Total Pageviews

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hatfields, McCoys, & Faith

Like many folks I sat mesmerized by the recent miniseries on the History Channel. Any cinematic recreation must play loose with the actual historical details, there is not time to portray all the intricacies of real life, especially something of this magnitude. I am no expert on this particular slice of American history. At any rate, what was on TV had a hisorical basis. One element was religion and faith.

The McCoy patriarch in the earlier episodes was a deeply Christian man. His was a particular type of Christian faith, as it always is. I believe we all confrom our Christian faith to our particular values and 'politics.' There is an old expression, "God made man in His image and likeness; and man has returned the favor." Randall McCoy's Christianity was of a particular kind and much of it of his own making.

As the feud produced its murders and destruction, Randall's faith was under test. At one point his wife asked, "You still pray?" implying that God had failed to answer his pleas. In the next episode, Randall asks, "Where is the God of Justice?" as he surveys his burning home and his dead son and daughter (He lost five children in total). For the rest of the episode he is reduced to a drunken unbeliever.

"Where is the God of Justice?" That is the ancient question; most favored by faith's enemies.
"You still pray?" That is the question asked by many in our culture, sometimes with a sneer.

Whatever else we can say about America's most famous family feud, it is clear that human decisions were perfectly aligned each step of the way to create ever greater misery. The people involved were victims of their environment. Desperately poor, they were educated in a value system which included a demand for respect and an embrace of violence. When life is hard the hard people survive. And hard people read the Bible through hard eyes. [much like soft people do the opposite]

I am too entrenched in my own socio-cultural bubble to be too judgmental of the fallacies of others. After all, in my "civilized" world all manner of evil is perpetrated in expensive offices on comfy leather chairs accompanied by drinks. Who needs to shoot someone when you can afford lawyers? Even so, there were some obvious theological errors to me. The first and most glaring: the absence of the cross. Jesus says we are saved by the cross, His and our own. If being saved by faith means being saved by becoming a disciple (and I think it does) then carrying our cross, in imitation of Him, is part of the process. Jesus says, "Unless you..." too many times for my comfort. There are definite expectations (some famous Pauline quotes aside) and most of them run counter to our natural inclinations!

Randall's faith did not overtly include "dying to self" or "forgiving the debts of others." His was an arrogant faith which demanded of others and spewed eternal judgment. It is never easy to forgive, whether scratching out an existence in rural Kentucky or living large in a penthouse in New York. (or somewhere inbetween like us!) Mercy is a God attribute which we can, at best, borrow from time to time. But a failure in mercy accompanied by a demand for justice (generally meaning 'getting even') has been the leading cause of endless blood feuds, whether on a small scare like Hatfield-McCoy or a grander scale like Ireland or Israel. There is something demonic about harboring memories of all past slights and offenses.

Two other issues which bear addressing:
"Where is the God of Justice?" I think the Bible is clear, He is watching and waiting. The "Day of the Lord" is something which is coming (and the prophets make clear it is not all good for ourside when it gets here!). Randall's question was answered long before his own personal misery added its existential angst. God long ago, soon after the beginning, when He had made us, handed over much of the enterprise to us. We battle on the planet to set things in order. Always have, always will. Choices for good and ill have consequences, and most of those unanticipated. God does not sit around pulling strings to make sure everything works out. He is not controlling every detail. He intervenes. That means much of what takes place (whether nature or us) is not directly His doing. In fact, He judges us. That is where the God of Justice is. He is watching us and determining if we act justly. So Randall, who helped create the blood feud, is the one standing before the Judge answering for his (in)justice. God is NOT under his scrutiny! In fact, the most arrogant aspect of Randall's Christianity is his insistence that God is answerable to him.

"You still pray?" I spent some weeks recently addressing the issue of prayer. The implication here is Prayer = Request. In such a scenario God answering our requests is the purpose of prayer. Hence, if you ask for stuff and you do not get it, prayer is useless. While there is every reason to include requests as prayer, the Christian journey implies a much deeper understanding of prayer. If Randall had truly prayed, he would have come into the presence of the Heavenly Father seeking "Thy will be done." Instead, he embraced my will be done.The proper answer to his wife should have been, "yes, I am praying, this situation is awful and my own sin has helped create it and sustain it. I am praying for mercy and guidance." Some day God will rule, some day His kingdom will come, some day His will will be done. Some day, but not today and not then, in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.

I do not know much about the real Randal McCoy. I know the History Channel modeled their tv character on him. And I know the tv character provided much fodder for thought and reflection as I assess the true meaning of faith, prayer and discipleship. I hope I do not end up a drunken unbeliever. I know that path is available to anyone who gets the questions and answers wrong. I know the struggle and the challenge of doubt. I know it is a journey, a journey of faith.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Miami Horror

Like anyone who ran across the story I was shocked and horrified by the report of a naked man who ate the face of another man and was then shot by police. The follow up stories from Miami included mention of a current fad with a drug called "the new LSD" which apparently causes the body to overheat. This was menitoned as a possible chemical cause for the bizarre behavior. News accounts were able to provide some information about the assailant's last day. He was divorced, he had a car and he had a girlfriend whom he had seen that morning. No one has shared pulicly why after he went to a beach party and he then left his clothing strewn along his path, nor why he stopped over an elderly homeless man and began to strip him and devour his face.

The police officer who shot and killed the man claims that he growled at him. A doctor reported that the drug produces an increase in strength and it requires several people to hold a man down who has ingested it. The policeman's response has not come under media scrutiny. It was clearly disturbing and the officer needs our prayers.

As awful as the story is, it is really not the main concern I have. What I found more awful was the comment section under the initial story. I did not read all of them, only a dozen or so, but the ones I read were consistently crass and vulgar. There were assorted light hearted jokes of a sexual nature, diet jokes and assorted political comments. Everything seemed to meet with a approval of other commenters except for the guy who went religious.

