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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Free Flowing

Yesterday evening after Bible Study my daughter informed me that she needed a stamp and an envelope. She had to mail off her commuity service hours to the director of the Youth Leadership Collierville. When I asked when they were due, she said at the end of the month. March 30th at 7:12pm is not the end of the month, but you gotta admit she was darn close!

I had an envelope, but no stamp, so I told her it would be late. Then, as we drove off, she asked what a P.O. Box was. I remembered the post office was a block away so we went there. It was, of course, closed, but it gave me the opportunity to teach her something. We entered the building and I took her to the side where a couple thousand boxes were. I took her to the one which matched the number and said, "There it is. This is the box that it is going to." She then tried to push the envelope into the side of the little door and slide it in, to no avail. "Won't work," I told her (sounding very much like a wise old dad). As we walked around to the other side, we found the stamp machine. My credit card and skills with a touch screen produced 20 stamps about thirty seconds later.

"Are you kidding?," she opined, as we stamped the letter and dropped it in the mail slot (a full fifteen feet away from the P.O. Box). It was sort of goofy. We paid $ .44 to have them process a letter which was traveling a very short distance. The same price as it is to Anchorage, Alaska. Isn't that life, so close yet so far? How often am I almost there, only to find out that there is a price to pay and a process to go through, even when the distance is so minute. So close...

Yesterday evening before bible study I saw the remains of a bird egg. It would have fit on the pinky finger of my not very large hand. There was a small trace of yolk inside. I assume a predator found the egg and ate the contents. As I sit here at 5:30 a.m. I hear birds chirping. Is the world diminished because that baby bird never saw light of day? Did that momma bird suffer at  her loss? How do we understand a world where the loss of one's life is the sustenance of another?

For a moment I pondered the empty shell. I thought of abortion. I thought about the young lives cut short. I thought about my own losses and the losses of others. I thought about the fairness thing, again. Is it fair some of us never see the light of day while others trudge on for a century? It all depends, I guess, on what happens after this. I trust God can handle it. God will make it right with the Shalom of His reign. Maybe the ones who get out early are the blessed. Jesus seems to say that things are not always what it seem when it comes to the blessed and cursed.

Today my little girl is sixteen. We plan to go get her license then go out to dinner. My son will be a baseball practice. He is a very good little baseball player, he is also smart. I do know that he is blessed. So is she, she made a 31 on ACT last year as a freshman. They both seem to take their faith seriously (graded according to the 'curve' of middle class American religiousity) and are well liked by adults. They turned out pretty good, so far. I think about how we worried when they were in the womb. How easily something small could have happened that had devastating effects. One or two micro errors in DNA can have devastating effects on a fetus. I know. They came out fine. we hope for the same for the next one. So close, so far...

Throughout their young lives they have already experienced the strangeness of life. Things like mailing a letter to travel fifteen feet. They have seen the randomness. Some kids cannot hit, throw or run. Others are gifted. Some are brilliant, while others struggle to learn letters and tie shoes. Some live long, full lives, while others perish in the womb or are swept away by disease or accident at an early age.

Yet, it is an amazing world. For all the horrors and the stupidity, the norm is still beauty, wonder and joy. I think all the little (and big) things in life are a gift. Creation is a gift. Life and love are  a gift. I wish I were more thankful. I wish I could 'see' better, the gracious hand of God and be in a more constant state of gratitude and trust. I wish my heart communed with Jesus more intensely in my prayer time. Perhaps I am only 'fifteen feet' away from that, but I am still going through the process like it is fifteen hundred miles. Maybe tomorrow the Father God will draw me in and make me His completely! Until then, I will struggle to be faithful.

I will also pray for you, dear reader, on this day. I pray that God will visit your awareness in the big things and the little things. I pray you will hear Him and see His hand at work. We are, after all, in this together.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kingdom of God

In my "wandering years" I struggled a great deal with the issue of "salvation outside of the church." I define church as anyone who believes in Jesus (whether they are active in church or not), which is, the body of believers. I remember reading Justin Martyr (103-165AD) who was one of the earliest Apologists for Christianity and was beheaded for the faith. I recall the sense of thrill in reading about the Logos (Word) which created the world and permeates the world. The Logos/Word became flesh in Jesus, but Justin indicated that the Logos was at work in all of creation.

Like any early church philosopher/theologian, some of Justin's thought is inaccurate. Some of what he taught would be considered in error based on later councils. So I make no claims of inerrancy or infallibility here, but I do think it helpful to know that faithful Christians (dying for the faith seems to be a fruit of that claim) have struggled with the same questions which we face today. So I conclude with the reaffirmation that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ the Lord and I have every reason to hope that Jesus will find a way to gather into His kingdom as many people as possible. How does He do it? I am not sure. What I am sure about is the typical Christian spends precious little time and very little resources in reaching the lost for Christ. The typical Christian really is not consumed with the billions of people who do not know or trust Jesus. I also know that in most places and in most times, the behaviors of Christians (especially ministers) has driven large number of people away. The flaws of human beings are very apparent inside the church. If we are God's only hope to reach the world then God is in a tough spot.

I think the idea of Kingdom conveys a different slant on this. In Kingdom theology, there is a real sense in which God is absent. Jesus calls Satan the "prince of this world." There is a great deal of absence/presence imagery in the teaching of Jesus. There is a sense of our vocation being a time of preparation and waiting. The feel of the NT is God is coming here, to us, not that we are going there, to heaven. Death is not the passage to new life, resurrection is. "I saw coming down from heaven, a New Jerusalem!"

I believe the kingdom ethic (holiness, justice, righteousness) is a vital part of that preparation. If our focus is less on "going to heaven" (escape from here) and more about "bringing heaven to earth" then our ministries and evangelism have a different look. Our politics matters more, as does our stewardship and relationships, when this world is considered part of God's redemptive plan.

When I focus on going to heaven, I focus on me. I have to, I do not control anyone else.
When I focus on Kingdom, it is a 'we' thing. Suddenly our relationships matter because we are in it together.
When I focus on God the coming King, I am freed up from some of the nagging questions the agnostics or atheists throw out: "If God is good why is there so much evil?" I can say, "God is good and He is coming to save us. In fact, the rescue mission began long ago and reached its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the KING. He is the ONE in whom all our hopes are secure. Now we must, today, live as He lived, in faithful service to God and one another."

If some people enter the Kingdom after they die does that negate our work now? I think not. We are awaiting God's final deliverance, but our efforts now are vital to Him and of use to Him. So proclaiming Jesus and living as His people makes all the sense in the world. The world matters, so we preach the 'Jesus Way' to make the world more livable. The more people embrace Jesus and come to faith, the more our world will be kingdomlike and more livable. We cannot create paradise, only God can do that, but we can worship and serve God here, much better than we do now. And it is better to include all the world's inhabitants in that enterprise.

In the end, I think we must choose which quote from Jesus is our motto: "He who is not with Me is against Me" or "He who is not against us is with us." There is exegesis required to interpret each of these verses, and in a sense they refer to different things. But most of the time they end up being a motto for  us and express how we see the world. Either option can, to the extreme, create problems. Held in tension they can provide us with a gracious approach to other humans even as we welcome them into relationship with Jesus and life as His possession.

We pray "Come Lord Jesus" because we need deliverance here and now. All of us, Jew, Christian, other believer or non-believer. The gates are open and the invitations have been sent out. Many, sadly, will choose to reject the King and refuse to come to the wedding banquet. I hope most will come, even if some come late. I pray for God to have mercy on us all. And I hope to live like one who knows He is a guest by grace!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

kingdom of God

The last couple of days I have written about salvation. In the Bible there are places where we are told that God loves us, that God's desire is to save us and that He wants all people to be with Him. We also know that there are numerous places where God allows people to walk away and suffer the consequences of their choices, the wrath of God. Lastly, we looked at the claim that because our actions are never perfect that God must save us by grace through our faith, but I asked the question, is there any indication that our faith is any less flawed than anything else we do?

I think some of the tension created for people is generated by how we understand the world. The basic model for most Christians that I know goes like this:

God made us to be happy with Him.
Adam (and Eve) sinned so we lost that relationship with God, now all of us suffer the fruits of Original Sin.
Every human is on the planet as a test and if we get it right when we die we can go to heaven.
Getting it right, however, is debated (some think confessing Jesus is the ticket, while others think we are judged by our works probably on a curve of some sort. There is a third group which combines the two in some form or fashion).
The key is we want to live 'right' so when we die we can go to heaven.

Ever been asked by someone, "If you died tonight do you know where you would go (for eternity)?"
Ever wondered why Jesus never asked anyone that question?

Having spent the last couple of years studying the Old Testament, I have noticed that the ancient Jews saw life differently. There is little or no discussion of "heaven" or the afterlife in the OT books. Salvation is almost always expressed globally as "God rescues Israel" or as deliverance from some personal threat. The word 'redeem' (which is an economic term for buying back a slave's freedom) is utilized as a metaphor to describe God's saving acts with Israel. [As I have shared in the past, the term "saved" and the term "healed" are the same Greek word in the NT.] With an almost exclusive focus on this present life and future generations, it is no surprise that there are even places where the OT denies that there is any life beyond the grave. I have to tell you, studying the OT as a young college seminarian was very disconcerting, because God just did not reveal the sort of info I expected based on my understanding of the world (see above, "test for heaven").

