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Monday, January 31, 2011

God's love, our response: rule of life

We have heard something like this: "As a rule I do not pick up hitchhikers" or "As a rule I eat my vegetables first." "As a rule..." A rule, in this sense, is a guiding set of principles and behaviors which keep us on the road. A rule of life keeps us "on The Way."

When I was young, there was a new emphasis in theology which has driven spirituality ever since. It can be summed up in the words, "God loves us, unconditionally." When I was a child, my mother used to tell me how lucky I was. "When I grew up, " she said, more than once, "God was a judge, now He loves us." The contrast between a loving father and a harsh judge is pretty severe. Depending upon your emphasis, one lives in a world guided by a Hand of understanding, kindness and mercy under the watchful Eye of a loving Father---OR--- one toils away in fear, terrorized that any misstep, no matter how slight, will invite divine visitation of wrath and punishment, with the threat of eternal damnation hanging over one's head. This is sometimes expressed as "the God of the New Testament" versus "the God of the Old Testament."

Obviously, the Scriptures make it crystal clear that God is both Loving Father and Just Judge. There is really no confilct between the New Testament God and the Old Testament God for Jesus. In the early church, those who contrasted the two were condemed as heretics. Their teaching rejected as false.

Too many in the contemporary church seem to advocate that God's love is so unconditional that it does not matter what we do, He will always love us. This is true, in a sense, but without further explanation it is also problematic. Such a premise logically leads to some dangerous results.
  • If God does not care what I do, then what I do does not matter.
  • If what I do does not matter, then there really is no difference between one act and another, except whether or not it pleases me.
  • Therefore, I will do what I want.
A "rule of life" can  be a simple pattern of living based on "what pleases me." In fact, that is exactly what the rule of life will spontaneously be for most people, unless if their freedom is limited by some outside forces. (weather, health, government laws, etc.) For the person in relationship with Jesus, the deciding factor for making a rule of life should not be our natural inclinations.  (St. Paul says that we are by nature children of wrath.) Our rule of life is derived from our identity and mission as Christians. Because The Father loves us, what we do is vitally important.

As I review my life I remember a number of people whom I have loved with incredible passion. Most of those people have ended up moving on. I know what could have been between us. I know what remains, a deep and abiding love. I also know what was lost, years of shared experiences and the growth of a deeper, more committed love. Love remains even if the relationship is tangential. But there is a sense in which that love has been frustrated by separation. It is my belief that God views us the same way. He loves us with a passionate, life-giving love. But He also lets us walk away. He allows us to make decisions which undermine the relationship. Love and relationship are organic, they grow or die. That is a summary of the Old Testament. A loving God frustrated by rejection. The Father allows His children to wander away (in the NT it is the prodigal son). He desires relationship, but He does not force it upon them. 

The rule of life is our response to the invitation from the Father to each of us. It is a choice for discipleship in answer to Jesus' call, "Come follow Me!" It is life in the Holy Spirit, abundant life and disciplined/disciple life. So what does a "rule of life" look like for a Christian? What is a rule of life for someone who thinks that because God loves me so much, what I think, say and do are incredibly imporant to Him and directly impacts our relationship?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rule of Life

Friday night and Saturday morning I led a retreat with the Vestry of our church. A vestry is the lay leadership group, in our case, nine men and women, who are responsible for guiding the church and decision making.

Friday night we reviewed the concept of "Rule of Life." The reason for a rule of life is that we want to live intentionally. It helps us to actually make choices and engage in behaviors in light of our purpose in life.

For some of us most of the time and most of us some of the time our lfe is a series of accidents. We do not really have a conscious goal. We are determined by circumstances and situations over which we have no control. And we make decisions in a haphazard way which are not connected to any sense of purpose.

We have wishes and dreams. We have hopes and desires. We just do not have a goal or a plan. Fortunately, in many cases, we are attuned to God enough that we still end up leading a life which makes some sense. We are aware of faith and morality and so we do trust God and try to "act right." But we end up praying, studying and doing in a haphazard way and it always depends on spare time and personal motivation overlapping. That is why in the past week the typical Christian has done very lttle praying, studying, service or evangelizing. We know that stuff is important. We just do not do it.

As our culture becomes more hostile to Christian life and faith, it will be less likely that any of us, struggling to believe and trying to be faithful, will engage in the disciplines of the Christian life, unless we are commited to a rule of life.

As we reflect on the true state of our soul and the actual lived-out relationship with have with God, it should be clear that all of us need to improve. In the days ahead I want to provide some models for a rule of life.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Healing: How to 2

Yesterday I wanted to make clearer what I mean by a healing ministry. Suddenly, an experience from long ago just popped in my head. I hope this clarifies it.

Around 1987, I was a high school chaplain and the Diocesan Youth Minister. The school day started early and ended in mid-afternoon. Other priestly duties kicked in then. Many week ends were taken up with retreats. I loved my work but there were times when the long days just wore me down.

At this time my mom, who was never truly well, was hospitalized. Unfortunately, her illness coincided with an especially busy week. I went to see her at the hospital at the end of a draining day. It was very late. I was tired. She was sick. I was sad. I remember standing there, wanting to pray, but literally having no words.

Suddenly, in walks a nurses' aid. I am not sure the role she had even exists any more in hospitals. She was an older black woman. I only recall snip its, but she clearly saw through me. I remember her "reading my soul." It wasn't anything supernatural though. She simply said things like, "You are tired. Sometimes life is too much. You can't pray? Sometimes God provides someone else to help." (That is not verbatim, but something to this effect.) At one point she reached out and touched my arm. She prayed and then she left.

I recall a sense of relief. I was aware that I cannot do it all on my own. I was aware that God works in subtle ways. I "felt" Him near. My spirit was touched.

That was a healing experience and that is something anyone who cares can do. When I counsel folks I am struck by the depth of their hurt and pain. Most of us (in my middle class world) have learned to cover over it. We appear pretty self secure and look pretty effective. But many of us are worn out and worn down. We need a healing of our heart and soul but just can not admit it.  And who really offers God's grace to us in our current environment?

Simple acts of compassionate listening and sincere praying are a huge component of the healing ministry. What would the church look like if we regulalry interacted with one another like that woman did with me? A moment of support. A word of prayer. No one expected to "do it all alone."

