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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent Spirituality 2

More on waiting.

As most people know, we have lots of doctor appointments and some extra worries about our baby. There is much we do not know about his development. We have to "wait and see".

On the one hand, all of us have unknown futures, so in reality we must all wait and see. I am keenly aware that his sister and brother, both vibrant, healthy, bright, beautiful children have an equally unknown future. Illness or accident could transform them in a moment into a much different type of person. I have memories of my parents, both struck down as young adults with serious medical issues. Heart disease, cancer and assorted maladies twisted them and finally took them from the earth at a relatively early age. I was at a parish party, talking and laughing with one of my dearest friends a couple of years ago. A healthy, strong man, a few hours his heart stopped. So, yes, life is uncertain. I get it, still....

On the other hand, there is a difference about an unknown future and waiting to find out how things will turn out. When a doctor says "maybe", waiting for the results is different than the regular unknown. Uncertainty feels different when it has been identified as a possiblity.

Advent waiting should be like that. We have been told that Jesus may be back today. No one knows (except the Father). There is a difference in waiting for His return and wondering what the future will  be. We know, to some extent, that the future will be under His Kingship. We know that Justice, Righteousness, Peace, Joy, Love are all part of that future. We know that living in His Kingdom will be a gift, a grace, a blessing. We cannot earn it. We also know that living in His Kingdom will take a different skill set. We will have to be changed, all of us (even and especially Christians). Our values will  need to be reordered. We will need to learn obedience and service. We will need to worship more and complain less. So there is much effort to extend to become the kind of people we need to be.

Advent waiting is a time to try on those virtues. It is a time to be shaped today for the future glory; a time to become today what we need to  be to live in that tomorrow. Advent is not Lent, but this year I have added some "mini-Lenten" disciplines to my Advent. Little 'fastings' which will sharpen my awareness that it is not Christmas season and it is a time to hunger for His return. I suggest increased Scripture reading (I am in Genesis and marveling, once again, at the amazing stories in the Torah). I suggest some small "fasting' from something. Heighten the awareness. Sharpen the desire for Jesus' return to reign. Focus on, desire, hunger for the divine consumation. Maybe if we all prayed more, "Come Lord Jesus!" this year He would hear our prayer and come among us as Lord and King! That would be the best Christmas ever!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Advent Spirituality

I want to follow up on the Advent Theme. "Waiting" is a major theme of the OT and NT.  ('Watch' occurs 61x and 'wait' 91x in the New King James Version) It is a reminder that it is God Who makes the definitve act of salvation. We look toward that day, but waiting and watching are not passive, they are actions.

One of the hardest things for Christians to talk about is Christian behavior in relationship to God. This is especially true in the post-Augustine, post-Reformation Western church. The emphasis on God's activity sometimes is supplemented by a total disdain for human acts (refered to disparagingly as 'works'). Biblical verses like the one from Isaiah 64:1-9 this Sunday ["all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth"] illustrate this position well. "See," we are told, "the best we can do is garbage."

I am easily persuaded by such a position. Philosophically, I am keenly attuned to the idea that God's ultimate perfection is unbridgable, and in comparison to His perfect Goodness and Beauty all we have to offer is like garbage. The problem is, of course, at some point a thinking person becomes aware that "if the best I offer to God is garbage, then what difference does it make?" There is a reason why we generally make relative assessments. If a second grader was graded relative to the expectations of a PhD program, then probably the smartest kids would be getting 15% or so. Everyone would have a big, fat 'F' and the smartest kids would be told that they do not measure up. True, accurate and totally unhelpful. It is much better to grade them based on expectations of eight year olds. When a Christian [e.g., me and you] internalizes the belief that all our righteous deeds are a filthy rag, how long is it until one stops trying?

Without getting too deep into the exegesis of Isaiah, what he is saying  here is not a universal declaration that we are incapable of ever pleasing God. He is certainly not saying that good and bad deeds are all the same. He is not exhorting ancient Israel to give up trying to please God. What he is saying, and it is important, is that Israel's sin has produced desolation. That the sin is killing her. That God alone is the hope for deliverance.

Waiting and watching are active. Staying alert, scanning the horizon, living in preparation for the coming visitation is active. We are not passively laying around. We are active. Advent is active. It is focused. It is disciple (pray, study, Bible) and it is apostle (preach, teach, heal, exorcise), it is pasoral (counsel, feed hungry, provide for needy) and it is community centered (worship and work together). Those who wait for the Lord are very busy, it is just that the busyness is focused on the right things. And the busyness is directed to welcoming the Savior Lord.

