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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Talking with God

This is from my sermon Sunday on Luke 11:1-13 (where Jesus teaches the disciples to pray in the Lord's prayer)
I became a priest because I wanted to learn how to pray and to teach others to pray. I continually read books on the spirituality. I usually spent an hour in private prayer and another hour and a half in liturgical prayer. In most of those books was the statement “in prayer we are all beginners.” At age 25 that seemed impossible to me. How could we remain beginners after a lifetime of prayer? I assumed they were just being humble. Through my 30’s and into my 40’s I continued a pretty disciplined practice of prayer. The intensity varied, but it was always there.

In the last decade of my life I have finally come to accept the bitter truth. When it comes to prayer I am still a beginner and always will be. I have read and studied hundreds of books and spent over 15,000 hours in different types of prayer since that first day in seminary—for all that I can admit that I am still a beginner.

Why share this with you? To show that I know something about prayer from the inside and  because I really want you to not be frustrated and discouraged in your prayer.

Let me be clear about the paradox of prayer:
·        Prayer is so simple than even the youngest child can do it well enough. If you can utter "Now I lay me down to sleep..." you have made a perfect prayer!
·        Prayer is so difficult that no one ever becomes truly proficient. It is always a challenge and a struggle! So never lose heart if it feels like a challenge and a struggle and you are making no progress.

We must understand, Jesus' disciples would have had a number of daily prayers which they recited. They also had the temple. They were praying and knew how to pray. However, they saw Jesus had His own robust prayer life. They wanted more. He, like John the Baptist, was a religious teacher and would be expected to guide His disciples in spiritual practices.

With that in mind, let us look at what Jesus says about prayer.

1.    He says that we are evil, but we are still good to our kids. He says, “If people are good to our kids how much more will God be good to His children." This is called arguing from the lesser to the greater, a common Jewish practice. Jesus' first point is to hone in on God's goodness. Probably ancient peoples also wondered if God heard their cries. Jesus makes clear that He does.
2.    Jesus tells us to ask, to seek and to knock. Be tenacious! The Greek word is literally “be shameless.” I believe that shame is a big obstacle to prayer. Many times people are reluctant to pray out loud in a group. The reason is they think their prayers "do not sound good." First of all, where is the focus when we worry about such a thing? (on me) we need to look toward God, focus on God, and be 'shameless.' Let me illustrate: I recently attended a dance where many young people faced serious physical handicaps. As the music pounded I saw these little guys and gals, some on walkers other with labored efforts, move to the music. One girl, a blind teen, walked back and forth in place, a sweet smile on  her face. It brought a tear to my eye as I stood there taking it in. And I ask, who among us would ever say to a dancing child "you are an embarrassment! Sit down and stop it!" The answer is no one.[So why do we do it to ourselves????] In our TV culture they ask "So you think you can dance" and judges critique your every move. Dancing has become a performing art. Fine, but for those who are not professional, just dance and have fun! I once heard "if you can't dance, you can't pray." It didn't mean if you aren't a fluid dancer, it meant if you were unwilling to let go and dance. The dancing blind girl is a model for us at prayer. Selfless and not seeing others, lost in the moment of communion.
3.    Jesus tells us to make God’s Kingdom the center of our prayer. When God and His Messiah sits among us to rule, then all will be well:
a.   In the kingdom there will be no tears, no pain, no sadness, no loss
b.   In the kingdom there will be no violence, no stealing, no betrayal, no abuse.
c.    In the kingdom there will be no hunger, no thirst, no poverty, no suffering.
d.   In the Kingdom God will bless His people with abundance, and His people will see God, know God and love God.
We tend to pray for temporary solutions. We ask God to help us find a job, or cure a friend of cancer, or give us good weather for a family reunion. We also tend to care more about our friends and families than others further away and not part of our lives... That is not bad, but Jesus provides a wider vision.

Jesus offers a prayer life centered on a permanent solution to all our problems and concerns; not just ours, but to the worries and concerns of the entire planet and anyone living on it. Jesus focuses on our Father God and His kingdom in prayer.He asks us to do the same.
So please pray, friends. Knock, knock, knock on heaven's door and beg the Father, come among us and rule!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why It Matters

[I will be absent for the next week focusing solely on writing study notes for Bible study. My absence was pre-planned and in no way indicate I have taken the energetic advice of my critic to cease function as a blogger or as a priest.]

Today many of us attended a church where the second reading came from Colossians 1:15-28. Most scholars assume that St. Paul has is quoting an ancient hymn to Jesus. We know from secular sources that Christians sang hymns to Christ as God. Much of the original intent of the  hymn and Paul's reason for using it are lost on us. Paul is responding to both pagan and Jewish "adversaries" in this letter, as well as addressing fellow Christians. [It is the nature of communication.] No doubt some of the intricacies are lost and our best theories may make sense, but sometimes reality does not make sense! No tragedy here, though, even if we cannot fully and completely understand everything about this song, we can understand much and receive insight and joy as a result.

