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Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Ladies Night"

In ancient culture men are central. Most stories are about men. The readings at Morning Prayer this day jumped out for that reason.

Judges 4:4 "Deborah , a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time."
There were not a huge number of female judges, she is the only one written about, but the fact that she is a Judge is significant. In fact, the man she sends to general the army refuses to go without her. As a result, the enemy king falls into the hand of another woman who drives a tent peg through his temple as he sleeps. The graphic description aside, we have a tale of female cunning and heroism. There are whole books centered on women: the Books of Ruth, Esther, and Judith. There are also key women like Miriam and the prophetess Huldah who crop up in other books. The Canticle of Canticles is predominantly female in voice. The Patriarch's wives in Genesis are sometimes more active than the men. There are even female villains (Jezebel comes to mind).

God is not limited by our human constructions of society. ( in the end, every social configuration is affected by sins, whether woman or man). I do not go to the Bible expecting it to provide me with "the divine mandate" for gender roles and social order. More and more I simply find myself asking "what is God communicating in the text?" How does God raise up this man, and today, that woman, for His purposes? Or perhaps, how are this man's and that woman's activity being used by God to further His goals.

The Gospel today, from the end of Matthew, recounts the women present at the foot of the cross. If it is true women did not count in the ancient world, then one advantage of not counting is that you are not noticed. Perhaps the men who followed Jesus knew their presence meant they would die? My guess is the women loved Jesus and that personal relationship trumped any concern for their own well being. Yet that is speculation. What is clear is women saw Him die and women first learned of His resurrection. Women are not listed by Paul as witnesses, perhaps because of their legal status (or lack thereof). They are witness to the saving moment of the Cross. They are there--sharing in His suffering by loving Him. It is hard to see such a thing. One can imagine their heartbreak. What we know about the crucifixion comes from them because they were there.

So today is "Ladies Night" a time to celebrate those real live women who stood up for God and were faithful. They are an example to us all, male and female. In their love for God they act in different ways, much as you and I shall today. The key is the heart belongs to Him .Maybe these stories raise more questions than answers. If so, perhaps that is as God intended as well...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


While it is impossible to to avoid all things "political" for the most part my focus on this blog is on things spiritual and moral. I think my level of knowledge justifies my opinions (even if wrong) in those areas. I am, however, compelled to discuss Israel today because of the extensive coverage in the news media. It is, at least in my thinking, a theologically relevant topic.

Anyone who discusses the Middle East has to deal with a complex historical and geopolitical situation. There are immense tensions which comes from enthusiastic supporters and folks with a vested interest. I am prejudiced by a Biblical attitude--I see the current nation state of Israel to be a fulfillment of the Jewish Bible and the promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the descendents. There are some who reject that and claim that the church is the fulfillment of the Promise and that the secular state of Israel has no connection to the Biblical Israel (or, better, Judah). Until the end of time we cannot know for sure who is right on that one.

The Israel of today, if I am right, is in continuity with the ancient Israel/Judah and no doubt suffers from the same limitations of sin and error. Today in Morning Prayer we read from Judge, yet another time when they were punished by God for their sins (18 years submission to Moab). In my mind, the Lord continues to chastise His people, but also to protect them. I do not agree with every act of the Jews. However, I do think that they are worthy of our support. I am distressed by the growing number of anti-Jewish sentiments around the world. The protests and desecration of synagogues around the world means that Jews must know who their friend are!

When their nation is surrounded by hostile neighbors who have publicly declared that Israel should not be allowed to exist, I am confused why anyone ignore that fact.They are a tiny nation and outnumbered. There is little room for error on their part. The US should see in them an ally and friend because we share common democratic principles.Any criticism of their decisions needs to overtly factor in their precarious situation. It is not enough to call for peace. One must fairly consider the ramifications for each decision.

I have been praying more and more for this nation. I also pray for the poor and destitute among the Palestinians. I wish "Arab" nations were more focused on improving the lives of their people and less focused on ill will toward Israel. The hatred toward Israel seems to be a distraction from the weightier issues of making the world a better place for their citizens. By all reports the Jews did came destitute land and built it up since the 1940's (I have read several books, which I assume are accurate). How I wish the same success on the rest of Palestine.

