I am struggling with this travel ban.  I am torn between reasonable security and the desperate needs so many face.  And I will continue to struggle about how to teach it and how to live it. 

We are not all equipped to be foster parents, and some foster parents should not be.  Having met some truly dedicated foster parents (and I am related to one), I am inspired by the stout hearts of those who have opened their homes to our own little “refugees”.  It takes a very special person to be able to provide this kind of sanctuary to children whose lives have been upended by so many domestic issues.  The CALL is a Christian ministry established and sustained by generous hearts and generous givers (they are a 501c3 entity) to help recruit, equip, train, and support families who are so willing to serve in this remarkable ministry of opening one’s home.  And they need us all more than ever before.

The idea of welcoming and housing international refugees is somewhat complicated, but protesting the president’s international action while there is such a great need domestically is only theoretical if we are unwilling to provide a literal “safe space” for children right here at home who have been displaced due to tragic and often dangerous circumstances.  It may not be a fair comparison, but why fight by protest via social media when there is a great need and a solution, quite literally, right before us?  If we are unwilling to open our hearts and our homes to children whose needs are so great, how can we protest the president’s action?  Could it be that we are ok with welcoming international refugees as long as someone else houses, feeds, and supports them?

St. Paul encouraged the Christians in Rome to “think soberly as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).  That “sober” judgment is not about what we think others should be doing; it is entirely about what we ourselves are so willing to do … according to the measure of faith entrusted to every individual Christian.  We must all look deeply within ourselves and determine that Arkansas does not need more protesters; it is too easy to find fault with others.  Arkansas – and the nation – needs solutions; and we have them.  We just have to be willing to put those solutions to good use.

So please, let us get down from our political soapboxes and open our hearts.  We cannot speak Truth to justice in protest from “on high” when we are already waist-deep in need.

Holy Father, show us the Way!


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pure Religion

Exodus 22:21-27
James 1:22-27
John 14:15-21

“The most terrible poverty is the loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”  Mother Teresa

Remembering what was perhaps one of the most shocking sermons I had ever heard, the priest said, “Let it be known here and now that The Lord does not favor Catholics!”  That we were momentarily stunned is an understatement!  Here we were being all “religious” during worship while celebrating Christ as Lord of the Church and Savior of the world, and this priest tells us we’re not doing it right!

This was his first Sunday in the parish, and he was following a series of priests most of whom could easily be described as gentle shepherds.  They were kind-hearted and soft-spoken, they smiled and laughed easily, and they soothed us with their words of encouragement even as they faithfully taught Catholic doctrine.  I do not remember any real outcry as they stood firm in the Church’s teachings which, then and now, go against cultural trends. 

And bear this in mind.  This was the 70’s when the nation – and the Church! - was so enthralled with the so-called Sexual Revolution, abortion, and birth control that we became much more aware of and concerned with what we could get away with in the privacy of our homes than we were about the “least among us” (Matthew 25:40).

Well, according to this new guy (who clearly did not know what he was talking about {tongue in cheek} since we did not agree with him), we were as wrong as wrong can possibly be!  Then he started quoting the Bible.  The point the priest was making was not, as we might suspect, that no one is favored of The Lord since our Father “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). 

This was not what the priest was saying at all.  He maintained there are indeed those who are favored by our God, those to whom our heavenly Father is indeed partial: it is those who are mistreated, marginalized, oppressed, and never given a chance to come into their own.  The Lord favors victims of humanity’s worst.

The Lord favors the “poor”, but not necessarily the “poor” we often think of only in economic terms.  Rather, the priest was referring to the “poor in spirit” to whom Jesus referred in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3).  He was talking about folks who, lacking in social affluence, get beaten down by society in general – or worse, are ignored outright even in their greatest hour of need … because … they just don’t seem to matter so much – not nearly as much as our own pursuit of personal happiness.

The Bible often makes reference to “widows and orphans” who have direct access to The Lord’s ear … and heart (Exodus 22:23-24).  If they cry out to The Lord as a result of any sort of abuse or neglect and find themselves without any measure of hope, The Lord says, “My wrath will burn”; and those guilty of such abuse will soon suffer the fate of widows and orphans.  In the Jewish Talmud, the Bible is interpreted as saying caring for widows and orphans is on an equal plane with caring for our own wives and children.  In the teachings of the rabbis, our own families do not come first if we are aware of others in distress.  They deserve our equal consideration.

So as the priest pointed out to us, do we really think Christians (even Catholics!!) who are guilty of such abuse or neglect will be spared this “burning wrath” only because we call ourselves “saved”?  Have we become so “religious” that we somehow think only our worship practices – or to merely believe in Jesus - help us to find favor with The Lord?  Or have we fallen victim to the idea that “church life” and “real life” are mutually exclusive, that one has nothing to do with the other?

To be sure, “widows and orphans” in the Bible does literally mean those who are widowed and those who are orphaned, but there is much more to the context than that they only suffered the loss and continue to mourn the pain of living without their loved ones.  There was – and still is - a cultural loss of identity, a social stigma that goes much deeper than financial uncertainty, a stigma that will haunt “widows and orphans” in the dominant culture unless or until The Lord’s counter-cultural people intervene.  In the “real world”, widows and orphans are all but deemed to be “non-persons”.  They have no clout, no usefulness, no meaning.  They are burdens rather than our brethren.