We begin Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation; for in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

 The Greek eiekon (= image, likeness) is where we get the word icon. With these words we are provided all we need to know about Jesus' identity. He is The Unseen 'seen.' Christianity finds its heart and center here. Too often people believe that Christianity is about salvation. "If you die today where will you spend eternity?" asks the sincere evangelist. That question, however important, is secondary. The primary question is who is God? In light of that question comes a related, equally important question, "Who is Jesus?" In the verse above we have the remarkable answer of those witnesses of Jesus' life and those who trust in Him.

God cannot be seen. God is beyong concrete reality. He stands outside of time: past, present, future are all eternally within Him. To use words which can not convey the reality, God is eternally and fully now, above and beyond time. He is eternal, without beginning, middle or end. To ponder such a thing is to literally lose one's mind (hence the experience of mystics in deepest prayerful meditation). We tend to think of eternity as a looooong time or God as SuperPowered (like the comic books). We cannot grasp God, the person or the concept. By analogy, we stand with a plastic cup (our mind) before the ocean (God) and seek to contain in the limited what is beyond our holding. Yet the effort to know God is not futile. He has revealed Himself to us, through creation, for example, and even more directly through the prophets. From time to time the veil is lifted and we get a glimpse ourself, perhaps in prayer, study or experiences. What Paul shares with us here, however, is that the fullness of that revelation is found in the man, Jesus.

This is why we Christians are compelled to deny that there are many ways to God. Jesus is God. He alone reveals the Father because He alone is the full revelation of the Father. And He has done so for all eternity, before the world or time existed. In Sweet & Viola's book on Jesus they state, "Jesus is God's Self Knowledge." The words of Jesus provide insight into God. Jesus is not fundamentally an ethical teacher, though He does teach ethics. Jesus is not fundamentally a religious instructor, nor is He a political, social, or communal leader, though He also functions in those realms. He is, first and foremost, The Image of God, The Creator (in Him, Through Him) and the Purpose (for Him) of creation. Everything holds together in Him.

Some choose to reject such ideas. God is invisible so it is possible to not see. Some would make Jesus a teacher and project on Him their particular politcal/social/ethical concerns (all of us do it to some extent, I am guilty) and see nothing more than that (some of us see Him as more than our projections). However, Paul invites us to ponder "what if?" What if Jesus is the face of God? What if Jesus, before time and before incarnation, was the means by which it all came to be and somehow at the heart of things, the heart of all things, He is the principle which holds it all together?

If so then self emptying, being for other, poured out in love is the most real thing we encounter. If so, faith and trust in the face of all darkness is the best way. If so, loving others, even, perhaps especially, those who are mean and cruel and hateful, is the higher way. If so, then the Cross is what holds it all together. Cross and resurrection, of course.

God reconciles a sinful world to Himself, we read later, by the blood of that cross. He redeems our pains and sorrows, out alienation and injury, our offenses and transgresssions; He takes it all into Himself and brings it to its end. This is not easily understood. Some of us are too angry, too lost, too distracted to begin to ponder such a mystery. Perhaps bad Christians have tainted the Jesus story? Perhaps bad experiences close our mind to the wonderful Good News of a God so committed to people? Perhaps God is too subtle for our tastes in all this; Jesus is not big or loud enough for our submission? All these and ten thousand other obstacles stand in the way. Not least, we are just tired and busy and our little cup cannot hold that ocean so we dare not even dip it in to know what we can know.

For those with hope, or desire to know God in Jesus, Colossains 1:15-28 provides a great starting place.  The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Him, of course that fullness is mediated through the limitations of time and space. Suddenly, it is not God's limits which are manifest, but the limits of time and space are exposed. How can eternity walk and talk in Judah, eat and sleep in Nazareth, laugh and cry in Samaria? How can the fullness of "beyond time" be live today and wonder about tomorrow? In Jesus we experience the Eternal One, but only an aspect of Eternity, the small part revealed among us in time and space...

Such questons may beckon, but do not lose focus. Search Jesus with a hungry heart and a yearning faith and the Light of God will open into your own darkness. In the end, perhaps, you will find the small cup has grown to the size of a barrel (even a swimming pool). It is not all there is, but it is plenty to sustain you until that day when you are transformed to share in the fullness of His life. Then all will be clearer...

Friday, July 19, 2013


The power of hatred and anger is shocking. Reading and reflecting yesterday morning on Mark 2:23-3:6 I found myself confronting a hatred for Jesus which I found difficult to imagine or comprehend. My morning meditation was more resonant when our Thursday Study Group gathered to read a letter of Ignatius of Antioch, an early church martyr. For what crime was Ignatius to meet his end? Why for the horrible evil of claiming Jesus was the Son of God and Savior.

Think about it. Someone believes that Jesus is the Good and source of all good. In imitation of Jesus the man led a life of humble service and attentiveness to the needs of the poor. He led people in prayer and made every effort to shepherd a community of like-minded believers to lead upright lives of prayer and ethical living. Certainly one can see why Rome would deem such a character a threat to the Empire and embrace capital punishment as the most appropriate response??!!!?

Yet the demise of Ignatius is consistent with the One Whom he followed. The stories yesterday illustrate the point.