If I can delight in the smiles of a six month old child, I imagine God can delight in the "righteous deeds" of His children. God does not need us, true, but He loves us. We have little to offer Him besides our love. And it seems to be the case that that is exactly what He wants. He is a Father (Isaiah also makes that point Sunday!) I know something about being a Father. I have art work on my desk which my kds made some years ago. No museum would have them, but I would not trade them for a Van Gogh! They are beautiful to me because of who made them! So compared to God we may be worth nothing, but He treasures us none the less. Plenty of reason to think that what we do matters. Plenty of reason to make the Advent season central to our spiritual discipline in the coming weeks.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Happy New Year!

It is New Year's Eve and everyone is preparing to celebrate, or maybe not. Actually, the changeover to a new liturgical year is probably something that few people pay much mind. Many Christians have rejected liturgy and so they do not even know it exists. Most liturgical Christians are only mildly invested in the calendar, so though they might know it is Advent, they really do not think through the ramifications of a new year.

At Morning Prayer this morning I read about Jesus enterring the city, with a blind man (Bartimaeus) crying out for mercy. Jesus asked him, "What would you like me to do?" The man said, "I want to see." That is the last image of the year past, for me, asking Jesus to heal me so I can see.

Sitting here at my desk with tri-focals on my nose I have some awareness of how poorly I see. I am also aware that there is a deeper, spiritual meaning to the story. Jesus is going to meet His doom (His destiny). He will be confronted by any number of blind people in the course of His trial and suffering. That is the way things happen here on planet earth. Blind people run the show. In the end, we are all blind, that is why we need Jesus.

Lately I have run across several articles by economists who are writing about the influences on human decision making. Their point is that we make lots of bad choices for lots of bad reasons. That fact correlates to the Gospel message. We need deliverance and are incapable of doing it for ourselves. That is why political movements fail, in the end. New leadership is blind, too.

Advent points us toward the hope of salvation. Today's readings speak about waiting. There is a deliverance coming our way, from God. We wait for it. I will preach on what that waiting looks like, how one waits faithfully. But I wanted, prior to that, to reflect upon the new beginning. We will read Mark's Gospel. We will begin by looking at The Day of Deliverance, then shift our gaze to the Birth of the Messiah. Soon, baby Jesus will be leading us through Lent to His passion and death. Then Pentecost and the long season which follows. And in a year, we will begin the cycle again.

Each new year is part of the cycle and a reminder that some day all will be new. That is the Good News. Someday it will all be new. In the meantime, we are to live as people who trust in His deliverance and wait for it with patience and love. Keep attuned to the season, it will shape you.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


This is my favorite church service of the year. Fifty people gathered to celebrate eucharist (thanksgiving). No one had to be there. It is not a feast day. It is not a Sunday. It is not a holy day. There is no obligation to come at all. You only come because you want to be there. You only show  up because you just gotta say "Thanks, Father!"

As the people walked up for communion it struck me that this is the most wonderful 'Thanksgiving Day Parade.' No floats. No balloons. No marching band. No celebrities. Just believers, filing up, kneeling, extending their hands and receiving the Living Bread, the Bread of Heaven, the Food of Salvation, the Body and Blood of Christ.

What makes thanks possible? Awareness. We need to pause and ponder. Be aware. A spirit of gratitude thrives in a heart freed from a dark spirit of entitlement. It is hard to be grateful when you then think you deserve all you have and more. It is hard to realize the gift and the grace when you are making demands. I am not an amazingly thankful person. I try to be. Somedays I say the 'hundred thank yous' prayer; where you just identify everything you take for granted and tell God thank you. But even as I do it, my heart does not sore and my spirit does not sing. It is more a discipline, an effort to be thankful than a spontaneous outpouring of a man who truly knows how blessed he is.

I do not know how to be that man. I do not know how to be someone so full of gratitude. I think it is because I assume things. I have grown used to abundance and ease. Not to say I am never thankful. Just that it is not the hallmark of my life. People do not meet me and say, "Wow, that is one exhuberantly thankful guy!"

Perhaps that is part of the struggle here in the fallen world. I hop to say thank you pleases God. I am thankful that I am aware of the imortance of gratitude. I am thankful to have a day where I can practice saying thanks to God.
Thank you for reading this blog. I hope it blesses you and inspires you to thank God for something!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Facing Reality on Church Debates

I was invited to join an Anglican Forum on Facebook. I receive e-mails on postings which I can read without going to the acutal site. Truth is I do not have time to visit the site. Recently I noticed several comments to the effect that the "tone was combative" and some people have left the forum. This led me to actually go there and look at it a bit. [Our church (Anglican) is torn between warring factions in the social wars. The Episcopal Church is dominated by Liberals. The break away Anglican churches (in America) are Conservative.]

