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Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't Worry about the wrong stuff

Yesterday's Gospel, from Matthew, quotes Jesus: Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. This is a text I have embraced since the 1970's. As a young semanarian I had very little. The seven years of seminary, aged 21 to 28, I had no car, very little income, no savings. I also did not worry. My spirituality made it easier as I did not embrace wealth. I literally sought the kingdom above all else (Through my Sinfulness, of course!). Not so simple today. Now I find my concerns for the kids make it a bit more of a challenge. I still seek the kingdom, but there is more me in the equation. Jesus no doubt understands. He, above anyone, knows how context determines so much in our spiritual life. There are times when I hear wealthy Christians talk about trusting God and I just want to say "really?" Maybe I am just projecting, but it seems that our faith appears greater than it is in times of abundance.

Still, I think the focus on God's Kingdom is the key. Why did Jesus say it is hard for a "rich" man (i.e. a typical middle class person in our culture) to enter the kingdom. WE already know, we spend so much time trying to protect what we have and to get more. It is not even a choice, sometimes, we do it unconsciously.

So as I ponder things like worry and trust, being an optimist or a pessimist; I know that all of those are seconday issues. The core issue is "will God rule"? Right now, I think, His rule is incomplete. Today we live in an empire run by rivals to the Lord. I think they have free reign to do much damage. I think "darkness" is very present in the world (inside my heart, as well!). But those who seek the rule of God, those who hunger for the reign of King Jesus, are not conformed by the world. They have different priorities.

Lastly, seeking the Kingdom is much broader and deeper than getting saved. The Kingdom is not, simply, about getting your "get into heaven" ticket. It is an ethic which is personal and global, it is spiritual but earthly. The Lord will reign on this earth in the end. Our task is to make it more inhabitable, to the extent we can, today. Peace to all those who seek the kingdom, they are God's children

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Half Empty or Half Full

Last night I was at a reception speaking with a man who flies around the world on a regular basis. He shared his concerns about what he sees going on in England, in Asia and the ramifications it will have on our kids in the future. He said that he wasn't pessimistic, but he was a bit worried.

Any time I broach the subject of being negative it generates energy. I have been asked many times, "are you glass half empty or half full?" My answer is always the same, "Are we pouring or drinking?" Much of the view of things is dependent upon our trajectory.

Optimism is often equated with superiority. People who expect the best are some how better than others. There is no doubt that a positive attitude is vital. People need to believe something good is coming, but realistically, everything doesn't always work out. The best hitters in baseball make twice as many outs as they have hits. Every season someone celebrates a championship, but everyone else doesn't. Any time our city celebrates landing a new business coming into the area, somewhere else there are people bemoaning the lost jobs or the failure to lure the company there. Every optimist is not a winner. Any number of tragedies is the result of someone who thought everything was going to work out!

I am reading a book by a secular Jew in the math and science field. Although he is not a believer, he is writing a book about the failure of science to disprove God. [That's right an agnostic ally to faith!] He is pretty strong in his critique of the claims of the new Atheists. In one chapter, he addresses the claim that religion makes people feel guilty for no good reason. In response to the claim that modern, post-religious man is more ethical and civilized, he creates a list of all the casualties of wars in the last one hundred plus years. For almost three pages he identifies each conflict and the numbers who died. The list is mind numbing.

Now the fact that we have seen so many bad things happen in the past does not mean that anything bad will happen in the future. The optimists are free to tell us that everything will be "fine, great, wonderful!" On the other hand, just because bad things happened in the past does not mean that today everything will collapse, but the pessimists are still free to bewail their concerns. I prefer to say that we are fools to be optimistic that everything will be fine and we are self-destructive if we only focus on the negative. Realists know there are real dangers in the world. Realists know that we dodge many bullets, but eventually someone gets hit. Statistically, things do not always work out for everyone. Realists know that death is real.

Christian realists interpret this situation through the lense of hope and faith. Faithful people suffered and died in the great wars and in the minor wars (you know, the obscure ones where only 25,000 died). Faithful people cried out to God for deliverance from their enemies, even as they were crushed and destroyed. Faithful people have sat in the darkness and waited for the light which never seemed to come. In this world, there is still darkness, as John reminds us in his gospel, but the darkness has not overcome the Light. There is resurrection and their is hope beyond this life.

So all those threats: economic collapse, natural disasters, riots, wars, disease are not only possible but likely to occur somewhere and affect someone. They might take us, but our hope is not just to escape from life's difficulties, it is deliverance to a new life. Resurrection. God's promise is a new creation. Anytime we escape evil here, whether optimist or pessimist, we are only tasting a preview of the final deliverance. I am worried about the current trends in our world. I know things can get very bad very quickly (9-11 and New Orleans are but two examples). I also know I am greatful for the good that is. Most of all, though, I am hoping and praying for God's deliverance and protection: for His light in a world where there is much darkness. I am hoping and praying for resurrection!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Day After

I had a bad feeling the other night. I was watching the news and they were telling stories about the Middle East. As is usual on the news, numerous talking heads were expounding their theories. Gas will be $5.00 a gallon soon, radical Islamic goals will be implemented in the nations which are now in such upheaval, Israel is at serious risk of invasion, attack, perhaps nuclear bombing, the economies of many states will collapse, governors are Nazis oppressing poor people.... You know, the regular!

The bad feeling? Well, I flashed back to 1983. I was a young man, recently ordained a deacon, on the brink of my career as a priest. I was home for the summer prior to returning for my final year of seminary. The movie, "The Day After," was the most perfect tension creating movie I had ever seen. It was about a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. All the information about the hostilities were conveyed on tv reports and radio. So, it was very realistic. It was in the form that bad things ususally are conveyed to us: on the news. I remember saying that once the nukes fell it was almost a relief. The tension of the threat was so great. It was like the line from the movies, "Just shoot me and get it over with!" There is something about unrelenting threats that gets to us. At least those of us who need closure.

I read history. I know that I have lived a life of unparalleled peace and luxury in a time of amazing abundance. I take for granted things that are unimaginable in most places and times. I am soft and certainly have been spoiled by it all. My tolerance for inconvenience is low. Watching the news on Thursday night, I wondered about where it all is headed. I am quite concerned for Israel, and by extension, for us all.

Fortunately, I also know that we have lived through many other threats in recent times. The nuclear war portrayed in "The Day After" was actually a possibility at the time. I was involved with US military men while I lived in Belgium. We watched them build a bomb bunker across the street from our school. Since then we have seen military actions occur several times. Uprisings and government change have occured in eastern Europe and the Middle East. Hurricanes, Sunamis and earthquakes have destroyed lives and cities. Recently North Korea appeared ready to make a terrible mess of things. All that to say, there are lots of times that it gets tense but we make it through.

Over the years I have tried to move away from my nature. My parents called me "Worry Wart" when I was young. As I have aged that moniker was replaced by "you are always negative." My decision has been to worry less and pray more. I think it is our vocation. Of course, most Christians I know are too busy to do much praying. They are too busy to do much of anything related to Jesus and the Gospel. Oopps, see there I go again.

What is happening in our economy is real. What is happening in the Middle East is real. There are real threats and eventually something is going to happen. I think it is important for us TODAY to pray for God's mercy and ask God to give us strength. Today, before the day after, pray and seek God.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Anger 2

As is regularly the case, when I write, preach or teach on anything, it seems that the next day I run across something that addresses the issue. I am sure that it is because I am attuned to it. Even so, it is pretty consistent.