The first story finds Jesus and His disciples wandering the countryside. In keeping with the accepted practice of that time and place, the hungry young men gathered a handful of grain to eat. [the Jewish "law" was that one could take a handful of grain; striking a balance between communal responsibility and taking advantage.]Clearly, the people observing Jesus were looking for an excuse to be mad. Chapter 2 began with Jesus declaring a paralyzed man's sins forgiven and then healing him. Rather than respond with joy and faith, the religious leaders harbored anger. "Who," they asked "can forgive sins but God? This man blasphemes." Now that the apostles are eating the grain the leaders pounce on it. "See! these men break the Sabbath!"

To be fair, there is another side to this story. During the time of the Maccabees Jews who were faithful to their religion were tortured and killed (including women and children, even babies) for their pious practices. (In 1 and 2 Maccabees you can read of the rebellion). When the enemy attacked on the Sabbath and wiped out a band of resistance fighters, the controversial decision was made to fight even on that day. The difficulties of being faithful were literally life and death decisions. The breaking of Sabbath laws (rules or expectations) was no small thing and their reaction was understandable.What is at issue, however, is the deeper meaning of Jesus' response. "The sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath." It is a teaching moment. Jesus invites His critics to see the world (and God) more deeply. He is not offensive or judgmental in His words. But they are unhinged, unable, because of their hatred, to hear Him. However, we can be sure they understood these words: "so the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath." This self reference (Son of Man is a title found in Daniel and refers to a divine figure) is a declaration by Jesus of His authority. The adversaries must decide, will we listen and believe or not? Jesus uses the story of David feeding his men with the holy bread. Jesus is identifying Himself with David (and He is the Davidic descendent/Messiah). [Ironically, the cycle of readings today from Samuel was that very narrative! ]

In the next episode, again on a Sabbath, Jesus heals a man. Jesus tries to engage them, "Is it lawful to do good or do harm on a Sabbath? to save life or kill?" His question is useless. They are not open. They do  not have ears to hear or hearts to ponder his question. Instead, because Jesus heals a man they go out to plot how to destroy Him.

What was true in Jesus' time and seventy years later in Ignatius' time is still true. Jesus produces unhinged anger in those who reject Him. For whatever reason, call it fallen human nature, demons, or the social interactions of competing groups, what seems to be an act of kindness (feeding, healing) is interpreted as punishable by death. Jesus just has the capacity to make people crazy. As Jesus said in another place, "If they hate Me they will hate you." Those who follow Him should keep that in mind.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Martin, Zimmerman, Race

I am writing not so much about the verdict as I am about the polarities which continue to exist between blacks and whites.

People's experiences are real. However, one component of an experience may not be accurate: our assumptions. We all see things through a lense. Our lenses are shaped by personal experience, but those experiences are also shaped by our beliefs and assumptions. Race is one of those things which shape our experiences. Black people operate with different assumptions than white people. White people outnumber black people (in the US) and black people suffer as a result of that. White people have more power and influence, in general, and that gives white people an advantage. People also tend to relate to members of their own race.

I have worked extensively with black youth in two of my "previous lives" as a high school chaplain in an urban setting and as a social worker. I have been a surrogate father for many of them, and it was as likely for a black youth to call me "daddy" as a white. Even so, that does not mean that I have a deeper insight into the black experience. What I do know is the kids I worked with as a social worker believed that they were more at risk in Germantown (upscale suburb) than they were in their own neighborhood (inner city Memphis). No doubt white cops in white cities keep a closer tab on black youth and hastle them more. No doubt. Also, no doubt that the same white cops were not a leading cause of black youth deaths. The facts were not clear to my boys.

One thing which is clear today, the media seems to be indicating that a black boy killed by an Hispanic man in Florida under questionable circumstances is much more worthy of attention than many black boys killed by many black boys/men. Hence, Chicago, which seems to be a shooting gallery of late where black young men are literally dying by the hundreds has not created nation wide marches. Nor are we hearing about angry protestors assaulting people from Chicago in the name of the homicide victims in that city. No one is organizing marchs in Memphis about Chicago. No famous musicians are boycotting Illinois because of the killings...

Black pain finds its focus and expression in many of these "media circus" trials. OJ Simpson was the first (stunning) revelation of the different views. One black co-worker told me that white people did not want to see a black man be successful so that is why OJ was targeted. He believed that, even when I told him that earlier that day I had received a brochure highlighting OJ as the star of several training videos (I was the training director at the time). I know the color green (money) was more important than the iconic stars race and I know OJ made money for white people and every one of those training videos which they were marketing were suddenly useless at a loss of tens of thousands of dollars... What I did not know was the black experience of prejudice and maltreatment. This experience influenced how this man saw the world and the assumptions which he operated with. It does not mean he was right, but it did make sense of why he thought what he did.

The statements being made on TV by many blacks the past few days have to be seen and heard from that point of view. There is emotion under the words. The case is a convenient outlet for deeper feelings. White responses are likewise generated by other experiences and view points.