Given that cultural narrative, then, this may be the reason Jesus very deliberately used the term “orphaned” (John 14:18) toward His disciples who would soon be without His physical presence.  In that cultural narrative, one who is “orphaned” would be one without hope, one without any real sense of identity, one who would become lost in the shuffle of humanity, one without a home to call one’s own, one whose life has no real social value or even sacred worth.

In Jesus’ entire discourse (John 13-16), He was preparing His disciples for the day when He would no longer be with them.  And while there was the promise of the “Advocate”, the Holy Spirit (14:16, 26), there is much more to what Jesus was asking of His disciples – then and now.  “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34; John 15:12).  And make no mistake; Jesus was not talking about “fondness”.  He was talking the Cross.

The community of fellowship we more often refer to as “The Church” is an important component of what Jesus was talking about in which a “members only” state of mind can be a comfort when we know we are not alone, when we have friends and a sense of belonging, when help comes to us when we’re at our worst; but that “members only” attitude can also be a curse when “love one another” is misconstrued to mean only those who are useful to us personally.  Remembering Jesus as The Word which became Flesh, our Lord affirmed the Levitical law of “love your neighbor as yourself” in His Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37). 

Recall in the parable that a priest and a Levite, those who would be considered “members”, bypassed the man in distress.  It was the Samaritan, the outsider, the foreigner who stopped to help.  The Good Samaritan considered nothing but the level of distress he encountered and his own ability to answer to that distress.  It was a moment in which “sacred value” was affirmed while caring only for one’s own was all but dismissed.  This is the abiding principle of “loving one’s neighbor”.

Our sense of sacred worth is, biblically and religiously speaking, directly related to the sacred worth we assign to others.  We are no better than the worst among us.  There are those who can do absolutely nothing for us socially, but what we can do for them can change their whole world and their entire outlook on life.  It is in these sacred moments when our religion is at its purest, according to St. James, and Jesus becomes for them more than what our atheist friends call a “fairy tale”.  It is in these sacred moments when The Word which became Flesh remains in the flesh … in our hearts and in our deeds.

In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he writes of the “elect”.  Often in terms of a grossly misunderstood doctrine of “predestination” which is largely self-centered, it seems more likely Paul was referring to the “elect” as those called forth for “extraordinary” purposes as the Hebrews called forth as The Chosen of The Lord, meant to serve as a nation of priests to be a light to all the nations.  Yet those who do not fall into the “elect” category are of no less value in the sight of The Lord, for even “ordinary” acts of kindness and charity – acts of true sacrificial love - can transform hearts and change lives … and turn our culture and society around.

Mother Teresa taught that there is no level of distress greater than of the utter loneliness of being unloved, and she was surely speaking in terms of what the Gospel of our Lord teaches of what it means to be truly engaged in “pure religion”.  It is not enough to pray for those in distress and wait for Jesus – or someone else - to handle it.  Our Lord said very clearly in speaking to God’s people, “YOU are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).   

So we must pray that The Lord will show us the way of “pure religion”, that form of religion which will always involve “the least among us” and will always favor those in distress; for our religion is a matter of justice and mercy for all.  We must pray diligently that The Lord will reveal to US what WE must do in His Holy Name – and then in faith, act upon what is revealed to us. 

In that Sacred Moment at Calvary, our Lord set us free for this very purpose: to do and to care for those who cannot do and care for themselves, to restore to them their dignity and identity as persons of sacred worth, and to remind them that our Lord and Savior is very real … to them and to us.  This isn’t about our own “personal” salvation … it is entirely about theirs.  Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

One Lord, One Life - 3rd Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

“The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men and women into Christ … If the Church is not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time [because] God became Man for no other purpose [than to draw peoples to Himself].”  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


So if the Church is not doing the ONE THING it was established to do, what else is there?  Mr. Lewis said the physical structures, clergy, sermons, even the Bible are all a waste of time if the Church is not solely focused on bringing new disciples into Christ.  What about the many means of grace?  Prayer.  Fasting.  Worship.  Bible study.  The Sacraments.  Same thing.  A waste of time if we have no mind or heart for, or intentions of, making disciples as Jesus commanded … as Jesus requires.

The late Bishop Fulton Sheen, in speaking to the vitality of a married couple’s relationship, once said: “Without God, people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another … Without a central loyalty, life is unfinished.”   The same may be said of the Church since She is the Bride of Christ.  If the life of the Church is not entirely about The Lord and His work (making disciples), the life of the Church is “unfinished” – still lacking but with room to grow. 

It may also be said if the Church is not entirely about The Lord and His work and has no intentions of ever being so, the life of the Church may be, or already is … “finished”, having never lived into its very identity as the Body of Christ and thus having no life whatsoever … except the life we try to create by our own means and only according to our own preferences.

There is a reason why I’ve not asked you (or any church I’ve served) to align with the Confessing Movement or any other unofficial movement within or outside the United Methodist Church.  As much as I agree with and applaud the efforts of the Confessing Movement and the new Wesleyan Covenant Association, it is still and always necessary to focus on the foundation of our very existence: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). 

