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Sunday, July 31, 2011


The last week we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to take care of cable and internet issues. In the course of trying to determine the best course of action, we made a discovery. Perhaps admitting this will make me appear stupid, but I am a big fan of honesty and in many ways I am stupid (gladly not in every way!).

For the last however many years, we have paid seven dollars a month to our cable provider for what was called a "modem lease." I am not very tech savvy and I tend to trust people. That is a bad combination. I am also very busy so I do not dig around like I should. That is the icing on the awful cake. This week we purchased a modem at Best Buy. It cost us roughly $60. However inept I am in other areas, I am pretty good at math. I see and think mathematically. I immediately recognized that the cable company was ripping me off. In one year my total rent was 140% of the cost of purchase. My cable company periodically sends communications indicating that I am a valued customer.... Heck yeah I am valued. At that profit margin I am down right golden!

It would have been cheaper for me to buy a modem and hammer it into oblivion each year and go out to purchase a new one. Not only cheaper, but much cheaper. If my cable company leased me my car it would have cost me about $2400/month. If they had leased me my house, my monthly rent would have been $30,000. Clearly, seven dollars is a small enough charge to hide, but even so, this is a rip off.

Do I blame them? Part of me thinks that it is wrong. I also know I need to be responsible to watch out for myself. Welcome to the real world!

I have heard people say that the problem with companies is they rip you off. This is an example. But in reality, rip-offs are a fruit of the Fall. Pro-labor folks rail against the abuses of management. When I went from front line to management, I carried with me a strong sympathy for the front line folks. But after some months I also saw that many employees were not, shall we say, giving it their all. A seminary friend shared with us that his father frequently napped at his manufacturing job. There was some chuckles about that, but I was also troubled. Business want to make profit, the more the better. Employees want high pay and benefits, the more the better. I do not think anyone is pure. A rip-off may not be the preferred mode of operation for most of us, but in a sinful world it can and will happen, regularly.

I do not think labor is pure. I know too much about the Mafia to fall for that. I also know about the abuses of labor unions. On the other hand, without unions there is little question that the standard of living for most working stiffs would be seriously diminished. When the balance of power tilts too much to one party or another, ripoffs are more easily pulled off. Corruption infects everything humans touch: greed, deceit, and abuse of power. Yet the same grace which also blesses the human soul is manifest in what we touch: mercy, kindness and self sacrifice.
I do not know what is more shocking the rip offs or the amazing generosity. Both are manifest regularly.

We need a redeemer. I do not think anyone can ever sort out the mess of things except God. We need healing and renewal. We need it badly. Sin and evil touches every aspect of life, many times it is nickle and dime stuff, like leasing something at a ridiculous rate. Other times it is much more heinous. Yet we need God to clean it all up and free us from it. It is easy to pray, "Your kingdom come!" when you live in this world.

Friday, July 29, 2011

US Debt Crisis

Having spent many years reading history, I am familiar with the rise and fall of nation states. Studying Biblical history, one comes across great empires which literally have ceased to exist. The awareness that all things are passing is one of a historian's gifts. It allows one to remember that there is nothing permanent on this earth. No ruler. No nation. No state of affairs.

Watching our leadership flounder with addressing the issue of debt ceilings (using their typical blame-game antics) has the stench of decay to me. We are falling apart as 'The' world power and literally within a very short while our status in the world may be changing.  As an American that bothers me. As a Christian I have a broader horizon.

It is pretty popular to blame "Washington" and surely the politcal hacks and power brokers have a big part of the blame. But in reality, these people do not drop out of another dimension. Truth be told, they grow up among us and are elected by us. The sum total of our desires and wishes, at some point, get translated, at least some of the time, into their decisions. We are a people who love to live now and pay later. We do not like to delay gratification. Is there any wonder that people who are in debt would produce a government that survives on debt? Today I watched a Saturday Night Live review of the 1990's. At one point they had Dana Carvey doing his Ross Perot. I was laughing away until Carvey/Perot spoke about the budget deficit of 500 million dollars. Like a bucket of cold water! How we long for the good old days when debt was measured in hundreds of millions!

We have long known that we are spending more than we take in. In a country where half the people do not pay taxes and an almost equal percent receive checks it is hard to conceive that it is only the rich getting a free ride. On the other hand, those with money and power do usually find a way to make ends meet.

Whatever the other points of the debate, one question looms large in my mind. How long will the unraveling of America go on before someone rises up and does something? And when they do, how pleasant/unpleasant will it be? I, for one, am not optimistic. But I am hopeful. I look to Jesus.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

the little things

Life is filled with endless details. We get up and proceed with our day, days filled with endless events. Today I walked the dog. We went early because black dogs absorb heat and the temperatures this summer have been, with rare exception, extremely hot. Of course, inspite of the reaction of the local news, summer is usually extremely hot in Memphis.

By getting out before sunrise we are able to take a more protracted walk, giving the dog ample time to investigate the variety of smells which bombard her senses. Some of the things she is drawn to smell are pretty disgusting. But she spends time with flowers, leaves and other living things as well.

The hour long walk probably covers about two miles. From an exercise view point I think it has little value for me. However, as she bounds back and forth, tongue lolling and panting, I have to figure she is getting something out of it. The walk does afford some prayer time. Nothing deep or mystical. Yet, prayer none the less. In more frenetic periods I would also be rehearsing sermons and outlining class notes in my head. It is an occupational habit. It takes a great deal of time to appear like you are speaking off the cuff.

I pondered, briefly, how much of life is spent in mindless pursuits. Walking the dog, driving to the gymn, exercising, showering.... Then I fed the baby and held him. Several hours of quiet slumber interrupted by two sessions on the bottle. Feeding baby seems more significant. Yet even that is another daily detail. Eat, sleep, breathe....

I was contacted by a friend last night, essentially he asked, "why are things so crazy?" What is God up to in all this? So much time is spent each day in tasks which seem eternally useless. What will God do with the  hours spent walking a dog? Or the hours spent eating, processing, cleaning up and repeating the cycle again? Why is it we spend over a quarter of life asleep? Random thoughts on vacation. An invite to trust even when one does not understand. Mystery.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Left Behind

Living in a different world lately. Each day is filled with a particular project. Said project is to be completed on the day it is begun. Today is day three, so far, not so good.

We have been dealing with a tv and cable issue for three days. The new TV has been a constant reminder that I am "totally out of it." There are a series of letters which convey meaning to people who have some idea about all the new stuff. The directions are little help because they refer to things about which I have little understanding. Progress has left me behind. Perhaps I need to write my own "Left Behind" series!