I have heard several times that the jury verdict means that "white people have been given the right to hunt down and shoot black children." If that is true (I think it is not) then the good news for black children is it is a right which will not be exercised by many. In fact, most white people will continue to never, ever hunt down and shoot anyone, much less a black child. The stats reveal two interesting facts, to quote from Briggs:
"Blacks who commit homicide do so at a rate about 7.5 times larger than whites who commit homicide.... This disparity also exists for other crimes: blacks commit them at about 7-10 times the rates of whites."

"Blacks kill at higher rates than they are killed. Interestingly, the difference in the killer/killed rate appears roughly constant for most years, and narrowing slightly in recent years."

Whatever else may be true about Martin's unfortunate death, it is clear that the US is not a place where white people are hunting down and killing black people. In fact, most black people are murdered by other black people, just as white people kill mostly white people. In fact, black people murder white people at a much higher rate than white people murder black people. [But it is not all bad, one positive trend is that the US is a place where less and less people are murdering each other. The rate is about half of what it was in the 90's.]

This is from a different source. For homicide trends in the US here is the government website's "Highlights:
  • In the last decade (since 2000) the homicide rate declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960s.
  • Based on data from 1980 and 2008, males represented 77% of homicide victims and nearly 90% of offenders. The victimization rate for males (11.6 per 100,000) was 3 times higher than the rate for females (3.4 per 100,000). The offending rate for males (15.1 per 100,000) was almost 9 times higher than the rate for females (1.7 per 100,000).
Murdering people is a male problem. Being murdered tends to be male as well.
Was Trayvon "a child" as we hear over and over? If reports are correct that he was over 6 foot tall (I do not know) it is fair to say if he is a child, he is a grown child. [My 15 year old son is over 6 foot. I clearly do not advocate shooting teens. I would probably 'feel' he was a child if he was gunned down on his way home from a convenience store.] The question is, does using the word child imply that 17 year olds are too young to be dangerous? You can see from the site below that .5% of murders were committed by children under 14. The 14-17 age cohort accounted for 10.6% of murders (they only  make up 5.7% of the population) and 18-24 year olds commit 37.5% of murders (while making up 10.6% of the population). Not all children are safe. Young people a bit older and younger than Trayvon murder at rates two to three the rate of their numbers. When I taught high school one of my favorite kids, Andrew, was sixteen. I was thirty. He stood 5' 8" and about 190 pounds. I was 5' 10" and 180. He came up behind me and put me in a bear hug to play with me. He literally crushed the air out of my lungs and I could not breath. At that time I was weightlifting and could bench 200 and squat over 300. That young man was still much stronger than me. So even a "child" of 17 can have manlike characteristics.

It may not have been Zimmerman's role to follow the young man (that is clearly a precipitating factor), but there is a fair question to ask. Are there legitimate roles for people to play in the policing of their own neighborhoods? Police are not always dependable, recall Asian store keepers standing in the streets of LA keeping rioters from looting their shops. I may think it was wrong but their shops (and livelihood) were intact at the end of the day while other stores were emptied of wares and burned to the ground (because people were "protesting" an unjust verdict).

Were the jurors right? We were not there (in court or at the scene of the crime). We do not know exactly what happened. (Really no one knows) It does appear that choices were made by both people which led to a deadly confrontation. Zimmerman acted rashly and placed himself in a situation which increased the likelihood of a conflict. Martin clearly did something. We do not know what. [In truth, neither of them could recount exactly what took place. Memory is notoriously faulty and memory in extremely stressful circumstances is even less trustworthy. The part of the brain that kicks in is reactive, while stress tends to shut down the rational brain.] I think it is fair to say that Zimmerman was wrong to approach the boy, but I do not know if he did. I do not know what Martin did (he did NOT deserve to be shot and killed). Was he acting macho in the the face of perceived threat? Did racial profiling occur ("dangerous black man" vs. "cracka")? Was testosterone to blame? Had the same confrontation taken place the day before or the day after would it have possibly ended peacably? ["Hello young man, I don't believe I know you. I am George, the local neighborhood watch captain" ""Hello, I am Trayvon, I am visiting my dad's girlfriend and just went out for a soda and skittles." "Okay, sorry to have bothered you, have a great night!"]

Was the law broken? Was there reasonable doubt that it was a murder? Was the criteria present to justify the shooting (legally if not morally)? I did not sit in the courtroom and I do not know. I do know that the law is not always sensible and somethings are legal even if not right (like abortion). I know for parents who lose a son the pain and heartache are unbearable and for a racial community to endure yet another murder of one of its own taps into deep feelings of anger and despair. Those feelings are connected to white racism (both actual and perceived) and black struggles (both self generated and other caused). Those feelings are generated by emotions and perceptions and assumptions and beliefs.

