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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Salvation and the Bible 1

Any time you start a blog with a title that has a "1" in it you are committing to a series! What I plan to do is share my talk, reworked a bit as I do it, which I gave at our recent healing conference here in Memphis Tennessee. The weekend was wonderfully blessed and I heartily recommend the work of Mike Endicott
As you probably figured out this is a link to free audio donwloads....

Mike's premise is that we are to proclaim the Kingdom, because that is what Jesus did. And I would add, because of how we have been shaped and formed in our Christian walk, most of us are not at all clear on the Kingdom or the preaching of Jesus. [NT Wright is the most brilliant and helpful source of insight on this that I have found.] Because of this lack, much of the NT is lost to us, simply because so much of it is not an explanation of what we need to do to get into heaven. And the healing ministry is considered by many devout Christians to be a sham and a scam because, they assuredly declared, healing was an early church phenomenon but ended with the Apostolic Age. (And a corollary of that belief is a commitment to NOT read any early church works which regularly recount the widespread miracles, including healing, associated with early Medieval Saints. Look especially at the Celtic saints.)

Having seen many miracles and heard even more stories of miracles, I personally think it embarassing to claim that they do not happen. And this weekend we saw several. But, as Jesus said to the Apostles, rejoice not in signs and wonders but even more that your name is in the Book of Life!

Which brings us to my topic: Salvation. I was asked to speak on this topic by our Order of St. Luke (the healing ministry group) convener. As I shared with the group Saturday, I know that I can be very controlling. And it worries me that I might be bringing my agenda to everything. While I also know that the choice of topic by someone else does not guarantee that my agenda won't surface, it does mean that there will be some other influences at work. I have learned that it is helpful to have checks and balances.

What I intend to do is chop up what I said in smaller sections with additional commentary. First a brief introduction. Salvation is holistic. It is both here and now and also future oriented. It is always tied into and connected with the work of God. It is always a grace and that grace always costs us dearly. My premise is this is tied into the nature of the CREATED universe which God has VOLUNTARILY bought into. In a real sense, the Cross of Jesus reveals to us the COST to God of being in relationship with us. God must self empty to come to us, be rejected by us (even the best of us) and to bring us out of our self-imposed death and destruction. It will be fun to ponder this together, but also challenging. Let's pray that it is also a faithful proclamation of the Kingdom and is True!

Thursday, October 25, 2012


This week the Book of Revelation has reappeared in our Morning Prayer readings. I led a bible study on this most amazing piecve of inspired literature several years ago. Let's be clear, the church has always been divided on the best approach to understanding this often confusing work and from earliest times it has been seen through different lenses (as prophecy, history in metaphor, about the future, the present, etc.). One thing is clear, there are tons of similes (the word "like" occurs over 50x) and no one has worked out all the details yet.

The images of Revelation are also found in two other locations: the Old Testament and other apocalyptic works written by Jews and then Christians in the centuries before and just after Christ. The book follows a pattern set down in these other works and they are fascinating reading. While most mainline churches do not have an active component of "prophetic" ministries, today there are places where vision and apocalyptic signs are a part of every day experience. I have followed a couple of websites where the author has written about such things. This is one which I used to read regularly, but he writes much less frequently.

The 8th & 9th chapter of Revelation, which we are reading now, contain the infamous Seven Trumpets. Seven angels with seven trumpets appear, as each one blows we hear of ruin and destruction. The first wipes out 1/3 of vegetation (trees and grass), the second 1/3rd of the sea creatures and ships, the next 1/3rd of the rivers become wormwood, and finally 1/3rd of the light (star, moon and sun are 33% less luminative). Such wide scale destruction is terrifying to ponder, but the blood runs cold with the fifth trumpet: the loud voice of an eagle who cries, "Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth..." as he announces there is more to come.

Woe...woe...woe. Not a popular message. We prefer to ignore such things and hope for the best. Yet the message of the Book, however literally or figuratively interpreted, is a stunning reminder that we are not in an upward cycle. The three woes begins with a key which unlocks the bottomless pit. Along with the sulphur smoke arise horrible creatures, composite of several worst nightmares. They torture humans, we read, for five months. And there is no death. One of the recurring themes of revelation is the "anti-" (most familiarly seen in the anti-Christ). This is the demonic replication of the divine. So there is The Lamb (Jesus) and there is the Ram (satanic). There is the Bride (Israel//Church) and there is the Whore of Babylon (sinful humanity). Now we see the demonic twist on resurrection and life eternal. People cannot die, but they beg to die. The horror and pain are so bad they wish for death as an escape. There is a message here, life without end is blessing or curse, depending on what kind of life it is. For those outside the confines of God's people (those not rescued from human institutions run amuck) life without death is a curse.

Now reading these dark images are sobbering. But truth be told no more so than the morning news. We are all free to whistle in the dark and ignore the pending realities. History reminds us that there are always problems with which to contend. While our political leaders figure out which strategy will get them the office and businesses try to squeeze every last cent there is a real world with real consequences. You can fool people with empty promises but eventually reality rears its head. Maybe not today, maybe not next week, but eventually it happens.

The bad news is that things are not well and there may well be very bad things on our near horizon. Economic collapse and war and famine and widespread disease are constant companions which may visit our American neighborhoods some day soon. Some of you reading this may say, "already here!" But the message of Revelation (what has been unveiled for us) is the face of God. He is there, outside looking in, inside working, around us and within. He calls His people to faithfulness in the face of great struggle. He reminds us that the Savior is Jesus and He already stands ready to return. And so, even as we ponder the challenges ahead, we do so in hope. Salvation is a promise we can count upon.