I found myself wondering, 'what is wrong with us?' How is it that our public conversation around something so heinous is reduced to lame and inappropriate humor?

My assumption is that we will not hear of a rash of these kinds of attacks. I would think this will be an isolated case. However, the deeper sickness which grips us, the attitudes which abound among us is here to stay. I recently heard a discussion about a hot-button social issue. The supporters of this regularly claim that younger members of our society agree with them, that we who oppose them "are on the wrong side of history." This morning I pondered that. No doubt the beliefs of the wider society are changing. But based on internet comments sections, I am not sure that the "widely held beliefs" of our society are any measure of morality. Theologically, sin still rules until Jesus comes back. Let us pray Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What about the Holy Spirit?

Today is Pentecost. It is arguably the third most important feast day of the Liturgical year (Easter and Christmas being the other two). It is popularly called the birthday of the church. It is the primary feast of the Holy Spirit. It is the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to His disciples and also God's promise to Israel. It is foundational for our understanding Who God is and how we are to be in the world. It is a very big, buig day for our church. But....In all honesty, probably because of a mixture of the anti-liturgical bent of most Protestant Christians coupled with the secular value system of our people, this feast day is not a well attended event. If Easter and Christmas mean doubling normal attendance, today is probably 1/3rd less than normal (especially as it is Memorial Day). Sad...

Perhaps it is not as important to people because it focuses on the Holy Spirit. Most of us get God, we understand, even if we do not believe, the idea that there is a Creator. An all powerful God is not a huge stretch for most people. Belief in God is actually the norm in most places and times.

The incarnation of God, the Word made flesh, is probably more of a stretch. What could it mean that God became a man, that the divine is human flesh and blood? It is a mystery, but even so, there is a sense in which "gods walking among us" is part of many culture's tales and religious ideas. A God stripping Himself and enterring the human realm has a certain dignity to it. In the end, ANY communication we have with God demands that this be so. God must always condescend in order to be with us. The incarnation of Jesus is merely a special (and most wonderful) example of what is going on everywhere and any time God is among us. And the best part about Jesus is we can (theoretically) see Him, touch Him, hear Him. Stories about Him are there for us. We can measure His words and ponder them. We can reflect on His acts and come to know Him. His life, while different from us, is still a human life. We get that. We know about heroes and holy men, about teachers and preachers. We have a mental model to understand Jesus and His life.

The Holy Spirit, however, is another thing. The Spirit is formless. The Spirit is invisible. Talking about the Spirit seems too open to each one's whims. We enter the world of endless metaphors, a realm of analogy and simile. The Spirit is like breath, or wind, or shared feeling. The Spirit is the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit of Jesus. It is the life of God poured into us. The Spirit is the Instructor, the Paraclete, the One moving in our souls and hearts to make God accesible. The Spirit gets credit for many of our ideas. [In the Epsicopal church "the Spirit" is the code word employed for any new innovation.] As such, the Spirit is confusing. There is nothing to grasp beyond what others tell us that the Spirit has told them. The Spirit is claimed by all, orthodox and heretic; and most enthusiastically by the latter!

The Bible gives mixed messages about the Spirit. In places, like Luke, The Holy Spirit is active with the characters. In his birth narrative the Spirit is involved in the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. It is there to inspire the great canticles of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon. The Spirit fills Jesus and led Him into the desert. Yet in the Gospel today Jesus says that unless He goes the Spirit will not come. Hmmm.

Now obviously there are many Christians, apologetically prepared and arguments honed, who will provide a version of how these are both true. I do not want to go there. I prefer to be open to the text and humble before it. Perhaps God does not need me constantly running to defend Him (and His word). Perhaps it is enough to admit to mystery larger and deeper than I normally do. In John's writings there is much tension about the newness of Christian faith. In one of my favorite quotes he says, "I give you a new commandment" then later "it is not new at all." In Jesus, while everything is the same, it is all different. That is, to some degree, what the Holy Spirit talk is about. The Spirit, Who is always at work and alwasy has been since creation, is coming now. We do well to remember that talking about God always borrows language from our world and applies it to the One who transcends all thought and reason and feeling. Pure mystery, not ever grasped, but pointed at from afar. Theology requires we say something about God. Good theology reminds us that what we say must include the reminder that it is not 'fully' true in the sense that it cannot 'fully capture' the Truth. Real orthodoxy is humble.

The Spirit is the Person of God Who is not the Father and not the Son, yet Who is, and Who conveys the life of the Father and the Son to us. He comes among us, like fire, wind and power. He is like God's life breath and His entrance (again and again in myriad ways) in our lives is our source of power and life. He is at work, most commonly imperceptably. He is among us as something like the continued and abiding presence of Jesus (Who is long absent). He is imaged a gift of the Father to bring us new life, to make us reborn, from above--still the same yet totally different.

My deepest desire would be that today 500 souls would batter down our church doors to sing and pray and hear the story. My deepest desire is the we would be overflowing with Christians enthused and excited about God among us in and through the Spirit and celebrating this great event of salvation history; a huge throng hungry to make our parish the kind of church God wants us to be. I long to see people on fire and full of a mighty wind, ready to go forth an preach Jesus' Kingdom and provide God's healing, exorcism, teaching and forgiveness. It will not be like that, today, at least here. But for those who do gather, it will still be a time to hear, to ponder, to pray and praise. It will be a time for the Spirit to do a new work (yet the same old work); God's work of making a holy people and redeeming the world. And God can do His wonders even if we are not always faithful or wonderful! Come Holy Spirit, renew your church, renew your people, bring the world the salvation in Christ, amen!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Whoever has the Son has life

"If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that He has testified to His Son... And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life." (1 John 5:9-13)

I sometimes try to imagine the man who wrote these words. What was his life like? When did he come across the Jesus story? How did his mind and emotion respond to the incredible idea? What of his family and friends? Wouldn't it be interesting to read his biography and get a taste of daily life for him and the early church?