I am a white guy who tends to see the world from a particular perspective. I do not see things through black eyes or a black perspective. I can't. Still, I do not see how turning this into a race war benefits anyone.  I know why many white people see young black men (even a 17 year old "child") as dangerous. It is not fair, but it is also not ridiculous. People's assumptions lead them to view these young men (as "our children" or as "dangerous"). Even though the majority of black young men are not dangerous a disproportionate number of them are. Black people do well to admit this latter fact. White people do well to remember the former is true. All of us need to understand that the views of each of us is filtered through all manner of beliefs and assumptions. Some of it we do not control. And it is hard to be aware of our assumptions because they are assumed! We all pick and choose what we focus on and how we interpret the information. We all spin. we all filter out some things and emphasize others. We all do it. There is no way to completely avoid it. The conflicts and differences are real. We need to listen more and argue less. We need to, but even if we do sometimes we will still end up disagreeing. We will still end up saying, "Zimmerman should have gotten the death penalty" or "He should have gone to jail for twenty years" or "He should have got off" or "He was a  hero." We will say it because we believe it and we will believe it because of our experiences and beliefs. We will not bridge every gap and the tension and conflict will remain... So we pray, "Come Lord Jesus!" and "Deliver us from evil!"

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"God Is Asking Too Much"

I saw an old friend while out of town. We were attending a conference for our youngest son and it happened to be close to where she lives. She is someone very special to me, one of those people whom you meet and remember forever. Over the years the business of life and our different paths have resulted in few contacts. She and her husband came to Memphis a half dozen years ago for a gathering and we were delighted when they came by our house for a few hours as they driving home. Aside from that brief contact we have had rare interaction.

Her husband was a remarkable man. A commited father and devout Christian he is the sort of fellow who would have been described as "the salt of the earth" in a previous generation. He was truly ideal. His life ended tragically in an accident and he left behind his grieving wife and their two young children. As is often the case in such tragedies, I have found the roots of relationships regenerate. I reached out to her (like hundreds of others) and she called me some time ago. We talked, although I really listened more than talked. Her wounds are so fresh, the experience she is going through too raw. When we saw her it had been another week of living into the new and painful reality.

She made the drive and we visisted for forty five minutes. However, this time I did say something: "God redeems." She texted me later and asked what I meant. I told her I would blog on it (actually I texted I would "clog on it"). I have written about this before but wanted to revisit it here again, more intentionally. I told her I was going to write about it in a general way, but also for her. I love her and treasure her deeply and wish I could take away the pain. I cannot. I do know, however, that over time the pain will decrease. It will get better. It will heal.

"God is asking too much." Those simple words carry such depth of meaning. They are simultaneously a declaration of faith and a cry for help. Those of us who believe in God are different. Some folks believe that there is a God. They think that He is out there, but there is not much of a relationship. Other folks believe in God. There is a trusting faith, a belief which is transformed into worship and obedience.Some who believe in God think that God creates and orders things. They love God and want to serve Him. My friend is one of those people. She sees the current events as part of God's plan and is seeking to faithfully serve and love Him. Yet the pain is so unbearable. The sadness is so real. The loss and emptiness are so debilitating. So the question rises; this is God's plan? The Lord thought the best way for us to serve him was by an untimely death and loss and pain and sadness and crying and feeling empty and unable to breathe?

There are certainly places in the Bible that insinuate that God is the one who creates good and bad, who is behind everything, controlling everything. However, I think the more prevalent message of Scripture is that God is primarilly outside of it all in a very real way. I believe God creates and keeps things going. I believe He has a plan. I also believe He made the world to exist on its own and He does not micro-manage every single event. I believe God intervenes. That means, by definition, He cannot be controlling it all. TO intervene is to come from outside. If God controls everything than He is already controlling it and cannot intervene. (Just as I cannot intervene to correct my own driving). Here is an example from the Bible. When Joseph (see Genesis) comes to Egypt we are told it is God's answer to the threat of the famine. So that begs the question, why is there a famine? If God wanted to save His people why make a famine in the first place? Why all the selling into slavery and problems with Potipher's wife and going to jail and all the twists and turns of the story? However, if the famine is not God's creation then the twists and turns suddenly make sense. God at work inside is trying to achieve His goal. "The plan" in this case is to make Israel a light to the nations. The plan is being worked out in the midst of the chaos of life. God is not creating the chaos, He is ordering it (at least a small Joseph sized piece of it). Creation is Redemption. He redeems/saves/sets right what has unfolded contrary to His will (in the sense of desire). God allows things to happen which are not His will because He respects the world He created. Sometimes He intervenes to make sure His ultimate plan is achieved. He seems, though, to respect the independence of creation most of the time. Things just happen because He is not running the show....

So is God asking too much in this loss of life? I think not. I think God is redeeming this personal tragedy. Why did this young man die? There are mechanical reason, biological reasons, physical reasons. It is what happens in our world all the time. People are born, people die, people suffer, people cry. I do not think God does it to us anymore. I think His plan is to reign among us SOME DAY (in the Glory Alleluia, His Kingdom finally comes on earth as in heaven day). In the meantime, God redeems. Someone dies, He offers His presence in love and silence. He comes in and through other people and other events. He opens our eyes to see and our hearts to love (even when loving is the reason the losing hurts so dang much). He redeems through the cross of Jesus. There is something holy about faithful suffering. He redeems eventually and finally through resurrection and new life. In the meantime He does not ask too much, at least not in the sense that He kills our loved ones as a test (some would say that is the point of the Abraham&Isaac story). What He asks is that we trust Him to fully redeem even life's worst moments. He asks us to live today like it is true that "Tomorrow" (on the Great Day) He will make all things new. He asks us to be open to healing and hope and joy. He gives us eyes to see the sunrise and hear the birds sing. He is present in the midst of it all, not as the cause of the loss but as the source of hope for the renewal.