Church is a place to praise God, learn and serve the needy. It is also a place to cry and take down our defenses and let God have His way with us. I dream of a congregation where we tend to each other through compassionate listening and prayers of faith. I think there would be less struggle with doubt if we were more active with healing. So I am not advocating some sort of "fireworks and marching bands" approach to healing. I am just saying we all need His touch. We all carry His touch. I have shared with you a brief encounter between two strangers from over twenty years ago. There is great power in the simple, quiet and ordinary acts of healing ministry! Anyone who cares can do it. Especially, YOU!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Healing: How to 1

Yesterday was an overview of the general attitude and some of the activities which would occur in a local church which took healing seriously. What about within the parish? What about people who want to do this ministry when the congregation is not "on board"?

First of all, I think it is clear that some people are born with certain gifts. A healing touch or healing presence is such a gift. However, we can enhance and improve on whatever baseline we are born with. So, on an active level one can pray for the gift. Asking God to pour out His Life Breath (Holy Spirit) and to heal through us is the first step. Obviously, one must continue also to seek God's will and to listen!

A personal rule of life which includes regular prayer time, a moral lifestyle, reading Scripture, interaction with other Christians (public worship and membership), and reading credible books by those in the ministry is a foundation. Probably fasting is also recommended.

When possible, partnering with other like minded Christians is important. God likes teams. There are numerous advantges to working side by side, not the least of which is a restraint on our own ego!

If you do not have some sort of obvious charism (gift) then I would include as much normal conversation and listening as possible. Healing is for the whole person. The physical manifestation which leads people to ask for healing is often times connected to mental, emotional and spiritual issues. Remeber God does the healing. Our task to is help people be open to Him.

One big question: What does the woundedness symbolize to the person? Ovewhelming emotions can produce backaches and headaches. Relational issues can be seen in the body. Let the person talk. Bring the issues to the Lord. Ask Jesus to be there with them. Often times this is true of memories. Take time to listen to them relate the story. Then ask them to return to "the scene of the crime" but this time to be aware of the Lord's presence. Lead them in opening up to Jesus's love and power.

There is power in talking and there is healing in being with people who care. If you have a heart for others and an ear to listen, then you can make an impact that helps heal. If you invite God into this and pray then you are being obedient.

The goal of all this is to bring someone into deeper relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe. In the loving presence of God, mediated through the care and concern of human ministers, healing occurs at many levels.  So, if a congregation has 75% of its members actively doing this sort of thing, people will be healthier, holier and happier. Needy people (what Jesus calls "the least, last and lost") will be drawn into such churches. The church will look more like the Kingdom and will make an impact in the world. It begins with all of us doing what Jesus tells us to do. Healing is part of it. When the church does this it will be better.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Healing Church

What if we took Jesus seriously and focused on His fourfold ministry of preaching the kingdom, teaching, healing and exorcising?

1. Our ministry would be cross and resurrection shaped. It would be self-emptying and death. It would be giving first, not getting. It would be God focused first, instead of self-centered. It would be about worship first, not entertainment. It would be about death, but also New Life. It would be transformative! It would believe that what the Father did with Jesus is open to us as well!
2. A ministry focused church would have a hunger for wholeness and health. It would be concerned with body and soul, mind, heart and spirit. It would see human being as a social and relational reality. It would embrace God's Law: to love God and to love our neighbor.
3. It would not be one dimensional. It would not be satisfied with "praying for the sick" (although it would do that). So let me lay out at least one model. It is what we are trying to do at St. Andrew's here in Collierville.

Preaching and teaching would include regular reference to the Biblical concepts of the Kingdom. People in the church would have a mental model which emphasizes salvation as an already (and not yet ) process which touches every aspect of a human being. There would be a hunger to bring people to salvation. This would not be limited to asking them "to accept Jesus is Lord so you can go to heaven."

It would include financial support (serious money) for some types of medical/emotional/psychological care. We support The Church Health Center here in Memphis. Look them up on line for an idea of why!  We have also given to Methodist Hospice (death is the final healing for most of us). We have supported a counseling center in the past.

The parish would have a prayer ministry for the sick (lists of names read during Sunday service, as well as prayer teams). We pray regularly for healing in public gatherings. We also have a Daughters Of the King who pray every day.

There would be care teams which bring meals to those in need due to "bad health." There would be hospital visitation teams. There would be a healing opportunity which is present at some (or all) of the worship services for prayer afterward. On Saturday night we have a healing eucharist. Once a month we also have a prayer team available in the evening. After our early Sunday service a small team prays with anyone with a special need.

There would be special healing retreats/workshops. The parish brings in men and women (from outside) who have a healing ministry. Usually there will be extended times of prayer coupled with teaching. The speakers are folks who  have had amazing success in this ministry. It is uplifting to hear their stories. There are also times of intense prayer which actually demonstrates what is being talked about.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of a church which is hungry to help others. If we love and care for those who suffer then I think God can use us as instruments. I think that too many times we prefer to criticize God (and doubt Him) because of the suffering in the world, when we need to be saying, "Here I am, send me, Lord, to be your servant and set folks free."

Salvation is a total healing. Look at Jesus. Look at what He did. He is our model. That is what church needs to look like. I hope this is beginning to answer the question. More later!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Healing 4: Different angle on "Why not everyone?"

My last post focused on the fact that Jesus did not heal everyone He met. Today I want to reflect on the fact that not everyone has been given the gift of healing.

One reason why I am so gung-ho about the church is because it is the body of Christ. I believe that it is the body of believers which receives the Holy Spirit. God is in covenant with us. In America we tend to focus on "me." This spills into our faith models as well. We look first to the individual and speak about 'fair and unfair' in light of individual rights. In the world of Jesus, the world of the Bible, many of our ideas are quite foreign. We do well to hear them.

1 Corinthians 12 concerns spiritual gifts. Paul explains to the people in Corinth that there are various gifts, but the same Holy Spirit is the Giver. There is a single source for the diversity of gifts. He also says that each person receives gifts for the benefit of all. The expression "common good" conveys the meaning of the Greek word (sumphero). This is an important point. What God has given "me" is meant to benefit "us."