So what St. Paul was warning the Church at Corinth about are those divisions that cause any organization to lose focus on the one thing for which an organization – in this case, the church in Corinth - was formed.  In the context of Paul’s time, church membership was as much about looking out for one another as it was about sharing the Gospel and making disciples.  Times were dangerous for disciples of Christ, and those times would only get worse as history reveals.  Having a “sanctuary”, then, in which to find comfort and support and encouragement for spiritual growth was – and is – as much a part of being in the Body of Christ as is making disciples; for it must never be overlooked that only disciples [not a mere ‘believer’] can make disciples.

I am not aware of any preserved writings of Apollos (1 Cor 1:12), but we are aware of the Gospel accounts, Paul’s many letters, and Peter’s letters in addition to the others who make up the whole of the New Testament.  Some of us have a preference for one over another.  It is also not hard to find what may initially seem to be inconsistencies in what we are to believe – especially when we lose sight of our Ultimate Charge to “make disciples”.  Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is proof positive, at least to some of us, that what Paul has written does not always seem to align well with other biblical writings.  Often Paul even seems to contradict himself!

The strangest inconsistency perceived by the reformer Martin Luther was the spiritual comfort and justification he found in Romans while he dismissed the Epistle of James as “an epistle of straw”.  He felt James was too heavy on “works” - never seeming to have understood “faith” and “works” to be two sides of the same coin, both directed to making disciples  – even though James and Paul both wrote essentially the same thing: “Be doers of the Law and not hearers only” (Romans 2:13; James 1:22).  Both upheld the Law (Torah) as the standard of all The Lord’s people, and both taught the need of the Church to continue to “make disciples”.

Each epistle addressed different audiences under different circumstances, and each epistle sought to convey the Message of Christ in a particular way.  Paul seemed to be trying to heal a rift between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome while James’ work seemed directed at a particular audience (perhaps Jewish Christians in Jerusalem) that should have known better than how they were conducting themselves – these in Jerusalem having become much more aligned with social status and personal preference – both of which inevitably lead to conflicts and divisions. 

In Rome and in Jerusalem, it may be said the apostles were trying to coordinate a deliberate effort to remind those Christians that no one has a claim of exclusion or spiritual superiority; in James’ case, certainly no cultural or social superiority.  To both it was still maintained that they had One Thing to do, and they would be unable to do that One Thing if they are constantly fighting among themselves or keeping others out and marginalized by the way they conduct themselves.

So what happens when the Church loses its focus on the One Thing for which it is called and equipped?  We forget altogether.  We are too easily distracted, soon becoming so focused on so many minor things that we overlook or forget altogether the Major Thing.  Once this degradation begins, it is very difficult to slow, nearly impossible to stop. 

Any effort to that end will be met with great resistance by at least a few who have “always done it this way” and will allow a church to burn to the ground rather than to give up an ounce of personal preference.  Then it becomes a matter of who yells the loudest or who gets the most folks on their “side” or who gives the most money.  Then the entire life of the Church becomes about “them”, not The Lord.  And certainly not about the Great Commission.  It becomes entirely about personal preference and “club house” rules neither of which can be maintained with any real biblical integrity.

Yet we must always acknowledge that the essential mission of the Church remains unchanged from even the early period of Jesus’ ministry.  Upon the arrest of the Baptizer, Jesus continued that mission to which St. John had devoted himself, calling upon the all the people – Jews and Gentiles alike – to “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  Never a threat, always an invitation.

From this message of repentance came the call to Peter and his brother Andrew, and then to James and John.  Jesus called out to these fishermen and challenged them to become “fishers of people”.  They “left their nets”, “left their boats”, and even James and John “left their father” to follow Jesus AND to become “fishers of people”.  Both/and … not either/or.  What does this tell us? 

These men, these brothers repented!  That’s what repentance looks like.  They turned from their old lives, from their very livelihoods, from even their families to follow Jesus and commit themselves to His work.  They were not so much “saved” as they were “called” – as we all are!  We commonly associate repentance only with a turning from a life filled with sin and wrong beliefs – and this is certainly part of it – but repentance is so much more.  It is not just what we believe to be the worst among us who are called to repentance!

Repentance does not merely stop doing what is personally and socially destructive nor is repentance only about baptism, a profession of faith, and then going back to the old life.  Repentance is a whole new direction with a strong sense of purpose – a purpose to be fulfilled in this life!  And even if some are a part of a tradition that emphasizes “personal salvation”, we cannot play down Jesus’ direct commandment to the “church” which stood before Him then - and the Church which stands for Him now: “Go and make disciples”, “teach them”, “baptize them” into the New Covenant and the fullness of the Father.  It was never so much about going to church as it has always been about becoming the Church, the very Presence of Christ on earth.