There is much scholarly debate about the authorship of the three letters of John, the Gospel of John and Revelation. They analyze the writing, do word counts, study the grammar, look at theological themes; all in an effort to assess and create theories. Anyone who stumbles across this work will quickly learn that there is a wide expanse of opinions. What does seem clear is the words reflect a shared vision of Jesus. Raymond Brown's short little book, "The Community of the Beloved Disciple," though written some thirty years ago, is probably still a wonderful introduction to some of that scholarly opinion.

Whatever the circumstances of the composition, one thing is clear: the letter was written by someone and read by others. Today's snippet, from last Sunday's lectionary, is toward the end of the letter (chapter 5). While it has been snatched out of its context the message is one which resonates throughout the letter: Jesus is life. Jesus is the Son of God. We know this because God has said it is so. Therein lies the explosive power of this writing. It is from a man who clearly believes and attests to the divine origin of his belief.

The idea that Jesus is central to eternal life is something which is very controversial today. Some Jesus-scoffers say that He never existed. Others deny that He made any claims beyond some ethical recommendations along traditional Jewish lines. Others claim his teaching was perverted and twisted by later followers who did not like women (or other assorted groups). Each special interest has its own theories. But the NT seems to portray some uniformity in its diversity. While the language and imagery is different, they all point in this same direction. The Son of God, Jesus, is life.

Our problem is we are too busy to let the words soak in. We "have miles to go before we sleep, and miles to go before we sleep." There is precious little time or energy to pause and look and ponder. Yet the words convey such a message that it seems foolish to allow anything else to take precedence. "Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life." How would our lives be ordered, how would our schedule be filled, how would our money be spent, with whom would we associate and for what reasons IF we took these words to heart? If we believed it true, how would we engage those around us? If there is no life outside of Jesus does that not mean this is a matter of life or death? And if a matter of life or death, eternal life or eternal death, ought it not occupy our minds and hearts and actions more energetically?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Media and the Pastor Worley

So a preacher goes on a rant about putting all the gay people behind a fence, feeding them and letting them die off. He is obviously an unappealing fellow, even if he is a "reverend" and the pastor of a church. I have heard he was surprised by the uproar. At 71 he apparently does not comprehend "going virile" on internet.

In the MSNBC story posted about impending protests against the pastor and his church there were a few posts quoted. One said "Pastor Charles Worley is yet another argument for the abolishment of religion."

Obvioulsy, I think the pastor was wrong. I do not support the gay rights agenda and I am offended that such a position on sexual morality and the meaning of marriage can be misconstrued as "hate speech." However, I have stood up in the past and will be willing to stand up in the future against gay bashing or abuse. What Worley has done is abominable and sadly he is no doubt not the only one advocating such things. I am not a Baptist and my understanding of Baptist polity is that his congregation will need to deal with him.

My greater concern is how this story will be used. It is interesting that the media does not cover the 43 dioceses and Catholic institutions suing the US Government over religious liberty, yet any crackpot preacher threatening to burn a Koran or spewing idiotic suggestions on gay issues is worthy of front and center coverage. I am even more concerned that MSNBC would include in its coverage the suggestion that religion should be abolished.

My opinion on gay marriage is quite simple. I believe gay people should be free to marry. I have always thought this. However, it is my understanding that gay people do not want to get married. They are not attracted to the opposite sex. Therefore, this is not an argument about human rights. It is a debate on what the word marriage means (i.e. a covenant between a man and woman). Unfortnately, the media allows the public face of the debate to focus on people like Worley. Do the vast majority of people who are against "gay marriage" espouse his views. I think not. But that does not matter. The point is to paint traditional Christian faith as evil and hateful. Ironically, the liberal Christians are allies of the secularists in this. They are too naive to believe that the abolition of religion would include liberal religion. They assume they are safe because they can say, "we think like you" to the secularist. They do not see that traitors and turncoats are rarely respected or embraced.

I wish Worley and his ilk would shut their mouths. I do not want to see gay people suffer any more than they already do. I do not want the faith misused to abuse gay people. But from my view, the greater risk is to us, the traditional Christians. There is no real risk that gays will be rounded up into concentration camps. None at all. But attacks on religious liberty, that is a different story. It has been going on for a while, and the media will not say a word about it. And their silence is an indication of just how far things have gone in a very short while.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

God is True

In my previous post I shared some of the frustration we experience in a world of unlimited information, much of it inaccurate. The statistical processes are quite important. In buying life insurance several numbers on my physical meant that I had to pay more money each month for the coverage. One of those numbers, my age, is something I can do nothing about. Life insurance for most 20 year olds is remarkably cheaper than it is for 50 year olds. And with each passing year the cost creeps higher.

Another issue is tests you take. You start with your age, answer a bunch of questions, (do you smoke? how often do you exercise? etc.) and at the end of the test (after adding or subtracting years based on each anwer) they give you a number which indicates how long you can expect to live. Some things you have no conrol over (parents age at death) while other things you do (weight). Some people who had a number like 93 will not live that long. An accident does not factor in. Others may outlive the lower number which they have. But regardless of the accuracy of the test (and I assume it is pretty accurate) every answer assumes the same thing; we will die.

How do we face mortality? How do we face the question: what is the point? In the end, I think, God is the answer. He is also the Questioner. Too often we think we are the ones to whom He answers.

I do not believe God fits neatly in our theologies. I believe He is bigger than our thoughts can imagine. But I do believe He is in contact with us; through prophets and Torah, through the Bible and above all through Jesus. God is true, even if He is true beyond our understanding.

I do not have any explanation, rather a declaration of faith. I need to make those for myself, if not for others. I need to remember what I believe and I need to speak it. GOD is true. He is truer than truth. In the midst of confusion and uncertainty that is the one thing we can count on.