I have plenty of experience with the debates, I served as one of the (minority) voices for the Conservative views on a discussion forum for the Episcopal Church in 2002-2003. The 'debates' are usually useless. Most people have made up their minds so it often times becomes a screaming contest. Many of the issues include a great deal of personal emotional baggage (as one guy wrote me "you are saying that I am...") so it is hard to make rational discussion happen. The culture wars in politics are reflected in much of the arguments and there is the same level of anger and disdain as we see in the culture wars. The only thing I try to remember is vitriol has long been a major component of all debate for all time. There has never been a golden age of respectful discussion and disagreement.

While I continue to hold the traditional Christian faith, I generally do not engage the Liberals in our wider church. They have the power and they are not in a discussing mood much of the time. I have, from time to time, engaged youunger clergy which has been fruitful. Being one of the only guys left, I am less intimidating. There is value in having a dissenting voice. I try to be reasoned and open in listening. I try to be respectful. I do not compromise on those things which are beyond compromise. I assume others will act on their principles as well.

Another thing with which I deal is the issue of 'where to draw the line'? I wrote several blogs on other issues (Bible, sacraments, etc.) which mean more to me than some of the current debate topics. There are lots of things about which we cannot agree, yet have to live together. Some Conservatives call me a sell out. I have some snappy responses, but in the end, but why waste breath arguing? God will judge me. I am worried enough about Him, why bother with fallible human judgments?

Personally, I have concerns about my baby. I pray for him alot. First off, that he will be holy, next, for his health. I worry about my other kids, too. It is a reminder that most people are also tied up in their own lives. Professionally, I counsel people dealing with death, divorce, job loss, illness. I try to pastor them in their here and now. Few of them really care about the "big issues" pulling the church apart on an ongoing, day-to-day basis. I am focused on leading my parish into the heart of God and caring for their needs. I am focused on prayer, worship, study, evangelism, and service. I am trying to be a good dad in the hours that remain each day. Not much left for debating about gay marriage or whatever the next big issue is. Not much energy left to defend my "outdated beliefs" or serve as "orthodoxy sheriff." I am not saying I won't engage if asked. I certainly write about things which are controversial. I just do not go out looking for trouble.

I would rather teach people to pray and read the Bible, involve themselves in the local parish to preach Jesus' Kingdom and serve others. I would rather help people to form loving community. If someone rejects my leadership because I am not politically correct or engaged in the latest Liberal action plan, so be it. It hurts, lots of people with whom I thought I had a close relationship have gotten mad and left, but I will survive. They do not like me and they can find peace elsewhere. God, in the end, is The Judge. It is better that way.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

words and actions

I saw an interesting political debate which reflects well the Christian challenge. A group of rich people were advocating higher taxes on the rich. A reporter asks them to donate to a fund for the government, which the same people refused to do. The stark contrast was stunning. People unwilling to freely give of their own volition were committed to taking from others.

The tax system is set up in a way that we can take deductions. People who feel taxes are too low or that they make too much money are free to not take the deductions to which they are entitled. That would be an act of integrity. Yet, those people seem to be more than happy to take their deductions. Seems that this is inconsistent.

When I was in Europe, I met a German priest who explained that the government taxed people and then distributed those tax dollars to churches which the people identified. It produced a strained relationship between people and church. It also meant that the "collection" was nothing of the sort. In my parish, we have two collections in many times of the year. One is the normal collection for parish operations. The other is a special collection for 'outreach' (during Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas). Each person decides to give as they choose. Every cent we receive is a gift to God. We get enough to run our parish and spend the other half of our money on the needs of others. Generosity can be manifest in freedom!

I do not know what the fair rate for taxes is. The discussion on that needs to take place. What I do know, is people who do not do something cheerfuly of their own free will ought not clamor for others to do the same. I say let the tax advocates lead by example. Let them inspire others by their remarkable generosity. Let them do the very thing which is in their power to do. Talk is cheep.

In the church, we face the same challenge. The parish must be a place of radical service to the poor and needy. It must proclaim the Gospel, bringing the light of Jesus into a dark world. We must embrace His Way (the cross). We ought not spend a great deal of time telling other people what they should do. Instead, we must let our example speak for us. The great divides in America are based on abuse of power. The Left is every bit as much at fault as the Right. I know that when someone does not lead by example, it irritates me. That is important to remember as I seek to preach Jesus and lead others in faith to His Father.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Children and Kingdom

We read Matthew 18:1ff in Morning Prayer. I wrestled with these words, again, as I tried to understand what it means for me as a preacher and practioner. Matthew has reframed the discussion in a much more positive light. In the parallels (Mark 9:33 & Lk 9:46), the disciples are arguing about "who is the greatest." When Jesus asks what is going on, they are embarassed and Jesus uses it as a teaching time about service. As I recall from preaching Mark a few years ago, there are several chapters full of the recurring theme of Jesus explaining about service (and His own death) and the apostles not getting it. In Mark's Gospel, the apostles are bone heads.