I wrote about anger yesterday. I confessed that it is one of my besetting sins. In sermon preparation on 2 Peter I am reading several commentaries (you have to do alot of preparation in order to make it look like you are just winging it!). Pheme Perkins (Interpretation commentary series, p. 109)) writes "Modern biology, psychology, and other social sciences make many readers fairly skeptical about this traditional version of perfection. Passions are often treated as autonomous characteristics of human nature. We are much more comfortable with the perfection that exhausts itself in working for justice, caring for the poor, and the like than with turning away from the world and its passions."

I tried to research Pheme to get some ideas about her background and theological disposition. What little I could find is not enough to make any sure claims. I probably do not agree with her assumption here. While I am certainly aware of the social dimensions of holiness, I do not think that our responsibilies in the outer world negates the  need to work on the inner world. Angry, lustful, and gluttonous people simply do not do a terrific job of helping the poor. We get mad at them too easily, or we are tempted to use them for our own purposes (hence politics), or we are too busy eating to share with others! So learning to disengage from my passions, however much I continually fail, remains on my primary "to do" list.

The truth of the matter is, most of the time I am quite patient. I am calm most of the time. I am able to put up with any number of irritants in a wide variety of settings. The blow ups may even be related to this capacity! The problem goes back to the call to holiness and the call to perfection. The problem is I am not ready for real love because I am still too broken. And so are you, dear reader. So are you.

There is, however, one thing I wanted to add to yesterday's meditation. Anger is not always bad. Sometimes anger is the appropriate response to a situation. For one thing, the wrath of God is often spoken of in the New Testament as well as the Old. The word occurs 198 times and many of them are speaking about God. When confronted with evil (e.g., child abuse) we should be mad. It is not clear to me that as a pastor that anger is inappropriate when I see that members of the church just plain do not show up and do not help with our mission. Sometimes children provoke parents to anger by inappropriate actions.

James 1:19-20 says our anger does not accomplish God's justice, so we should be slow to anger. I think that is true, but I wonder if  slow to anger means never get angry? I wonder if the real issue is how we express our anger? Perhaps that is the real problem, acts of rage.

I am not sure if this helps, but I do think anger is an issue of great importance. We hear about road rage. We see violence by individuals and by groups regularly. Someone must be mad!  Taking care of those issues have as much to do with holiness as anything. Prayer, study, community, service (all focused on God and His Son Jesus) are the remedy for all our sinful passions. It is a slow process. The promise of new life is our hope. Some day it will all be transformed. Until then....

Thursday, February 24, 2011


I got really angry sunday afternoon. I have been pretty good at not losing my temper for many months. Yelling is a release of anger, but afterward I can feel awful for days. I do not like writng about this, but some people may endure the same struggles. So.....

I am well aware of the genetic element to all this. Bad tempers run through my parents in both directions. Explosive tempers are part of our history. In addition to genetics, there is also the whole modeling of behaviors. When I am real mad I can hear and see my dad. The memories were not traumatic. I just can recall how mad he got. I find myself thinking, "I am dad."

A couple days ago at morning prayer we read where Jesus (basically) said, "you have heard it say do not kill, but I say whoever is angry with his brother has sinned." As I sat in the church hearing that I felt sad. I usually feel sad after losing my temper. It makes it doubly difficult when the Lord and Savior of the Universe is telling you how bad it is...

Today I was reading a chapter of John of the Cross. He is a Spanish mystic and (to me) the best author on the spiritual life ever. He coined the term "dark night of the soul." That is the actual title of his book. In his book he writes about the struggles for "beginners" in the spiritual life. He says that all of the sins of the flesh (like gluttony and lust, etc.) have a spiritual counterpart (e.g., gluttony for religous objects or spiritual experiences). It is a great psychological insight that our core problems are deeper than the base manifestations of our sins. Today I opened to chapter five ("Of the imperfections  into which beginners fall with respect to the sin of wrath"). First of all, John is writing for monks and serious minded people. There is some consolation in knowing that the audience is for commmitted Christians. He is explaining what happens to us on our journey of prayer. He says because of concupiscence (an overwhelming strong desire, lustiness) people get angry. After prayer, we desire that the peace and satisfaction in prayer would continue, we are frustrated (like a baby) when it ends. We want that peace and joy and when we do not have it we get angry. Another cause of "spiritual wrath" is the focus on sins of others. We are irritated by their failings. Lastly, we are frustrated by our own lack of progress. We see our own failings and brokeness and become angry with ourselves.

Needless to say, I am that guy: angry when my peace is disrupted (by life), frustrated by the failings of others to be more faithful and disgusted by my own hypocricy and sin. So it builds up and someone seets me off and "Boom!" (a raging father). So, we ask forgiveness (of those offended and Almighty God) and we pick back up. I am so sick and tired of my sinning, yet I still go on doing it. Fortunately, Jesus said other words. Things like "neither do I condem you, go and sin no more" or "your sins are forgiven, get up and walk." So there is hope. But it is the hope of those in desperate need of being healed. I thought, as a young man, that in thirty years I would be holy. I was overly optimistic! Unfortunately, the reality is far less sparkling. Still the same old guy. But I do know that it is not all lost. I hope others undersatnd the same thing. Most of us are still beginners in the spiritual journey, but better a beginner than someone not on the path at all. So, if you sin sin, then repent, make ammends, focus on Jesus and follow Him!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Yesterday at Morning Prayer I was surprised when my co-pastor read the name Eric Lidddell as the holy man of the day. He, of course, made reference to Chariots of Fire, the movie made about the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell, a favorite in the 100 meter dash, withdrew because the heat was on Sunday and he did not compete on his sabbath. As the movie showed us, Eric went on to win the 400 meter (setting a world record) instead. He also won the bronze in the 200. It is an amazing story of courage, faith and athletic success.

I think what hit me most is that our focus yesterday morning was on a different apsect of Eric. We came at his life from a different angle. We remember him as a missionary in North China, where he served from 1925 until 1943. He was a rugby player and one can assume that his spirituality was shaped by the toughness of his athleticism. His courage as a missionary no doubt reflected that toughness. WWII and the conflict between Japan and China impacted Eric. While his wife and three daughters moved to Canada, he and his brother remained behind to minister. He was eventually put in a concentration camp and died in 1945, just before the camp was liberated.

No movie was made about Eric Liddell the missionary. Yet, I am sure his gold medal meant less to him than preaching the Gospel and ministering to people. I know his life meant less to him than mission work. He was a man of great faith. He was faithful, even unto death.

The prayer yesterday includes these phrases: "God, whose strength bears us up  on mighty wings"... "we pray that we also may run with endurance the race set before us..." Endurance is not easy. It is very difficult, day after day, to keep plodding along. Discouragement and frustration can wear  us down. We can question, "What is the point?" The Christian faith is openly mocked in our culture. We are tempted to mold our lives around cultural values rather than our rule of life and faith. The faith community, stretching across time and space, is a source of comfort and challenge. The act of remembering heroes from the past can serve to inspire us to greater good. It can remind us that there is a God and Father, revealed in and through His Son Jesus, calling us to be faithful and brave. We cannot all get gold medals in the Olympics, but we can all proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Hurts You

I get up early most days. Lot's to do.

