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Friday, March 27, 2015

Jesus Does Not Like Death

We are knocking at the Holy Week door today. Tomorrow night we will have our Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday service with two more on Sunday. It is here.

The Morning Prayer Gospel was from John, the Lazarus story. There is a sort of "real time" aspect to all this now, as the liturgical days reflect the last week of Jesus' life (except of course He manages to conquer death!). In the Fourth Gospel, the Lazarus event is connected to the decision to kill Jesus (they plot to kill Lazarus again as well). So it is an excellent choice for the weekend before Holy Week.

There is a great deal of material there, much of it resonant with our lives. "Let's go die with Him!" Thomas courageously announces when the disciples point out to Jesus the danger of returning to the environs of Jerusalem. Sadly, like me (and you?) big talk does not produce big walk. Thomas and most everyone else will flee and hide when the moment of truth arrives. There is some solace in knowing I am not alone on the "failure train" and that even those who knew Him best were unfaithful. But only some solace. In the end, "being like everyone else" when everyone else is rotten is still rotten....

The reaction of Martha when Jesus arrives sounds (possibly) accusatory. "If you had been here my brother would not have died..." Certainly sounds similar to the words so many have uttered with me when they are in similar situations of loss. There is a sense that God could never have allowed such tragedy, and there is a deep sense of His distance. Yet, Martha adds a strong sense of trust, "yet even now I know God will give you whatever you ask." Such profound faith in the midst of profound loss. It is a reminder that we have to do prep work for such times, if you are not connected before hand, personal tragedy cannot, will not, magically generate a sense of spiritual peace and depth.

Martha believes in the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus challenges her understanding when He says, "I am the resurrection and the life." Those are pretty meaty words to be saying to a grieving sister, standing at the visitation after a funeral. Who would dare say such a thing? It is easy to forget the human reality....

In our times it is common to speak about death as something God orders. "He takes you when He is ready" people say. Or "God needed your momma/daddy/child/etc in heaven so He took them." Death is considered part of God's plan in this scenario. A convenient way to make room for the next generation. However, Jesus' response seems counter to that view of God. Ponder with me:

Does Jesus tell Martha, "he is with God now"? Nope!
Does Jesus tell her, "he is in a better place"? Nope!
Does Jesus tell her anything which sounds like what we hear people talk about at funerals?
Jesus seems to think death is bad. It makes him angry (or sad--the Greek is not crystal clear). In fact, on several occasions Jesus brings back the dead. I think, Jesus did not like death. I think, God does not like death. I think (based on Paul) death came into the world through sin. I think God does not like sin either...

My guess is Jesus did not like death because God is a God of life and living. Jesus viewed death as an enemy (death is called the last enemy, right?). So Jesus brings the dead to life in part because He can, and He hates death. I think death is the norm in this fallen world because it is fallen. God's plan is to REDEEM the dead and raise them to life. Death bad, Life good!

Next week we celebrate the holy days when God's solution to sin and death is unveiled. Jesus, God become man, will die. Death cannot hold Him (imagine death is a dragon and Jesus gets swallowed and then proceeds to kill the dragon from inside).

SO do not fear death, Jesus wins.
For now, we mourn those we have lost, but we know God will take them back. God, in Jesus, is a victor over death. Not sure what matters more than that!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Consider the Source

Jeremiah 26 provides a warning. Thus says the not hold back a word. It may be they will listen, and everyone turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the evil which I intend to do to them because of their evil doings.

The people do not believe the word. Jeremiah tells them it is a word from God. Do with me as you see fit  he says, but with a warning that if they kill him they will bring innocent blood down upon their heads. The prince and people change their mind, this man is from God, he shall not die.