Matthew has taken the teaching in a different direction. [Once again, I remind you that I believe that the Gospel writers are trying to convey the truth about Jesus as accurately as possible, not recollect an isolated event in the most accurate detail possible. The words of Jesus were remembered, sometimes with no context. Stories of Jesus were told and retold. The authors fuse together various recollections in an effort to display for us an accurate picture of Jesus.] In Matthew's account, the central feature is a direct question to Jesus: "Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

Matthew has demonstrated his concern that we understand Jesus' position on status over and again in his gospel. You are to call no one father, you are to call no one teacher, you are to call no one rabbi (great one). The greatest among you will be one who serves. [John's Gospel has that latter point placed at the Last Supper where Jesus washes the feet of His followers.] Service, especially the self sacrifice on the cross, is a central component of Jesus' self understanding and it is a vital part of His defintion of a disciple. Matthew takes great pains to make that clear to his readers.

"Unless you turn and become like little children," Jesus warns, "you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

In Jesus' day, children were held in low esteem. To be like a child is not a compliment. There was no fantasy that children are sweet and innocent and pure. Jesus is talking about people of low status; the equivalent of a slave/servant. While Christians give lip service to such, we rarely embrace it as a way of life. This is why the reading is so hard. It talks about children (in my culture a sweet thing) but it gives a harsh message (self denial and negation). The message gets harsher when Jesus says (employing hyperbole), "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out." Gross and graphic, Jesus spells out, from another angle, the demands of discipleship and the cost of faith. No mere cognitive assent here; a radical, life altering, complete makeover is demanded.

I prayed that I would be a child. I prayed that I would be in the kingdom. Yet the pull of status and comfort are strong. Being a converted Christian is an ongoing struggle. Fortunately, Jesus is with us, still teaching, still warning, still reminding through the Word. Still comforting, still forgiving, still healing in the Sacraments. Still loving, still embracing, still renewing in the Church. Still giving life and hope, in the Spirit!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Revelation 21

Still reflecting on yesterday's reading. It is very familiar because it is so often used at funerals. In focusing on a future with God (one recalls emmanuel- God is with us) there are parallels to the Temple. In the OT, the Temple was the place where God's Name resided. It was a place of encounter and sacrifice. For a Catholic, the notion of sacred space is foundational to our faith. I still remember traveling in Switzerland and seeing the churches there. While the shell remained familiar to me, the stripped down interiors were so stark as to be off-putting (for me). [Of course, in fairness, I am sure a Protestant would be disgusted by the interiors of many Catholic churches.] While my time in the Epsicopal church has decreased some of my earlier inclinations, and releationships with low church Evangelicals has gotten me used to meeting hall/auditorium churches, there is still something about sacred space which draws me.

I read an article from the Internetmonk (someone sent it to me in e-mail) yesterday. The author, dead for some time now, had written about the hunger among many Evangelicals for something more than "worshiptainment." The article was several years old, but it is something I have heard about in many quarters. Then I stumbled across a Protestant church historian's blog which  pointed out some of what has been lost by Christians since the Middle Ages. The idea of God in our world, sacraments, sacred space...

Reflecting on Revelation 21 in light of those articles reminds me that God is among us, now. The flat world of scientism is deadening. I miss the world of my childhood which was chock full of miracles and The Presence. On the other hand, we are not yet at the time when "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning  and crying and pain will be no more." So that is the reminder that this world, while a sacramental of God, is not in its final form. The holy space is not yet the Kingdom in its fullness.

It is hard to live in such tension. To say God is everywhere may be sound theology but in a secularized culture like ours it leads to decayed spirituality. On the other hand, sacred spaces can become "magical" in the minds of believers. In a healthy expression, time and place set aside for God opens us to the hunger for a greater fullness. I can pray anywhere, but there is something different about being in a space consecrated to God and intentionally set aside for His worship. Experiences in such "intensified awareness zones" makes us more attuned to God in unexpected places. We are flesh and blood, mind and soul and body. Place matters. Matter matters!!! God has created such a world and in and through it we encounter Him each day, if we so choose. I am now going into our church to pray. I pray for you. I pray for His Kingdom to come, today!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Apocalyptic Reflections

It is 'that' season of the church, although most people do not know it. The morning readings are from the Apocalypse of John. The end of the liturgical year is fast approaching. The Sunday Gospels have been looking at the last things. Parables of waiting, parables of judgment, parables which draw our attention to the broader horizon.

