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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Salvation 4 War

The OT is full of martial conflict. This refers to actual wars which were rampant in ancient times. A conquering army was brutal and mass extermination was in the realm of possiblity. In our own times, wars have been less frequent, but WWII is a reminder that of how efficient we are at killing. Armed conflict remains a real possibility.

One aspect of salvation is the battle. One analogy for salvation is a warrior rescuing His people. The warfare is sometimes literal, God fights with the armies of Israel. Such an experience of deliverance was welcome indeed for oppressed people. However, I prefer to look at the symbolic NT example.

In the Gospel of Mark, one gets the impression that Jesus is a spiritual samari, running through the land freeing people from the grasp of satan (exorcism) or illness (healing). Jesus tells a story about binding a strong man, probably a parable depicting His dealings with satan. The man in the tombs was possessed by "Legion, for we are many in number." This allusion is no doubt intended to include the Roman armies. Jesus also told parables about a King conquering His enemies and returning to His home. These and others are windows into the idea of war as salvation.

At the funeral yesterday I preached the text of Revelation 21: 1-4. Originally I intended to focus solely on Revelation and expand the text to include what follows. I ended up moving in another direction. However, in the preparation, I considered verse 8, a list of people "not welcome" into the Kingdom. The list contains most of the expected sins (murder, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, liars) and this group is tossed into the lake of fire and sulphur. However, the first sin listed is most shocking: "the cowardly."

I grew up in the church age of Love. It was all love all the time. "Love. Love. Love. That's what it's all about..." One of the virtues which disappeared in our talk about the faith was courage. The idea that one should stand firm. The idea that one needed to "put on the armor of Christ." The idea that "the Word of God is sharper than any two edged sword." The idea that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church (note we are the ones attacking them, not them us).

God's battle over human souls is a war. He is a champion and victor. The spiritual warfare is real and difficult. As we talk about grace it is clear that one apsect of grace looks like John Wayne and the calvary riding in to save us. That is right, "to save" us. And that is what God is doing. Another analogy. Another reminder of the mulitple ways salvation is revealed. And we, you and I, respond to the call to be brave soldiers. "Onward Christian soldier" for the fight of our lives, really, truly and spiritually

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Salvation 3 Bride

Key feature: we DO NOT know very much about God (because He is perfect and eternal; that is why we worship Him alone!!!). Our language is too weak and limited to capture Him and our minds too limited to grasp Him. That said, we do know some things and can grasp some things and can enter into relationship with God.

My initial posts pointed out the limitations of the law and courtroom to explain salvation. Guilt and innocence are certianly most appropriate concepts and models; but like every ANALOGY they hide as much as they reveal.

My next focus is on Brides. Derek Leman was with us again Sunday. (He is a Messianic rabbi and great speaker. I suggest you take a peak at his books.) He had us look at Hosea. An ancient prophet, his wife was a prostitute and his prophetic message was a few chapters of words and many years living the actual message. A painful, awful thing it was, too! The idea of adultery or infidelity is central to the biblical understanding of sin. There are places where the law court is used, writs of divorce are mentioned in various places, but there is another image of sin/marital infidelity, as well. The image of a returning wife being re-eatablished in he place is not simply a law court. In this image of salvation there is no mention of sacrifice or imputation of righteousness. However, the image is just as legitimate in explaining (another facet of) salvation. From this angle, relationship of husband and wife, and not legal relationships, is vital and central. Reading Revelation for a funeral I am preaching today the 'Bride' motif was dominant in that reading.

I am married. I have counseled married couples since 1984. I have intereacted with married couples my whole life. Marriage is hard. Most marriages are not very good. A significant number fail. Even the best marriages are still painful and challenging (and even the worst have moments of blissful joy). Marriage is a great blessing and the source of much of our identity. Marriage is about dying to self in loving the other. Marriage is love producing new life (kids, a whole new set of joys and challenges and pain).

Human marriage is made of two fallible humans (One male, One female). The two are not equal. They are different in myriad ways and have different strength and weakness. In a democracy of two one vote is worth more, so marriage is about handing over power. There is strong feelings opposing patriarchy but I would argue that the only alternative is matriarchy. The ancient model is obviously patriarchal. In it, God is the "Man" and He is in charge. The church is the woman and she views her spouse as her master. HOWEVER, God loves His wife and rules her as one who sacrifices Himself in love. That is why He can rule her and she can be secure (and it is why Fundamentalists men can do a poor job, forgetting submission to their authority is grounded in the cross/love).

Reconciliation of spouses is always a gift. In our experience both partners are always wrong (about something). We forgive one another as persons who are imperfect. This is radically different with God. Our (and it is "us" i.e. the WHOLE church who is the Spouse of Christ/God) failure as wife is bridged by His acceptance of us, but He has never done wrong. It is always and only our fault. Regardles, this analogy is a marital reconciliation. There will be endless 'suffering' (guilt, shame, breaking bad habits, letting go of the lovers and becoming a good wife) and the process will be hard work. And there is nothing we can do to make our Husband/Lord receive us back. It is all grace, but coming back and asking forgiveness is not optional so human activity is part of the deal.