Because “The Lord is our God, The Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4), we have but One Life to live.  We do not “finish” the life we’ve chosen for ourselves, and then move to another once we are dead.  Because The Lord is our only God – and He alone the Author of Life itself! – we have but one Life to live in Him … with one another … for One Purpose.  It is the Life into which we are called by and for the One God who calls us.  This is our God and Father “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

This is the Life – the Only Life - entrusted to the Holy Church, united in purpose and equipped for cause.  It is the One Life into which we are all invited, the One Life we are called to live fully – and forever.  For it is the Life of Christ Jesus Himself.  Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Message of the Cross

“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  1 Corinthians 1:18 NRSV

What exactly is the “message of the cross” that would be foolishness to some but Divine Power to others?  That Jesus died on the cross is not much of a stretch since this was a favored form of execution.  That Jesus was falsely accused by the religious authorities of His day is also not so hard to grasp since many of us have fallen victim to accusations and innuendo not quite true or outright false because someone sought to deliberately do us harm.  No, the execution of a Man wrought by a stirred up crowd and a power-hungry elite is not hard to imagine.

Yet this particularly gruesome and cruel method of execution had its purposes, not least of which was to put on public display those who ran afoul of the Empire’s authority.  Surely it was intended as much a warning to others as a method of execution.  Crucifixion was a means of extolling the power of humans.

The “power of God”, then, is not so much on display in the moment of torture and death; for Jesus Himself taught we must not “fear those who can kill the body and after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4).  For even though they may kill the body, there is no real power in that.  Sadly, we live in a society now in which persons are killed almost daily.  We cannot – must not! – give any measure of “power” to thugs who have no respect for life and living, let alone themselves.  They are indeed “perishing”; but they are so drunk with their own concept of power, they hardly notice their slow demise.

No, the “message of the cross” is not limited to that moment in which Jesus slowly and painfully died.  The “message of the cross” is that there is no power in the hands of mortal men and women over life.  Yes, they can “kill the body”, but their “foolishness” is in their false belief that this is where power truly resides. 

The “message of the cross” is not solely at Calvary, for this is where the mortal body of Jesus died.  The “message of the cross” is this: the Word of God will endure despite our efforts to put it away when that Word interferes with our own plans.  The Word of God cannot be diminished nor robbed of its ultimate Power by any act of mortals.  We can water it down and we can even modify what is written to suit our own purposes (like taking a passage out of context, or trying to convince ourselves “that’s not what it really means”), but we accomplish nothing of lasting value because it is not the Pure Word.

The “message of the cross” is this: humanity’s foolishness and pride.  We may think we own any given moment, but that moment will surely pass.  Indeed “heaven and earth will pass away, but My Word will not pass away” (Mark 13:31).  That’s real Power, and it is that Power which saves.

The Lord is great, is He not?


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Divine Reconciliation of what is Humanly Irreconcilable

Reading the latest tract from The Confessing Movement (of the United Methodist Church), I was struck with a thought I suppose has been in the back of my mind (and heart) for a very long time. 

I am in agreement with the Confessing Movement which upholds orthodox, traditional Christianity in the Wesleyan tradition and defends the Covenant of the United Methodist Church, that Covenant defined in our Book of Discipline.  I am a traditionalist at heart because there is “root” in tradition – certainly root in the “Vine from which the branches grow” (John 15:1-8) and mutual accountability.    

Yet there is a component of the Reconciling Ministries (of the United Methodist Church) which also speaks a fundamental truth.  Our Story is entirely about reconciliation.  In fact, our Catholic brethren have modified the name (and the spirit!) of the Holy Sacrament of what was once called the Sacrament of Penance but is now more appropriately referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation

In this sacred moment of honest introspection of our lives measured against Divine Law and our plea for mercy, the confessing soul is fully reconciled to The Lord in His mercy because The Lord assures forgiveness of the truly – and fully - penitent heart.  The Sacrament is not about taking our licks, although that comes with our complete honesty, for “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31).  Rather, the Sacrament is entirely about our having been reconciled to The Lord by our prayers, our earnest confession, and our resolve to repent completely from our old life and choose instead His Path and the Life we are called into.

This is entirely the business, ministry, and vocation of the Holy Church; not only making disciples of Christ (Matthew 28:19) but reaching out to those who have fallen away from the Church and restoring them to full relationship with Christ.  We are – or should be – a people of reconciliation, having once been reconciled to Him ourselves.

Something got missed over time.  We seem to have become more concerned with reconciling (or resigning) ourselves to a New Age god or gods molded entirely in our own image or in the image of our most base desires.  We have stopped talking about and calling others to the hard work of discipleship which involves self-sacrifice, choosing instead the much easier path to “personal salvation” that gives much but asks little.  Discipleship, on the other hand, is purpose-filled, deliberate, and not without personal effort, community support, and accountability, all with the desire and intention of becoming more and more like Christ Himself.  Discipline is that order through the means of grace (Bible study, prayer, fasting, worship, accountability in fellowship, etc.) in “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1-3).

It is unfortunate that there seem to be only two real issues that divide the Confessing Movement and the Reconciling Ministries (and, ultimately, the whole Church): abortion and human sexuality.  Ultimately these two issues are inextricably linked, but the Protestant Church (in the most general sense) has, over time, created a very fragmented and confusing narrative.  It is little wonder many feel the Church has nothing of substance to offer.

