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Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Friday and Saturday we had our Vestry retreat. I sort of led the time together. My goal was to identify concrete and actionable goals. I think we were able to accomplish that. Like New Year's resolutions, our church goals seem to be the same every year. One recurring one, at least since 2007 has been to increase church attendance. An associated desire is to "get more young families." So at announcements I told the parish that we had a plan to improve attendance, "We have hired to highly trained assassins who will hunt down and torture anyone who misses mass!" Everyone chuckled and then I added, "I am just kidding... they aren't highly trained." I then transitioned into the real plan, which is to find ways to invite people into more serious commitment to the Lord and His church.

The reality is, if our members took church attendance seriously we would be seeing lots more of our young families and our pews would be filled each week at all the services. If our relationship with God is a matter of (eternal) life and death and if Sunday worship is a constitutive part of that and if skipping out each week is (a partial) rejection of our Christian identity, then we shouldn't need assassins to motivate folks. God would be enough.

Sunday's Gospel (I did not preach) was a story about Jesus in a synagogue. Mark uses it as a way to kick off Jesus' ministry. We are told that Jesus taught as one who had authority. At some point a man stood up and shouted, "What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?" What indeed... There are many things which strike me about this section, but two jump out.

1. What is a demon? Reading commentaries one gets the distinct impression that most contemporary scholars are uncomfortable with the concept. Some think that the belief in demons is pre-scientific. So the demonic is actually considered to be a term covering a host of other things, mental illness being a major one, but also including the powers at work (think of peer pressure or societal impact) among us. The demonic in this sense refers to any 'forces' which do damage to humans. The problem is, at least for me, it is not easy to translate social/economic/emotional forces into the personalized nature of demonic possession as expressed in the New Testament.

I do think that there are spiritual entities who inhabit a realm not easily discerned. Terms like angels and demons are helpful because they give substance to what is not materially substantial. How exactly these entities work, how they can impact the material world, why they are given freedom to do this---is not totally clear. It falls under the heading of "Mystery" and awaits a future explanation.

How does mental illness (in mild forms like we all experience it from time to time or in the more destructive cases which literally destroy some folks) and the demonic co-exist. Are demons causal agents? How does modern science factor in? Do we call in an exorcist for depression or dementia? Do we claim medicine alone cures and ignore other realms? Certainly, we know this is all much more complex than a blog can address. In the end, I prefer to recognize that humans are in many systems. We engage our world at many levels: atomic, chemical, organic, psychological, social, emotional, congnitive and, yes, spiritual. Our cultural beliefs, our sex and age, our moods and our physical health (and etc.) are all factors in how we deal with germs and problems. Our spiritual health and the presence of demons is also a factor. Are demons part of physical and emotional illness? Why not?

2. The second point of reflection is less speculative and mysteerious. The demoniac, whatever he was, was in the gathered assembly. The word synagogue and church were interchangeable at this point. It wasn't until later that they took on specifically Jewish vs. Christian connotations. For me, it is stunning to think that a possessed man was participating in the Jewish service. It seems to mean that, perhaps, our own churches (even pulpits!) can be filled with people who are 'owned' by the "other side." Contemporary reworks of the understanding of the demonic certainly would have room for that idea. It is a stern reminder that this side of glory we are in the midst of challenges. No one is totally safe and free. Perhaps it is fair to say that one reason for lagging church attendance is that people have been seduced by the demonic. Maybe the (good) things which take up so much of our time and energy are being processed through (evil) forces which twist and pervert them (and us). Maybe we are not totally safe yet. A good reason to show up for church and pray for deliverance. A great reason to turn to Jesus!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Jonah and God Changed His Mind (2)

Are Christmas and Good Friday special cases of how God normally works in the universe or exceptions to the rule?

Often times we act like the Incarnation is a one and one time only event. We deal with it in a way that it is so unique as to almost be considered 'out of character' for God. Much of that has to do with our efforts to defend Christianity's (and Jesus Christ's) unique status. One wants to make clear that Jesus is the One and Only. But what if we are missing out on the wider truth, that the Incarnation is, in fact, the most perfect and beautiful example of God's ongoing and regular mode of dealing with His creation?

Ancient Israel is replete with stories of God's visitation. Sometimes personally (cf. Abraham or Moses) and sometimes for the community (cf Exodus, Joshua). God is manifest in our midst in a variety of ways, fire being one, but also in human form (the angelic visitors to Abraham). The texts do not clearly differentiate between angels and God when they do. We also know that "the Word of God" seems to have a substantial existence. We are told it does things, like come, and it impacts the Prophets. The presence of God's Word within the prophet (or at other times the Spirit) is certainly on the border line of incarnation. After all, it is God speaking in our language. It is God limiting Himself to the constraints of spoken words.

Mystics encounter God in and through the world around us. God interacts with the human mind and human heart. God breathes His life into us. God is associated with the cult, the King, the prophet, the people, etc. He forms partnerships with individuals and also with the entire People of Israel (you will be my people and I will be your God). The depth and intensity of this particular relationship is most resoundingly expressed in the marriage covenant and Father-daughter language we hear time and again in the Scripture.