This weekend at the Memphis Marriott East (2625 Thousand Oaks Blvd, Memphis 38118) we are gathering for a time of prayer, praise and teaching. There will be several occassions when we will pray for healing (in all senses of the word). There will be many hours of instruction by four different speakers. I will give a talk on Salvation and also have a workshop on Prayer and Praying. The latter includes some 'how to' pratice with a special focus on meditation. Other speakers will address core Christian teaching. If you are in Memphis, Friday and Saturday night at 7 is a service open to all. (if you aren't drive in!!!) Saturday costs $30 (includes lunch) and there is the bulk of the general sessions and workshops. You can even spend the entire weekend with rooms and meals (though you need to move quickly--go to the St. Andrews website for details ) It will be a time to celebrate God among us even in days when the trumpets seem to thunder bad news. Is God pushing you to join us?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why Jesus is so irritating

People like to differentiate between Jesus and 'the church.' Such differentiation is often times appropriate, but it can also be inaccurate. It is sometimes done for the sake of a "tolerance" agenda which is a particularly inaccurate way to go about discussing Jesus.

In America, people often misunderstand freedom of religion. They think that because no one can be forced to believe a certain way (which I think is good) that that means all ways of thinking are equally true (which I think is silly). "You believe what you believe and I believe what I believe" is a fact. However, it does not inform reality, in other words, it does not cause what I believe and you believe to be true. That judgment (truth claims) is separate from personal beliefs. Our freedom is basically the freedom to be wrong!

One important datum for reflection is our previous experiences with truth claims. Have you ever believed something and later found out you were wrong? Of ocurse, we all have. The experience of having been wrong (again and again and again) has shown me that I need to be humble, but it has also shown me that I can move out of error into truth. We learned this lesson in third grade math (and geography, history, etc.). We learn it over and again in life.

Back to my initial point. It is common for people to say nice things about Jesus while denying He is "the only way to God." It is equally common for people to blame Christians or the church for this idea. Often the spiritual not religious folks say this. More commonly secularists. And almost always the 'tolerance crew' who want so firmly to convince us all that each one has his/her own truth.

In today's Gospel at Morning Prayer we heard Jesus say some things which are most "irritating" to a large segment of our population (Luke 10:22ff) "All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him" That, my friends, is JESUS talking. Now it is not terribly difficult to understand these words. They are straightforward. They are also the foundation for Christians who claim only Jesus. One thing to notice is the only Jesus claim is grounded in a deeper reality. Only the Fathe knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father. This means that human reason and human experience are INCOMPLETE. They cannot and do not go far enough. We are not able, on our own, to conjure up God. So all of us, to the extent we rely on our own thoughts and pondering are astray from truth. Me and you have all got an incomplete and incorrect understanding of God. This leads to two corollaries.

First, because all of us are incomplete and incorrect, none of us should impose our beliefs on others. We should be humble and listen and learn. However, because we are all incomplete and incorrect, we are all WRONG! Except, of course, for Jesus. HE knows, He alone knows and He is our source of correct and complete knowledge of God.

Such a claim is irritating to folks in our culture. "I can't imagine God would not reveal Himself in a myriad of ways!" is the battle cry of the Reasonable Folks. Yet it ignores the crucial element, two words which go together as the basis of the claim: "Jesus" and "said."

Jesus said that He ALONE knows the Father. What we know is revealed to us by Jesus (who is the Word made flesh). Our hearing and interpreting are always off just a bit. We must be humble about our claims. But we can also be sure that ONLY Jesus knows. And that means that when people talk nice about Jesus but are irritated by Christian claims that He alone is the way, well, they really are irritated with Jesus. The Romans were irritated with Jesus, too. They crucified Him because of it. Our unbelief is hammer and nail. Our desire to make the tolerance of a social contract respecting freedom of religion into a "tolerance" at the cost of truth is crucifixion.

In the end, how do you respond to Jesus' claim? Standing around the cross mocking, or kneeling at the cross weeping?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Job's Answer to Evil and God

Today at church the first reading comes from the Book of Job (38:1-5). This is one of the few Biblical books which actually tackle the issue of God and Evil as a problem. The modern term, theodicy (which comes from the Greek words for God and Righteous; see ) describes the philosophical/theological arguments made to explain how the following can be true. An all good and all powerful God made the world and the world is not perfect, rather it is full of pain and suffering.

There are two approaches to the problem. The first is the theoretical. It has to do with a person, or a group of people, sitting and analyzing the questions. Does the Holocaust mean there is no God? Is God good but not strong and powerful (see Rabbi Kushne'rs "When Bad Things Happen to Good People")? Is God powerful but not good (in our moral sense)? Are there two gods (one good, one bad, duking it out for control)? Is there no god at all, just a bunch of amazing accidents which coincidently led to a multitude of planets, an abundance of  life and, even, etch-a-sketches?

As a young man I was sorely disappointed in Job. It starts out with a paradoxical little story about heaven with one terribly troubling element. Job is one rich guy (this man was the greatest of all the people of the east) and very pious. He is described this way "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil." And did I mention he was really, really rich with lots of kids (7 boys, 3 girls; another measure of great wealth in ancient culture). And Job always sanctified his kids in case they were not donig right on the holy days.

Well, up in heaven all the "heavenly beings" (literally sons of God) gathered together. One of them is named satan (literally, The Accuser). [screeching tires....what????? what is Satan doing in heaven chatting with God????] Well, before we move on let us take a short break for the history of Satan. In the OT there is not a highly developed notion of demons and devils until late in Israel's history. It seems to be tied to the period of time in Persia and may well be a development with some of the ideas encountered there during the Exile period and after. It seems that at this juncture in Israel's history, Satan was the term applied to the Prosecuting Attorney in Heaven. He is the Accuser. By the time of Jesus, hundreds of years later, the conceptualization of Satan (coupled with a more highly worked out understanding of the demonic) was more along the lines which we commonly understand today. So in this much older story, Satan is not what we think of, i.e., a Fallen Angel. Rather he works for God. [The history of words and ideas is always like this...]

God asks Satan what he thinks of Job and Satan says, Job is good and loves God because it pays (he is rich) and God says "ok, you do your worst and we will see how he acts." (This is called a time of trial or testing). Satan kills all his family and wipes out his wealth. (Note, the extreme nature of the curse leads one to think this is a folk tale and not history) When word reaches Job he responds, "naked I came forth from the womb and naked I return. The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the Lord." We are told, Job did not sin. Now, Job's response comes from a pure heart. We tend to feel entitled to everything we  have (and often what we do not have). An honest insight into the gift of life is present in Job. In ancient Christian spiritually this was expressed beautifully in the concept of monasticism and desert monks. A spirit of holy detachment from all things coupled with an attachment to God alone.

