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Friday, July 25, 2014

Clean Up!

I got a letter from a parishioner this week. I call him Barnabas because he is a great encourager. It is truly a Spirit endowed gift which flows out of him. He has had a long journey from low church Evangelical to St. Andrews and his presence is a rich blessing. Periodically he sends out letters and poems which are full of wisdom and the other day he sent one that got my head spinning. I want to use it for the reflection today.

In a nutshell, he was sharing that someone was simplifying their life by getting rid of 2,014 things this year. One of the banes of middle class, consumerist life styles is the waste of resources for the purpose of accumulation. I think many of us have clothes hanging in closets or in drawers which we have not worn in years (maybe never), not to mention other stuff and attics....

My friend had a different twist, he spoke of the ideas and thoughts populating his head which were useless 'garbage' (my word) cluttering up his spiritual life. I thought this was brilliant.

The Desert Fathers made it a continual practice to guard their hearts. It is a worthwhile practice, even if it seems we make little progress. Bad thoughts and bad beliefs create problems in our life. Stress is increased by the expectations which we place on ourselves or others. How many times do I damage my relationships, especially with my closest loved ones, because there is a thought in my head that is stupid? I get all worked up and when (if) I pause to investigate why it is often because I have embraced a wrong value.

Jesus needs to be Lord of my head, heart and belly (thoughts, will, desires). If I am in tune with Him then I will be more useful to Him, which means more exorcisms, more healings, more proclamation of the Kingdom (Good News) and more truth/knowledge/understanding (teaching) will flow through me... A cluttered mind and heart, cluttered with unhelpful, ungodly things really diminishes me as a person, which negatively impacts everyone I meet.

It is easy to be lazy and just go with the flow. The problem is our natural inclinations are not always healthy or holy. The problem is our environment is not always wholesome. The problem is the flow is not always in the right direction. The creators of our cultural values and ideas are not trustworthy. Song lyrics and movies are not always the work of people who are deeply prayerful, grounded and saintly. We are bombarded with values which, upon a closer look are often immoral, selfish and destructive.

So what to do? It is senseless to try to "not think about something"--you just end up thinking about it more. The practice of refocusing, however, leaves less room for bad thought and cluttered mind/heart/soul. We need help, in the end sanctification is a gift of the Spirit, but it is also the case that we are called to repentance and discipline. We have to swim against the stream (world, devil and flesh) and battle our temptations. The god news is habits do become second nature.

At home we sing a song with our little guy "clean up, clean up, everybody, every where, clean up, clean up, everybody do your share!" If it is important for your room to clean up how much more your mind and heart and desires?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Fifth Dimension

I know one of the great scholars in the math world, a man who has spent his lief studying multi-dimensionality. One of his passions is the work of an Anglican priest from the turn of the last century, Edwin Abott Abott who wrote a book called Flatlands. I have written about this little book before, it is a short and simple book that asks the question what would happen if a sphere visited a world inhabited by squares, triangles and circles? The reason the book works is because we live in a three dimensional world (we can see a ball is circular but it is more than a circle, it is a sphere). We also can understand a two dimensional world because we draw on paper circles and squares. We can also have some idea of how difficult it would be to understand "depth" in the context of only "length" and "width."

Depth is not limited to shapes.

Last night in the car we were discussing the lyrics of a song.
"What does that mean?"
Sometimes the meaning appears straightforward. The writer tells us what s/he meant to convey. Other times, they just write words which 'fit' into the music. What is true of music is true of other art forms including narratives. However, whatever the writer intends, there is more to the words than that. A song's lyrics are open to interpretation. The words have 'depth' and the listener makes connections. The author does not always know what unconscious factors influenced the word choice. There are larger "laws" and "principles" at work in interpretation.Most people who create describe it as something which "happens through" them, to some extent. It appears...

I think that reality is not simple, at least not simple the way most people think. I believe that most of us can get to the next level, most of us can see that "there is more here than meets the eye." We understand the idea of a symbol or a metaphor---that an eagle can be a metaphor for the human soul or a nation. We know that the "plain meaning" is not always plain. But we fail to go deeper and recognize that there are things going on which would stretch our minds and exceed our capacities (unaided by grace). We live in a 3-D world, but we can get that there is more than the three dimensions, so we can imagine a fourth dimension, with effort and disciplined thinking. But if there is a 'fifth' dimension, it is a depth to things which is far beyond our ability to imagine imagining...