On a fundamental level, one cannot advocate for artificial birth control as a social responsibility and condemn abortion or even inappropriate human sexual expression - be it fornication, adultery, or homosexuality – and for this reason: birth control, especially when advocated by the Church, gives the false impression that sex is only for its own sake and for the pleasure of its participants.  Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae”, which addressed artificial birth control, prophesied that such would be the fate of our society if we were to lose reverent respect for the very act which is capable of and designed for regenerating life – that is, procreation rather than recreation.  If we lose respect for the act, the Pope said, we will ultimately lose respect for the actors.  It would seem we are there.

We cannot deny the objectification and exploitation of the human body.  In this age of open sexuality, the objectification seems even more pronounced.  Young girls have been given over to the notion of “sex appeal” (think “Toddlers and Tiaras”) with not only their parents’ permission but often with our culture’s blessing.  When it comes to pass that a “right” to sexual expression which demands personal pleasure but rejects personal responsibility, we are forced to deal with serious emotional issues young people are not equipped to deal with, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies, and sex for the sheer lust of it – all at great and immeasurable personal, social, and spiritual cost. 

That is our mindset as a people, as a nation, even as a Church.  What else is there?  There is no real sense of community, no concept that we as a whole can be no higher than the lowest and no stronger than the most vulnerable among us.  We demand individual rights, but we deny (or decline) personal or communal responsibility.  And because sex only for its own sake seems to have become our focal point, sex as dating, sex as strictly fun and only for pleasure, sex as the very measure of the value of human relationships, sex as “making love”, what barriers are even possible?  Do we not know it is possible to “make love” fully clothed?

The reconciliation component of the Christian message is that our lives must not be defined by our “reed blowing in the wind” culture which shifts with each passing fad, yet we must also not water down or eliminate altogether the reality of our need to guard ourselves from “casting our pearls before swine” in thinking we are doing good when in reality we are advocating a very slow and painful death.  As it is written, “Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way of death” (Proverbs 16:25).  Our God actually insists His people not be like everyone else – not so we can boast of our awesomeness or decide for ourselves who is in or out, but so we may serve as living witnesses to something better.

The confessing component of the Christian message is that of first proclaiming The Lord as Head of the Church, the Only One who has made the Rules and “does not change” (Malachi 3:6); this same God and Lord who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).  It is this confession by which we give ourselves over entirely to The Lord and His Church for the purpose of building up the faith community.  It begins with that earnest confession lifted up by Moses and affirmed by Jesus: “You shall love The Lord your God with all you have and with all you are”.  It is that confession by which we are reconciled to our God and to His Covenant of Life through the Church.

The Church, by its very nature, simply cannot be relevant to the dominant human culture - at least, not on the culture’s terms – for “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4).  The Church must first find its way back to faithfulness to The Lord.  Then the Church must learn – or relearn – what “love” really means.  We share the quips and quotes (but seem to lack the resolve) that love has nothing to do with how we subjectively feel in any given moment but is more appropriately and adequately expressed in what we are willing to do for others or refrain from doing to others for a much higher goal to attain apart from temporal, personal satisfaction. 

I sincerely hope the United Methodist Church and the Church universal can find a way forward; but if we compromise the essential elements of faithfulness and subjectively redefine sin and community life to accommodate the modern culture and its fickle, ever-shifting demands and passing fads, our way forward may be “the way that leads to death”.  There are no “good ol’ days” in the glory of the Church’s past, for I believe the carelessness of our feeble and incremental cultural accommodations have led us to this crossroads.  From here, we have a choice to make.  I pray we are granted the wisdom to choose well and faithfully – as confessors and as reconcilers to the Word of The Lord.  It is there where we will find the mercy we all seek.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Priceless - 2nd Sunday of Epiphany


Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it.”  Matthew 13:45-46

In the telling of this parable, I dare say that if the merchant really understood the value of what is priceless, he would have also given the shirt off his back – for “all he had” would not have been nearly enough! 

That’s the rub for us, isn’t it?  That while we may find it within ourselves to express gratitude for salvation in Christ in certain moments, as when things are going our way, we do not fully appreciate its true value when things are not going our way.  Another preacher has said, For the ‘believer’ who has not comprehended the gift of God, he or she is living in bondage from a self-imposed form of reproach” (Damian Phillips, 2012, “The Free Gift of Grace”).  If we are still being ugly to each other and are willing to harm those we don’t happen to like, what can we possibly think we understand about “grace” that we would claim it for ourselves but deny it to others?  Gratitude is not expressed by what we have but in what we give – what we do with what we have.

How can we measure that which is priceless (that is, no human value can be assigned) and yet comes at such great cost?  This, I think is an important element in understanding a Priceless Treasure.  There are many references to Divine Grace as being a “free gift”, and there are some Bible translations that use the word “free”.  But what is a “gift” if it is not free?  What is a gift if there is a cost attached to that gift?  In other words, if someone gives us a gift but actually expects something in return, then it is not a gift – not if there are strings attached. 

But what is more perplexing is how eagerly we will rush out to buy a gift we had not intended to give only when we are given a gift, yet knowing what we have been given from our God through Christ does not produce that same enthusiastic, truly transformational response.  And the question is why? 