Next Paul uses the popular analogy of the body. Each individual is a unique part of the body. He illustrates the variety of gifts by remarking on the different roles of body parts: foot, hand, eye, and ear all have different functions but certainly none is unneeded. Likewise, we should use our gifts for the work of the church and the benefit of others. We should not think of our gifts as a reason for competition.

Lastly, Paul makes clear that not everyone has everything. In verses 29-30 he asks rhetorically, "Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess the gifts of healing?..." Herein lies one of the issues which some overlook. Some people imply that every Christian should be able to manifest the gift of healing. I believe we are all called to pray but I am not sure all of us will experience great success in the healing ministry. This should not lead us to quit praying for healing, but it should temper our frustration when we do not see an awesome manifestation of the gift in our lives.

I know I can preach and teach. I have done it for years with success. It is a natural gift which has been used by God. I also know that not everyone is able to stand before a group and do this. Not every Christian is an effective preacher (even if all Christians are still expected to proclaim the Kingdom). So it should not be a shock to discover not every Christian is a healer (in the signs and wonders sense). But every local church, parish, or congregation needs to be involved in preaching, teaching and healing. That is fundamental. It is also why unity among Christians is so vital. Together we are the body of Christ. Together more of the gifts are manifest. I need to connect with you so that our gifts are working in unison. Also, when we come together the individual gifts are enhanced. It is a spiritual version of a chemical reaction. My gifts + your gifts = something amazing. We need to hunger for God and hunger to be His people. We also need to hunger for a church where we are serving Him by utilizing all the gifts He has given us. Together!

Next post will be my answer to the question: "how can we do this?"

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Healing 3: Why not everyone?

Yesterday I wrote about reasons why people doubt. I want to make it clear, doubt is not an unusual response. I have been part of a healing team here at our church for almost ten years. We struggle mightily with all sorts of questions. One of the biggest is why isn't everyone healed?

In my prayer time two days ago I read John 5. It begins with a healing story. Now John tends to write longer narratives so there is more information available. John is not writing to explain healing to us, but we can learn some things about healing when we read it.

The setting is a pool in Jerusalem where a number of diabled people are lying around. We are told that they are blind, crippled and unable to move. [We might also see these as metaphors for spiritual maladies] Apparently, they believed that an angel came periodically to stir up the water and the first one in would be healed. Jesus saw all those people yet picked out only one, a man who has been crippled for thirty-eight years. That is a long time. When Jesus asks him if he would like to be healed, the sick man says that he has no one to carry him to the water when it has been stirred by the angel. Jesus makes no explanation, He simply says, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." Healing!!!!

But what of the others who are watching. Did Jesus look at any of them, shrug His shoulders and say, "Sorry, that is all for today"? Did the group cry out to Him, "What about me??? Help!!" Why did Jesus not heal them all? Why does He not heal them all today?

Well, I learned long ago that the question "Why?" is not always answered. But it is important to be aware that Jesus did not heal everyone. One clue may be from Luke 8:43-48. As Jesus is walking a woman with a bleeding disorder touches Him to be healed. He whirls around looking into the crowd asking, "Who touched Me?" He then said, "I felt power leave me." What was that power which He felt drained off? Is it possible that His healing touch came at a personal cost? Did it hurt Him to heal? Isaiah 53:5 has long been applied to the ministry of Jesus. Here may be an insight into the secrets of His ministry: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, by his wounds we were healed." Maybe the reason there is a CROSS is because it is the nature of creation. Maybe there is great cost to set right what we have made wrong. Maybe the healing of our world and its inhabitants does not occur magically. Maybe the world costs God, greatly.

God can do anything, I suppose, but it seems that once He chooses there are limits on Him. The world He creates has rules and He seems to be affected. I know that God heals. I also know He does not heal everyone all the time. But this was true in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus healed many people. The healing took something out of Him (power). We also know that the crowds took something out of Him. We read that He could not enter villages because of  the crush of the crowds. At times He went off to hide and pray. But most importantly, He knew there was more than just physical healing.

Returning to John 5, Jesus warns the man, "stop sinning or something worse will happen to you." Sometimes God's acts of mercy and kindness become a distraction. He calls us to holiness and we view Him as a dispenser of miracles. He calls us to love and obedience and we call Him to do what we want. Healing is always a proclamation. It is preaching in word and deed. When we lose sight of that then we misunderstand healing. Maybe God does not heal everyone right now because once that starts this world ends. Maybe we have to watch and wait. In the meantime, the healing ministry of the church, in the time of waitnig, is an important ministry of proclamation and hope.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Healing 3

My last post addressed some of the obstacles to healing ministry in the church. Today I will look at the first.

I think that there are a multitude of dimensions connected to doubt. Doubt can be expressed in various way:
1. "I do not believe healing is possible."
2. "I do not believe healing is possible for me."
3. "I do not believe we are supposed to ask for healing."

I have heard enough and read enough about healing  happening to say, it happens regularly. I have also experienced it in my own life with family, friends and parishioners. Most healing is very subtle and rather mundane. The most important type of healing is not usually physical. But people are healed every day. Any doctor will tell you there are all sorts of unexplained healings. God may not be seen as the cause, but everyone admits there are things going on which are mysteries. Remember, amazing miracles are, by definition, amazing. They are rare. So denying that a healing miracle(a rare event) can occur because it does not happen very often seems to be illogical.

The second issue, failed prayers, may be based on a mistaken understanding of how prayer works. But first, let's look at medicine. How often have you been sick, taken medicine, and it did not seem to work? How often do people go to the doctor and the doctor seems unable to find out what is wrong or to how make it better? I know many people who have spent years seeking relief from any number of medical practioners to no avail. Does this mean we stop going to doctors? NO! Medicine is real and it is helpful. But medicine does not always cure quickly, completely or without other complications. So why would we expect a brief prayer to immediately and completely deal with something? Is it because we see prayer as magic? Do we hold prayer to a higher standard than we do medicine?

