Sunday, June 25, 2017

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Numbers 27:15-23                                                                                                                   Philippians 4:6-9                                                                                                                                       John 3:25-30

“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning …” Ecclesiastes 7:8a

I’ve tried to take stock of the last four / nine years to hopefully share some brilliant insight or profound perspective.  I remember thinking when I got here that I should probably begin keeping a daily journal.  Now I wish I had!  Through it all, however, one thing has kept coming to mind: even on some of my very worst days, I could only think, “I got exactly what I asked for.  I just never knew what it looked like or felt like”.

To share only a glimpse of what I have observed, I offer the following:

First - Church Ministry is Full Time.  For the pastor and for the congregation.  There are few moments completely free from thoughts of the church and what the church could or should be doing.  Even while doing something as mundane as mowing the parsonage lawn, raking pine straw, or washing dishes, there are always thoughts and prayers and hopes and laughs and even some tears for the church as well as thoughts and ideas for sermons and Bible lessons – always trying to figure out how it all connects to “real life”.

Though being the pastor is the job for one person, the burdens must be shared as willfully as the joys.  Do you really pay a pastor to do for you what you would rather not be bothered with?  If so, can it biblically justified?  OR – as covenant people who are The Church – can we not rather appreciate our true strength when we share the burden of duty and responsibility as well as the joys?

Secondly - Church Ministry Never Was About Me.  At one time I was on the elder track pursuing full ordination, but I finally came to realize this may not be the track The Lord has set for me.  This decision to stop the pursuit struck at the heart and soul of who I once was – or thought I was.  And I was compelled to ask such questions as, Could I more faithfully serve the church as an elder as opposed to being a local pastor?  Would it make me more effective?  Would it make you more devoted to the missional life of the church if I were?  Would it make me, in the eyes of some, a “real” pastor?

To be sure, elders are more educated and education is always a good thing, something I will always pursue, but are elders more diligent only by virtue of their education and ordination?  Does the laying on of hands by the bishop make anyone more dutiful and mindful of the Great Commission?  Or are they only aware of their ordination?  Not to impugn the Order of the Elders, but I finally had to be serious about what The Lord would ask of me.  I also had to decide how elders’ orders would better equip me to do as I am called to do, or if those orders would change anything at all.

Over time it became less about “me” and my personal ambition – and more about the vocation which can in no way be confused with a job.  I discovered it never was about “me” nor is it about “you”.  No one of us should ever expect or demand to get “my way”.  We have no “rights”, no “personal privilege” to claim as members or as Christians. 

As the Body of Christ, we have only responsibilities which will always bring opportunities if we would just be willing to take a chance and drop “I / me” from the equation (“I” don’t feel like it; “I” don’t have time; it ain’t “my” thing”, etc).  It is always about The Lord and our place in Him which is the Church, the Body of Christ, the congregation, the community of saints and what we are all called to be in Christ.  It isn’t what we do or choose to do – it is (or should be) who we are.  And we can never stop being who we are.

Third - Church Ministry Is Covenant.  Among the many unique attributes of Wesleyan Methodism, we are a covenant people accountable to and for one another.  We do embrace a personal component of our spiritual journey such as in prayer and fasting, but on the whole and in the common Covenant by virtue of our baptism, we are a people – not persons.  We are never so strong as when we stand together in common purpose and help one another rather than try to hurt or keep out a few.

A covenant is more than a promise or a contract.  Covenants cannot be revoked any more than our being who we are can be revoked.  Covenants can be violated (and often are).  They can be ignored or denied, even defied – but never can a covenant be revoked.  It is why Jesus demands we “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:28) before we enter into covenant with Him and with one another.  Going back to doing only what we feel like doing as opposed to being true to who we really are”, and a personal desire to be ‘saved’ only for one’s own sake as opposed to a collective desire to live ‘justified’ in covenant accountability for the sake of spiritual perfection, this means someone should always be in your business!  No one should ever fall through the cracks and be lost or forgotten.  Our fellow disciples should be diligent not to “meddle” but to support and encourage.   