In other cases salvation is simply marriage. We are in love and taken by God. He choose us but we also choose Him. In this case, salvation is focused most on relationship. It is about grace, yes, but it is about how we live together and view one another. The creator God views us in an intimate way and we respond in kind. Salvation as marriage (or marital reconciliation) Another angle, some different elements. It certainly fills out things missing in other models, but it is still limited.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Salvation 2

I am reading Genesis for Lent, and the Rabbi who translated and has provided commentary made note that God remains hidden in the text. In other words, God is MYSTERY! Reading his note I was really confronted with the 'other side' of theology. Too often in our efforts to give name to what we do know about God (He has, after all, revealed all we need to know for salvation) we overstate our theories and explanations. This is a typical human error. I do it all the time. You probably do it occassionally as well. The purpose of theology is prayer and worship. In understanding more about God we are driven more enthusiastically to praise and thank Him (and obey). We know God can be trusted so we invest ourselves (in faith and love) to His care.

What we say about God is usually best understood as analogy. In other words, it "kinda is and kinda isn't" accurate. It is more like a directional indicator. It is way to think about God without (the error) of thinking we totally understand or grasp God. Infinity is not graspable and God is infinite!

So the questions raised yesterday (about Grace and imputed righteousness) flow out of the awareness that these concepts are "figures" or "images" or "metaphors" which helpd us gain insight into what God is up to. They are also aspects or angles on it. God's activity, however, is much deeper, broader and wider than any one image.

The Law Court is an analogy. We are 'like' criminals, guilty everyone, standing before a judge. (The image is literally true, but it is also a metaphor) The problem with any metaphor is it can only highlight and emphasize part of the picture. The Law Court does not, for example, include the idea of marriage. The marriage covenant is another metaphor for God (in Hosea salvation is welcoming back an errant wife!). Likewise there are numerous other images: lost sheep, errant children, wounded/dying, citizen/alien, business debt, animal sacrifice, model/imitation and the list goes on... I want to look more in depth at some of these, but suffice to say that each image is limited and it reveals and hides at the same time. So we are wise to not put too much emphasis or weight on any single Biblical model for salvation (or grace or faith). I hope to gain insight and provide insight into the word salvation, grace and faith. Your comments are helpful here or at

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Salvation 1

We are saved by God's grace.
End of Discussion.

Except, let's by honest, the Bible and the history of faith response to God (Jewish or Christian) has been more complicated than that. There are related issues to ponder. For example,

Why is the Bible so long? Why so many laws and stories and etc.? IF all we need to know is "I am saved by God's grace and I need to trust in Jesus for salvation" then isn't it just muddying up the waters to say so much about behavior? If we need to be good out of gratitude and also claim no one can ever really be good or please God, why mention it? If salvation is totally independent of what we do, then why be worried about what we are doing? One principle of interpretation is to look not at the content (what is said) but at the method of communication (how it is said). If someone says only one thing matters than, usually, they should not say more than one thing. The Bible says many things matter and in some places it emphasizes one aspect and in other places it emphasizes others. There is a reason why there are so many different theories about salvation.

One problem is the theories we spin to explain all this. While I know we cannot earn God's love, we have to be careful how we express that. One theory which bothers many of us is election. It is certainly found in the Bible and it certainly is a straightforward theory. However, as others have noted, it leads to some worrisome corollaries.

If God is just choosing those He chooses for the reason that He is choosing.
and If we are called to be imitators of God. 
Then that means we are called to be arbitrary. (Arbitrary = godly.)
SO to be like God means that we are supposed to be gracious, just not with everyone.

Another example, remember OJ Simpson? Most White people were upset about the outcome of the trial. Black people (for reasons larger than OJ) were deliriously happy and celebrated. I understand the emotional reasons for that. But here is my question, were White Christians who believe in imputed righteousness as the sole cause of salvation offended by the OJ case? In other words, why would the fact that he is a killer be important when he was declared innocent? Why would this be called a miscarriage of justice (assuming he is guilty) if that is God's way of saving?

On the other hand (sorry, I have two hands and tend to use them), based on human behavior we know a few things:
Everyone does wrong.
Everyone is a sinner.
No one is innocent.
No one truly and completely loves selflessly and purely all the time.
So what human can come before God? And if no one is able to stand before God, if God does not commute our sentence (i.e., impute innocence) what hope is there for anyone?

And if our choices are determinative and none us chooses well, what hope is there? If salvation is merely a 'reward' then it is not salvation, it is an achievement. To be saved (passive voice) is to receive something. And how can we save ourselves when we need to be saved FROM ourselves (among a myriad of other things)? And based on the data, no human has been able to earn the reward!

I think Christians are at their best when they take seriously God's grace and the giftedness of salvation, while at the same time (perhaps paradoxically) recognizing the seriousness of our choices. Perhaps our language fails. Maybe the Mystery of God is too impenetrable to allow us to verbalize it. But the value of Lent is that human acitivity does matter in relationship with God. The value of religion is that our choices impact our forever. I understand this may sound semi-Pelagian, but we are, at some point in the process, inolved and what we do does matter.... If not, then what is the point of anything?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

So much to write about from the last week, but today is Ash Wednesday and it seems fitting to focus on that instead.

Ash Wednesday may seem to be a paradox. Our Gospel today, from Matthew, says that one should not do acts of piety for public consumption. Then we all stroll around the rest of the day with ashes on our forehead. Of course, Jesus makes clear that it is public displays for the purpose of invoking the praise from others. In our culture, ashes are more likely to invoke criticism or mockery. They are probably more witness (Jesus promoting) than self promoting our piety.

