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Friday, August 30, 2013


Today ends an era in our little church. Paula and Kathy have been working here, covering the parish administration and financial administration for almost all of my twelve years serving here. Among other things, we have started each day together at Morning Prayer in our church. The bulk of attendees is often our little staff. [Most days there are three or four there, though on a good day we can have ten or more.] The practice of morning prayer is shaped by the monastic hours (or the office) and consists of psalms, prayers and readings from Scripture. Praying like that each day has created a holy bond which is difficult to describe.

Paula and Kathy are the kind of people which one would "expect" to work at a church. They are as loving and kind, conscientious and committed as any I have ever with worked side by side. They were so pleasant and proficient. While most of my readers do not know them, I think it is possible to "know" them because everyone knows people like them. And everyone knows what a hole is left when people like this move on.

Ironically, this is also the last Sunday of our associate. Fr. Rene is moving back home and beginning his retirement as well. He served for three years and is much loved and respected. He was a friend long before he came to work here so his departure is a double blow. I am not sure it has settled in that he is really going to be gone. It makes me sad (and happy for him).

I have shipped off my daughter, now the bulk of my co-workers, and the icing on the cake, one of our best families is being transferred. Lots of loss. Lots of good byes. Lots of changes.

In Bible study Wednesday we reflected on Jesus' words in Mt//Lk about the futility of storing up treasure. Jesus reminds us, whatever it is we think we have as we hoard and collect is all going to pass away. Thieves steal, moths eat, or it is 'consumed' (brosis= eating in Greek). It is a truth which we are reluctant to face or embrace. Time has its way with all of us. We are in a constant state of losing and moving on. Certainly, all loss is not bad (I do not miss the forty pounds I am no longer lugging around) and some is necessary. All my soon to be  former co-workers will have time to spend pursuing their roles as grandparents. It is a time of the harvest for them, reaping the benefits of life well lived. Not everyone on the planet has such a time to look forward to and enjoy! They are blessed indeed.

So we are grateful for what we had, excited about what new adventures will unfold in days ahead and try to remind ourselves of the one constant--God's love poured out in Jesus. We remind ourselves that with change comes opportunity; if nothing else the chance to practice trust and hope. The pages of our lives, people my age, are mostly written. Perhaps there are many chapters left, but whether few or many, I am past the half way point in living. Each letting go is a reminder of that. It is a reason to consider and ponder if the life I am living is one which I want to present to God as a gift in gratitude for all He has given. Time runs out, after all. We can not wait for ever to get focused and respond to His call.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Betrayal is a key component of the human condition. At Morning Prayer we read from Mark's version of the Last Supper. Jesus says, "one of you will betray me." The story is so familiar that it is easy to gloss over the full depth of that reality. What did Jesus feel knowing one of His closest friends, someone whom He loved and shared His life with, had betrayed Him?

In the early church many people did not believe in the Incarnation. They could not fathom that God could be a man. It seemed illogical and impossible. Some of those people just said, "Jesus is a man." Perhaps they added an adjective of praiseworthy content: He was "an amazing man" or "the holiest man" or "the purest man." Words like teacher and prophet are certainly attempts to convey just how wonderful He is. In the end, however, they would say "Jesus is the Son of God, but so is everyone else." Their contemporary followers are among us today. The secularist would declare Jesus was just a man. The Liberal/Progressive Christian has also made a point of this time and again.

There was another group. In many so-called conservative Christian settings this group thrives today. It is the group which declares, "Jesus is God." They will ask a preacher, "Do you believe Jesus is God?" If they get an affirmative answer, they breathe a sigh of relief and feel safe. Unfortunately, that question and answer are not the orthodox Christian truth. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. That is the Christian revelation. The middle way between the two errors is where the truth is revealed and discovered.