Satan returns and God complains that Job is still faithful (and you made me do all those bad things to him). Satan replies, "well you haven't hurt him." So Job is covered with sores. Even worse, his wife turns on him and says "will you claim you have integrity? Curse God and die!" But he doesn't. Job does not sin.

What follows for chapter after chapter is endless explanations of the why of Job's situation and advice on what he should do. I remember many times the advice made sense to me, I would underline different things. Much to my horror it turned out what made sense to me was wrong! (and this has happened many times). Chapter 38 begins the final answer. God comes onto the scene. And He is looking like GOD!

First of all, He appears in a whirlwind. That is impressive (not like the soft gentle breeze of Elijah). His first words sort of tip His hand, He is not hear in Dr. Phil mode, full of sweet words. "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" (in Peterson's The Message, a more contemporary kind of translation it reads: "Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talke without knowing what you are talking about?") And God, rather than answering questions, begins a litany of His own. Were you there when I started the whole thing? Can you cause weather with a word? Do you take care of animal needs? and it goes on, and on, and on...

As I said, the young version of me was very dissatisfied with the ending. By golly, I was reading the Bible to get anwers and this book seemed to offer none. Best I could figure, God was telling Job (and me&you) "Shut Up!" Well, that was half a lifetime ago. Today I love the answer, or the non-answer explanation. It rings true. The reason God does not explain is twofold. First off, He is God, we aren't. We have to get that straight in our heads. We assume too much when we question Him. We start in the wrong place when we arrogantly treat God as our equal (or less). Humans pride is at the root of every ill and our ridiculous sense of self importance is folly in the extreme. God's answer humbles us. Some of the the young me had yet to endure; and the new me continues to experience...

Secondly, and this is vital, we cannot be told the whys and wherefores of the issue of evil because it is beyond our grasp. It is like teaching algebra to a three year old. No matter how good a teacher you have, some things are just not in the cards. Unfortunately, because of our arrogance, many of us (like me) still harbor the belief that we could "get it" if God would just tell us. And that is simply an error. The reason for suffering and death and struggle is because that is how the world operates. And the question why would God make a world like this if He is good and powerful is the affirmation that He is good and powerful and the world He made is the best possible world.

In the end, we do best, like Job to worship God and be obedient. Thankful for blessings and indifferent to curses. We need to remember that love is the answer and some questions are best left unarticulated. {in most cases any question which begins with the word 'why') And while the NT has no book like Job, it does lay out a direction for the answer. In Hebrews 5 (which we also read today) we hear "Son though He was, Jesus learned obedience through what He suffered; and having been made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation for all. There you have it. Suffering is part of the process of learning obedience and being perfected. Can't explain why. Just know 'that' and with that in mind, we do well to not muddy the waters with our speculation on God, goodness and evil. Rather let us worship and obey!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mundane and Miraculous

I frequently try to do little reflections on the morning prayer readings from our daily office. Yesterday we looked at Jonah and today I want to take a peek at Acts.

Acts 27 contains the account of the harrowing sea adventures of the prisoner Paul as he was in transport to Rome. The boat contained 276 folks (although other ancient versions say it was 76). In either case it is a bunch of folks. There were sailors, Roman soldiers, various prisoners in addition to Paul and cargo. These journeys were always difficult as the sudden appearance of storms was a constant threat, but it was worse at this time of year. Paul gave a warning not to continue. However, not surprisingly, the prisoner's voice was ignored. After a surprisingly pleasant start, the storms soon came and buffeted the ship day and night. One can well imagine the terror of being in such a storm tossed ship. Death no doubt appeared imminent.

For two weeks they lived in constant turmoil. They cannot eat and they have all but lost hope. Paul, ever humble, tells them that this would not have happened if they had listened to him. However, he adds another element which is not normal every day fare. An angel, he reports, had appeared to him and gave him a message that they would not perish, though they would lose the ship. Paul shares his faith in God and explains that the Lord wants him to appear before Caesar. One assumes this is God's motivation to keep the boat afloat!

There is, however, an interesting turn. And it is theologically rich for reflection. Not long after, a group of sailors are in a small boat, on the pretext of working the anchors, but in fact they intend to abandon ship. Paul warns the centurian, if those men escape we are all doomed. I find this interesting because it implies (actually more than implies, flat out states) that God's protection is not without limits (in this case). The sailors are needed to make the trip safely. It is always tempting to pull the "God can do anything" card, but it is just as important to remember that He doesn't always. It also means that we might need to remember that human agency is more important (in the Bible) than we sometimes think.

The ship ends up stuck in a bay, battered to nothing by raging waves, but the occupants either swim or float on debris to safety. The story continues with Paul getting bit by a snake and the locals assuming he must be very bad (to escape death at sea and then die by snakebite). In a rather comical narrative, Paul flicks the snake hanging off his hand into the fire and the natives sit patiently waiting for him to swell up and die. He doesn't. So they assume he is a god. Next thing Paul lays  hands on the chief's sick son, heals him, and then spends the rest of his time healing all manner of sick folk.

I have written frequently about such things, but it is a reminder that God's power is available to the church as protection and salvation (all manner of healing). The attention to eyewitness detail (the ship had two  heads as figureheads, the chief is named Publius, Paul is carrying brushwood) is a reminder that this story is true and remembered in great detail. And the miraculous is almost a side note.

We had a big discussion this week about our propensity to be closed off the supernatural and miraculous. Our unbelief serves both as a deterent to such occurences and blinders to see it when it does. Our theologies (usually based on the Bible filtered through very unbiblical assumptions) can often be as much a hindrance as a help.

We are having a Healing Conference in Memphis October 26-28 at the Marriott. You can get info at our church website (and see a photo of two of my kids) God uses people and people are part of the deal. There will be teacing, prayer, worship and lots of healing. There will be meals. Much of it will be mundane. Some of it miraculous. All of it better if you are there! We expect awesome things to happen because God will be glorified in and through His servants. Will you join us?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Jonah's dilemma, Our dilemma

The past couple days one of our daily readings was from Jonah. I think the story of Jonah is a parable. Whether it intends to give us straight history or not is not my concern. What the story means, what it speaks to us today, is very much my concern.