Is it True?

This morning at breakfast I was reading the latest Sports Illustrated. There was a small article about research on football players. It is common knowledge that professional football players have remarkably shorter lifespans than the typical males in our culture. Their life expectancy is about 58. This startling statistic has been around for years. According the the SI article, it is not true. A researcher looked at a study group and determined that, in fact, their mortality rates were far lower than expected. This includes suicide (something on the radar with the widely publicized suicides of a couple former NFL all stars). How did the bad statistic get out? No one is sure. Like numerous stories of this kind, they just seem to appear and get repeated over and over. A similar case, drink 8 glasses of water a day, is also not true. And the list goes on and on.

Ironically, we live in a time of increased information and, statistically, we can assume that a certain amount of that information is not accurate. Some falsehoods are so ingrained in our collective "knowledge base" that it may be impossible to get rid of if. For example, it is common (mis)knowledge that Columbus sailed out to prove the world was not flat. Ancients were dumb and thought they lived on a giant square. I remember reading some Thomas Aquinas (12th C) and being startled to see he did not think the world was flat. I was more surprised that most ancients thought the same. How then did it become common knowledge? Writers a couple hundred years ago fabricated it, in part to show the ignorance of the Dark Ages (= Middle Ages = Christian faith).

Some errors are intentional. I hear that Pom (the Pomegrantate juice) is not as good for you as they claim. I recently heard that blueberries have been overhyped. Everyone remembers the great 'egg controversy' of several years ago.

The problem with statistics is that we cannot always be sure that the measures are accurate. When they are accurate, we do not know if they are accurate about something that matters. Baseball is currently undergoing a huge shift in statistical assessment. Some of the popular measures have ended up being accurate, but simply not as helpful to measure a player' effectiveness as was thought (for a hundred years!).

It is hard to know what is true. Once a well accepted 'fact' turns out to be false, the question arises, "well how do I know the correction is true?" It is one reason we live in a skeptical age. It is also why faith wavers. It is part of the post-modern dilemma. While I understand the questions surrounding Christian faith, I think it only fair to counter that the Un-faith is equally open to the skeptics' sharp inquiries. So, we need to doubt our doubts as well. After all, can the same media which regularly passes on the newest (erroneous) statistics be trusted when it blasts the ancient faith?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sent by the "Sent One"

John 17 "Just as you sent me into the world so I send them into the world."

The Greek verb "apesteila(s)" (you sent)/I sent is used both of Jesus and of us. It is a form of the Greek root apostello which means to order someone to go to a certain place, to dismiss, to send off. It is where we get our word "apostle" in English. Most of us associate the word with the "12 Apostles" or St. Paul. It was a surprise to me the first time I read Hebrews 3:1 ("Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our faith"). It seemed like a demotion to  hear Jesus called an Apostle. It was a long time before I got comfortable with the idea.

The Biblical world is not so neatly integrated as the world of my imagination. There is a great deal of up and down imagery. Whether it be Moses on Mount Sinai or Jesus and the Ascension, the bi-leveled world of heaven and earth (actually tri-leveled once you factor in Hell) has much going and coming. Seeing Jesus as Someone who was Sent here by God and Who has now returned there is not the way my mind works. I have always talked about Jesus being here with us. In recent years I do that less and less. As I have shared before, I have taken on a more apocalyptic view. I await (impatiently) His return when He sets all things straight. I long for the time when the Kingdom of Heaven (God's realm) busts in and conquers this world.

By taking more seriously the fact that Jesus was sent, I can begin to understand what it means to be a missional church. We are sent, just as He was sent. Our identity is connected to mission. What is that message? It is tempting, for some, to build a community and learn to love within that group. It is tempting for others, to send missionaries to 'far off' lands with a message and a demand. In other words, it is tempting to see it as one or the other. I think Jesus did both. He was a Son of Israel, faithful in Jewish worship and Jewish religious practice. He was also a Son of God, faithful in bringing the fullness of life to those outside the highly (and overly) structured religious world of His contemporaries. He healed the sick, exorcised demoniacs, forgave sinners, instructed the common folks; He made God's covenant available to the outsiders. But what He offered was entrance into a people, a reformed People of God. A people which included Gentiles.

To be sent, like Jesus, is to do the hard work of community (faithful & loving). To be sent is to welcome others into the fellowship. To be sent is also to find others, the ones who do not easily fit into our understanding of what it should look like. It is to invite them into the same life which we share. This begins with the simple declaration of God's mighty work in our midst: evangelism, proclaiming the Gospel. This entails much teaching. Our natural urges and desires are often sinful. We must learn what believing entails. It also means that we scan the horizon for those who have not heard and do not know. We are sent to them as well. As church, we all do not have to go, but we all have to be involved in the process. We all have to pitch in and support the work.

Jesus was sent. We are sent. The ministry of Jesus continues, here and now, in and through us! It is an honor, a blessing, and a task. We do it together.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Apocalyptic Times

"Speak in the ears of my people the words of the prophecy that I will put in your mouth, says the Lord, and cause them to be written on paper; for they are trustworthy and true. Do not fear the plots against you, and do not be troubled by the unbelief of those who oppose you. For all unbelievers shall die in their unbelief."

I read those words yesterday in our Thursday "Bible study." I place the words in quotes because actually we have not studied the Bible in there for some time. We read Maccabees (which is in the Bible to the majority of Christians) and now are finishing up 2 Esdras (which is in the Bible for Ethiopian Orthodox; a church of 40+ million which dates to the man baptized by Philip in Acts).

I would bet that a vast number of western Christians who read the Bible regularly would think that the words above are Scripture. It sounds like the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 8:12 "Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread"; John 8:24 "you will die in your sins.."; Revelation 21:5 & 22:6 "these words are trustworthy and true"; Jeremiah 11 & 18 both include sections on 'plots' against the prophet.)

