Total Pageviews

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Like father, like son?

I am going to blog based on the Daily Lectionary. I think it will be more responsive to God's word and hopefully more helpful for fellow pilgrims on the journey.

1 Samuel 8:1-22
When Samuel was old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The boys were named Joel and Abijah, but they did not walk in his path and were dishonest. Israel demands a king, which makes Samuel mad, but God said, 'they reject Me not you.' Samuel then warns Israel that a king will 'tax and spend' and bring misery to the land.

There is no guarantee that your kids will turn out the way you want them to. The tensions present in so many parent-(adult) child relationships is a reminder that genetic connections do not insure healthy relationships. I wonder what it was like being a son of Samuel. Your dad was feared as a man of great power. Your dad had heard the voice of God call to him. One wonders how much time Samuel spent away from the boys, busy with the work of being Israel's Prophet-Judge. Was he a stern or distant father, a connected and loving father? We are not told.

The Bible does not seem interested in psychological struggles or the inner feelings of its characters. We do not know what heartache, if any, Samuel experienced as he saw his wayward sons. The way contemporary American men father their children is very different from other cultures and other times. Certainly, we can assume that Samuel had some feelings for his sons. The text does not supply us any insight.

Raising children, one hopes that they will embrace the faith and carry on in a way that is pleasing to the Lord. Samuel's dismal failure in that regard serves as a stern warning and, perhaps, a consolation. No one is exempt from failure as a parent. No matter how great our accomplishments, we are always at risk of losing those closest to us. The demands of our vocations may cost us those nearest and dearest to us.

It is also true that no child can be totally shaped and formed by a parent. Each child grows into a man (woman) and at some point must choose for him (her) self. Even if we commune with God, serve Him faithfully and strive to lead all to Him, we may fail. We will fail because we are not in control. Our children are free to choose. At some pont we need to let go of them and let them choose. We cannot blame ourselves for every choice they make. We can not take credit for all the good they do.

Why did Joel and Abijah choose to abuse their role of trust? There are lots of reasonable theories. But one component which must be included in any theory is that they chose. They had the chance and they blew it. It could have turned out different. That is the mystery of life. Each day God gives us the chance to choose. We can use our chance to love and serve Him and others, or we can abuse our position. It is a very old story, yet as contemporary as the morning news. How will we respond to that chance today?
[for those who pray the daily lectionary I posted on last Thursday's reading! I just found out at MP. O well]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Authentic Christian

I have spoken with people lately who are seriously desiring to be faithful. The struggle they shared comes down to the question, "What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus in 2011 in America?"

One challenge is affluence. The question I was asked: how can I go to movies and out to eat when people are starving around the world? He already knows the stock answers. She gets that we are saved by faith and not by works. He gets that Jesus calls him to abundant life and deep joy. She knows that she should exude a sense of peace and joy which draws others to Christ through her. Yet there is still a perceived gap between the words in the Bible and the lives of Christians around here.

The issue? How to reconcile Jesus' radical message of self gift and discipleship with the normal lives of so many Christians. What about people who purchase outrageously expensive clothing, cars and houses, yet claim to follow Jesus? What about the cost of "follow Me"? What about the amount of time and energy spent on vacations, entertainment and personal consumption? Can you imagine St. Peter taking two weeks to unwind before his preaching tours?

Once again, there is a balance, but they have a point. Middle class luxury outstrips the wildest imagination of most people in most times and places. We have so much and it takes so much to sustain it. The irony is we do not seem satisfied. The tragedy is so little of our time, talent and treasure are exerted to help others in their lives.

These questions have haunted me my entire life. In my middle years I think I have chosen to dull the sharpness of the call. Perhaps I  have sold out. Perhaps I have given up on solving the puzzle.  Maybe the spiritual malaise leading to the decline of the church in the West is a function of our "overstuffed" lives.

I believe we do need to balance trust in Jesus with obedience. The analogy of the frog slowly boiling to death in water gradually being warmed is a stern reminder. God has not drawn a clear line stating this is how much fun you can have. Here is the maximum you can spend on a car or a house. Here is the percentages you need to give away. There is no handy answer sheet to let us know exactly what to do. And the Bible, for all its worth, sometimes generates more disagreements than clarity.

Other people's struggles can ignite (or re-ignite) my own. Another good reason for community. Accountability! I hope I helped those pilgrims in their journey. I hope I helped them to find a more authenitc expression of faith. But even as I did, I found myself asking the same question. "What does it look like, concretely, to be authentically Christian in this time and place?"

Monday, June 27, 2011

Baseball, Baptisms, Bye-Byes

Last evening I watched the end of the season. A year ago my son was injured, a broken bone in his arm, and he was living the misery of not being able to play.  Nor could he enjoy his summer vacation. It was an unpleasant time, compounded by the fact that the injury had been preventable.

A year later things had changed. My son's new team came into this weekend on a sixteen game winning streak. They had captured a consolation and three straight tournament championships. An up and down team was suddenly on a roll. We came into this State Championship weekend hoping to continue our winning ways. Our plan played out as we made it to the semifinals. Our ace was on the mound as we played the number one team in the state. This was the game which we had to win. Unfortunately, things did not work out. I arrived late, the score board said, 2-0 and we were nothing. My son was at bat, worked an eight pitch walk, proceeded to steal second and third and he came in on a ground ball. 2-1. We were still in this. Their next at bat they scored. Now it was 3-1 and our ace was struggling.

In the third inning my son walked to the mound. The plan had been to use him in the championship game if we made it that far. We were off the plan, our backs to the wall. Two strike outs and a bouncer back to him (sandwiched around a wicked line drive base hit) and we were back in the dugout. He had 'the look' in his eye. I knew he was going to carry us. We would not go down without a fight.

In the seventh inning, losing 4-2, we sent up our last three men. Each tried his best and each failed. The other team celebrated wildly. We walked off.

Suddenly, I found myself wandering around, shaking hands with moms and dads with whom I have spent so many hours the last nine months. Many of them were strangers when we first gathered as a team. We had shared in the joys and misery. We suffered as one or another child went hitless, made a crucial error, or pitched poorly. We yelled, for each other, when a child came in 'throwing cheese' to retire the other team, or laced a key hit to drive in the needed runs. Thirty five times we won. Sixteen times we lost. Always we did it together.

The hitting coach has the boys make a cross where they stand, to make sure their feet are in the right place. He made a theological connection with life. We stand on the cross of Jesus in everything. Their cheer, "1-2-3, for Him" was meant to shape their minds and imaginations around the concept of Jesus' Lordship. That everything we think, say or do is from Him and for Him. As I shared with another dad, I hope those words were not an empty phrase, lost in the repetition. I have reason to believe they were not. The team was made up of good kids. Each boy was someone you could be proud of. They were well mannered and lots of fun. So were the parents. I really liked them all and got close to a few.

We were made up of a hodge podge of denominations, but everyone was serious about their faith. One boy was Jewish, he often asked me to lead the prayer. There was no screaming at umpires or embarassing behavior. I liked that.

Spending a weekend at a baseball tournament can lead you to lose track of time. You are sort of in an enclosed world, cut off from the wider world. All you know is what is going on in front of you (and how cold or hot you are). My weekends, of course, are different, because I have church services. Another place where the focus is different from 'daily life.'