We finally figured out we had the wrong cable, and now my wife is going to buy that one while I watch the baby one grunt and groan and chew on his hand. At some point today, hopefully within an hour, we will have a functioning tv set hooked up to cable (yesterday's goal) and I can get back to cleaning the garage (today's goal). The garage is harder work physically, but more easy for me to understand. I hope tonight to look back on all this and smile.

Being out of it is a sign of my age. I guess things will continue to change and I will fall farther behind. I still read actual books, many of them written by people from hundreds, even thousands of years ago. My interest in such things continues unabated. I find there is great wisdom in these people. The newer advances are not about wisdom. They are technological. Mind you, that is not a complaint. Soon we will be able to skype (spelling?) friends out of town. (We will talk to each other and see each other.) That is a wonderful thing. The TV has a much clearer picture and a capacity to hook up to computers which means my kids will be doing amazing things with them. That is also great. I can talk on a phone almost anywhere, that is amazing. Life is so much easier for us and richer in a variety of ways.

But wisdom is another thing. My baby will live in a world of amazing technology. As to wisdom? One can only hope.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Security and Jesuss

On vacation so plan to do brief reflections.

Yesterday we preached on Romans 8. One of the lines, "nothing can separate us from the love of Christ" became a central theme of my message. I think most of us do not live in a way that manifests the belief that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Perhaps part of the problem is we are not sure we "feel" that love. Most of us, living in the world, are divided by the "veil" which separates us from the Lord. There are some who seem more attuned. At times all of us may have a moment of clarity. Yet, too often, love is just a word, especially as applied to Jesus.

I wonder if disappointment in life is one of  the issues. Maybe we have equated the love of Christ with a wonderful life. Maybe we think the love of Christ means we will walk around in a blissful state, too joyfilled to be bothered by life's inconveniences and troubles. Maybe we think the love of Christ means we will have super powers to conquer every challenge.

Looking at the apostles, I never sense that they doubt His love. It seems that they were secure in it, yet they still floundered and struggled. Petty ego issues did not disappear ("Who is the greatest? they argued among themselves). Doubts and fears did not disappear. They still failed to heal and cast out demons, which drove Jesus to ask, "how much longer must I be with you?"

I believe life will not be totally easy, even for Christians. But I do think we can work on the faith aspect of our lives. We can pray, often, to be filled with a deep sense of that love. We can repeat the words, "nothing, nothing, nothing can ever separate me from Jesus." We can ponder what union with Him means and what it will be like in eternity in His Kingdom. We can meditate moments of deep connection which we have had and try to multiply it when applying it to Jesus. (If loving/being loved by this person is so wonderful, imagine the fulfillment of Jesus' love!)

So that is an exericse I did this morning. Praying for hours as I held and fed a little baby boy in the darkness of early morning. Repeating verses, thinking and meditating, trying to open me up to Him. Trying to be more aware of His love and His promise. It was time well spent!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Youth Groups

I am getting ready for vacation. This weekend has been a fitting send-off. I have had a chance to see God at work in the church. Friday we hosted a one day VBS for an inner city youth group. Their leader and I have had a long partnership. He is an adult victim of much abuse and an adult survivor of a decadent life. Jesus  never gave up on him, and through the intervention of a priest and some other Christians, Jesus has transformed this man into a worker of salvation. He lives and works in a very poor area. He is God's life-line to many children in awful distress. We help fund his ministry and also make human-to-human connections with his work.

The day was a mixture of various activities including a visit to the Biblical Museum here in Collierville. They were able to see and hold a lamp from the first century. It was from Jerusalem. It is literally possible that Jesus or a disciple used the lamp. I thought that it was a grand opportunity for an inner city Memphian to touch a 2,000 year old lamp and hear the story of the ten virgins and be reminded that Jesus said we are the light of the world. After the museum, we did a pretty serious Bible study, discussing the difference between "fulfillment" of Scripture and "predictions." We tied  the story of Jesus in Matthew to various stories in Genesis. Some of the children were enthused, while others probably wondered if it would ever end. We played games, made tie-dyed tee shirts, and they did a wood work project and made a little box. Throughout the kids were well behaved and seemed to enjoy themselves. We fed them three times, which most of them seemed to like. We gave them a goody bag with school supplies, hygiene items and some peanut butter.The day ended at the local YMCA's pool. Before they went swimming, we did a healing service.

We gathered in church and I had them spread out. A reflective reading on the paralytic, my favorite healing meditation, was used to illustrate the theme of hope. Kids in the inner city of Memphis often encounter a hope-free environment. There is no lack of despair. Following the meditation, I invited all the adults to go sit with a young person and pray with them over their hurts and needs. It was a pretty powerful moment. Most of these kids do not have adults asking them about themselves that way. Few people have someone pray over them. It was powerful and many tears were shed.

My little girl, aged 16, is a mother of a two year old. She said, "My momma is on the streets, my brother is on the streets, my other brother is in a facility and I am raising my little brothers." Pretty overwhelming to hear. Pretty sad to think she is one of thousands of Memphians in that situation....

Her dream is to go to college so she can get a job and not be poor. She goes to school now, even if some of her family tells her she will "never be nothing." She had tears streaming down her face as she told me, "I don't cry." She admits that there are times when she is confused and sad about her family situation. She also expresses a determination to have a better life. So I listened and I prayed. And I prayed.

My daughter is also sixteen. Her life is quite different from my little prayer partner. Saturday at 4:15a.m. my daughter woke me up. She had not been asleep because she was preparing to go out of town. I got up, woke her brother and by 4:45 we were at church. The vans were to leave at 5:00. At five thirty they pulled out (thirty minnutes late, right on schedule!). Last night they spent the night in Iowa. This morning at 4:45 she texted us,they were on their way for the last five hours of the trip. They are on a mission trip to northern Minnesota. For a week they will do work, worship and community building. The kids always come back exhausted and exhilarated. As my son says, "dad, it is more fun than fun stuff." Service, it turns out, can be meaningful and enjoyable.

Our youth group is the best behaved group of kids I have ever had. Whevever they go people commment on how well they act. They are mostly eighth to tenth graders. They are small, often quiet kids. But they give up a week of their life to improve the life of others. They do this because their parents can afford $300 each to help fund it. They can do it because our parish has money and a commitment to outreach.

The situations of these two youth groups are very different. Both live in Shelby County in southwest Tennessee. But in many ways they are a million miles apart. Yet all the kids have dreams and fears. All the kids harbor grudges and wounds. All the kids have a desire to be happy and whole. All the kids are precious to Jesus.