Last night we came home and our son was very sick. He was throwing up. Apparently the stomache bug is wreaking havoc in his class. (It was all over Facebook.) I prayed over him while he lay in bed feeling awful. He also took a pil. This morning he feels much better. Did prayer help? I believe so, that is why I did it, but I cannot prove it. In the end, I prayed for him because I wanted to invite the Spirit of God into His illness and into His recovery. I believe it is God's desire to make us whole. I also believe that Jesus spent much time healing those who were sick and suffering.  Perhaps I am more aware of the importance of prayer now than I had been. Maybe too many of us wait for prayer as a last resort when all else has failed. So my answer to those who say, "God does not want us to ask for healing," is this. In my experience He not only wants us to, He expects us to.

I think the failure of the church to engage in healing ministry has a component of disobedience. Jesus sends us into the world to teacht, preach, heal and exorcise.

So perhaps we need to be more aware of  the opportunities for prayer, small prayer, which surround us each day. And keep in mind healing of spirit, soul, emotions, and relationships also matter.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Healing 2

What are some reasons for "the church's" reluctance to engage in healing prayer on a more widespread basis?
1. Most of us have been disappointed in prayer. We ask God for something and He does not seem to hear us, or care. At an early age we begged God for something. Sometimes silly ("please let my team win") and other times not ("please let my momma live"). There did not seem to be a strong correlation between our prayer and the outcome we desired. So we wonder if healing prayer works.
2. Sick people, broken people, needy people are difficult. They drain us. They remind us that we are not okay either. They challenge us to be compassionate and often times require an emotional commitment and time commitment. Many folks avoid those in need because it just makes life easier. We pray "for" them in the comfort of our private prayer life, but do not want to be drawn into a lot of initimate time together (especially if we are not too sure it will work).
3. Admitting one is sick, broken, needy is not easy. Some people feel unworthy of God's interest. They were taught to "suck it up" and "to accept our cross," so it never occured to thems that God might intervene. They might be embarassed, or even too proud to ask for help. So the people who are in need are also unwilling to engage this ministry.
4. Lots of churches teach that healing is no longer an option. They say Jesus healed but that gift dried up with the apostles. Or, that salvation is about souls so it is best to focus there, not on the (sinful) flesh. Or,  it is selfish to desire healing. (Nothing like a little guilt to make the suffering worse, right?)

There are no doubt more reasons, but I think we see where this is headed. There are serious reasons to doubt that we should even engage in healing prayer. There are even strong reasons to not seek healing. And even if, in our secret place, we long to be made whole, we doubt it is a real option.

And I am leaving out one huge problems: the charlatans. We know about the fakes. We have seen those theatrical and flamboyant folks on televison and have heard that they are frauds. There are even movies and tv news shows which associate healing and the worst kind of religious abuses. Too many of us are too hurt to set ourselves up to be misled. Too fragile to deal with the disappointment. So we just refuse to hope.

Why are so few parishes a place where a thriving healing ministry takes place? There are genuine struggles with the place of a healing ministry in the modern setting is probably a big issue. Doubt, fear, indifference are all contributing factors. I never rule out sin and disobedience! Most churches are not mission driven. So there are lots of reasons why healing is not an important ministry in so many churches. But what if it were? Would the world be worse or better if more churches focused on healing and saving the whole person?

Healing 1

A recent comment:

Jeff, I would like to hear more of your thoughts on how we could (maybe) incorporate more healing prayer-type activities into parish life. I'm reading this post while taking a short break from prep for a retreat I am running in the end of March where healing is one of the key themes. But, it seems a shame that we have to go on a retreat or to a youth rally or some other "extraordinary" venue to experience a true, healing shared prayer. Can you imagine the strength of our faith communities if we could access the same Spirit in our home parishes?

My response
YES! I think that the saddest thing about church life is how little "life" there is in "the church." I am no expert, but I will share some reasons why I think this is so and what we can do. I may be posting on this theme in general for awile.

1. The Greek word for heal is sozo. It also means save. As we read English translations of the Bible most of us do not know that. The word "save" is a technical term in the South. It means, for many people, "going to heaven." Hence, the question, "are you saved?" While going to heaven does sound very appealing, that does not seem to be a central function of Jesus' ministry. Jesus never asks the question, "If you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?"
2. sozo in the sense of being rescued from danger, healed or proptected from harm has a different feel for me. It is the idea that creation matters. It is a reminder that God made this world and He intends for us to live in this world. In the Bible, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. In the Bible, Jesus will return to earth to raise the dead. I am sure it will be different from now, but it is not some purely spiritual existence.
3. Because we live in a fallen world (ruled by Satan, sin and death) we regularly experience suffering of mnd, body, heart and spirit. For some people life is a terrible burden. Sadder still, we create suffering by our own actions, hurting others and hurting ourselves. We make choices which damage the world. So it can feel almost hopeless. [I wrote some time ago about systems theory and the law of unintended consequences. One corollary of that is Today's solution is tomorrow's problem]
4. A review of history reveals that peace and prosperity are not the norm. Conflicts with nature and with each other is the norm. War, famine, earth quake, flood, economic collapse occur on a regular basis to upset our tranquil lives. In places like Haiti it seems to occur non-stop. Our existence is insecure on this planet, even if for most of 'us' the last fifty years have been relatively pleasant.
5. The "healing ministry" of Jesus is an activation of that future (hope) in the present time. Physical health is being 'saved from physical illness,' mental/emotional health is being 'saved from illness of soul,' forgiveness and renewal is being 'saved from sin,' resurrection is 'being saved from death'.... The list is as long as anything that ails or harms us.
6. The task of the church is to proclaim that Jesus can do this (save/heal) now as a (partial) preview of the ultimate salvation/rescue/healing in the Final Renewal of Things. Unfortunately, too much of the church membership does not see the vocation of proclamation to include not only word, but also deed. In Acts it is called "signs and wonders" and it seems to have been one reason why the church was energized. I will share more on that later. It is enough to ponder the question: what would it be like if our local churches acted like they were on a mission from God?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Youth Quake 2: More on Healing