I try to begin the day with some prayer, usually a variation of the prayer of St. Patrick and some repeated verses from the Psalms. It seems to be a good idea to actually look at God first. Fr. Knight told me when I was a young man that if we get up a bit earlier to pray then we can say that we get up for God. Made sense then and thirty years later it still makes sense.

I read a bit from John of the Cross (16th Century Spanish mystic and theologian). Today I read about the obstacles to growth in prayer. It was helpful to me. His insights are psychological, although the terminology he uses would be different from you and I. Then, as I made the kids' lunches, I watched the MLB Network. (I am sure John of the Cross never did that!) The panel was discussing the various injuries that some of the major stars were experiencing as Spring Training gets going.

Seems we all have things in common, even those who rank among the best in the world. Great athletes hang by a thread. One bad move and their career is done. Spiritual athletes have the same struggle. Our deepest spiritual desires can get translated into base sensuality in a second.

I see that in myself. I am sore from moving furniture this weekend. My temper got the best of me Sunday afternoon. I exercise but my body is still deteriorating. I do spiritual exercise but still fall prey to the same old sins. The frustrations and limitations are difficult to accept, but they have meaning. What does it mean to you, to be fragile and weak on so many different levels? One thing it means to me is I know I need a savior. I know I need help. I have learned, a dozen times a day, that I just am not able to do it alone. I need other people, folks who love me and are patient with me. Folks like my family and friends. Even more, I need a deeper help; Something or Some One who can address my core, my soul. I have hung my hope on Jesus. Some day all will be well.

Until then, this life is like Spring Training. We get ready and work hard. We experience wounds and brokeness. We try to get into shape (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). We learn to play together (relationally). We hope for the glory to come! Come Lord Jesus!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do what you are

Today at church we will read from Leviticus. Leviticus has an extensive amount of material on ancient Jewish sacrificial rules. Most Christians that I know have never read it and never will. That includes any number of people who claim that it is "the word of God."

Leviticus 18 begins with God talking to/through Moses to His people. He tells them, "be holy because I (God) am holy." The people of Israel are told that they can not do like the Egyptians do or do like the Canaanites do. This command from God introduces three chapters on what the "doing" of Israel should look like. As a preacher, it raised for me a couple of issues, especially since it is linked to Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Law of Moses and the "Law" of Jesus both assume that God is holy and that we are supposed to be holy. Holy means, among other things, to be set aside for God. We are consecrated to Him and intended to be used as He sees fit. So holiness runs contrary to the popular expression "it is my body and I can do with it what I want." [theologically, not politically]

Because God is the one who sanctifies us, it can be said that holiness is a gift. It is unearned. It is not something that accomplish for myself. Jesus makes that abundantly clear as He explains that murder is also anger/ill will in the heart, that adultery includes lustful desires, etc. So we are, by grace, made part of God's people. We are holy.

But holiness is not magic. Holy objects can be misused. Holy places can be desecrated. Holy people can do blasphemous things. Hence, the list; an explanation of what we should and should not do. The list is controversial in places. Chapter 18 is all about sex. There is a long list of people who are forbidden as sex partners. It focuses on incest, but also includes homosexuality and bestiality. Chapter 19 is more about personal morality and social justice. I am not getting into that debate.

Anyhow, the point of the hoiness code is that God is holy and He wants us to be holy. And the further insight is that being holy entails doing (and not doing) concrete actions. Judaism, and Christianity, have connected holiness with religion. This is simply not the case in other religions of the ancient near east. In fact, the pagan gods are frequently sensualists who are immoral. The neighbors of Israel did things that God found offensive.

So as you look in the mirror today, understand that if you are part of God's people you are holy. And if you are holy, then you are supposed to do holy things. And holy things, if the Bible is true, include sexual morality, not lying, not stealing, treating people fairly, providing access to the poor. Being holy means you "do" forgiveness, and you "don't do" revenge and hate. As Leviticus says, and Jesus repeats, "you love your neighbor as yourself."

Holiness means you worship (at church!). It also means you work hard to be good and you work hard to make life good for those around you (including people you call enemies!). Being holy means "do" what you "be." (Think of it as good fruit from a good tree. Apple trees make apples. Christian trees make Christian acts). In discerning what actions to engage in it is important first to think: "Because I am holy, I will/will not do this." What would the world look like if Christians acted holy?

Saturday, February 19, 2011


I just left a luncheon which our church hosted for the Career Transition Support Groups in the greater Memphis area. All of these groups are led by volunteers who are trying to help other people during that difficult time of being between jobs. Almost all of the groups meet at area churches (and one synagogoue).

I am proud that the faith community opens its doors and facilities to provide a place for these people to receive guidance, support and make connections. I think that is love in action. It also reminds me that while the anti-Christian folks yammer on and on about how destructive people of faith are, there are no Agnostic Centers or Atheist Temples popping up to do the sort of thing that we do all the time. (okay, enough venting)

Following the point of yesterday's blog, I am struck by how little we need to do to make an impact. We open our doors. We provide food and drink. I offer counseling support. Some of our members pop in with little treats for the group. And every time I go there are a bunch of folks who feel compelled to say thank you to me and the parish. They are genuinely appreciative because it makes a difference for them.

Leveraging resources means that sometimes a little bit becomes a lot. On Super Bowl weekend we had buckets out. I asked our folks to toss in the cost of a bag of chips. We will all be eating and drinking while the game is on so who will notice a few extra bucks. Well, at last count we raised about $1800 dollars. That is serious money which we gave to the local Food Pantry. Everyone chips in a little and you get alot. Awesome. Sort of like that boy with a few fish and some bread. Jesus blessed it and distributed it and thousands ate.

The little bit we have to offer becomes a great deal more when we pool resources and act with generosity. I am convinced that that is the hope of the Kingdom. I think God is going to continue to use us to bless and benefit one another for all eternity. Just like babies go through a time in the womb, we continue to grow and develop during our time on earth. Death is the next birth into a new reality. It will be similar and have some continuity and it will be radically different. But the skill of generosity, of love, and of caring about others will be carried over. God will use our "little bits" to create a wonderous new thing. It is probably okay to be excited about that future as we work together in the present.

Friday, February 18, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

One of my favorite movies of all time is "It's a wonderful Life." I am sure there is a psychological reason for that. I am self aware enough to know that I am motivated to 'make a positive difference' in the life's of others. On those days when I feel like I don't matter I can get pretty blue. Letting people down weighs on my heart and soul. I have found it easy to make negative assessments of myself throughout most of my life.

I know that this is not something that I can simply address through thoughts. I have plenty of education in theology and psychology. I know the theories of atonement and mental health which should free me from this gnawing feeling that I just do not measure up.

My guess is this self-revelation will produce a range of reactions. Many people will think it is pointless, some might even have no clue what I am talking about. There is another group, smaller and far less likely to read blogs (especially blogs like this), who are too busy enjoying adventures to ponder such questions. There is, however, a significant number of people with whom this will resonate. Part of this group will think it a bad idea to share such struggles publicly, while most will find it helpful. Those are the people I write for most of the time.

Many of my parishioners read this blog. Several have commented that it has given them insights into my thought that years of interactions had not revealed. I write because I am trying to reach out and draw others deeper into the mysteries of God and faith. I write to challenge, comfort and inspire others whom I can not or will not ever see in our pews at St. Andrews.