The message I shared today focused on the concept of Lent, which means spring. Springtime came early around these parts (we have had little by way of winter weather). Already trees are in bloom and flowers are shooting out of the ground. Spring is a time of new life. One of the most endearing parts of the movie Bambi (probably my favorite Disney movie) is the colors of blooming flowers and the baby animals frolicking. It just feels great to be alive in spring (aside from alergies) and I think Lent should include that dimension.

As we begin anew we are confronted with two realities. Sin and Death. Jesus Christ is God's answer to the problem of sin and death. So Lent is a time to actively seek out forgiveness and healing. Stepping aside from the various theories about how exactly that happens, Lent is a time to receive the mercy and to repent in reponse to the mercy so that it can become a powerful force in our lives. "Forgive me! Heal me!" are words we need to repeat over and again during Lent. Perhaps in facing our own sin and brokenness we will be more kindly with the sin and brokenness of others. Mercy is something we receive and then pass on!

The sacrifices of Lent are intended to draw us nearer to God and not be an ends in themselves. Hence, the point of fasting is to remind ourselves that 'man does not live by bread alone...' and to act like it is true. Being hungry and uncomfortable is a way to discipline our appetites. It is also an active prayer saying "I love you" to the Father.

My suggestion is that Lenten disciplines be tailored to mission and ministry. We should "give up" in order to translate that time into something more valuable. We "give up" in order that money spent in pursuing our own desires (which is not bad) can now be invested in the work of the church (seeing to the needs of others be they physical, mental, emotional or spiritual). Here is how it looks concretely: I skip lunch one day, contribute the $10.00 to a mission. During the half hour I am not eating I read the Gospel of Mark. In that time I can probably read four chapters or so. I can also spend some moments in quiet, thanking God for blessings (like food to eat every day, a job, the ability to read, etc.) Ask God to use you to share Him with others. Eventually, God will set it up where someone asks you about lunch. You tell them you have a little thing going on from church. If they pursue it you say I will tell you about it. In the course of telling them, you share the Gospel and your personal faith. Who know what impact it could have. One thing it will definitely do, it will make you try harder to be good because you can't be fasting and praying and act like a jerk, right?

Lent is springtime. A time for a new mind (in Christ) and a converted way of being. A time for discipline and hard work. A time for sacrifice and self-gift. A time to transform some of your time, talent and treaure into Kingdom resources for the love of Jesus. May our Father bless you with His Holy Spirit and a most holy lent!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Do you believe in Jesus and Santa?

My son shared this with me on Friday night. A boy had posted on Facebook a question: "For those who believe in Jesus, do you believe in Santa, too?"

[A side bar, this question, quite in vogue among the neo-atheists, is not really a question. It is in the form of a question but it is, in truth, a challenge. It intentionally associates to make a comparison and the implicit point is conveyed in the asking...]

Santa is not a real person. Little children believe in Santa while adults do not. Believing in Santa (according to the question above) may be sweet, but it is silliness. The creation of the Santa-industry with endless stories and even actors dressed for the part is a human construction. All the fun and niceness are generated by our wishes. If you go to the North Pole he is not there. You cannot see him because he does not exist.

Jesus, their line of thinking goes, can not be seen either. As the real man, St. Nicholas, was layered with multiple stories and eventually morphed, with the help of all manner of legends, into Santa Claus, so the atheist questioner implies, perhaps there was a man Jesus, but all this talk about him is nothing but legends and wishes turned into narrative. Jesus, they imply, is another story told to make you be good and another load of empty promises about blessings.

The problem with this is it ignores exactly what Christians say about Jesus and then twists that ignorance into a critique of our beliefs. The Bible says Jesus lived, He was crucified and died, He rose (was raised) on the third day, Easter, and that after some period of time (Luke makes it 40 days) He was taken away from them with the promise to return. Christians do NOT expect to see Jesus, ever, until that day when He establishes His kingdom. He is GONE. He is reigning in Heaven, a spiritual realm. His presence among us is SPIRITUAL (i.e. Holy Spirit). Our faith is that we cannot, do not and will not see Jesus in our daily life; at best we can discern Him among us.

The Santa story conveys a messge. It takes history and makes it a myth. The Jesus story also conveys a message, but it takes myth and makes it history. That is why we see parallels to Jesus in other religions and ancient faiths. He is a flesh and blood case of what they are talking about and pointing to. The question, "You people who believe in Jesus, do you believe in Santa, too?" is really dismissive. It implies that Christians do not know the difference between fantasy and reality. Yet, what irritates me more, is it ignores how really demanding and hard Jesus makes life. It negates the Biblical record which reads nothing like 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. It ignores the reality of the teaching, healing and suffering of Jesus. It is shallow and lazy and does not invite dialogue.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Yesterday on talk radio a man was bewailing African American financial woes. I do not know who he was, but he sounded like a college professor or researcher (he was Black). The point he made was in the Black community every dollar spent was spent, on averge, one more time in the Black community. In the Asian (seven) and White (six) the rates are much, much higher. This, he said, was a factor in the continuing financial challenges which Blacks experience. Blacks are not benefiting Blacks the way other communities were, he said.  He then said that mortgages are a major part of that and that there are no Black mortgage banks.

I am not indifferent to the special challenges which Blacks face, nor am I naive enough to think that racism has no impact. On the other hand, I also think behaviors and choices need to be factored in. I know that, around here, the government is an employer of a large number of African Americans. If you work for the government you get certain benefits. Owning banks is not one of them. So the solution to Black unemployment (i.e., the government) creates a new problem (no Black businesses).  The radio man was not railing against government jobs.