What I mean is something can be understood in a myriad of ways. A metaphor can be a metaphor for multiple things. Truth still matters, it is not "Anything and everything goes," but truth is more complex and richer and fuller than we realize. There are "layers upon layers." The story of Abraham is the story of a man back then. It is a story of a people condensed in one life. It is also metaphor for a nation (Israel). It is a framework for the journey of each soul. It is also a revelation of God. The story is both time and place limited (you need to understand the ancient context and language) and timeless (so we can read it in this time and place). God authored the story, but He did so through the minds, voice and writing of hundreds of people over a thousand years. And today He continues that work through text scholars, archaeologists, linguists and translators and, of course, publishers. He does not work at the table as one more guy sitting in a chair, but He is at work among us.

This is why we can say God is at work among us. He is, but not in the way that you and I are at work among us. It is hard to grasp, but it is something that has been known in the church as long as the church has been doing serious theology. Anything we say about God is analogous. The via negativa reminds us that whatever we say about God is not true, because God is beyond our knowing and understanding. Our definitions are too small. Our words are two dimensional, trying to describe a cube when we are only equipped to see squares. A box is not a square, it is six squares (on six plains at right angles). So with God. We try to explain the unexplainable, which means our explanation does not, can not, explain it all. We do not have the depth of understanding..

The problem isn't that we do not know this. The problem is that knowing it we continue on as if it were not the case. We say it is a mystery and proceed to deal with it as if a "plain reading" is sufficient.

And we cut ourselves off from the depth.
And we lead shallow lives.
which, of course, is why we need to be saved....

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Are You Saved?

Back from vacation and now back to work. I am on "study week" which in theory is a time for me to read and think and recharge my brain for work. It is a nice combination with vacation where in theory you take time away (vacate) and do nothing except live life with your family. As we all know, vacations are potentially fun but there is always a chance it will be more stress than work. I was blessed, our time at the beach and last week in Chicago were good times. I saw family and Chicago has lots of nice things to do (like the Botanical Gardens and Art Museum). It was a good week.

Now I am back and my study time is preparing Bible study notes for my parallel Gospel Bible study. I am way behind so this blog will be brief. I am really, really way behind! I have lots of reading and writing to do...

We went to Wrigley Field (which is Cubs' Park--I am a White Sox fan) last Friday night to see Billy Joel. It was a birthday present to my wife and we did not know he would be there when we decided to go. My Aunt and Uncle (and cousin) took care of my son and we drove and took a bus to the concert. It took a long time, Chicago traffic is bad and so much construction! We could not find a place to eat because of the crowds so we decided to eat the ball park food. My wife walked in and then I heard a buzzer sound when I tried to get in. I screamed for her and thankfully she heard me. After we did a brief analysis we found that we had a duplicate ticket. Whoever sent her the tickets had printed off two of the same. It looked bad.

We were sent across the street to Stub Hub (she got the tickets through them online) and I was amazed at how wonderful the two men we dealt with were. They asked some questions, got the information they needed, and kept assuring us it was going to be fine. I have rarely met people more kind or pastoral (to use a theology term). They were attentive to us and kept saying it would work out. And it did. We were able to get replacement tickets and returned to the stadium in time for the concert.

We were saved.

The Bible uses the word 'saved' a lot. It usually refers to situations and events like the one we experienced. A person is in some sort of trouble or need. A person finds themselves unable to take care of the problem. A person cries out for help and the help comes and there is restoration. It may be danger or may be hunger or it may be any number of other "tight spots" but in each case the person is unable to take care of it themselves. Someone else has to intervene.

Sometimes we use the word saved in a very limited and spiritual sense. It is a code word for "getting into heaven." Now I certainly think that eternity is important (one might say eternally important). I am not negating that, but the use of the word 'saved' is analogical and based on every day experiences. What God has in store for eternity is a 'big version" of the every day ways that He (in and through creation) saves us in all manner of ways. All salvation is not life and death. Sometimes we get saved by two wonderful employees of Stub Hub who view our problem as their own, take care of it while being attentive to our worries and fears, and send us on our way with replacement tickets. Sometimes we have our souls saved. Sometimes we have our birthday evening concert saved.

The ancient Jew knew to be aware of the multiple moments each day that a hand of salvation was there to deliver them from this or that, big things and not so big things. Getting saved, from whatever it is, is a reminder that we are cared about and cared for. I have been in lots of situations where people "doing their job" did not exhibit the care and efficiency that the two men in Chicago at the Stub Hub tent outside Wrigley Field before the Billy Joel concert did. For what they did I remain thankful. And for a moment of grace that opened a window of awareness in my mind about how God is always at work I am thankful. It is easy to tak it for granted. I am glad I had a chance to see and be aware.