Last night something happened that was wonderful and eye opening for me. . This year I was one of three recipients of the PTA Lifetime Achievement Award at Schilling Farms Middle School. It was an honor, but I also know how little I have done. I get credit for what my parish does, and most of the reason I was honored was because of them. But as the presenter introduced me she shared something that really hit me. She told the group that she had met me some months ago when she was part of a group in this year's Leadership Collierville class. My parish is part of the historic tour and I just showed up to do a brief presentation on our current parish. She told the group that she and her husband were challenged and inspired by what I said. She said that as a result he had adopted a local school (in Memphis lots of our schools need real help). He was providing mentoring and financial aid. They are making it a better school. They are also challenging other businesses to adopt schools. It sort of choked me up to hear that.

I guess this sounds like bragging. It isn't meant to be. It really is, for me, a reason to hope. Like I said, most of the time I do not feel especially successful or significant. (And all of the time I know it is not supposed to be about me) But I did want you to know that, like Jimmy Stewart's character in the movies, it is possible that you have had an impact and effected positive things about which you do not know. Can that hope motivate you to keep trying to make a difference? Not to relieve guilt, or earn heaven, or prove to the world you are special. Do it because that is why God made you: To be His gift to the world.

I had no idea that twenty minutes with those people had made any difference at all. Now I know that people like you and me can make a huge difference. I still do not think I deserved the PTA award, but I am so thankful to have learned that a school full of kids in Memphis have had their lives improved by the selflessness of that couple. And it is cool to know I had a small part to play in it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I got an e-mail from a dear friend yesterday. He is facing surgery, pretty serious surgery. He has been very upbeat and positive about it, a model of courage and faith. He shared with me that the recent post on Spring Training had resonated with him. He said I had written it just for him.

One thing he shared is that he tries to remember that every day could be his last. He says that he wants to make sure that whenever he is with someone that he loves, that that person knows how much they mean to him. He went on to say, "I guess this is pretty morbid."

One thing I know about him is he reads the Rule of St. Benedict every year. I was trained in a Benedictine seminary at St. Meninrad, Indiana. One thing that stuck with me was the Benedictine mantra, "Keep death always before you." So I told my friend, "You are not morbid, you are being a good disciple of Benedict."

I am dying. You are dying. Everyone is dying. Sometimes we just get advanced notice of the due date. This could be my last blog because something could happen today. I do not think it is morbid to be aware of that. We just lived through another winter. The trees and bushes are skeletal around here. The grass is yellow. Most of us are not terribly freaked out about this because we have been through plenty of winters. There are also hints of spring. The days ahead will be better. Lot's more sunshine. Warmer weather. Spring foliage. The "death" called winter is not the end. There is hope for tomorrow.

If death is the final word then, yes, by all means, let's pretend it won't happen. Let it pounce upon us unawares like a ravenous lion. Let us numb ourselves to its pending appearance by focusing on fantasies and distractions. But if the story of Jesus is true, then is it not possible to look into the steely eyes of death and the gaping jaws of mortality with hope and even joy?

My friend and I got together yesterday and prayed. He set his life straight with the Lord. We prayed for healing and I annointed him. We hugged. We went on with our day. Did we look at death? Yes. It is foolish to pretend that this operation is not serious. But we looked only briefly and fixed our gaze, instead, on a much greater force: Resurrection Life. He said it best. "I expect it is going to go fine, but I do not want to pretend like this nothing. I am okay however it turns out. I have faith."

Yes, that rings true. Live each day like it may be your last. Tell everyone you love, "I love you." Live a life that matters. And enjoy each day. God loves us and has great plans for our forever! Dying is part of the journey of faith. That is not morbid.
God bless you, R, see you in recovery!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

how much is too much?

The 'Big News' in baseball today is Albert Pujols and his salary demands. It is reported that he wants $300 million for ten years. He is hands down the best hitter in baseball and probably the best player. He is also 31 and is in the decline phase of his career. There was lots of discussion on tv and on the radio as experts discussed the merits of his demands. Probably, the vast majority of Americans would say, "Baeball players make too much money!"

But baseball players are not the only ones raking in cash. Movie stars can get $20 million for one picture. There are lots of people "making too much money" in the entertainment industry. But are they making too much?

One part of the issue is systemic. There are over 300 million people in America and entertainers connect with such huge numbers that by virtue of economies of scale the dollar amounts are just crazy. If ten percent of Americans care about a team, that is 30 million people. If they each spend $100 a year on that team that is $3 billion dollars. When you start chopping up $3 billion into parts, those parts can be awfully large!

There are less than a thousand people (from the whole world) playing in the Major Leagues. What they make is crazy compared to you and me, but we don't fill stadiums with 30,000 people nor do we have tv contracts.

If I made 10 cents for every one who read this blog I could buy myself lunch at MacDonald's on most days. But let's say that I suddenly became world famous and ten thousand people from around the world read the blog. Ten thousand dimes would be $1000. That would be plenty to live on per day! People might think 10 cents is fair pay, but when it is ten thousand time ten cents then it seems outrageous. And if the daily connections were one hundred thousand per day (such a small number out of the billions of people in the world) suddenly it is crazy money.

Most of us look at the multi-millionaires and grouse about how much they make. Many of us fantasize that "if I made a million a year I would use it to help some needy charities." but what if a third world person looked at your life style today? Would they think you are living in extreme luxury? My guess is, by most standards of the world, I live an opulent life. So the question is, can I stop being mad about what someone else is getting and be thankful for what I have? Can I begin today to be generous with what I have to make an impact on the needs of others.

I wish that I could get half of Pujol's salary. I am sure I would use much of it to benefit others. But there is little chance I will see a fraction of that. There is little chance you will either. And it doesn't matter. Maybe that money would make us less the person we are today. Maybe it would not make us better. In the end, we are responsible for what we do have. And economies of scale will always mean that in a global economy some people are going to  be able to get crazy rich. But the Lord Jesus indicates that entry into the Kingdom of God is more difficult for the rich. It helps to reflect on that as well.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pitchers and Catchers Report

Spring Training is a metaphor.
While there are no doubts that some baseball teams are better than others, in Spring Training everyone is still even. No one has won a game and no one has lost a game. In Spring Training it is time to refocus and work hard. It is a time of hope because every year there are some teams which surprise. Every year someone is much better than expected. Every year there is hope that this is the year that we do it!

Spring Training is a time to learn to play together. No matter how hard you work on your own, it takes a team to win. Meshing my skill set with your skill set allows us to achieve more. Interdependence is a reality and we need to live in the real world.

Spring Training is a time to focus on fundamentals. One of the most amazing truths about baseball is this: no matter how long you have played you still need to go back and practice the fundamentals. The foundation of our life also requires constant attention. Sometimes ego makes us ignore the basics because it is 'the basics' and we want more. In the spiritual life we are all beginners!

Lastly, Spring Training is SPRING! Spring and Lent, Spring and Easter, Spring and New Life. The words just go together. So now is a time to rekindle hope, to refocus on making the main thing the main thing, to renew our working relationships in concert with one another and a time to commit to achieving our ultimate goal (union with God and each other forever).