Why are there good Christians who would literally give the shirt off their backs to someone in distress, but there are other professed Christians who would politicize the distressed person and ultimately turn away, “judging” the neighbor rather than blessing them?  Why do some Christians tithe faithfully as a matter of gratitude while other Christians see tithing as “old law” – or at least use that excuse to keep their money for themselves?  After all, worship should not cost us … right?

St. Paul expresses “free” in this way: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  That is, while humanity was in active rebellion and least deserving of anything, The Lord still did this thing.  Even as we were showing Him we are not interested in being children of God, He still made reconciliation with Him possible.  Possible … but not necessarily probable.  Still, calling it “free” or “without cost” (depending on the Bible translation you use) is being dishonest not only with the text but with the principle.

St. Paul also wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, it seems The Lord did not do this thing just because.  Even He had a purpose, an ulterior motive, perhaps?  “We are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). 

“Good works” as our “way of life”.  But is this the “catch” as if The Lord wanted something out of it?  Or is it restoration and fulfillment of the created Divine Order established “beforehand”?  Before sin entered into the world? 

Could this Divine Order actually be why The Lord created the heavens, the earth, and humanity?  What must it be for our understanding so that it may become so “priceless” for us that we would willingly and literally give up all we have – our homes, our cars, our pensions, our savings - to obtain it?  What must it become for us that it is not already?

20th century pastor and author A.W. Tozer once said, “The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress [in going “on to perfection”, Hebrews 6:1] is because they haven't yet come to the end of themselves.  We're still trying to give orders, and interfering with God's work within us.”

And if we find ourselves in such a state of being in which we have not – and will not, reasoning we “don’t have to” in order to be saved – we do not see nor do we acknowledge or even comprehend “the Lamb of God” as St. John the Baptizer did.  And more’s the pity … because we are cheating ourselves – and one another – out of not only a genuinely Priceless Treasure but the fullness of life which comes with that Treasure and cannot be measured in human terms.

As if Mr. Tozer were actually speaking directly to me this past week, he also challenged me as I now challenge you.  He wrote: “By the authority of all that is revealed in the Word of God, I say any man or woman on this earth who is bored and turned off by worship is not ready for heaven.” 

By this he surely means mot only corporate worship when we gather on Sundays, but also the worship of participating in the means of grace meant to draw us closer to The Lord.  Fasting is worship.  Tithing is worship.  Scripture study alone and in small group is worship.  Prayer is worship – or should be.  So if we will not and cannot find any sense of fulfillment in these religious practices and disciplines designed to prepare us for something greater, how can we say we are ready for something greater?

We cannot say we are not still looking for something, though.  Can we?  When the Baptizer was standing with two of his own disciples, he exclaimed, “Look, there is the Lamb of God” (John 1:35-36)!  Once these disciples heard this, they began following Jesus.  When Jesus noticed them following Him, He asked what they were looking for.  And the best answer they could come up with was, “Where are You staying?” 

I would like to think if Jesus were to turn to me and ask me what I’m looking for, what I’ve been seeking for a very long time, I would like to think I could come up with something a little more profound than, “What’s up?”  Now we may think they wanted to know where He was staying so they could stay with Him just as they did.  But if following Him and staying with Him in order to learn more about Him were the point in the first place, why didn’t they just say so?

Though the Baptizer was continuing to fulfill his mission by “making straight the way of The Lord” and leading his own disciples to the Messiah, it may be said these disciples still had no real idea about Jesus, the Promised One, the Coming Messiah, the Lamb of God, and what He meant to them then … and what He means to us now.

For us, up to this point, it may be as the prophet wrote; “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with The Lord, and my reward is with my God … my God who has become my strength” (Isaiah 49:4, 5c)

So it may be said that while we may conceptually know of our God as the very “strength” of our being, it may also be said that much of our lives has been spent “for nothing and vanity”.  That is, we do not appreciate what is priceless more than we value what is most important to us.  C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get comfort or truth - only soft soap or wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

So when the Lamb of God teaches us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), He is telling us what sort of answer He will expect when He turns to us and says, “What are you looking for?”  More than even this, however, He is teaching us what must be our focus from the time we awake to the time we lie down again.  Everything we do and everything we are must be devoted to the Kingdom of Heaven and for the sake of His righteousness; i.e., mercy and justice.  Everything. 

Our God, our Holy Father “whose Name is Jealous” (Exodus 34:14), will never play second fiddle to the world we have created for ourselves because only He knows what it is we truly need.  There is, however, a catch to even this.  In order for us to get what it is we truly need, even if it is adversity to strengthen us, we must first give ourselves completely to Him.  That is the “catch”.  That is the “cost”.

Only then will we come to know of what is truly Priceless, and only then will we come to comprehend its value.  For ourselves, for our “neighbor”, and for the sake of the mission of the Church.  Amen.

Monday, January 09, 2017

What was said; what was heard

What does “diversity” really mean?  That we do not all look alike?  That we do not all think alike? That some of us appreciate the arts while others appreciate sports – and some appreciate both?  From where I sit, the battle cry for “diversity” seems to mean, “Shut up and agree with me”. 