2 Esdras was probably written around the same time as our Gospels, quite possibly in the same general location. It is responding to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Roman occupation. While it is Jewish in origin, it has been reworked by Christian hands and was widely quoted by some Church Fathers, especially St. Ambrose. It was born in an environment rich in apocalyptic thinking and its language is, therefore, familiar. It sounds like what we find in our Bible's. The sentiments are Biblical.

Today's news is rife with "apocalyptic" warnings (demise of EU, global financial collapse, Iran-Israel conflict, secular atheist's aggression, tightening vice around the church and her free exercise of faith). It is easy to wonder if "the end is near." It is easy to be discouraged about the future, even frightened. Whatever one's opinion of ancient apocrypha, it is comforting to know that people like us (and so very different) have found themselves in similar circumstances for thousands of years. The gaping jaws of the "dragon" (in 2 Esdras it is a multi-headed eagle) seem ready to encompass us. Yet, there is a promise. All will be well because God is God. The covenant made with us through the ancestors (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, and perfectly in Jesus) is still binding. The Father above can see, can hear, He knows our plight and He remembers His promise. Apocalyptic revels in that promise. It warns that though better days may be coming, first comes the trial by fire. Even so, we will pass through the fire (cf. Paul, 1 Corinthians 3:15). Jesus told us to pray for deliverance from evil (& Evil One) and He told us to pray for strength in the time of testing (tempted to give up because of the pressures). We live in times when that message is very timely and appropriate. We pray with hope and trust.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ascended into Heaven

Theologically, today is one of the most important days for understanding our current situation. Jesus is gone. He is taken up into heaven. For forty days He appeared to the apostles, demonstrating that He was alive and instructing them in the deeper meaning of the Sacred Scriptures (our Old Testament).

The way we talk about Jesus is important. He is not still here. He is gone. The Ascension is intended to communicate that to us. Perhaps no Gospel more clearly spells out this new reality than the Gospel of John. For example, John 16:7 ("I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate (Greek = paraclete) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.") indicates that Jesus' presence will now be mediated/communicated in/through the Holy Spirit. He has not abandoned us or left us bereft of hope. However, the Spirit is not palpable and much of the time not discernable. We may well feel alone, even if that Paraclete sent by Jesus is active within and around us.

In John 17:11 ("And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them...") we learn that Jesus is our advocate with the Father. He pleads on our behalf for protection. The world is a dangerous place (John 15:18-26) which hates Jesus, hates us and, therefore, in reality hates God. In the time of His absence, we are witnesses. Jesus says that those who reject Him are rejecting the God (and Father) Who sent Him.

The absence of Jesus produces in us a hunger and desire. It is also frustrating. Illness, suffering, problems and death continue to "rule" in our midst. Jesus is not walking among us healing and exorcising. Jesus is not there to challenge or comfort us. His immediate presence is in Spirit. It cannot be seen, heard or touched.

But we are not orphans. We have eucharist. We have Scriputre. We have the Church. In and through word, sacrament and community the Lord is present again; He is re-membered. But the presence now is as likely to produce deeper longing as it is joy and communion. It is a glass of water when we want to swim!

Today is a happy day. We recall Jesus taken into glory to receive His crown.
Today is a sad day. We see that Jesus is gone, taken up in the clouds.
Today is a hopeful day. We hear that He will return some day, just as He left.
And today is a mission focused day. We are called not to ponder His absence but to preach, teach, heal and exorcise in His name.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Passive/Active Prayer

I had some thoughts this morning as I knelt in prayer. One thing I have probably not emphasized enough is the importance of being open. If prayer is really about union with God, then our primary activity should be openness to God. This is, first of all, intentionality. By that I mean, we must actively be aware that our goal is to be open to God, to seek God, to long for God.

Because we are self-centered it is hard for us to ever move the focus anywhere else. Over the years I am aware of how often questions about my prayer life became discussion about Me. It is hard to avoid when we say "my" prayer life. The "spiritual life" can become discipline intensive, technique driven and viewed as a skill set. We worry about praying good. We are consumed with structuring. We pour effort into being in control and achieving outcomes (and become frustrated when we don't).

It is hard to not wonder if we are being silent enough, or if the breathing is right, or if we should sit or kneel. It is also hard not to wonder if we are doing it right (especially when we 'feel' nothing). Perfomrance anxiety rises. Magical thinking enters in. We worry and fret because we forget. It is all about God. He is our desire. We are there to avail ourselves to Him.

There was a poopular expression some years ago, "communing with nature," which points in the direction I want to go with this. To pray (talk, meditate or contemplate) is always attentive. There must be a listening heart, even when it seems there is nothing to hear. I believe that dry times of prayer are still fruitful. Just as a dog hears sounds our ears cannot perceive, perhaps the spirit picks up what our conscious mind can not. I have probably said it a couple times writing this series: God is mightily at work through us even if we cannot feel it. Prayer commitment is the fertile field of that work.

In an hour we will have eucharist here at St. Andrews. It is truly the breakfast which sustains. Prior to that, I will read the Bible and think about God and Moses (I am in Exodus). I will pray over verses responding to God's word. I will, perhaps too obsessively, intercede for my family & church. I will sit in silence and wait to hear (and admittedly will  be surprised if I do). I will pray about the joy of my work and struggle with frustration and discouragement. I will push back against the weariness of sleep deprivation and the assorted worries and concerns. In other words, I will be, in most ways, just like everyone reading this! We push hard and try to do it right. That is probably the way it is supposed to be. What we must all keep in mind is the goal: God. He is the source and destination. Being available to Him is already the success. No words, no experience, no feelings or thoughts matter as much as one human being offering him/herself to the Lord. Perhaps no prayer is more complete than the one uttered by Biblical figures: "Here I am Lord" (send me, I come to do your will, be it done unto me according to your will....). That is why we pray. It is why we spend hours 'being there' even if it feels like nothing is happening. We do it because it is an act of faith. And faith saves!