Even people who do not care about baseball can care about the metaphor. The metaphor of baseball provides us with an insight into life. We "play the game" of life and even if we are deadly serious about playing, we still need to enjoy it. Thirty teams start the season, only one team wins. Play to win, but even if you lose enjoy the game. You can build characater in disappointment just as you can in success. Players get hurt and careers end suddenly. Never forget how fragile it all is. Never take anything for granted. Today may be your last chance to "run and hit and throw" (whatever you do).
Before every game say a prayer of thanksgiving: for the sun, for the birds, for the other players and for the chance to be on the field. What ever your "field" is.....
Play ball!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentines Day

In a "Me" culture Valentine's Day gets reinterprted. Love is self giving. It is other seeking; that is, it seeks out the welfare of another. It is "us" centered, in the sense that it is about two becoming one. When "me" is the sole center then there can be no true love. So on Valentine's Day there is only a serach for someone to make me feel good. The purpose of Valentine's gifts is to score.

Authentic love is not easy. It runs counter to our self-seeking impulses. Authentic love makes us vulnerable. Authentic love is sacrificial. Yet, authenitic love is also life blessing, exciting and transformative. Those who have loved and been loved call it the greatest experience of life.

Romance is certainly an aspect of such love. There is, however, so much more. Love is an echo of the Universe's Source. We read that "God is love." We read that the first commandment is to love God  and the other is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. Love is tied up with the purpose of the universe. It answers, in part, the question, "Why am I here?" So Valentine's Day, which can be cheesy, or can be a farce, is also able to be the best of holidays. It can be a day when we genuinely open our hearts to the others of our lives and tell them not only that we love them, but how much they mean to us.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Me to Us

The idea of needing other people is easy for me to grasp. As a father, I am keenly aware of how much I give to my children. I give them a name. I chose their native language. I raised them in a particular church. I have been decisive in thousands of experiences: I chose their home, their school, their vacations, what they eat and drink, etc. I have limited some choices and expanded others.

Obviously, I was not alone. Mother probably was more decisive. It is also true that my kids made any number of decisions. They were not shaped and formed like clay. They make all sorts of choices, too.

Choices impact others. We are part of numerous systems. We ar one of the moving parts which have effects on other. Even when we withdraw we impact the group. Sometimes the team plays better without us, but there are other times when the team suffers our departure. If the team is playing with too few players it usually finds itself in trouble. There needs to be a reasonable ratio of workers to the job at hand.

What scares me about today is the focus on "Me" has resulted in the illness and death of so many institutions. I am a blood donor. Most blood donors are old. My motivation to give no doubt has elements of self involved, but in the end I do it because it is the right thing to do and people need my blood. People whom I do not know and whom I will never know have used more than ten gallons of my blood. Many have been babies. Is it worth the inconvenience of an hour of time and a needle in my arm. Yes. I hate needles and I am way busy, but yes, saving lives is worth it. It also helps me connect to the wider community. What happens as the number of donors shrinks?

Yesterday at prayer group Jean shared about an Egyptian woman she saw on tv. The woman was cleaning the square after the demonstrations. She said that woman said that Egypt belonged to the people and that the people had to clean it up. Most of us treat the "public square" as someone else's problem. We are not invested in cleaning up common ground. walking through a garbage strewn park in Chicago, following a weekend of ballgames and family picnics, I saw the fruit of that attitude. Civilization is perilous. It can all disappear in a blink. "We" can decide to maintain it. Unfortunately, the growing number of disconnected "Me's" is a deadly threat to all of us.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What about ME?

We live in tension. On the one hand, our culture celebrates individualism. To be 'different' and 'unique' is a preoccupation of so many. (Of course, we all know that non-conformists frequently end up looking like other non-conformists!)

I recall the radical punk movement we saw in Europe in the 1980's. Often times dozens of these young people with bizarre hair styles, dark makeup, odd clothing and assorted piercings would be seen flocking together. (All looking uniquely the same as each other) One day a young woman, in all her punk strangeness, was sitting alone with us in a train compartment. She seemed uncomfortable and we wondered, "Are there ever times that she wishes she looked normal so she could just blend in? Did she ever say, I wish I wasn't a punk today." Isolated and alone she appeared uneasy.

That is the proverbial 'on the other hand' of the story. We seek to be unique but we also hunger to be included. We seek out others like us. Even misery loves company! We want to belong. Yet, we fear rejection. So we preemptively reject others, or we act in a way that invites rejection. We boast that we do not care what others say, even as we listen for their every word. In pathological instances, the fear of rejection can make being accepted painful. I have worked with enough disturbed young people to see that at work. It is one of life's tragedies. We make choices which are self destructive and push away those who we need the most.

In theory, faith communities are intended to bridge the gap between 'me' and 'them' by creating a 'we.' 'We' is personal. It includes 'me' without devolving into a disconnected individualism. 'We' is personal, so it does not negate the reality of 'me.' The problem is, both  impersonal communalism and the selfish individualism are pulling at us. Hence, we live in tension: do I give up myself and melt into the group or do I assert myself and stand alone? Taken to an extreme either is unhealthy, hurtful and sinful. But balancing the two is like walking on ice. The slightest misstep and we are suddenlyflailing about at the brink of a fall.

So what about "me"? Do I matter? Am I all that matters? Why is it so hard?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fundamental Option

"There are two kinds of people," the old joke goes. In a sense, that is true. The two types, those who love God and those who don't, obviously subdivide into a wide variety of manifestations, but there is a point where the division is between one or the other.

As a disciple, a rather poor one much of the time, I have opted for the "love God" group. This Sunday I will preach on Deuteronomy. God says, "I set before you life and death, blessing and a curse. Choose life." Choosing is a particular as well as a general act. I can choose to eat healthy food, but I still must make particular choices of apple, orange, broccoli, or lean meat.

In seminary, we called this general choice to love God the fundamental option. In our rule of life, we live out this choice. Our ethic is how we do it. The ten commandments are a basic outline of such an ethic. We are called by God to be moral. It is important to look at our values and beliefs and assess: am I a child of my culutre or am I a child molded by my Heavenly Father?

The other day at Morning Prayer I heard the words of Jesus, "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out." I was told once that Jesus did not mean this literally. I fought the urge to say, "No duh!" Even so, if He meant it figuratively it is still pretty amazing. Jesus apparently does not subscribe to the theory that "sin is no big deal." I wonder how the world would be if we Christians did a better job of avoiding sin and engaging in acts of loving service.

So, in your rule of life identify times and places where you engage in genuine acts of love and service. Find a group in need, maybe elderly, maybe young, maybe sick, maybe disadvantaged, whatever group it is, find them and commit your time, talent and treasure in service of them. You cannot save the whole world, but you can make a big difference for someone. Make a list of things you want to be known for: "S/he is the kind of person who would never do______" or "S/he is the most ______ person I know." Your behavior creates your legacy. Jesus will judge your legacy. What is your Fundamental Option? How do you live that out each day? Every choice we make and every act we perform goes into creating our life story. Our choices determine if our Fundamental Option is to love and serve God or not.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kingdom Ethic 2: Rule of Life

Yesterday we offered a model for understanding salvation. In simplest terms, God has graciously called us into relationship with Himself through the work of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God reconciled the world to Himself. We are now, by grace through faith, members of His people. We did nothing and can do nothing to make Him love us.