The last two mornings I have been hit by the power of the chapters from the Apocalypse. Revelation 20:12 "And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books" is stunning in its simplicity and its sublimity. Thinking about facing God and being held accountable for everything in our lives is frightening. Last week I celebrated two funeral services. In those services we pray God's mercy on the departed. If we are going to be judged, then praying for mercy is a very good idea. In my prayer time I pondered my life. As the years stack up, so do the multitude of sins. I think of all the things written in my 'book' and I think of God's face as He recounts to me all that I have done.

Yesterday in the gymn I met a man who seems pretty optimistic about it all. He told me that he was mad at the minister at his church whose last sermon was about parents not bringing their children to church. The minister said it was a bad thing, this fellow seemed to think it was not so bad. He shared with me that he used his Sunday to coach his kids teams and spend family time. I listened, as I often do when people I do not know share their opinions. I am thinking there was little I was going to say to convince this fellow that church was part of the deal. He told me, "if you do half the stuff I do, when it comes to judgment you will be okay."

I am not so optimistic. Most of us probably overestimate how good we are and many of us forget how bad we can be. But it is larger than that, than a simple list of good and bad. There is a sense of the whole body of work. What is my life's aim? What have I done with all I have received? I often wonder, if all the world was just like me, would it be a better or worse place? Inhonesty, I think all the world is like me, and that is why it looks like it does. I wonder, do I seek God's heart with all my strength? I answer, "no, not really, not all the time." It could lead to dispair, but it doesn't.

Today's reading reminds us of our hope. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev 21:1) No offense to the world's leaders, but all they will accomplish is temporary solutions (which will create a new set of problems rather quickly). Our hope is in God's gracious act of re-creation. The things we know so well are all fundamentally broken, but some day the new and improved will arrive. There is a  different way of living in the world when you have that hope. It motivates prayer and it increases the desire to live like a citizen of the Kingdom. It also frees one from incessant worries about judgment. God is merciful and His intent is for salvation, not just for sinners, but for all creation. Those who love Him, even if imperfectly, will know that joy of life for evermore. A happy thought on a dreary, rainy Fall day.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Spiritual Not Religious

I was reading an article about the OWS movement. It explained how Liberal Protesters are untrusting of traditional Christians. They are wary of what they think will be conservatives. A group of progressive Christians shared that they wanted others to know about their faith. One Episcopal deacon stated that he believed that we need to support these protesters, regardless of faith, because of their spirit. He went on to say if he had a nickel for everyone who has told him that they are "spiritual, not religious" he could have retired. He seemed to think it was a good thing.

I preached on this subject once. Jesus confronted a demoniac in the synagogue. The man was under the control of an evil spirit. He was, spiritual but not religious. He did not keep, inwardly or outwardly, the dictates of the faith. His life was led by a spirit. That is the problem.

The spirit realm is not pure and holy. It is populated by good and evil. Some would argue that the evil in our material world is a direct result of interaction with the evil spirits. There is nothing new about people rejecting religious faith. Even in times when we were "very religious" there has always been a tendency for people to pay lip service to their beliefs. The divorce of spirituality and religion is narcisism. It is one more way that selfish Americans have it their own way. It is one more means of self deception. Being 'spiritual' frees people from the drudgery of living in community, loving people (especially obnoxious others) and being accountable to an authority which doesn't always agree with us. The hard work of being holy is replaced with love of nature and beauty (or whatever else the person opts to define "spiritual").

The movement of "spiritual not religious" is draining the churches of resources and manpower. Perhaps this is deserved. Perhaps God's judgment is manifest in this. Perhaps it is the result of the abuses of power and the failure to make disciples in earlier times. What it isn't is renewal. It is not better. It will not last. Because once unprepared people become spiritual, they are tasty treats for dark spirits. And unfortunately the price of that error is steep.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jeremiah's Complaint

Yesterday's Bible study was a brief run-through of Jeremiah. We are studying 2 Kings and the chapters we are reading correspond to Jeremiah's career. We are attempting to go a bit deeper into the history of the text by looking at some orignal sources.

As part of our overview, we read Jeremiah 12. I provide the text below:
"You will be in the right, O Lord, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?"