There is, however, a hunger expressed in the text. A desire to escape the current struggles and to experience shalom/peace/perfect order. The OT answer seems to be that once people submit to the rule of God and serve Him as true King, then there will by prosperity and justice. Then all will be well. The struggle between human rulers (foreign, Jewish or autonomy) and the Divine King is one of the strongest themes of the OT. The source of that struggle is rarely seen as demonic or satanic. It is, however, seen as a battle to the death.

I believe in the Kingdom of God and the resurrection of the dead. I cannot conceive that God created billions of people so as to save a small portion through a subjective, verbally confessed faith in Jesus Christ, while the vast majority serve the function of 'firewood for hell.' [Please note, I do not think my capacity to conceive or comprehend creates any limit on God. I am not saying God cannot deal with the world in that way. I am saying that I doubt that is how He deals with the world. I also think that if He does deal that way with the world that it may have pretty serious impact on our theories about godliness, mercy and justice.]

There are two streams in the OT. In one, God has set apart the Jews as His holy people. They have a mission to purify the land and to expell all the non-Jews. Extermination of the nations is a recurring demand in the Torah (see Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah). Alongside that call to isolated and holy existence is another stream. In the second stream, God calls Israel to be His people. They are set apart as His holy people. They are to be a blessing for the nations. All the nations shall stream to her temple and learn to worship God. Israel is to be a light to the world. This latter view, which is also found throughout the OT is exemplified in the promise to Abraham, late Isaiah, and some psalms.

If the world awaits God ascension to His throne on earth, then perhaps our working model of life is a bit off. Perhaps the parables of Jesus ask, when the King returns will you serve Him or resist Him? When the Son of Man judges the Nations (i.e. not Judaeo-Christians) it is based on kindnesses offered (food or drink, etc.) to others with whom Jesus self identifies. Is there some clue here?

In a kingdom spirituality, things like faith are central. Faith is our membership in the citizenry. But love suddenly matters, too, as does justice. Faith allows us entrance into the Kingdom (by God's grace) but the rules of the kingdom are still in place. There is a covenant expectation on our behavior. There are things we do and do not do. Suddenly, faith and works are subsumed in a larger concept of citizenship. This explains why Paul writes extensively of the centrality of faith and the uselessness of works in one place, only to list any number of behaviors which would exclude one from the kingdom in other places. What we do matters, even if we trust Jesus as our king. I have no illusions that I have solved every problem with this model, but I do know it seems closer to the world the Bible describes.

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Fair" 2

My last post was a fictional story about God. Like all parables it illustrates a point, but the analogy is limited. I hope it illustrated the point about fairness. That sense of "unfair" is what is at the heart of the discussion on salvation. Is it fair that God only allows people who confess Jesus as Lord go to heaven, when millions either do not know Him or find themselves in a situation where faith in Him is very difficult?

In this discussion it is vital to point out that all have sinned and no one is worthy. If you do not get that point then there is little else can be said. One of the disturbing features of the position that "everyone goes to heaven" is it fails to take seriously sin and evil. It makes it all so easy. It also ignores the holiness of God. It reduces God to our level. For those reasons I am hesitant to even push back against the 'exclusive' position.

But there is, I think, a logical challenge to the 'exclusivist' position. Let me explain. The argument generally laid out goes like this:
1. God is holy, all holy, and pure goodness.
2. People sin and alienate themselves from God.
3. God's truth and justice demands our eternal punishment.
4. Jesus has taken on our sins and the NT makes clear that He is our salvation.
5. Those who do not believe in Jesus remain in the lost state without any hope.
6. Those who have faith in Jesus are saved.

There are linguistic variations, but basically that is the argument. Today in Morning Prayer I read from Romans about the uselessness of works and the effectiveness of faith. Based on Romans, and similar NT texts, many 'exclusivists' argue that human actions alway fall short of God's perfection. Even our best acts are muddied up with various evil intentions and desires. Our good works, some would say, are dirty rags (an image of one of Israel's prophets). Dirty rags are useless. That is what our works are, useless and disgusting in comparison with the holy and good God.

Now, here is where the logical problem emerges. The word faith is used, but my question is, why are our imperfect works ineffective while our imperfect faith isn't? How is it that the feeble, impure and incomplete faith I have in Jesus is somehow enough when God's goodness makes it impossible for Him to be pleased with my imperfect works?

When people talk about Jesus to me, I often hear them say things that I know are flat wrong. The real Jesus, revealed in Scripture is quite different from the Jesus many Christians have made up in their own minds. I also know my understandind of Jesus is in flux. I have learned so much in the last few years. I expect I will continue to learn more. My ideas and beliefs have changed and will continue to change. I will never know Him fully or totally accurately.

I also know I  have doubts. Worse, there are times when I have no feelings about Him. He died for me and lots of times I do not seem to passionately care. I hunger for Him but I hunger for sin, too. I do not know how fully I believe. That leads to another issue, what exactly is 'belief'? Is it an intellectual thing? A feeling thing? An obedience thing? And if it is about obedience aren't we back into the realm of works?

YIKES! So many questions.....
I want to leave it there for today. I think it worth pondering: what is faith? Who is Jesus? How right do we need to be about Jesus and how perfectly must we believe in order to be saved? And at what point is believing just another human activity, a work, of an imperfect, sinful soul? In light of these questions, I think there is an opening, to discuss the question. If Christians do not fully know Jesus and fully have faith in Jesus, is it possible that the same graciousness that God extends to us can also be extended to those who did not know Him, yet desired to please Him (without knowing it was Him) and relied on Him for life eternal (even though they had never heard of grace). It boils down to the question: where does GOD draw the line?

And to muddy it up even more, is 'deciding about heaven' really the point of Jesus' life and work?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

College exam and "fair"

There is an amazing college in our local area. It provides students with everything they need in terms of facilities, faculties, academics and extra-curricular opportunities. For that reason, most students are anxious to attend.

Last weekend there was an exam for admission. Roughly five hundred students arrived early Saturday morning for what ended up being a pretty grueling day of testing. Composed of extensive questions covering five different areas, my son spent all morning and part of the afternoon, pencil in hand, pondering and answering questions, some easy, some terribly difficult. He got home at 2:00 and waited for the posted results. At four o'clock the scores were published. He was pleased that he got 88% correct. He was disappointed to learn that a score of 100% was required. He spoke with a few friends and learned that one made a 93%, another 83% and the rest were between 64% and 77%. According to the website, no one made above a 95% so no one was accepted into the school.

Like most kids, he was pretty down as he went out to his ball game at 7:00 pm. He got a hit and his team won 7 to 6. Still smarting from his academic failure, he texted his friend who had made the 64%. It was late, but I allowed him to text because it would not wake anyone. My son was shocked to find out that his friend had been accepted into the college after all. In fact, he was told, over sixty students were now enrolled on full scholarship. How did that happen?

The Dean of Admissions had called three of the kids up after the exam and told them about a re-test to take place around the time our game had started. The three were told to let the other students know. One of them was so excited about the second chance that he had celebrated with his family but had not contacted anyone. The second youth had called a few friends, but they were satisfied that their group was able to take advantage of the opportunity. The last student, aware of how important this opportunity was, made an effort to contact everyone he could. Some of the kids said that they did not want to go through another test, some said they would be there but didn't show up and several came for the retest but failed to pass the second test because they did not follow the retest instructions.

The instructions, it turns out, were rather simple. The Dean of Admissions had taken the exam himself at an earlier time. He was the first person to make 100% on the exam. The Dean of admissions was the son of the school President. The President wanted every child to have an opportunity to attend the college, so on the retest he allowed each student to simply write in the name of the Dean of Admissions so that the Dean's score could be transfered to them. In essence, each young person o filled in the Dean of Admission's name on their own exam, automatically got a 100%. In addition, the Dean of Admission had also declared that he would pay the entire cost of school for everyone who had passed. A four year, full ride at the best college ever!

My son was devasted by this. He complained bitterly that it was not fair.  As any father would, I felt his pain. He had missed out on an amazing opportunity to enjoy the most wonderful experience imaginable. I tried to explain to him, that the President of the school had a right to set the standards. "100% may seem high to you, son," I explained, "but the school is outstanding so one should expect the bar to be high. We both know that throughout your life you have squandered many chances to learn. It is your own fault that you got some wrong." "But what about the Dean of Admissions only letting some people know?" he replied. "Well," I explained,  "they are not obligated to tell anyone anything. The fact that any students got the second chance is really pretty amazing. To think that no one passed the entrance exam and now sixty kids are not only getting into school but are there on a full ride is pretty gracious." Eventually, my son admitted, that the President and Dean were certainly under no obligation to let anyone in the school and he acknowledged that those who had received the second exam truly had enjoyed a remarkable gift.

Later that day, on the news, there was an interview with the school president. He proclaimed how happy he was that sixty local students were going to be able to attend the college. He also made clear that he desired every child in the area to enroll and attend the college. He emphasized that while no student had lived up to the admission expectation, he was glad that some could get in any way because of his graciousness.

I do believe that the President and Dean have a right to admit anyone that they want. I think it is fair for them to be gracious to whom they want. I guess my question is this: is it fair that they claim that they desired everyone to get into the school?

I write this as an obvious 'parable' of the Kingdom. Like all parables, there is some use of imperfect analogy. Even so, I think it does illustrate salvation and grace.