Today is the feast of Bishop Charles Quintard. He was born in Stamford, Connecticut in 1824. He became a doctor, worked in Athens Georgia and ended up in Memphis. He became a priest in 1856 and was elected the second bishop of Tennessee in 1865. He served 33 years in this position. During the Civil war he was both a Confederate chaplain and a surgeon.

After the war he was instrumental in reconciliation and outreach to Blacks. In the prayer for today we prayed in thanksgiving for his example ("who opposed the segregation of African Americans in separate congregations and condemned the exclusion of poor people"). We did not focus on his medical work, his role in the military, he efforts on behalf of the University of the South, or any number of things with which he was occuppied in his long life. [side note, he donated the windows at St. Andrews, the parish I serve.] It was striking to me that the person writing the prayer was obviously motivated by a very particular agenda. It is an agenda which the Episcopal Church very publicly embraces (and this is not a critique of that point of view) so that is why I am able to notice it.

How the church chooses to remember him (five paragraphs on one page and a prayer on the other) is but a partial summary. That is the challenge. How do you summarize an entire life by a few words or a major social situation in a few minutes. Reality is much more complex. Whatever we say must be nuanced. We must remember that much is left unsaid. Yet, how can we say everything about everything? We need to summarize and need to use few words. Our hope is that while incomplete, the summary is still accurate.

I wish I was better at keeping that perspective. I wish I alwasy remembered that there is always more to the story. I have struggled with being wider and deeper on issues the last few years. It is not easy. I am not smart enough, nor educated enough, to get beyond pretty simplistic thought in almost everything (there are a few areas where I am okay!). Being aware of agendas and perspectives is important. It is valuable if we are to find the truth (rather than impose it). It takes more humility and hard work than most of us want to muster.

We live in a big world and we only see 'parts and pieces.' We are all "partialists." Everyone needs to hear the rest of the story. Jesus is the Truth. We know and love Him. He is our hope for someday grasping (and being grasped by) Truth. In the meantime we need to keep both eyes open and constantly ask the question, "what more is there to this." It does not mean giving up convictions and speaking out strongly. It does mean doing so with humility and care.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Greatest Love of All

So Whitney Houston becomes the latest "tragic death" of a pop icon. I heard it on the radio while drivng home from a wedding reception. I was saddened to hear it. She was a beautiful woman and a gifted singer. Like all such people, they enter our lives and become part of our memories. They are connected to events about which they know nothing.

When Whitney was a star I was leading young people in retreats called Search. The basic format was five small groups led by ten youth leaders. Each leader gave a talk on a particular aspect of the Christian faith. During the talk it was understood that the speaker would address a certain number of points (to insure content) but they were free to interject their own personal insights and illustrations. At the end of each talk was a period of meditation during which the speaker chose a song, almost always a pop song. I can still hear the kids saying, "My song for you is..." Music could really hammer home the talk and frequently opened emotions.

One of the talks was "Who am I?" a most appropriate question for high school students (and increasingly pressing for this middle aged man!). I do not recall the outline (it has been 23 years that I left that vocation) but I think an important point was the barrier which self loathing and 'wearing masks' creates. I remember that one of the young ladies chose Whitney's hit, "The Greatest Love of All." I ended up allowing it, but always had reservations about the song and its content. On the one hand, genuine self-love is a good thing. Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It would seem He assumes we do love ourselves. On the other hand, self-love can also be self-centered, selfish, and destructive.

The Greatest Love of All is Jesus, expressed on the cross, but also manifest in preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising. Jesus the Listener. Jesus the Companion. Jesus the Incarnate Love of God. When one turns inward to find the greatest love one loses one's way. However, there is a sense in which truly loving ourselves would make us seek God, because that is the source of life and salvation. As is usually true, it all depends on what you mean by love yourself. I love my kids and I want them in right relationship with God. So self love would probably mean the same.

At any rate, the little I know about her, it seems Whitney lost the first love. My daughter saw her picture on tv and said, shocked, "She was beautiful?" The Whitney she knew was from photos of a haggard and drug wasted former star. Sadly, her life is ended. Unlike the Hollywood voices declaring that she is in heaven, I am less enthusiastic about her future. A wasted life, even if celebrated by the entertainment industry, is still a wasted life. How many of these people have we seen destroy themselves in the last few years (and Elvis and Judy Garland are reminders that the previous generations were also touched in the same way)? It is a reminder that what really matters is what really matters. Too often all of us, celebrity or not, are caught up in the wrong things. Self love twisted into self pleasuring becomes self hate. We destroy ourselves because we are caught off from the Source. We are cut off from the One Who is The Greatest Love of All. So we say a prayer for this once beautiful, once talented woman. We remember ways in which she touched us and those we love. And we learn a lesson that that anyone can get lost on the journey, so we pay greater attention to our steps.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Yesterday my brother-in-law got married. It was quite the family affair. My wife (his sister) was a maid of honor as was my daughter. On the other side my son was a groomsman. I was the officiant so for the first time all four of us were on the altar together. [Baby, in his tux, sat in the back of the church.]

After the service the photographer told me that it was really nice to be at a wedding with a religious context and a message. He then said that he does alot of weddings and (like I had said) most of them have no trappings of faith.

The wedding homily I delivered, on their choice of readings, 1 Corinthians 13, did focus on the current state of marriage. There are two components, a reluctance to make a commitment and rejection of institutions, which seem to go hand in hand. When a couple comes to a church to marry they are doing something different from many of their peers.

