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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Questions after Ferguson

I was surprised to hear that officer Wilson was in an apartment with a sick child just prior to the altercation. No one interviewed them, but would it not have been interesting to hear how they experienced him? 

I was shocked to read today that the mother (Leslie McSpadden) and step father (Louis Head) of Michael Brown have been accused of assault and theft--a recent conflict with Michael Brown's paternal grandmother. The grandmother was selling tee shirts calling for justice for Michael Brown. In a court this sort of thing can not be admitted as evidence, but is it something which fills out the picture a bit more?

It seems that there are two related but separate questions. 
1. Did Wilson follow correct procedures, in other words, is this shooting legal?
2. Are the policies and procedures for police just and proper?

Here is what I mean. It is currently legal to abort a child, however, for many of us it is immoral. Currently, thank God, infanticide is not legal. So a person who aborts an unborn child is not brought up on charges, but the same person who smothered the same child in the nursery would be up on murder charges. Some of us wonder about the justification for police shooting and killing people, but that is a question of policy. Wilson is legally responsible to follow the law.

Am I the only one who finds an incongruity between the treatment of the dozens and dozens of Black people, who are seen weeping on television and asking "how am I going to make a living? how am I going to feed my babies?" and the so called victims of racism and police abuse? Why are there not activists lined up to provide safety and cover for Black people who had nothing to do with the shooting? We have heard that "Black people matter," yet it seems not enough to let their business and source of income for their family remain unharmed. Justice is for everyone.
 
It seems that the Grand Jury has decided, based on eye witness testimony and scientific evidence, that Michael Brown's behavior escalated the situation to the point that Officer Wilson was justified in drawing and discharging his weapon.
 
I do not know if Wilson should have killed Brown, my preference is that he hadn't. Any death of a young man is sad. I do not know what Brown's state of mind was, perhaps feeling depressed, perhaps tired of life long racism and persecution by police, perhaps just in a grumpy mood for unrelated reasons. Maybe he was not a real smart kid, maybe his testosterone was up and he wanted to assert himself. Maybe Brown was anti-social and had limited coping skills, with aggressive tendencies. I do not know.

I do know that all people do things which are uncharacteristic. The recent reports on one of my favorite celebrities, Bill Cosby, remind us that we do not always know "the real story." Priests are privy to many dark secrets as people admit to thoughts, words and deeds which are sinful. Michael could have been basically a good kid who had a bad day, or a not so good kid who over reached with Officer Wilson.

What we do know is
if Michael Brown had not stolen from the store (and assaulted someone) he would not have been in the confrontation which cost his life...
if Michael Brown had not walked down the middle of the street (an act of aggression), got in a verbal confrontation, refused to comply with the officer then the confrontation would not have been escalated...
if Michael Brown had not struck the officer and reached for his gun, the escalation to a deadly  encounter would not have happened...
if Michael Brown did charge the officer, then that decision led directly to his death...
Or..
if officer Wilson had simply driven off after the initial confrontation, Michael Brown would not have died.
if officer Wilson had refused to shoot the young man and engaged in a hand to hand struggle (with a huge young man) it is likely Wilson would have been beaten, but Brown would not have been shot.
I cannot see how the latter two options can be reasonable to expect.
 
105 officers died in the line of duty, 42 of them were shot. It seems there is no public record of how many times police shoot people, though it seems to be many times that many. I have no doubt that the Police can be abusive and that some shootings are wrong.

But cops encounter dangerous people constantly. They meet institutional hostility in reaction to institutional racism. There are also a huge number of criminals--many of them vicious and evil. Cops are the ones who enter a room where young children are shot up, little girls and old women are brutalized and raped, gang destroy lives of innocent people. Every day cops see the worst of it.

I have a solution, repent and convert and embrace the values of Jesus. But the real world is under the dominion of another king, the Dark Lord of Lies. We need to pray and we need to do the right thing, that is all that we have control of. Someday there is a Judge who will reveal all truth. Brown will meet him. Wilson will meet him. So will you and I. 
 

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Saying Good bye

Sunday I gave communion for the last time to a man who has been a faithful parishioner and true friend for most of my thirteen years as a priest at St. Andrews. He is off to Germany and the date of his last Sunday has long been on my mind, and his. When it was six months away we could deny it. No more.