God is perfect and His perfection cannot endure our imperfection. He is represented as the President and the required score of 100% .
Jesus is obviously the Son/Dean. He alone is worthy and He can offer the gracious exemption to whom He wants by the means He desires.
Student (us) are accountable for our failures. Our standards for passing scores are too low. We have all failed to reach the bar. No one deserves or has a right to anything.
The responsibility of some students to tell others is evangelism. In reality most Christians do little or none of it. Others are very much isolated and only share the faith with a handful of closest friends and family, and only on rare occasions someone outside their personal circle. A significant number of people do try to spread the Good News. They use their time, talent, and treasure to see that as many people as possible get the word and know about the second chance. Unfortunately, for people like "my son", lots of people are just never made aware of the second chance. Understand, I am not saying that they have a right to know about it nor do they deserve it. I am just saying, many people never, ever had information about the second chance.

The question remains, can the President sincerely claim that he did everything he could to make sure that everyone got into the school? The President and Dean were certainly gracious and kind, no one deserved it or earned it and the fact that anyone got into their school on a free ride is a marvelous mercy. But it just does not seem accurate to say that they have made a commitment to include everyone in the gracious offer. Nor can anyone deny that those of us entrusted with "the secret" have done a pretty ineffective job of getting the word out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Salvation and Messianic Jews 2

To follow up on yesterday, I want to share a question that someone asked Rabbi Derek Sunday, "Is Jesus the only way to salvation?"

The question is straight forward, but I think the answer is not. The answer is really to an unasked second question. Both of Derek's answers made sense to me.

Answer one: Jesus is the only way to salvation. The NT is clear on that. It is the sort of thing repeated over and over, especially in the Fourth Gospel and by Paul. This is the undergirding principle for evangelism, we seek to bring the lost to faith so that they can be saved. Matt Kennedy lays out the exclusivist argument very well at Stand Firm.

I think the spiritual motivation in asking this question is the desire for Truth. We want to be obedient to God and do what He tells us. The intellectual motivation for many of us is the issue of truth. We care about what kind of world this is and want to understand how it works. The emotional issues of security and connectedness are also motivating. Our commitment to Jesus makes us part of a family of faith, we wonder it others are "in it with us" or if they "stand against us."

There are so many, inside the church as well as outside, who reject Jesus. They negate the NT claims about Him. Asking this question, "Is Jesus the only one who saves?," is another way of asking if the Bible is reliable?

Why then did I say the Rabbi answered two questions? The other question is "What about people who have never heard about Jesus?" The exclusivist position is, "they are damned." There is a barage of Scripture quotes unleashed which make a pretty stunning case that this is so. The Rabbi's answer (and my own) is that God decides. God is the judge. His hope, and mine, is that things work out better for those who were born in such a state that the Gospel was never preached to them. [This 'answer' also comes under withering attack. I want to explain my position slowly.] I think for many people it is also a source of stumbling. Now that is not sufficient to turn from the truth, but I do think it is important to engage the questions people have.

1 Timothy 2:3-4 and 2 Peter 3:9 are important texts to me. In the first, Paul states that God desires that all be saved and come to knowledge of the truth. He goes on to explain that there is one God and one Mediator between God and man ("Jesus our ransom"). Peter says that the delay in the world's end is because God wants everyone to repent. These two verses, coupled with the idea that "God loves us," leads many to hope that the mercy of God will find a way to extend beyond the confines of the church (as we know it).

The motivation for such hope? Many of us recognize that we could have been born in another situation. There is a feeling of arbitrariness. In simplest form, it does not seem fair that some are in and some are out based on where or when they were born; something over which they have no control. (It also raises serious questions about those who are in the OT and dead babies.)

Please note, I am not advocating anything yet. I am simply raising this question: Does God desire that everyone be saved? Is it God's will, His hunger, His longing?

There are additional questions, as well. We need to be aware that our assumptions probably dictate the form that some answers take.

I believe that Jesus is the sole source of salvation. I believe there is no other name given for salvation. I also believe God desires everyone to be in relationship with Him. How does that last statement enter the discussion?

Today, I prefer to end by meditating on that desire. God's heart is the place where we end today. To think about and pray over this message: God's heartfelt desire is salvation for everyone.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On Salvation and Messianic Jews

This week has been interesting. This Sunday we had a day of retreat/study led by a Messianic Jew, a rabbi named Derek Leman. He is from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a wonderful speaker and drew a large crowd which was universally appreciative of what he said. On Wednesday, I met with a group of clergy from Collierville. As I said, "We had a Messianic Jewish rabbi come..." I was interrupted by a young man who walked in the door. "Another one?" he asked. During the next hour Chad and I got to know one another. That is two rabbis who are Messianic Jews in one week. (Plus Chad likes baseball!) So what is God doing, I wonder.

My faith journey has been different. Born and raised Roman Catholic, I struggled with the role of the Pope and had questions about Marian doctrines. I was often frustrated by the lack of interest or passion which most of my parishioners exhibited. As I watched people come late and leave early for Mass I would sometimes be so sad, and too frequently, so mad. My personal issues were exacerbated by celibacy. I also had a crisis of faith, the result of years or "critical scholarship" and "pushing the boundaries of belief." I left the active ministry. After a couple of years in an emotional and spiritual waste, I found myself confronting Jesus again. Like Peter, I told Him, "where else can I go?" Slowly as I re-established my faith in Him (or as He reworked my faith) I returned to ecclesial participation. After a period in a Disciples of Christ church I landed in the Episcopal Church. Some of my wounds healed and some of my guilt abated, I was now able to worship in a (non-Roman) Catholic way again. For years it was wonderful, until I discovered "the rest of the story" about Episcopal beliefs. As bad as it has been, in many ways it has driven me to more prayer and greater study. I now know much more Scripture at a much deeper level. I have clarity on issues which I avoided thinking about because it was painful. I am not a better person, sadly, but I am more clear on my need for Jesus and I seek Him constantly.

A young man came to talk with me over ten years ago. He was on a journey of faith and said to me, "I don't trust anything written in the last 500 years, I only read the old stuff." He was a new Christian and I am sure his position needs nuance, but I did think he was on to something. I began to read the church Fathers more regularly after that. I use their commentaries in sermon preparation. I read church history as well as original writings. I have found out that there is nothing new going on. The same arguments in 300 are occuring today.

My interest in things ancient has been supplemented by a study of Revelation/Apocalypse some years ago. As I read the commentaries and deeply delved into the text I was shocked to see how much of the book was literally lifted from the OT. Actual quotes, allusions, and ideas all came from the Torah and prophets. I knew I needed to read the OT more deeply, and I have the last few years. Which led me to reading Jewish commentaries on Scripture. It is fun. The Church Fathers find Jesus everywhere in the OT. It's like the kid's book "Where's Waldo?" only sacred. Their capacity for seeing metaphors and typology has made the OT a collage of Christ and His call. Jews on the other hand have a love for the text which few Christians do. There is also no effort to find Jesus, so their interpretations broaden my own. Lastly, sometimes they encounter mysteries which I believe Jesus solves. One rabbi, pondering the promise to Abraham asked, "What is the blessing for the nations?" He though Jewish philosphy of life or the contributions of Jews to science or the arts may be the answer. I knew, however, something he didn't. The blessing is Jesus. Wow! that is exciting and it came to me more powerfully as I heard his questioning.

Needless to say, if one is reading more and more Jewish writing (and I have long done this, Heschels' The Prophets was the most important OT theology I read in seminary and I have read dozens of others as well) it stands to reason that Jews who believe in Jesus must be read. So I have. That is how I met Derek. Now I have met Chad. There is an angle on Jesus and a vision of the faith which Messianic Jews have that enriches my own. Lest I be too Pollyanna here, I was also disturbed by the degree of argument and conflict in their community. My gosh, they sound as bad as we do in our Anglican-Episcopal battles. But as much as I long for peace, I know there is no peace this side of the KINGDOM. As much as I hunger for commuity and love, I know that conflict over truth is necessary, because unity without truth is impossible. So the struggles are real and the battles are needed (although not every one of them). I will continue studying my bible, reading history, being educated by learned church Fathers, Messianic Jews and assorted others. And I will pray, yes Lord, I will pray. I will also hope and wait. Come Lord Jesus!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scared: where to draw the line?

The other day a parishioner came up to me before eucharist and said, "I saw a TV show last night where they said that Jesus did not rise. That really scared me." He talked about the importance of the resurrection and reaffirmed his belief that Jesus had risen. But he had clearly had a brush up with a terrifying idea. On Thursday, one of the people connected with the Jesus Seminar addressed our diocesan clergy. He is a leader in proposing an alternative, more "sceptical" view of Jesus. I did not attend. I teach a bible study on Thursdays. I also do not need to hear him. I have heard enough of that stuff. I have been taught and read about the scarey idea that Jesus died and that was it. It is in my head and it won't go away. Ideas that are like verbal atom bombs, threatening to wipe out our foundation in life.

Some words are hard to forget, especially bad words. Some images are hard to wash out of our head, especially bad ones. It is one reason why the church of my youth emphasized "avoiding the near occassion of sin." There was a list of forbidden books and a list of condemned movies in those days. Unfortunately, like the forbidden fruit of the garden, being on the forbidden list seemed to make it more alluring and increased the temptation. A book needed an imprimatur, a bishop's approval that it should be printed. Such an idea is so offensive to us in our culture that it no longer occurs. We Christians (the majority) read most anything and watch most anything. Efforts to do anything about it are called the work of "thought police" and are viewed negatively.