So we enter His Kingdom. Today we are living in His Kingdom. Right now. But His Kingdom has not come yet. It is already here, but it is still to come. Sounds confusing but isn't that reality? The day you get married you are a spouse. The day you have a baby you are a parent. The day you get hired you are an employee. BUT! Everyone also knows that you grow into these roles and identities. There is a greater fullness to marriage, parenting or working than we experience on the first day. That is how the Kingdom is, there is a greater fullness yet to be revealed. God's rule as king has not been fully expressed among us yet.

So as we seek God and His will, prayer and study are key components. There is more. God has revealed that He is very concerned about how we act. In the Kingdom, the Bible makes clear, there are things we do not do. "No stealing here." "No murder here." "No sexual immorality here." etc. etc.

Is that a law ethic? Not really, "freedom from the Law" means something other than, "we can lie, steal, kill and fornicate." It means we are not law focused, but we are still behaviorally concerned. How we act and what we do still matters. We are in a community. Our behaviors effect others. God demands and expects us to live as proper citizens. So what does that rule of life look like? What are the behaviors which we are expected of us?

I think it is arguable that the main focus of God includes issues of justice and mercy. Jesus says we should love God and love our neighbor. Jesus had an eye on the needs of the poor. True religion has a component of right worship and a component of service to the needy. True religion includes personal morality and social morality. Now, let us be clear, this is not about justifying ourselves. It is not about doing things so we look good. It is not about earning salvation. But let us be equally clear that ignoring the needs of others, engaging in sinful behavior and not caring what anyone thinks are also NOT what it is all about.

It is about following Jesus and embracing His ethic. It is about imitation. It is about Jesus living in me. It is about "us" walking together in faithfulness and love. In the days ahead we might get into some controversy as we look at the ethic concretely.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kingdom Ethic: Rule of Life

Prayer and Study can (and should) be done both in private and publicly as part of a group. Learning in a class and praying at church with others is the Jesus way. Praying alone and studying is also the Jesus way. Is there more to being a disciple than that?

Ministry, mission, apostolic action, work-- all these are terms used to refer the fruit of our life. I choose the term "Kingdom ethic" because I hope it will keep us out of the morass of "faith vs. works" which seems to muddy up so many discussions. I am not real interested in those battles. I want to live and love and serve! (well, most of the time....)

Jesus offers us entrance into a new mode of existence. It is called citizenship in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom, God is the King and Ruler. He decides the expectations and He judges each person. Jews are the original members of this people. However, there has always been some place for Gentiles. In the OT this was usually vague and uncertain. In places there seems to be no room for us, while other times the invitation is quite open. Since Jesus, that invitation is much clearer. Paul writes about it quite a bit. You and I have become fellow citizens. (Other images include being grafted into the vine, being adopted, becoming part of the body of Christ) In God's Kingdom there are some serious expectations. Some of the major themes include the command to worship no-one else except God, to live justly and look after the needs of others and to live pure lives which are moral and merciful.

We are brought into the Kingdom by God's grace, it is not earned. There is nothing we have done to warrant it (just like God makes clear that it His choice of the Jews was pure grace). God has also chosen us and offered us this life and expects us to trust (faith) Him and to love Him. Once we are in the Kingdom (baptism is our citizenship ritual) there is a mode of life expected of us as citizens. There is an ethic ("way to walk" in the Bible) which we are called to embrace. So what we do matters. Faith has an intellectual content, a volitional content, and an emotional content, but it also has a moral-behavioral content. In the city of God we just do not do certain things. In teh Kingdom of God we are expected to do certain things. People who are not comfortable living the way the Father/King expects are not going to stay in the Kingdom. In the end, we will not live forever in peace and joy and harmony, we won't be able to love and worship God, if people continue to act the same way they do now. Something has to change and that something is our hearts and our behaviors. A "rule of life" addresses that needed change. The Kingdom ethic is our next focus.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

study to learn: rule of life

Yesterday I used the analogy of sermon preparation as a model for 'study' and I tried to provide several parallels. Today a few suggestions on study.

Just as prayer commitment is difficult because of time; busy schedules make real study a challenge. For one thing it is time consuming to even try to figure out what to study! With prayer it is much more straightforward (goal: "communication leading to communion"). With study, there a hundred legitimate starting points and goals. So where is one to start?

Well, if you are reading this then you have started. There are many blogs trying to provide information which is helpful to your journey. I have chosen several which I go to on a regular basis. They provide me with a breadth of information because they write about many different things.

I would suggest some reading in the area of prayer and spirituality. Long ago I learned that running magazines and weightlifting magazines seemed to have the same kinds of articles every month. At first this frustrated me, but later I realized that there were not going to be six new ideas about getting in shape every few weeks. The purpose of those magazines is to support of their readers in keeping with their commitments. Sure there is an occassional new idea, but in the end it is about remembering the basics. Reading a book on prayer every few months is the same sort of thing. It is not so much that you get new information as it is about renewing commitment.

I would suggest something on Church history. Biographies of great Christian people is a good idea. Right now everyone seems to be reading the bew book on Bonhoeffer. I would suggest someone old (before 600) for every one more recent. It is the best way to get to our roots. The book, "The Celtic Model of Evangelism" explained how St. Patrick and others successfully converted Ireland over fifteen hundred years ago. It resonated with me and was a real help.

Commentaries are vital. Tom Wright is probably the best there is. He has a series on the Gospels and Paul's writings which are very helpful and quite readable. They are called "Matthew for Everyone" or "Romans for Everyone." They look at a passge with a couple pages of commentary which blends scholarly information in an approachable form with reflections on every day life today. When studying about the Bible it is helpful to remember that learning should challenge you sometimes. Writing as NT Wright he has compiled some huge volumes which are more challenging but very helpful and thought provoking. He has a webpage with numerous articles.

'How to' books are also prevalent. Many contemporary writers have provided endless books on topics addressing life as a Christian today.

Probably the best advice I can give is this. You know what interests you, pursue learning more about that! Also, be aware of your weakness. If you do not know much about the Old Testament pick up Derek Leman's "A New Look at the Old Testament" and get on it. It may feel like going back to school, but my theory is graduation means we have more control over what we study. We should never "leave school" because we should never stop learning.

Monday, February 7, 2011

study: Rule of Life

"Infusion" refers to the direct acquisition of knowledge through purely passive means. In simplest terms, someone pours information and insight into our mind and we are not required to do anything but sit there! It is the way computers work when we do a download.

Does God regularly download us with an infusion of information? Or, does God expect us to put in the hard work of studying and thinking? I think that there are times when I just know something and there are other times when things come quickly to me. Sometimes in a matter of seconds it all comes clear. Praching is that way.

When I do sermon preparation for our Sunday service I usually have two weeks to prepare. Typically, on the Sunday I preach I go to my office after all the services and simply read through the three lessons and psalm assigned for the next time I preach. I read them through and underline key words or phrases. It is not uncommon that I immediately know what I will preach about, although most of the time I am not so sure. A couple of days later I re-read all the texts, often times reading the verses and chapters which are the context for the three readings. Then I break out the commentaries. I will read four or five commentaries and also read the original Hebrew or Greek to see about key words. I do a check to see where these words appear eleswhere in the Bible. Several days are spent reading and studying. At some point I choose a theme and begin to write. The writing can go smoothly or be a frustrating struggle with a dozen false starts. I write a sermon three times on average. Often times I am not pleased with the result. I pray that some how it will come together. Then on Saturday evening I preach it the first time. I make adjustments in the early service. Each time I preach it is a little different.