Yesterday morning we baptized a baby. As I said the prayers over him I choked up. I am sure being so tired had a part to play. I get emotional when exhausted. Some of it was the realization, for a moment, of God's relationship with us. The sheer beauty of a baby. The wonders of a family and love. The sacrifices people make for their kids. The wonders of a gathered assembly, praying and praising, welcoming someone new to the family. I caught myself, regrouped emotionally and continued. But I could have been a water fountain if I hadn't.

Afterward, I realized, again (for the hundredth time) that God does me a kindness by leaving me at arms length. Whenever I get close I weep:  Joy, awe, love, gratitude, wonder, all these and more, sweep me away into tears. God gives me distance so that I can function. So that I can love, honor and serve Him.

Saying good-byes yesterday was like that. There was a sadness in my heart. Some of these people I may never see again. Their will be tryouts for other teams. People move on. What we had this year will not be repeated. I am thankful to God for the beauty and joy. I am thankful to the kids and parents who made each weekend pleasant and fun, even when we lost. I am thankful to God for good-byes (including baptism: where we "die" with Christ so we can rise with Him). Each good-bye, each ending, is the transition point to a new beginning.

Last year I sat, a knot in my stomache, as my boy sat on the bench, his arm useless, watching his team, unable to give them the pitching and hitting they needed. This year in the last game, I got to watch my son, the heart of a lion, throwing pitch after pitch, even though worn out and drained. He made me proud. Last year I would not have even fantasized such a thing. I try to imagine what next year will be. Who knows? But all of it is a foretaste of the Kingdom. Every good-bye we make in Christ can be the door to a new life. I learned a lot yesterday. In church at a baptism and at the ball park. Loss and gain. Endings and New Beginnings. Community and love. Friendship. Hope. All of it a grace and gift. It is the sort of thing that makes you smile, that leads you to shed a tear, that makes you think about how great God is. 1...2...3... "For HIM!" That is what I will try to do today. Everything, for Him.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bleary prayer from a Wanna-be Christian

Yesterday was another day of doctor appointments for baby and the big kids. I am lucky to work in a place where I can do such things, if need be, and Summer is much more flexible. Last night I was pretty tired and I worked on Romans for an upcomng series of four Sundays. I find Romans difficult to understand. There are so many different approaches to it. For some people it is the central text of  the New Testament. I am not one of those people. I lean more toward the Gospels and the Prophets. Even so, I know Romans is very important and I try to read and study it regularly.

Trying to read commentaries when you are half awake is not easy, and commentaries on Romans is tougher. I tried to nap, unsuccessfully, then my daughter came and talked with me so that was neat. It is a rare treat these days. It is funny, when they are little you wonder if there will ever be a time when you are not focused on them all the time, then suddenly, you wonder if you will ever get to talk to them again.

The night was interrupted twice for feeding/changing. It really is comical. You lay there and think, ten more seconds and I will get up.... My fear is that in my bleary state I will mess up the diaper change. That could have serious repurcussions later. Anyhow, at 4am I was wondering if I could fall back asleep, which I did. And at 5 am our dog started barking. Really? I let her out into the back yard [hmmm, the front yard has no fence. note to self....] and hoped for a few more minutes which never materialized. At six I took the dog for a long walk in the morning cool. During that time I repeated the Jesus prayer and Glorias. Sometimes when the mental machinery is not tip top I try to do repetitive prayers as a way to focus on God. I call it 'prayer for an out of control mind'.

I wonder about prayer. As I have shared before, I do not "feel" close to God, even in prayer, much of the time. I have decided that that is probably pretty normal. I do wonder what God desires in prayer. At times I think I am more focused on my 'prayer life' or 'spiritual life' than I am God. [That may be a back door way to focus on me! The heart of all sin is self centeredness, after all.] So I just try to be open to God, wandering along the lovely paths and parks of Collierville. I say the words and hope my heart is attuned. I figure it is better than lots of other distractions which would otherwise fill my mind.

Romans says a lot about grace, law and faith. Most of the commentaries I am reading challenge some of the assumptions and conclusions of the more popular readings of Romans. As I have done more work in the OT and interacted with Messianic Jews it has opened my eyes to what NT Wright says in his books. One thing I believe is that we need to spend more time loving, obeying and trusting God and less time arguing atonement theory. We are not saved because we are right. We are saved because God is merciful and wants to bring us into His kingdom. To trust what God the Father has done in Jesus, to trust what the Holy Spirit is doing in us, that is the foundation of our life as Christians. The other thing is, what we do matters. We cannot earn salvation, but we must live as his obedient followers. Failing in that, we repent and trust in His mercy. But He seems clear that we are supposed to be different now that we are in Him.

I want to be a Christian. I want to love Jesus. I want to trust the Father. I want Him to say about me, "that is my boy." Sometimes I do not want it passionately, which worries me. Sometimes I am tired and worn out and I fear that I let that become a barrier to truly living as one of His. I know many others are in the same boat. They fall asleep in prayers or bible reading. They cannot seem to make time for God in worship or prayer. The only time God comes to mind is when they have troubles.

I think it is important for us to support one another in the journey. It is important to share the faith issues in our life. Too often we wanna-be Christians are doing it alone. This blog is an effort to reach out. I think we need more connections. What do you think?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bonding with Baby

Our new baby was not planned. Unlike the first two, each of whom I desperately wanted, the last one was not sought after. It wasn't that I did not want more kids as much as I am an age where it is not recommended. The math is not hard to do. Add 18 to your age when the child is born and then say, "He will be graduating from high school when I am X years old." I got lots of  feedback from all sorts of people who told me that I was not old. (None that had children of their own, mind you, at near the age that I am).
After finding out we were pregnant, for weeks I had deep worry and sadness. I came to a sense of peace one morning in our church while at prayer. There is a stained glass window in the church over the altar. [here is a shot of it from our Christmas service ] I was praying to God "Who will raise this baby if I am not here?" (My gene pool is populated by shortlived people for the most part) and when I looked up I saw (the window) Jesus holding a baby, with a little boy and little girl standing near Him and reaching toward Him. I have a son and daughter who suddenly "appeared" to me in the window. Jesus, holding the baby, was connected to my own baby in my mind. At that moment in my prayer I "heard" Jesus say, "I will." Not a voice, but an insight, and a source of great comfort. Since that day, though still aware of the actuarial expectations, I have found peace around the situation.

Another other issue, more selfish, is that one makes plans about the future. And folks like me makes lots of plans, detailed plans, about the future! In four years both of my kids were going to be in college and my own future was going to be less demanding as a 'bread winner." Now, suddenly, travel and career plans were in disarray. The life I planned for my sixties and seventies was gone. As I quipped on more than one occassion, "I know what I will be doing the rest of my life.... raising kids!"

As I wrestled with this new reality, along with the belief that Jesus was going to take care of baby, I also reflected upon what I love most in life. It isn't my house or car. It isn't travel. It has always been prayer and study and relationships. I want to connect with God and connect with others. And the people with whom I most want to connect are my wife and kids. My kids have been a central focus of my life and have brought me great joy. So spending the rest of my life raising another may be the best gift I could have.