Now I am not advocating a return to the 1950's. It truly had its own problems. Still, I also know that the doubts that plague me are the result of a culture which portrays Christian faith in negative light. There are lots of "atom bombs" which are placed in our memories. We are bombarded with thoughts, ideas, images which will destroy the fouundations of faith and morality. I used to think that it was an act of courage to wrestle with doubt. As a younger man I viewed it as my duty to engage such things in order to understand why so many of my contemproraies rejected the faith. I thought it was my duty as an apologist. Doubt and faith, I thought, were partners.

Then I read John Chrysostom. He was a great preacher and bishop who lived over fifteen hundred years ago. Turns out John thinks doubt is a bad thing. He advocates feeding faith and starving doubt. I think that is good advice.

To grow as Christians we need to stretch and challenge ourselves. On the other hand, we need to feed the faith and not starve our souls. Where to draw the line on what to read, what to watch, who to listen to? Not sure. That is the struggle. But watch for the fruits in your life. And do not kid yourself, some ideas are like worms eating away at your soul.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

RIP Fr. John Sterling

For the last week I have visited Trinity Hospice where a dear friend, Fr. John Sterling lay dying. His death last night, at 7:30 pm, was a welcome relief in many ways. Fr. John was 84 and had buried his wife about six years ago. At her funeral, a part of him died as well. He was never the same. For a time he continued working at St. Andrews, and I believe that this work was a source of meaning for him. Then he had a stroke on the altar. He recovered enough to return to work, but there was a difference. He had always preached from a text, but now it was noticably more difficult for him. One Sunday he had low sugar and again he went down on the altar. He returned a short time later, but it was clear that his time had passed.

It is a sad thing to witness the decline of any person, but especially someone as sweet and loving as John. The last two years, he has been home. He handed over his license. He was sad. I called periodically and went by to see him from time to time. He readily expressed his desire to be done with the earth. He made it clear that he would do nothing to hasten his own end, but made it just as clear that his end could not come soon enough.

Sunday, March 20, marked the seventeenth anniversary of my mother's death. My daughter was born almost exactly a year later. My kids never met her. Perhaps some day they will. I do not know how family connections work in the afterlife. Some people are sure that we will be back together with our kin folks. Such family reunions may be heaven for some. Other people say that if they are with their family for eternity it would be hell. I think that is worthy of pondering, too. I am not sure about family reunions in heaven, but I am clear that the central focus will be the Triune God. We are there to love and serve HIM. Everyone else will be secondary.

Fr. John, was called Fr. Love here. He was much gentler and sweeter than I am. I used to tell him, "at least they like you!" He always had a twinkle in his eye and was known for his jokes. His last sermon here, two years ago, was like hearing the Gospel from Bob Hope. But 'Love' and 'Hope' were part of his faith. He was someone who loved and served the Lord. He had a great sense of joy. He was beloved as well as loving. Now he is gone. As I sat with his corpse, praying, I found myself wondering if he was there with me, seeing it all. In those near-death books people claim that they saw family members around their dead bodies. The Bible does not tell us much about the process of dying. It gives us hope that death is not the final word. But I still find myself wondering. Where is he now? What is it like? Is there a purging needed or is there a process of transformation that takes place quickly and painlessly. What do the spirits of the departed do all day? Is there an "all day" on the other side, or is it timeless and "eternally now"? Lots of question, not many answers. But I do know that John entrusted his life to Jesus and tried to live as a follower of Jesus. That is the only answer I do have. I will share with you the two things he said to me most often: "The Lord does not tell us that we have to be successful, just faithful" and "We need to say our prayers and do our best and leave the rest to the Lord." That is a nice epitath.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Drawing the Line: Bible 3

I believe the Bible is God's Word. It is authoritative. It is divinely inspired.
Yet, I have questions. I do not want to join those on the left who nit pick the Scripture and seek every opportunity to produce reasons to not believe the Word. On the other hand, what type claim can I make for the Bible?

I believe that much of today's problem comes from adopting a certain world view, one which is foreign to the Bible. In arguments about the creation accounts or Noah's ark, I have come to see that we are sometimes asking questions which the Bible is not designed to answer. Our view of history (as fact) is not accurate to the reality of historical writing. The post-modern criticism has some truth to it. Our perspectives very much impact how we see things. I think God is communicating to us in The Word, but we must remember that it is written in a time and place where the world view is different. This is not an attack on the Bible, it is an honest attempt to actually hear what the Bible is saying.

There are two things I want to briefly offer for reflection. One, the claim that every single word is placed there by God. If that is true, then why are there alternative readings? We do not know what the correct reading is in isolated places. There are conflicts between texts. That is why there are places where footnotes occur in our English Bibles to inidcate "other ancient authorities..." For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:4 some texts say "thanks to God" while others say "thanks to my God." In 1 Corinthians 1:14 some say "I am thankful" while others say "I thank God." Now, this does not lead me to toss my Bible away. In fact, when this sort of thing is used as proof that the Bible is not true I find myself saying, "Are you kidding me?" The presence or absence of the possessive pronoun destroys the authority of Scripture?  But on the other hand, if as some say, God is so concerned about every word and letter in the Bible why did He not preserve it?

If authority rests on claims about inerrancy which make an issue out of every word, then I certainly understand why so many young Evangelicals have given up the faith. We make them believe something which seems to be contradicted by their own observation. In a culture which emphasizes each person's autonomy that is a recipe for disaster. We see it in the widespread decline of Church attendance. I think we need to think through our claims about what inspiration means and what exactly the implications are.

A second issue, also taken from 1 Corinthians 1:14-15. ("I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.") I have no problems with this. Paul is making a theological point and wants to illustrate it by refering to baptisms he administered. In identifying those persons, he suddenly remembers someone else. It then seems that he realizes that this is beside the point and he goes on to say, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel..." But if we make extreme statements about Biblical infallibility and inerrancy the question is raised. Is Paul inerrant in saying he does not know whether he baptized anyone else? Is the correction about the household of Stephanas an indication that the previous claim about Crispus and Gaius was in error? What about the switch from enumerating the baptismal record and sort of minimizing its importance in light of his preaching ministry? I understand why the word "Scritpural inerrancy" is just not helpful here.

Once again, I do not raise these issues as a clarion call to reject Scriptural authority. What I am doing is raising the question of how to understand it. There are Bible believers who have, I think, misunderstood the results of Divine inspiration. I think there are truth claims made in conformity with Positivism and Modernistic understanding of truth (as mere observable accuracy) by well meaning believers which produce major problems for contemporary souls struggling to find God in an aggressively secular world.

I have read and studied too much Scripture to not marvel at the intricacies of the interrelationship between texts. I have been touched to my core in places. But I also know that when I hear some claims about the truth of the Bible, it seems to be too much hype. The sickness of my soul has been the horror of finding those instances (like in 1 Corinthians Paul) and wondering about the truth of the Bible. I refuse to gloss over it and I refuse to pretend it isn't there. I do not always know where to draw the line on trustworthy, true and inerrant. I believe. This morning I will preach the Biblical text, twice. I will proclaim it as God's word. I will listen to what He says. And I will trust His message. But I will also continue my journey in understanding what the Bible is and what Truth means.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Locker Rooms and God's Call

I have been writing about the authority of Scripture the last couple days. I want to share something that happened yesterday afternoon in the locker room of the YMCA. I was getting changed to work out and I heard the sweet little voice of a young boy. He said, "Dad can I get a little help?" I turned and looked but saw no one. I heard the father say, "Where are you son?" and a moment later the dad appeared from behind a row of lockers and he began opening lockers nearer to me. First one, nothing, then another, and there he stood, a little boy of about four. With a big happy smile on his face he stepped out of his temporary prison. Soon he and his dad began discussing their lunch plans. The little guy wanted Taco Bell, but as they walked out the door it appeared he was over ruled.

What did that have to do with the Bible? First of all, when the father asked, "Where are you?" I heard echoes of the Scriptures, the Garden of Eden and the Father calling out, "Adam where are you?" In the plea of the child I heard the human situation, the most sincere prayer we ever make, "Dad can I get some help here?"

"Abba Father, Dad, I seem to have gotten myself in trouble here, can you get me out?" That is pretty much the OT story of Israel, over and over. It is my story and yours, too. Most of our problems are, in one way or another, of our own handiwork. We are in need of saving, redeeming, rescue, help, healing, and deliverance.

Something else that struck me was the contrast from the story I read about a week or so ago. In that story a woman was suing an airline because a steward had put her child in an overheard bin. Supposedly, the child had been so traumatized that for many months he was unable to sleep. I do not know what to think about all that, but I did find myself wondering about the lack of distress in the locker room child. Then it hit me, he knew the father was there. He knew, locked in this dark, tight space, that Dad was in reach, out there ready to save him. There was no panic, he had faith in Dad. He was saved by faith, he trusted his Dad and Dad delivered. He was also under Dad's authority. He was not going to eat at Taco Bell.

The Biblical narratives of Genesis, Exodus, Judges and the writings of Paul all made their appearance, uninvited and unexpected yet welcome, in my mind as this little event unfolded. The story of Jesus magically appeared with the word "Dad." And I had a close encounter with God through His revelation of Himself in Scriptures I have read and studied and a locker room conversation between a little boy and his young father. As I continue to wrestle with theological questions about the authority of the Bible, I want today's reflection to be one of the main points. God speaks to us in His Word. He speaks to us in locker rooms. God speaks, we need ears to listen. The Word is given to us for that encounter: A Holy, Eternal Dad and His little child, locked up in human frailties and need.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Drawing the Line: Bible 2

A reminder, my primary audience is people who are struggling with 'the faith question.' I hope that I can be of support to others who are in the faith walk as well.