Mine, yours, theirs. All precious to Jesus. This weekend we acted like we believed it. And I was glad to be the priest serving at St. Andrews.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Council of Jerusalem

We are reading about the early church's struggle with what to do with Gentiles. The question, posed by Luke in his account, is whether Gentiles must be circumcised and take on the Jewish law in order to enter the church. It is a question answered and dealt with so long ago that it is difficult to interest contemporary Christians in the discussion. The reason why Acts 15 is important, is it reveals to us something of how God works. The first thing we note is that Jesus did not leave clear instructions to His disciples about this issue. In the debate, no one is quoting Jesus. Clearly, the three dozen verses are a very brief summary of a much longer, more complex event. Acts 15:7 "after much discussion" cannot convey all that took place to a non-participant.

"Some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up" and argued that Gentile converts should take up the Law of Moses. Conservative Christians, of whom I know many, rarely seem to  have much sympathy for this group. I do not know why. Certainly, this is a faithful and conservative group. Too often we write off Pharisees as 'bad guys' interested in self-justification and full of hypocricy. In reality, they were generally devout and faithful. These were the Jews most likely to be students of Scripture. They were also the ones most intent on living a life of authentic faith. Did they mess up and sin, well, yes, who hasn't (besides Jesus)? At any rate, this is a crisis. Can someone become part of the people of God without being a Jew first?

I am most struck by the realization of how God works. According to Acts, God does not give any prophetic word. No one has a revelation from on high. No theophany takes place where God Himself reveals the answer to the question. Instead, men reflect upon their experiences and discuss their thoughts. What role did Scripture play in this? There is a quote from Amos 9:11-12, but it follows the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) which is slightly different than the Masoretic Text (which is Hebrew). I do not want to get sidetracked, but we all know that translations do not always agree.

Did the Pharisee Christians not have Biblical passages as well. One assumes they quoted many. One can also assume that the other side had more than one verse of Scripture to refer to as well. In the end, the Bible was not enough to resolve the issue. Much is made of the works of God among the Gentiles. At last, Peter/Simon speaks. That is the turning point of the meeting.

God has used human beings and human argumentation to reveal His will. It is a messy way to do things. Couldn't God just tell us and be done with it? The final decision is made. "Let's not make things too hard for the Gentiles who are turning to God." There are still some expectations. No sexual immorality. No idolatry. No eating blood (Providentially, we studied this in Sunday School last week, in the Noah story in Genesis. God imposed that rule on all humans after the Flood. It is not Jewish Law, it is God's Law for all.) Saved by faith means behaviors follow. No escape from that.

So here is the foundation for the "catholic" understanding of authority in the church. Many times I hear people differentiate between "God's rule" and "Man's rule." Generally, it is in reference to some decision made by church leaders and usually the person disagrees with the decision. While it is too complex for me to deal with here, there is no doubt in my mind that the distinction between "God" and "Man" in these matters is not so easy to discern. God seems satisfied to used fallible people and fallible instituions to slowly shape the world in the form He desires. The apostles and elders declare that their decision "seems good to the Holy Spirit and to them." That has been the problem ever since. People claiming the Holy Spirit have taught all manner of things. There has been endless disagreement. Some Jews who believed in Jesus in the first century disengaged from the broader Gentile Church. For centuries they lived their faith in Jesus while maintaining the Old Testament commands from God. What will God do with such people, who sincerely think that they are the faithful ones?

Churches are a messy thing. They are messy because people are in them and people run them. They are messy because the stock answer, "Let God lead us" ignores one fundamental fact. God leads us in and through humans. There is no where to go, including the Bible, including Tradition, including prayer to get the final and definitive answer on everything. People argue and disagree because things are not always so clear. On the other hand, some people use that to claim that things which are clear are not. But until Jesus returns to establish HIS reign, you and I will hash it out in our various congregations and churches. And it will be messy. And God will work through it. And God WILL attain His goals.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Yesterdady at Morning Prayer we read from Acts 14. Having preached Romans all month, I am more attuned to Paul lately. We reflected on the stunning statement, "if we suffer with Him that we might be glorified with Him" Sunday. Preaching in a middle class setting about suffering is a challenge. Very few folks have ever suffered for their faith, myself included. We are not terribly bold and we are not being persecuted. In fact, the air conditioning was having trouble Sunday so the main topic of discussion was "the church was hot." Someone asked me if the discomfort counted as suffering for the faith. A conversation ensued about how little we are willing to put up with for the Lord. (It was not uplifting.)

In my younger days, I talked about suffering a lot. I think a young man in his early twenties dreams of being heroic. No doubt, a mix of Catholic spirituality coupled with such youthful enthusiasm  produced the keen sense of the value of suffering for Jesus. The Bible is full of such exhortations. It also helped that I had not actually suffered very much, so it was quite idealized, and rather dramatic. I probably had a cinematic view of things!

I have seen more, including suffering, in the last three decades. I have watched people weep over losses. I have experienced a few of my own. Suffering and pain look much less glorious to me now, than it did in the 1970's. I guess most things do. Now there is more of a sense of a marathon. Keep going! One step in front of the other. Be faithful. Trust. Be faithful.

Back to Acts 14. Paul is preaching and some folks he had problems with in other cities come to stir up the crowd in this new place. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions being stoned. In Acts 14, Luke recounts the event. When I think about stoning someone it makes me ill. It is a vicious kind of violence. It would also take a while. One would have to look at the person, too, because one needs to aim each throw. The sound and the image are horrible. That is what they did to Paul. A group of them, throwing stones, no doubt yelling curses upon him. They stopped when they thought he was dead. They were wrong. It is unclear if a miracle took place (the disciples circled around him), Luke does not say so (and he is not shy about signs and wonders and miracles), but Paul does get up and get back to the work of preaching.

Something he said struck me. "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." Tribulations. The Greek word thlipsis is translated tribulation. It means to be pressed down or crushed. It is related to a harvest term. Most often it is associated with apocalyptic, end times, final days struggles. The proverbial time of trouble and testing (which is probably the better translation of the Lord's Prayer, rather than "lead us not into temptation"). Thlipsis is a reminder that this Jesus-following business is deadly serious. The opposition is not playing games. Actual persecution, suffering and death are quite often the Christian's fate. Such things are frightening and humbling. Can I stand up? Will I? In a church where being comfortable is the central focus, how well will we do if the "heat" is really "turned up" and people start doing us harm for confessing Jesus as our Lord?

Thlipsis  is the door way into the kingdom. The cross of Jesus. Self-gift in love. It is not easy, but as Paul also says, "The sufferings of the present cannot be compared to the glory to be revealed." There is reason to believe that whatever we must go through, the Kingdom is more than worth it! So be of stout heart, hopeful and joyful. It may hurt, but it is the entrance to GOD's KINGDOM!!!!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Praying in Public

Last night I was the designated Pray-er at the Southern Legislative Conference. It is a gathering of State Congressemen from thirteen states in the south east section of our nation. They had a formal mela and paraded the flag of each state present. It was pretty exciting. I was tempted to begin with a joke about religion and politics, but decided it might send the wrong message. Instead, I said what I usually say in such circumstances.