There is something about creation which is open to God's presence in our midst. In fact, one might say that the ontology is sacramental, that the actual existing world is intended to serve as a vehicle, in which and through which, the invisible God is manifest. That He can be seen, touched and encountered in the stuff of every day life. In particular, this is true of humans who are the most complete image and likeness of God.

With that in mind, the incarnation of Jesus, God become Man, is in fact consistent with how God has acted throughout time and in space.

It is that willingness of God to empty Himself which makes the Cross possible. In renouncing His power to control, and in investing Himself in relationship to His creation, God, in some real sense, has madeit possible to be rejected, and even, hurt. The book of Genesis says that we broke God's heart. Surely one must be careful to not overstate the case of divine passion. Surely. Yet, is it not equally dangerous to ignore such a thing entirely. To pretend like God is above it all, when perhaps, He has chosen to enter in our midst. Maybe the Cross of Jesus is, rather than an outlier, the symbol of all God has done since He made us. Perhaps, in embracing us, He has also embraced limitation and loss. If such is the case, and it seems to be [once again, as God encounters us in the dimension of time and space] then perhaps it may also be the case that God has not only relinquished (some) control, but that He also has partnered with us and has placed a great deal more into our hands than we are prepared to think.

Of course, when one is talking about the infinite God, it is important to remember , there is always much more to the story. Even so, this angle seems to me, to be Scriptural and worthy of thought.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jonah & God changed His mind 1

Sunday I preached on Jonah. The reading included the line God changed His mind about wiping out the Assyrian city. I preached on the Hebrwe word (which means: repentance, regret, change mind, etc.) and asked what the Bible is telling us about God. This is something I have written on before and it is something that I wrestled with in my conversations with an atheist some weeks ago.

The point I made was that most Christians are so tied up thinking about the whale (and arguing) that they never really look at the point of the story. In surveying commentaries and websites I was struck by two things. No one addressed God changing His mind. However, many writers made 'historicity' the primary focus of their discussion. Let me be clear, I really get the whole obsession with "did it really happen?" In an age where so much aggressive agnostic/atheistic attacks are taking place, doubts are rampant among Believers and so we need a foundation. However, we create our own problems, sometimes, when we end up defending things which we do not need to defend. Saying that Jonah is history, rather than a parable, is not more faithful. It is not holier or more courageous or more dedicated to God. In fact, it misses the point. The Truth is in every generation countless 'prophets' have neglected the call and countless 'undeserving' folks have repented. It happens over and again. Those of us with TVs know that fictional shows constantly tell stories that are 'not' historical yet reflect what happens time and time again.

Whether Jonah is fact or fiction, it is also literature. And the question before us is "what does this piece of literature tell us about God?" Therefore, what does it mean that Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth, The Unseen, Perfect, All-Knowing, source of all that is can change His mind?

In Ancient Greece there were two sets of stories about God/gods. One was told by philosophers. They reflected logically, parsed the meaning of words, pondered what this means as applied to God. To this day even Christians who reject philosophy are impacted by the thoughts of these ancient people. They set the preconceptions with which we approach the text and inform how we read and understand. The work the philosophers did is often very dry and technical and can be more than we can handle intellectually.

The second set of stories is the Greek myths. These stories are filled with all manner of characters, interesting situations, foibles, heroism, all manner of evil and even some virtue. Early Christian apologists often attacked paganism because the religious myths were filled with such things. In any case, narratives about the gods were terribly different from philosophical reflections about God.

The point being, when we talk about God we end up employing two different modes of communication. The philosophical approach is filled with questions of being (ontology). It seeks to address the essence of Who God is. The story/myth approach reflects on questions of activity. It answers every day questions about gods in the world. The Jewish/Christian corrects the errors of tha Greek myths, even while acknowledging that once God enters human time and space something seems different.

The Judaeo-Christian Bible is not intended to be either philosophy or myth. Even so, there are still some parallels. Stories of God use human language to convey the unconveyable. So when we read "God changed His mind/repented" we need to ask what is being told to us. It is anthropomorphism, i.e., using human language to talk about God. The question remains, what does God changing His mind mean? My answer is Christmas (incarnation) and Good Friday (the Cross). I will flesh that out more tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I Hate Religion, but I love Jesus (Not)

There is a video on the internet which is getting alot of attention. It is a young man reading a poem where he shares his hatred of religion and love for Jesus. Having done youth ministry for many years, I am familiar with youthful enthusiasm. He is idealistic and much of what he says resonates. I mean who doesn't want to cheer when someone bashes religious wars or building churches and not feeding the poor? I also recognize a theme long found in some Christian circles which claim that Christianity is not a religion, which, of course, is true in a sense.

So why do I have "(Not)" in my title? Well, because I do not hate religion. I do not find it helpful to claim that religion is Man seeking God and Christianity is God seeking Man. I think it is simplistic to bash the creation of churches (which actually paid for laborers to work, creating income to feed people). There is something to be said for beauty. Though I am aware of Jesus' words about the Temple....