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Brief review: in the 'stages' of prayer we begin with verbal (thanking, praising, asking, repenting) prayer, or talking with God. Most of us will spend most of our lives here. The next stage is active meditation, where we think/ponder deeply about the meaning of things or where we try to imagine details of a biblical story (the sun's heat, the sound of foot shuffling, the color and texture of clothes and hair, the lined face, the exhuberant voice at the healing, the crowd reaction, etc.). Meditation can be like a movie in our head, taking us deeply into the story. Meditation is open to anyone and the primary source material is Scripture. The type of prayer corresponds to the degree of unity one has with God. It begins with purgation (cleansing) of desire, continues through enlightenment (having the mind of Christ) and ends with contemplation and union. Contemplation is a technical word here, it is not a synonym for meditation. It means wordless, imageless prayer. It means total submission and passiveness.

Mystical union with God is something rarely achieved. On occassion, a person may receive a brief moment, but for most of us it is not the case. Our experience of God is "mediate" which means some thought or image plays a part. Words and pictures are part of our normal communication with one another. Perhaps this is why we say things like "I see what you are saying." When we move to immediate experience there is only God. Because God is larger than our words and images this stage is word-less and image-less. There is only God.

Those who have had such experiences are unable to convey the experience. They use analogies (it was like...) and do so in awed tones. While there are moments for many of us where we brush up against such an event, most of the time we use word and image in our prayer.

A word of warning: the prayer of silence is best done by those who have practiced spiritual disciplines for a long while. Until one is purified of the flesh one is ill prepared to enter the world of the spirit. Much of the contemporary embrace of "spirituality" over "religion" is the mis-assumption that the spirit world is purer. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are angels and demons, there is the Holy Spirit and there are evil spirits, there is spiritual light and there is spiritual darkness. Enterring such a realm under prepared is akin to setting out on a journey across the desert without knowledge of the watering holes. Mirages cannot be differentiated from the real thing. A person can be seduced and led more deeply into selfishness (i.e. spirituality as self fulfillment) and delusion. Obviously, a spiritual director is helpful here, to help one disceern the hand of God. A person deep in prayer is no less at risk. The Evil One came to Jesus while He was on a forty day fast (and retreat!). Why would we thnk we would be immune.

Those who have practiced prayer for some time and have learned more deeply the life of a disciple may find themselves drawn to contemplation. They find that there is little value in their words and images. The strength, peace and joy of there prayer life seems to dry up. God "feels" less accessible (and the cause is not a return to a life of greater sin). In such a state, the practioner sits with God and stills mind and heart. The soul is literally handed over to God and the control the pray-er exercises is silenced. No thought. No word. No insight. No image. No pondering. No thinking. Nothing. Nothingness which is Everything.

I cannot say more because I have already said more than I know. My own brushes with such prayer have been brief and few. I have tried to be silent for lengths of time. I have little to share. I can say that the contemplation of God (in total silence) is described as the darkness of faith. The paradox of dark light or a silent voice convey some of the mystery of contemplation. Paul says, "We shall see Him as He is..." And He is beyond our imagination and language. Once we have complete union with Him we will be divinized. We will share fully in the life of Christ. We shall be children of God. Such unimaginable depth!

If my meandering thoughts the past few weeks on prayer has wetted your interest, I would advise the study of St. John of the Cross. He is a 16th Century Spanish monk who coined the expression, "The Dark Night of the Soul" in one of his books. He is a poet, a theologian and a holy man. He suffered greatly for the faith. He shares insight into the stages of spirituality. There are many others, but he is my favorite. Now I must go pray and prepare to worship.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Forgiving Yourself?

I just saw an article about a church forgiving a man who had shot and killed a parishioner. They alluded to the Amish massacre some years ago, where the community forgave. That triggers another story of a woman murdered in Africa whose parents forgave the murderers and now work side by side with them in pursuing the daughter's dream of a better world. The latter two stories, which received extensive media coverage, were very moving to me.

Last night, a man who had killed a mom and daughter and kidnapped the two younger girls was captured. Apparently he shot hmself in the head. He is dead. This story also has received extensive media coverage. My initial reaction was less inspirational. I am glad the two little girls are okay, although one wonders how okay they really are in light of what they have been through and will go through in the days ahead. I was happy for the girls, but also happy that the man is dead. Why? I did not know him. I have no idea what demons and experiences haunted him. I have no knowledge of what factors contributed to his evil acts. Was he an evil man? A sick man? A confused man? Were there factors out of his control which impacted his decisions? I do not know. What I do know is there was a reaction within me and it was not mercy.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Forgiveness is not a reflex emotion for many of us. We make judgments on partial information. We depersonalize the "evil doer" and pass judgement. Once a young man in Memphis was murdered. It was another story where a good person was gunned down by thugs. It made me mad. A couple of days later they identified several teens. I was glad they cauth them. Then I read the names. One of the boys had been someone with whom I personally worked some years before. I know he was impulsive and mildly retarded. I know he was a product of an abusive childhood which left him wounded and ill-prepared to live a healthy, helpful life. It changed the news story for me, once I saw his name listed in the paper. My "hunger for justice" collided with my broken heart.

God is personally involved with everyone. He knows us by name. He shaped and formed us and breathed life into us. He is intimately connected to us and to our stories. For God there is no easy way to project negative feelings on someone as if they were characters in a story. God is invested in each person. God desires the best for each person. God invites each person into intimate unity with Himself. God offers forgiveness to each person. As I said yesterday, forgiveness is the only thing we have control over. The same is true for God. He cannot make us repent, confess or do penance. He cannot make us reconcile. He can only forgive.