I may be wrong. Perhaps God actually pulls every string and controls every event. Perhaps He does take our loved ones for a higher purpose. If so, then I am wrong (but then He is also controlling what I write, so I am writing this because He wants me to be wrong and He is creating my error). However, then everything is just as He intends it and there is no redemption, because nothing needs to be bought back...

However, I think that reality is different. I do not think He controls everything. I do not think "everything happens for a reason" in the sense that God is doing these things and we need to accept them and say "He has a plan." So the only comfort I can give anyone (including my much loved mourning friend) is that I believe our God saves. I believe our God has created a world which exists because He sustains it, but unfolds according to the laws of nature and choices of creatures. As such, it is a world where the laws of physics and biology produce horrid tragedy and painful loss. As such, it is a world which is sometimes a dream and sometimes a nightmare. As such, it is a world where good men die too young, where good kids lose their dads, where good women lose their husbands, where good families lose a brother and son. As such, it is a world sometimes too awful to go on, where the act of surviving day to day feels like being "asked too much." But if I am right, when God redeems it totally, the pain and ugliness will be transformed. The bitter cross of Jesus gave way to the sweetness of resurrection glory. I believe the dead will rise again. I believe and so I have trust and hope and even joy. No loss totally blots out the gain. No darkness fully overcomes that light. No sadness can take away the peace and joy completely. And some day (on that Day) all will be well and all will be redeemed. Redeemed, saved, made new by the God Who does not control everything, but will redeem everything some day.

Obviously all of us have our own experience of  "God asking too much." My own presence at that conference is a case in point. It is hard here on the earth. I have come over the years to see the world as real and independent (though created and dependent on God). I have come to see events as not so much God doing things but as God's world exercising its God-given freedom of choice and being. I have come to see redemption as new creation and redemption as central to understanding everything. I have come to see God as an ally Who is on my/our side, not the all controlling Power to which I submit even when It is doing terrible things to me and those whom I love. Someday it will be different, in the New Creation, but not yet. Now, in this time, He asks will you love me and be faithful? It would be too much to ask if He had not submitted to life on this planet in Jesus. His power is there, in the weakness of the fragile human life of Jesus. He redeems all our poain because He suffered the same losses in our human condition.

So I look at Jesus when I pray for all who face difficulties. I pray for orphans and widows, for people facing all manner of struggles. I pray "Your Kingdom Come. soon, please." And I wait the fullness of redemption with trust in my heart, even as I blot the tears from my eyes. That is why watching, waiting, being steadfast and trusting are such important Christian virtues. That is why. Because His Kingdom has not come yet, He is not exerting His control and power yet, and in this time people die and suffer.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Jesus: International Harvester

(see Luke 10:1-11, 16-20)

What kind of world do we live in?

Jesus often uses analogies from agricultural. We live in a post-agrarian age, we prefer different metaphors. The law court is popular, or consumerism, or therapeutic acceptance. God is a judge, or a good deal (because of grace) or a benevolent counselor who loves and accepts us just as we are. We are also motivated by quick fixes.

There is no instant gratification in the fields. There is only the back breaking, tedious labor each day under the relentlessly hot sun. All work is done under the threats of nature: locust, drought or flood. Losing the harvest is possible.

What if God sees the world as a field? What if God sees us as a farmer views his grapes? How would that change things?

Jesus seems to think in this way when He says that He is the vine and we are the branches. We abide in Him (and He is us) so we produce fruit, which glorifies the Father. Fruit/harvest is a different view of life than getting saved from sin or being loved unconditionally. And Jesus seems to lean toward bearing fruit...

Hear Jesus:
The harvest is (truly) plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.

First off, God is central. It is His field. He sends out the laborers. We ask/beg Him. Yet, aren't we also the answer to our prayers? Can we ask God to provide workers while we do nothing?

[notice, Jesus never speculates on why we have to pray. He just tells us to do it. The Father does not do it on His own, He does it through us. The harvest is truly plentiful, but the laborers are few, pray God sends more help.]

The word for harvest Katsiyr appears 54x in Jesus’ Bible. It usually means harvesting a field. However, there are three metaphorical uses when harvest is equated with judgment: Isaiah 17:4 (Israel will be brought low like when harvest & reaping strips the land), Jer 51 (Babylon will harvest you), and Hos 6:11 (For you also Judah a harvest is appointed). In addition, the Isaian parable of the vineyard was clearly in line with this idea.

Jesus expands on the symbol usage (of judgment) with numerous parables of seeds, sowing and gathering; bearing fruit being central. Jesus even curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit as He enters Jerusalem; both a living parable and prophetic act of judgment on the city. (and an image of His own lifeless body hanging on a tree, carrying our judgment.)

Harvest is also an apocalyptic image, which refers to God’s judgment now (prophetic) and at the end of time (eschatological). Remember, with God, time collapses and past, present, future and eternal co-exist and interpenetrate.