Would I trade two weeks in Europe for the joy of teaching someone colors and letters? Would more freedom to do what I want be more fulfilling than changing diapers, comforting a baby and spending endless hours watching him grow and develop? The laughter created by a child's existence far outweighs any entertainment purchased from a professional. The cost of raisng a child is great, very great, and it does not always feel worth it. Kids can bring much frustration, sadness, worry and fear into your life. But I also know that I do not regret having kids (98% of the time!).

Now that baby is here, the process has begun. The lost nights of sleep are hard. We are dealing with the limitations on our time. Lots of time spent with dirty diapers and feeding. And something wonderful: the last couple days I can literally feel the bond strengthen. Human relationships need time to grow. I love him more each day.

In days ahead he will grasp my finger as I feed him. He will recognize me (but always prefer his momma!) and want to be with me. In days ahead he will ask me to carry him and hold him. It will be great days. And challenging.

Why write this? I guess in the hopes that people will learn to scour their own lives for God's grace. I hope so that others will be able to say, "the life I have is not the one I would have chosen, but I can choose to live the life I have with faith, hope and love. I can choose to embrace the life I do have and not pine for the one I imagined and expected."

There are times when raising a child literally drains you of life. Perhaps the purpose of life is to die, die to self. Jesus seemed to think so. The problem I have is I usually want to "die to self' in the way I choose. I want to make the sacrifices which I want to make; when, where and how I want to make them. We all probably do that. Bonding with baby is my new life task. It is a grace (it just happens) and a task (it requires focused time and energy). What is true of daddy-ing is true of all else in life. My discipleship in Jesus requires obedience. He is Lord. I am servant. Babies are a great school for learning service. The greatest school, though, is losing my will to His will. That is something that can and should be done whatever one's life situation.

The leading cause of atheism is the refusal to submit. Demanding that life goes the way that I want it, that is the original sin, and the sin which we have been perfecting ever since. Submission. Obedience. In love. That is the calling to which we must respond, the calling which arrives in unexpected ways at unexpected times.
To God be the glory, this day and forever.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


The word "Expectations" has many different connotations.

Working at Youth Villages, they were a key component of the behavioral management system. Before activities the young people would gather in a circle ("huddle up") and lay out three expectations for behavior. Things like, be respectful, observe personal space, and respond to adults on first request. The expectations gave the young people a clear idea of what they should do. Following the activity the group again gathered to assess how well they had done, using a three point scale. It is a helpful way to mold pro-social behavior.

Theologically, expectation is a spiritual stance. I have a tee shirt which I wore to sleep last night. It has the word "Watch" on the front and a biblical quote on the back. I do not remember the exact quote, but it caught my eye as I took the shirt off this morning and came back to me as I started this blog today. The gist of it was that we should be people standing ready in expectation of the Lord's return. I like the idea. It is a central component to the apocalyptic spirituality of Jesus. It emphasizes the belief that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. It helps to keep life in right perspective and generates hope for a better day.

Lastly, expectations can mean 'what I expect will happen.' These expectations may be conscious or unconscious. We may say, "I think it is going to rain this weekend." This expectation is based on the weather map and predictions of the weatherman. Or perhaps, one has big plans for the weekend (State Tournament!) and so assumes something will happen to wreck it so.... it will have to rain! Our expectations generate emotions and our fears/dreams can generate expectations.

Having a new baby (three weeks and a day) one is confronted with endless expectations. You study his little face and look at his siblings and wonder, what will be look like? You take notice of how he eats, sleeps, and poops. Is everything okay? If you are well read, you stumble across endless possible problems. The endless warnings of what could happen and what could go wrong can beat a person down. On the one hand, we trust God. On the other hand, things happen.

Life hangs by a thread. We are always a moment away from everything being turned upside down. A friend on a bike ride ends up in a horrible wreck; an inch or two away from paralysis or death. The printer grabs his chest, says call 911, and drops dead. A broken leg emits marrow into the body which lodges in the brain, inducing a three month coma and the threat of reduced mental function. All of these are true stories which I  have heard about the last two days. Real life. Even people who love and trust God have bad things happen to them.

I am not sure about what my expectations should be each day. I think I expect each day will be fine. But I worry more with the baby than I do with myself. I think that is normal. There are issues which a parent, no matter how old or experienced, must deal with. Many times we feel up to the challenge. At other times we may wonder, "can I do this?" Having an expectant heart, longing for the Lord, can make everything different. It flavors our life with hope.

Facing the harsh realities of life can generate uncertainty and fear. One expectation we need to nurture is the belief that "with God I can get through this." It also takes courage. That is why one of God's most frequent commands is "Fear Not!"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Have Dominion and Subdue...

Preaching on Genesis 1 Sunday I reflected upon our role in relationship to the earth. I am not fluent in Hebrew and so I rely heavily on the dictionaries and commentaries written by others. If there is much agreement I usually have more confidence. Most define the Hebrew words 'dominion' and 'subdue'. They are strong terms (kavash and radah) and have a sense of force, treading down, imposing one's self on a reluctant recipient. I was struck by the power, almost violence, the words conveyed. Partly because I am still shaped by my first and second grade religion books. You remember, the one with the picture of Adam strolling around with a lion? The image of "the Garden" was one of total bliss. I still recall gathering with other angry seven year olds who blamed Adam and Eve for wrecking it for everyone. The dream of playing with animals and never being sick and everything going perfectly weighed heavy upon us as we struggled with learning to read and write and comply with the demands of the nuns and parents who watched over us with eagle eyes.

For the first time, I got a sense, that things were not so perfect, even in the beginning before the Fall. It is not clear, mind you, but the verbs chosen do seem to imply that there is some serious effort on our part to subdue the (reluctant) earth. Makes one think that struggle may have always been part of the deal.

The reason this is important is because it impacts how we envision a world where there was no Orignal Sin. A world where Adam and Eve were compliant and we were not expelled would still entail work and battling in some sense. Perhaps things would not have been totally and completely different. Maybe the biggest impact has been upon our relationship with God and each other.

At any rate, the struggle, the daily battle, may well be God's intention. Mind you, I am not saying nothing changed with "the Fall" but I do think that the simplistic view of "Before" which my second grade mind conceived may not be true at all.

The other thing that really resonated with me was the role humans play. I often ponder this question, so it is little wonder that this has jumped out at me. But I do think Genesis 1 makes a strong case that we (humans) are in a decisive role in creation. I think it can be interpreted that God has withdrawn and given us space (and authority) to act. The Hebrew word "create" is only used with God as its subject. I do not think we are creators in the same sense as God. Yet, it seems that we do have the key role in much that takes place in this world. It is tempting to try to dodge our responsibility or avoid it by pointing to God. I think, however, God has handed things over to us in a real way. It is why I believe that all the grousing about "Where is God?" which people do whenever something bad happens is probably the wrong question. The real question is "what are we going to do about it?" I think that at the Judgment Day the Lord will tell us, "I gave you dominion, how did you rule as my ambassador?" If that work was difficult before the Fall, I think it is even more so now. All the more reason to pray more and work harder. God is counting on us. apparently, and so is the world.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Too Late

Next Fall we are studying 2 Esdras in my Thursday class. I had read it some years ago and am now reading it a second time before I begin commentary work. It is similar to much of the Old Testament and in places seems to be influenced by a Christian hand. The main character, Ezra the prophet, is modeled on the OT figure Ezra. Because in my Wednesday Bible study I am preparing notes on Ezra and Nehemiah it is very interesting to see how this historic figure has become something of an apocalyptic figure.