One value of religion is it provides us with source material. Theology creates conflict, no doubt. But conflict is part of the world situation. Currently in my town there are raging debates about consolidating Memphis schools with County schools. It is hot and angry debate, too. You know, sometimes people do not agree. So the silly statement that religion causes war is true and useless. So does farm land, wealth, access to transportation, different languagess, different clans and dozens of other things.

I have been told that I needed to hear this young man so I could understand. I heard him. He sounded like me, thirty years ago. When I was his age I thought old men were used up and passionless. I thought they had sold out and lost their way. I thought I was advocating and purer vision of the truth. Today, where I sit, things are more complex. Being faithful is more of a challenge. Loving folks more difficult. Easy answers actually solve very few problems. I find I have to trust more and suffer more, in new ways.

I love religion (not as much as I love Jesus). I love liturgy because God speaks in it and we speak to God in it. I love churches, they are concrete reminders that people of God gather here. [Question, where are needy people most likely to go seeking help, a bank, a grocery store or a church?] I love the words of sages and mystics from throughout the ages, people who have identified as Christians. I love knowing that even as we rely on God, He also calls us to seek [Jesus said, "He who seeks finds"] and that in seeking we are already found.

I have committed my youth to Jesus. It was a religious endeavor. Equating Jesus with religion is an error. Divorcing Jesus from religion is as well. As I enter my mature years I recognize that things are not always so clear cut. I see that there are different angles and various views of things. I know that definitions are needed to have conversation. Do I hate religion? Probably we need to define it first. My guess is, the definition already conveys what we are trying to say. Whatever else I know, loving Jesus is neither short nor pithy. And it is certainly, in the common meaning of the term, a religious enterprise.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Trivia and Gospel in our Midst

Saturday night our Church Women hosted a Trivia Night (the theme was hats). There were twelve tables of six people each. One of  the exciting aspects was the number of non-members who were present. It looked like a couple dozen. The event is so much fun and it is nice to see a group of folks together laughing and enjoying one another's company. It is an excellent way to bring people into a church community without intimidation. For some folks, the worship is too much and it keeps them away.

In the early church, when people wanted to join the church they were not allowed to stay for the second half (eucharist and communion). Instead they were only allowed to hear the Word, then they went off to study the Christian faith. Jesus said, "Do not throw your pearls before swine." At least some understand this to mean that do not push people before they are ready for the deeper levels of the mysteries. We do well to remember the Celtic method of evangelism. First interact with one another in a Christlike way, then talk about Jesus. It has more integrity and draws folks in more effectively.

The purpose of the event was to raise funds for our Outreach Ministries. This means that our fun was at someone else's benefit. People provided their own (simple) food and drink and the overhead was low. The profit margin, therefore, was excellent! In the days ahead we will pick the group(s) to send the money. I know the Lord blesses that.

Every contest has a winner and ours did as well. But in reality, the winners were all  the people who came, to laugh, to play, to enjoy. And the real winners are the agencies we support and the people they serve. We can never know how those dollars are translated into benefits to mind, body and spirit of other humans in need. It truly is a situation where everyone is a winner. Sort of like the Kingdom of God! Which brings me to the Gospel...

I conclude with the words of Jesus literally fulfilled in our midst. One table, all guests as it turned out, created awesome hats. However, they were not so good at answering the questions. After ten rounds, they were dead last. As is often the case, the last place team won an award. But it goes on, one of the women at their table won the best hat contest. She also won two raffles. She also won the 50/50 split. She was last but she walked away with a haul that definitely made her first. And as I looked at her I heard the words of Jesus, "the first are last, and the last are first." Her winning hat was sitting on my head this morning during announcements. The money raised to entice me to do that will benefit others who are "last." It is nice to see Jesus in our midst, especially when we are having fun. I hope our eyes are also open to see the hand of God at work and our ears are open to hear echoes of the words of Jesus!

Friday, January 20, 2012

It Happened Again

On Wednesday we have a Bible study which meets in the morning and evening. In that class we are studying the "historical books" (Jewish Bible calls it The Prophets, which includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and we began reading Ezra this month. In the early chapters, exiled Jews are returning from their exile per Cyrus' (and God's) decree.

Jerusalem had been leveled by the Babylonians seventy years before, so the first altar is constructed on a ruins. [I led a eucharist on a monastic ruins while on tour in England. It is quite moving.] Later in the chapter they lay the foundation for a new Temple. In exegeting the text we talked about the literal meaning, i.e., building. Afterwards, I did an excursus on the Church Father approach to the text (the deeper or Spiritual-Symbolic). "What," I asked, "is the true foundation of the Temple?" Obviously, it is God. So we discussed the Psalm (If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor) and then we talked about Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. She had asked Jesus about the true Temple (to avoid His probing into her messy personal life) and Jesus talked about worship in Spirit and Truth. As one reads interpenetrating Scriptures together, there is a broader and deeper insight into texts. It reminds us of our foundation and the foundation of real worship.