I do not mind praying in public. I do refuse to make generic prayers. Some years ago an Episcopal Bishop was invited to serve as one of the people who prayed at the Obama inauguration. The bishop, someone with whom I have had e-mail contact in times past, made it clear that it was his intent to pray generically. He did not want to 'force' his Christian faith on others. I told him that if he planned to do that, if he had any integrity, he would also not wear his clergy shirt and collar. The bishop never did respond, as much as he and his buddies talk about "dialogue" they generally prefer to be listened to. I did see him pray on TV that day in his "full epsicopal garb", but my recollection is people were not paying much attention. The crowd seemed to all be chattering away. Maybe just as well, when churchmen dress up like churchmen but 'pray' like they aren't, maybe its best that no one listens.

I made the decision years ago that I would not do that. I would not deny Jesus and pray to "God" as if I had no idea what the content of the word "God" is. I also would not fail to pray in public the way I pray in private. However, I do think people deserve respect, even people of different faiths. So, I begin by acknowledging that there are people in the room of different faiths and perhaps no faith. I say that I want to respect that. Some Christians believe that all other faiths are little better than demonic. I am not inclined to that. (I have wrestled with that one in several previous posts. Enough to say, I think God is in charge of dealing with the errors of other religions and the errors of sincere 'other'believing people.) I think showing respect is the best way to garner respect.

Then, I tell people that I will pray out of a context of the Jewish Bible through the lense of the New Testament and faith in Jesus. That is my Bible and He is my Lord. I cannot and will not pray as though I were a minister of civil religion. Last night I prayed for wisdom and courage for these leaders. I asked God to help them know what is right and do what is right. I also prayed forgiveness for the failure to do right. I think important people in politics have many challenges. I think they are accountable for what they say and do, not only to citizens, but to Almighty God, the Creator and Judge. I think they need prayer, maybe even more prayer other folks.

I prayed in thanks for the blessings we take for granted in America, not just food but lots of good food. I prayed for those who prepared it and those who serve it. The 'invisible' people whom we also take for granted. I prayed that we would see them as models (think Jesus at the Last Supper). I hoped my prayer was sincere and I hoped God heard it. I hoped some how it was a means whereby a life was touched.

As we left last night, a yonug man came up to me and energetically explained that he had learned something that night. He told me that he was in Rotary and other civil groups and he now had a way to be respectful of others while maintaining his own integrity when he was asked to pray. He was pleased. So was I. God touched someone.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Weeds and Wheat

Sunday we read a parable of Jesus. Parables are intended to open our minds to a deeper reality through an illustration of something with which we are familiar. Jesus liked farm related stories, He told several parable related to seeds, growth and the problems of reaching the harvest.

Matthew 13 has several parables in it. There are also explanations of two parables. Scholars generally think that because the explanations are allegorical, they must be the work of Matthew (or the comunity). I have always been a bit unsure of this conclusion. I do not find it difficult to believe that there were times when the disciples asked Jesus questions. I also think it possible that Jesus did some explaining in private on more than one occassion. Perhaps I am projecting my own experience here, but I have certainly found myself doing the same thing from time to time.

On the other hand, years of study have made it clear that the Gospel authors are authors. There are numerous places where one can see their input in the process. Each one has shaped the story as it arrived to him (whether in written form or oral tradition). Each one had been shaped by the telling and re-telling of the Jesus story in their own life situation. Each one also listened to the story and emphasized aspects based, in part, on that experience. Of course, there is also the Holy Spirit and Divine Inspiration to factor in as well.

The parable of the weeds and wheat is rather straight forward. A man sows good seed. An enemy mixes in weeds. Servants take note and report it to the master, asking if they should pull up the weeds. His answer is wait, we might pull up wheat as well. At the harvest we will take care of it.

Most of us wonder about the wisdom of waiting. Why not take care of the weeds immediately. Daniel Harrington's Commentary (in the Sacra Pagina series) tell us that the particular word, zizanion comes from Hebrew and Aramaic. The root of the term znh means to commit fornication. The weeds are related to excesses in the plant world prior to the flood! The actual plant is called a "bastard wheat" because it looks like wheat except the kernal is black. Hence, the servants would not  have easily been able to differentiate the two early on.

I am not sure what reaction Jesus' original audience had to this story. One thinks, like us, that they heard an explanation, of sorts, about the state of the world. This is another place where Jesus seems to talk about the world we live in in a way which says that there is another force at work, opposed to God. Obviously, Jesus makes clear, in the end God will have His way (at the Final Judgement). Even so, one could say that in the mean time, as we wait, it appears God waits as well. What the parable does not say is that the Master sowed both good seed and bad. It does not imply that the Master intended to create a field with both, but that He deals with the result of an enemies hand.

The other thing that comes through is the idea of judgment. In the final harvest all the causes of sin and all evildoers will be cast into fire while the righteous will shine like the sun. Sun, of course, is fire, too. One wonders if the process which incinerates some purifies others?  At any rate, we live in the field now. Weeds abound, but so does the wheat. Wheat is used to make bread, which is eucharist. You and I are called to be that kind of wheat. Bread made into the Body of Christ. It is tempting to complain about the weeds. At times we might even be tempted to act like weeds. But our task is to bear fruit. In Jesus that is possible. While we wait for the havest, we are called to grow and produce.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who Wrote Romans?

Who wrote the letter to the Romans?

Now this may sound like one of those skeptical, higher criticism questions. "O No!" you may be thinking, "don't tell me that you are going to cast doubt on the Pauline authorship of Romans." You may even be thinking that this blog will be off your list of regular reads now. WAIT!

Romans 16:22 holds the answer: "I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord."
Tertius. That's right, the Bible says Tertius wrote the letter to the Romans. Why then does the letter begin with Paul's name, if he did not write it? And why do we say "Paul's letter to the Romans" and not "Tertius' letter to the Romans"?

Paul is the author of the letter, but in his day the physical act of writing was an occupation. It took special skills to be able to compose a letter, but the act of transcribing the words also required special skills. Some theorize that the painstaking process of composing each letter (in a word) would take about one hour for seventy words. The pens and paper were so primitive that it was very challenging to write legibly. If that is the case, then a letter like Romans could have taken weeks to write. It would have taken hours each day.

I theorize that one reason Paul is hard to read is because of the actual process of thinking, speaking, waiting then repeating, over and over, several words at a time. One often senses that in mid-sentence Paul is launching in another direction. Can you imagine his mind racing with a dozen ideas as he waited for his words to be set to paper?

It is not uncommon for me to be asked to write a letter to the whole parish, or some small group within it. I can literally whip up a pretty nice letter in ten to twenty minutes. It is easy to write clearly. Speaking, on the other hand, is more challenging. As we speak our thoughts race in different directions. We head in one direction, then another.