A recurring theme of the earliest chapters is the question God asks, "How long shall I endure them, on whom I have besotwed such great benefits?" How long, in deed?

The book has a disturbing idea. This world God made for many, but the next world for only a few. The saved are precious, because, like gold, they are rare. Jesus says similar things. Jesus says the door will be closed and those outside will cry out, do you not remember me?

Another theme, some day it will  be too late to repent. Too late. I pondered that this morning around 4am. Baby had wakened me and I did not get back to sleep. Lying there, listening to his breathing and his mother's breathing, I realized I was not going to fall back asleep. There is a point on a sleepless night where the "un-slumberer" comes to the conclusion that it is too late to fall asleep. The opportunity is passed. I will not sleep.

As I lay there, realizing this night was lost, I found myself realizing the same is true of life. Life can also be lost. The counter narrative is the proclamation that there is nothing to worry about, it is never too late. Ironically, the more this sort of (pseudo) 'good news' is proclaimed, the worse people seem to behave.

It is a sick feeling to ponder that this world is for many and the next is for few. Yet Jesus Himself said strive to enter by the narrow gate, the way of the lost is wide. Wow!

As I see the faith of many grow cold and watach the wider society I wonder about our future. Today's Gospel reminds us that Jesus sends us into the world to bring people to obey Him and be baptized. I think it is good to keep in mind we do not have forever. Some day it will be too late. Don't believe it because of 2 Esdras. Believe it because of Jesus.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pondering the Jewish Study Bible

I picked up a Jewish Study Bible last month. Yesterday, preparing a homily on Genesis, I began to use it in earnest. I was struck by a couple lines on page ix:
  • at no period has the text been interpreted in a monolithic fashion. If anything marks Jewish biblical interpretation it is the diversity of approaches employed and  the multiplicity of meaninsg produced... there is no official Jewish interpretation of the bible.
Perhaps to a lesser degree, it seems the same is true of Christianity. As a lifelong student of Christian theology and church history there is one thing I see over and over again: disagreement. Face it, there are not dozens of denominations because we are monolithic! But the serious question is how does the Bible serve as authority when there are such divergent interpretations? When two people read the same text and draw opposite and conflicting conclusions, is there not a right answer?

I have wrestled with this for most of the past decade as I watch the Episcopal church in particular, but many churches in general, use (and misuse) Scripture. I have read enough about rabbinic arguments to know that there is a fluidity and openness to Jewish exegesis. I see the same in Christian exegesis. We often have to "agree to disagree." Yet, there are times when a compromise is not possible. There are issues which require more than a shoulder shrug and pleasant smile.

Part of the issue is emphasis. I am doubtful that any rabbi thought that worship of other gods was okay. The debate comes down to when does one cross the line. It is in the gray areas that we are most divided. There are also debates on things which matter a great deal and other things which are of lesser import. God's revelation has not been so finely tuned as to rule out questions open to debate. On the other hand, everything is not up for grabs. We swing between these two extremes.

Today I am writing a homily which I will preach this weekend at three services. I have an obligation to speak the truth. I have a responsiblity to hold my parish accountable to God's word. I also know that I am not infallible. I realize that there are two dozen directions which the text could take me. The key is whatever direction I take, the truth is central. The truth is big enough for a diversity of angles. The life of faith is large and complex. But there are limits. There is a place which is outside the lines. The challenge of life is living within the boundaries God intends and pushing past the boundaries which are not of God. It is only in a faithful community that we can find the right balance. A community which stretches across time and place, embracing the voices the wise and holy in every place and time. Our challenge is not unique, people struggle everywhere. God is faithful. He blesses our desire to please Him. He seeks us even as we seek Him.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

More on Transformation

Yesterday I 'blurted out' that I am frustrated with God's failure to transform me. In my mind, the most serious reason for doubting God, is me. Since my childhood I have been somewhat pious and in January 1976 I committed to Christ on a Cursillo weekend. When the "I Found It" movement was strong, I repeatedly got on my knees, did a sinner's prayer and accepted Christ. I attended church, went to confession, repented and did penance. I read my Bible and prayed. I hung out at church and tried to help the poor and needy. Then I went to seminary and really got serious. A normal day in seminary included Morning and Evening Prayer, Holy Eucharist and I spent another hour each day in prayer in the chapel. In addition I went on regular retreats, did a great deal of spiritual reading and hung out with close friends who were also very dedicated in their relationship with the Lord. In spite of all that, I continue to be a person who is often times selfish, sinful and disagreeable. I have wondered to myself  10,000 times, if this is what I produce from all this spiritual work, what is the point?

One response is, "You haven't done enough. You need more discipline. Your efforts are too feeble. Get serious!!!" I have heard it from others and from myself. So there were times when I did turn it up a bit more. The radical expression of faith seen in Francis of Assisi, for example, certainly showed room to do much more. But efforts to "be a saint" all seemed to crash and burn at some point.

The other response I have heard is that the Gospel is about God's grace. Efforts to be holy are a "works righteousness" and no one can be saved who relies on himself. I have read the Bible enough to know that is true, but I never got clear about what that looks like in practice. If I am relying on God's mercy do I become amoral? or merely passive? Is my activity totally unimportant to God? If so, why are Christians making so much noise about social/moral issues? Does Jesus really walk around saying as long as you believe in Me you are fine? What about taking up the cross and dying to self?

Is "dying to self" a gift or a task from Jesus?

For the most part I have answered these questions for myself. Reading the Bible through/with/in the Church Tradition helps. A basic understanding of psychology and human understanding helps. Study and prayer helps. I know that all relationship is a gift. I know that how we understand the word 'saved' impacts how we understand the process of being saved. I know that the American individualist-consumer has a view of the world which has affected the American understanding of faith. I have read enough ancient Christian voices to know that there is a broader and deeper way to engage God's Word. In the end, salvation is gift and task. Dying to self is gift and task. Relationship with God is gift and task.

For that reason I was thrilled to read Chris Tilling's blog Chrisendom today. On Friday, May 20, there was a review of Volker Rabens' doctoral thesis, "The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul." In this thesis, Rabens assesses and rejects the popular assumption that the Holy Spirit's work in our lives is best understood as "infusion-transformation." His point is that this approach would think that there is a change in our being (called ontological in philosophical terms). This understanding is that the Holy Spirit is a SOMETHING that enters into us and makes us into someone/something else. [Which is what I thought for many years.] Instead, Rabens argues, using data from Pauls' writings and his contemporary Jewish context, it is about an intensified, intimate relationship with God, Jesus and our faithful neighbors. It is through this that the Spirit transforms and empoers the Believer. He calls this a relational model. [You can check it out here, scroll down to May 20 ] I found this most helpful. It makes sense of the Scripture stories I have studied. It is accurate to my experience. It is reasonable.