On Thursday we are studying 2 Esdras, a first century Jewish work in the Apocrypha. Probably, in light of the recent destruction of the (second) Temple in 70AD, the writer used Ezra as the "author" to draw parallels to their situation and the situation 500 years prior. [psedonyms were a very common practice at this time to lend authority to a text]   It is written with Ezra as the central figure, this time he is akin to the John of the Book of Revelation. Much of 2 Esdras is focused on Judgment and Suffering and the questions "why?," "what is the point?," and "what will happen in the future?" The chapter we looked at dealt with the state of the soul after death and his explanation is very much what most Christians seem to think will happen. In the course of discussion we got off on numerous tangents and at one point we talked about the Jewish/OT understanding of fatherhood. Abraham contains all of his descendents (in potentia) in his loins. I said that this appears in the Hebrews text concerning Abraham and Melchizedek. It is part of the argument to explain why Jesus is the New High Priest and supplants what took place before.

Today at Morning Prayer both the woman at the well and Hebrews on Abraham were the readings. Once more I am amazed how God works. It is a reminder that our regular study of Scripture must be supplemented by reading Scripture in worship. It also bears out the value of a lectionary. I sometimes struggle with the the silence of God. Perhaps, this is a reminder that God whispers, frequently, if we pay attention. I know the recurring pattern of connection between classes and lectionary is statistically unlikely. God does speak. We are challenged to avail ourselves to this communication and recognize it when it happens.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Combative Christianity

My last post was a stroll down memory lane and an amazing experience of God speaking to me. The theme (arrows, spears, armor of God, Braveheart) was thoroughly martial. Pondering those contentious days I find myself evaluating my current state.

Christians are called to give their life to the Lord. We are to be willing to even die in our witness to Him. Martrdom is the crowning achievement of Christian fidelity. I grew up on stories about the great heroes of the faith who endured horrible suffering at the hands of others who demanded that the martyr rejects Jesus, deny God and turn his/her back on the church.

Within the Church at large (and in my denomination) there is an ongoing struggle over the Truth. To take a stand for the traditional faith is, in many places, viewed with hostility and confusion. The question is how does one enter the fray? Martyrs witness to the truth but then they die. What about those of us who are in debate, verbally wrestling with other viewpoints. We seek to win the day, to deliver some argument so logically flawless, so profound, so emotionally stirring, so Holy Spirit filled that the opponent, wide eyed, mouth agape declares, "I see the Light! I convert!" The problem is, human beings are inclined to not listen in debates. We filter out what does not support our views and spin that which does. We are increasingly less and less open as the conflicts become more heated.

Combative Christians are seduced by the desire to win. We also tend to demonize those whom we oppose. When we demonize we often also project. So the opponent becomes a handy location for us to dump all our garbage. By the time we have reached the yelling and screaming (or retreated into our safe little enclaves where we can trash the others) there is little hope for conversion or conversation.

On the other hand, advocates for 'just getting along' ignore the importance of the questions being debated. In the end, if Jesus is the only way to salvation, it is pretty darn important that we are clear exactly what that means. Where we stand on that question impacts the eternal destiny of every man, woman and child on the planet. To get it wrong would be a tragedy beyond anything horrible that has ever happened. It  matters too much to ignore. And there is much more. In fact, there are dozens and dozens of other questions which are close to that in importance. Pretending like it does not matter is not a reasonable option.

The problem is every answer is not clear. There are degrees of certitude. There are also competing goods. So I choose not to kill neighbors who disagree with my soteriology (theology of salvation) and assume that they will do me the same kindness. I also acknowledge that The Church has not definitively and totally explained exactly what God's Word means on this question. So we say, "Only Jesus," but that means something different to a vast array of people (including Saints on either side and in between). The danger should be evident, the single most life-and-death issue with which we can ever be faced can become a matter of agree-to-disagree indifference. Relegated to a side table under a sign saying "who knows?"

So what to do? Return to hanging, flogging and burning at the stake? Subdivide into small (and increasingly smaller) self congratulating groups which agree with each other? Embrace the indifference of the contemporary age and immerse ourselves in our prefered distractions? [Or just blog? ha!]

The problem with fighting is we want to win. And fighting to win can end up betraying the Lord who died on a cross. Be assured, those who crucified The Master were convinced they were right. On the other hand, the problem with not standing for the faith is you become a coward, a betrayer of Jesus. So we listen to one another, we listen for God, we read The Word, we sit at the feet of the teachers (across time and geography) whose wisdom and insight bring us closer to the Lord, to the truth. And we do it alone and with others in the trusting hope that our God is faithful, and so we are called to be faithful as well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Direct Communication from God

At Christmas 2007 our organist presented me with a leather journal. It has each day of the year at the top and five boxes of five lines each to write about the day. What this means is each year you can see what happened in the year(s) prior. I am beginning the last year of this book and most days I  have a hard time entering anything and I am not reviewing the previous years at all.