The act of marrying changes things. As I told the couple, "you  have each added new parents." I turned to her and said, "I am now your brother and you have another brother and sister, and you are an aunt." (My daughter began to cry at that moment, for joy) Her friends and his friends are now in new relationships. The chosing of a spouse makes that happen.

However, God is also invited into a church wedding. Suddenly the covenant is a sacred covenant before (and with) God. Marriage is a sacrament, a sign of the invisible God. Most amrried couples do not do a bang up job in their vocation. That is okay. There is something to be said for trying. It is important that we understand our lives together in the light of that sacred vocation to mirror the love of Christ and His church.

The 'hymn to love' from 1 Corinthians 13 is not about marriage. In the previous chapter Paul takes the small church to the woodshed because their eucharist is a time of conflict. The Apostle is quite firm with them. He then talks about the church is a body. This concept, so hard for individualist Americans to grasp, is central to his ecclesiology (theology of church). We are all different yet we make up the body. Some parts are more important, some are more needy, some require greater care and protection, but all together make one whole. Paul then talks about the different gifts in the church. Each of us has our own set of gifts. Yet, he continues in 13, whatever the gifts and however amazing, if they are not based in love they mean nothing. Our gifts can cause us to be arrogant or depressed. We may overstate our importance or understate it. Paul says focus not on yourself and your gifts, but use your gifts in (love) service of others.

He then reminds us that today is but a dim view of reality. He uses the term mirror, but of course our modern mirrors do not distort so the analogy limps. I understand that ancient mirrrors were not so true, more like a shiny peice of metal. You and I do not see the world as it is. Someday we shall. Concluding with that, our eyes are not set on the horizon, the glimpse at "coming attractions." Some day we shall see God. See Him, love and be loved by Him. Someday Jesus will be manifest, totally. Until then, spouse, family, friend, and parishioners are what we have. In us and through us His love is manifest. The mundane is the holy. We need eyes to see.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Obey the government

In light of the current crisis involving the Roman Catholic Church and President Obama, today's reading from Romans 13 was most interesting. An extended snippet: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."

So what is a Roman Catholic to do? Now the problem can be pretty easily dealt with if one simply recalls yesterday's exhortation, taken from chapter 12. "Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good." Abortion is evil. It involves killing an unborn child (referred to as a fetus, which is a stage in human development, no different than terms like baby, adolescent, adult are other terms). The fact that in our nation it is legal to kill unborn babies does not make it any less evil. The fact that the President of our nation has determined that Roman Catholics, who consider abortion to be murder, are being told that they have to provide access to abortion as part of their insurance plans, is evil. Am I saying the President is evil? Probably not, typical of most Liberal Protestants (that is a technical term dating to the 19th Century) our President's faith informs his decisions. He thinks a woman's rights to choose is the "Christian" thing to do as an act of justice. Like all Liberal Protestants (or Catholic Modernists) he is muddled in his thinking. A smart person making clear arguments from an erroneous assumption will always end up in error. He has made a huge error here. But it is up to God to judge if he is evil. I am not inclined to say that.

However, this does not solve the problem of St. Paul's blanket statement about a Christians response to government. Obedience to (human) authority is always risky. Politicians (Conservative, Moderate or Liberal) are notoriously human. They are afflicted with the limitations of human understanding, motivated by human desires and emotions, limited by human sin and brokeness, and prone to error (both intentional and unintentional). To equate obeying governments with obeying God is an overreach. So why did Paul (inspired by God!!!) do it?

I think our approach to Scripture is what is really at question here. Do we think that one should be able to read a verse, or several verses, and answer all life's questions? There is a brand of Christians who do seem to say this. I envy them, in many ways. Their lives are simpler. There is, however, another way. It is a way that embraces the Bible in its entirety as God's Word to us. Such an approach, reading Scripture passages in light of the entire message, is exhausting and difficult. How does one balance hundred and hundreds of pages in one's head? That is not easy and it is a good reason for official church teaching. Interpreted Scripture, if you will, provides a framework for reading and studying individual passages.

I know, because the church has taught me, that good citizenship is a Christian duty. Hence, I see Paul's words in that context. Government is good. It is God-given. I also know that Kings (and other officials) are supposed to be faithful. Paul did not say that here, but it is said elsewhere, especially in the OT. So I know Paul is not saying whatever the government does is fine, good and godly. He assumes we already know that there is more to the story. He is, however, dealing with Christians in Rome (and no doubt making an effort to clarify to Roman authorities that he is a friend of the Empire). His words are a helpful corrective to an overzealous individuality which disdains authority. Christian anarchists need not apply! Paul wants the church and the Roman Empire to know, that he believes God says good citizenship is good.

As much as most of us dislike it, there is tension in the life of a disciple. Memorized verses are no antidote for the mandate to "die to self" and follow Christ. Simplistic answers to complex questions are not enough. We are called to read and internalize the word of God, but we must do it in a community of faith, where we can come to a fuller understanding. As much as I love to read the Bible, I always know that it is not an answer book. It is an invitation to deeper prayer and thought, together. It is why I write this blog and read others, it is why I go to church and pray and study in community. It is why God made the church and authority in the church.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


One of the occupational hazards of being a counselor-priest is that you are privy to any number of unpleasant secrets. Over the years I have heard countless stories of marital break down. It is a painful thing to watch and it is hard to hear. The twin roles of counselor and preacher collide at such times. How to save the marriage? How to spare these people the injuries and pains? How to heal and set them free to live in abundance? And there is nothing sadder than the failed marriages of church people, folks who are publicly commited to Jesus Christ.