So much of the struggle of faith has to do with our (wrong) assumptions, misunderstanding and wishful thinking about how God works in the world. Sometimes we need to learn and go deeper with God. We are still growing, after all. I hope anyone frustrated finds hope as I have in knowing the God's work goes on in relationships. We can always have hope that He will achieve His goal with us. Especially if we want that!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Right on Schedule

I returned to work today after two weeks of paternity leave. My life at work is more busy and demanding, and it is also more structured than life at home. Home is much more freefloating. There is plenty going on (especially with a newborn) but things happen more chaotically. I seem to be "right" when I am on a schedule. I still want to relax with time off, but I am one of those people who seems best suited to a regular schedule. I remember as a child of ten or so telling my mom that I did not like weekends. Weekends seemed unwieldy and I felt out of control, even as a kid. It was harder to get things done, even though there was more time. I enjoy a chance to play and have fun. I just find that I do better with a schedule.

Now my question is, was I born this way or did I choose to become this way? While I have no doubt some choice was involved, it seems much of it is just the way I am.  While I do believe in freedom and choice, I also can see that it is very much limited by natural inclinations. We respond to the world from a soul which seems to be given to us in many ways. It is a mysterious reality. I am not my own creation. I am shaped and formed by Another (GOD), constantly reshaped in life by many others, and given to myself (with a great deal already hard wired in place). The creative hand of God, working through genetics, social environment and various physcial and spiritual entities, has made me. Yet, as we all know, we can make choices which affect who we become. So, we are not puppets and we are responsbile for the choices we make.

Like most people there is a great deal about myself that I do not like. Other people are also kind enough to  help point out my flaws. So the list is always growing. Some things about me could change with a bit more effort. Most things are not so maleable. I often say that I came up with a list of New Year's Resolutions in 1979 which was so good that I have used it every year since. Same issues, same problems, same me. [and I bet same you.]

I do not often think about being a 'creature'. When I started this today my intention was to right about my  need for schedule. It took a turn. In editing I discover that I have hit on what I plan to write a homily for this weekend. We are the image of God. We are created.

"Creatures." Not self contained. Not self determined. No, we are a constructed being. It means that we are not in charge. We do not have ultimate control. We are controlled by forces within and without beyond our power.  It might also mean we need to be a bit more patient with others, or at least more compassionate.
I used to think that now that I was a Christian the Holy Spirit was going to make me a new creation and reform me. I used to think I was going to become a saint and stop sinning. I have no reason to think such a thing will happen any more. My horizon for hope is on the other side, in the New Creation. I understand that God is already at work on me (and you) but I also know that this work remains incomplete. I will probably continue to need a schedule even as others around me chafe under the burden of one. I will continue to talk too much, make jokes, and hunger for quiet time. I will probably think "too much" and worry "too much" until my brain finally shuts down. It would be a cause for despair if I did not have hope that some day Jesus is coming.

In the meantime, the blessing is, there are times and places which are a forestaste of the glory to come. There are moments when I am okay. There are situations where I fit in, people with whom I connect. There is a God and He intends all this for our benefit. I am not in charge and that is okay. I am also not responsible for making everything work out. I can trust (FAITH) God for that. Saved by faith....

Monday, June 13, 2011

God will decide

The baseball weekend was nearing its climax yesterday when a deep theological issue was tossed into the middle of the heat, dust and tension. We were behind, in the championship game, by a score of 7 to 3. A man came up and asked, "Who is winning?" One of the mom's responded that the other team was winning. I reminded them that we may be winning, we were just currently behind. (As it turned out, we scored five more times, making the final score was 8-7 so we were winning all along!) One of the dads then said that God will decide who wins.


I do not think that is true. I do not think God sits in heaven and makes the decision that little Bobby will strike out, or little Billy will make an error. I do not think that God makes the umpire call someone out or safe. It is a small thing, but a large thing. If God is controlling every event (micro-managing) then He is also controlling every event on a baseball diamond. He is picking winners and losers at each moment.

In such a world there is no divine intervention. Everything is a divinely controlled event. One of the most drawn out stories of God's activity among us is the Joseph account. There is a famine. Joseph's brothers, who  had sold him into slavery years before, come to Egypt for food. Joseph, through a series of divinely inspired acts, has risen to a place of authority. His brothers, not recognizing him, are beseeching him for food. As the story turns out, there is reconciliation among the brothers, Joseph sees his father again, and all the family lives in Egypt where they grow and multiply until the time of Moses.

The question is, did God create the famine? If God set Joseph up to rescue Israel, isn't it also true that God endangered Israel? If a father intentionally pushes his son into the river, then dives in to save him, do we call the father a hero? If a mother slices her child with a razor, then at the last moment binds up the bleeding wound and provides medical care, do we call that motherly concern? One problem with using analogies about God is that God is infinitely above us. So there may be a sense in which what would be true of parents in such a case is not true of God. However, that means that God cannot be known or understand in any way by us. And it also means that understanding is something outside or our control. You see, God would be controlling what we know and do not know. In the end, we would be sock puppets... (and God would be the author of everything we say and think, which means there is no need for divine  revelation because everything comes comes from God so everything is divine revelation)

Do I think God chose us to win yesterday? No. I led the team prayer before the game. (Priests get called on to do such things). We prayed for God's glory. We prayed for safety. We prayed for each boy to be sanctified. But we did not pray to win. We did not assume that was one of the options. My hope is each boy will love and serve the Lord. I think that is God's desire as well. I think God can and does intervene during the game. Usually for something more important than who is winning. In the end, it is about people's relationship with Him. How we respond to Him in loss or victory. How we focus on the Kingdom, whether we play or sit the bench. How we treat one another, regardless of the jersey they wear.

It is true that God will decide. I am not sure exactly what He decides and what He hands over to us. But I think it worth pondering. The questions shows up all the time. How we understand the answer and its many implications will impact the way we live our lives. I am thinking He has handed over much to us. There are limits, of course, but we are the ones gifted and challenged, by God, to tend the earth until His Time comes. The Final Consumation when the heavens are torn asunder and the Lord comes into our midst to rule. Until then, we pray, "Your kingdom come!" and try to act like citizens awaiting the King's return.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Living in the post-Ascension World

I am following the Anglican Curmudgeon's series on Adam and Eve, science and revelation. Give it a visit at

I will have my own reflections on this at a later time. I do believe in an age of diminished faith and declining belief the Church has an obligation to the Lord to make our witness more effectively. It seems to me that Christians have done a poor job of addressing the issue of science. Perhaps because we live in such a divided and contentious age we prefer to yell and scream. Whatever the psycho-social cause, the underlying issue is spiritual. As St. Paul says we do battle with principalities and powers. As we say today, "there is more going on than meets the eye."

The Old Testament presents human life as conflict from the beginning (Humans are to conquer and subdue the world). In the NT, there is not much change. Jesus is described in terms which indicate that He is doing battle with Satan. He binds up demons and expels illness. Jesus lays down His life to achieve the ultimate victory. For many modern people, it is hard to grasp how the singular death of the man Jesus has any real impact on human beings living now. Obviously, many claim Jesus is a wonderful teacher of peace and love, but a closer reading of Gospels reveal a much broader and deeper picture. In fact, Jesus is combative and strong, brave and unrelenting. He is prophetic and challenging. However, the fundamental challenge He lays before us is this: your response and relationship with Me are indicative of your relationship with the only God of all creation. Theologically, this is explained by the term incarnation which means that God Himself is present fully in Jesus (in a unique and salvific way) and that there is no access to God outside of Jesus.