Too many committed Christians believe Jesus already knew Judas would betray Jesus, chose him for that reason, and used Him for that purpose. As such, they assume Jesus felt no sadness or betrayal. The problem is, such an "apparently human but not really" Jesus does not connect with our lives. If the Progressive, only-a-human Jesus cannot save except by offering a good example (something remarkably useless to me and everyone I know who understand what we should do, but cannot figure out exactly how to do it regularly); the alternative, God-Jesus, serves no function other than saving my soul and judging me at the end of time. In both cases He is peripheral because of His limits.

When Judas betrayed Jesus, it was a horrible discovery for the Lord. The betrayal may have been part of God's plan but that does not make it part of God's original intention. Jesus' preaching (repent and believe) were not a sham. Jesus did not say, "I am going to act like I want to draw people to God, but actually I am going to make sure that the whole thing ends up badly." God may have known ahead but that does not mean that He caused it. [James says God does not tempt people to sin. He certainly wouldn't cause people to sin.]

Jesus' relationship with Judas is a type of God's relationship with the Jews (or "Judas" in Greek!!!). The irony of the name has led some to wonder if the betrayal was a symbolic construct to express that Jesus was rejected by His own people. Perhaps, in this case, raw history ends up also being symbolic!

The pain of being betrayed ruins us all. Jesus' pain was no doubt impacted by the betrayal of one so close. And if Jesus is divine and human, then that means that the ineffable realm of heaven has touched (and subsumed) the imperfections of time and space. Betrayal, taken into God, is now redeemed.

I am working with fallen, fragile humans. I see betrayal in marriages, in parenting, in working, in neighboring and in churching together (yes I just turned nouns into verbs. It is called verbing). Betrayal is part of the four corners of faith. Trust/faith are opposite of Doubt/unbelief. They are related to fidelity/faithfulness which is in opposition to betrayal/unfaithfulness. The experience of betrayal diminishes our capacity to trust which negatively impacts our ability to be trustworthy. There is a reason why untrustworthy people have trust issues.

I am Judas. I have also been in the place of Jesus. I know betrayal first hand, the sadness one feels as one utters the words, "it was you, my friend, it was you did this to me?" I know the shame of being the one who has been asked that. I know the shame of being told, "but I thought I could count on you."

As in all horrible things, my hope is not in doing better. I do want to do better, but it is too late to undo past failings (and the fruits of those failings). My hope is in redemption. My hope is in incarnation, God's nature penetrating human nature. God taking into Himself all that we are, including betrayal. All betrayal is related. Jesus knew it, suffered it, took it into Himself. He tasted its bitter horror and consumed it. Now it rests in God. The same God betrayed by His creation, betrayed by His People (Judah and the Church). It was a big deal for Jesus and a big deal for God (one tip off is Jesus saying "it would be better for that man that he had never been born"). It is a big deal for you and I. Yet Jesus knows what it feels like, take your betrayal pain to Him in prayer. He understands. Take also your acts of betrayal. Tell Him you know what He felt like when Judas, acting on your (and my) behalf betrayed Him. Confess that and ask for mercy and renewal.

Let the redemption begin afresh in your life...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Callling of a Prophet

from today's preaching on Jeremiah 1:4-10
Jeremiah's family were priests. There line traced back to King David, whom his ancestors served. In his own time his family was not in power, political miscalculations long prior to this  had relegated them to a more peripheral existence. 
Manasseh's reign as king was a bad time for folks like Jeremiah's family. Pagan religion permeated the Temple and the people. The emergence of Josiah, a young king who was reform minded no doubt gave folks like them hope. I think in our own time, many of us see things going on which deeply trouble us. We have much in common with that priestly family and their young son, Jeremiah. By Jeremiah’s own account of his calling from God took place in 627BC. He was a teenager.

It is noteworthy that although Jeremiah heard God call, he was a reluctant prophet. In fact, Jeremiah never seemed comfortable in the role. At times God got frustrated with him. Jeremiah was beset with doubts and fears his entire ministry, going so far (chapter 20) as to level the accusation that God seduced and overpowered him.