Some of the 'take-aways' from last weekend's youth retreat.
1. Being spiritual and prayerful does not exempt you from the wear and tear on your body. We came back tired. It is hard to function for a long period of time without sleep. So we were a bit cranky at my house Monday night and Tuesday. We are in real bodies with real needs. So factor that into your spiritual life. we are tempted to forget our limits (at least I am).
2. One of the statements made by a speaker resonated with the kids. "God does not want you to clean your heart up and then give it to Him, He wants your heart now; broken, dirty and in need of healing. He wants to transform your heart." Now the problem with quoting one statement (bumper sticker theology) is there is always the need for nuance. The speaker spent quite a bit of time explaining this. His point is that too often we do not come to the Lord because we do not feel ready or presentable. We are driven by perfectionism. We forget about the faith element. We forget about the love and mercy of God. We neglect relating to our Father in heaven until we think we are ready. The Father wants the Prodigal to return to His loving arms. So go home, broken and dirty, but go home. He will take care of the rest! "Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and put a right spirit within me!" (from a psalm somewhere)
3. The speaker also used a visual: a tree (six foot tall) and a bush (about one foot high). He illustrated the difference between abundant life and just making it. Madison, a young girl in our group, shared the insight that the bush probably thought he was doing pretty good until he looked at the tree. Her point was excellent. We can delude ourselves that we are fine without God. "I don't need an invisible Father in heaven," people say, "I am doing fine." But really are we fine? Isn't there life and death in us? Aren't we all in need of serious growth? And don't we see that need clearly when we look at the giants? God provides the growth if we come to Him. Call out, "Father, help me!"

The healimg ministry of the church is a huge source of that help. I will post on that more this week. God bless!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Youth Quake and healing.

I had a four day trip with nineteen kids and three adults from our church. We picked up seven folks from Jackson TN to travel with us. We went to Ridgecrest in North Carolina. Youth Quake is an amazing youth outreach of Alan Hansen and Acts 29 Ministries. It is very evangelical in its approach. I am more Catholic. However, I have learned that the benefits of young people encountering a broader range of church styles is helpful. The speakers were focused on setting down the basic story of Christianity. They were generally young adults. They were insightful and honest.

Our kids benefit from several days of prayer and reflection on issues of faith. The music is not my style, but the kids love it. The lyrics point to God and call those present to worship. Several days of that repetition is helpful in creating memories. My own two children love going. I love being there with them. I am sure I will write about some of the insights I garnered. For now I want to reflect on the healing prayer.

On Saturday night everyone there is invited to come forward for prayer with various prayer teams. I was on one of the prayer teams (with a parishioner who had joined us). We were blessed to pray with several people. I cannot share what they came for, but I can say that it was powerful healing. Too often we we fail to see the connections between physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations. We also neglect the chance to discuss, listen and pray together. For me, Youth Quake's best moments occur in those times of sharing and prayer. I wish we were doing a better job in the local parish of providing a safe place to gather to do the same thing. I wish broken people were healed in the parish. I am hopeful that our young people will have a different world view and be open to the ministry of healing.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Be Careful"

It is 5:00 am. The bus is sitting outside the church as the kids all arrive. There is a buzz of energy and a genuine sense of anticipation. We are also sort of sleep deprived. We are headed for YouthQuake. An American Church experience. Lots of teenagers and music, laughter, serious teaching and the assorted shenanigans associated with a group whose median age is 15.

The last two days people have been praying for a safe trip here. Several people have told me "be careful." I am not driving I will be on a bus. The words are a generic expression of concern. No one thinks I am going to do something dangerous. They just know that "things happen." Something about long trips makes this awareness more keen.

I went to a Benedictine seminary. We lived next to monks and their monastary. They shared the wisdom of their way of life. I remember several points. Their teachings were generated by St. Benedict who lived at the time of the fall of Rome. "Moderation in all things" "Pray, work, study" and "Keep death always before you."

The last one, a reminder to live every day as if it were your last, is considered morose by many. I think it makes sense. When you leave for a trip there is no promise you will be back. There is hope. Life is a journey. Be careful. Live each day as if it were your last. Live in a way that prepares for the next stage.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why? (2)

"Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you; hide not your face from me in the day of trouble." Psalm 102:1

The rest of the psalm consists of a pretty serious litany of "bad stuff." A few of the phrases: "a heart smitten and withered," "lie awake and groan," "reviled all day long," "my days pass away like a shadow." It is raw, it is unabashedly human and it resonates with real life. It is not what one would expect from a Holy Book. There is not much spin at all. Life can be torturously difficult, yet, like the psalmist we can look past our pain and say "But you, O Lord, endure for ever and your name from age to age." That, my friends, is what is called perspective. Seeing things in their proper context. And it is not a simplistic theology which ignores the reality of evil.

One of the most stunning characteristics of the Old Testament is the brutal honesty of the writing. The Jews write their "history" and with few exceptions paint a picture of a people unfaithful and undeserving. It is so different from the sort of happy-clappy propaganda we are used to. The Jews have canonized these texts, claiming that God speaks through these words. Christians have followed this lead and our canon includes similar honesty in the New Testament.

The central story of Christianity is the cross of Christ. When I was a Roman Catholic priest I used to ask parishioners, "How can you go to a church where there is a giant statue of a man on a cross and not figure out that suffering is part of the deal?" One of my complaints in the Episcopal (one of many!) is that we do not have the crucifix. The (weak) response is we live in a resurrection church. Theologically that is true. But existentially the cross is still as real now as it was in 33AD. I do way too much counseling and far too many funerals to ever believe that the days of the cross are long gone. I see it every day and hear the groans of the crucified...

The cross is the story of love in spite of rejection. The cross is the story of self gift and perfect offering/sacrifice. The cross is the story of God "turning away His face." It is abandonment into darkness and gloom. It is pain and horror and tragedy. Without the cross our suffering seems meaningless. Yet, if God has embraced such senseless brutality and taken it into Himself, then perhaps there is hope that our own suffering can have a deeper meaning and value. Even senseless and brutal suffering can make sense. God speaks His word on the cross. But it is not His last word. There is also Easter Sunday. There is also redemption, renewal, new life, the Promise fulfilled.

I am always struck by that detail in the resurrection accounts where Jesus says, "look at my hands and my feet and my side." It is amazing that in His glorified state He takes those wounds with Him. Nothing of His passion is left behind. Amazing.