Have you ever read a transcript of how people really speak? Half sentences, phrases, fillers ("like," "umm," etc). People might say two words, then stop. Then start all over again. Sometimes Paul does this. Tonight I preached on Romans 8. Paul begins, "we are debtors" but instead of finishing the thought "to God" he ends up side tracked about "not to the flesh." The sidetrack is still powerful, but one can imagine Paul pausing as Tertius scratched his words. Suddenly, he thought of more nuances to what he was saying.

One of the beauties of incarnation is that God comes to us in human flesh. The real world we live in is the real world of revelation. God respects us, perhaps more than we respect ourselves. Sometimes we want magic. We want God to bust in and free us from the long slow process of real life. My guess is Paul would have loved a word processor. He could have written lots of books. But maybe, in Paul's day, people were able to savor words and understand them better. Maybe having to spend so long to write a letter, one cherished it more. Perhaps needing a team to write a letter, made it more a work of a community. Perhaps we have gained much, but also lost some things along the way.

Next time you read an Epistle, imagine the writing process. Read it the way people talk. See if that makes it easier.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Healing, Crisis, and other brief reflections

  • Thanks for prayers! Dr. Tom came out of surgery fine and is in the process of recovery. He is doing cross word puzzles. He stated, "Two miracles. I am alive and I am not brain dead." Routine surgery. Routine miracles. Every day we wake up is a miracle and a gift. We get used to it and forget to marvel and thank God.
  • Overheard at lunch a few days ago. Two women met there and got to talking about schools. One in public, one in private. Both attend one of Memphis' largest churches. The first lady spoke about two Christian schools her daughter had attended. She said the second was better, it had more Bible emphasis. She was very complimentary of the teachers, especially their faith. She clearly thought they were committed. But here was the kicker, "The kids are out of control, sex, drinking, drugs. If I had it to do all over again I would have stayed in public school." Now this is one lady and one view point, so I want to remember that. However, I have read data which indicates that "Christian" (i.e. Evangelical) children are statistically not much different from other kids in society. That would be a problem.
  • Historically, the Church has suffered from the same corruption as the world. Princes of the Church acted like Princes. Human sin does not dissipate in large religious institutions. Perhaps we need to factor that into our theological reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit. Our leaders and our kids are not always noticably better...
  • Acts 12. " [Herod] had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword." So ends the career of one of the more famous apostles. One verse. The next eighteen recount that Peter is arrested and then an angel springs him from prison. The story is riveting. God really taking a hand in human affairs. There is even a comic moment where Peter is banging on the door where everyone is gathered and the maid, Rhoda, is so excited that she leaves him standing out there as she goes and tells everyone. It is the sort of extended narration that smacks of historicity. It is the sort of detail which one assumes would long be remembered. The miracle of Peter's escape gets more focus. James' martyrdom, not so much. We like to the good news, don't we? Yet, both happened. Christians need to expect that miracle escapes are possible, but not the only possibility. Sometimes we die. (and we heard rumors that Peter ends up martyred later in Rome, too)
  • Starting Mark in Morning Prayer. It is a fast paced Gospel. Years of reading it have provided me insight into the levels of meaning and the clever construction. Just read the call of Levi. He worked as a tax collector. Jesus was very radical in His choices and one wonders what He saw in Levi that inspired Him to say "Follow Me." "Those who are sick need a doctor," Jesus said. Perhaps the Church needs to focus more on "medical care" and less on flash and sizzle. I will see what I can do about that today....

Thursday, July 14, 2011

David and Jonathan Gay?!

We have been reading I Samuel this week in Evening Prayer. Because I have done Bible studies on the OT books the last couple of years I am much more familiar with these texts. So when we read these sections now I have some context for thinking about them. Jonathan, to me, is one of the finest characters in the Bible. While David is involved in any number of offensive activities, Jonathan shines as a man of incredible courage and integrity.

Which is why I am going on a rant. Memories can work on their own. Sometimes we have to work hard to recall data. Other times there are associations made which come of their own volition. They are called triggers. (For example, the word trigger makes me think of Roy Rogers' horse. Just popped in my head, no effort)

Because human minds (&brains) work that way it is important to take care in how we form memories. Pure things are easily polluted and ruined. Take a single tooth out of a smile and it is suddenly ridiculous. A black smudge on a white dress gains all the attention, even if 99% of the dress is pristine.

The story of Jonathan's faithfulness in I Samuel 19&20 is heart rending. King Saul, enraged with jealousy, shares with his son and inner group that he wants them to kill David. Saul recognizes David is a threat to his throne. Saul already knows God has rejected him as king, Samuel made that clear. Now he further complicates his situation by standing against God and clinging to his power.

I can imagine the knot in Jonathan's gut as he heard the words. I can also imagine the terror. Saul has been very unpredictable. One moment at peace with David, then suddenly he decides he must die. Even for warriors, such events must be unnerving. Jonathan is making a decision which could cost him his life. Nothing is said of his feelings toward his father. Having read the book through I know that he will stand by his father's side to his death. Jonathan must have struggled mightily.

Jonathan speaks out for his friend, defending him to Saul's face. Logic is useless in the face of passion. So Jonathan successfully convinces his father to relent, but Saul's decision that David 'shall not die' is short lived. After another successful battle against Israel's enemies, David returns (the people's favorite) and Saul attempts to kill him with a spear. David flees for his life.

Jonathan and David conspire together to determine the next course of action. As David hides in Ramah, Jonathan comes to  him. They work out a plan so that Jonathan can secretly inform David of the situation. Jonathan will shoot arrows at a target near David's hiding place. What he says to the boy who is his "arrow-fetcher" will be a code for whether David should stay or flee.

Two sentences from the Sacred Writ stand out to me:
  • And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.
  • behold, the Lord is between you and me forever
Love. Jonathan, we are told, loved David. What other explanation for his choices? Jonathan was crown prince. Jonathan was in line to take Saul's place. Jonathan was on the brink of great and wonderful things. Yet he gave it all up to support the one man who could take it all from him. Why?

Two reasons. Love and faith. He believed God had chosen David. He loved David. That is what people who love and serve God do. They submit. That is what friends do. They take joy in the success of a friend rather than seek their own self interest.

So here is the rant. Why ruin a story of faith and love by turning it into an issue of same sex attraction? Why reframe this story as a gay love affair? Why make it into something else than what the text says?

Ever since 2003, this story has been changed for me. At that time I heard gay marriage justified and one of the arguments raised was Jonathan and David. My initial reaction of shock and disbelief have been worn away. The unthinkable has been thought. Something that had never crossed my mind was now an association. Time and again I have heard this "proof" until the story of Jonathan's self sacrificial love has become the (failed) argument to justify for gay sex.