Jeremiah is no poster child for recruiting prophets! But he is a sign of hope to those of us who sometimes struggle in our own efforts to be faithful. While few of us may have heard an individual call to a prophetic mission, together as a parish it remains one of our duties.

1.   The call
God knows us all from before time and forever. He has plans for us. Some receive a special station, such as Jeremiah. Qadash means to be set apart, to be made holy or sanctified for God’s purpose. We are not all specially called as prophets, but we are all set apart to be God’s children. The history of the world is the sad fact that we may be predestined, but we can choose another path. God made no one for the purpose of being a vicious, heartless or evil. The choice is ours. Like Jeremiah we may fail to reach our potential at times. Like Jeremiah, God has better plans for us than we do for ourselves.
2.   The Response
Jeremiah tells God, “I am too young.” The Hebrew can be translated “I am of a tender age.” All of us have any number of good reasons (or excuses) for putting off God’s call. I am too young, too old, too tired, too busy. I am not skilled. I am not prepared. Surely there is someone else better suited for the task. In the end, it all comes down to “No, I will do what I want.” However, sometimes we do say yes.
3.   The command
Much like His command to Abraham, God tells Jeremiah, “you will go.” Going is tough stuff. It takes trust to leave behind what we have. It takes love and faith to let go of our security. Much like God commanded Moses, He also tells Jeremiah “you will say.” The Word of God is on his lips. He carries a message. But the speaker is at risk of rejection and worse.
4.   The Promise.
"I will deliver you," says the Lord, "so do not be afraid." This Hebrew word, 'to deliver', also means to save. It is used in many of the great stories of the ancient covenant. Jacob is delivered from Essau, Joseph is delivered from his brothers, Moses delivers young women from cruel men, and God delivers His people from Pharaoh.
The promise from God: I am with you to deliver you is GOOD NEWS. It is the source of every hope and joy.
5.   The authorization
“I have put my words in your mouth” “I appoint you.” The word of God is a word of judgment. It is judgment against the wicked and judgment on behalf of the poor and needy. It is the message which we, you and I, consecrated from before our birth, have been authorized and commission to deliver to a sin soaked world.

While Isaiah’s words are often quoted in the Gospels as precursors to the Christ, it is Jeremiah’s life which gives insight into Jesus. It is clear to me that Jeremiah is himself a “prophecy” of Messiah. In his tortured life Jeremiah is a ‘type’ of the crucified. He is a priest who is also a sacrifice: a man who learned the horrible price of being faithful in his own suffering flesh.

In Jeremiah we see our own attempts to discern vocation and be faithful to God. In him we see also our weakness and infidelity. We hear echoed our desire to shun our vocation and escape our calling.

Each of us must decide, for himself or herself, will I walk away from God, or trust His promise and walk into a hostile world with His message.

Whatever the case, God remains faithful.
God is the one who cries out to us: FEAR NOT!
God is the one who promises: I WILL DELIVER YOU!
That is good news worthy of pondering as we consider this day what response to make.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Another Angle!

Today we read Mark 12:35-44 in Morning Prayer. Memphis is sort of a Scripture culture, lots of Bible focus takes place here. I want to look at is how people read the Bible (again). Anyone familiar with the Ancient Covenant text (the Bible of the Jews, usually called the Old Testament) knows that in its heyday, Judaism's relationship with God centered around three institutions: The King (David's line), the Temple (the sacrificial system) and the Scriptures--most centrally the Torah, or instruction (also called the Law), the Prophets (the 'historical books' and our written prophets, and the Writings (wisdom, psalms, etc). [The component of these three may not be exactly what you expect so go look it up for clarity]

[King, Temple, and Torah are all part of the covenant relationship. In Jesus' day the Temple (rebuilt by Ezra/Nehemiah) had recently been "refurbished/rebuilt" (historians call it the Second Temple period) by Herod. The Years of exile had raised the study of Torah to a broader audience (lay folks like Pharisees were actively engaged). The Davidic line lay fallow. Herod was not Davidic and none of the Davidics were making a move to rule.]