Two things that jump out in the story are the nature of God and the nature of (the) man. Jonah, sitting in the 'big fish' cries out to God. His prayer is obviously a psalm and while thematically it resonates with his situation, it is not a prayer composed for the situation. The actual language is generic and no specific to the narrative which is unfolding in this short story. So one take away is the value of psalms for our own prayer life. I have advocated the use of psalms (using, for example, the Book of Common Prayer or the Roman Catholic Office) as a foundation for our daily prayer discipline.

Today centers on Jonah's prayer to die. He does this twice. Such prayers are not unusual in the OT. I believe Moses made a similar prayer himself. While Jonah sound pretty whine-y as he makes this request, I fight the urge to judge him. After all, I am part of a large group of people who have felt the same way from time to time. The desire to escape life and the struggles of each day weigh heavy on many of us. "I wish I were dead" or "I wish I  had never been born" are not foreign desires. There is a reason why "It's a Wonderful Life" is such a big part of the holiday tv viewing habits of many of us. We have been there and done that and we want to believe life is worth it, and that we are worth it.

Jonah's motivation for his crisis of hope has to do with the nature of God and I think that is the most important element of the story. The reluctant prophet has proclaimed God's judgment on the pagan city of Nineveh. The response is mindblowing. Everyone, including the king, repent in ashes hoping God will relent and change His mind. And Jonah is mad. Basically, he complains, "Why did I have to preach to these people when you are going to show them mercy." His gripe is that God is slow to anger and abounding in kindness. For Jonah that is a problem.

And if Jonah's depressed death wish is something so many of us are familiar with then his frustration with God's mercy is also a common feature of our lves as well. For many of us, God's wrath (on others) is a welcome friend. We cannot wait until Heaven opens and pours flames of fierce judgement down upon the deserving heads of all those people "who disagree with us." Like the psalmist (on occassion) we pray God's mercy on our sins and His judgment to destroy our enemies.

Jonah did not want success in his preaching. He wanted to see blood. What is it about us that we are so motivated by such desires? Yet, one must admit that there are two streams in Scripture. Mercy and Judgment both occupy a place in Sacred Writ. There is something abominable about Universalism. Do we want a world where there is no accountability? Is the rapist and murderer to go free because "it's okay"? Are the martyrs beneath the altar (Book of Revelation) to be silent as their persecutors add daily to their numbers; maiming and massacring without concern?

On the other hand, would we deny the venue of repentance? Are sorrow, penance and reform of life to be limited only to "people like us"? Would we sit with Jonah and await impatiently for the mushroom cloud or would we hear God's concern, "it is a city of 120,000 ignorant people, besides all the animals."

The role of evangelism is to invite people to love and serve the Lord. We need to hear with both ears. We need to understand the reality of judgment. We must also trust that the heart of God is set on salvation. We prayed Psalm 87 on Wednesday morning. It is part of the Jonah stream of revelation. It is part of the story about God's mercy for all people, even those "outside." "I count Egypt and Babylon among those who know Me; behold Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia: in Zion were they born. Of Zion it shall be said, "Everyone was born in her,..." Everyone??!!?!

God's word is a mirror. Like an ancient mirror, it does not reflect perfectly the face of God. There is distortion. There is also the problem of 'too much' and 'too little.' How can human concepts convey the eternity of God? So instead we get facets, streams and currents which mix and mingle in the great ocean of God's revelation.

Am I Jonah? Do I despair at the salvation offered others? Do I long to see "those people" destroyed? Or do I understand His grace is manifest in the call, and human response unlocks the treasure? Do I use Universalism as an excuse for not proclaiming Judgment and Wrath? Do I shirk my divinely appointed responsibility to warn the wayward and hide behind a (non-Biblical) optimism which has no ground in reality (beyond my wishful thinking)?

"Repent," Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God draws near, Believe the Good News." And in saying this He continues God's plan, a plan which Jonah seems uncomfortable with. Jesus faithfully preaches and more faithfully desires the life of sinners. He is also clear that there is a choice. Two paths; life and death. Do we share that belief and that burden for our fellow wanderers on the planet?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


We had some nice family time over Fall Break. However, I did get a couple of opportunities to read some articles. One was in a recent  Atlantic Monthly (here is a link on line) It was about the sexual proclivities of contemporary college aged women. To be honest, it was terrifying. The basic thrust of the story was young woman are freed up to be sexually aggressive and to "hook up" at their own preference. The author believed that the research indicated that later in life these women were also more successful.

I am not going to comment on the entire article except to say that the responses I had included this: the values of the world are not the values of faith. In our college search process my prayer has always been that my kids would find a school where their faith will also grow and be nurtured. I think that can and does happen in all manner of settings. I also think that the general cultural shift in boy-girl relations cannot be avoided by a "church ghetto" approach to life. After all, "the world" is part of any and every church, ghettoized or not, and in some cases it is the culutre of the world from another era which is being retained.

The idea that girls sleeping around may be a good thing, as startling as it is, is probably commonly held by people younger than me. Not by everyone, but by lots of folks. And the whole 'end of marriage as we know it' is being driven by lots of cultural power groups.  I read recently that reparative therapy (helping people deal with unwanted same-sex desires) is going to be outlawed. The efforts to criminalize traditional views on marriage continue unabated. If the core meaning of marriage is up for grabs then our society will look like it looks.

I also read a USA Today article on the continued decline in church membership. Is it related to the rise in 'hook ups' in the culture? I think so. The value system at play in both would make sense of that to me. It is hard to maintain a secular sexual morality in a Christian setting. The Episcopal Church is shrinking as fast as most any church and it has championed many of the things which the younger generation claims to believe. The data is clear, when people reject the Christian teachings on sex, they also reject church (even churches which are saying what they want to hear). I have opined ad nauseum about my thoughts (and feelings) about the decline of the church. The sad truth is our land is fast becoming like Europe. The third thing which ties in with this was the Vice Presidential debate. While I only watched part of it, the part I did see included an exchange on one of the key issues: abortion.