Two weeks prior another couple left for Texas. And in the summer before them a couple families. And in between this one and that. Over the years, the losses pile up. Some have died. Others floated away. Some chose to go. Most simply stopped. Each one is a loss. Some losses run deep.

A priest does not have the privilege of loving one more than another, at least pastorally. All have equal claim to hospital visits and counseling hours. Each has a full share in preaching and teaching time. How much you give and how much you do mean that you are more vital to the parish mission, but it does not entitle you to special treatment. The priest must love each one the same.

But the priest, alas, is a man. If he serves all, he befriends some. There will always be those who specially touch the heart and whose status as parishioner is completed as friend. Such losses compound the process of letting go.

The last decade has been filled by more losses than I care to think about. Too many have gone, too few have come to take their place. It leads one to remind God, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Lord...but could you give a bit more and take a bit less?" Clearly, such a prayer may be preposterous and even disrespectful. But as E.T. once famously said as he left his friends, "Ouch!" God hears the cries of the brokenhearted and he no doubt is patient and understanding of our plight...

Each loss like this is a dress rehearsal for the big good bye. If we learn to love and leave well in the temporal, we can have reason to believe we can plunge into the eternal. Yet it is only human to be sad, and to wish that people who matter most were able to stay and not go. And every priest worried about his parish is going to wonder "who will fill the void these wonderful folks have left in their departure?" 

There were some emotions on Sunday. Deep sadness and heavy loss. And in the face of it you say, "so be it" and move on. Working on the next Sunday school class or sermon, fielding the next request for aid or an hour to talk about some problems. It is the way of the priest and it is a life I have chosen, happily. Everyone has losses, everyone. It just reminds us that in the end, the only One who is always there, is our God. He and He alone abides. So we can be thankful for the friends we lost, thankful for the good times and memories. We can trust that all will be well. It is why we are saved by our faith and hope, even when our love brings pain...  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What Time is It?

Today is a Feast Day, Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, which is not in sync with the calendar year. (Sort of like the School Year ends in May) Next weekend, days after celebrating Thanksgiving, we will begin the new year with Advent. We are reading Scriptures focused on the End of the World and then others focused on the Coming of Jesus. Advent means coming. It is not a season to prepare for Christmas. That is not its purpose. It is a season to reflect on the Lord coming among us in myriad ways, with a special focus on the incarnation.

November and December are difficult times for liturgical Christians. The pagans and most Protestants are full blown into Christmas celebrations starting with Halloween. While they are singing "have a holly jolly Christmas" (or Winter Festival) we liturgical types sing "o come, o come emmanuel!" Some of my favorite hymns are from Christmas, so it is hard not to just jump right into it with them. And certainly, they will ask, "what difference does it make. do you really think God cares?"

I hesitate to say yes, it seems arguably preposterous, yet if that is the case then really much of what I do is silly and useless. The idea of the Christian life as an incarnation of the life of Christ and a sacrament of salvation history requires real time. It is fair to ask our critics, "does God want us singing 'away in the manger' the week after we put away the pumpkins and halloween candy? Does God think it is a bad idea to set a season apart to ponder the great mysteries? 

What time is it? 

The Advent Spirituality is, I think a case could be made, the container in which faith is lived out. If faith is confidant assurance in things yet unrevealed (and it is); Advent is courageous steadfastness in the face of the darkness until the Light is manifest. The old song "Hold on, I'm Coming!" (whatever the original writers really meant) is certainly a fit descriptor of Jesus message to us all. This is the message I aim to share a week from now. I think if we get good at Advent we will be good at life.

Christmas is about 'open packages' and 'the celebration'... Advent is about "Come Lord Jesus," and "Better days are coming," and "we can hold this position" and a thousand other phrases which convey the stand firm in faith mentality.

I do not think I can convince anyone of the value of advent. I am not sure I can easily cling to it myself with the most recent onslaught of  premature christmas-ization. Yet I think the wisdom of an ancient church that one should spend four weeks contemplating the Advent themes of Scripture cannot be denied. You and I are impatient and want it now!!!! God is in charge, He will decide when.