What is the source of our knowledge and wisdom? The church is not one. It does not speak with a single voice. The charges and counter charges fly between those who claim to speak the truth. Whom to trust? With Jeremiah it easy, he is in the Bible. We know who he is and so it is obvious to us. But what if we lived then? What if we were in an audience where he made his stunning and frightening declarations? We are constantly bombarded with this warning or that. People tell us their 'visions' of the future and give us warnings. How are we to discern to which we will listen? At times all the words are just noise. Perhaps we would have seen Jeremiah as one more noisy voice trying to disrupt our peace.

Having spent so many hours in Bible study and contemplating weighty things of God, I often feel like I am not closer to knowing. I have increased clarity in some areas, but in others I still stumble in the dark. God remains as ungraspable and mysterious as the day I gave him my life. I donthink it is important to return to the Source. In prayer and silence open ourselves to the Father. Invite the Spirit guide. Live in Christ and welcome Him live to in you. Not so we can never be in error, but so that even in error we are God's own. It is not a quest for right, it is a quest for God. It is not a quest for power or prestige, it is a quest for God. It is not a quest for me and mine doing well, it is a quest for me and mine to be in God's realm.

Jeremiah said that God's House would be destroyed. Such words sounded blasphemous to pious ears of his time. In our own time we, too, have assumptions and beliefs which are equally precious to us, and equally in error. I do not know what mine are and you may not know what yours are. It is enough to know that we are in error (here or there) and to desire to be in God. To seek God. Those who seek God first will eventually know the truth, and in the meantime we must be humble believers, open to God and where He takes us. Open to hear God's truth, and not simply expect our assumptions and beliefs to be supported.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Good Shepherd

The St. Louis Cardinals are different from the Roman Cardinals. The former are a baseball team and the latter are special bishops who are able to vote for the next pope. Asking, "are the Cardinals in town?" would have a different reference which was obvious in each place. The "obvious" is obvious to an insider. It is not obvious to an outsider. We are outsiders to much of the Bible; we have a different context.

When Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd" even in a sheep-free place like Memphis Tennessee we are able to make sense of it. We get it is not literal, it is figurative. It is not Jesus' His occupation, it is Jesus' true identity.

I often write about the limits of approaching the Bible only seeking the literal, plain meaning. I have rejected the concept that the symbolic is "merely/only" symbolic and a work of heretics and unbelievers. Today, at Bible study, it came up again. What we discussed in there may be helpful here.

Young children are concrete. They take things literally.  If you say, "you are a pain in the neck," a young child thinks your neck is hurting. This is why children's books are simple and straight forward stories.

David ran into the house. David bumped into the table. The flowers fell over. "Oh, no!" said Mom. "Do not run."

The story is simple and easy to follow. However, after a number of years we are introduced to poetry. Many of us did not like poetry. We said things like, "why don't they just say what they mean?" We got frustrated because of the complexity of it all. Suddenly, "running in the house" may symbolize a freedom from rules which shackle the heart. Knocking over flowers may mean reworking the beliefs of one's childhood to prepare for a new opportunity. Mom may represent our fear to take a chance and try new things. Literature has value because the story can be representative and we can connect with the deeper meaning.

A single word can convey a host of meaning. The word 'Dachau,' for example, refers to a Nazi death camp. The word stirs up so much emotional meaning: it can be used to summarize great evil, or loss, or the extermination of something, someone. In other words, in the real world in which we live, the deeper, more adult way of communicating is symbolic. It takes intelligence to create and understand a simile, an analogy, or to use alliteration, rhyme, or other literary tools.

In the ancient world, the belief in Jewish circles and among early church teachers was that the symbolic (or spiritual) was deeper, more mysterious, and the more important repose of God's revelation. The literal, straightforward, simple reading was just that: simple. It was true, but the least important meaning of a text. 