Reading the section of Mark we come across the story of the widow, whose pittance of a contribution, we are told, is more than all the rich gave. It is the story of proportional giving. She gave little, but it was all she had. The rich give much, but it is surplus. It is the type of Bible verse which gets memorized and is held up as a good example of generosity. It actually is nothing of the sort. I think I have written on this in the past. If you take a step back, the text turns out to be saying something different from how it is applied.

Mark has strung together several stories. Seen as a whole they inform each other. 12:28-34 focus on "what is the great commandment?" The answer, we know, is love God and love people. This is Jesus' take on Torah. Next Jesus asks "how can Messiah be called son of David?" Quoting from a psalm by David, He says Jesus calls Messiah "Lord." This is Jesus' take on Kingship. Lastly, Jesus says, "Beware of the scribes...they like honors, best seats in the house and they devour widows houses for the sake of appearance...they will receive the greater condemnation." Then we hear of the widow, who gave all she had to live on." That is Jesus' take on Temple- it is stealing from those who can least afford it, which is injustice. (As Jeremiah and Isaiah made clear that is part of the reason the Temple of Solomon was destroyed.) In what follows, immediately, in chapter 13, the disciples tell Jesus how amazing the Temple is and He tells them it is all coming down. Employing apocalyptic imagery, Jesus declares judgment on the center of Jewish worship. This prophecy comes true a generation later. The temple is still, to this day, gone. I do not think it is an accident that the widow story and the temple prediction lie side by side after Jesus' condemnation of  the scribes.

Jesus speaks a hard word to organized religion. As a professional I am under special scrutiny. I know that and it worries me. In any case, the religious institutions, though God given, are human twisted. The alternative, "toss it all out," ignores the problem that whatever you put in its place will be every bit as twisted (humans do that). Jesus offers Himself as true King, True Rabbi/interpreter of Scripture, and the perfect sin offering and worship leader. Jesus would say the purpose of giving, generously, is to help widows, not fleece them. I think this reading of that little piece of Mark today is more consistent with what he wants us to consider as we ponder the words of the Lord Jesus. It is a reminder of what we are supposed to be doing in organized Christianity.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Moving on

Yesterday was our annual prayer vigil. We also kicked off the new Bible study year so it was definitely a long, full day. At one point I read from a volume of the Philokalia (a collection of writings from the early church in the East, for reference see ). In the East, many devout Christians hold this collection second only to the Bible in value. The author, the confessor Longinus (Vol 4, p 257), quoted St. John Chrysostom about the state of most Christians. Quoting from both Testaments, John asserted that we should be able to say that our pure prayer allows us to hear the word of God without need for any other source. He then goes on to say that not only monks but all Christians should attain to this level of holy communing. Then the hammer: instead "We do not know whether God exists, or who we are, or what we have become, although through baptism we have been made sons of God, sons of light, and children and member of Christ.... we feel that we have been baptized in water only and not by the Spirit. And even though we have been renewed in the Spirit, we believe only in a formal, lifeless and ineffectual sense, and we say we are full of doubts. Hence, because we are in fact non-spiritual we live and behave in a non-spiritual manner.... But we are unregenerate, even though we have become members of the faith and heavenly, and so the Spirit of God does not dwell within us (Gen 6:30)


So much energy is taken up in the philosophical struggles with evil, the existence of God, why do things happen the way that they do; or with debates and arguments about secondary questions, that we do not focus our time and attention on the matter at hand. We live as a hodge podge, part believer, part unbeliever, mostly indifferent and distracted by many things.

When Jesus is asked by the student of Torah, "What is the greatest commandment?" His response is "Love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus' instruction assumes that there is a God. If we pause and ponder and debate whether the Father even exists we are stuck in "prologue." Does this  mean that we never wrestle with tough questions, of course not. It is simply a reminder that in the end, to spend one's life asking "does God exist" excludes doing what Jesus calls 'the main thing'---loving God.