This is all Christianity 101. The application is the kicker. The Feast of the Ascension is a reminder that the resurrected Jesus is no longer among us in the flesh as He had been during the forty days after Easter. The absence is a real absence (even though He is still present) otherwise His return would not be a return. The absence of Jesus seems to be symbolically alluded to in the story of the storm on the sea. As Jesus sleeps through the storrm, the apostles cry out. One can see how the story evokes images of creation/the flood (wild chaotic waters) and the threats aimed at the church (the apostles/boat). Sleeping is a euphemism for death in the Gospels so it is possible to allegorically see the sleeping Jesus as "absent." Jesus upbraids the apostles for their lack of faith. This is directed more at us (as readers) than them.

The hardest thing for me to remember is that we are in the battle. I know God will win (has won), but right now the battle rages. I grow weary with doubts and worries. I get tired of myself and others. I am sometimes the worse for wear. There are times when I wonder if I have done something wrong. I wonder where the inner peace is that I hear about in the songs. I look for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and seem to find little of the "signs and wonders" which are the mark of the early church. I wonder if I (and mine) are off the path. Where is the holiness which we are called to manifest?

Yet the perfection which is so absent in my life (and not terribly abundant in those around me) may be a manifestation of the not yet. Jesus will return to complete His work with us, but not yet. The failings of the church and its members is no proof that Jesus is ineffective. The angels said, "Why do you stand looking to heaven? Jesus will return..." The rest of the Acts of the Apostles records the early struggles. Lives were lost as sometimes God intervened to save, but other times the enemies prevailed.

That is our lives now. Sometimes glorious but more often mundane. The work of faith and love take place in the midst of the world. In our homes and at work. It can be times of spiritual dryness, church conflict and personal failure. But Jesus will be back. I think that is how God does things. I think things are unfolding and God is intervening, but I also think some of our choices and decisions are part of the ongoing creation. So what kind of world am I (contributing to) making today?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Weiner, Graduation, and Original Sin

I spoke yesterday with a school teacher at a local high school. He shared his experience at the recent graduation. His commentary, both biting and comical, opened a window into the 'goings-on' in our wider community. It has long been a problem to make graduation ceremonies respectful and dignified. There is a baseness to much of American culture which seems to delight in displays which are disruptive and inappropriate. The hooting and hollering is frequently done by parents. It is embarassing and irritating.

This teacher said that his role was to help with the procession. As they prepared to start, several parents were standing in the aisle, blocking the way. He asked them to move. "Why?" they responded. After explaining that the aisle needed to be clear so that the students could process into the auditorium unimpeded, a mother replied, "You can't tell me to move." That about sums it up: No one can tell me what to do. The story ended with a deputy (the real deal with badge and gun) arguing with the beligerants. [rant alert: You never see extensive news coverage of that sort of thing. We are led to believe by the media that the police constantly pick on people and are abusvive, we rarely hear about the endless disrespect which they endure. Dealing with boneheads like this lady would put me over the line every now and then, too.]

The problem at graduation is it is a magnified opportunity for people to say "Look at ME!!!" In our culture, this sort of "self expression" and self focus is rampant. The sex scandal of Representative Weiner is but another example. He is clearly someone who works out. Sending shots of his unclad body to assorted females is certainly another example of "look at me." He is also someone who is pretty obsessed with the flesh. That is nothing new. We have seen such sexcapades in the news on a regular basis. Currently he claims he will not step down. We have been through this before, too. It would not be surprising if in a few days he will do just that. In general, it seems, the process unfolds that way. The paradox is Weiner is engaging in behavior which is not uncommon. Now that it has come to light he is suffering some blow back, but one wonders in a society where so many people are doing the same thing how much it will cost him. Perhaps, like a former President, he will weather the storm. In fact, some pundits are criticizing the old morality which puts such a premium on sexual purity. [This is, after all, the modern world!!]

I am always uneasy writing about, preaching on or discussing these sorts of things. You see, I have sinned, too. I have been boorish. I have been inappropriate. I have thought and done all manner of things which I do not want on national TV. Sure, Weiner and the beligerant parent stepped out further than I ever have, but I have also stepped out of line. I think this is a major point of Jesus' teaching. "Let the one without sin cast the first stone" and "Take the plank out of your own eye before you search for the speck in your brother's eye" are part of His core teaching. He had His finger on an issue in Palestine 30AD that resonates in Memphis 2011. Humans come in all shapes, shades and sizes. We live in disparate circumstances. We differ in education and socio-economic status. Yet we share this in common: we are all able to look at the other and see their sin while being blind to our own.

I think many of my fellow citizens need to rethink their behaviors in light of social expectations. There comes a time when we need to be respectful. I think Representative Weiner needs to repent of his sin and come to the Lord for healing, transformation and renewal. But I think primarily they serve as a reminder to me of my own darkness and my own need for Jesus Christ to rule me as Lord. It is tempting to believe that our society is in decline. I frequently find myself thinking that. But there has never been a person in any time or place untouched by Original Sin. All of us, each and everyone, is the problem. This does not mean that we turn a blind eye to the public displays of sin around us, no we must confront them. It does, however, mean that that confrontation must be permeated with our own self examination and awareness of the darkness of our own hearts.

All have sinned and all have fallen short. Each of us is the problem. Jesus is the solution. We are called to confess our own sin and repent of our own evil. We are called to respond to God's grace by a reformed and renewed life. Until then, our prophetic words ring hollow and our critiques smell of hypocrisy. The witness and ministry of the church will be more effective when we do this.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

More on Identity

Yesterday's comments included this gem by St. Nikao: "Scripture hints that identity is determined by what we obey..."

At first read I did not really taken in the full power of the statement. As I pondered the words, I was struck by the significance and truth of his assessment. Many years ago there was a made for TV movie called (something like) "Whose Life is it Anyway?" A man, dying of some disease, was arguing that he had the right to terminate his life. In the 1970's many social issues were "debated" in this format. Taboos were broken on the TV screen (like Maude's abortion, or ground breaking shows on sexual morality) to provide a context for people to become more comfortable with non-tradtional morality. Because identity is a funciton of social systems, at least in part, to change the social system is to impact the identities of members of society. The premise of "Whose Life is it Anyway?" is that human beings are self determinative (and not God). There is no law or expectation imposed from outside the individual will of each person.

St. Nikao's point is that we find out who we are by obeying God. I agree. When I generate my own identity I end up creating a mess. I applaud his post because it is a wonderful reminder of that important insight.

Short of monastic isolation or the creation of a self contained community, most of us interact with and are impacted by the world we live in. We live in an atheistic culture. Secularism and Natualism are in the air we breathe. It is hard, even in a church community, to find people more focused on God then on themselves. It is hard, even in a faith community, to find the values of people shaped by Christian dogma/doctrine. So much of what we unreflectively think or value is shaped by a world obedient, not to God, but to human creation. I think another word for a man-made god is an idol.

Who am I? I am God's image and I am God's servant. I will ponder more deeply how that starting place provides a more complete and accurate answer to the question.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Yesterday there was an old episode of Oprah on. Apparently now that she is off the air she is still on the air in reruns. The show was about the big model from Brazil. Part way through the show there was a naked picture of her on screen. TV blacked out the parts which are typically not shown on TV, but Oprah said that the studio audience got to see it all. There were shocked looks on all the audience. After the break we heard why; the Brazilian model is a man. So her top is female but her bottom is male.