There is a raging debate on the authority of Scripture. At times the debates seem to boil down to one of two positions: Do you believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God or are you a faithless Modernist? I think that neither of these options is accurate. In fact, many Christians have lost their faith in recent years because they were only given these two options. They hunger for a middle way which was never identified.

So back to the two options. The extreme version of the Modernist view is that the Bible is a collection of religious writings witnessing to religious experiences from an ancient people. As such, the things they wrote were authoritative to them, but we live in a different world. (The Jews believe God chose them, but so does every other people so the Bible can't be right!) Anything that does not fit into our world view is tossed out as not relevant. Moral norms that do not fit contemporary norms are ignored (or villified) as holdovers from a flawed culture. As I read somewhere recently, many of these folks treat the Bible like a High School term paper, and not a very good one at that.

On the other hand, others make claims about the infallible nature of the text. They demand that because we are under the authority of Scripture: Every detail is historically accurate. Every word is straight from God's mouth. To quote a bumper sticker I saw many years ago: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it."

Where do I find myself in this? Well, as you might guess, the first view makes me sick and I think it is flat wrong. It replaces God with "Me" as the final authority. (Or worse, the current popular culture.) I prefer the second view. I much prefer it. It is clean and simple and a great way to be obedient. It is also, unfortunately, not exactly true. I tried really hard for a long time to hold that position. It just doesn't work.

If I have integrity, then I must admit that there are places where the Biblical accounts are not always historically accurate (based on a Positivist view of history). This freaked me out in a huge way for many years. I had bought into the premise that either the Bible is totally true and accurate in every detail or it is untrustworthy as a witness and useless. I bought into the assumption that God is perfect so therefore the Bible shares in His nature and it is perfect. I battled for the Bible because it was my only hope for knowing God. (I also did this because I had adopted the Modernist world view and tried to fit the doctrine of inspiration and authority into Modernist thought categories)

Then I learned about more about Jesus. The Jesus of my youth was God. Period. I knew He suffered on the cross, we were real clear on suffering. I saw Jesus crucified before my eyes, sometimes in graphic detail, at most churches I attended. But the humanity I knew about Jesus was pretty super-human. He was (in my understanding) God dressed up like one of us. It was many years later that I learned that this is heresy. Probably lots of the Progressive types in our churches today had a similar journey of understanding. Unfortunately, what happened to them, repeats the battles of the early church. Those people tried to correct their view that Jesus is 'only God' and ended up in a place where He is reduced to 'only human.' It is an understandable error. In any system, there is a tendency to "over correct" and to then err in the other direction. I think that the analogy of Jesus is helpful for understanding the Bible. It is God's Word, YES! (thanks be to God!) but it is also a fully human book. It was not God delivered from the sky. It was written by human hands (under God's inspiration). That fact makes it a bit trickier than the bumper sticker makes it look.

To use another analogy, from the old catechism of my youth:
Q. Who made me?
A. God made me.
Q. How did God make me?
A. Umm, well.  you see there is this thing.... O, just go home and ask your mom and dad
I made up that last part, but I hope you see the point. Did God make me or did my parent's sex act? It is not terribly difficult to say both, is it? What about the Bible? Who authored the Bible? GOD!!! How did God author the Bible? Through a very long, human shaped process that looks just like human authorship. How then do we read the Bible? With the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit!

Where to draw the line on the Bible? It is fully human, yet fully conveys God's word. Is it trustworthy even if there are discrepencies? I have based my life on it and I believe it!
And we make choices about one another because of our different views of the Bible.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Drawing the Line: Bible 1

I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I proclaim this belief out loud, almost every day, and I have professed this belief a myriad of times and in a wide variety of places. I am not embarassed by this and do not consider it to be simple-minded or deluded.

I live in (metro) Memphis. I came here in ninth grade. I was a Catholic boy in a Protestant ocean populated by lots of Baptists. There were also Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians and countless others. I was taught that Jesus died to save me. I was also taught to live right or I would end up in Hell. I was taught to pray every day and do good things for others. I was taught to go to church every Sunday and Holy Day. I was taught to obey the commandments. For the most part I bought into all of it and I tried relatively hard to do what I was supposed to do. Fortunately, I had confession available when I fell short. So there was hope.

In January, 1976, I made Cursillo. It was my "born again" experience. I went to a deeper level with Jesus and intensified my commitment to Him. I pondered faith more. I also began reading the Bible. The first book I ever read was James. I read Matthew alot. There was no bible study at my church. The typical Catholic church back then did not really do that. So I started a bible study with some friends. A bunch of nineteen year olds need guidance, which we did not have. Unfortunately we ended up in the law. I remember reading about men fighting, a woman reaching out and touching a man in his private place and the punishment. Needless to say, we all began giggling and laughing. (teen aged boys have limits!). We got clear real quick that we needed a guide. Our next effort was to listen to tapes on the bible. We got one on Revelation. It was a "Late, Great Planet Earth" reading of the Apocalypse and it was scarey and interesting. It helped me be clear that I did not want to be left behind with Anti-Christ.

For the next two years I read my bible and went to church. One day an old high school friend came by. He had been saved and wanted me to be saved, too. I was sort of happy to see him, but as we talked some of what he said confused me. I asked him where Baptists came from and he told me "John the Baptist." I asked him where Catholics came from and he said, "some drunk guy." (teen aged boys have limits!) This was not the first time I had heard anti-catholic sentiments, but it was the strongest expression of it I had ever encountered.

Over the years, my love affair with Scripture and my ecumenical nature ("can't we all get along?") have reshaped my Catholicism. I am considered quite Evangelical for a Catholic. I am told I preach like a Baptist. (I preached once at a funeral at Bellevue Baptist, a super big church in Memphis. Adrian Rogers, their pastor, was present. After the service he told me, "You are very bold.") On the other hand, in seminary, my Master's thesis was "A Catholic Response to Fundamentalism." I am not a literalist or a fundamentalist as many people use the term. My understanding of Scripture is more nuanced (and CONFUSING!).

When people read the bible today, they often read it like a modern work. I am not sure that is a good way to read the bible. My assumption is that the best way to read the bible is under the teaching authority of the church. Many of my friends believe that it is their role to interpret the scriptures for themselves. They reject any authority other than the bible and the Holy Spirit. There is an appeal to this latter view point, but as I have seen in our Episcopal church debates about issues like marriage, it seems that when a group of people sit down with the bible there is a wide diversity of "readings." One of my beloved parishioners who is left of center used to complain that I preached too much on obedience. I countered that obedience is a major theme of the bible. She did not buy that. One day I told her to read Titus and Timothy. She did. "Well," I said, smiling and assured that she now understood that true doctrine and obedience were part of the deal, "what did you read?" "Love," she replied, "all I saw was love." You will not  be surprised that some time later she wrote me a note saying that I made her sick and she was going to a church where they preached love.

This is a long introduction to the next area upon which I want to reflect. Where do we draw the line on our different readings of the bible? What about authority? What about interpretation? How do we determine issues of literal vs. figurative? When we say "do what the bible says" are we really all that clear on what the bible says? If we are so clear, why are there so many debates and arguments and endless denominations? In the post-Christian world these are vital questions. Many have wandered from the faith and not all of them are progressives and Catholics. There is a crisis of faith in the church.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Drawing the Line: Marriage 2

(There is so much emotion involved in this issue it is almost impossible to talk about.)

In Christian morals we are taught that we are to love God and love our neighbor. In current culture, love is a feeling. "Love is a feeling" leads to the assumption that more intense feelings are more sincere forms of love. So to "lose that loving feeling" is to stop love. The biblical model for love (and this is way simplified) is more connected to the will and to action. When we love our enemy it does not mean that we are suddenly swept away with 'warm bubblies' for them. Love is the decision to seek the best for another, to treat them as I would want to be treated. Love is also associated with obedience in the Bible. To love God is to obey God.

Why is obedience so hard? Because we have not ordered our desires according to God's desires. The word Original Sin is helpful here. When someone is living right, their desires are in right order. Right order means that we desire the right thing, in the right amount, in the right way. Right order also means that we choose to do things which are right. Hence, sin comes from "disordered appetites." In other words, we strongly desire to do things which we are not supposed to do.

Years ago, when I engaged in regular discussions/debates about this issue, I once had someone write to me "you are saying there is something wrong with me." I was struck dumb. I never, ever doubted that there is something seriously wrong with everyone. EVERYONE. In discussion, it was clear that this young man did not believe that. An analogy. I wear glasses. I started neeeding glasses as a young child, around fourth grade. I did not know I needed glasses. The way I saw the world was the only way I had seen it. When I got my glasses, I literally walked down the street in awe of  the world. I was especially amazed at trees. You could see each leaf. It felt like a miracle. By extension, I live in a world where my perception is affected by my "vision." Each of us, every one of us, all of us are morally flawed. We have desires which are not 'right' and we engage in actions which are not 'right.' The teaching of the church is God's gift to people who do not see clearly. Without my glasses I can honestly argue about how I see things, but only a fool would trust me to drive a car. It is not my fault that I cannot see better. It is not a choice. It is certainly not fair. It is wrong that other children made fun of me, including my own siblings ("four eyes!"). It is not fair that my glasses fog up when I enter a room in the winter, or that rain blurs my vision because the glass gets drops on it. It is however, the way things are. And there are much worse things to be in America than visually challenged.