Tying love of neighbor to love of God is another important insight. This God we love is not far off and disconnected from daily life. We are not invited to mystical escape and a hatred of material reality. Other people are not Hell (though they may be purgatory!) it turns out, but companions with a shared need for redemption. We are all flawed and imperfect. To live together is an exercise in community and a preparation for the time when we will all be together with God.

Today I led morning prayer, taught a class, dealt with various communications and helped a man with his MLGW (electricity) bill and job needs. Each of those in different ways expressed love for God and love for others. It is much more life giving to respond to God's call. It is redemptive.And I think about how easy it is to get pulled into all manner of verbal wrestling matches where we assert this or that and question that or this. We raise objections and counter arguments, all of it focused on affirming or denying the statement "there is a God." Meanwhile, as the ancient writer I stumbled across makes clear, the abundant life in Christ lays fallow and unproductive within us because we are too busy with the wondering if the Mission Director exists to engage in the mission.

At some point a person has to make a decision, and act on that decision. At some point you have to respond Jesus' invitation, come follow Me. In the response is the Light and the Life, and the Hope of better days to come!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

At Your Service

We live in a glamor and glitz world. We are enamored with the "big deal." Every news story is "breaking news" with accompanying music to emphasize its (supposed) import. We want to be the best ever, doing memorable things which matter.

When I was in seminary I worked at The Summer Institute at Leuven. For two weeks priests attended seminars. We were there to serve them. I got a chance to take a walk and ask one of them about life. I so wanted to be a good priest and sought his advice.

One thing he said which has stuck with me was this: "Christianity is not about doing great things, it is about doing small things in a great way." Christianity is about discipleship. Being a disciple means "to follow." Christians are not leaders, they are followers. Jesus is the Leader. He directs, we respond.

Most of us are 'stuck' doing some things which we would prefer not to do. Many of our (imposed) tasks are things which we  consider obstacles to living a fuller Christian life. We may be irritated and grouse about the mundane duties which seem to suck the life from our souls. Those daily responsibilities of caring for young, old or ill become a heavy load. The unexciting and obscure tasks frustrate us. We had hoped for so much more. In place of the joy of loving service we only feel accusations of our conscience because we are reluctant in our tasks. We are "doing what we do not want to do and feeling guilty because we did not want to do it..."

Yet, if we think about it, our purpose on earth is not to tell God what we will do for Him. In a real sense, God needs nothing from us. Obedience is more pleasing than any sacrifice. Obedience far surpasses any program or service with which we might come up. In the end, it is God's world.

Even so, I can get sad or depressed that this little life of mine is not enough. And I recall the scene from Lord of the Rings as the trembling soldiers stood before the gates. Suddenly the shattered wood flies open and a giant ogre surges through and sweeps away a dozen with one swing of his club. Those men, nameless and wordless, also served. They too were faithful. They were not Aragon or a Gandalf- prince or wizard- heroes of the story. Their adventures were peripheral, as they make a momentary appearance. Yet, they played  their part. They were obedient. In the end, if God wants me or you to toil at "other tasks" so be it. We are here to learn to trust, to love, to serve. Servants are not in charge of the house. Servants do not tell the master what they shall do for Him, they ask what He would have them do. It is okay if you are anonymous. God sees. God hears. God knows. God remembers. And at journey's end, even though nameless and wordless, we will be welcomed into His presence as a treasured member of His family. And then it will all make sense.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled"
So begins the Gospel read in many denominations and churches today (Lk 12:49ff)

The Greek includes the word ballo (a verb which means to throw, to scatter, to pour out. Our English words ball and ballistic come from this Greek root). Jesus says He has come to toss this fire on the earth. He says it is His desire that the fire start burning, that it be ignited.. It does not mean, as I  had long assumed,  that Jesus was disappointed that His message had not caught on and people were not "on fire" for Him (a popular expression in my younger days).