What time is it? It is time to wait well.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Malachi 1&2



Malachi (My Messenger) is the Scripture reading from the Jewish Bible this week.
This short book ends the Christian Old Testament and is the final book of the Prophets in the Jewish Bible (to be followed by “the Writings” which includes the wisdom literature and various other books). It is brief and probably set in the time after the Babylonian Exile, after the Temple was “rebuilt.” At this time, the Jews lived in the land of their ancestors, though many were still dispersed throughout the ‘nations’ (among Gentile). The once great kingdom of David had been reduced to a province in the Persian Empire. A nothing populated by nobodies…

The book is written as a dispute and contains many questions by both people and God. The fundamental problem is that for these Jews, God is apparently inactive. Herein lies the connection for contemporary readers. “Where is God? Does He even care? What is the point?” But however painful our laments, and however sincerely our abandonment issues are felt, in the end, they stir up a response from God which is, to say the least, uncomfortable!
1:1-5 The book begins with the chosen people asking, “How have You/God shown us love?” The knowledge that there is a history of salvation does not generate covenant faithfulness. “What have you done for me lately?” the People ask. [Do we not share such sentiments? How does the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the hope of eternal life inform our daily choices? Are we any different than those who have no hope? Are we noticeably more patient, joyful and peaceful?] The enemy who aided in Judah’s demise was Edom, but now Malachi says that God declares that this rival has been decimated, never to rise again as a nation. Edom, to become Idumea (where King Herod was from), is reduced to living in a desert waste and God declares they are never to rise again. [Judgment is rescue of God's people and destruction on God's enemies. Keep that in mind while you are choosing your affiliation.]

1:6-15 is concerned with ancient priests and animal sacrifice. The plain reading is difficult for us in the 21st century. But a spiritual reading provides numerous insights. The People have asked where God’s love is. God responds, do not a father or a master deserve honor? Am I not your Father and Master? Where is my honor? [Remember, this is an honor culture. It is central to social interactions.]The dishonor is manifest in priests accepting blemished animals for sacrifice. In every age people are tempted to give God “the left overs” because God is not physically present. “Would you give this to your governors?,” He asks rhetorically. Of course the answer is no.
When Christians toss ten bucks in the basket after spending ten times that amount on a dinner the night before, is that not similar? Are our self-offerings to God not usually determined by other demands first? We skip church or Bible study, but go to work because “we have to.” The disrespect for God is something to which we have grown oblivious. God is first, said Jesus. For many of us, He does not even receive votes for the top twenty!
2:1-9 contain a remarkable image, God threatens to throw dung in the face of His priests. Ponder that one! The two pronged demand (“obey and lay it to heart”) is a core of the Judeo-Christian Covenant. God, in gracious mercy, has chosen people to enter covenant. It is a grace, which requires a response: obedience. Since the Garden of Eden there have been expectations, not to earn salvation but to live in right relationship with the Savior. Malachi 2 speaks of the covenant God made with Levi in establishing a priestly line. But they violated God’s trust by misleading people (James also says teachers are held to a higher standard in another reading this week). When priests (pastors, bishops) go bad; it is very bad. In our own age it is no different from previous times, humans abuse their positions of authority (be it a churchman or an autonomous Christian individual) because God can seemingly be disregarded and despised with no consequence. What does that abuse consist of? Many things, one of them is a lack of orthodoxy! Get it right, God says, and teach the truth.
2:10-16 If the previous section poured judgment on churchmen/priests, the next verses strike at the heart of the laymen. Suddenly the speaker is the Malachi the prophet: “Have we not all one Father?” In other words, aren’t the Jewish people united in the same faith? If our commitment to God were primary, instead of other loyalties, then loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves would produce justice and peace. By profaning God and profaning worship the People have broken the first commandment, so is there any surprise that they would then break the second? Infidelity to God (idol worship) is then duplicated in infidelity to human wives. The men of Judah exchange the wife of their youth for a new (and apparently pagan) model. Taking on these wives is compounded by embracing their gods as well. There is no escaping the connection of religious and secular lives. Even if, like them, we cry tears all over the altar (faux repentance) God is not fooled. “I detest divorce,” strong words from God and they refer both to human marriage and the divine covenant with His people.
2:17 This loan verse has haunted me for years. The people are condemned for saying good is evil and evil is good. This is a variation of the unforgivable sin (claiming the work of the Holy Spirit is demonic). Why do I say this? Because God is good. His Christ is good. The anti-christs (the world, flesh and devil) is evil. To equate evil with good is to be unreachable by good. In any age where “men follow their own hearts” (see Judges 21:25) this is the ultimate destination. And the loss of faith in God’s Justice is the fruit.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sin Sick


As a modern, or post-modern, citizen of this world, I am unduly influenced by cultural beliefs, assumptions and values which are not the same as the ancient world. A-historical Christianity does not exist. The Bible reflects the beliefs of the ancient world. Anyone writing since the Reformation is modern. We who read the Bible, rarely recognize that our mind is full of assumptions, values and prejudices which impact how we read, what we notice and how we interpret it. Exegesis (taking meaning from) and eisegesis (inserting meaning into) are always part of any reading we do. When we visit the ancient church we can gain insights into how faithful believers in another time from another place understood the Christian life. They have values, assumptions and prejudices, too, but they are different from ours. They are also closer to the time the Bible was written...