So why stay in the Episcopal church? Well, mainly because it is good preparation for what is coming. Society is changing. I have many friends who tell me how sweet it is to be in a church where this issue is not a problem. As I see it, there is increasing push to make it criminal to not accept gay marriage. Not sure any church is safe. Looking at recent trends it is pretty unnerving. Church-going progressives are much easier than secular progressives. I also think I have a duty to stand for the truth. I am doing that. But the truth is so-called conservatives have had sex out of marriage, have divorced and have had marriages where they prevented the conception of children. Jesus said it is what is in your heart: Lord have mercy! Does anyone feel confidant that their hearts are clean? Sometimes there is gay bashing going on and some of it is because Conservatives are unwilling to face their own sin. I never hear about churches taking a stand against gluttony and obesity. I never hear about churches telling unrepentant gossips that they cannot use the church facility or receive communion. I never hear about "covet" detectors checking out the congregation for people who are greedy to have someone else's car or home or job. Fact is, there is some truth to the charge that the position we espouse is in some cases fueled as much by unease about gays as by theology.

On the other hand, Progressives always pull a bate and switch. They talk about love, as if the traditional position outlaws love between two men or two women. We are talking about sex acts. Two men who love each other passionately, EXCELLENT! Two men having sex together, sorry, misses the mark. Human body design is pretty clear. (Unless you totally disconnect sex and procreation which is not Christian) To destroy the institution of marriage in order to make that possible is SIN. And someone who says this is not necessarilly homophobic. In fact, most people I know are not homophobic. Many of them have gay children. They have gay friends. They just are compelled to not ignore God's word because of those relationships/feelings.

I think this debate will end badly for people like me. In the name of "inclusion and love" folks like me will be denied access to a living in many places. We will be accussed of hate crimes. We will be ostracized. It is what happens in revolutions. Fact is, it is already happening and with greater frequency. The ruling class is accused of oppression and the reform government takes over. A few years later, a new ruling class imposes its will on people. Based on the Epsicopal church, progressives are not nicer people, they are as vicious and cruel and unfair as conservatives. They deny that which makes them even more dangerous.

The horror in all this is church history reveals that when believing Christians are in charge there is oppression, unfairness and abuse of power. However, when the society is governed by other values, which are inherently non-Christian, it becomes a nightmare. The law of unintended consequences cannot be escaped. Neither can this issue. No matter where you go to church and who you have fellowship with, there are sinners there. Each of us must make a decison which sinners we are willing to worship alongside. Each of us must determine where God would have us do this. In the end, God is our only hope. He will judge. He will save. Tomorrow on to other issues!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Drawing the Line: Marriage 1

Okay, I will start with the most volatile and explosvie topic first. I have no control over you, dear reader, but I would appreciate you actually reading what I say before you respond. Peace on us all from Jesus.

When asked, "Do you believe homosexuals should be allowed to marry?," my response has always been, "yes, I thought they were not interested in marriage." What does that mean?

Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman before God. By definition, homosexuals are not interested in this sort of covenant with someone of the opposite sex. Therefore, they are not interested in marriage. I do not say this out of judgment or hate. It is a definition of terms. The word marriage has a meaning content. Man and woman together are the content.

What then of blessing same sex unions? My response is I am not authorized (by God) to do such a thing. What is the basis for saying this? The Scriptures are pretty clear. Some argue that the Scriptures are not clear at all (Church teaching is not all confused in this reading of scripture). Some argue the Scriptures are outdated or in error (which leaves authoritybeing the contemporary world view which is clearly not inerrant, and up to date changes every six months?). Some say that God is love and so could never be disappointed when people are in love (which raises all sorts of problems: start with the concept of fornication, move to adultery, then consider incest).

In many churches today, the discussions about this question has led to the formulation of new liturgies. It is a done deal. People advocating them sometimes sound very humble, but in the end they are implementing the services. Right now we are told that they are optional. The church powers will put up with those of us not willing to go along. They say our church in "a big tent" and we can "include" different opinions. At some point, the plan is to force it. So it is tempting to get angry and fight. It is tempting to name call and project any number of negative thoughts on those with whom I disagree. I have succombed to the temptation on many occassions. It is hard to be nice and respectful in emotionally charged fights. It is difficult to go into combat yet love your neighbor as yourself.

On the other hand, I have had a history which makes this theological issue a challenge for me personally. In my high school work I have counseled with young people who thought they were homosexual. I have seen several who have self-identified as such. These are people who are precious to me. In addition, some high school friends have reappeared in my life (Facebook). Some of them are also self identified in this way. This is a personal issue. My nature is to "live and let live" so I wonder, can't we just let this one slide? There was a time when I intervened to stop a "gay bashing" incidents at school. I did it because it is wrong to harm someone because they are different. I have intervened with a parent to love his gay son, because it is his son. There are other memories which I shall not share, but they are all real events and real people.

At our diocese's recent convention a lesbian shared her journey with us. I was impressed by her courage. I think it was really hard for her. I sent her a message to express that to her. My reputation in the GLBT community of our church is probably not positive. I think people were shocked that I could be so "gracious." Yet, part of the reason I could see her unease was because I felt my own. I am terribly uncomfortable with the direction our local church is going. I know that in the days ahead it will get worse. I know that failing to support "gay marriage" is equated with the Taliban in the minds of many Progressives. Being kind to this woman does not change any of that.

So where to draw the line? Do I simply say she is going to hell, when I cannot simply believe that? On the other hand, do I deserve to be under threat because I would not be willing to bless her relationship? Is having compassion for another human being what Jesus called us to? Can I share the truth with others and yet be in relationship with them when we disagree? Enough for today. I think these are hard questions. Tomorrow I want to wrap up this issue and move on.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Drawing the Line 2

Today's reflections are probably more foundational than anything. They are more descriptive than prescriptive. I think it is worth sharing though, because many of our troubles in the church have to do with category errors. What I mean by that is there are people who think that truth is a function of democratic processes. If enough people agree with me, I can mistakenly think that I am right. Voting rights are good but elections are always flawed.

Some folks do not go to church because they do not like church conflict. I do not like them either, but we live in a world full of conflict and disagreement. The idea that churches should be exempt from human struggles is naive, though understandable. Having said that, I would add that many church conflicts are also non-productive. There are times when we create major battles over minor issues. So, where to you draw the line? How do you know when it is time to let go and back off? How can you be sure when it is time to engage enthusiastically and really stand for what you believe?

For me, I try to keep straight the three areas in church life. First, there is theology. This has to do with the doctrine, or teaching, of the church. I think that this area is foundational. Second, there is pastoral care, which is the realm of ministry and taking care of real people in real situations.  Lastly, there is politics. This is the least attractive realm because it is the place where power is seen (and abused) in its most naked form. Politics is often the realm of bitter fights because it has the most practical impact (most of the time).

Theology is subtle. You rarely find theological positions which have no truth. Theology is often times a reflection on the unprovable. I do not argue with anyone about theories of inspiration. In the end, I listen to what they think, ponder it, and take what makes sense to me. I am not saying inspiration is not important. It is VERY important. Yet the best of friends can debate theology 24/7 and remain friends because each knows they may be wrong.

Pastoral care is tricky. Ideals are part of the picture, but many times we are not in ideal situations. How did Jesus deal with sinners? What is a pastor to do when leading a church where fully 100% of the members are sinners? Which sinners are welcome and which are cast out? One answer, 'the repentant' are welcome raises a corollary. Who is truly repentant and who isn't? How repentant do you have to be? 100%, 70%, 51% And how does one measure the degree of repentance? If you have ever vowed not to do something and done again (and again), then, like me, you know that repentance may be an ongoing struggle.

One pastoral solution is to see the difference between the private and public forum. There are things people may do in private which are scandalous in public. For the most part, I think, churches do best when they focus on public scandal. Otherwise, you have to create some sort of "police" who investigate everyone to see what their secrets are. Having said that, it is probably an error to call public sins an act of integrity. It may be hypocritical, but I still think it is better for someone to teach children correct morality and secretly break the rules. This is not the optimum, but we are talking about failure here.

The worst part of church is politics. In the Episcopal church we do the politics in a big way: conventions. For years different groups have found ways to "get things done" which may or may not reflect the desires of the people (or the Lord). Most people are not engaged in those processes. The people who are, run the show. Line drawing is impacted by this as well. What do you do when you see the majority taking a stand for something which you are very sure is wrong? Do you stand and fight or do you back away? Having fought and lost, is the only option to move on? If you do move, with whom do you align? If you stay, how do you do so faithfully?

 I am close to sharing some very personal struggles here, which I will do in the days ahead. I share them in the hope that it is of value to others who find themselves struggling on the Journey of Faith.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tsunami and Ash Wednesday: Context for discussion

I intend to continue reflecting on "where to draw the line" in the days ahead. It is tricky business and my mind is literally racing in a wide variety of directions. The issues with which we wrestle in the church are literally about life and death. Wars have been fought and many died in the past over religious differences. Today churches are torn apart, families divided and friendships ended over the debates. I am reminded of Jesus' words (paraphrased) "I have come to bring division, not peace"  I pray any division generated here comes from Jesus and not me. I pray for salvation, reconciliation and healing in His cross.