So when Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," He is employing an analogy, a symbol. however, the simple image (care taker) is not necessarily the fullest meaning of His usage. It is helpful to read the books Jesus read to get sense for what He is referring to. Shepherds, in prophetic literature, are the Kings of the Jews. Kings.... "I am the Good Shepherd" is a political statement, sure it implies care taking and all that, but it is primarily a declaration that Jesus is the Messiah/Anointed One (true King). Face it, Jesus was not crucified from preaching love and healing the sick. On the cross it said "the King of the Jews." Jesus was killed (on the literal level) because the Romans recognized He was asserting His dominion over Caesar. Christ (christos = anointed) is attached to His name as a title for that reason. 

God's Word has a depth to it because God is deeper than a second grade reader! There is a reason why revelation means 'unveiling" in Greek. What God reveals must be unveiled. Too often, adults, even very intelligent adults, act like 5 year olds when they read the Bible. We suspend all our intellectual function and pretend like what we know from real life does not apply to God. We are satisfied to read the Bible as if it were a second grade text book. In truth, the multi-layered, multi-valent word of Scripture is an invitation to enter the heart of God. We must understand what the ancient Christians (like Jesus, Paul and Peter) knew. There is more to revelation than meets the eye. Symbolism is not a lower form of truth. Who among us is disappointed to learn that Jesus did not work in a field with sheep? Isn't it better to understand the depth of meaning in the word, shepherd, and to understand Jesus calls us to covenant faithfulness with Him who is our King?

Reading the Bible, like reading poetry, is hard work. Yet, the reward of uncovering meaning is worth the struggle. After all, who worships a God who is limited to communicating on a second grade reading level?    

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Grace Defined

reflections on Jeremiah 23:16-32 and Mark 8:31-9:1

One of the best parts about being a priest is that every week I get to proclaim the Gospel. Every week it happens. And I am not talking about my preaching. Our eucharistic canon (the prayers we pray) are a summary of the Good News. Who God is. What we are. How God has acted, is acting and will act on our behalf. The whole message of grace and salvation.

Often times, Good News is equated with being "positive" or "upbeat." The entertainment culture infects the preaching culture (and probably always has). People know what they want to hear, so they think the preacher better say it. Sometimes, it is easy to equate "happy" with "grace" (and grace does produce happiness!) but in the end, grace is always about Truth.

Jeremiah was an energetic critic of the preaching in his own day. He rebuked those contemporaries who had a message which had great appeal then (and now), but was not the word of God. A sampling of Jeremiah's message:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord."

So what is up here? (see 2 Kings for information), Jeremiah was born during Josiah's reforms. Prior to that there had been massive apostasy and infidelity. Josiah died young and his sons were failures as well. Hope for renewal was replaced by renewed evil. The religion of Israel mixed in pagan practices and idolatry. Yet the prophets were preaching "it shall be well with you" to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart."

God said, "I did not send them." 

Grace defined, I titled today's blog, because the good news (about which I have written much the last few days) is only Good News if it is true. Truth, not content, determines whether or not a message is worth hearing. The prophets told the people what they wanted to hear. It was a pleasant message. The problem is, the message had no basis in reality.  

The definition of grace is not telling people "it is okay."
The definition of grace is not "choices and behaviors do not matter."
The definition of grace is not, "God is a softie, He is so desperate to be your buddy that you can walk all over Him and He will accept it."

Grace is acceptance into a Kingdom where God is the King. It is a place of unconditional love and acceptance (you are loved, period) but an invitation to a covenant ("will you be my people?"). It is a call to join a people, to be part of a clan, a family, a tribe. It is a call to live together and love the others as God loves you. Grace is abounding in all of this. Grace, however, is not indifference. Grace is not God turning a blind eye to infidelity and injustice. 

The prophets who perverted God's covenant grace were called out by Jeremiah. God rejects their lies. So, you and I are also called to reject the lies of grace which is no grace. This principle is at work in Mark, as well. Jesus told the disciples that He must suffer and die. And He said it plainly. Peter rebukes the Lord for saying that. Suffering and death are not upbeat! Rejection is not good news. Peter wants something happy-clappy to celebrate, like getting crowned as King and being in charge, not this "downer message of rejection and death." Jesus makes clear what His assessment of Peter's critique is. Get behind me satan... Peter, the best apostle, was a mouthpiece of the evil one! The truth is, Jesus was going to die, and the truth is what matters.