We assume what we assume without even knowing it is an assumption. People from "other Christian worlds" help us see those assumptions. The Philokalia is probably second to the Bible in importance. It is a four volume collection of teachings from the Ancient Orthodox Church. Skylight Paths Publishing has a nice introduction to these extensive writings called Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts. It is more manageable (200 pages) with excerpts from the Philokalia and notes to clarify. The first chapter is on Repentance. I want to share what I encountered there (p12): God is better understood as a Physician than a Judge, just as sin is better understood as illness than as transgression... The penitent comes before God and the priest (as God's agent) not to plead guilty but to seek healing. 

Heal/Saved is the same word (sozo) in Greek, not so in English. The idea of sin in our time is greatly influenced by the moral/ethical and judicial worldviews. We think about 'right and wrong,' 'good and bad' or 'legal and illegal.' Seeing God as a Judge Who evaluates our life and actions is not wrong. It is certainly  Biblical. However, the "court room" as we know it is not exactly the same as the ancient world court room. Words change meaning over time.

The need to be rescued from sin (Paul personifies sin in Roman 6-7) includes the recognition that we are somewhat powerless before it. Pure discipline seems always to cave in at some point. Sin, like water, finds a way to get in whether we want it or not!

I do not advocate ignoring the other insights into sin (moral, legal, relational). All have their place, but illness and the cry for healing/salvation does make sense. In the health model our choices do make sense. We are responsible for nutrition, exercise, etc. We are also responsible to get the illness diagnosed and to take our medicine. That seems to ring true to me. If sin is a disease of the soul which kills us, then it is more organic and less arbitrary than punishments assigned for transgressions. The judgment of a doctor is clinical. It assesses the situation and offers a recommended treatment protocol.

Suffice to say, the oldest Christians have used this understanding and read it in the Bible. If we do not see it there, it may be fair to ask, "Who is missing the point?" The centrality of healing in the church has been sadly lost in our modern age. We need to heal and exorcise more vigorously, especially in this time of grave spiritual illness.

 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thanks, but no thanks

Today we read from Luke 17. It is a familiar story. Jesus is "on His way to Jerusalem" though He is traversing an indirect path. I think Luke's point is Jerusalem is the final destination. No matter where He is going, that is where He is headed. (Sort of like being behind in a game doesn't mean you are losing, the victor is winning the whole game long, even if it is not obvious from the score at every moment!)

Along the way, Jesus enters "a village" (unnamed) and ten lepers, standing at a distance, cry out to Him for help. "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" They kept their distance because that was the theo-legal protocol; the ritually unclean/impure are not to infect the ritually clean/pure. It is a different way of seeing things from us. We tend to think in terms of morality (right/wrong) or hygiene (clean or sanitary v. unclean/germs) The words they use are a variation of the Jesus Prayer, which many Orthodox saints repeat upwards of hundreds and thousands of times a day. In a sense it is a complete prayer, honoring Jesus, entrusting our needs to Him (without listing) and crying out for His covenant loving kindness and mercy. Try repeating it a hundred times a day while breathing slowly and focusing on the Savior's love!

Unlike many healing miracles, Jesus does not immediately cure them, rather He sends them on their way with a command "Go and show yourselves to the priests." So off they went, in acts of trusting faith. Along the way, in response to that faith, the healing happens. Only one man returns, and Jesus is startled that it is a Samaritan. He is also disappointed. He bemoans that a foreigner comes to thank Him while the other nine were also healed. He tells the man, "You were saved/healed by your faith." An interesting point, this man was alone because the priest he went to see was not at the Temple in Jerusalem. He had a different priest at Mount Gerizim. Crying out for mercy in need is much more pressing than saying thank you, isn't it? Try to say 100 thanks a day to the Lord...