All these discussions about our debates need to be in a context. Last week I talked with a priest-friend in Nashville. He reminded me of something I said years ago (as we stood together for the faith). "Some day awful things will happen which will make us forget about our church debates, and miss them as 'the good old days' in comparison." I do believe that still.

Yesterday, like many of you, I saw the video of the Tsunami and earthquake in Japan. The overhead video of the water, choked with floating cars and debris (much of it pieces of shattered houses) was too much to take in. Miles of cities and towns were just washed away. Gone. Today the survivors are living in the horror of the aftermath. The physical and psychological scars will never be healed for many of them. I pictured myself living there. Somehow debates on eucharist or marriage would feel insignificant in the face of such devastating loss and suffering. That is why feelings are not enough.

On Ash Wednesday we spoke of death. We told each person, one at a time, you will die. I shared that I choked up several times as I did this sacred act with word and sign. Memories of the personal losses my parishioners had suffered were stirred up and whispered "death" in my soul. The next day, this global loss screamed in our ears, "DEATH!" It is Ash Wednesday writ large: Death.

One of the debate points of the other side (from mine) is that in the face of all the suffering in the world, shouldn't we focus our church's energies and attention on serving those who are broken by "Death" in its many forms? Can we imagine the Japanese victims of the Tsunami or grieving widows and orphans really want to debate the fine points of theology? The answer, of course, is no. People who watched their entire village swept clean of everything familiar, people sleeping in tents, hungry and cold and heart broken would probably not want to discuss the issues which tear our church apart. But I don't see the advocates of the "new theology" dropping their push to innovate. Seems to me that the "aren't there more important things" argument is a smoke screen. It is an effort to make us stand down so that they can replace the faith of the saints with half truths and falsehoods. I for one am not falling for it. Hiding behind human suffering and tragedy to do such things is wrong.

I do not live in Japan. I live in Collierville. In a little while my family will leave here for a baseball tournament. Across the world most of us will live our lives. Japan is far away. We have experienced sadnes and  said our prayers. We have made our contributions and we are living our lives. Two things about that. First, I was struck by the number of home videos of the earthquake shown on the news. If it wasn't so sad it would be comical that in the midst of buildings shaking apart and collapsing roofs, so many Japanses people decided make videos rather than seek cover. Amazing. So people are still people, even in the midst of all the horrors. And second, I am just like them. In the face of trauma, I still am me. I mourn losses, weep and move on. Today my parents will miss my son's games, again. They never watched him play. Mom never even saw him, she died years before he was born. Dad died when Luke was a toddler. I can still recall Luke tapping my dad's dead body saying, "bampa, bampa." That was years ago. The pain, though real, is abated.

The world I live in right now has plenty of room to discuss and debate theological issues. These issues, I said to begin with, are life and death issues. Not just wars. Not just relationships. Life and death issues of eternity. Life and death issues in the Kingdom of God. Should we discuss and debate them? Yes. That is one line I have drawn on my journey of faith.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Drawing the Line 1

We are studying First Maccabees in my Thursday Bible study. Now some people reading this are saying, "BUT THAT IS NOT SCRIPTURE!!!!"

It is scripture for Roman Catholics. It isn't for Protestants. As for me (an Episcopal priest with a very catholic theology) and my household, well, that is the question.

I have been leading a bible study on OT ever since I did the Apocalypse a few years back. As we studied that mysterious document, also called the Book of Revelation, I was stunned by the amount of OT quotation, imagery and allusion. I told my class that I viewed the Apocalypse as similar to one of those letters where the person cuts out words from a magazine and pastes them on paper to string together his sentences. This constant use of the OT made me realize how much I did not know about the OT, so we have studied it ever since.

I justify reading Maccabees because of its historical importance for understanding Jesus' times. (Imagine studying American history with a gap between the Civil War and WW I.) Yet, even so, there remains a question in the back of my mind....

After class a woman (Presbyterian) talked with me about some issues. She is a very well read and thoughtful person. Like me, she is very distressed with the new movements in the church (termed "modernist," "liberal," "progressive," or "re-appraisser"). Like me, she has also seen things on the other side which appear too extreme.  We talked about the question, "where do you draw the line?"

I do not know if God inspired Maccabees. I do know there are any number of people who are frothing at the mouth and ready to denounce me for reading it and for claiming/not claiming it is scripture. Then there are so many more who would call it all superstitious garbage. Finally, there is that wonderful group who ask, "Does it matter?"

Well, if God revealed this text, it matters. And if God did not reveal the text, that matters. And if the whole Christian enterprise is of God, that matters. If instead it is garbage, that matters. So this suddenly becomes a big question. How is one to read this (biblical?) text which shares so much in common with similar books found in the OT (e.g. Joshua, Judges, Nehemiah)?

Exercising some degree of openness and humility, I personally read it as part of the Catholic bible. It is, therefore, truly scripture for me. Reading it as a priest in the Episcopal church, I can make no claims that it is Scripture, it is part of the apocrypha in our biblical canon. I think I have made a compromise on this. Which leads to the question I will ponder in days ahead. When is a compromise an act of humble love? When is a compromise a dirty sell out of all that is true and holy?

I have long been torn apart inside by competing desires. No, desire is too weak a word, by competing drives, almost compulsions. I like people and I love community. In my high school I was voted "most school spirited" and "most wittiest." I had to choose one for the year book so I went with funny, but I was proud my peers thought I was both. I like my organization to do well, so I work to support it. I love to bring people together and make them laugh. I still try that, even in homilies on Sunday. So, on the one hand, I have an overpowering desire to gather in fellowship with others in a way that is warm, connected and fun.

On the other hand, I want to  have integrity. I am, by nature, a person who wants to avoid conflict. I am also, by nature, a person who wants to do the right thing. I sometimes wonder about my faith and I often question what I believe, but I usually try to live authentically the faith and beliefs of the Christian church. So when I confront someone teaching "a different gospel" (which is no gospel at all) I get stirred up. When someone teaches heresy, I speak out against it. When someone denies a core truth of the Christian faith, I point it out, sometimes too emphatically. Or so I am told. But I wonder..... Should Jeremiah have turned it down a notch? Should Paul have kept his mouth shut? Did Jesus blow it by being too inflexible and speaking out so boldly? (NO!!!!)

Yet in the midst of these battles within and without the church, I ponder this: What does it mean that my closest allies deny books of the Scripture, reject some of the sacraments and disagree with me on any number of issues which are also important if Truth matters. Where, I wonder, does one draw the line?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Big Boys Don't Cry

A coule of days ago I heard reports that the Miami Heat basketball team lost another game. I am not a big NBA fan, but I was well aware of the James-Wade-Bosh decision to form a super team last summer. I thought that Cleveland deserved better treatment, but also understand why players would make the decision which they did.  Lately, the super team has fallen on hard times and the coach reported after another tough loss that "there were guys crying in the locker room." This was fodder on numerous sports talk shows the next day and I ran across the story several times. Some of the talk conveyed the assumption that crying was not manly.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The major theme of the day is repentance. It is also the beginning of Lent, a season of preparation for Holy Week, culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. There is a close connection between this day and the cross of Jesus for me. I tend to jump from A to Z in my thought processes, so last night on the altar I was transported to April anticipating the emotional service from Good Friday. As I did, I felt a surge of deep emotion. My eyes teared up. Again. You see, I am one of those men who do cry...

Ash Wednesday is a long day. I got to church at 5:40 am, so the 7:00pm eucharist is at the end of a long day. During the day we got word that the priest with whom I had worked for my first eight years at St. Andrews had fallen and suffered head trauma. Fr. John is 84 and has grieved the loss of his wife for many years. A couple of minor strokes and the ravages of age have forced him to give up the church work and driving. He makes it clear that he is ready to join his wife. He is asking God to take him home. So even though he wants to die, I found myself choking up when I talked with his family. I was pretty emotional and know I would cry if I talked about it. It is embarassing to cry in public. I know. I have done it so very many times.

In reading Genesis, I was struck by how often Joseph cries. I think it is like four or five times. In bible study class we read that Elisha the prophet wept when he spoke with a general of Aram because he knew what horrors that man would visit on Israel. I also know that Jesus wept over Jerusalem and wept before the tomb of Lazarus.

What is cryng? Why do we have water come out of our eyes and make strange noises when we are sad? How is it that some people find themselves choking up constantly (me) while others seem able to walk through life composed?

When I preach about the love or mercy of God I choke up. When I speak about Jesus and His call to saving relationship with us I choke up. But sitting here writing this I am not emotionally moved. It is odd to me. I wonder what is going on. I have heard that "the gift of tears" is a movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I hope that is true. I know tears are also a natural phenomena, witness the basketball reference above. I know big boys do cry, I have seen many athletes, soldiers and other manly men weep. I also know that it is something with which most men are uncomfortable. That said, I am pretty sure that I will continue to choke up when I preach. I will cry when Fr. John, my friend, dies. I will cry at his funeral even though he wants to pass to the next stage. And I will marvel at this mystery of emotion and wrestle with it and try to figure out what our Father God is doing with all this crying. I just hope that the church continues to be a place where people can cry without shame when they have to. We cry for a reason and sometimes I think we need to. I think God designed us that way.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

These words, which I will utter repeatedly today while tracing a small cross with ashes on the forehead of a person kneeling before me, are pretty simple and straight forward. They are a reminder of mortality. However, they are also more.