One of the arguments against our Christian faith is this very thing. People ask how God could allow such injustice to flourish. The great irony, to me, is that the very book which we call "God's Word" and which we identify as "God's Revelation" contains the same complaint.

While it is hard to fathom the injustice and unfairness. It appears that over 2500 years ago the same questions gnawed at a man who was deeply committed to God. A man called a prophet and revered as God's special servant. Many of us join Jeremiah in crying out to heaven, but I wonder how many share his humility? Jeremiah begins acknowledging that God will be in the right. In other words, there is a mystery at work. There is more than we can know or understand. We are facing something beyond our grasp. [Perhaps, in the end, the difference between a believer and an unbeliever? Believers do not understand it all, but they still acknowledge God is right.]

The story does not address Jeremiah's complaint. Or at least it does not seem to at first read. Rather than provide a theodicy (a defense of God's goodness in the face of evil) it instead portrays God as a hard-nosed drill sargeant who, to paraphrase, warns Jeremiah that "you ain't seen nothing yet!" "How," God asks, "will you run with horses if you are tired running with men? If you cannot walk on level ground how will you deal with thickets?" The Lord shows little mercy or kindness, as popularly understood in our current God-talk. Rather, exhorting and challenging, one gets the impression that the Almighty is demanding strength and courage from the frustrtaed prophet. The message continues, that Jeremiah will be betrayed by family and friend as well. Jeremiah ponders a sublime mystery while God responds with an updateof a new crisis from the real world!

It is a question which many of us ask and ponder. Why do the evil flourish. In the end, at least in Jeremiah 12, the answer seems to be: 'focus on being faithful'. That is hard to do, but the Lord seems not to care. If we cannot handle struggles now, how will we pass through the worse things headed our way? As pampered Christians living in luxury and ease, it is well for us to read, meditate upon and digest this dialgoue between God and Jeremiah. It just isn't easy!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Foolish Virgins: the End

Matthew 25:10 "...and the door was shut."

The image of the door closing in the face of a person desperate to enter is chilling. Being left outside, banging and begging, is horrible. It is also an image which Jesus employs more often than I like to think.

Most of us live in a world dominated by images of Grace and Forgiveness. The people who populate our churches do not believe in Hell. Most of them cannot imagine God ever saying, "Too late." This theological position has major impact on how we live our lives. Many of us are seduced into sin because we do not fear consequences. There is an assumption, "it isn't that big a deal." There is also a corollary, "God will forgive me."

Praying over the text of the ten virgins, one can almost hear the door slam and one can feel the terror of the women left out. The five wise virgins were taken, the other five were left behind. Many of us can well imagine that we are as similar to the fools as we are to the wise!

As originally spoken by Jesus, the parable makes sense as a challenge. The Bride Groom is here, will you be ready for Him? By the time Matthew wrote it in his Gospel, the initial call to the Jews and the initial warning to Jerusalem have passed. Now a church full of believers is reading and listening to the message. What subtle changes occur in hearing, again, this summons from the previous generation?

The door did close on those who rejected Jesus in 70AD. Jerusalem was conquered. Today, the same reality confronts us. What if there comes a time when the door is closed? Firmly and finally shut? What if "too late" is a real possibility? The summons is every bit as urgent today as it was then. The failure of the church to heed the call has been the downfall of many. The warning is given: "Watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour." The wise stand ready and prepared.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ten Maidens

After a week of reflecting on marriage (and actually celebrating a marriage on Friday evening) I guess I was prepared well to  hear the Sunday Gospel. In it, Jesus tells a story about ten virgins/young women who hold lamps for the wedding party.

The commentaries tell us that in ancient times, the procession to the wedding event could take a long time. I heard Sunday from the preacher that some say the groom purposely arrived in a way intended to catch everyone by surprise. In other words, there was some game playing. The records from ancient weddings are probably not terribly thorough, although we do have some idea. Also, in some places today, some of those practices are still in place.

Five of the women, we are told, were moros (fools, also can mean godless). This term is where our word moron comes from. Jesus uses this word numerous times in Matthew's Gospel, never in the other three. The other uses highlight bad decision making.

What is the bad decision the young ladies made? They assumed things would move along more quickly than they did. They were not prepared for the long haul. Matthew has bunched together several parables with that theme. We do well to pay attention.

The go-go world I live in does not easily draw my focus to things eternal. Although I have a hungry, waiting heart, I sometimes am looking for other things. Pay day, a day off, a moments rest from pressing duties and concerns. I believe that we must nurture a desire for Jesus and we must hunger for His return. We must also be attentive to what proper waiting looks like. That is a task of the church!