Jesus looked at the world that way, always attentive to what was going, always able to see insights or analogies or metaphors for God. It is tempting to think that the only things that matter are life and death issues. However, sometimes it is all a matter of living every day life, things like eating and drinking and music. God cares about each moment of each day. Each moment is a gift. And it we are paying attention, we may notice how often we are being saved, from this or that.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Christians are Dirt!

sermon for today. Next post in ten days!

 

Today's Gospel, Mt 13, provides a typical description of the world as it seems Jesus understood it. Again and again in His parables (and other teaching) Jesus implies that we are in Battleground Earth. God has made a good creation, but there is another Evil Force at work trying to undo His goal. Satanic forces (combined with human sin and the evil in a fallen world) conspire against God. The outcome is not in doubt, God will be victorious (this is our confidence--i.e. our fide/faith); however, Jesus makes clear that each of us must decide who will be our Master. [The difficulty is that there are many reasons to doubt...]

The parable of the different kinds of soil is a transparent picture of our world. God is at work spreading the "seed"--His loving offer of life in His Kingdom. People are different kinds of soil. The explanation of the four types rings true. In general there are four responses to the Gospel call to repentance and faith/faithfulness. There are four different kinds of people.

However, things are not as simple as all that. No one is purely anything (except Jesus). The parable is a simile or analogy, the variety of human beings is like a field. But human are also different. We are a mixture. All of us are blind and deaf to some aspects of the Gospel, all of us are willing to compromise some of Christ's demands to escape struggle, and we have all seen parts of our spiritual life choked by the worries and concerns of consumer society. We have different weaknesses and failings, but we all have them...

But this is a Gospel parable, it is Good News! There is a huge upside to the story: 30, 60, 100-fold production is the abundance of the Kingdom! We have hope by embracing Jesus. Remember and give thanks for the abundant production in your life.

At Morning Prayer Thursday and Friday, Mt 24 makes it clear that the story of the soil and seed is not fictional. Jesus was asked by His disciples about the Fall of the Temple and the End Times. His description of the birth pangs was graphic and sobering: Many will be led astray by false Messiahs (political and religious leaders). There will be wars, famines and earthquakes (man-made and natural disasters). Christians will be hated, betrayed, tortured and killed. False prophets lead many astray. Perhaps most chilling is the promise And because of the increase in lawlessness the love of many will grow cold... the love.of.many.will.grow.cold... What follows this promise of false prophets and lost souls, suffering and persecution is the exhortation: the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Jesus' return will be on an unknown day, as fast as lightening and totally unexpected. So we are told to keep watch, to be expectant and live each day as if it were out last.

That is the kind of soil we must be. We must put first things first (the Kingdom and its righteousness) and the central person (Triune God) must be at the center of our lives. With God's grace, our values, priorities and concrete decisions make us Kingdom ready soil. We need to be self aware and do a thorough examine of our spiritual state: we must take stock of the soil in our own hearts. Jesus' message cannot be heard by those who do not seek Him. We are aliens and foreigners; citizens of God's kingdom, living in the world.

What parts of your life are the beaten path? Where are you oblivious?

What compromises do you make in your discipleship? Where are you weak and fearful?

What are your worries and concerns focus you away from Jesus and the Kingdom? Where are you choking?

(Good News!) Where do you see Kingdom abundance? Where is the Holy Spirit producing? Where is your love flowing?

We live on teh brink of Kingdom abundance. The seed of God is perfect, it is the soil of our hearts that needs work. Fear not, Jesus is faithful. 

Repent, believe the Good News!

LeBron is Like Jesus

I have never been a huge fan of the NBA. I have had a passing knowledge of the better teams and more famous players, but I have never studied the NBA the way I did with baseball in my youth. That said, I have been aware of the LeBron James saga because it is in the news. Most of us know that he recently signed with Cleveland to return to the team (and city) which he had left four seasons ago.