Meryl Streep stirred a hornet’s nest in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, ostensibly cracking wise about Donald Trump and his public positions on immigration but ultimately offending yet another crowd that is not typically known to be so easily offended.  Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promoters, supporters, fans, and athletes as well as National Football League (NFL) fans and athletes took exception to her using them as examples of all we will be left with if Hollywood somehow shriveled up and blew away … or were deported.

I cannot say I am surprised or disappointed at Streep taking that particular forum to promote her own political agenda, but I can say her example (as well as what the “Hamilton” cast thrust upon Mike Pence and what Madonna has done so often) is the reason I will not pay good money to see a live show.  Whenever I pay to see a movie, I do not generally care about the actors or their personal beliefs about … well, anything.  I go to be entertained.  When I wish to be informed about any particular subject, I read a book, a magazine, or a website.

I don’t think Streep was deliberately taking a dig at athletes or sports fans more than she was simply saying, well, exactly what she said: do away with the arts, and all that is left is sports.  Understand I am not at all connected to or interested in the MMA or the NFL, so I suppose it is easy for me to have not been offended by what she said.  Frankly, I don’t care what she said.  What I do care about is how easily now even “Middle America” is so offended

Other entertainers have made derogatory comments about religion in general and Christianity in particular (subjects I am very interested in), but I attributed their very shallow observations to the equally shallow part of their being, as worldly and as tolerant as they believe themselves to be.  Jennifer Lawrence once made a comment about scratching her behind on a religious symbol in Hawaii for which she quickly apologized, saying she had no intentions of offending anyone.  Yet before even that incident, she made a comment about the Crucifix being somehow synonymous with destructive weapons in the hands of believers, but I am aware of no apology following that statement. 

As a Christian, I could not find it within myself to be offended because I think I know where she was coming from because, as a Christian, I am probably the chief among hypocrites.  I am not the best example of discipleship and Christian service.  I strive for better, but I fail more often than I can claim any measure of righteousness.  I still thought the comment was inappropriate.  More inappropriate still, however, is that this incident was reported on a national news site – one of those places I go to for, well, news.  Otherwise I would never have been the wiser.  I think maybe someone was just trying to stir something up.

There is a reason why I do not remember the date, the site, the time, or any other memorable mark … because Jennifer Lawrence and what she thinks is just not important to me.  It concerned me, of course, that this is her view of Christians in general but it did not offend me.  At least she didn’t say somethin’ ‘bout my mama …

Tolerance and diversity are both subjective terms to be defined only by the context of those who attempt to use them, and that is unfortunate.  The truth is we do not all look alike, we do not think alike, and we do not all share common beliefs about anything.  Common sense is itself a myth because what may be common for me is not common to all, but this is okay because what was once uncommon to me I learned through the words and examples of someone else.  Once I embraced what I learned, then it became common.  And if I rejected what was said or read, it remained and will remain uncommon.

I hope we can get past the ugliness of the past year and a very nasty election campaign.  I hope we can all heed Vice President Joe Biden’s declaration that “It is over” once the Congress certified the election results, and move on.  I will say this, however; if we are easily offended by anything at all, it may have more to do with the fact that we carry a perpetual chip on our shoulders and are actively seeking out fault more than that someone actually said something offensive.  Meryl Streep is an actor, not a philosopher.  The measure of her entire success is her ability to pretend.  Yet she has opinions not commonly held throughout the country; so does Jennifer Lawrence.  So does Donald Trump.  That they simply say something does not make it so.  Can we just let it go at that?  

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Same ol' (Auld) Lang Syne

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

“[My servant] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  Isaiah 42:4

Peter’s vision (told in Acts 10:9-16 & retold by Peter himself in Acts 11:4-12) was as perplexing to him at first as it still seems to be to us today.  He did not understand what was being revealed to him until he arrived at the home of Cornelius. 

We are told Peter was getting hungry and that food was being prepared for him as he prayed on the roof, but we are also told that what The Lord revealed to Peter seemed to be an invitation to eat what was spread out before him in his hunger.  Let’s face it; this is where we stop reading, is it not?    

Reading it in its appropriate context, which involves all of chapter 10 as well as extending into chapter 11, we find that the vision had nothing to do with Peter’s hunger or what is fit to eat.  In fact we discover that the vision had nothing at all to do with food, Peter’s appetite, or even his faithfulness to Torah which prohibits the consumption of certain animals.

It may be an assumption many of us make whenever we pray; that the first thing that occurs to us in the midst of our prayers may be The Lord’s answer – when, in fact, it may be only an invitation to draw closer and listen more carefully.  Yet it may be more likely that in our devotions and prayers, we have a defined “start” and “stop” time – and when the time is up, we “stop”.

As Peter retells of his vision to the apostles and the “circumcised believers” (i.e., “Jewish Christians”), he affirmed in the face of their criticism of his having taken the Word of God to the Gentiles (11:1) that The Lord had revealed to him the vision was entirely about people rather than the “things” on the sheet; that those whom the Jews had once considered unclean and unfit for the Covenant had been deemed worthy of the Word by The Lord Himself. 