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Love and Marriage 4

To this point we have seen how love of self can draw us to love others, and that in the marriage bond people create community. [Last night at the rehearsal dinner this was so apparent. The parents and the young couple spoke repeatedly about "your family is now my family."] This bonding happens, in part, because of self love, but it develops and blossoms over time into love of the other. As I also said, I think this is a reflection of the inner life of the Trinity. In other words, it is a footprint of God in our midst.

The final stage of marriage is probably the most controversial. When I did my pre-marriage counseling, the priest-therapist who did our work with us told me that I was wrong when I said this. In a sense, he is correct. Most couples will not embrace this fourth stage. It is not, to my limited knowledge, a component of the goods of marriage as outlined by various church teachers over the centuries. So it may be my idiosyncratic opinion, but I still think it is true.

If married love becomes community (both through gathering together outsiders into the love and/or through procreation and a new family), it is still, in a sense, a larger version of self love. Loving my kids is, in some sense, loving myself. Community with those whom we love is still a challenge. Few married people do not have regrets about their choice of spouse on occassion. Few parents would say that raising kids is always easy. So while this God given and God blessed state of affairs is godly, it is not necessarilly Christian. Pagans love their families. Atheists love their families. It is natural.

Christianity adds another dimension. It adds the dimensions of the Gospel: worship, mission, the cross. This is not all there is, but in a brief blog they are enough. In Christian marriage, the couple is a praying couple. In my experience, this is rare. Prayer is more intimate even than sex. Praying together makes us more vulnerable. Yet, a Christian marriage should be prayer centered. It is also joint worship. The eyes of a married couple need to move from the horizontal plane of community to the vertical plane of worship. The married couple, if Christian, must be active in church and particularly in worship. The couple should also be in mission together. Mission is larger than me, or us. Mission defines us in a way that is bigger than our own limited concerns. One leading cause of marriage breakdown is that the couple live separate lives guided by their own 'hearts.' In mission, we jointly follow the heart of Jesus. Now if a couple is prayerful and in mission together then they will be preaching and living the cross. The cross is self gift to God. The cross is self gift for others. The cross is painful. In dying to self (being crucified with Christ) we create the possibility of new life (being raised with Christ). In most marriages, each partner remains firmly self-focused much of the time. On the cross with Jesus, we are emptied of self (as individual and as couple) and spent for the sake of the Father in union with Christ.

When a married couple give themselves, together, for God's Kingdom, then something holy and wonderful happens. This is when a marriage is a Christian marriage, i.e., Christ centered. Like I said, I have encountered few marriages of this type in my years as a priest. But that doesn't negate the possibility. Tonight I will witness and bless another amazing young couple as they begin their married life together. They will sail off into an unknown future. It is my prayer that their marriage will be Christian and missional. It is my prayer that all marriages would be!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On Love and Marriage 3

To briefly summarize, self love provides a framework to love another, because the other makes one 'feel' good. Perhaps the word romantic love can be used at this point.

A boy sees a girl and thinks, "wow." He talks to her, awkwardly, but his level of interests sparks a complimentary spark in her. She finds his shyness appealing and he seems cute enough. Soon they find themselves drawn to spend more and more time together. Early on, perhaps immediately, one or the other determines that "I am in love!" Anyone who has experienced falling in love knows that it is a wonderful thing. It impacts our vision of the world. It changes our perceptions. It makes us happy.

As the individual 'me' collapses into the romantic 'we' the intensity can get pretty palpable. Some couples adopt a "I can't live without you" program where the lovers isolate and focus exclusively on one another. This melding may reach the point where one totally hands over control to the other. Obsession, sometimes violence, can accompany such singular focus. There are various malicious results which are possible. One reads of stalking, of jealousy, even of murder. In a less ugly form, the couple just become obnoxious in their mutual focus. Constantly gazing into each other's eyes, they become a dyadic version of self love.

But rarely do we see couples who fail to integrate others into their love. This is often times not even a choice. It happens naturally. The couple has a past, littered with family and friends and events and experiences. From time to time we run into those folks. My friends befriend my beloved. Yes, there is a tendency toward community when two become one. Of course, fecundity is also a natural aspect of married love. Love manifested physically can, and does, make babies. (so does lust, but the resulting family system is rarely optimal in those cases) In ideal cases, the couple, who love one another, suddenly find themselves loving this tiny little interloper. Bidden or not, the baby explodes the dyad. The couple turn from facing one another and side by side stare at the newborn. (although love of child can also be merely self love in an expanded form)

There is something of the Trinity reflected in all this. For all eternity the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. It always was and always will be. This love eternally creates the Spirit, the personal bond of Father and Son, the cause and effect. The mystery of Trinity is too sublime to understand. I do not try. But I do see the reality stamped in the world in which we live, most especially in relationships. As the internal Love of God explodes in creative love, a whole universe is "born" and there are children produced, folks like you and me.