In the OT fire refers to judgment. When a battle was fought fire was used to lay waste the opponents 'camp.' Elijah famously called down fire from heaven to consume the Baal priests (something the apostles asked Jesus to do to the inhospitable Samaritan town,only to be rebuffed). Fire is also connected to the mysterious covenant ceremony with Abraham (in a trance state he saw a dancing torch between the cut up animals). It is likewise in Exodus (Moses' burning bush and God's presence is fire at night). Perhaps, more than judgment, fire is God's presence. His presence creates judgment (a point of decision). The process of purification also uses fire.The power of fire to clean is manifest anytime you leave the burners on full blast and close up a dirty grill.In God's presence that which is common, or imperfect, must be perfected and made holy.

The NT may use fire even more than the Ancient Covenant (OT) texts. Jesus speaks often of fire and judgment (although it is popular to claim Jesus is love and no judgment). Jesus is clear that God's coming among us entails judgment and purification. No one is clean. No one. So for all of us the encounter with God will be fire and judgment (and thank God His love is great enough to heal the burning fire).

Yet the next statement ("I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed") of Jesus is a reminder that God is not some far away actor, dishing out fire with no regard for humankind. Jesus' baptism--the cross--is God's answer to human sin. If Jesus longs to see the Kingdom come, once and for all, He also knows there is a steep cost for Him to pay first. The internal logic of creation includes God's self emptying. God hands power over to humanity (hence sin) and allows creation to be tied in with human freedom (hence evil and death). Until God reigns alone, we live with the painful consequences. Yet, not without hope, for God Himself in the flesh of Jesus takes on and redeems it all.

Yet this redemption--a free gift, a grace, an offer of unmerited kindness--entails a decision. "For Me or not?" Jesus asks. Will you embrace Me or some other, follow Me or another, serve Me or an alternative? This produces divisions. In 12:52-53 Jesus uses the example of a married couple living with her mom and their two kids. Jesus' demands will separate the family and tear it apart, He says. He reconfigures relationships. He redefines priorities and commitments. Jesus is not family friendly. He places Himself above family. "Seek first the Kingdom of God!" He announced elsewhere.The demands of Christian faith--not to "be good" but to love, serve and obey God totally--are such that one's answer takes away being neutral. There comes a point where Jesus says, "pick up the cross and follow." Those not aligned with Jesus will be more than happy to speed you on your way to Golgotha.

Some two thousand years later, the fire has yet to be kindled. We still live in the before-time, before the Final Coming. We still reside in a period of unfulfilled promises, living with hope (or disdain) and waiting (or not) for Jesus' return. Fire and division are never my favorite parts of the message. I do not always understand why it must be so hard. Yet, I know, that in the end what He endured for us impacts what we ourselves must endure. I seek to be more eager to follow Him and love Him. I know He is worth the price.

hat tip to Fr. Rene, whose penultimate homily this week gave me fresh insight into this difficult saying of Jesus

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Who is that riding into town?

The morning Gospel was Mk 11:1-11. It begins with Jesus' arrival at the Mount of Olives. [This is the same location that a weeping King David ascended to yesterday as he and his mourning retinue fled the capitol city. Now, some one thousand years later (pause and ponder how long that is) Jesus comes from the other direction.] One aspect of the story which bedazzles is when Jesus sends two disciples ahead, where they are told they will find a colt. There are other cases of such power which I have read about. St. Catherine of Siena and Padre Pio were both reputed to see at a distance. This power of Jesus is related matter of factly and it is hard to know how often He exercised it or what mechanism was at work.