We see these three uses illustrated below:
Jn 4:35 “Behold I say to you lift your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for the harvest” (now)
Mt 13:39 Jesus says that in his parable “the harvest is the end of the age” (future)
Rev 14: 14-15 The Son of Man sits with a sharp sickle in his hand and the angel calls to him thrust your sickle and reap for the harvest has come. (Both)

In one parable Jesus says that the world is a field where God’s seed (message of Kingdom) has been scattered. Jesus’ mission is to bring in the harvest. Jesus’ mission (authority and power) are transferred to His 12 apostles. Luke mentions the 70; like 12 a significant Biblical number. Let's look at some of the occurences and what it might mean.

1.   Gen 46:27 & Ex 1:5 “all the persons of the house of Jacob numbered 70" (Primary referent is to the extended family of Jacob/Israel. It is a symbol of all the descendents).
2.   Exodus 15:27, Israel cried out for water because the place they had was Mara (bitter) and God said I am your healer and they came to Elim which had 12 wells and 70 palm trees. (//Num 33:9) (Typology: The 12 sons of Jacob and the total of 70 in the family.)
3.   Moses had 70 elders who served as his advisors and aides. (Typology: Jesus is the One like Moses.)
4.   The Gentile nations in Genesis 10 number 70. (Typology:  mission to the whole world. Hence “eat and drink whatever they provide” (vs. Jewish dietary practice)
5.   Numbers 7:10ff Each tribe presented offerings at the consecration of the tabernacle including a silver basin weighing 70 shekels. (type: Church is New Temple)
6.   Seventy is the number of years of the exile and is considered the length of a full life. Hence 70 is an image of fullness and completeness (7 x 10)

When Jesus is doing His ministry, a time of judgment hangs over Jerusalem. The city and its temple are under threat. Jesus feels a sense of urgency (do not to talk to anyone on the road; like a fireman headed to a fire, focused, no time for chit chat) so Jesus “appointed” the 70. Appointed, in Greek anadeiknemai, means to proclaim to everyone some one has been raised to a high office. I.e., They proclaim Jesus and the Kingdom. They are an advance team, pairs sent to prepare for Jesus (then).

It is a template for us now.
We too live under judgment here and now and on "The Day" when the final judgement happens. The pending judgment on our land must be declared.
We also declare Jesus is Lord so everyone knows and understands.
We are the answer to our own prayer, by God’s grace, gathering the harvest as His laborers and the local church is an employment bureau set up to hire laborers sent by God into the abundant harvest.
be back in a week with next installment....

Parallels to Nazi Germany?

My latest post on Bonhoeffer resulted in much feedback, most of it verbal and in e-mails. Each person alluded to their belief that today we are in 'similar' times (more or less). I would agree, but with this caveat, we are probably always in similar times...

On our recent trip to Florida and back, we spent lots of time in the car. On several occassions the relative quiet of the car was disrupted by the moaning sound of the tires crossing the white line. Many of you know it as well. The side of the road has grooves in it so that as one crosses over the white line the resulting sound will serve to startle the driver out of sleep or "high way trance" or whateve might be going on. Of course, many times, it is just some slight drifting, but the noise is still there.

When we drive, a slight turn of the wheel (especially at a mile/minute or faster) can quickly produce tragedy. We are always a few feet away from colliding with a car in the next lane. We are sometimes little more than that from being off the road and into a tree. There are times when a "near miss" drives that home to us, perhaps we drift more than our normal drifting and suddenly realize it. Or someone cuts in early when passing us so we need to slam on the break to save our front end (that also happened). Or we look in our rearview mirror and notice the faces include the driver of the car behind us, so close we can make out the color of his eyes! The shot of adrenaline which accompanies such near misses is a function of our sudden awareness of how tenuous and dangerous driving really is.

One of the things that most struck me in the book so far (I am on page 334 of 542) was the oath of loyalty clergy were expected to make to Hitler (308) The head of the Reichskirke, Dr. Werner, demanded "Anyone who is called to a spiritual office is to affirm his loyal duty with the following oath: "I swear that I will be faithful and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich and people, that I will conscientiously observe the laws and carry out the duties of my office, so help me God."

How does it come to this?
How do clergy give their hearts to any political leader? Truth is, it happens, even here. Perhaps more subtly, but it happens nonetheless.

I get the hostility of the secularist. They reject us who stand with Jesus because Jesus refuses to embrace their values and beliefs. The Romans killed Jesus for political reasons, all of them tied up with God's Kingship and authority. (even "the church" struggles with Jesus' Lordship, in large part because Christian hearts are not submitted, truly, to Him)

American culture has always been at war with Jesus to some extent. Many of us have not seen it because of our prefered political views. Blinded by our own set of (mis)values we take from Jesus what we like and disregard the rest... However, it is also true that anger and even hatred of Jesus followers in the church is on an upswing today. Some of it is politcally inspired through the culture wars, but some of it is more close to evil.