I end with Jesus' own words to define grace. Grace, God's unmerited love and forgiveness, God's offer of life in abundance. 

Jesus said, "If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever lose his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." 

Grace? Yes it is. Saving, amazing grace. God rescues us from all the sin and death. God provides us with life eternal. God makes us a citizen in His kingdom. God adopts us as His child. It is worth so much more than we could ever pay. It is worth more than we have to offer, but..... it costs all that we have. That is the truth.    

Friday, March 20, 2015

How sweet it is to be loved by Him

All of the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but in my (sin-shaped) experience some parts of it are 'more' inspiring than others. Perhaps some day I will get holy enough to get the fullest depth in every word, but probably not this week! 

Today, I was reading John 6 (Bread of Life) which is on a Catholic boy's short list of "most important words in the Word." Jesus said, "My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink...unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will have not life in you." Now the Greek word for 'eat' is pretty graphic. It means to "munch, gnaw or chew things like vegetables and nuts." It is used of animals eating. It is not dainty or refined. I now, it makes the Gospel sound kind of like cannibalism [this was one of the charges the ancient Romans made against Christians. And be aware, this graphic usage is Jesus' response to the people who were offended by what He said, the same people who disputed among themselves saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Ever wonder why Jesus' response to the question wasn't "Hey it is just a metaphor!" Something to ponder...] Jesus promises those who take communion: you will abide in Me and I in you... In light of that I decided to add a eucharist to our Morning Prayer. It is the first time I have had a spontaneous communion service. I was very open to the promise of Jesus as we took communion--and the eternal consequences of that act!

Connected to that promise was the other reading, Romans 8:28-39. "in everything God works for good with those who love Him..." That was our meditation verse for most of the morning (Friday Lenten mini-retreat). Around the table sat a small group of precious people; most of them had suffered deep and horrible losses. They were all there, sorting through the memories of the "wreckage" and each able to say, "I still believe, I still trust, I still love God." It is important (as one woman reminded us) to remember that God is not the author of the evil, He is not the author of death. God does not do terrible things to us to make us grow. [God is the Author of Salvation. God redeems the evil and bad, He takes death and reshapes it into resurrection life.] Meditating on and discussing the bad things (the part of "in all things" that is most difficult to see good in) helped us identify, in flesh and blood realism, the actual good God had worked in our lives. 

Lastly we read these words: If God is for us who can be against us?...For I am sure that neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I want to be loved and so do you. We want to be some one who matters. We want to believe we have worth. There is always someone out there ready and willing to tell us that we are garbage, that we are ugly, stupid, useless. And we hear their voices and we internalize their hard words. Sadly, for many, those could be the voices of family; people who are "supposed" to love us!!! Or, maybe, the voices are inside your head. The demonic accuser telling you there is no hope, no love, no truth. There is also the inner accuser, you telling yourself, "no one can love me, I am not worthy, I am a loser, I am unlovable..."

Paul's message gives hope. "NOTHING..."  "NOTHING, (now or ever) can separate you from God's love." Except not believing it. Except listening to those other voices which tell us it is not, cannot, be true. The love is there, but it can be rejected. So accept it!

Jesus' message: "I am food" He says, "look in and through the bread and wine to see it is me. I am feeding you. Giving you life... Giving myself for you and to you." "Me," Jesus says, "living in you. Forever together, two become one." Communion, "one with," a sign/sacrament today of a reality into forever.

It was a great day today, reading and sharing God's Word... I wish you had been here with us.   