The disciples found things just as Jesus said they would be (including some bystanders who asked what they were doing). Jesus mounted the young ass and road it into town amidst the Messianic clamor of His disciples and some others in the crowd. What were they thinking? Some anticipated the fall of Rome and the rise of David's Kingdom. Longing for days gone by, they desired a glory measured in wealth and land. Some thought that Jesus was "another" misguided fool, claiming an authority which was obviously not His to be had. Others probably reveled in what Jesus had done for them. He had healed many and some of the recipients of His largess no doubt cried out the loudest (while perhaps others fumed that He did not heal everyone). The crowds who had been fed by Him probably contributed some attendees. Maybe they hoped only for a supercharged welfare state where Jesus made bread and fish available at no charge each day. From Mark's perspective, no one understood who Jesus really is. In His Gospel, it is the cross (and resurrection) which validate Jesus' true identity. There is a reason why Mark has Jesus constantly repeat, over and over, predictions that He would be turned over, mistreated and abused, crucified and die (and then rise).

Meditating on that crowd I hear echoes of my own cares and concerns. I word my own questions and ponder my own confusion. The excited crowd will change its tune very soon. Trading in "Hosanna in the highest" for "crucify Him!" No doubt both will be articulated with sincerity. Nothing disappoints and increases rage and anger than a Messiah Who fails to do what we want, when we want, and how we want. Love and hate are closely related.

Jesus' public declaration "I am King" was made in an action. However, He is King of Shalom (Melchizedek). He is priest and victim. He is God's presence, emptied of power, full of love. He appears to be useless and pointless to most of the citizens. The cross will be a strong statement of rejection. Yet we who acclaim Him King must also have the courage to stand with Him on Golgotha. The mockery and threats from the powers around us--those who do not believe--are an invitation to humble submission and fidelity to Him, come what may. Jesus, the king, did not ride into town with a conquering army. He makes clear the angel hosts were available if He so chose. Instead, He reveals the depth of love. A love which you and I can trust. And we can pray, "Maranatha, come Lord! Come King Jesus!" And some day He will be with us again. and all will be well.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Hanging By a Thread

2 Samuel 15

A messenger came to King David saying, "The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom..."
King David said to his people, "Get up. Let us flee, or there will be no escape..."
v 23 "The whole country wept aloud as the [King's] people passed by..."
v30 "But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and barefoot; and all  the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping."

One day you are the king.
The next day you are weeping and running for your life.
Life is in constant transition. Things change. Not all change is for  the better.

Reflecting on David's (seemingly bizarre) interactions with his son Absalom, we know that this tragedy may have been averted. His passionate love for the young man was never expressed directly to him. This father son problem created all manner of tragedy for countless others. That is the problem when God "empties Himself" and hands over control (dominion and authority) to human actors. Yet, the decision of God to make us responsible is exactly what is taking place here. The "pain of God" (all talk of God is analogical) is His love for us and His willingness to hand things over. [this is the revelation of the cross] Someday God will reign, but not yet. In the meantime we are under the power of other, lesser, 'gods'.

The (repeated) rise and fall of David is a reminder that success is fleeting. Today's mega star is tomorrow's "what ever happened to." Our wealth and security are an illusion. Health and strength can be snatched from us in a moment. We know this is true but seldom act like it. Even believers tend to chase these "false gods" in an effort to stand secure.

Watching (in my imagination) David's long, sad parade of despair, I was gripped by the certainty that my own future may not be so bright. God may love him (you and me, too) but that does not mean everything works out. David's exile ends, but only with the heart wrenching death of his son. As the victorious king screams aloud "O Absalom! My son! My son!" his grief is a grim reminder that sometimes nothing makes us happy.

All of life hangs by a thread. Last week they shut down all our embassies because of a credible threat. Instead we have seen major melt down in Egypt as hundreds are dead. Tornadoes and stock market crashes, floods and business failures, we all know the roll call of doom and gloom.

So how then to live? Jesus is clear, do not chase after things which do not, cannot give you life. What does that look like for middle class folks who have already been seduced by "stuff" and have the debt load and stress related maladies to prove it? We live as people who repeat the mantra "it is all hanging by a thread." We remind ourselves, continually, that all of it is a mist. It is a dim reflection of something more secure, more real, more everlasting.