It was interesting as Oprah kept saying that transgendered people are fine, but the model said that she had a gender identity disorder. In Oprah's ("non-judgmental") world it is not okay to say "I am not okay." I thought it was a little sad. The model shared that her mother is a devout Catholic and traditional in her beliefs. Her mom still loves her, but...

In our local paper last Sunday (I am a little behind on reading!) there was an article on college. The debate was about the cost vs. benefits of a college degree. The article really pushed Associate Degrees and Junior Colleges. One paragraph grabbed my attention, it said college educated people are more open and less dogmatic. I thought that was interesting. Anyone wonder what the definition of 'dogmatic' might be?

Probably, people who are troubled by transgenderism are considered dogmatic. Probably people who claim that Jesus is the only way (i.e. that He is God incarnate and the Savior of the world) are also dogmatic. People who think their beliefs are true are dogmatic (especially religious and moral beliefs). Unless, of course, they believe what the "Open Minded People" think.

I bet the word dogmatic is never applied to materialistic evolutionists. That is called science. People who deny any objective morality are never called dogmatic, even though they have no basis for their claims other than how they 'feel.' The paradox of our world, dogmatic secularism is not dogmatic, but traditional beliefs are.

I did research on birth size. There is a correlation between how big (especially long) you are at birth and how big you will be as an adult. Baby is very long (over 22") and may well be a pretty tall man. There  are alot of other things which he will be. Physical traits, personality, inclinations, and a host of other composite parts of who he is are given at birth and developed over time. Parents have an influence, but based on two other kids the influence is tempered and transformed. So much of who we are is not chosen at all. It is given. Some of it is major (like feeling you are a woman in a man's body). Others is not so (like blue or brown eyes). We do well to be loving and accepting of people. We should be compassionate that others deal with things not always of their own choosing. We also do well to have limits and boundaries. The world is a wild place. Being in relationship with God entails discipline. We have to listen to His will and obey. In the "Oprah world" that is considered dogmatic. One can certainly push it too far. But one can also not push it far enough. That is the excitement and horror of being a parent. I met a young woman with her "first" at Baby-R-Us today. She voiced her fear about doing it right. I am less fearful than she is, but I still taste the fear. Parenting is the hardest thing and the most important thing I have ever done. Yet, remembering the issue of Grace and God's part in all this I also have some peace. It is why Faith and Hope are needed as well as Love.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pondering Babies and God

I read something the other day on grace. I am not a Calvinist (but some of my best friends are). I probably do not fully grasp the positions they hold and I have little time to study them in the depth needed to fully grasp them. Based on what I do know, I think that the world view of the  bible is not Calvinist. I am a Catholic who is very biblical. I consider that to be the default position of 'vanilla Christianity'.

The helpless newborn is a model for out relationship with God. The baby offers nothing, can do nothing, needs everything, depends upon us for all things. I am aware that we caregivers make a decision to provide for him. Each day we have the choice to keep him alive or to withdraw. Left on his own, he would not last a terribly long time.

One thing Calvinists are clear on is our radical dependence upon God. I am onboard with that idea. I am also aware that the distance between God's intellect and my intellect is far greater than the distance between my new born and I.

Newborns, after all, do breath and drink and their bodies function. There are any number of things which he does on his own. Also, there are countless others who could come in right now and provide the same level of care which we do. I am sure lots of folks would be better at it than I am.

God, on the other hand, is the only One Who functions as He does. No other entity can take His place. He sustains every single aspect of creation (even as creation functions on its own, in some sense, I think).

We are not aware of our absolute dependence much of the time. We make plans and work and go about our daily lives. The last few days, I have ceased going about my daily life. It is a challenge. I do not often sit for hours at a time "doing nothing." I am not used to sitting and being "unproductive." As I sit holding baby boy, looking at him breathe and grimace (and what looks like a smile!), I am trying to just "be" in the moment. I tell him, "I love you" in part because I need to learn to love him. I study his features, taking them in, aware that like his brother and sister he will grow and change and this moment together will disappear into the mists of lost memories. I forgot how much time is spent just sitting and holding. And I think of God, staring at us. Watching us. Tending to us in ways which we do not discern. I think of how unaware I am of all He has done for me.

Life is all grace. It is a gift. God's love is a gift as well. Unearned and unmerited. His act of rescue is a gift. We cannot do anything to warrant His intervention.

But my son will have to grow and work and struggle in days ahead. He is given each breath as a gift, but he must work his lungs (and it does sound like work) to take each gift breath in. If he wants to talk, to sit, to walk, then he will work at it. He will struggle with mistakes. He will experience a given-ness in the process (GIFT) but also a task. HIs life will be full of challenges and more than a few failures.

I think that is what the Bible teaches. The journey. The unmerited gift. The struggle. The gracious blessing. I hope to teach my son all these things. I also share them with you. These are my thoughts as I ponder the blessing of my life this day.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sleeping Like a Baby

There is an old joke that goes like this.
How did you sleep last night?
O, I slept like a baby.
You mean you were up crying every two hours?????

My first sermon when I return to my pulpit in two weeks is from Genesis 1. It is the assigned reading for Trinity Sunday. I am going to preach on the image of God. When I did my time with baby this morning at 4am I found myself riveted by his features. Because he is the size of a typical three or four month old, his features are lovely. Regardless, his beauty is not the image of God, it is something deeper, more definitive of his being.

We are enterring those challenging months where sleep is at a premium. The innate image of God in baby has been marred by Original Sin. He is not in a situation which is ideal. The effects of the curse swirl around him, damaging his parents, siblings and everyone else with whom he comes in contact. There is also something about him that is off kilter. The mystery of this belief is hard to describe. What would children be like if they were born without Original Sin? Was baby Jesus different from my baby? Was it something observable?

Yet baby seems oblivious to all this theological reality. He sleeps. He cries. He eats. He poops. He cries. He sleeps. Sleeps in an unawareness.

That is fine for babies, not so fine for you and I. St. Paul said, "It is now the hour to wake from sleep." Time to be aware of all God is doing. We do well to take care of babies, but it is a bad idea to imitate them. Literally, their sleep patterns are not helpful. Figuratively, being oblivious to everything but our strongest urges and forgetting about God.

The image of God is a gift and a task. Wake up to an awareness of your status in creation. You have a unique relationship to God. Be aware you can throw it all away, by sleeping like a baby!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My New Baby Boy!

Exactly twenty four hours ago I was standing beside my wife as nurses scurried around the room, each to her place, and our doctor, decked out in a paper hazmat-looking outfit sat at her feet. The "cheerleaders" (hold your breath and push...7, 8, 9, 10, okay, you are doing great!) continued for some twenty minutes. My beloved wife, a trooper all the way, finally pushed our baby boy into the outside world at 10:20pm. As he was pulled out by the doctor, his large and perfect body produced a sweep of emotion in me. There he was, in all his glory, looking three months old. At ten pounds and more than three ounces he is big. He is not a big crier, his infrequent cries are more sweet and melodious (at this point!!!!)

Now I am home for a brief shower and "taking care of business" and then it is back to the hospital. When I return, he will be over one day old. It seems so much longer.