Why bore you with details of sermon writing? Because I think it is helpful for understanding the place of study in a rule of life:
  • Study has a purpose. We all don't preach on Sundays, but we are all "preachers" in some sense. The message we are called to share is delivered from the "pulpit of our life." Good preaching is, in part, a function of good preparation.
  • We cannot study everything. Each week there are three readings and a psalm. I am a man of big appetite and I want to study it all. A rule of life requires discipline and focus. Learning demands focus. Be aware of your time limts and determine what you are going to study.
  • Context is invaluable. If you want to look at a text, see it in the wider context of the chapter, the book, the canon. When we isolate anything we lose a grasp of its true meaning.
  • Study builds on previous study. You do not have to get it all in at one time. Insights can come while walking the dog two days after you have wrestled with a concept or idea.
  • Engage what you study with love. You cannot know what you do not love. And you cannot truly love what you do not truly know.
Study is a way to hear. It is a way to hear the truth. Truth is the voice of God. It is hard work but also recreational and a source of joy. It is possible that we will spend all eternity growing in knowledge. It is also possible that our knowledge, wisdom and insight are the raw material which God uses to work His ways on earth. Maybe we are partners with God. Maybe God is pleased when we are better prepared. Maybe tody we need to get on it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Study, Super Bowl: Rule of Life

It is Sunday morning. Today is Super Bowl Sunday. For two weeks there has been lots of focus on this game today. One of the common themes is the amount of dedication and effort required to achieve success.

Today is one of those days where I feel most deeply a sense of failure. I know today millions of Christians will spend more dedicated time to their yearly Super Bowl party then they will spend at worship in the next month. Football, after all, is exciting. Worship is not so exciting. Right?

This is no rant. Actually, my frustration is tempered by things I have read. Many church Fathers in the 300's preached about people attending the games of their era. Seems that Christians have struggled with priorities for a very long time. Living in the world it is hard not to be worldly. We Christians have typically not done a bang up job!

The value of study is perspective. It is helpful to really study scripture as well as pray with it. The problem with studying Scripture is how we "study." Often times, we are ignorant of so much else that we end up misinterpreting the message! A wide range of commentaries are needed to see the text from a variety of angles. At least one of the texts needs to be ancient. I also try to hear from a Catholic and Protestant. More on this later.

We are also ignorant of the history of Christian people. We end up making our own cultural assumptions the touch stone for understanding everything else. We end up twisting the message to meet our own expectations. God has been working in and through people for a long time. Many of them are so holy! Learn from them.

Any time some one tells me that "it has never been this bad," I smile. I have read enough history to know that we have not even sniffed "real bad" yet. It has been worse. Unimaginably worse. And it has been worse many times. So study provides us with information which gives us a clearer insight into the real world. It takes the edge off some of our worries and bad feelings. I plan to write more about study and a Rule of Life.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Final thoughts on Prayer: rule of life

I got an e-mail yesterday about my recent posts. Trying to figure out how to post comments is too difficult for most people. If you need to contact me or would like to offer suggestions or ask questions I can be reached at

The centerpiece of the e-mail was the issue of time. She said that many people have told her it is not necessary to spend a long time in prayer. She said the idea of warm up and cool down was helpful. She has also recommitted to her goal, an hour a day, with the assumption that she will not always make it. Her logic is 'better to come up short on an hour then it is come up short on ten minutes.' I agree. I would lilke to share some thoughts generated by my e-mail conversation with her.

My model for the Spiritual Life parallels my model for physical exercises.
  • Do not feel compelled to do the same thing every day. You can change it up. Some days pray longer. Some days may be shorter but more intense. Some days focus on thanksgiving and praise. The key is being INTENTIONAL. Set up a schedule so that you are clear which days are which. Most people who work out will tell you that if my workout is based on how I feel, many days I would quit before I warmed up.
  • The model. Physical fitness is strength, endurance, flexibility and speed. It is based on strength training, aerobics, stretching, nutrition, and rest. It is enhanced by variation in intensity and duration. People work harder with a partner and benefit from a guide/instructor/coach. I apply this to spiritual exercises. Sometimes literally, other times by analogy. (e.g. Bible = nutrition)
  • Quiet time is important. My guess is God speaks in a whisper much of the time (see Elijah on Mt. Carmel). It is hard to hear Him if you are talking! Deep breathing and repeating a phrase might help. Things like "Holy, holy, holy Lord." A verse of scripture may be useful. On occassion do the 'Barney prayer,' look to God and say twenty times, consciously and out loud, "I love You, You love me." Enter into the reality of that!
  • Posture matters. Face it, we are incarnate, body and soul. Kneel sometimes. Stand sometimes. Extend your arms outstretched and reaching and look up. Bow your head. Lay on the floor face down. Each physical position has a part in our  prayer. Your body communicates to your soul. You can pray (as a sinner, a needy child, an exultant disciple, etc.) more readily when your posture reflects the prayer. [Experiment: Fold your arms across your chesst, frown, and in a low, angry tone say, "Glory to God in the Highest." NEXT, open your palms and extend your hands over your head. Smile. Eyes wide open. Sing, "Glory to God in the Highest." Now reflect on the difference between the two.]
  • Pray outloud sometimes. Especially when we are alone, it is helpful to verbalize our prayer. I have spent many hours talking to God in our empty church. In all honesty, it seems more real. It is more like communication and less like thinking. I have had some people tell me, "people would think I was crazy talking out loud when no one is there." [re-read that last line and think about it a moment......] If you pray, thinking no one is there that is a problem. Pray like God is really there and really cares. He is. If He isn't then nothing really matters anyway.
  • Use your imgination in praying with Scripture. Pretend you are there. Look at Jesus and the crowds. Ask him about what He is thinking and feeling. Make analogies to your world. Ask him to reveal His heart to you. I did an 8th grade retreat once and we did a guided meditation. One of the girls shared later that she was shocked to see Jesus wearing blue jeans. She had an encounter which blew her away. How cool is that?
Commit, every day, to be a man/woman/child of prayer. Set aside time. Have a plan. Be open to be led by the Holy Spirit in a different direction. Be open to be invited to spend more time. Look at your life in terms of a season, a week, the day and right now.
Well, I have spent time doing this, now I need to go pray. I hope you see and hear God today!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Prayer 2: Rule of Life

We know that Jesus prayed. He went to synagogue and He identified with God's people, Israel. The word ekklesia (=called out, church) indicates that it is a people called to be God's own. The Judeo-Christian faith is shaped by this: We gather together. "It is not good for the man to be alone," God declared at creation. Each of us is made as part of the wider body.

I re-emphasize the corporate nature of faith because in our age it seems to be lost on most people. We are too individualized and isolated. Even so, we are also connected in many ways. We no longer write letters, though, we 'text' one another. Our communication on Facebook or Twitter usually consists of a sentence or two. How does that sort of communication impact our prayer?

The upside, we are reminded that there are so many other people. Social media connects us in real time with  hundreds of others. At least it feels like we are connecting...

The downside, we may lose the capacity to engage in deeper forms of communication. When I was a little Catholic school boy we were taught prayers called ejaculations. It is a term I rarely use in public because of its more common meaning. An ejaculation is a short expression like: "My Jesus mercy" or "My King and my God." We were taught to utter such prayers regularly. I did then and I still do today. But for most of us, that must be part of a larger discipline. Throughout the day I try to add this to my foundation (private  prayer time coupled with corporate liturgical prayer).