As the couple's love grows and envelopes others, friends and family, we see a movement outward. If a couple's love produce children, we see a movement outward. It is possible for the family to become another version of self-love. It is possible for it to be limited in its expansiveness. Yet, there is also another possibility. The same couple whose love draws together diverse people (this is seen most strongly at the wedding, where people populating different corners of the couple's lives are brought together in one room) can choose to act in ways which benefits others. Maybe he introduces his friend to her friend (and romance blooms). Maybe an uncle on her side meets a neighbor on his and they strike up a conversation which leads to some later exchange. Happens all the time.

But in Christian marriage, to my mind, there is another, an intentional component: Shared ministry. More on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Love and Marriage 2

Today we look at the person's love of self.
I think we come into the world with "self-lust" and the first battle is getting that under control. By self-lust I mean the desires and hungers which dictate most of our decisions. Levi is five months old now. He is becoming social and interactive. It is very easy to deal with him, as long as he is satisfied. How a baby feels dictates how a  baby acts. Increasing pleasure and avoiding pain are the motivation.

As we grow up, certain people enter our lives. They are valued to the degree that they bring us pleasure or reduce pain. The process of bonding is reflective of caregiving. Already I have seen that there is greater delight and a brighter smile for momma than there is for daddy. I know why, she is a much better caregiver!

We continue to be drawn to relationships based on how people make us 'feel.' Sometimes it is a physical attraction, sometimes emotional or mental. We are drawn to them (and them to us) for some self serving reasons. Is this bad? Maybe, maybe not, but it is the way it is and there is not much choice to it. I do not know what an unfallen world would look like so I do not know what an alternate to this is. I do know that romantic love is a special and intense type of this self love. We "fall in love" and much of it has to do with "me" and how "you make me feel."

One positive of self love is that it draws us toward others. This is the first step in a true relationship. We value another because of what that other does for us. So we are motivated to do things for that other because it benefits us, but alongside that there comes a growing realization that we are loving that other for who they are. This transition is vital in all relationships, and certainly is needed for a marriage.

The problems, obviously, are multiple. One issue is that we never lose self-lust (fulfillment of hungers) even if we mature into self-love (truly caring for our self). Love means doing the best for ourself (which includes discipline, sacrifice and pain). Self-lust indulges, it plays late and sleeps in. Self love studies, eats healthy and works out. The struggles with 'the flesh' continue unabated throughout our life. A marriage based on self centeredness will last as long as the other person makes us feel good. I heard on the news that a celebrity beauty is ending her marriage after 72 days. Apparently the entire courtship and wedding were a television show. Hmmm, not sure I should judge but I am thinking this sounds like self-love&lust...

I think one reason that so many marriages fail is because so few couples move much beyond self-love (and self-lust). Even when a marriage appears healthy, it is often just a well managed partnership of two people taking from one another. The breaking point comes, sometimes after fifteen, twenty or more years of marriage when one partner decides that the time is short to find 'true happiness' so they withdraw (or divorce) and pursue someone else who will "make me feel good."

The value of self love is it does draw us to others, even if at first it is for our own benefit. However, as one relates to the other, we see new venues open up. Tomorrow we will look at couple-love and the Trinity.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On Love and Marriage 1

A couple of weeks ago I was honored to officiate at the wedding of a young couple. The woman, someone I have known since she was in seventh grade, is a beautiful, bright, holy person who is currently working to serve the needs of the world's poorest peoples. Her new spouse, whom I know only in passing, is a bright young engineer doing esoteric studies at a big university. They met at church camp and are people of faith.They are lovely people who come from lovely families.

In preparing the sermon I was aware that most people there were not Episcopalians. We were at a family home in rustic Arkansas, a gorgeous setting, and many of the attendees were people I have never met.I opted to reflect on Love and Marriage, with special attention the the Trinity and Incarnation. This weekend I have another marriage and so marriage is on my mind. I thought my brief reflections would be interesting blogging material. I guess you can let me know!

The summary is this. Self love is the first and foundational love. Love of self moves, eventually, to a love of another. This love of another can be selfish but it can also broaden to include others. As the love expands beyond our personal 'connections' into the world, it becomes mission and service. This three step process (self-another-others) is not automatic nor is it easy. It can be reversed. However, it is a major component of my own theology of marriage. I hope tomorrow to look more intently at self love.