This means, of course, that one cannot simply join the church on the spur of an emotional moment.  A covenant relationship must be established, developed, and nurtured.  Covenant standards of doctrine and community expectations of behavior must be faithfully conveyed.  After “counting the cost” of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian, the covenant is to be embraced with the vows of membership.  Respect and honor and integrity within the one single mission of the Church: to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves.  It is never about burdens of “membership”; it is always about the sacred privilege of “discipleship” – loving and serving The Lord by loving and serving one another … even our enemies.

Finally - The Itinerant System of Pastoral Ministry is a lot like the old joke about Arkansas weather; if you don’t like the weather (or the pastor), just give it a minute and it will change.  For better or worse, it is always for the appointed season and the purpose for which the seasons or circumstances dictate.  Like the weather, however, we cannot wish it would change and stop being who we are and what we are called to do until it does change to suit us. 

The bishop and the appointive Cabinet work and pray diligently to ascertain the needs of every local church, and they do their best to match pastors equipped to meet those needs.  They may not always get it right (according to any church or individual), but they always do it faithfully and with the best of intentions for the sole purpose of “making disciples”.  Always.

Never is a pastor appointed to a church to do alone what the church must determine to do for itself and for the community it serves as a matter of principle, as a matter of calling, and as a matter of mission.  The role of the pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) … not to do the ministry for them, but with them.

This Body of Christ is the living, breathing, loving Presence of Christ The Word Himself in the community, but it can be no stronger than its weakest member and no more loving than its most hate-filled member.  It is not only about how much you care for, like, and look after one another; it is entirely about how much you are willing to care for and look after the community.  YOU are the Presence of Christ in McNeil / Magnolia.  With the pastor, regardless of who that pastor is, YOU are always the Gospel of The Lord. 

The Lord knows I’ve made my share of mistakes, and I know there are some who will not let those mistakes and misjudgments go.  It grieves me deeply that these will not let them go.  Like you and them, I will continue making mistakes and, hopefully, learning from them.  I pray, however, that you will not hold my mistakes against my successor or the DS or the Conference.  I also pray you will one day find it in your heart to forgive me as I have forgiven you and as The Lord offers forgiveness to us all.  For just as Jesus taught us, only when we forgive will we ever find forgiveness and peace of mind, heart, and soul.  Only then can we live fully as the Redeemed of The Lord set free from bondage to hate, spitefulness, vindictiveness, sin, and death.  Only then can we finally become who we are created to be. 

We are the Body of Christ in the world today.  Apart from who we are and what we are called to faithfully do, there is no hope for the community we are called to serve.  It's who we are.  It is who we must become.  To the Glory of the Almighty and Everlasting Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Trinity Sunday 2017: And so it goes

11 June 2017 

Isaiah 65:1-10
Romans 10:14-21
Matthew 28:16-20

“The devil himself desires nothing more than this, that the people of any place should be half-awakened and then left to themselves to fall asleep again.”  John Wesley

St. Augustine of Hippo once questioned the newness of Jesus’ “new commandment … to love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) in light of the ancient commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  He pointed out that even though Jesus referred to it as a “new command”, it may be more appropriate for us to think of a renewed spirit of love and hospitality in active discipleship rather than a brand-spanking-new commandment.

When Israel was called together as a nation, it was to be a divinely appointed “priestly nation” – not individual priests but the “chosen status” of a whole people who would testify to this amazing God not merely by their existence but, rather, by the purpose of their existence. 

This purpose would be expressed not only in the written Torah (“law”) but in the lives of those who understand what Torah means.  More than memorizing the words, The Word itself would become ingrained into their souls, into the fullness of their being – the Torah written on hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone.  Their collective life as The Nation of YHWH’s Chosen would be their very identity – not as a matter of individual privilege but as of collective duty and responsibility.

So given that Israel was intended as a “witness to the nations” (Isaiah 43:10) – yes, even to those nasty Gentiles – what is so new about the Great Commission?  Though we read it as a new charge to the soon-to-be-called ekklesia (church, congregation), the mission remains essentially the same.  It is, and has always been, our Father’s intent that all would turn from their wickedness and be saved (Ezekiel 18:23). 