Some years ago I stood before a freshly dug grave to bury a loved one. I shared then what I believe. "Some people ask 'why me?' My only thought is 'why not?'" The bible teaches, over and again, that God is far away sometimes. It makes it clear that those who love God can still suffer greatly. It makes clear that doubt, fear, struggle, failure are all a fundamental part of the great story of our shared journey in faith. I repeat what I shared yesterday, our task is to love and worship and obey God. Whether things go well or not, our task remains the same. Thanks for sharing in the journey with me.
[I am going with our youth group for a few days. Please pray for us. I will blog again next Week.]

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I have been brought to tears several times the last few days. Yesterday while working out at the YMCA the television had an interview of the Green family. Their daughter had been shot by a rampaging young man who was obviously very disturbed. The random violence and the arbitrary way which some were wounded and others died boggles the imagination. It also breaks the heart...

The Green family is Catholic. They had a funeral mass yesterday. I hope their faith is consolation. I am sure they will spend the rest of their lives missing this sweet little girl and feeling a gaping hole with her absence. I am also sure they are wondering, "Why?"

Some people will say God has a plan. I would say, "then I guess these people were supposed to die this way because God wanted it so? Does that mean that the shooter was merely doing God's will?" The answer "God's plan" only raises more and more questions.

It brings me back to an experience I had around 1975 as a teenager going to college. I was driving home from classes at Memphis State University. I was driving along and preparing to drive through an intersection and across some railroad tracks. As I approached the intersection my foot came up off the gas. I remember looking at my foot because it seemed to be acting on its own. As I looked back up, a car ran the stop sign and flew through the intersection at a high rate of speed. My first thought was that God had saved my life. I could not see any other explanation for the strange event. My next thought was why would God do that? In a world full of people much better than me and more deserving of mercy, why would God do it for me?  I honestly wondered if it was blasphemous to think He had saved me, or blasphemous to doubt it. I did thank Him for the mercy, but I also wondered if I was reading too much into the event.

There are people who were at the Tucson event who probably feel like God intervened to spare them. I cannot argue against that. I do not think that those who fell were any worse or less deserving of mercy than those who survived. Yet those who survive will have their own burdens to carry. I have little doubt that some people will be emotionally scarred. Some will suffer from what is called 'survivors guilt.' Some will make a commitment to be better people. Others might see the world as too dangerous and lose their will to do much of anything. There is no way to know how each person will be affected for good and ill.

There is no easy answer. There is no simple explanation. Some will turn to God while others turn away.

What I do know is we are responsible for the choices we make. I am not sure why I am here, thirty five years after my own brush with death. I do not know why I was spared in such a remarkable way and why others are not the recipients of a similar intervention. What I do know is I am accountable for the time I have. The little girl made her witness to a weary world at the cost of her life. Millions of people have heard her. She was a child of faith and love and now we know about her because she was killed. She has now entered into the presence of God, I believe. She is in a new place and experiencing new things. I pray that she, her family and all those touched by this (or any other tragedy) will decide to turn to God. To love, worship and serve Him, now and always. Not just to get answers or comfort, but because He is worthy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Law of Unintended Consequences

I am off on Mondays. Yesteday was also a "Snow Holiday" in the Memphis TN area as we got blanketed with about 4 inches of the fluffy white magic. As we knew the night before that there was no school, we were spared the daily ritual of (repeated) wake-up calls and lunch making and other preparations of a normal day. My wife and I were lounging around when the phone rang. It was a friend of ours who is also an occassional church attender. His job takes him out of town regularly. In fact, he was calling us from the airport in Nashville.

We talked about several things including this blog. He told me that he was planning to come to church on Sunday. As he was looking at the church website ( for the times of the eucharist he stumbled across the blog. It turns out that he got side tracked reading the blog, lost track of time and missed church. "So," I said to him, "I made you miss church because of the blog?" We both laughed about the paradox of that. So much for my plan!

Plans. All of us have made plans. All of us do things with some sort of intended outcome. I write this blog for "wonderers and wanderers." My target audience is believers who are sometimes buffeted with doubts. I want to reach out to the people who have questions. In addition, I write for open minded agnostics and atheists. I want to engage people who do not believe, yet have the courage to 'doubt their doubts.' My hope is some day someone will show up at our door and say, "I read your blog and I want to go to church here." It hasn't happened yet. However, my friend did miss church because of the blog! (ha!)

One of the things about life is every choice we make (and the many choices we do not make) all create reality. A person is driving his car and decides to change his radio station. He reaches for the radio and inadvertantly changes lanes and causes a wreck. People die. People are injured. Lives are changed. The consequences of the act of changing a radio station reverberate through history. A hundred years from now it could be a link in the chain which produces a cure for cancer or a nuclear holocaust.

We cannot control all the outcomes. We cannot foresee them. Obviously, there are expected outcomes for our actions. We can sort of think through some of those. But we cannot be totally certain exactly what all the outcomes will be. That is why HOPE is so important. It is why prayer is so important. In the end, what we do may not achieve our intended ends. But when we give it to God we have reason to think that He will use it and make a good of it in the end. My friend who read the blog, well, he missed church but we did have a great conversation about it. He is going to help me to help some needy people. He also talked with me about a friend of his who is an atheist. He and I made a connection for the first time in months, a connection which brought joy to me. Last but not least, he gave me a blog idea! So you never know how things will work out!

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I was reading Luke 18 this morning. What I read today resonated with a conversation I had with a woman last night at a parish dinner. She spoke of the struggle of faith and the prevalence of doubt among believers.

Jesus tells a story (18:1) which Luke says is meant to show us that we must pray constantly. There is a widow who comes to a judge for justice. In ancient cultures (ours too) widows, orphans and foreigners are especially vulnerable to the rich and powerful. They are easily abused and have limited access to the support they need to get what is due them. The Jewish Law (Torah) is explicit that God demands justice for the "poor." The Judge, however, does not care about his duties. The woman has no where else to turn. She is alone. All she has is her willingness to pester the Judge. She does not give up.

In the Greek the Judge literally says, "I do not care about God or men, but this woman may give me a black eye." The image of the woman attacking the Judge is no doubt meant to be comical (although in light of the masacre in Arizona yesterday we also know that public official are at risk). In the end, out of self centeredness and for his own benefit, the Judge decided to give her justice.