Clearly, one candidate is making "planned parenthood" a cornerstone of his future. There have been lots of warnings about women losing their access to medical care and choice. Nothing new about this debate, we have heard it all before. But it certainly ties into the sexualized young women. If a pregnancy is a 'disease' for sexually active women then abortion is a 'cure'. A culture which rejects ancient church teaching (i.e. Jesus' values) can easily argue that choice and individual freedom trump all else. Humans after all are free to choose. What was stunning in the VP debate was both candidates are self proclaimed Catholics. And one of them, after declaring how important his Catholic faith and beliefs are, proceeded to say he is against abortion but was unwilling to impose his beliefs. Now, in what followed, he made several statements about how his presidential running mate would insure access to abortion. And I wondered. How can anyone claim abortion is wrong (as the Catholic church understands it) and yet advocate so strongly for abortion being available?

A side note, I think many people, Catholic and not, who are against abortion are also willing to accept it is a personal choice. And the same people think we should not impose our beliefs on others. I know this because I have talked to people who think that way. My son, however, raised the issue in clear terms. "I think it is killing a baby," he said, "and killing babies is wrong and I cannot imagine letting other people kill a baby could be right." Simple and unnuanced, but it was a conversation, not a debate. And his point is generally spot on. If someone thinks killing babies is wrong then they should feel very free to impose restrictions of killing babies.

However, what I want to take issue with is imposing beliefs. I am fine with someone saying this, even about something as important as abortion, IF they are consistent. But here is the problem, the same VP candidate had no trouble imposing all manner of things on others. For example, (in his mind following Catholic social teaching) he believes in taxing the "wealthy" in order to help "the poor." Now, I am not arguing for or against such a position, that is not what I am addressing. What I am saying is, if someone works hard and legally makes money, on what grounds does anyone have a right to take part of those earnings? If it is for things like roads and national defense one can say, what benefits all all should pay for, those whose benefits are greatest should expect to pay the greater portion. But providing food, shelter, medical care, etc. to the needy are not that sort of thing. When one group of people decide to take money from another group of people that is imposing beliefs. I am offended by the lack of integrity in the argument. Be consistent and be honest....

A final word. I am troubled by both parties. I think each side has much to answer for and each side spins half truths and misdirection in an effort to gain power, and lets be clear, politics is also about power. I am not trying to push for a political agenda either. My Christian faith is clear, taking care of the poor is non-negotiable. What I would like is for Christian Republicans to be a prophetic voice in their party and Christian Democrats to be a prophetic voice in their party. Self criticism would do wonders for improving the political process and improving our government. There needs to be more integrity. Good people should continue to try to be good, even if it costs an election. Sadly we all get seduced by other voices. Unfortunately, the church has often times failed in our prophetic vocation and we have not shaped politicians in the Kingdom of God vision offered by Jesus. And in a culture where the church is in rapid decline, it will have less and less opportunity to do this. And in a culture where sexual hook-ups are a welcome part of the freedom to choose, then choosing to end pregnancies through abortion will also continue. And if many of the remnant Christians think they have no right to impose this, well, then we will continue to see "choice" as the leading killer of unborn babies. Just some random reflections from a week of vacation....

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Administering Sacraments: You aren't the boss of me

[First off, a disclaimer. I am by birth a person who likes order. My dad was in the Navy and I always liked chain of command, rank, and clarity. I attributed it to my German blood, although in truth Irish & Polish are just as prevalent. I grew up in the Roman church and while sometimes chafing under authorities exercising their power I generally agreed with the idea of authority. In the campus unrest and riots on my tv screen as a  middle schooler, I tended to think the police were the good guys.

Having said that, I have made an effort to seek truth rather than my preferences and I try to be honest about sharing my opinions by laying out my assumptions and inclinations at the front end. With that in mnd I want to conclude this week long reflection on sacramentality begun last week in response to the Sunday readings.]

The fundamental point I have tried to make all week is this. Signs and symbols are real and they are at the core of reality. Spirit at work in and through Matter is an ever-present phenomena. This is best seen in human beings where the outward body is an expression of an inward soul. God, too, is present among us, in and through people, things and actions/events. The presence is mediated and real. The First Sacrament of God is Jesus. His humanity is the means in & through which God is active in our world. After the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus He gave us (the church) His Holy Spirit (see John's Gospel  20:22; also perhaps 19:30). While Jesus is gone we are His ongoing presence in the world. So the church is The Sacrament of Jesus, and each one of us, baptized into Christ, are sacraments. The primary sacraments, I would argue, are human beings in faithful apostolic mission. This is missional sacraments. There are other sacraments, which I (tentatively) call pastoral sacraments. These are sacraments administered in the church for the faithful (but they have a missional component, so I think the difference may be nominal). These are the Seven (or Two) called sacraments in/by the church and what most of my readers would think of if the word 'sacrament' is used.

One problem of church sacraments is the question of order. In simplest terms, when is it "real"? Are two kids playing with water and a hamster baptizing the hamster when they imitate their pastor? If a deranged priest invokes the words of institution in front of a bakery, is there now dozens of loaves which become the Body of Christ? If two people on a lark in Las Vegas say, "hey, let's get married!" is that a sacramental marriage?

Now there is a whole sub-class of human beings who are inclined to say, "Who cares?" They think such concerns are silly and misguided. However, there is another sub-class, of which I am a card carrying member, who think such issues, while at times imponderable, are worth thinking about. It does matter to people such as me.

Current debates in the church include questions about who can preside at eucharist? What is needed for a valid baptism or eucharist? What is "the right way" to do such things? Is there a right rite? Some inclined in low church directions would probably say anyone with faith can and there are no rules. Such folks are not inclined to have ecclesial authorities clamping down on the Holy Spirit working in the church. They would also remind that God is in charge not Man. Freedom is a value for them. They are also following the prophetic warning about a focus on outward expression (with concerns about rubrics and rules) without concurrent inner integrity. Others critique this by reminding the "freedom fighters" that chaos is not a work of the Holy Spirit and every unfettered human act is not necessarilly the work of The Holy Spirit (there are, after all, bad spirits).