The story of the African men, working side by side with the parent's of a girl they had murdered, was a stark reminder of how the Kingdom of God works: Redemption. Their conversion did not bring the girl back and it did not make the loss and pain the parents felt any less bitter or biting. The parents' hearts were an open wound. But had those men been butchered would it have been better? Obviously not. Revenge is not healing. There was grace in reconciliation that would not be possible in execution.

On the other hand, sometimes knowing someone makes it harder to forget. I guess it is a heightened sense of betrayal. Which brings us to ourselves. How does our inability, or unwillingness, to accept God's forgiveness damaged us? The failure to accept that forgiveness locks us forever in the sin and failure; not a healthy or holy place to be. And as a corollary, there are times when we must look in the mirror and forgive ourselves. Each of us has disappointed ourselves. We all fail. Maybe some of  the denial of faults and failing is a function of that. Hard to be honest with yourself if there is no hope for forgiveness. Hard to forgive others and not project your own garbage on them if you cannot face your own sins and forgive.

Praying to forgive and praying to be forgiven (and praying to accept forgiveness) is fundamental to spirituality. Meditating on the power of forgiveness, looking into all aspects of forgiveness, is the work of a lifetime. In the end, when we finally meet the Lord, the words "Your sins are forgiven" will be a major part of that conversation. It will be our entrance into life forever. It is a substantial work of the Christian minsitry. It is vital to our vocations as disciples of Jesus.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Forgiving 2

I do not think that the most important thing to keep in mind when talking about God (and prayer) is that we are sinners. It is true that we are sinners, but sin is not the starting place. The starting place is we are creatures. We are shaped and formed by God's hands. Our existence is derived, dependent, a gift, the work of Another, and a blessing. Understanding one's self as a creature means that one is able to have a correctly ordered understanding of things. Someone else is in charge. Someone else is Lord and Creator. Someone else, someone besides me, is God.

Western individualism has provided us with many blessings. There is much to be said for it. However, while it is the solution for some problems it is also the source of others. Individualism makes us think too much of ourselves. We measure all things, consciously or not, by our desires. The debt we owe God is well expressed in our eucharist. "All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee." That is perfect. Anything we give to God is, in fact, His already.

The mercy of God is an added blessing on top of all the debt of creation. Because of our sins we add to our debt exponentially. Jesus' remedy is multi-layered, including His incarnation, His life and ministry, His death and resurrection; He also tells us to repent (and believe) and to forgive.

In reality, forgiving is the only thing we have power over. If someone harms us in some way forgiving them is an option. If someone is in debt to us and cannot repay the debt, forgiveness is an option. Forgiveness is, based on the Bible, one of the best ways to imitate God. Forgiveness is always grace, it can never be earned. Forgiveness is always a gift given away to one in debt. Having experienced such grace in Christ, we are sent forth to be grace-dealers, disciples sent forth to proclaim mercy in a new and different type of Kingdom. As Jesus forgives us we are also empowered to forgive others. He says that we (church) have the power to bind and loose, to forgive others their sins and set them free. There is great power in our hands. The power to forgive is a most godly attribute.

Forgiveness is all we have at our disposal. The other person has to repent, to confess, to do the hard work of making ammends. Forgiveness is NOT reconciliation. That is the work of both sides. Forgiveness is opening the door to make reconciliation possible. Jesus also says that forgiveness is opening the door to receive the mercy and forgiveness for which we hunger from God. So it has two effects. It provides the possibility of salvation to the other and to us.

To pray blessings on one who has harmed us is not easy. However, it is not easy, in part, because we ignore our own need for mercy and our own indebtedness to God. We strut around like a banty rooster, crowing about the injustices we  have suffered, all the time blind to the wounds we have delivered in a myriad of way. All the time, blind to the fact that all things come from God and all we have is from Him. All we have is debt; huge, unpayable debt.

By forgiving someone who is not sorry or who refuses to repay us, we are taking on the role of God's emissary in the world. We are taking on a chance to experience the world as God knows it, a world full of people who are not greatful enough, sorry enough, or aware enough. In dying to our rights (for retribution) and suffering the loss (without repayment) we create in our hearts and souls a sacred place, a place where God can be experienced and known. You and I, today, can begin that process of deeper prayer. Forgiving others, especially others least deserving of our mercy, is an excellent way to enter deeper prayer. It is also the work of prayer to make us ready and willing to forgive.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Forgiving 1

Jesus tells the story of a man who owes millions of dollars. He begs for mercy and is forgiven. He then throws another man in jail for owing him several thousand dollars. The story serves as a entry point for understanding our situation before God. Jesus is clear, if you do not forgive others then God will not forgive you.

Forgiveness is often depicted as forgiving a debt. I prefer debt thinking to sin thinking when talking about God. A sin is literally a failure to hit the mark. It generally is thought of in terms of a decision to do a bad thing. It is, therefore, incomplete in understanding our relationship with God. We owe a debt for our sins. However, we also owe a debt for everything. EVERYTHING.

Our bodies. Our souls. Our minds. Our family. Our friends. The planet. Everything on it... You get the drift. We are in total debt to God and there is nothing we can do to pay it back. SO the only sin we need to look at is ingratitude. If we owe God thanks for every second and everything then we are already infinitely in debt. Add to that the wrongs we do...

Most people I encounter have a radically undeveloped sense of sin and guilt. They really do not believe that they have done that much wrong. (or at least this is what they articulate to me) That lack of insight is one reason why they find forgiveness so difficult. When you think you are righteous the sins of others offend more deeply.

Another thing most of us suffer from is high expectations, or entitlement. We assume we should have the best (or at least good) and find it hard to be greatful for what we have. We expect it. When you assume you are due the best, the failure of others is especially noxious. Hence, again,  hard to forgive (especially when coupled with the belief that we are generous and helpful).