After the Exile, however, when the people of YHWH were returned to their homeland to rebuild and reclaim their identity, it may be said they tended to turn a little too inwardly and had become a little too exclusive; they were not so much about “mission” as about “survival”.  When the people confessed their unfaithfulness after Ezra’s prayer and confession for the nation, it was determined that foreign-born wives and their children would be sent away as a means of atonement.  “Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said.  So they swore” (Ezra 10:5).

Harsh.  Cold.  Incomprehensible.  Yet it was a command of YHWH Ezra had recalled in his prayer: “We have forsaken Your commandments, which you commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands … therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, never seek their peace or prosperity (Dt 7:2,3) …” (Ezra 9:10-12).

Full repentance meant they would not only stop doing what they had done to break covenant with YHWH, they began to undo all that had been done.  They attempted to go back to square one.  Maybe for the sake of Israel’s purity, the pendulum swung too far. 

It must be said, however, that the essence of Israel’s very being never changed.  They were still to be “set apart” from the nations not to the point of exclusivity but for the purpose of calling the nations to a much better life; the worship of the One, True God that did not involve child sacrifice, temple prostitutes, or laws subject only to the whims of a culture.

So what was so revolutionary about the Great Commission?  And what is so radical about it now that it is only a passage in the Bible that has been robbed of much of its meaning in favor of individual salvation?  And how have we – as individuals who call ourselves “members” of the Body of Christ, the Church – somehow decided it doesn’t mean “me”?  Especially when we reason to ourselves and to others that we don’t know or keep company with any non-Christians, that “all my friends are Christians”?  Such statements do not speak of faithfulness; rather they affirm the failure of the Church to live into its purpose.

The Great Commission would have been revolutionary to a small band of Israelites who were about to be pushed way outside their homeland, from their friends and from their comfort zones.   It would also be radical to modern-day Christians who might reason that “all nations” have been made aware of Jesus but have rejected discipleship as a way of life and living.  In other words, the burden of the Commission has been met by the Church; it is “the nations” which have failed to respond adequately. 

Not quite.  There is some truth to that, but not quite.

Much like the radical, post-Exile days of the Ezra period in Israel, perhaps the Church has taken a similar approach in light of the constant challenges from the outside, some insidious challenges even from within.  Though we are not deliberately sending people away, maybe we have drawn a little into ourselves for some sense of protection from the outside, some measure of doctrinal security, or just keeping people we don’t “like” out. 

Maybe we have become so concerned with the wrong “yeast” permeating “our” church that we no longer have a sense of being the Body of Christ at all.  Just a meeting house filled with generic, cultural “Christians” with no real sense of direction, no real sense of purpose, and no real sense of identity as a community of disciples.

Yet when we get a little too full of a radical orthodoxy that demands rigid adherence to a certain creed or when we demand that admittance into a particular body requires the recitation of a certain prayer or baptism done only a certain way – and when we align our religious identity with national politics – we’ve gone too far inward and have lost any sort of momentum we may have once had.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not advocating that we disavow our orthodoxy (system of beliefs) since I am probably among the most rigid of orthodox Christians and preachers.  But when we “make disciples” as our Lord has commanded His Church, what is wrong with receiving – or at least inviting – persons who are not quite “all in” at first but are at least willing to hear, to listen? 

Jesus requires we first “make disciples” – notably, not converts.  How?  By first living in such a way – individually and collectively - that the Gospel and our Christian identity are unmistakable.  This goes far beyond simply being our culture’s – or our own - notion of a “good person”.  It means a radical giving of ourselves as Jesus gave so completely of Himself way beyond only those we happen to “like”.  It means being disciples ourselves (which can in no way be confused with “generic, cultural Christian”), faithfully following and constantly learning from the Word, sitting at Jesus’ feet with an open ear and a willing and eager heart.