Jesus then says that we can learn from this. The Greek is a little tricky but it seems to be saying that while God bears our suffering for a while, He will act quickly (in the sense of decisively and powerfully) for those who remain faithful. But then Jesus asks a question. "When the Son of Man returns will He find any faith?"

Will He? Jesus seems to wonder if any of us will be willing, like the widow, to cry out to God with perseverance. It is interesting that Jesus asks such a question. Apparently, the doubt and uncertainty of our own age is not a new thing. It seems in ancient Israel Jesus confronted the same issue.

Sadly, all of us are in need of justice. We have all suffered and been victims. Sadder still, all of us are also perpetrators. There are others who cry out to God because of what we have done. God delays in bringing justice but Jesus says we have to wait and hope and trust. The day is coming. When it does come, it will be Quick! But Jesus asks the question, "Who will be waiting for it? Trusting God for it? Who?"

If you have doubts, join the club. But doubts are not a result of our being more modern and advanced. Doubt is older than civilization! Jesus calls you to trust. To pray regularly and earnestly and (yes!) HONESTLY. God will hear and God will act.

Friday, January 7, 2011


I was on yesterday where Jen wrote about keeping a journal of mystical events. She does this as a record so when God feels far away she can go back to remember. I really connected with her and her writings. Ironically, I have done the same thing. I have a little book with healing events. I am involved in the healing ministry. We do not always see amazing things around here. That is not all bad. Too often, the desire for "signs and wonders" is a hunger for proof to prop up my faith. It is "proof" that we are not crazy for believing in God.

The reality is, doubt is insatiable. There is no proof for the heart which wants absolute proof. I know that two people can hear the same arguments and walk away with different conclusions. I know my own hunger for proof and certainty keeps coming back. I always needed just one more miracle! Long ago I decided that asking the question does God exist is fruitless. There is too much focus on yes or no (and half of the options are bad!). Instead, I think it more fruitful to ask, "what is God like?"

Last week, a dear friend contacted me. She is in a bad way with some psychological-medical issues. She gave me permission to share this. She is in a very dark place. I am her spiritual director, so we  have had many conversations over the years. When she e-mailed me about her present distress I asked God to help her. I made a specific plea that He send her a hawk. Hawks are an important symbol for her. They are signs of God and show up at challenging moments as a reminder of his presence. So I knew a hawk would be a source of comfort to her. But my prayer was for a "literal or figurative" hawk. When we talked later she made mention of my e-mail as a figurative hawk and we both thanked God for the work He was doing.

A few days later she called. She was in a very dark and difficult place. We talked for some time. I felt overwhelmed by her need and how little I had to offer. (Sort of like the apostles trying to figure out how to feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes) I know enough about counseling that sometimes caring and listening is enough. I was aware at conversation end that the love and listening were of some value. After hanging up the phone I prayed again. "God have mercy!"

Later that day I saw I had a message. It was from her. "I saw a hawk" she said. "I have never seen one in the city. Later I saw another." She was deeply comforted by God's gift.

It is tempting to dissect the event. Is it proof of God or a happy coincidence? In our world, the responses are divided. But I know this. The experience was healing for her. God is a healer. The experience was not in her control. God is Lord and He is in charge. The experience led her to gratitude and worship. The work of the  Holy Spirit is to lead us to thanks and praise.

Of course, the question does pop up, why not just heal her? Why must she suffer? Why send hawks when you can just fix the problem? Lots of possible answers there. Discussions about how the world is. Discussions about God's intent and plan. Discussions about why and how and when. Too much to cover today (like I even know the answers!). But I do know this. Like the Bible says, God does not leave us orphaned. Even in the dark there is a flicker of light.

I wrote this down in my journal. It is with other similar stories. Stories about a God who does not draw attention to Himself, but quietly intervenes in lives of those He loves. A God who does not force our doubts to disappear. A God who is often subtle and must be 'looked for.' Yet a God is there for those who are sincerely looking.
 And I need to remember what kind of God He is.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Yesterday I had a funeral. The man was in his seventies, about the same age my dad would be. As I prepared for the funeral I considered all that he had seen in his seventy-five years. He was born into a world where Hitler was rising in power. He was a boy during WWII and came of age during the cold war. All the amazing advances of science, medicine, techonology and media took place as he grew into old age. Then I projected back seventy five years before he was born, which put me at 1860 and the beginning of the civil war. Wow, his birthday was closer to the civil war then it was to today!

As we look back we see the realities of the passage of time. It is a known quantity to some extent. We know about a world before electricity, before phones, before DVDs and SUVs. The future is not known. We can make predictions and projections. We can talk about "some day" and imagine the improvements that are possible. But the future is still unknown. Technological advances also mean that a handful of men can create mayhem which was unimaginable in days gone by. The lives we enjoy hang by fragile threads. There is a threat horizon which accompanies our hopes and dreams. It could be really good, but it could get really bad, too.

If older men are an invitation to history, then babies and children are signs pointing to the future. With my kids I constantly find myself thinking about years from now. What can I do to prepare them? At a deeper level I worry about their faith. I know they are growing up in a world where unbelief is aggressive and growing. Some people are angry at the church and angry at believers. What will it be like for them in thirty years? Can they be faithful and faithfilled in that environment?

I also am preparing for a new baby. My expectation is that I will not be around for most of his life. When he is my age I will be long gone. So, I have been driven to a place of prayer and trust. I know that ANOTHER must do what I cannot do. I also recognize that that has always been the case. I just thought I was making things happen! To admit I am not able to be in control is freeing. If a debt is too big to pay you just do not worry about it anymore. "Nothing I can do." Likewise, a task too large to accomplish is freedom. I cannot build this on my own. I am responsible for the early days, the times of laying foundations and creating life patterns. No one knows the future. We know that it will be similar to the past, yet also radically different. We have always faced the unknown. Yet Jesus says that He goes before us. That is hope: believing that there is SOMEONE with power and authority whom we can trust. An act of hope is living life faithfully, living like someone who trusts. We work hard and do our best and understand that we are not in control. To launch our children into the future takes hope. We acknowledge the threats but with confidence that even if bad things happen there is Someone to trust.
There is brokeness, but there is also healing. There is death, there is also life. There is darkness, but there is also light. There is a God, hidden away in all of this, to Whom we can entrust all of our tomorrows.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


We are having a baby in June. It is a most unexpected turn of events. I am a planner. I like to look ahead and take care of things. I also generate lots of scenarios in my head to worry about. Babies are a target rich environment for ever sort of worry. The uncertainty of life is so much more obviously uncertain, it seems, when you think about babies. There are so many possible problems to deal with. The tests provide relief as you learn what horrible diseases you probably will not have. Having already dealt with spina bifida we are relieved that the spine looks great. The doctor told us that the norm is healthy babies, but I have faced the "un-norm" and know it is possible to face it again. Worries, I have been told, are a "prayer of unbelief." I think there is some truth to that. I try not to worry.