A common theme in all of the divorces is a sense of betrayal. One or another of the partners takes it upon himself/herself to dissolve the bond, to annul the covenant, to walk away from the life partnership. People feel that there was treachery and that they have been duped.

With that in mind, I read the old familiar story of Isaac, Jacob and Esau with a tender heart. Old blind Isaac has been duped by his wife and son and given the blessing to the younger. One senses this is God's preference, but the narrative is not so straightforward. Instead, we read about the wiles of the characters and see an old man taken advantage of by those closest to him. Esau, a simple man skilled in physical feats but less adept at 'palace intrigue', is a pitiable figure. He returns from the hunt, having done what his father commanded only to discover that the blessing has been given to another. A weeping Esau cries out, "Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me also, father!"

In prayerful meditation I paused to let the scene sink in. The mighty, hairy man, weeping, stood before his empty handed father. There was no blessing. None. Jacob had snatched it up and made it his own. And as I pondered this situation I realized that the founding father of Israel (in fact, a man called Israel!) came to his place by treachery and deceit. The messiness of life....

Less we think all is well for Jacob, he lives in an exile for many years, he is duped by his father-in-law and suffers mistreatment. His later years are filled with tragedy as his sons deal treacherously with him (in the Joseph story). His life, while much blessed, is also painfilled. There is a price to be paid for treachery. And, ironically, Esau re-appears, however briefly, as a rich warlord who is full of forgiveness. So with no blessing he turned out to have quite the life. Details being scant we can not say much more than that.

Perhaps the hope to be drawn is that no matter how bad things are now, God can impact our futures. It is well to recall that even bad things can be shaped into good outcomes (though not without heart break, suffering and tears). Our infidelities are the creators of much horror, but God redeems even those false acts and uses them to create new situations. With that in mind, a priest-counselor can continue to walk with the wounded folks and whisper a word of solace and hope: "In the end, God finds a way. Do not despair."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Paul to the Romans (and us!): "do not be conformed  to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God."

The world, unfortunately, is not always straightforward. It has a way of injecting it self in ways that are subtle and nuanced. That has long been the Church's problem. She is filled with the Holy Spirit and is a new creation in Christ, but she is also created from humans who have plenty of the old creation (i.e., the world) in them. One of the recurring themes of my writing is the painful reality of just how much world still remains in the new creation. Christian Triumphalism does not ring true in my ears. Perhaps I have seen too much of the inner workings of the Church. Maybe I have observed too many Christians in their daily lives. (Maybe I am just negative) Anyhow, Paul obviously thought being conformed to the world was not only a possibility, but enough of a temptation that he needed to exhort the church to avoid it.

How do we conform to the world? Perhaps the best source of that information is to visit with non-believers. Let them speak about their goals and desires. Invite them to paint a vision of how the world should be. These folks are your primary resource for understanding ''the world." Maybe we need to take a few weeks off from evangelizing and spend that time doing research.

I think we might be surprised by how much our evangelism resembles marketing. How much our value system reflects socio-economic status. Many times Christian worship looks like popular entertainment (or traditional worship looks like high brow entertainment, or country and western entertainment). Many times Christian fellowship looks like a meeting of a Republican PAC, unless, of course, it resembles a Democratic PAC.
Many times.... and there are a myriad of other examples.

How does one choose a church? What is the criteria? How different is it from choosing where to live or work? Is it motivated by what I want or what am I called to do? I fear that my life is much more conformed to the world than I am aware. I am not sure that my unbelieving neighbors in this community would find my family life terribly different from their own. The struggle is finding a way to not conform to the world which conforms to Jesus. Too often we just opt to conform to another segment of the world and we do it in a worldly way. In a couple of weeks it will be Lent. A season for repentance. Also a season for self examination. Maybe a good idea to do investigate how much con-forming I have done.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Today at church we read about Jesus and the woman found in adultery. The verse which gets the most attention in that short narrative is Jesus' response to the stone wielding group. "Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone."

First of all, stones are not metaphorical in this confrontation. It was real flesh and blood men holding real stones. Stones which would bruise and break the human body of the real flesh and blood woman who was their intened victim. This was going to be brutal.

Secondly, the stone carriers were correct. According the the Law they were supposed to stone the woman. Her offense was a serious offense (hard for modern Americans to believe, in our promiscuous culture, but not so hard for a husband or wife who experienced such a betrayal). So the lynch mob was correct, but they were not right. Why do I say this? Because the woman is alone, where is her accomplice? One does not need to be a Feminist to recognize an injustice here. How is it that she is punished with death while he has escaped scrutiny? Therein, perhaps, is part of Jesus' problem. Therein we find the hypocricy. One challenge to all of us 'law and order' types is the reminder that Justice is blind, but we are not. We tend to pick on the weaker folks (or outsiders) when delivering judgment. The rich, powerful and well connected live under 'different rules.'

Thirdly, Jesus makes clear, the woman sinned. That is not what is being debated here. Jesus does not say, "No big deal. Sexual desires are a blessing so she needs to be free to find her passions fulfilled." Jesus does not rail against marriage as a construct of male domination crushing and dehumanizing woman. Jesus does not salute the woman as a courageous explorer, willing to transgress society and its stifling and oppressive rules. In fact, the story closes with His admontion, "do not sin again." Mercy is coupled with the demand for holiness.