The Great Commission is the very heartbeat of the Church, not the “programs” nor the facilities.  It is the only Vital Sign of a church alive in the Spirit.  It is the only evidence of Pentecost ever having taken place.  It is the only evidence that the Body of Christ is the Reality rather than only a theory or a mere choice.

But The Great Commission is not exclusively a thing the world must respond to.  Rather it is the thing the Church must first engage while trusting the Holy Spirit to evoke responses.  It is the way by which any program of any particular church must be measured as to effectiveness – “making disciples”.  There is no other reason for our existence, for it is the soul of the Church, its true – its only - identity.

The Great Commission is itself the “rivers of living water” and the “narrow gate” through which all must enter.  It is not a story to be modified to accommodate any culture for the sake of its sensibilities but is, rather, the “old, old story” that is good for the ages. 

First things first, however, “The Story” itself must be learned before it can be told.  Not “my” story or “your” story; THE Story.  The narrative into which we are all invited, the narrative which has been since the Beginning.  Then will we know we are truly alive and well.  Then will others believe us.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Spiritual Warfare

“We live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4 NRSV).

“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God so you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:12-13 NRSV).

“Do not fear [those who oppose you; forces of evil], for it is The Lord your God who fights for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22 NRSV).

Living in fear, constant fear, is not living – not really – because as much as we may believe we are taking responsible measures for the safety and security of our ourselves and our families, the hard truth is we are adjusting our lives according to our fears.  We are arming ourselves according to our fears.  We are choosing not to go to certain places or to certain events according to our fears.  We think we are exercising our freedom to do as we please, but in reality we are doing according to what frightens us most.

Many would claim to “believe” still, but faith – really, fully trusting The Lord – is not as easy as “believing” a concept, most especially something conceived of on our terms.  Yet living fully into The Word requires a certain measure of “fear” (call it “intense respect”) in being uncertain of how things will turn out even as we learn to trust fully in the Promises of The Word. 

This isn’t about choosing whether to carry weapons nor is it about taking foolish chances to “put The Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16; Luke 4:12).  It is entirely about whether we are prepared to live fully into The Word; The Word which became flesh, The Word which heals, The Word that saves, The Word that challenges us to exist beyond ourselves and any given moment.  It is the difference in “believing” and fully “trusting” that The Lord really is fighting for us. 

It is also about coming to realize the evil we face in this world is not about opposing “blood and flesh”, thugs and terrorists; it is about the “cosmic” battle between Good and evil which has been raging since Paradise was lost.  Adam surrendered to his own desires, to his own fears in trusting the word of another human only because that human told him what he wished to hear.  He was assured by this human (Eve) that it is possible to be in Paradise and in the world at the same time.  It was no less a “test” than what we face daily. 

We have not fully trusted The Lord to show us the way.  We have refused to allow The Word to guide us through the “narrow gate”, preferring the “wide path” and expecting Jesus to follow us.  We have reached up for the “fruit” that is causing the downfall of many whose intentions were good, even perhaps noble. 

If we are to understand, however, that what we face is not simply a world gone mad but only a new chapter in the same book of madness and that The Author of this book still intends a certain outcome, maybe we can find some peace in fearless evangelism.  Not merely existing, but really living the Life we are all called to live.  In the big, fat middle of this “Spiritual Warfare”, we can live the Life we’ve been called to live because the really hard stuff is Being Taken Care Of. 

Even Jesus “did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), but the sword is His to wield.  Trust in this, and then we can really live!


Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost 2017: Dust in the Wind

John 7:37-39
1 Corinthians 12:1-12
Acts 2:1-21

“We cannot give what we do not possess.  This means we cannot express the Holy Spirit in a meaningful way if we ourselves are not close to the Spirit.”  Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI

I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment's gone.  All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity … Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea.  All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see … Don't hang on.  Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy.  Dust in the wind …
“Dust in the Wind”, Kansas

Sometimes I wonder how much religion is intentionally infused into secular music.  John Denver was one who often expressed a profound sense of the spiritual in his music, but I cannot say it was intentional on his part or interpretation on my part. 