Is it really necessary to make everything into gay sex? EVERYTHING? Does friendship have to be reduced to sexual attraction? Is it possible to imagine a world where stimulation and pleasure are not the only thing that matter? Can we think it possible that sometimes people have their minds on something else?

Our consumer, individualistic culture has made a comodity of most everything. The Episcopal Church has made a commitment to embrace the culture (in the name of "incarnational"). The effort to embrace has had other consequences. The culture has changed the church more than the church has changed the culture. The Epsicopal has been secularized. The sacred texts are de-sacralized and reduced to "stories of believing people from another era." The goal, preach Jesus to the world, has been reshaped into "promote tolerance, especially advocating for all things related to homosexuality." The list goes on, but anyone half paying attention already knows these things and more.

What frustrates me is the fog in my own mind. I think the challenge Jonathan could be has been dulled. The idea that 'love is self gift' is replaced with pondering other things, things which are not edifying. The effort to combat these alternative interpretations is itself a frustration. Do I really want to spend so much time and energy around issues of gay marriage? Even if the intent is noble and faithful, it still leads one away from the text and its message, back into the world of church politics and conflicts. In the end, whatever one says, if it is not the TEC party-line, is rejected as hate speech.

So, my rant. They have taken a sad story, yet an inspirational story, of faith, friendship, sacrifice and reduced it to a (faux) prop for their obsession with sex, especially homo-sex. They have done it enough that now the text is associated, to some extent, with that issue in my mind. How unfortunate. So I blog on it, which may end up leading other people to do the same thing. Perhaps I have aided their cause?

Yet Jonathan is a model. A model of purity and love. Someone who seeks God's will and way. I can stand with Jonathan and model his behavior (even if a poor imitation). I can decide to stand against those who advocate for that which God has rejected, whatever it is. I can do battle with the forces aligned against his kingdom. And I can love, purely and selflessly. I can love men and women without reducing love to impulses related to my own sexual pleasure. I can reject a cultural (dis)value which is ruining people by sexualizing everything. I can try to be innocent and pure and holy.

I hope, someday, that this Biblical text will be, once again, about our response to Messiah. I hope Jonathan is, again, the metaphor for selfless, loving commitment to God's annointed king (David, a metaphor for Jesus). I hope that some day we can read the story and hear the voice of Jesus ("anyone who does not love Me more than father, or not worthy of Me"). I hope that the story will inspire us to heroic acts of faithful virtue. I hope it will be pristine. Pure. A noble story about noble discipleship whatever the cost. I hope it will be a powerful narrative about obeying God and loving your friends, even when it is painful. I hope that this reflection is a step in that direction.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dr. Tom, the Fourth Dimension

[computer issues coupled with baby issues have made blogging a challenge lately, sorry]

Dad married Katie. Dad died. Katie married Dr. Tom. So by virtue of those marriages he is now in a convaluted grandfatherly relationship with my kids. He is having surgery Thursday. He calls it 'serious routine' surgery. Routine for the surgeons, not terribly routine for those under the scalpel. Prayers for his full recovery are requested.

Dr. Tom is one of the great mathematicians in our country (in the world). He is an energetic examplar of what is best in teaching, a wealth of knowledge coupled with a burning desire to share that knowledge. Whenever he visits us he attends school with my kids where he bedazzles them with a variety of geometric wonders. He can also do cross word puzzles at blinding speed.

These personal features are shared to make him more real for you and give added inspiration to pray, to intercede for his health and well being. But something he taught me, or led me to, is what I want to share.

Dr. Tom works in the geometric field of multi-dimensionality, in particular the fourth dimension. He shared some of his work as well as a love of a nineteenth century cleric who wrote a book about the subject. The book, Flatlands, imagines a sphere enterring a world of squares, triangles and circles. How would a three dimensional object explain life to individuals constrained to length and width?

What is depth in a world which is limited to flatlands? Of course, the idea is a launching point for asking about the fourth dimension. The world we live in, having height, width, depth, is three dimensional. But what happens when we try to go beyond that? Our language is no more adept than the flatlanders' to capture reality beyond our experience.

As Dr. Tom and I discussed, I gained a glimpse which helped me. [I hasten to add it was a tiny glimpse which his vision far exceeds!] Everyone recalls making graphs in school. We learned to make X and Y axis. On the vertical we put, for example, height. On the horizontal, perhaps, weight. Then we plotted various people's height and weight to see what trends appear. But what if we wanted to add sex? or age? or race? The multiplicity of aspects cannot fit on a simple two-dimensional graph. [Stick with me, this is going some place important.]

Sex, male or female, is independent of weight. It does not show up on a scale, but it is real. Age is also real. But saying 'six foot three inches' is age neutral. Real humans are a combination of countless dimensions. They interact and impact one another at times (like height and weight). Knowing about some (like age) does not give much information about others (like sex). So we humans are multidimensional.

The world we live in can be measured in many ways. The measures are, however, limited. Time is helpful to measure age, but it is terribly unreliable as a scale. "I weigh two weeks" is nonsensical.

God is in another dimension. He permeates our own world, even if He is not captured by the measures we use. That is why, like a sphere in a two dimensional world, He can enter into our world and appear like one of us (a sphere looks like a circle in a two dimensional world, except it gets bigger and smaller as it passes through the two dimensional plane). We see, in Jesus, God in a human life. There is more there, but it cannot be discerned by our eyes unaided. He is totally human, just like us, but there is an additonal dimension (divinity) which is not observable in our world.

Theology tries to talk about things which are beyond our understanding. They are mysteries. The best way to understand a mystery is by analogy, metaphor and imagery. If we look and listen, sometimes we get a glimpse.

There is so much more to reality than we can grasp. It is important to maintain a sense of wonder and joy. To be a child, even a seventy year old child, full of appreciation for the beauty of the world, is a special gift. The insight into the multidimensionality of the world was a watershed moment for me. It was a brief second when I sort of "got it." Thanks for that Dr. Tom. God bless and heal you!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Unpredictable God offers Salvation to Wrong people!

Peter began to speak to them, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him." [from Acts 10:34-48]

These are stunning words. Spoken by a first century Jew, they reveal a profound paradigm shift. Peter was not prepared to see God's salvation manifest in Gentiles. It boogled his mind and caused him to rethink his beliefs. We, in the Church, tend to assume Gentiles are welcome. It was not so for the first followers of Jesus. It was, rather, a contentious and difficult process.