The vision occurred three times, and the first two times Peter refused to partake of what Torah deemed “unclean” – still missing what was being revealed to him, still answering according to his own cultural instincts.  When the visitors from Caesarea had arrived to call on Peter to come with them, it was the Spirit who told him not only to go with them but also to “not to make a distinction between them and us(11:12).  He then concluded to those gathered (apostles and circumcised believers) that “If God gave them the same gift that He gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  Their response?  “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

This is – or should be – the narrative of the Church.  It certainly is the mission as defined by Jesus in Mark 1:15 (“Repent, and believe in the Good News!”), and many ministries have been borne of this mission to lead persons to repentance and the Gift of Life.  It is unfortunate, however, that this narrative has been modified and muddled over time to the point that repentance is no longer an acceptable word (coming closer to fitting the culture’s definition of “hate speech” rather than of the hope of New Life) because it insinuates what most of us – maybe all of us – do not wish to hear; that we are called and required to change the course and direction of our lives; that “Just as I am” is nothing more than the title to a hymn.  It seems to have become, however, the entire narrative of the individualist, consumerist-minded Church.

But what happens to society when the narrative of the Church which leads to Eternal Life is so modified as to lose entirely its meaning AND its power?  What happens when repentance becomes little more than a prayer of apology and a plea for mercy but lacks any resolve to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8), to fully turn away from destructive behavior and toward building a life and a community of support and accountability more reflective of the original Narrative?  We have lost (assuming we ever had) a passion for leading souls to The Lord.

What has happened over time is the distinction between “us and them” has become even more pronounced and distinct.  We end up – as we have - with a host of persons or groups of persons whom we deliberately exclude from the Narrative, having judged them unworthy of our mercy, unworthy of our prayers. 

Rather than to “fix the problem” which we know clearly exists, we are more attuned to “fixing the blame”.  Consequently we end up with an entirely different narrative from the one Narrative handed down to us.  We have learned to live within a narrative strangely similar to the culture’s narrative of “Just as I am” – BUT – “them” must repent … not “us”.

Such social distinctions have split the Church throughout history more times than I care to count.  I have no idea how many different Christian denominations and non-denominations there are, but each one stands as a testimony to a narrative each chose to create for itself for the sole purpose of “exclusion”.  The United Methodist Church is no exception, and we should be especially concerned that the “Commission on A Way Forward” borne of the 2016 General Conference may try yet again to create a whole new – and alien – narrative from the One Narrative which gives Life but not necessarily comfort – especially if we have found comfort in the wrong things.

Peter was among those who was not okay with including Gentiles in this Narrative, the very inclusion expressed by the prophet Isaiah; i.e., “justice to the nations”, “light to the nations” – not “the” nation or “a” nation.  Peter revealed in his own vision a man who was unwilling to compromise what he believed to be good and right as it pertains to “things” (“Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth”, Acts 11:8).  At first, and on his own, he missed the point entirely just as we still often do.

Make no mistake, however.  There is still what is good and right, and there is still what is evil and wrong.  Peter’s vision changed nothing of what has long been written in the Eternal Narrative.  What Peter initially failed to comprehend was that the vision was not at all about him; not about what is fit to eat, not about satisfying his own cravings, and not even about his own sense of righteousness. 

That very narrative we have created and embraced for ourselves must change.  If “Auld Lang Syne” can really be translated “for the sake of old times”, I submit that as conservative and as traditional as we may believe ourselves to be, it may be time for us to consider the theological and social value of whatever traditions we may embrace and whatever it is we hope to conserve – and whether what we hope to gain from our conservative, traditional values is not more about what we are already comfortable with and what pleases us but is, instead, entirely about reconnecting with the Eternal Narrative which invites everyone rather than deliberately excluding anyone.    

This mindset is, I think, a significant factor in the large number of persons walking away from the Church, a profound reason why there is seen of “church” little more than a burden of subjective traditions but lacking entirely the JOY in the “hope that is ours” (1 Peter 3:15); the JOY of serving The Lord and one another – even “them”. 

Can this be true?  That this HOPE is somehow missing and that the corresponding JOY is nowhere to be found within us or within the Body as a whole?  Can it be true that we’re just … here in the moment?  That we brought nothing to this moment and that we will also leave with nothing from this moment unless it fits our already-established personal narrative?

The vision revealed to Peter ran counter to the culture Peter had become familiar and comfortable with.  This was surely the reason why Peter was so uncomfortable with the vision.  Yet when Peter came to realize that the only narrative which had changed was his own, he was joyful and glad to know of the magnitude, the reach, the desire of His God … of our God.  That The Lord truly does love “all” and that Jesus died on the Cross for “all” … even those who put Him there.

Our challenge for 2017?  We must heed the call of the Spirit and be willing to get off the roof!  The “auld lang syne” we have become comfortable with is a false narrative assuring us we are safe as long as we stay on the roof, safe as long as we continue to exclude certain others, safe in our meaningless prayers that fulfill a religious obligation but do not call us from the roof and into mission to a dark world which, like Cornelius, is eager to hear the Word of God, the Narrative of Eternal Life!  It is only the Church capable of delivering such a Narrative; whether we are willing, however, remains to be seen.

We must stop telling the same stories and draw closer and learn to listen more carefully; for it is written for us to know that “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare”, says The Lord.  Show us the Way, O Lord!  Amen.