Yet when it comes to the movement of the Holy Spirit, though we still possess the free will to decide for ourselves how to discern what is being revealed, the freedom in choosing how to respond must be consistent with The Word, for it is the Spirit “whom the Father will send in My Name, [Who] will teach you everything AND remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Jesus is The Word which became Flesh, and The Word tells us there is more.  There is that which breathes Life into The Word – the Spirit.  So hymns that express such notions as “Just give me Jesus” or “Jesus is all the world to me” may require a closer look.  The Word is only a component of the Living God; His Spirit speaks The Word to the Church today.

Before this Blessed Day was upon the disciples, Jesus had already made them aware that “rivers of living water” will flow from them in accordance with how The Lord will so move (John 7:38).  In this will the attributes of discipleship serve us well and prepare us for what is to come and what will be asked of us; those attributes, as shared last week, being a willingness, an eagerness to constantly “seek”, to “ask”, and to “knock” – with the understanding it will be The Lord, and not our own interpretations, who will provide the “living water” to others through our faithfulness.

We must seriously consider that much more is to be discerned from what The Spirit is bringing to us.  It will be, I think, entirely about “rivers of living water” flowing from a transformed heart.  That is, what comes from us will encourage and build up others rather than try to tear them down because they don’t act like us or believe like us or do as we think they should.  In other words, the Spirit will bless, but the flesh will curse; The Spirit will love, but the flesh will judge; The Spirit will bring life, but the flesh is condemned to death.

This is part of the reason why the Kansas song, “Dust in the wind”, came to mind as I was reading and thinking about what to share on this Day.   “All we do [on our own] crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see”.  Thinking too highly of ourselves as if what we do by our own hands will have any sort of lasting impact … if it’s just us … we choosing to do a certain thing only because it seemed like a good idea at the time but does nothing for others – or is very selective in the ‘others’ we will allow - in The Lord’s Name.

Really paying attention to what actually happened to the disciples on that Day means much more than that men of free will were being “possessed” by the Spirit but, rather, were joyously “responding” to the Spirit by outward expression even to those who did not share a common language.  Not the gibberish of “tongue-speaking” as we’ve commonly come to understand it, but recognized languages spoken to foreigners, strangers.  Hearing The Word spoken directly to them by willing men overjoyed that yet another Promise had been fulfilled – proving to them all the more that all Jesus taught them was – is - True.

More than only what happened to the disciples, however, is what happened to others who were equally touched.  As a result of the works of the apostles being so moved by The Spirit, “awe came upon everyone” (Acts 2:43).  These many were so moved by that same Spirit that they sold all they had to ensure no one would do without.  They were filled with such joy that there was not much left for them to do but to live fully into the Gift.

Many have questioned whether this event really even happened.  At the very least, there are still questions about whether it happened just as it is written.  Where we become confused, however, is in questioning the reality of the Event rather than understanding the Event as a means rather than as The End.

It is the aftermath which is so compelling.  A great, rushing wind, tongues as of fire resting on shoulders, and relatively uneducated men suddenly speaking languages previously unknown to them – all very difficult for us to grasp.  These elements of the Event all have meaning unto themselves, but they are not worthy of such attention as to decide for ourselves whether this Event actually took place just as we read it. 

But when St. Paul described this very Day (even if he was not directly referring to this Day) in terms of the aftermath, we find a consistent pattern of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) – all described as “fruits of the Spirit”.  

So even St. Paul would not find himself so bogged down in the elements of the Event more than he would teach about the aftermath in giving his audience an understanding of what the Event was intended to bring forth to and for the Church.   “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).

Whether the band, Kansas, had it in mind or not, “Dust in the wind” is a theological expression of our cultural reality; we are “dust” to which we will return.  In the Spirit, however, the “Wind” blows where it will, but we cannot know where we will be taken.  We may only be sure that we will either be moved by the Wind – or blown completely away into nothingness.

Embrace the Spirit, dear friends, for the Spirit of the Living God knows the Way into the Truth which leads to Everlasting Life.  There is no other.  Amen.