When Obama was elected several stories ran which indicated messianic parallels. We even saw candles with the likeness of Mr. Obama on them (similar to Jesus candles). [Of course, I do not know who made the candles or why and certainly the use was not widespread nor has there been much messianic imagery in the popular press in recent years.] This is not about him at all, it is about the tendency of humans to construct human gods. Rather than worship the Lord, we prefer to create (idolatry) our own. Hitler was a result of the German desire for a strong leader. Right or Left Wing (false) Messiahs are each a possible option. Throughout history, we have always been drifting in our lane, sometimes a bit outside. In today's world, with the remarkable technology and amazing weaponry, it is pretty easy to imagine things going from okay to bad to worse pretty quickly.

I see no Hitler on the horizon, but that does not mean s/he is not there. I do know that the Apocalypse (and I John) indicates that "anti-Christ" is at work among us. Hitler was an anti-Christ. So was Stalin. So have other evil leaders filled the role. Fallen humanity is ever at risk to make the commitment to pure evil. Even good men can go bad.

Bonhoeffer's Germany is a reminder that our sins (anti-semiticism parallels racism, oppressive laws can be unjust, police can enforce bad laws and take away basic freedoms, anger over past hurts can lead to future horrors) in every place and every age can mushroom into hell on earth. And in the beginning it is subtle. Or it seems not worth the fight. Or it is done secretly and revealed later when it is too late.

The life of prayer and holiness is "not" the answer. Prayerful people can still do evil and holy people are still sinners. But prayer and holiness is our best hope. At least until Jesus comes in glory. We need to be vigiliant as to which Fuhrer we make our oaths and pledge our loyalty. And we need to pray our nation can avoid the path of destruction chosen by Germany eighty years ago.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Things I Learned on Vacation: Thinking the Unthinkable

I am back for a few days so wanted to blog. While on break I began reading Bonhoeffer:Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Minister who was involved in the conspiracy against Hitler. He was executed (murdered) by the Germans as the war was winding down.] Bonhoeffer was Lutheran, but he was a popular theologian at my Roman Seminary in the 1980's. His book, The Cost of Discipleship, was highly recommended and I read it back then. It is famous for the term "cheap grace" and his insistence that faith and grace do not rule out a life of commmited, obedient service.

He was born over 100 years ago and grew up during WWI. He came of age during Hitler's ascendency and the book views Nazism through the lense of Dietrich's own biography. Reading it made me understand why so many of my professors were enamored with him. They were all a bit younger than him, but had lived through the same hell of WWII. The outright evil and horror of Nazism cannot be exaggerated. Belgians suffered greatly under its heavy hand. Bonhoeffer for them was not history, he was connected to their life.

I am no stranger to history, but it has been quite a while since I read books from this era so I am rediscovering things I already knew. What really struck me is that the shape of the German society changed pretty dramatically and the unthinkable became reality in a decade. It is a reason why I worry about trajectories in many of our current situations. Jews in Germany did not act quickly enough in the face of their social changes. I hear distant parallels in our contemporary society which give me pause.

I want to share a few things from the book:
  • "God's cause is not always the successful one." Bonhoeffer said that we could be unsuccessful but still on the right road. While he knew that his resistance to Hitler was God's will, he also realized that "winning" may not be part of the deal for staying faithful. He recognized the central role of the cross.
  • He was struggled with doubt and uncertainty. "I became increasingly isolated" which has "shaken my confidence so that I begin to fear that dogmatism might be leading me astray." He wondered "why should I be right" when other capable pastors disagreed with him. I have often felt the same way so it is a consolation to hear the heartfelt struggles of this good man. In the end, Bonhoeffer was willing to suffer (the cross again) and that is the great corrective for any 'prophetic' act and the true test of motivation. Once again, winning does not matter as much as faithful obedience.
  • On his visits to the US (in the 1930's) he noticed that "tolerance trumps truth" in this country. This has only gotten more intense in our own day. Attending Riverside Church in New York, a leading light of Liberal Christianity, he found the preaching "quite unbearable." While he was a genuinely balanced and accepting person (he was taught by Harnack, one of the Fathers of Liberal Christianity and spoke at a gathering to honor him), Bonhoeffer had harsh criticism for the American brand.
  • The sections on Bonhoeffer's assessment of American Liberal Christianity included this declaration: "idolatrous religion", promoting "libertinism, egotism, indifference." He said it lacked the Bible and was devoid of the Gospel. He predicted that "[McCombs church] will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Chruch has long since become a temple of Baal." His prophetic insight into Hitler and Germany gives one reason to fear for Riverside!
  • He chose to model his illegal seminary (for ministers who refused to make an oath of allegiance to Hitler (think about that one!) on a Benedictine model of reciting psalms and meditating (lectio divina) on passages. I am currently focusing on the Benedictine way of discipleship. I found this supportive of what I am trying to do here in my parish.
At any time and in any place, there is always a chance that an evil leader will emerge and people will be led into some awful, unthinkable things. Bonhoeffer is an example of holy and faithful living in the face of hell being unleashed among us. I appreciate his witness (martyria in Greek) and pray that we will be faithful to Jesus and His Kingdom when we are tested in the days ahead.