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Worth It

One definition of a priest is a person in the Good News business. Another definition of a priest is someone in the Bad News business. I have been doing this work since 1984, and in preparation some seven years prior to that. Even during a decade long hiatus from ministry I was still "the priest" to those with whom I worked. (something ontological going on, but I digress)

I have reached a point where decades separate me from many of the folks with whom I have worked. The babies have had babies, the pretty young moms are now grandma's and the manly men are sometimes gray and stooped. People do not look like my memories of them at all. 

In the last few years I have gotten calls from people in that distant past. People who are suffering, or sick or dying; crying out for help. People calling with "bad news." Sometimes it is for a caring ear. Sometimes to connect me with a corpse, literally. Often it is because they don't know who else to call. It is amazing the ties that bind. [It is a reminder that we can make an indelible impression in a short time which lasts a lifetime. Lots of people remember you and think about you. Let that govern how you interact today!]

Bad News... They often say those very words. "Hey, Father, remember me? I have bad news..." Often times, there is an apology. "I think of you often, I should have called before... I don't know why I always wait for something bad to happen before I call."

So what to say in response? I know that the sufferings of the present are nothing compared to the glory to be revealed (good news: It is SO WORTH IT, whatever it is) I know that the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from he dead dwells in you...He will give life to your mortal bodies as well. (good news: the horror is temporary. It is so worth it, hang in---better days, the best days, are coming!)

Bad news...Good news.
Life trumps death
Glory overwhelms the wounds and scars (even from a cross) with light and beauty.

I got good news for your bad news, bad is temporary, good is eternal. Bad is redeemable. Bad is potentially reworkable, transformed into good. I know you can't see it now, perhaps, but that doesn't make it less real or true. Perhaps being saved by faith means that once you believe good news the teeth and fangs of bad news are less vicious (or your body less aware of the pain). Good News---words of hope and life and joy---can distract us from the Bad News.

And when you are in the Good News business, people impacted by the bad news turn to you. They call. even if it has been, twenty, thirty years. They call because they want good news. They want it because they were created for it, it is their truest, deepest nature.

SO trust your deepest hopes. It is true: Good News.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015


I am a food person. I have probably never really been 'hungry' not in the real sense of the word. Even when I have done extended fasts, there was always food nearby. I am comfortably middle class and always have been. 

The discipline of fasting is easier to me then the harder work of eating in moderation. I do not know if it is my "wiring" or habits picked up from the American environment of abundance. I do not, based on my observance of the bodies I encounter each day, think I am alone in this. 

Jesus says, "Do no labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you..." I take such words seriously. First of all, it is easy to forget that His experience was different from ours. Very different. He did not live in a time or place of abundant food. Many of the people with whom He came in contact were third world poor and no doubt often malnourished. There was little need for weight loss clinics or liposuction because there were not cokes and potato chips to snack on. [ours is a different struggle] I am certain that Jesus' audiences had been hungry, truly hungry, and to hear Him speak about 'food that perishes' went to the core of their life. Face it, the really poor struggle each day to get food to eat. No storehouse. No refrigerator.

This is not a call to guilt. When third world people come to this country and succeed, their children adopt our practices. Like I said, ours is a different struggle.

Yet if Jesus could look the hungry in the eyes and say, "do not pursue this food, but pursue a different kind of food" then Jesus is offering something real. What is it?

Himself. Identifying with the Manna (from the Israelites' desert experience), Jesus says that He is food. Food for 'the ages" or eternity. Food which will last forever.

Such food matters, especially in this time when death continues to take its victims in spite of our advances and improvements. If in other times and places people died too young for lack of food, today too much food kills people too young. But, truth be told, even the right amount of the best foods can only delay death. It is inevitable.

So what are you hungry for: soul-hungry, heart and core of your identity hungry? Are you willing to face your hunger, to dig deeper than the pangs in your belly to face the eternal hunger?

In two weeks we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus thought He was the answer to what you need. Are you willing to ponder Him and seek Him? Or are you thinking pizza, or a salad, or whatever you consume this day is enough to make sense of your life?