Today, however, I did look at the past and I saw an entry from 2009. I was at YouthQuake, a national weekend retreat for youth hosted by Acts 29 in North Carolina. That group is no longer functioning and our parish youth did not go for this year's youth event.

My notes from that Saturday were centered on a prayer experience which we had there. The adult leaders had one separate session and during part of it we broke into groups of four. I did not know any of the people I was with. One woman was a mom who came to be with her daughter. The other two were youth ministers from Anglican parishes in West Tennessee. That was the first interesting sign....

The four of us took turns praying for each other. Basically each person took a turn being prayed for while the other three asked God for insight. Each of the women received some information from the rest of us, usually a word or an image, which was profoundly meaningful or helpful. I was the last one and what happened to me was nothing short of miraculous.

The 'mom' (who had never done anything like this in her life and was obviously way out of her spiritual comfort zone) prayed the blessing of St. Patrick. One of the youth directors told me she heard 'braveheart.' Then she and the other youth pastor each said that they saw me in armor. Lastly, one woman saw God deflecting arrows and spears. When they were done, it was my turn to share with them what the words and images meant.

At that time I had made a commitment to pray the prayer of St. Patrick as part of my morning offering. The 'mom' had no idea what the prayer she prayed was, she said it just came to her. The timeliness was obviously striking. When we talked about braveheart the next woman admitted that she was not sure what it meant. I shared with her about the movie, a Mel Gibson work. She had never seen it. I went on to tell her that I watched that movie (for several years) the night before our Diocesan Conventions. At that time things were very combative (and I was on the losing side) and it provided me with inspiration to stand for the traditional faith, even if it seemed hopeless. At the end of braveheart, the Gibson character is betrayed and killed. There could have been, at that time, no other image which was as powerful to me. The most amazing thing was that she had no idea about the movie and she did not know me. The armor, which comes from St. Paul, was also something that I had personally prayed about in the days leading up to YouthQuake. That two women "saw" that was indeed remarkable. Once again, the timing was amazing.

I am not someone who easily claims to "hear God" but this case certainly seemed to be a clear case of that. I share it because it seems to be a clear case of divine intervention. The specificity of the timing and /or content of what they said were statistically off the wall. Taken in toto, it is downright amazing. I also share it because in an age of such anti-church sentiments it is a sterling reminder that God is at work in His church (and the Bible tells me so!). It is my hope that this is a source of inspiration to others to take prayer in groups more seriously!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why did Tebow lose?

Two in a row on football...
While I am glad for the positive publicity generated by Tim Tebow, he has certainly been a stellar example of what we are called to be, I am concerned about some of the assumptions which I hear bandied about by some Christians. There seems to be a school of thought that God is making his team win because TimeTebow is a good Christian. If that is the case, then one can ask the question why did he lose (and lose badly) this weekend?

I think one strong posibility is that New England is a much better team. Tom Brady is a much better quarterback. In this match up, the Broncos in general, and Tebow in particular were mismatched. Does this mean that Tom Brady is a better Christian? I have never heard any witness from Tom Brady. So why did God let this happen?

Well, history indicates that being on God's team often times means losing. The recent history of the Jews is a harsh reminder that being the People of God does not preclude great suffering. The Christian faith is centered around a crucified Messiah. Martyrdom was, according to Tradition, the most common way that Jesus' disciples ended their lives. Throughout the centuries, those who most radically imitated the life and ministry of Jesus have, by and large, lived humble lives of service.

In our age, an age of megachurches and politically powerful preachers, we have somehow got it in our head that God makes us winners. Faitfhulness is at risk of taking a backseat to success. Such thinking equates God's blessing with material abundance, fame and victory.

There are many reasons why this has happened, I will point out one: American Consumer Religion. Jesus says, "If you follow me it means loss of all you hold dear. It means carrying a cross. It means generosity with your gifts and fellowship with outcasts." Not exactly the typical marketing strategy of most churches. It does not sell. Winning. Victory. Miracles which make us a success. Now that resonates with our consumer culture...

There is a victory in Jesus, but it is yet to be revealed. Whether Tim Tebow wins a super bowl or loses his job next year because he is not good enough, he remains a man of God and a committed Christian. That is what matters. Not winning games, but winning souls!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tebow, Numbers, God

I am not a big football fan and do not watch much. However, I find myself watching the Denver Broncos. Tim Tebow is the reason. As most people know, he is an Evangelical Christian who was a college star in Florida. He is a gifted athlete, although by the standards of his peers not an exceptionally physically gifted person. His skills as a quarterback have been much maligned as expert after expert says, basically, "he is not that good." What makes him exceptional seems to be his "heart" (the will to win) and his tendency to end up winning.

A large part of me delights in seeing someone who is told, "you can't" turn around and do. I am also a Christian, living in an increasingly hostile age and I am always happy for an ally, even if Tim and I come from very different ends of the Christian world. His personal faith is enhanced by his faithfulness. He is walking the talk and that is a great joy. He is a HUGE witness to Jesus.