Culturally, "You aren't the boss of me" is probably the prefered option. It underlies much of the Progressive agenda and the fascination with tolerance and diversity, and the "freedom to be me". Ironically, it is also the catalyst for Conservative counter attacks, usually in the form of freedom from government tyranny and the imposition of all these high sounding efforts to construct a tolerant accepting society (with the restrictions and sanctions needed to insure that every one is expressing themselves exactly in the tolerant way that they  have determined).

The Roman church, very much shaped by the Roman Empire and its approach to Law and Order, has a strongly held understanding of the who and how of sacraments. As I said before, I like it that way. The Epsicopal Church, my current home, is an odd mix of highly centralized and free-for-all. However, currently, there does exist a sacramental priesthood (which some folks actually believe in, and others, both Progressive and Conservative, do not, but for widely different reasons). As one moves from the Orthodox/Roman to Episcopal and continue through the less hierarchically structured churches one continues until you find all manner of free expression. From my vantage point, that is not good. But last weeks Gospel is a reminder that my thoughts are not always His thoughts.

In Mark 9:38 there is a short story. The apostle John says to the Lord, "Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he does not follow us." Now, first of all, this is but one of many such examples which Mark has strung together. Jesus keeps telling the fellas He is going to die, and the Clueless Crew make one bonehead misplay after another. Jesus says, "I will die, I will lay down my life." Then they, argue about who is greatest, chase off kids looking for a blessing, debate who will sit at Jesus' right and left hand. You know, standard ego-centric churchmanship! However, this particular case raises issues about monitoring mission work.

All of us are sacraments so each of us is empowered and under orders to do the works of Christ. Likewise, we are doing this in tandem, "inside" the church (there can be no Christian ministry "outside" the church). But Jesus' response, "Let him alone, no one can do miracles in my name and then speak bad of me. Whoever is not against us is with us." is certainly food for thought in understanding the Christian ministry. This is especially true in ecumenical times where The Church has been blown up and dispersed into so many denominations, indpendent congregations and assorted self-directed para-church ministries. Face it, most folks may be Roman, but not all are. And the rest are frequently independent agencies and agents with a host of different beliefs.

So who can administer a sacrament? It depends where you live. Are all sacraments valid? Nope. Can God work in and through invalid sacraments? Yes. Does being valid not matter then, if God can work anyway? Yes, it matters because God's work is made more effective when everything is done right. There is such a thing as "the fullness" of efficacy. A partial glass of water is still water, but a full glass is better, especially to a thirsty person.

On the other hand, we need to think long and hard about our rules and regulations. While I still think the historic faith of the church was clear from an early time about who presides at eucharist and standardized how those prayers were said (following the Jewish liturgical practices we inherited) I also know that there was wide diversity and many were less than enthusiastic about the structure. However, if everyone is doing their own thing in Jesus' name you have other problems. It is true that we follow Jesus, not the bishops. But when one gets rid of Bishops there is no certitude that it is always Jesus you follow. You may, unaware of it, be following yourself. And so we have ten hundred thousand self appointed bishops deciding what Jesus wants and claiming the Holy Spirit is the instigator. And like I said earlier, many times the spirit behind our personal choices is demonic. The sacraments matter a great deal. They are connected to eternal life and teh presence of Jesus. Important things should be treated with great care and respect. We do well to ponder what is the God-preferred way of doing things. Structure is not bad. However, loving structure for its own sake can be bad. And Jesus is about saving folks first and making ecclessial structures fit the mission. We cannot all agree on sacraments, but we can agree to listen to each other. And we can affirm that anyone in league with Jesus who is not against us is for us!
I will not write again until Wednesday October 17th. Perhaps I will continue this train, but who knows. I welcome questions and points of contention about all this. Maybe that can generate more helpful discussion.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Church: Sacrament of Jesus

"Where is Jesus? Can you point Him out to me?"

One of the difficulties of life on the planet earth is the feeling of being alone. Even in a crowd. Taking a tip from Thomas Aquinas, I have long thought that the hunger for God is the most compelling "proof" for God's existence. As Thomas said, "we get hungry and there is food, thirsty and there is drink, tired and  there is sleep, etc." The desire does not cause the existence of such things, but rather it is a function of their existence. We have desires for existing things. And, therefore, if there is no God why does the human heart long for Him?

Having taken that side step, let us return to the issue of Jesus. We hunger for perfect communion and total connectedness with the Divine. And we long for personal connection of love, not simply a feeling of transcendence. While expressed in different ways, the NT conveys a message that Jesus has risen from the dead but is not with us any more. Acts expresses it most overtly. Jesus is taken up from their sight and an angel upbraids them "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here, looking up to the sky? Jesus will return in the same way as He left..." And while Messiah is away, the church must pray (and work and work and work).

Jesus left communal marching orders. Jesus left a command that we love one another (can't do it privately). Jesus said "y'all" (as in plural) when He addressed us. While there is certainly a personal element (singular) that is always understood in the context of the group. The OT is about Israel. The NT is about the New Israel. Jesus took 12 disciples for a reason, to demonstrate that He was gathering the "eschatological commuity" (the end of time, God's final intervention). Christian faith is always lived in a communal context.

While Jesus is not reduced to the church (He reigns in heaven, waiting to return) the Church is His Body. The church is His hands and mouth; doing the mighty works and proclaiming the Kingdom of God's reign. So the questions, "Where is Jesus? Can you point Him out to me?" is "Right here, in and through the Church." While such a mediated presence is less exciting than the flesh and blood appearance the apostles experienced on that first Easter (and days after) it is not any less real. Jesus is active among us, perhaps better stated, the Holy Spirit is. That is the Spirit which filled Jesus and it is the promised mode of being until the final consummation is complete.

The sins of a Christian reflect ill on the church. The mission and ministry of all of us is impacted by the faithfulness or failures of one of us. A bad preacher's publicity can undo ten good ones. Scandals get more coverage then the good works and when scandals erupt people disparage not only the church but also the Savior.