I am aware that multi-millionaire athletes have image consultants. I know that there are professionals who are "image consultants" and that they create a "public face" which they market to the world. It is hard not to be cynical whenever you read or hear anything in the media. Is this sincere, these amazing words LeBron has written? Is he really the author at all? I do not know, and at some level it is none of my business to judge. What I know is his words are amazing. It certainly seems like he gets it. He says his return home is about something bigger than basketball. He is humble and admits to making mistakes. He is forgiving and merciful (and the owner who had a public temper tantrum and said awful things about LeBron probably needs to make his own public apologies). I was truly impressed by the maturity he exhibits and the openness of his heart. I was more impressed by what appears to be a commitment to make a difference for the kids of Ohio. His reference to it being a place where "no one gives it to you, you have to earn it" rings true for me (and my mid-west upbringing and value system). As many have noted, the horrible way he made his last decision (to go to Miami) had marred his image. I certainly found myself cheering against him. (Once again, an reaction to someone I do not know) Now, it appears, he is going to be a hero. A real hero, dedicated and humble, trying to bring glory to his native land and benefit others especially youth.I hope he is as good a man as it appears in the letter he wrote explaining his decision. I really do wish him well. (Though I have to pull for the Memphis Grizzlies)

But this is not why I say he is like Jesus. He is like Jesus in a parabolic, allegorical sort of way.
Some people are offended by this analogy. If you do, then please go read the parables. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like farming, fishing and business. Jesus compares grace to manure (fertilize the tree to see if it will produce). Jesus sees the ordinary as a reflection of the supernatural. If you cannot see echoes of the Kingdom everywhere then you do not understand Jesus. Eyes and heart open to God means that you do not limit your faith to "religion." Jesus, a man at home with tax collectors and prostitutes, calls us all to a bigger heart and a wider vision.

Cleveland is a basketball wasteland. They have not been good for a long time. In fact, all their professional sports teams have been pretty unsuccessful. The economy has been tough on Northern Ohio as well. It is a place in need of good news.[obviously, as a Christian, I believe Jesus, the real Jesus, is what they need for salvation. That said, I am speaking on a human level] LeBron is called "the King" (Christ/Messiah literally means the annointed, or King) so when LeBron left it is a type of Jesus. The King is gone. When he/He left, the ones left behind are bereaved. "Who will help us now?" For four years Cleveland has played poorly while Miami, LeBron's new home, experienced success (including 2 titles). Now, suddenly, the impossible has happened. Cleveland is suddenly relevant again. There is hope for success. Maybe even the elusive championship.THAT is the kingdom analogy. LeBron is like Jesus in that his presence breaths hope into the team. It is a parable. It is a simile. It is allegorical.

What will happen? I do not know, but it seems sure that some "eschatological reversal" is taking place. To quote the Magnificat. "The mighty have been pulled down and he has raised up the lowly." Last week Miami was a power and Cleveland at the back of the pack. Today, it is all different.

Don't be confused. It is all an analogy. It is a parable. The Kingdom of God is NOT basketball. LeBron is not Jesus. But, then, the Kingdom is not a farm, or a woman making bread, or a businessman either. It is "like" that. And the better we are at seeing the 'like' in the world around us the closer we will get to the Kingdom.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Three Keys to Life

In Morning Prayer we are reading Deuteronomy and Matthew 14. I will mention the latter in Sunday's blog.

Deuteronomy begins with Moses doing a summary of the situation as Israel stands ready to enter the Promised Land.

The first thing you notice is that Moses is written about as a character, i.e., third person. This is one reason why the "authorship" of Moses is a loaded concept. I know some people believe Moses wrote the entire Torah by himself. That is because for us that is the meaning of the word author. However, if we really think about it, we use the word author in a broader sense, too. When the President gives a speech it is his speech, but we all know he does not write all his speeches. Some books have ghost writers. And there is also a sense of that someone initiating a process is called the author. So there is, in my mind, no doubt that Moses was the originator/author, and that the memories were repeated (oral tradition--recall these were desert nomads with very few literate people for a long time, probably until King David and the establishment of his court where a professional class of scribes could thrive). However, in this final form my belief is someone other than Moses was writing the actual final copy. And, of course, that is why the word "Moses" appears and not the word "I"!

The thing that jumped out at me in these readings was the exhortation (Do not fear! or Be Bold!) based on a declaration of faith (God is with us, God will lead us, God will do it) and a warning (Be faithful or you will suffer). These themes are woven into the text over and over, and they constitute the ground floor of Judaic-Christian life.

We are a people who have "heard" of God's acts of salvation. We are a people with eyes to discern His subtle hand at work among us. We know that He has been faithful, and that what He did in the past is something He can do again today or in the future.God, as we understand Him, is a Merciful and Loving (and Holy!) Creator/Savior.