A recurring theme of my prayer and reflection is God's strange ways. It seems it would  have been very easy for Jesus to explain all about this Gentile mission this early and often in His ministry. Based on Peter's need of a revelatory vision, it appears God chose another, longer, more convuluted way. Most times, I assume God will act quickly, clearly, and decisively. This is probably a function of my assumptions about God. We Christians tend to use Greek philosophy (even, especially Christians who claim to know nothing about Greek philosophy) as a starting place. We create a theology of what God must be like (e.g.perfect) and then fill in the details of what that means (i.e. inerrant) and then apply it to a situation (God will reveal everything clearly and completely to the believer). We 'cannot' hear the Word because we have already 'decided' what it must mean.

Peter says something that many Christians fail to hear: God accepts those who fear Him and do right. There is no mention of a conscious faith in Jesus. It is something much less worked out. It has to do with a desire for God and a desire to please God. In other words, Peter says, God responds to the effort of the Centurian (and those in every nation who fear Him and do right). This would seem to have some impact on how we might understand the place of unbelievers (those who have never heard of Christ) around the world. It should at least be part of the discussion.

But there is more to the story. Peter tells the tale, a narrative of God's saving plan. The message is to Israel ( a feature of the plan we moderns Christians always block out). The message is God sent Jesus to preach peace and to do good and heal those oppressed by Satan. Peter is a witness of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is LORD of all and the Judge of all.

So Jesus is not optional (Peter also says "everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name). Jesus is the key figure. Too many contemporary folks get that one wrong. The message of hope is rooted in Jesus. There are not many ways (i.e. ways outside of Jesus) to God. However, I think, the way through Jesus may be wider than some people are currently ready to accept. That may tell us more about ourselves than it does God.

The Jewish believers were shocked to see the Holy Spirit poured out on Gentiles. What does God do to shock us today? How do we close doors and shutter windows to the Kingdom now? I wonder where I am blind to the mighty works of God, don't you wonder the same?

I cling to this, though. God is setting out to do what is best for all. I think Peter was stunned by that. I thnk we are no better than Peter, so I think we are also in need of greater openness (always within the Lordship of JESUS!!!). We need to open our ears to hear and our heart to receive God's Word. We need, like Peter, to be willing to see God work in ways which are unexpected.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Where is my vision?

After a two day trip I planned to blog yesterday. The computers at work were down and I was thwarted. This technology makes it easy to do so many things, but a blip can make it impossible to do anything.

I wanted to reflect on visions. In the Gospel, Luke shares the story of two people going to Emmaus, who encounter the Risen Lord. Jesus explains to the pair all the Scripture related to Him. Their hearts burned with fire as they listened. It is the one place and time recorded in the Bible that I most wish I could be present. I would love to be with Jesus, recently raised from the dead, explaining how the OT is fulfilled in His life and death. The couple returns to the apostles, who declare Jesus is alive. They also say some women  had "a vision of angels."

A vision of angels; that sounds glorious!

Luke's Acts yesterday also contained stories of Cornelius and Peter, each of whom had a vision. God, speaking to the faithful Gentile soldier (who, by the way, was not asked to renounce his military vocation), makes the next step in opening the Gentile world to the Good News. Peter's vision (a vast array of animals, including 'unclean' animals: slaughter! eat!) is cryptic. He is told, "What God declares clean, do not call unclean!" (three times) Later, Peter connects this to Gentiles, and Conrnelius and his whole family will receive the Holy Spirit and be baptized.

I think the visions indicate God intervening. He acts from the outside to change the flow of events. Rather than control the process from within (He could simply have Peter go baptize Cornelius), He provides a vision to each man, indicating that He desires them to do His bidding. One gets the impression that Peter receives a very clear vision, but not an immediate indication of what it means. That is important, too. Sometimes God works slowly with us. Everything is not crystal clear and it takes time to know and understand. Even in visions, God works slowly.

All these visisons lead many of us to ask, "Hey Lord! Where is my vision?" In an age where unbelief is rampant. In a time when the church is in decline. In an historical period when so much paganization is taking place and so many battles are being lost, it does seems like many of us could use a booster of grace. A vision of angels here, a divine direction there, just some amazing moments with God to recharge the "faith batteries" and keep us going. In fact, some people drift from the faith because they have received none of the amazing things they read about in the Bible. "Where is my vision?" they ask, as they slowly walk away from God, faith and church.

As a young man I often prayed for such things. I longed to have that deep connection with God that the saints seemed to enjoy. The last ten years I have grown more at peace with the ordinary and mundane life I live. I do sense God at work. I think that is the norm. Perhaps we read of the visions because even then such things were rare and worthy of note. Maybe Luke wrote it down because he wanted to remember what happened. Maybe even Luke himself wondered, "where is my vision?" as he wrote Acts and the Gospel!

What I have come to believe is that there is no vision which could add to what we already believe. We have seen the OT references to Jesus and studied them. We know the Lord is risen. We understand the mission of the church, to Jew and Gentile. We have the Bible and multiple tools to read and understand. We have two thousand years of "acts of the apostles" to reflect upon.

Sure it would be nice if all of us had that special, mind blowing moment where God gave us some special vision, but those visison always seemed to occur for a specific reason. It changes the flow of history. You and I are not called to such a task. Perhaps we seek clarity about what God wants us to do. Even so, our mission and ministry is not of that level. We are not changing the course of church history (like Peter or Paul). God is satisfied with our long, slow struggle to do our task. Even if it takes us a while to translate the message into our own concrete lifes, God is subtly guiding.

God does not give visions (in the Bible) for the personal enjoyment or benefit of the recipient. The vision is for the benefit of others. It is to steer the ship (church) ever slowly in a new direction. Visions provide the 'chosen one' (visisonary) with the information they need so that God can continue to save His Chosen People and creation.

Even if we have never had a vision, we still have a vision, our vision is in the Bible, interpreted for us through Chruch Tradition. Sometimes it is not totally clear to us. Sometimes we move in the wrong direction. Sometimes we do not get it right at all. Yet, God is among us [Emmanuel] and if we pray, read, study, listen, watch we will have our vision, a peak at God's vision. It may be in a mundane, ordinary way, but that is okay. God has given the vision. God gave it in the way God chose is best. For the rest of us, ours is a 'secondary vision'. We are the beneficiaries of the visions  of received by others.

But we need not despair. There will be a day. Some day, we will all have our visison. We will see Him face to face. We will see and know and understand on that day.

Some day...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Many Called, Few Chosen

So I am saying my morning prayers and reading God's Word. I read the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. I hear the words of the last verse and my blood goes cold.
  • For many are called, but few are chosen
These words are especially poignant because in the last week I have been preparing study notes on 4 Ezra. 4 Ezra is a Jewish work of the first century. At least some scholars date it to the same time period as the Gospel. It is considered Scripture by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and is quoted by a vast number of early church Fathers. It is found in the apocrypha of the New Revised Standard Bible.