"How do you pray with Scripture?" David asked me last night. It depends. Sometimes I read only a small part. I meditate on words or phrases. I might think about how the characters feel. The main characters as well as others. I try to reflect on God's role. How is He different from my assumptions? This meditative approach aims to learn about God, to confront myself and my life ethic or to give me an understanding of the future. Frequently, this meditation leads to prayer (asking, thanking, repenting, praising). It can be very free-wheeling and spontaneous.

I love to pray the Psalms. In the Psalms they say things that I never would on my own (I am too shaped by piety and the desire to "do it right"). So when the psalm blasts at God about being "silent" or "slow to save" (I was taught not to complain) it opens me to be honest about my real life experience: God does not always seem to be around! What really enhances my prayer time with psalms is imagining the words comng from the mouth of Jesus. As I pray, I think of Him praying with me. On the cross He prayed a psalm ("My God, My God, why have you abandoned Me?") Jesus praying the psalm makes the words different for me. And Jesus really is there, even if I cannot see Him!

Praying with Scripture is also an act of discovery. "Who are you, Lord?" I ask. As I wrestle with the Bible I see glimpses of God. Then, I can progress to reflecting upon my own life. I review His activity in my daily living. I try to make connections between my life and the Bible stories. It is often difficult but I do not get discouraged. I believe that God will use all these hours and hours I have spent seeking Him. Sometimes it seems like a waste of time, but usually I know, at my core, that I am better for it and the world is better for it.

As you read this I hope it is helping you clarify your own prayer regimine. Begin the day, first thing, thanking God you woke up and offering to Him your day. And during the day, spend the time allotted, as often as you allot it, to engage in real prayer. Not just Tweeting God, but actually talking and listening, actually desiring a connection with the Eternal, Holy, Loving, Creator-Redeemer of the Universe. And do not try to measure the impact it makes. In the end, that is God's work so trust Him. [We really are not that good at assessment any way!]

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

prayer: rule of life

In creating a Rule of Life, we must first identify our own character and our own ministry. Ideally, that is done in concert with others.
Pray-Work-Study. Let's start with Pray.

One aspect of the Rule should be corporate worship. Sorry, the Bible is pretty clear that God calls a people to Himself. He calls a people to worship. I know all about the problems with the church. I understand that people in the church are imperfect. I agree that lots of churches do lots of damage. But God calls us to be part of a people.

Corporate worship in the Christian tradition has focused on Sunday, the resurrection day (little Easter). If one's schedule permits then it might also be helpful to include a few other gatherings during the week. Some churches have daily eucharist or Morning/Evening prayer. [I am well informed about the problem many people have with corporate worship. They have told me for decades, "I don't get much out of it." It may be helpful to remember that corporate worship is intended to focus on God, not you. Not saying it should be a boring experience, but I am saying it is not primarilly about you.] Another option is a regular prayer group. Jesus said, "Where two or more are gathered in My name, I will be with them." Jesus seems to be a fan of group prayer.

Corporate worship is in conjunction with private prayer. Private prayer disciplines are truly a function of one's personality. I prefer to use the psalms and Scriptures in prayer. Many people use devotional books. Some sit in quiet and meditate. Others like to move. Some use prayer beads (like a rosary) or repetitve prayers (like the 'Jesus Prayer'). In general, I think there are a few components to all effective prayer, which I will have the temerity to share now:
  • It needs to be scheduled. By this I mean, the foundation of our prayer life cannot be short prayers uttered as the mood hits. It is helpful to have a place set aside (call it sacred space). Humans get unconscious signals from environment. [The term "marriage bed" has powerful conotations. We do not serve meals in the bathroom. We react to invasions of our personal space.] The amount of time needs to be significant. I shoot for thirty to sixty minutes for my own daily prayer. I think physical exercise is a good model for spiritual exercise. It takes a while to warm up and it takes time to make an impact.
  • Prayer is NOT magic. The primary reason for prayer is to have COMMUNITY with God. Prayer time is about me being reshaped and reformed by my relationship with God. It is a process of dying to self and growing in Christ.
  • All good prayer has some moments of absolute quiet and centering on God. Because we are all different, many of us do not "do silence" well. I cannot imagine any situation where listening does not include the ability to be silent.
  • All good prayer should include some interaction with God's Word. The heart of sin is our own heart! Our thoughts, desires, feelings, etc. are the producers of our own evil. It is not a good idea to assume that "praying from the heart" is some how pure. [People get mad when I say this, but I still know it is true] The Scriptures can help us encouter God from the outside. The Gospels reveal Jesus to us. The Bible reveals God to us. So some time in reflection on the Word of God is vital.
  • All good prayer should include some time of thanksgiving. What would your life be like without your lips? or your finger nails? or your kidneys? or your your skin? Do you think you would spend time griping if suddenly you were to lose your eye sight? Then how much time should be spent every day thanking God for loved ones? health? joy? My guess is that ten minutes a day listing things for which we are thankful would be a worthwhile thing.
  • All good prayer should include a time of being with God. Like a child in a parents' arms, like a servant before a merciful Master, like a student before a Great Teacher, like one lover gazing at another. Prayer is not primarily functional. It is not about "getting stuff" or "doing stuff." Prayer is about falling ever deeper in love and learning Who the Beloved is more deeply.
Foundation prayer. Every day for a signficant time, a time set aside and a place to do it. That is part of the rule of life which we fashion. Then during the day we find, more and more. other prayer moments creep in, any where and any time. And we do it every day without focusing on how we feel, because most of the time it will not feel especially wonderful.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What will I do/Who am I: rule of life

I was taught that grace builds on nature. In other words, God tends to use us according to our natural abilities and inclinations. Now, the first thing people want to point out is the exceptions to this rule. Yes, there are times when a person is asked (and empowered) to do amazing things or things contrary to their natural desires. But that is an exception, not the norm.

Each of us is blessed with a certain skill set. We have a personality and character. Last week I wrote about the healing ministry. I shared there that St. Paul believed that the charism of healing is not given to everyone to the same extent. So it is helpful to do an inventory of your gifts. There are many assessment tools available. Simply ask a few people who know you well what they think, that is a good starting place. Also, a good personality test is also helpful. The book, "Please Understand Me II" is one which I have found most helpful. There are dozens of others as well.

My personality is either a teacher or a counselor. My life as a priest has usually centered around bible studies, Sunday school and many hours of counseling. I am probably of most use to God and His kingdom in this kind of role. My rule of life should reflect this.

The rule of life (to borrow from St. Benedict) should center on Prayer, Study and Work. I would further subdivide work as in-reach and out-reach. This would cover both service and evangelism. But our work shapes the type of prayer and study we do. Our work impacts how we serve those in need and how we proclaim good news. Then our prayer and study will shape the way we do our work.

So the first step in our rule of life is to answer these questions:
Who am I? What gifts and talents do others see in me? What interests do I have? What am I drawn to do with my time, my talent and my treasure?

We live in a big world with lots of fertile territory. Jesus once said, "The harvest is plentiful, but laborers are few." Our rule of life aims to address Jesus' concern. It is our first step in becoming an effective laborer. A rule of life reflects our vision of our life as a disciple. It is important because God takes our lives seriously. A rule of life helps us to live consciously and intentionally. A rule of life keeps us on the way.