We are a people who must live in faith. Not fear, not worry, not enumerating a hundred different reasons why "it won't work" or "we can't." Boldness is understood as acting in deep faith. (In dark days, like this time, where doubt and unbelief are so prevalent, it is easy to be discouraged and doubting) Fear is a crippler, it takes away our heart (dis-heartened//dis-couraged). That is a besetting sin of every age. We must live in trusting faith (Courage is from the root for heart) Bravery is the virtue that allows us to live ordinary life with extra-ordinary boldness, knowing that if we desire His will God will work through us.

We are also a people who need to remember that infidelity is a choice which we can and do make. The life of God is a gift, but it seems to flow best in the life of one who worships God, loves & trusts God and obeys & serves God. Faithfilled and faithful go hand in hand. The wrath of God, often times, seems to be God handing us over to our own choices and the consequences of our behavior. Sin produces death literally and figuratively. And the sins of a people fall upon all the people (hence the sins of the fathers fall on the third and fourth generation; evil done by our grandparents impacts us). God's desire is blessings to the 1000th generation (roughly 25,000 years). However, we have, by His gracious kindness, been given a say in how things turn out (life or death, blessing or curse). So we need to choose wisely!

I love Deuteronomy, I hope this was a blessing to you, dear reader.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Vacation Reading

I used to say that a good vacation was a time spent reading books, and a great vacation was a time spent reading good books. Dealing with 'a little one' again, I no longer have the chance to just sit and read books like I used to, but over the last weeks I did find time to read two of Thomas Cahill's books. I have read How the Irish Saved Civilization a couple of times and have been chipping away at it again for months. One of my angels at church (Mary!) likes to buy me books and best of all she asks what I want to read before she buys it, so this year I asked for Cahill. [His book on Jesus, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is wonderful, too!]

I began with The Gift of the Jews (How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels). To be honest, I have finally reached the point (thanks to my Jewish Bible studies the last decade) where I have a pretty good handle on he Jewish Bible (what is called the Old Testament) so much of the book was a rehash of very familiar material. Cahill has not written a popular history or rewritten the history of the Jews. Rather, he has provided an historian's insight into what the Jewish Scriptures say and reflects on some of the historical personages. He writes from the perspective of a Believer, though he is not writing an apologetic defense of the faith. His is a friendly perspective, though not one a strict Literalist would embrace.

However, his fundamental insights into the impact of Jewish (Biblical) thought about time and God is arguably of value for any type of Christian.  His point: the Jews are the foundation of Western Culture and the first group to break out of a cyclical view of time. The ramifications of that explain why and how we are the way we are today.

He begins with a review of the Gilgamesh epic and the religiosity of the ancients. I strongly believe that we all need a deeper immersion in the Ancient Near East if we are ever to understand the Sacred Writings. Just like a knowledge of the Roman Empire is foundational to read the New Testament (many errors in interpretations are based on seeing the Bible as 'timeless' and 'unconnected' to its place in history--such a mythical approach is actually the pagan way, ironically). The Jews, descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are not a new people created by God and planted unto the earth, they are part of that culture and relatives of those who lived in the land. They are a family(ies) set apart by God. In Genesis it says Abraham is from Ur (of the Chaldeans). It is elsewhere said of Abraham that he was "A wandering Aramean" (from Aram, Israel's southern neighbor). Just as Christianity comes from Judaism, so Israel comes from the Semitic and Middle Eastern culture.

So the ancient stories and world view (which are echoed in our Bible; I have spoken of creation and flood accounts many times) is the background and context for the books of the Bible (especially the Torah). Genesis is arguably a rewrite (and correction) of those ancient myths (and not an argument against contemporary science!!!!). As Cahill lays out the ancient (cyclical) view he then provides the Jewish alternative..

In pages 125ff, he describes that difference. "For all the ancients...time as we think of it was unreal; the Real was what was heavenly and archetypal.... The text of the Bible is full of clues that the authors are attempting to write history of some sort." The next page he reminds us that "The question that springs constantly from our lips--"Did that really happen"--had little meaning in any ancient culture."

The eternal circle is replaced by a real past (which matters for itself), a present (where choices and decisions) which shapes a yet to be determined future. The future may have echoes of the past (there are cycles) but it is also open to be new and different. The "science" of history as we know it today comes from this insight into time. So, too, the other sciences.

I highly recommend the book, especially to those of faith who seek the truth. It makes the Bible more amazing, to me. I began the next book, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (Why the Greeks Matter) but have only half read it. It is important to Christians because the Greek culture is so informative for early Christianity. The Jewish Bible was translated into Greek and the New Testament was written in Greek.  I hope some day to read Cahill's book on the Middle Ages someday