What Jesus does do is connect the sinner's desire for mercy with the sinner's responsibility to show mercy. This theme appears in a variety of guises throughout the Gospel. In the Lord's prayer (forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors), in parables (the servant who owed millions), in preaching (it is mercy I desire not sacrifice) Jesus repeats the theme. All of us are sinners. All of us deserve the death penalty. No one is clean. In light of that, He is clear, be slow to torture and kill (especially the ones different from you) in the name of God or justice.

The problem? In a family counseling session last week two parents shared that their college aged daughters have adopted the motto "who am I to judge?" The post-modern perversion of Jesus' words are rampant. Even traditionalists (like me) feel the weight of such sentiments. Clearly, in a diverse world with so many opinions it is tempting to step back and "live and let live" and accept that "to each his own" is a more peaceful way to coexist.

The kicker is, Jesus seems to say, "stop sinning" even as He invites us to forgive. He says, let the sinless one throw the first stone. We are called to awareness of our sin. We are not told there is no sin. We are told to stop sinning because there is sin. So what to do in a world where the next generation seems reluctant to identify sin? If we prayed more and studied Scripture more perhaps we would find ourselved being shaped by God more. I do not think the judgment-free culture is judgment free. I think it is hostile to faith, particularly Christian faith. I think it advocates for sin. I think we who know and love Jesus need to find ways to procalim His message.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


This morning prior to our eucharist I was praying Morning Prayer. The reading from 2 Timothy 2:14-21is a difficult one for me. Paul tells the young churchleader "avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening."

Obviously, I am not a fan of picking a verse (or in this case, part of a verse) and building a God-delivered mandate for every time and season. The truth is, the Scriptures are always best utilized when we apply them correctly. There is a time to build up and a time to tear down, etc. Our dilemma is reading the signs of the time.

Therefore, it appears to be an oversimplification to simply state "avoid wrangling over words" as if we can simply sidestep every argument. Theology is the art of wrangling over words. Trying to keep a balance, we must exercise extreme caution, as we carefully construct our definitions. Careless statements about God are very dangerous. People can be led into all manner of evil because they have not thought through their theology, or they have failed to grasp the true teachings about God.

Yet, there is much wrong with the constant arguing and fighting amongst Christians. There are times when one church or another identifies some line in the sand and draws swords (figurative and literal) to stand to the death (their own or others). Finely tuned arguments can turn vicious and divide the church into factions. But the refusal to wrangle can result in each person going his/her own way without a thought to what others are saying. To say "we just agree to disagree" can be a polite way of saying, "Go thee hence!"

Wrangling! The world is full of it and most of us are very weary of hearing it and participating in it. Would that we all embraced the truth and lived in the truth. Yet, sadly, this side of the Kingdom, seeking the truth entails more wrangling and conflict than most of us want. For as Paul continues in the same letter, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by Him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth." Explaining that word of truth, unfortunately, leads to wrangling.

Friday, February 3, 2012

How Bad is it?

Yesterday we were in Bible Study and we addressed the issue of the social changes in our culture. There are many things going one which cause one to worry. It seems that we hear about people being 'persecuted' for their faith in America (or Canada or England) in ways that were unthinkable a decade ago. Traditional beliefs are increasingly being "criminalized" (usually through fines) and while such cases are isolated and seem to be few and far between, the fact that they occur at all is bothersome.

One of the datum which catches my attention is the comments section of many secular websites. I try to keep up with things and probably get most of my news from internet sources. I also read articles from popular publications (like on-line newspapers or magazines). My personal interest includes religious topics, not surprisingly, and it is there that I see the 'writing on the wall' (literally and figuratively). It is amazing how many angry atheists there are. It is sobering to read the (often simplistic) attacks on organized religion in general and the Christian Church in particular. There can be little doubt that some of this is the culture wars (secularized Democrats and Right Wing Christian Republicans). Some of what I wrote about the last two days (demonizing) is certainly at work. Christians have not always been real Christian in the political sphere. But, there is more going on than poor witness or faulty Christians. There is also a deep seated something (anger, hate, despair, fear, rebellion?) at work.

The recent effort to undermine the Catholic Church is something different. I cannot help but believe the media focus on pedophilia in the Catholic Church is part of it. Let me be clear, the Bishops messed up in a myriad of ways. There is NO excuse for what they did. They got what they deserved. But, here is where I do have questions. Why is it that the focus was almost solely on the Catholic Church? (remember I am not Roman and my status with Rome is persona non grata) I have read that the abuse rate in RC churches is actually lower than in many others. I think that there is an anti-Catholic (and also anti-Christian) movement. The sins of the church have taken away their moral authority to speak to issues. It is literally like building bombs and then sending them to your enemies to use in war.

So, how bad is it? By historical standards, it has been better but it has been worse. In the 16th Century Christians were killing each other. In the early Middle Ages the barbarians were pretty brutal and thorough in wreaking destruction. As one looks over the last two thousand years it is fair to say that many Christians have lived in far worse conditions. Even now, looking at Christians in Africa or Asia, we know that there are many who suffer greatly, including death, for the faith. So American Christians can come off as whiners when we talk about how bad it is. Yet, in fairness, there is ample reason to be concerned about the current trajectory. It is fair to ponder what it will be like in twenty years. And we do well to engage in spiritual practices to prepare for what comes next.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Demonization 2

Having reflected yesterday on the issue of demonizing others, I would like to spend a bit more time wrestling with other aspects of the issue.