Today as I drove to work I heard there was a car wreck near my brother and sister's neighborhood. I had a stab of worry so I said a prayer for their safety. I then prayed for my two kids to be safe. Funny how we just assume each day is going to be fine. I realized how much I take for granted. Even a worry-wart like me, it seems, assumes that every day will be okay. I guess I have some faith after all!

There are such finite limits to our life. There is so much we cannot see. My wife's little belly hides the most amazing little boy. We cannot see him now, but we know he is there. Sometimes we can feel movement. But we cannot hear him or see him (without technology). In the doctors office we saw his reflection on a screen. It was blurred. At time only a small part of him was recognizable. Ironically we even saw his heart, his brain and other organs. Things hidden within him as he lays hidden within the womb! But we could for brief moments make him out. I saw a foot. I saw a hand. A couple times, briefly, I saw his face. The face! It was like he was looking right at us. It felt that way. Even though he cannot see us at all. For a moment, gazing at teh screen, if felt like we were looking right at each other. I assume (I hope, I pray) some day I will hold him in my hands and look into his face. I hope that he and I will come to see, face to face, and to love each other, face to face. Having done that twice already I know it is a most remarkable thing.

A baby does not have to be planned to be wanted. I want this little guy to grow and prosper. I want him to be so much more than I am. I want him to be holy in ways I have only imagined. I hope he will be wise and patient and kind. I pray he will love God with all he is and love his neighbor as himself. My two teen-agers are far enough along that I can see an outline of what is possible. They are children of faith. They are smart, beautiful, and good kids. Next summer, we will add a third child to the group. I have done many important things in my life. There is nothing more important to me than being a dad.

Unknown future. What will happen? Once again we enter mytery. I trust there is a God who is here with us. Like this baby, right now I cannot see God. I cannot hear God. I catch glimpses of God. Glimpses which are distorted and incomplete. My own imagination supplies details which are inaccurate. Like this baby, some day I will see Him face to face. Like this baby, the actual encounter will be far superior to the blurry photo on an ultrasound screen. Until that face to face moment, I wait. I prepare. I do the things necessary to get ready for the day. I long to see the baby. I long to see God. The hunger is love. Love is the goal and final destination. I hope. I pray. I wait, anxiously.

The baby is a sacrament, for me, of God. Pregnancy and waiting are, for me, a sacrament of the Kingdom. I cannot argue it philosophically (okay probably I would!) but I can glimpse it. Little bits and pieces. My prayer is this blog provides others a glimpse. A reason to hope. A reason to sing and dance and love. A reason to pray and to serve.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Self Love

I had intended to post something else today but after reading the comment from Tucker yesterday thought I should pursue her comment and insight. I would like to add to her reflections with a few of my own. Thanks to her for sharing her thoughts!

The Law of Love says that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Self-love is a criteria to measure against or a model to employ in our relationships. Love is, by definition, a good thing, the best thing! Love is what God desires from us and for us.

True love seeks the best for the beloved. To love myself is not to give in to every passing desire. Love is disciplined. To love myself is not to focus on me and forget everyone else. Love is communal. If I love myself then I do what is best for me, and what is best for me includes self sacrifice and service, growth in wisdom and understanding, pursuing healthy behaviors and healthy relationships.

At the wedding last week the reading chosen was from John 15. Jesus said, at the last supper, "As the Father has loved Me, so I have loved you, abide in My love." Perhaps the greatest obstacle I see in my work is the refusal to accept this love, to trust it and to surrender to it. I think, building on Tucker, it is a failure of self-love which is a blockade against Jesus-love. When I do not love myself I reject the love of others. Self-hatred is at the core of self-destructive behaviors. And it is a short trip from self-hate to other-hate. A short journey which many take.

So thank you Tucker for the comment. It is good to contemplate how open we are to the life changing love of God in Jesus. It is a worthwhile pursuit to seek the best for myself so I can be the best for others. And it is important to define "best" as that which truly makes me wise, holy, loving and good. Love makes me better and it makes those I love better. John 15 reminds us that love is obedient. So if I love myself I will obey Jesus because He offers abundant lfe. I want that for my wife and kids, for my friends and those whom I serve. I want the good for them and actually engage in behaviors which promote their good. So I must also do for myself. If we learn to truly love ourselves, true love, then we can learn to love and be loved by others. Most importantly we can "let God in" and stop living in the lies we have created to avoid our self-loathing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What kind of world do we live in?

Last night we were watching a news program. Without getting into the content, it is enough to say that the focus was on issues which were generally not discussed in public when I was a child. At one point my daughter asked the question, "What kind of world do we live in?"

As we begin 2011 I think that is a great question. I believe the answer to that question is important. I also think we must ask, "What kind of world are we called to make?" As we look at the way things are we come up with theories. I believe we live in a world where God has withdrawn to some extent. I believe he has made us responsible and we are called to take that duty serioiusly. There are many things out of our control (most things) individually, but the sum total of individual choices and actions do have a profound impact.

The values which we espouse have consequences. The choices we make create new realities. Those who live fifty years from now will live in the world which we  have helped create.

What kind of world do we live in? A world for which we are responsible. God judges us. We are under His scrutiny. If things are happening which we think are bad or wrong, we are accountable for changing them. What kind of world are we supposed to live in? That is what we need to (co-)create with God's plan and His Spirit in mind.