What I found most striking about his most recent performance (the Broncos surprisingly beat the superior Pittsburgh Steeler team Sunday) is that with the game winnning touchdown, an eighty yard play, his total yardage by passing was 316. Tim Tebow is a John 3:16 Christian. The fact that his ten completions means he averaged 31.6 yeards per catch and the audience of 31.6% only add to the irony. Face it, God may not care about football but He does care about reaching people. Is God behind the numbers?

Over Christmas break, several times I woke up in the middle of the night. On three occassions in four days I woke to see the clock at 12:34. I had been noticing that combination the last few months. It seems I frequently get in my car at 12:34. Yesterday, as I left the office, I checked my watch and it was 12:35. I laughed to myself, knowing I had not seen the string. Guess what my car clock read!

One night, seeing 12:34 I prayed, "Lord, are you trying to tell me something?" As is usually the case, there was no answer forth coming. So here is the question I ponder, is the string significant or is it just a coincidence that catches my attention because it is a string 1-2-3-4? I cannot remember seeing 2:34 or 4:56 in the last couple of months. 12:34 happens twice a day, so what are the odds that I would see it both times on more than one occassion in the same week?

The reason I am thinking about it is because in Apocalyptic signs convey meaning. In other cultures, even Christian cultures, attention to numbers is considered a worthwhile pursuit. I am not so sure, but it does have my attention. It is tempting to say, "God would never intervene in football to get across 316 and God does not communicate to us by having us look at the clock at 12:34." I am rational, perhaps even skeptical. yet, there is a mystical aspect, or, maybe better, a hunger for the mystical. I want to connect with God. I want to pay attention. And I do not want to assume what God can and cannot do to communicate with me.

I was hesitant to write about this. It sounds a little weird. I have only talked about it with one person, a guy at the Y. Ironically, when I told him his eyes got real big. He said, "I have noticed the same thing." Yesterday he told me that it happened twice, including just after mid-night. Strange, but meaningless coincidence? A whisper from the Unseen. Who knows?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Not So Golden Age

Today at the YMCA I heard from one of the members that the Supreme Court is looking at the issue of censorship on national TV. (I only saw a headline on the news this morning.) His take was that the goal was to make 'anything goes' the new normal. It seems like we live in a coarser time, at least in the public media. However, what I know about the past reminds me that coarse is not new and in many places and times it was much worse.

The discussion reminds me of the recurring theme of "the good old days." There is something about humans that makes us think that things are worse now than they have ever been. In previous times people worked harder, were more honest, were more kind and life was better. Except, that is not true. At least, not in many ways.

Part of the pining for the good old days is the belief that in the ancient past there was a golden age. This is a particularly potent temptation for Christians. We speak of the early church and our minds are filled with thoughts of large groups of believers, prayerful, gentle, kind, holy. We assume that they loved Jesus and loved each other. The other day (when i originally intended to write this blog) we read from Hebrews 2. The first verse was a reminder that the Golden Age was not all golden.

"Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it." There are many who think the letter to the Hebrews is not a letter, but a sermon. As one reads it, it is certainly possible that it is just that. In any case, the author clearly thinks that drifting away is a possibility. Apparently, we are not so unique today. His point is to remind his listeners to be more focused. He also recognizes that the great things he preaches have not all come to pass. Everything is not in subjection. But he hastens to add that we do see Jesus, Who suffered for a while, now with God in glory. The morning reading ended with this stunning statement:

It was fitting that God, for Whom and through Whom all things exist, in brining many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.

I am not sure that it is clear why this is fitting. Sometimes I wish it was not simply declared but also explained. Yet, maybe in the end, words cannot capture what it all means. Ancient people living in the generation after Jesus were just as baffled by the mystery as we. They suffered and doubted just like us. They were courageous and faithful just like us. God is faithful. God is Good. God is mystery. No age had perfect people. No age was easy. We fight our battles for God in our times. This is when we live. Now is our time to act.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hot Hands

On Saturday night (5pm) at St. Andrews we have a healing service with eucharist each week. With the bishop's permission we have utilized the eucharist written by the Order of St. Luke, the format is obviously based on the episcopal eucharist. While this practice predates my arrival here, I have been doing it for over eleven years. During that time there have been long stretches when absolutely no one has come forward. In fact, around 2005 or so, we were seriously contemplating discontinuing. We were trying to discern and it seemed clear that either no one needed healing prayer or no one wanted it.

While there is no shame in misreading a ministry need, there was disappointment. When reading the Gospels there is much room for debate and argument, but I do not think anyone can deny that Jesus is portrayed as a healer. Those of us who want to practice ministry in His Name feel compelled to use Him as a model. As such, healing would seem to be a vital component of ministry. (Jesus preached, taught, healed and exorcised) In the contemporary church there are many believers who deny the possibility of healing today. TV preachers who heal have been, in some cases, accused of being phonies. In an age of skepticism and doubt, healing is certainly not an easy sell to a congregation.