Taking our identity as the Sacrament of Jesus seriously would mean that we understand our SIGN value and sign-ificance. We would see that Jesus might be able to do it a different way, but He has chosen to do it this way. And that is consistent with how God has worked since the OT times. In response to Israel's cries He says, "I have seen, I hear, I remember the covenant and I care. Therefore I am coming down to save my people----and Moses I am sending you!" God acts in and through Moses. When God delivers the holy land to the Israelites, He does it using their troops, their weapons, shedding their blood in the process. In and through.

The disappearing church in America is a concern to me because it is tied to the ongoing presence of Jesus in our land. Jesus is fine. He is Lord after all, but America is not and  won't be. Where The Sacrament of Jesus (church) is rarely found, the benefits of that presence are also diminished. Perhaps our economically driven understanding of salvation (as a commodity benefiting me) and hyper-individualism have drained the church of meaning. Perhaps the widespread rejection of a sacramental worldview has a part to play. If all that matters is Word and words, then talking is all we care about. If sign and symbol are modified by words like "only" and "just" and relegated to the dung hill of empty, valueless things, then can there be any wonder that the church is sick? And if the claim "Jesus can do whatever He wants, He does not need us" is made loud enough and often enough, is it not likely that we will see a continued self-generated ignorance of the way Jesus actually works (in practice not theory)? He calls and forms the church. That is the way He works. Our decision to ignore that is done to the detriment of all. God calls a people to Himself. And He does it because He understands the sacramental nature of His creation.

A world without sign and symbol cannot exist. A world with people blind and deaf to them, however, is possible. But in such a world people are living on a shallow plain and have a stunted life. And when we fail to be what we are (The preminent sign of Christ's presence) we fail our Lord and we fail the world He died to save.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Human Face of God

Jesus is Divine, or so say the early Christians in their written works, compiled in what we call the New Testament. That testimony demands a response, a yes or no and does not allow for a "sorta" answer. In current American culture it is customary to either blow Jesus off in mocking tone, or, more commonly, it seems, to minimize Him in a measured and spiritual sounding way. The first time I encountered this publicly was in the movie "O God" with George Burns. When asked, "Is Jesus your Son?" George paused and then answered "Yes." My shock (and pleasure) was short lived, as George/God proceeded to say, "And so is Buddha, and so is Mohamet, and so is etc., etc." Christian claims about Jesus are not that sort of thing. No where is it intimated that Jesus is just another case of a universal phenomenon known as "Divine Sonship" or "Child of God."

A sacramental worldview acknowledges that the world has a quality not easily discerned, especially by scientific minded materialists. As we have pointed out in the last two posts, there is SIGNificance in matter and activity. The sign value, the symbolic values, the possibility for someone or something to effectively convey a deeper (invisible, spiritual) dimension is part of every day life. I would assert that the human body is the most perfect example of an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality. The two dimensions most perfectly co-exist in a human being. This is a reason why some poetically refer to humans as part angel and part ape (and perhaps many would say such a reference is not very elegant). There is no doubt that humans are animals. We eat, sleep, reproduce, engage in countless biological functions and are under the laws of nature. However, there is an above and beyond and a more to human life. For along with surviving on the planet we also create, express, devise, love, laugh, cry, and most importantly, we pray and worship. And there is in all of us a hunger for something more and most people in most places and times have identified that "more" as gods, or more accurately as The God.

There is something about human being which is open to the divine. And this openness is the foundation of the incarnation. Without it, God could not become man. It would be impossible to human nature to encompass His divinity. The best He could do was be God and look like a man (sort of an elaborate Halloween costume). This is what God would have to do in order to "become" a dog, or cat or chair. He would have to remain God but inhabit the lower life form as an appearance. But there is a spiritual depth to humanity which makes it possible for something more amazing to occur.

The Fourth Gospel begins with what scholars believe was an early hymn which was integrated by a redactor (an editor) before the Gospel reached its final form. It's poetic sound echoes the creation account of Genesis 1 and no doubt this is intentional.

In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God....through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life....He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him the world did not know Him...... and the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten.

In Hebrews 1 we read
in these last (eschatos in Greek, meaning last days as in recently, but also a reference to the end and fulfillment of all time) days He (God) has spoken to us through a Son, whom He appointed heir of all things and through whom He made the worlds (aeons in Greek, meaning all times and all creation)... Who being the brightness of His glory and the exact impression (character in Greek which refers to an engravers tool and the carved impressions, or a stamp, or a facsimile) of His person (hypostasis in Greek it is literally stand-under and refers to the substance, i.e. sub-under, stance-stand, or identity/nature.) and upholding all things by the word of His power.

In Colossians 1, again some think this a hymn, He is the image of the Invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. By Him all things were created.... He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.

And last, but not least, Philipians 2, though He was in the form (morphe Greek for outward appearance, what one sees) of God, He did not think equality with God should be robbery (i.e. He was not stealing something which belonged to God alone.) Hence He can empty Himself and take on the form of a servant/slave, i.e., He became man.

As all four of these readings make clear, in the early church Jesus was deemed a pre-existing Divine person Who chose to enter human existence and take on a human life. The most important element to recall is the claim that GOD created the world THROUGH Jesus. Jesus (the word) is the creator and such a claim is not on par with other religious leaders. He is not simply another prophet or religious teacher or spiritually gifted man. He is Divine. The key is whatever happens to Jesus, a man, after His death and resurrection, BEFORE the man Jesus existed He was the pre-existing the SON with the Father/God.

How then to view the humanity of Jesus? Sacramentally, in and through, God is present (uniquely) in the man Jesus. Jesus is the human face of God. When Jesus speaks, we hear God. When Jesus reaches out, we are touched by God. When Jesus abides with us, we are with God. When Jesus calls us, we follow God. When Jesus forgives us, we are saved by God.

As the Bible is quick to point out, no one has seen God. As the Bible also tells us, Jesus reveals God. We can see Him and with faith we can discern God's presence. Jesus' flesh is the outward sign of an invisible reality. And, because ALL human flesh shares in the SAME human nature, then all flesh has the potential to be open to the same presence of Jesus/God the Son. This is vital because, and more on this tomorrow, it is the basis for ecclesiology (theology of the church).