In Genesis, one of the accounts of creation pictures God digging in the earth. The clay ground (adamah) is formed into a man (adam) into which God breathes His Spirit (ruah = breath, spirit, wind). It is a reminder that we are dependent beings. We are creatures, i.e., created. Our existence is real, but it is derived and it is not the basis of reality. It is very easy to imagine a world wherein you or I do not exist. In fact, history tells us that we are not needed. We are not necessary. God, on the other hand, is needed and is necessary for creation. Everything relies on Him.

The great rebellion on the part of man (and woman) is the decision to lay claim on God's status for ourselves. It is the desire to make God answerable to us, to judge God by our standards. Sin is the embrace of the illogical assertion that I can make my own way in the world and I can choose what I think it best. Sin is, therefore, arrogance.

We all do it. When we critique the world God made or question His commandments. When we seek what we desire and call it good, regardless of what we are told to the contrary. We all share this common state, whether believer or atheist, whether nominal Christian or committed. We all forget who we are and what we are.

Today, briefly, we are reminded. In the end, we are not so very important. We are born, we live, we die, we disappear into dust. We are destined to be dust again. A reminder which we must take to  heart.

So is that it? No. The reminder, that we are dust, is also a call, to wonder how dust can be animated and build skyscrapers, bake cakes, sing and dance and play ball. How can dust write novels, laugh at jokes and hold children? How can dust write blogs and create the internet? It is the breath, the breath of God, which animates us and makes us real. Real boys and girls. Real men and women. Dependent beings, yes, but dependent upon a God who is sustaining us each moment, even when we doubt His existence and criticize His every move.

So today we repent. We begin a season of repentance. A time to deny ourselves, to grow in faith and love. A time to discipline our desires and focus more intently on the Lord and His ways. Lent is a gift from God to His church, a church full of dust men and dust women. A church full of rebelious citizens of His kingdom. Yet, also a church full of His beloved children gifted to bless and be blessed. WE are dust, we shall return to dust, but we are also so much more. Our final destiny, after the grave, is GLORY!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lord's Prayer

A couple of days ago, I shared that at our convention, a version of the Lord's Prayer was used with which I had some concerns. However, I also shared that the familiar version we use in our church has its own issues. Raymond Brown wrote an article on the prayer, which I am unable to find. I will share what I do know, you can research more if it interests you.

There are three versions of the Lord's prayer found in ancient literature: Mathew 6:9ff and a shorter version in Luke 11:2ff are the ones we know best. Although I think most Christians are unaware of Luke's version being different. A third one, found in the Didache, is unknown to most everyone. The Didache (or Teaching of the Twelves Apostles) is an ancient text which outlines "the way" of Christian life, including ethics and worship. Arguments about dates go from around the time of Paul all the way to 150. It is an interesting read.

One thing I noted years ago was all three versions had some slight modifications. Apparently, there was not an effort to create 'in stone" one authentic version. This may be because of Jesus, or it could be inadvertant, or maybe the church intentionally made edits. I do not know why, but I do know that the differences exist. Having said that, the differences are not such that the prayer is not recognizable as the same prayer. What this means, to me, is that the Lord's Prayer is both a prayer to be said and a model for prayers which we create. However, Brown has led me to understand it in a different way than I grew up believing.

Obviously, calling God "Father" is to share in Jesus' understanding of God. It is a privileged place. Many of the blogs I read from young, struggling Christians seem to be generated by the disconnect between life as we live it and the idea that God is a loving Father. I think that, if we take Jesus seriously, we see a man who struggles in a hostile world, yet believes in His Father. Jesus seems to see His mission as combat, a battle with people, institutions and demonic entities which produce great suffering. Jesus also seemed willing to submit to torture and death as the means of victory. MYSTERY!

Brown points out that the verbs in the Lord's prayer are in a Greek tense which indicates a "once and for all" action (aortist tense). In other words, it is not the tense of ongoing actions. It is definitve. He says that this prayer of Jesus is asking God to end the world as we know it and establish His Kingdom as He promised. I like that.

"Hallowed be thy name" is passive voice. I always thought it meant we should treat God's name as holy. In the Bible, passive voice implies Divine action. Remember, the Jewish awe of God's Holy Name led them to avoid using it. So, for example, in Matthew, the Kingdom of God is called the Kingdom of Heaven. Brown says that this is actually a request for God to make His own name holy, i.e., glorify your name. This is a short hand way of saying "establish your kingdom." The next two verses are quite overt: "Thy kingdom come" and "Thy will be done" mean just that. However, it means "NOW." This insight has changed my prayer. The tension I feel in my life, those experiences of sin, evil and 'the absence of God' are real. We do live in a 'not yet' time. Praying this prayer means asking God to estblish His kingdom.

"Give (once and for all) the bread ??" There is much discussion about what exactly the Greek word means which we transalte "daily." Brown makes a good case that it literally means the bread of tomorrow, i.e., the bread of the great Messianic feast. In other words, establish the kingdom and feed us at the great table! The number of parables which Jesus preached about tables seems to reinforce this idea.

We pray "forgive us our trespasses" in my church. Matthew and Didache have "debts" while Luke has "sins" and then "debts." I like debts better than trespasses, for the simple reason that my debts to God are not simply sins. I also have the debt of all I have received from God. Every blessing is a gift. To forgive a debt is to not demand it be paid back. Once more, this is a common theme of Jesus' parables. At the final judgment, it is our prayer that God will write off all our debts, everything we owe. This is forgiveness of sins, but it is so much more!

The Greek word for 'temptation' is the same word for 'test.' It can mean either. In the last days, Jesus says, it will be so severe that no one would survive without God's grace. I think Jesus is reminding us that as we pray for the Kingdom to come, we are also in need of protection in the time of great testing. Deliver us from "evil" can also be translated from "the evil one." I think there is a great battle and Jesus told Peter to pray because Satan intended to sift him. So it is true of us. Satan is real and he is dangerous.

So when I pray, by myself, I often times make a conscious decision to ask God to establish His kingdom and protect us. I beg Him to bring us to the table of the wedding feast. I use different terms and images, but all are focused on God, the King, coming to the world, once and for all, and setting things right. Because of the struggles I see around me, it is easy to make such a prayer. God is not (fully) reigning right now. This is why it is hard for us to believe. Yet, He is coming. Perhaps when enough of us pray for the kingdom to come He will come? I do not know. I do know Jesus told us to pray for it. So I do.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dogs and Wolves

I preached on 2 Peter today. It is an amazing letter because it really confronts two primary issues with which we are dealing today: unbelief outside the church and false teaching inside the church. The critiques of Christian faith have really not changed much at all over two thousand years. A great deal of the "new" atheism is extremely old! Much of the "innovative" thought generated by today's "progressive thinkers" in the church is actually a rehash of the old heresies.

My starting place, however, was a core understanding of the human condition. I used dogs as an analogy. I am not a biologist and I am no expert on dogs, but I have read some articles, watched some educational tv and spent many hours with watching Caesar the dog whisperer. (All I lack is spending the night at a Holiday Inn Express!) I know that dogs are descended from wolves. I also know that dogs have a remarkable openness to breeding which quickly produces new types of dogs in a relatively short time. One example is the British bull dog, the stout and stubby creature we know was longer and sleaker not so long ago.

My understanding is that wolves mutated into wild dogs long ago. The animals lived close to human communities and were scavengers. Over time some were more interactive with humans. Humans learned to breed certain traits. So now we have poodles, German shepherds and pugs. Amazing.

Dog are apparently attentive to humans in ways that wolves are not. This quality of being humanized leads to the bonds celebrated in literature and film. There is a reason dogs are called "Man's Best Friend" rather than canaries or hamsters. Dogs learn to control their waste expulsion process. Dogs learn to provide help in tasks such as herding sheep or sniffing out drugs.

Like dogs, humans also must learn through relationships with other humans. A baby requires extensive nurturing and training throughout life in order to acquire language, social skills and hygiene. We are born with potential, but we also have a ticking clock. There is a point where it can be too late to ever learn some things. I think that is true of spirituality as well. As I said in my sermon, we all have the potential to be a "wolf man." In our faith life, we realize our potential to be Caleb. Caleb was a friend of Joshua. The word Caleb means dog. Humans, like dogs, must grow out of our natural impulses and desires. Our full potential is to be children of God. 2 Peter calls it a share in the divine nature.

Dogs share in our nature, and it frees them from some of the limitations of wolves. Dogs behave in ways that are like humans. It is a dim immitation, but you understand what i mean. Wild dogs just do not conform to our standards in the same way. Likewise, you and I are in a long process of learning how to be fully human and open to God's life. It is a struggle. We sometimes pull against the chain and want to run wild. God does not hold us so tightly and gives us freedom to make choices. When we observe the proverbial "train wreck" so many of us make of our lives it is clear that following our nature is not always helpful. I struggle with trying to figure out what a Christlike life should look like. So often I fear I am falling so far short. Yet, I find hope and joy in knowing that dogs are such a wonderful model for understanding human life. I can see the truth about them and ponder the truth about me and you. Our destiny is to transcend who we are today and to become one with God. Day by day, praying, studying scripture, loving and serving others conforms us to God. We pick up divine traits and share a bit more in the divine nature. That is even more amazing than a Great Dane!