One of the woman most active in our healing ministry shared with us that she is not surprised when someone is healed, rather, she is shocked that it does not happen more. That is one of the themes of our meeting discussions. "What are the barriers to more signs and wonders?" Numerous teachers in the healing ministry provide any number of reasons. I have my own theories. Some of it is a mystery.

Back to the decision to disband the healing ministry.... After a heart to heart with the team leader, we decided that God did not want us to do this, or, even if He did, the parish didn't. The night which we assumed would be the last, or near the last healing eucharist began like all the others. Then, at the time when people are invited to come up for prayer, there was a difference. Some folks came up. In the ensuing weeks we had quite a few, including, if memory serves, a small boy with brain cancer. We prayed for him, and I gave him and his mom instructions on how he should pray in the days ahead. He  had come from out of town, a long way, and it was some time later that word reached me that he had been cured.

We made the decision that it didn't matter if few people came up. It was worth it for that miracle alone. Over the years there have been several others. Not long ago a woman came to see me. She wanted to thank me for the healing ministered through our group. She does not attend the our church and she did not look familiar, but she remembered us. Another time a bible showed up with a note of thanksgiving. Sometimes it is e-mail or phone calls. What I know is, over the last decade, many people have been prayed for and annointed and  have experienced healing: in mind, body or spirit.

Saturday night, a dear lady hobbled up. She has many burdens and challenges, not the least of which is her pained body. But she cried out for a renewed spirit. As we prayed my hands felt hot. Afterward we talked, and she said she felt better. Her visage reflected that. I asked if she felt the heat and she said, "My face felt like it was on fire." According to the books (and speakers) it is very common for heat to accompany healing. I told her. She agreed. God had shown up, heard her cry and touched her.

The word for saved and the word for healing are the same in Greek. Healing is one form that salvation takes. We are all dying and we all will die eventually. All prayer for healing does not result in miraculous healing. But many do and it is for the sake of those, and for the realization that other types of healing may be more important (like salvation) that we continue each Sunday to do this ministry. It is my hope that more churches will embrace the ministry model of Jesus, to preach, to teach, to exorcise, and yes, to heal.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Serendipity again

This morning all three readings assigned for today had been part of the two Bible studies I did on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday we are studying Ezra and Nehemiah, having just finished the Second Book of Kings. We looked at two prophets who worked in the time period of the exile, Isaiah 40-55 and Ezekiel. Thursday, studying 2 Esdras, we turned to Revelation 21 to shed insight on the text we were wrestling with. I will limit myself to Isaiah today.

The first reading Isaiah 49, was one of the chapters we looked at while a quote from Isaiah was found in Matthew 12. I have shared before how often this happens. It seems to be the Hand of God at work, to me. Yet, I am also aware that there is no way to prove such a thing. At any rate, the message of Isaiah 49 is pretty amazing. The prophet is living in exile with a conquered people. He is preaching a message of hope, reminding them that God made everything, that God alone is God and that He intends to redeem and rebuild His people. Such sentiments are understandable and, in fact, a few years after this the people did leave exile and return home. Yet tucked away in all of this is a most unexpected verse: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." What stands out to me is how (humanly) inappropriate such sentiments would be in this setting. Only God could be thinking along those lines!

That this people, crushed and insignificant, are to play a key role in the salvation of the entire world seems unfathomable. Yet, that is what they are told. Jesus picks up on this same theme (perhaps originally in a sermon on this text?) and His words, found in Matthew ("you are the light of the world"), remind His Jewish listeners (and by extension, Christian readers) of this vocation.

Epiphany is the season of Light and revelation. Jesus is revealed to the world. He is manifest among us. After many years of obscurity, He comes forth to begin His ministry. The church members of today's congregations are to be an Epiphany people. We are to manifest Jesus in word and deed (and deed tends to be more effective). If the world can be a dark place at times, we do have His light to share. Perhaps some of the darkness is a function of our failure to do just that.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is Life Supposed to be Pleasant?

Yesterday I wrote about the problem of sexually active Christian teens. Some of the data is horrifying. Over one in five ninth graders have had four or more partners! One survey indicated 80% had been sexually active by age 19. One fourth of the girls aged 15-17 included sex in casual relationships. Being a father of two teens, such numbers are not just sobering they are terrifying.

Today we read about putting on the armor of Christ at morning prayer. "Be strong in the Lord," Paul exhorts. Strength is a major Christian virtue. I was raised in a time where much of the talk was about being gentle and loving. The more militant Christianity of the previous generation was held in disdain. This is typical, constant swings back and forth. Each age gets some things right and some things wrong. The problem of the kinder, softer Christianity I was formed in is it is ill equipped to deal with the struggles. Pleasant people expect to live in a pleasant world. Being "nice" becomes the center piece of existence.