We, you and I, are the sacrament of Jesus. We are, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "the Body of Christ." This is not just a metaphor. Because the Holy Spirit is given to us we are really and truly and physically and sacramentally the presence of Jesus in the world today. That is how He operates, in and through us. And if that is our identity, we understand why it can only be grace, because we cannot make ourselves His Body. He must do it. And that gift is also a vocation and a burden and a task.

In conlusion: Jesus is the sacrament of God. The church is the sacrament of Jesus. The church expresses itself in word, act and concrete entities (rituals, people, things, etc) which are a sacramental expression of the saving work of God-Jesus-Church ministry. And this is why official sacraments matter and why arguments about the exact number (no more, no less) are off the point and a dangerous distraction at times.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why Sacraments Matter

When I typed in my title I noticed an unintentional pun. "Matter" has a conotation of being important, which is why I use the word. However, sacraments are also "matter" (or more technically, "stuff") which convey "spirit." As I learned some weeks ago reflecting on ontology and the word 'transubstantiation' it is difficult to convey foreign concepts to folks. I fear the word sacrament is another word of that type.

An email I got today illustrates why I think, however, that this is important. A young mother said she had been pondering what I preached about (healing ministry and gifts of the Holy Spirit). Her insight was that our world does not entertain much room for spiritual gifts. She asked, how can we embrace such beliefs in a world which leans toward materialism, science and rationalism. And how do we raise our children to see it as well?

I wrote her back that my mind was running along similar tracks this morning. As I made my lunch and prepared my breakfast this morning I was sort of mulling over why sacraments matter. Fundamentally, I think they provide the answer to the question, "Where is this God of yours?" A sacramental worldview provides a reasonable and rational explanation for believing in God's activity in the world, yet affirming human freedom. Here is why.

The sole focus on "Word" imagines a world where God speaks to His people. Certainly the Bible is an example of that. As popularly understood, God dictates His message through His human choice (a prophet or a writer) and we then encase it in the binding of a local book manufacturer. The finished product, a Bible, is then the infallible source of God's communication. Want God's input? You can read it all right here. However, in such a view, God is not necessarily active here and now. In fact, aside from the Holy Spirit enlightening the Bible-Reader, God is free to disengage entirely. The written message can stand in for God (as an ambassador) and this is why we see (in extreme cases) the Bible treated as divine. Assorted issues of interpretation aside, this is not a bad view of things. Certainly, the prophet was a voice of God's message and clearly the Bible is "The Word of the Lord!" (thanks be to GOD). However, such a limited understanding also feeds into (and flow out of) some current societal tendencies. It emphasizes the rational at the expense of other aspects of human life. Words are only as useful as the interpretation and if nothing else is clear, this is crystal clear, human beings have an unlimited and unfettered capacity to twist anything and interpret everything as they see fit. [case in point, the nightly news politcal talking heads who demonstrate this regularly] Words make for great treatises and are fodder for wonderful (and garbage) theology. Words are vital and important. But humans are more than word factories...

Sacraments open the venue for that "more" to be addressed. As I mentioned last post, sacraments are all around us. The Roman church (unlike the Orthodox east) has a charism for legal matters and organization. The upside is that cleans up the messiness. There is great blessing in parameters and clarity. However, there can also be a tendency to 'over-define' and impose clarity where mystery prevails. The Seven Sacraments is arguably a case in point. By separating out these seven (and implying no others) the Church conveys the idea that God concept is locked in a box. There is no reason to doubt that God can and does act consistently.  However, the human mind likes answers and we can overestimate what that consistency looks like. On the other hand, limiting to Two is simply buying into the same premise. That is the blind spot of Reformers. They embrace the same limitations even as they critique the Roman church. So we end up with only Two (and ignore healing and, arguably, some form of Confession/Reconciliation, both of which have roots in Jesus) but do not address the wider question, what is a sacrament?

So my brief stab at it.....God is invisible. Some seem to think that that is sufficient reason to not believe in God. If God is real, they contend (rather viciously on occassion!) then God should be seen among us. BUT, what is the assumption about that activity? And what is the assumption about all activity? Therein lies the key and therein lies the answer.

Humans are seen, we are concrete stuff. However, our inner life is not observable. Motivations, for example, can be discerned, but never touched or seen. Ideas are not tangible, even if they produce tangible results. Feelings cannot be held and painted (even if I might feel blue, or have a yellow streak or be red-hot). The influence a person exerts while absent has been documented (win one for the Gipper) even a person who is dead (I felt grandpa was in the room with me). As much as materialism seems to cover all the bases, in reality we acknowledge it doesn't by our normal use of language.

It is possible for concrete things to have a deeper aspect. My wedding ring is hugely significant to me. It is a reminder of my new identity. It is a sign because marriage is sacramental. When I misplace it I am aggitated because it is not just a ring, it is the ring. This is precariously close to my past discussion, which I do not want to repeat. But graduation exercises are real. Once you are done with it you are no longer in school. You are done and the procession and conferal of degree is an outward sign of that reality. Life is full of all manner of things. Signing a contract, burning a mortgage, awarding with a plaque and a standing ovation the life time of service, all these things are concrete signs which convey a reality.

That is the real world. A world where things matter because they have an openness to a deeper meaning and reality. And it is that real world in which God exists and acts. Hiddenly, yes, but really acts. Now God is not limited by signs and He certainly can communicate His presence as He sees fit. But the Christian critics of a sacramental worldview need to argue with humility. Remember, if we loudly advocate that God can do as He wants and God does not need sacraments to work, then by the same logic God can speak as He wants and God can communicate how He wants and God need not be limited to The Book. Just saying.....

So sacraments are official church signs in and through which we are assured that God is present. We do not need to 'feel it' or 'understand it.' We just show up and trust. Just like we do not need to feel and understand every word of the Bible. Just like we do not feel and understand everything else in life.

What kind of world is it? Think long and hard and ask yourself: in this kind of world how would one expect God to be active?