So the beginning of mercy is a radical understanding of our indebtedness. This is certainly the work of prayer and meditation. I think I wrote about this during Lent, the value of simply listing things which you are glad to  have (or not to have) and thanking God. A deep sense of grattitude coupled with taking stock of how deeply in debt we are to God for all things certainly provides a rich environment for seeing other folks with a gentle spirit. I think that may be at the heart of Jesus' messge on forgiveness.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Meditation: Steadfastness

Jesus calls us to pray and pray and pray. One feature of such prayer is the inevitable "brick wall"; that moment in time when the praying person asks, seriously, what is the point of all this? Sometimes the point is to just keep on doing it.

As a young man I was much taken with 'love' and the beauty of Christian faith. As an older man I am more aware of the need for strength and courage. Prayer, like the rest of life, demands a commitment. Some are more inclined to discouragement than others, but I think everyone finds regular prayer challenging. Part of the reason is because there is no immediate cost. If you do not pay your light bill you end up in darkness. If you do not go to work you get fired. If you miss a day, or week, or month of prayer, well God doesn't strike you down or anything. You can "get away with it" (or so it seems).

I had intended to write about forgiveness after yesterday's post, and it is tempting to jump right into forgiveness, but I think the virtue of steadfastness is foundational for mercy. Forgiving is not so hard, but forgiving over and over again is. The heart of mercy is a steadfast heart. The capacity to forgive requires immense discipline and effort. There is a reason why God's love and forgiveness require a crucifxion. The work of forgiveness is a brutal, self-giving, difficult work.

To pray even when it doesn't feel good is the first step in acquiring steadfastness. It is the way forward. I cannot say it enough, a good prayer life is a life of frustration. As God weans us from ourselves in our prayer He does it by making prayer less enjoyable. In other words, He makes us answer the question, "Do I pray because I enjoy it or because I love God?" Enjoyment is its own reward. Love is not enjoyable (all the time). It is also self gift, self sacrifice.

Being disciplined (// disciple) requires long suffering/steadfastness. We keep on going. We push on regardless. The person with the ability to do that is a person who can also forgive. Prayer and forgiveness will feed each other. Steadfastness will keep us at it when we would otherwise give up. On the long journey of faith the capacity to keep on going is fundamental.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Meditation: Forgiveness

One recurring theme in Jesus' teaching on prayer is the centrality of forgiveness. In Matthew 6:14 (immediately followiong the Lord's Prayer) Jesus says, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." This also comes up in the parable of the unforgiving servant (who owes millions but mercilessly demands thousands from his debtor).

There are two key characteristics of God's behavior: justice and mercy. Our human tendency is to beg for mercy and to demand justice upon those who injure us. Look at the psalms (Have mercy on me o Lord in your kindness and compassion... Do not forget those who harm me and visit upon them punishment). This is some of the fuel which keeps conflicts alive and energized. We overestimate the harm done to us and underestimate the harm we do. Jesus indicates that this is a deadly (i.e., mortal) sin. Clearly, in places, Jesus makes our acts of mercy the criteria for receiving God's mercy. He says we will receive in the same measure that we give. He makes clear that our treatment of others impacts God's treatment of us.

In a treatise on prayer, effective prayer, it is fundamental to emphasize this point. The work of mercy, the work of forgiveness, is foundational in prayer. As important as faith is, forgiveness is arguably just as important. Perhaps it is the measure of faith? Perhaps the act of really trusting the Lord is the key to unlock our own capacity for mercy?

In light of that, it is vital that we periodically make a list of those who have harmed us and pray for them. Pray love and grace on them. Pray peace and joy on them. Now, clearly, we cannot do this easily. But an awareness of our own sinfulness should make it less of a challenge. Sometimes we are psychologically not ready, the wound is too fresh, too deep. That is normal. It is part of life. But, only a forgiving heart can encounter God. We can never assume the pain we endure is greater than the pain God endures. And we can never underestimate the importance of forgiveness as an act of spiritual discipline and prayerfulness.

I will investigate this a bit more tomorrow...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Meditation: The Lord Praying

"Thy will be done."
Simple words which roll off the tongue. Do you ever wonder how many times you have prayed those words? I would not be surprised if  some have said those words over 50,000 times in their life.

However, context makes all the difference. Jesus, in Matthew 6:10, provides us with a prayer model. Called the Lord's Prayer (we Catholics called it the "Our Father" in my day) it provides a simple outline for how one should pray. In truth, though, the Lord's Prayer is really Matthew 26:39. Deeply grieved, Jesus throws Himself to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will but You." Same basic concept: Your will be done. Different context.

And prayer is always about so much more than saying prayers. In the early church they understood that one could not read the Bible unless one was seriously on the road of ethical Christian living. The Church Fathers said that the scripture is impenentrable to the mind of one who embraces sin. As we explained some time ago, in beginning this latest thread, the first stage of prayer is purgative. It is the process of turning (and being turned by God) from the "flesh" (sinful appetites). The pinacle of purgation is the embrace of God's will. Asking Him to establish His will and choosing to obey His will are two coordinated aspects of one process. To say, "Your will be done" and to "do it" is to pray in word and deed. Otherwise, the words are empty.

Yet, as Jesus demonstrates, such prayers are costly. God's will does not conform to our own. God is not reading His latest "numbers" like a mass-marketed politician seeking votes. God is no respecter of persons, as the Scriptures say. His Kingdom comes with rules and expectations. The cost is high (your life) but worth it. It costs everything, but all we have is as nothing compared to what we receive (relationship with God).

Everytime I pray, "Thy will be done" I try to remember the time Jesus actually prayed those words most intensely. In the Garden, preparing to die, wishing desperately for an alternative. Prayer is serious business. Words have meaning. We must learn to pray for God's will in easy days to prepare to make the same prayer on difficult days. That means we must meditate, ponder and think over the words we speak to God. It is why praying the Lord's prayer can take ten or twenty minnutes. Meditate.