The work is apocalyptic and contains a lamentation over Israel's situation. It has, similar to other OT writings like Job and Habakkuk, a dialogue with God concerning hard questions about life. It is a graphic reminder that contemporary folks are not the first ones to ask "why?" One of the big questions is why did God create us if so many will perish.

The negative assessment [see 4 Ezra 8:3 "Many have been created, but few will be saved" and 4 Ezra 9:16 "There are more who perish than will  be saved."] is tempered, somewhat, by the belief that this is not Scripture. However, it may still  be true. That is the more pressing issue, from a practical perspective. So reading Jesus today was quite startling. I know in another place He says, "Strive to enter by the narrow way." I know He says that some day the door will be shut and people will stand outside banging and crying for admission. Jesus is no stranger to the concept of limited salvation.

So what does one do with such grim data? Many choose to ignore it. "Everyone is saved!!!", they happily proclaim (especially in the episcopal church). The emphasis on love and mercy seems to imply, to them, that all is overlooked in the end. If such is the case, then Jesus did a very poor job of conveying that good news to His hearers. And the Holy Spirit neglected to make that a main point of inspiration. I am doubtful that God forgot to mention that there is no need to fear. My guess is, in truth, those gathered around the Lord, in the end, will not include everyone.

It makes our decisions more pressing. How do I live in 'obedient faith' (Romans 1:5)? I am sure that endless fret and worry are not the answer. Surely Jesus gives us reason to hope. Yet it is a wake up call for those who think 'all is well and all will be well, regardless of how we live.' A fear based Gospel does not motivate well. Yet hard, cruel facts should not be dismissed because fear fails to motivate. The fact seems to be, that Jesus calls all into the Kingdom, but all will not be there in the end. Our response to this graciousness is vital. Jesus said it, "few." That is a hard word to hear, especially in a culture where "inclusion" is the catch phrase and "tolerance" the new (and false) gospel. Perhaps in a culture gone increasingly cold toward God it makes sense that He is spoken of in such terms. Perhaps people who do not take God seriously can not take judgment seriously. Perhaps, that is the very reason why  many are called, but few are chosen.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ananias: God's Counselor

Reading Acts 9:10ff today. One of my favorites. Paul has been struck blind and carted off for a time of prayer and fasting. Today we read that the Lord appears to Ananias in a vision. He is told that Saul has received a vision that Ananias will come to lay hands on him to restore his sight. Ananias says:
  • "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he  has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name."
Now I have never had a vision. I have never heard a voice. God has never provided me with any theophany (Big Time God Manifestation). I am not sure what I would do if one  happened. I just find myself thinking, "Ananias, Almighty God deigns to appear to you, to speak to you, to set you apart to do a healing miracle; and the first thing that pops in your mind is to give God some counsel on why this is a bad idea? Really? You are going to tell the All-knowing Creator, 'bad idea, word on the street is that this Saul is dangerous.' ?"

And yet, aren't I (and you) frequently in the advice chair when we sit talking to God. Don't we generally approach God with a 'to-do' list? How often have we questioned the wisdom of God? How often do we point out that if we were in charge we would do things differently?

Obeidience, more than love, is the key response to God. Loving God is easy. He is perfect beauty and goodness. Anything which we delight in is a dim reflection of His being. Everything which attracts us is repulsive in comparision to His attractiveness.

But obedience, that is a tall challenge. Obedience is submission, it requires that we relinquish control. It takes not just love but also trust. I can love someone and not trust them. I can love someone and not obey them. I can love someone and not listen to them. That is the problem. And it seems Ananias, to some extent, had the same problem.

The good news, even if we find ourselves uncontrollably driven to contradict God and correct Him, we can still obey.

God tells Ananias: I chose Saul for a job, proclaiming the Gospel to Gentiles, kings and Jews. I will let him know how much he will suffer for My Name.
So Ananias stopped giving advice and did what he was told to do. That was a good idea, and now he is eternally connected to the most significant evangelist apostle in the Church. That is an honor.

I could do another long reflection of Saul's destiny, suffering, but enough to say, however much we dislike it, complain about it and question God's goodness and wisdom when we do it---Suffering is part of the deal. Facing the pain with courage and trust is worth much more than all the advice we can ever give God. Suffering faithfully is the best expression of obedience, and probably the truest gift of love.

Friday, July 1, 2011

God and Numbers Game

All three readings today provide fertile ground for meditation. I want to write about 1 Sam 13:19-14:15 because the story is about Jonathan. In my studies of the Old Testament the last three years there has been no character as appealing to me as Jonathan. He seems much more noble and honorable than either Saul or David, the two kings. He works against his father's interests by supporting David, yet in the end, as the successor, it is really his own interests against which he works. He does it all because he believes that David is God's choice and he loves David. That is a good man!

To see such humility in a man of such violent courage is a rare thing. No where is his faith and courage more manifest than in today's reading. While the army of Israel is "hiding in their caves" Jonathan approaches an enemy encampment. He says to his armor bearer, "if they call us up to meet them, then we know God has delivered them into our hands." That was the 'sign' in his mind. [It sounds ilke an invitation to a massacre to me.]

At stories end, Jonathan has mowed through about twenty men (the sort of thing usually reserved to movie heroes) and fear sweeps through the Philistine camp. Here, however, is the verse which caught my eye:
  • For nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.
As I often say (complain?), we live in challenging times for Christians. Traditional marriage is being replaced far and wide. The UN announced its commitment to gay "marriage." NY passed it, now NJ is ready to. We also know that people who believe in traditional marriage are identified as haters.

Churches, in every denomination, seem to be shrinking and in decline. And the members are older. Those in the church are frequently less than zealous. It is probably the case that the majority of Christians do not read the Bible in a normal week. Prayer does take place, but it seems much prayer is of the request variety, rather than thanks, praise or seeking God's will. By many measures it looks, if not bleak, at least not good.

One theme of the OT is the idea that God can do great things with small groups. The David and Goliath story is the gold standard for that, but Gideon is another example. Jonathan, today, is certainly another. And there are endless other examples. God can do great things with small groups and little people. Often times, churches can get so caught up in the latest marketing craze that they give up the mission and ministry to achieve "success." I am certainly affected by that temptation. Weekly attendance can become a measure of a minister's self worth. Certainly it is a measure of something, but the focus needs to remain, first and foremost, on loving, serving, worshipping God. We cannot quit because we think our resources are insufficient. We can and must listen to God (through Scripture. prayer, and the shared wisdom of the communion of saints) in our community, even if it is only two or three.

These are words of a faithful man: For nothing can hinder God from saving by many or few. It is God who makes it happen. So whether in the majority or the minority, if we are right with God we are right. Whether in paucity or abundance, if we are used by God we have enough. The numbers are secondary. God is primary. I hope that hope rules your day.