It is clear, that in many cases our conflicts are the result of this tendency in all of us to make those with whom we disagree 'the enemy.' Not everyone does it. I have been told that I do it alot. So....

Two things which make this process proceed more vigorously are the tendency to argue to win (rather than REAL dialogue, i.e., ponder together to seek the truth). Winning is so consuming that we make that the goal. (Sort of like those constestants on 'The Bachelor' who seem to forget that marriage is not a tennis match) If the desire to win is a problem, then the tendency to create 'teams' only magnifies it. As we form coalitions to "fight! fight! win!" we become less willing to be reflective. In the name of "togetherness" we gloss over our stuff and focus on their stuff with laser precision.

I know this is a fact. I have seen it in myself and others. And I have especially seen it in the people with whom I disagree! [Because seriously, isn't what 'they' do always easier to see?] At this point, with soft music playing in the background, I am making a plea for genuine dialogue and actual listening and honest evaluation. But that is where the breakdown occurs.

In the Epsicopal Church the word dialogue has long been held up as a value. In reality, in too  many cases, the dialogue is a smoke screen. While we talk and talk, unfortunately, some folks are acting on their beliefs. No consensus needed when you have the reality in place. I recall several years ago (2005ish) when our clergy got together I said the following," You say we are trying to discern together what our future will be. But if I am doing marriage counseling and the wife says she wants figure out where they should live, and I later find out she is moving furniture into a house ten miles away, well, I would say that the decision is already made." Even the Liberal guys admitted that, in fact, the time for talking had passed. So dialogue, which really is a good thing, is probably no longer a viable word to use. And with good reason.

Last week, a very important person in America was bemoaning the behavior of the other side. He basically said that those guys are playing politics and refuse to do what is best for the country and support what I want. It was a clear example of what I am talking about. "They" are bad because "they" won't do what I want....

However, there is another problem. Sometimes we are taking a stand against evil. The abortion debate is a crystal clear example. Killing an unborn baby is evil. Are there ever times it is necessary (say in a tubal pregnancy)? Perhaps. But as a means of birth control it is morally evil. Now, we live in a land where thousands and thousands have terminated their pregnancies in this way. Some people hold up the right to abortion as a good thing. While there is much room to discuss moral culpability (in this environment some people really do not "see" or "get" it. They are truly ignorant) and there are also other co-related issues (pro-life has to address issues of supporting mothers/children with special needs, basic care, food, etc. In other words once they are born then what?), in the end, the issue of killing babies is fundamentally about killing babies. With the recent decision to go after the Roman Catholic Church and force them to fund abortions (I am using shorthand here), I think the moment of dialgue ended. Is it demonizing the position that some in our government have taken to force the Roman Catholic Church to do this? Is it fair to say the policy is evil, even demonic? Is it fair to claim that while some (maybe many) are truly acting in ignorance or are blinded by other factors it is also likely that there are some who understand exactly what they are doing and are intentionally doing it?

My opinion is that abortion is The great evil of our society. I also believe that there is a demonic element to it. And like the man in the synagogue, those under satan's control are themselves, to some degree, also victims. Which brings us back to prayer. It is most important that we love and pray for those whom we have discerned are in the throes of demonic possession/oppression/influence. Exorcism is a gift given to the church. First, we need to seek it for ourselves to get free. Then, we need to employ it as we engage a world which is still, in some places, under the (mis)guidance of the Prince of this World [and I don't mean Jesus!].
Listening to one another and loving one another is the goal, but once you have heard the other and are clear that the other (whom you love) is doing/advocating evil, then the loving thing to do is to confront. Always remembering that in that confronting you are always a potential tool of demons yourself.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Yesterday I wrestled a bit with the idea of possession. Today I want to look at a related process: demonizing.

Last week I got an e-mail from an old friend. It was a series of photos of Barak Obama and each picture was accompanied by a heartflelt thank you for Obama's smile, his care for the poor, his stand for the underclass, etc., etc. What struck me is how differently the President is portrayed in other e-mails which are sent to me.

Messiah. Anti-Christ. Help to Poor. Communist. Caring Family Man. Cold, arrogant, withdrawn. The contrasts go on and on. Yet what really hit me, hard, was how sincere the people who send me these disparate e-mails are. And in many cases, the opposing views are held by people who are dear to me.

In my Training/Quality Management days (late 90's) we always harped on the importance of data and the danger of 'perceptions.' We all tend to see the world in a way that reinforces are preconceived ideas. That is why marriage counseling is so difficult. It is why parent-child conflict is so difficult. It is why church fights are so difficult. Few of us are able to see the world through the eyes of another. We tend to react to the others, usually to defend something (a value, a position, maybe ourselves) and the conflicts tend to grow or fester.

The anger in the Republican primary (expressed in negative ads and pretty obvious disdain between a couple of candidates) is nothing compared to the pending show down in the actual election. Our divisions are manifest daily (and as a side note looking at the American revolution, or the Civil War, or most any time period it is clear that division and neagtivity are neither new nor worse). The issue is how to engage one another without demonizing? On a national level, a local level, in the church, in our families? Perhaps we Christians need to take more seriously the sorry state of things and pray more fervently for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Perhaps rather than add to the rancor we need to revision our vocation as repentant sinners and prayer intercessors. Which is a good reason for me to stop typing and start praying!