Paul paints a different picture of life. "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh but against...the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." Wow. The sexual mores of our culture (and its materialism, shallow consumerism, secular atheism, and the large amount of indifference to God) is a reflection of those spiritual forces of evil. The single greatest social factor with the most negative impact on children is growing up in a single parent family. There is no argument about it. Church, a community of believers sharing a common faith commitment, has the potential to make a positive difference. The problem is, as Paul knew then and we know now, the Church is infiltrated by the same dark forces. The battle ground is inside as well as outside the church walls.

It is easy to forget that we are in a period of struggle. Most ancient writings are filled with conflict. Most of us, people like me, are shocked to see that there will be struggle and loss and battles. We think life is supposed to be pleasant. We think there should not be so many problems. We wonder why God doesn't do a better job of making things better.

The people in our culture are in need of Jesus. Not the consumer Jesus of modern America. Not the shallow Jesus of "come on, get saved it will only take a minute!" of so much contemporary spirituality. Rather we need the Jesus Who is Light in the Darkness. The Jesus Who says, "pick up your cross and follow Me." We need the Jesus Who will lead us into love and service, away from self centeredness and pleasure seeking. And in an increasingly hostile environment, we need Christians to get much more sturdy in faith, more joyful in hope and more sacrificial in love.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


This morning I was praying over the reading from Paul and saw the words "no fornicator will enter the kingdom." What made that jump out at me was a headline I caught yesterday on the internet that basically said, "True love waits... not any more." It was more bad news about how Christian kids exhibit the same sexual (im)morality as secular kids. I think this is probably, in part, because at some point the ascendent belief is that God is not really that into sex. The "anti-Purtian" label, meaning open to non-marital expression, is a factor of (and contributor to) the high divorce rate and decreasing marriage rate.

I think that most people are pretty open to any argument that they are free to have sex with multiple partners. Most men I know consider it a struggle to remain chaste. From my reading there are some biological factors involved in this. There is also the "anti-judgmental" label. This is the trump card in most discussions. "Who are you to judge?" It sounds pretty Christian to not judge, so lots of folks assume we have to say nothing. And once you have said nothing long enough, it impacts your behaviors.

The losers in a high fornication society are women, then children and eventually society. Men are also losers, although they may not percieve it as such.

Is there a way to take seriously the biblical mandate on sexual morality without becoming so tied up in knots about sex that is the only thing we talk about? Obviously, there is, but it is also obvious that in our current cultural landscape it will be exceedingly difficult.

The value of daily Scripture reading, prayer and reflection is that it confronts us, each day, with perspectives outside of our normal patterns. As Christians we benefit from hearing the Word, even when we are not clear exactly what to do with it.

Today it is not uncommon for Christian young people (and not so young) to live together without benefit of a wedding. Lots of arguments are given to make this possible. Perhaps we would do well to spend more time with the underlying assumptions in our thought to figure out how we ended up here. And Paul seems to think it is of eternal significance that we get it right!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Back in Saddle Again

I return to my office today after being off for the last week. In truth it seems like a much longer time. Most of the stretch between Christmas and New Year was spent with the baby. We were all dealing with the seasonal virus and were the worse for wear. Nights were shattered on several occassions by the constant ups and downs associated with "checking on the baby" when he cried. Sick or not, he is still remarkably pleasant.

I found myself thinking about the bonding process. There is much to be said for "quality" time and in our busy lives sometimes that is the best we can hope for. But there is value to quantity. Actually spending lots of hours together, day and night, has a way of tying people together. I found myself telling him, "I will miss you buddy" as I prepared to return to work.

The contrast on New Year's Eve was apparent to me. My own siblings and their children and grandchildren gathered for lunch on Saturday. It is something we do with irregularity. Once my mom and dad died, the family gatherings associated with them died as well. My folks have been dead 17 and 12 years respectively, so that means for well over a decade we do not see much of each other. It is compounded by my vocation. Priests tend to be busy when other people are off. My niece and nephew live together, which I think is wonderful. Extended family is a great gift. My own kids are somehow deprived of that as they are a decade behind everyone else and cousinless on my wife's side. We love each other very much, but I have not been privy to the daily lives of any of them for a long time.

The New Testament is rather ambivalent about family. Jesus says things about loving Him more than family, or renouncing family. Jesus' family is portrayed somewhat negatively by Mark (they think He is crazy). Flesh and blood relationships take a back seat to the 'church' family (of disciples). From what I understand, family connections in Jesus' day were even more intense than in our own. So it is hard to know the actual context of His sayings (and without context literal meaning is lost!).

I am watching two of mine hastening toward adulthood. We are talking about college choices and they spend much of their time with friends. Such passages are natural, customary, most welcome and painful! It is odd to be pouring so much energy into a seven month old while at the same time letting go of the other two. Yet that is the natural flow of things. The good news, I hear, is that they come back after college. I look forward to that.

Being connected to these people whom I call family has been a great gift. I am now back to my other family, the church. All family in its many forms (biological or not)  is a sacrament of Trinity, community, love. All of it bears the finger prints of the Creator. I am trying to focus my "eyes" to see God more and more. And to be thankful for all of them.