The man who thanked Him was not part of the in-group. We do like our in-groups, don't we? The Jews had them and so do we. I often wonder what Jesus thinks of Muslims praying seven times a day while Christians, who talked about being saved and all that, are hard pressed to show up once a week on Sunday. I am sure all the blather about "works righteousness" and "empty rituals" and whatever else we come up with can be made to sound theologically correct. But I also wonder if we are thanking Him like we should. I am wondering if "the foreigner" is getting it right. I wonder if we assume that we are deserving and so not feeling grateful and He is dismayed by us!

Gratitude is a challenge, especially for people suffering from entitlement, envy and resentment...

While this story has lots of meanings and many things can be drawn from it, based on Luke I know one meaning is that God's Kingdom is effective in unexpected places (like the lives of people we consider foreign). Grace is amazing after all. Something to ponder on our journey of faith.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Talent and Trust



In chapter 25, Matthew has gathered three parables related to the Last Judgment. Today is about “The Day of Reckoning.”
In Jesus’ real life experience there were many “absent land owners.” The sunairo,  a reckoning or accounting, is a sign of respect. To hold someone accountable means you take them seriously. 
Let’s be clear, a talent (Greek is talentos)  is a huge sum: 200 pounds of gold. (One talent is worth $840,000 in our money today.) The three men are entrusted with enormous wealth. The message of the parable is clear, "Do not bury your treasure. Do not accuse God of being unjust or unfair--and if you do, understand you are judged by your own words."
Unfortunately, the word talent in English means something different for us. It makes us focus on our capabilities so we may not feel we are that talented to equate it to a million or a couple million dollars. But that is the wrong interpretation, our personal talents/abilities impact how we invest the "Talent/Wealth" God entrusts us with.

As Jesus says elsewhere, “Fear not little ones, it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom!” IF God is like the absentee Landowner, then that is what He has done with each of us is given us the Kingdom. Let’s look at it logically.
1.    God is King, He owns the world.
2.   God gave dominion to Adam/Mankind and then He goes away.
3.   God left us in charge, to rule and subdue in His Name.
4.   The talent is the Reign of God, we rule as His Chosen ones (children). 
5.   We messed up, so God came among us as a human. Jesus shows what God wants (Servants who give their lives in obedience to the Father)
6.   Christ incarnate, Christ faithful, Christ crucified, Christ risen becomes Christ Spirit-giver, Christ mission-giver, Christ the absentee Landowner
7.   We are given "the Talents" meaning His mission/kingdom. 

Someday God will excitedly ask us, “So how did you do?”
Let's clarify: What is Jesus mission? 
Proclaim God is King. Proclaim God is a good God who loves His children. Proclaim God’s rule is already breaking in for those who trust/believe and love Him. So that proclamation becomes: healing (mind, body, spirit, relationships), exorcism (disabling demons and reclaiming God's territory from them),Teaching (truth in place of lies and confusion).  It is reconciling sinners and freeing them from sin, satan and death. It is freeing people from fear, selfishness, conflict, doubt and despair.
 This is the “millions bucks” in the parable. When Jesus comes back He will ask: “How awesome is it when you preach, teach, heal, exorcise, worship, forgiven, evangelize?” “How wonderful is it bring truth, mercy, love, kindness, holiness, humility, love, trust?”
If we say, “I wouldn't know, I buried it,” what could possibly justify us?

In the first reading, Barak had a promise from God that God would deliver his enemies. What follows is a missed opportunity. Barak did not trust God and he said he would go only if Deborah was with him. So he lost his chance and another woman won the day (something more shameful in his time than our own). The point: GOD HAS WON THE VICTORY AND YOU ARE HIS TOOL, IF YOU OPT OUT HE WILL FIND ANOTHER TOOL. DON’T THROW AWAY THE VICTORY PARTY 1. TRUST GOD. 2. OBEY GOD 3. ENJOY THE VICTORY OF GOD AS HIS TOOL

Hear Paul, You are children of Light. Your destiny is salvation. That is God’s goal, plan, intent. It is Good News: So live in light, sober and awake.
Be ready for the day of reckoning. 
God has entrusted you with the Kingdom. The reason is so you can celebrate His victory (for two of the three it was joy). 
That is the plan: Joyful celebration. 
God TRUSTS you. Don’t betray His trust. 
Seriously, be faithful ministers in word and deed. Let the Victory of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, transform you into the Body of Christ.