Yesterday morning, at 7am, we were told that we could not go to the hospital; they were too full. For the next two hours phone calls were made and received. At one point we thought we were headed to another hospital. Then we thought it was going to be in the afternoon. Then we thought it was going to be Saturday. Back and forth: maybe, could be, should we? Suddenly, at 9:00 we got an opening. Like a star half back we saw the break and made our move, packing up the car we left. Behind us, our sixteen year old daughter and son were in my car. First time to see that. The big debate was who would get to hold baby first. More on that later.

The medical team hooked my wife up to the various fluids and medications. For several hours I sent out updates, rather inefficiently, and awaited the "Between five and seven" time frame when we were told he was going to arrive (I am a conservative, I figured six to eight). Then the process slowed, so more medicine was added. Suddenly there was an increase in pain and so the epidural doctors made their appearance. At around seven we were told there was another three or four hours to go. Most everyone left except my kids, my mother-in-law and Fr. Terry. We debated on the actual time of birth. Most of them figured sometime near or after eleven. I said, "10:22." I was accused of insider info and cheating!

Watching the birth makes me think that we should genuflect in front of our mothers every day of our life. The birth is an unthinkable and unimaginable event. It has been likened to sucking a watermelon through a straw. In all honesty that is exactly what it looked like to me.

I do not understand the whole biological explanation of how single celled entities became humans. The birth process is so ridiculously involved that I cannot see how chance changes over a long period of time produced what I saw. I am a simple man. I think that God is the only way this could ever happen. Not saying He did it magically. Not saying a long biological process was not part of the deal. Not saying that science can't teach us alot about the whole thing. Just saying, it was miraculous, sacred and incredible. It made me worship.

One of the highlights of the night was my two kids, ooops, I mean my other two kids (got to get used to the new census figures). For much of the last two months there has been some tension around the question, "who gets to hold him first?" Being as how I am the dad, I am supposed to (wisely) intervene and come up with the fair and just answer. I saw reason for each of them to be the one, so I did what I often do, I trusted to their inner wisdom and goodness. This approach frequently backfires, so it is not always the surest bet. But it is usually the best bet. As the moment of birth loomed my son said, "Dad..." I turned around and looked over my shoulder. He was making a cutting motion and mouthing the words, "Can I cut the chord?" Not sure that I was the one to make the decision, I said, "we will see." At ten twenty one our doctor said, "Okay dad, cut the chord." I gave a thumb sign toward my son, he stepped forward, and two snips later he freed the newborn from his mother. It was a sacramental moment. A sign and an effective act. In the days ahead, as an older brother, he will regularly free his little brother. A few minutes later it came time to hold the baby. After momma, who was next? Big Sis. She took him in her arms and cradled him with a look on her face that melted my heart. Another sacrament. She will, in days ahead, be second momma and will no doubt be the one to provide endless comfort and love to her new brother.

Today, talking with the kids, they shared some of their experience. "Dad," they told me, "We were so worried about who got to hold him first until he was born. Then watching it, we did not care any more. It didn't matter." They were so overwhelmed by the grace of the moment that there was no room for themselves any more. It was a moment of heaven. A moment of other focus. I was so proud of them.

Birth is a miracle. It is incredible. Exactly twenty four hours ago our family added a new member. A new baby boy. He is so big (yet so small). He is already loved, yet to be loved so much more. Who will he be some day? I do not know. What I do know is that for nine months our prayer is that he would be holy. Holy. I think God honors such prayers. Baby  has an amazing mom, an amazing sister and an amazing brother. I think that God has good material to work with. Welcome to planet earth, my son. God be with you in your life, your journey into faith, hope and love.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Everything Happens for a Reason

In a few hours we will arrive at the hospital and begin the process of inducing the birth of my son. Every moment of every life is, literally, hanging by a string. Babies, however, seem to more intensely symbolize all of that. They seem more at risk, the unknown seems more palpable with them. One ponders the possibilities more often, the potential problems loom larger.

When things go badly, it is common to hear "everything happens for a reason." I wrote last week about God's actions among us. Does God directly cause everything? Does God micromanage every event, dictating everthing thought, word and deed of everyone at everytime? If He does, then what I am about to say, "I don't think so," is not true, but I have no choice. God made me say it. His eternal plan is to make me think incorrectly. Your own responses would also be dictated, fashioned and determined by God before time and for all time.

That is why I say anyone who believes God controls "everything" would never make an argument for their position. Logic would not be able to sway anyone about anything. Logic requires freedom, to listen, to analyze, to weigh arguments and counter arguments. There is choice involved. Choice rerquires the presence of some degree of freedom.

I believe God intervenes. I believe in miracles. I also believe there are times where it is quite subtle. My understanding of systems helps me see that minor adjustments can produce huge outcomes. God could impact major events in and through minor players. I believe He does. I do not believe, however, that He conrtols every, single thing.

I believe God has a plan. I do not think His plan controls every detail. His creation has been given space to develop. The basic elements are in place for things to happen. Humans are "co-creators" in the sense that He has pulled back and given us space to make choices.

No sin is God's direct will. I do not think that God lays down commandments (e.g. "Thou shalt not kill") and then creates any number of humans whom He then makes into killers. The barbarism of the Nazi death camp is not "the mysterious work of a loving God whose ways are too difficult for us to understand." It is the product of human evil, directly opposed to God's plan for all people to live together in loving community. I was taught that evil occurs through the "permissive will of God." In other words, God allows things to happen. We are not puppets.

If God controls everything then He does not save. If, on the other hand, the world has some independent function (all dervived from God and sustained by God) then there is a sense in which He saves. Prayer makes sense in a world where things are haywire. Prayer makes sense in a world where God's absence (a Biblical theme) is the problem. Prayer makes sense in a world where God intervenes. If God is already controling everything and everything happens because He wants it that way, then prayer is really meaningless (although we have to pray because that is how He constructed the universe)

I think that Genesis teaches us that, from the beginning, the world is a wild place in need of dominion. From the beginning, God set us humans into a context where we can make choices, for good or ill. From the beginning, He "leaves the scene" providing us the ''room'' to think, feel, desire and choose.

Everything happens for a reason. The ultimate, underlying cause of everything is God. But events are also generated by an endless number of other factors, including us. The world operates under laws. Past choices and events impact the future context of other choices and events. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.

There is still plenty of mystery and God's activity is infinitely subtle, beautiful and. at times, difficult to discern. I do not think He directly causes rape and murder, or makes people suffer torture at the hands of evil people. The world to come will be better because in the world to come there will be an absence of the things which make us so sad. It is called "the reign of God" by Jesus. I think it means that God is, in some sense, not reigning right now. That is why Jesus refers to "the Prince of this world." Here and now, some other entitiy (human and demonic) has power. We await deliverance into the hands of the Lord and His Messiah.

Well, the phone just rang. It is 3 a.m. and our appointment has been postponed. We were instructed to call back later to find out our new time. The work of God? Who knows what all is going on? So many moving parts. So many players involved. So many factors. There is an irony to it all.

I do think it consistent to believe God is watching over us. That God is present, whether things go "well" or not. I do believe that we can choose to invite God into the process. The frustrations of being delayed, the stress of not sleeping or the worries about the unknown are an environment within which we can encounter God. God really gives us freedom and room to live and choose. I believe that God does not control every single detail because I believe in love. You see, God cannot make us love Him (or each other). Love, trust, relationship all require that we be free. Otherwise it is a sham. I think the world is real. I think God gives us options. I think God wants us to choose to love and serve Him.