I believe the Jews belong there, by God's will. I believe they are God's chosen. I believe it is their land.
I also believe they are a natural ally, based on a commitment to democracy. As an American, a relationship with such a nation makes sense. I would hope other Arab nations would also democratize and improve the freedoms of their citizens..
I also believe they victims of this war are as much victims of their own failed governments as they are Israel's behaviors.

Whatever I may think and believe, I do know that we need to pray for God's help. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, some Psalmist wrote close to 3000 years ago. That prayer is as relevant today as ever. May God raise up a righteous "judge" to save His people, all His people: Jew, Christian and Muslim. May God come quickly to deliver us.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Homily for Sunday July 27

Readings were Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39;Matthew13:31-33, 44-52

"For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus"
This is a verse to memorize and proclaim at the start of each day as you face any challenge in life. There are physical and spiritual forces and powers against us but they are defeated… We have hope.
NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

God has acted in Jesus to save His creation. The Promise is already in process of being fulfilled; until ‘That Day’ when God will fully establish His Kingdom.
Nothing can separate us from the Father’s merciful loving kindness. This is His plan from before the beginning. God determined beforehand to justify glorify His people. Before creation God planned to put us in right relationship with Himself and that relationship is glorious! The Kingdom is God's rule of love. This Kingdom is our heart’s true desire.
Now, if you are desperate for something, when you find it you buy it. The purchase is a moment of exhilaration and joy, you don’t count the cost. We give up everything for the Kingdom because all that we have is worth so much less than what we get.
But even the light of the Gospel has a shadow. Everyone destined for the kingdom does not choose to enter it. Everyone called does not respond. Everyone who finds the pearl does not buy it.
Like a net full of fish some are kingdom ready and some are not. Jesus the Jew would divide the fish up as clean or unclean... Not all birds come to the mustard tree, not all fish are suitable for eating. Our living and choosing are, by God’s choice, part of the process.
Make no mistake: The Father acts first. It is all grace. But the Father acts in gracious love—love which does not impose itself on the beloved. Love to be love must be free. God does not make us sock puppets. He does not force our response. So, nothing can separate us from the love of God; except ourselves. Hell is our own creation!
Today’s reading from Genesis helps us understand what "Predestination" means. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are predestined. Abraham comes first. Ishmael is rejected; Isaac chosen... Jacob is chosen in place of first born Esau.

Those who were predestined are also called (as in Romans) each receivess a visitation and promise from God. But they still live their lives. Jacob through deception (with Momma's guidance) steals his brother's blessing. Rebecca knew his brother Esau planned to kill Jacob so she has Isaac send him away. The the process of justification begins. In his life Jacob is set right through what he suffers.

Jacob the Deceiver, like most biblical figures, is a flawed character. Many people, perhaps influenced by hero myths, are unsettled by the imperfections of the Biblical figures. We are used to hagiography, the idea that holy people are perfect. Well, God chose Jacob beforehand, but Jacob was not a puppet. His life is a real life and his choices have real consequences. Jacob will produce twelve tribes in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac. If Jacob was predestined, he still must be purified (justified=made right[eous]). Jacob the deceiver will be deceived again and again. Laban switches daughters, later he will do similar things with Jacob’s pay. Eventually, as an older man, Jacob’s sons will deceive him about the death of Joseph. Jacob will reap what he sows. He will suffer for his sins, but after punishment comes redemption (justification).
We have too little time to address the Genesis narrative; suffice to say, “if God is for us, who can be against us?” As Jacob learned, time and again, God was for him. He was saved and blessed over and over in his lifetime. He is "glorified" (the fourth stage in Romans) by the twelve tribes springing forth from his loins. The Promise unfolds before his eyes.

And the same promise continues to be fulfilled in our lifetime. You can cling with joy to that! We can also expect that like the growing seed, it will take time to develop. A long, slow time; so we need to have patience and courage. God will do all He promises. God can be trusted. It just takes a looooooooooong time!

In the meantime, like Jacob, we will continue to both enjoy and suffer the consequences of our choices. We will know great blessings. We will also be painfully purified and transformed.

The cost is everything, for in the end we must all die. Yet, the new life in the Kingdom is glorious and the cost, this life, is nothing compared to the life to be revealed. So trust in God’s love and buy the pearl, each day. And do it with joy!

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!