In today's Gospel Jesus healed a blind man. He told the man, "your faith has saved you" and the man "followed Him." Blind is a metaphor for ignorance. It is also a symbol of unbelief. My failure to grasp who Jesus is is blindness. My pursuit of the wrong goals and the wrong things is blindness. My trust in that "which is hanging by a thread" is blindness. Jesus offers us sight. To some extent I am healed, I hope you are as well. I hope we all see enough to follow Jesus.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

When Bad Things Happen

The variety of "explanations" is overwhelming. For example, if you want a diet program  you will find many which claim to provide "amazing results." The problem is one says 'three yogurts a day', the other, 'no dairy' Here, 'peanut butter', and there, 'no nuts'. Heck, we even had a popular diet which pushing sausages and bacon! Science would seem to be the answer, but science is sometimes inexact and in a complex world research can yield different results...

If the world of science is mind-boggling [and anyone reading the different views on global warning knows that we are always at the mercy of what "they" say is going on; it is hard to verify the size of the polar ice cap or the average temperature around the globe sitting here in Collierville, Tn] in alternative interpretation of data, theology (like all "arts") is even more so. As angry atheists frequently demonstrate, the use of pure reason does not always end up sounding pure or reasonable. Arguments about why there is evil in the world sputter around bold declarations that either God is not good or God is not all powerful (as if feeble humans can comprehend such things). In fairness, the simpleminded apologetics of some Christians, buying into the premises of their debate partners, can say remarkably offensive and unhelpful things about God's will and activity in the world. I find them off-putting myself, and assume some of the anger I hear in the atheist's protestation is a function of disdain for silly things Christians claim.

In the end, reason has its limits. This is pretty well established in the history of thinking disciplines (like philosophy). There is a reason why we talk about multiple intelligences. There is logic. There is art. There are other angles to consider. So when faced with monumental tragedy (watching a WWII documentary and seeing tens of millions of people displaced and hungry, seeing dead bodies pulled from the wreckage of recently bombed buildings; one is almost numbed by the sheer horror) there is not a theory which completely answers all the questions of the human heart and mind. Why? How? And some tragedy is more local, isolated and personal. A plane crash takes two lives, a young woman on her honeymoon is run over by a crazy driver and a young girl is shot by another angry young man with too much weapon and too little regard for human life; each of these cases impacts us as bystanders. We can feel sad--or we can feel nothing at all--it is more data. While the word tragedy is overused, there is also the suffering of every day which is real and difficult. As my daughter and her friends are going through rush each day they are receiving notification that they are not wanted by this group or that. Compared to death and destruction not such a big thing, but for those girls it is plenty big enough. And I can also hurt for them, with them.

When bad things happen what are we to do? Bonhoeffer, in the midst of WWII had his own response. Remember, countless numbers of his friends and family had died and were threatened daily by death. His thought is not an isolated professor ruminating from afar untouched by evil. His response was to worship and trust God. Others, who pride themselves on being "grown ups" as if unbelief were a sign of maturity, have different responses. Bonhoeffer was plenty smart and plenty educated. He cannot be simply written off as an idiot. (Well, he can be, but it is simply not true.) He is a believer. He stakes his life on Someone Who lived, died and rose long ago in ancient Judah.

Bonhoeffer is no more adept at answering the question than anyone else I have met or read (whether believer or unbeliever). It is the nature of mystery to exceed human explanation. However, he does lay out a fine model for living in the face of bad things. I quote from page 399 of Metaxas' biography "Christians do not wish to escape repentance, or chaos, if it is God's will to bring it upon us. We must take this judgment as Christians." Such an attitude is not the only one available. It is another theory on how best to approach God (and face evil in the world). For some it will be infuriating, or simplistic, or confusing. Others will think God is not doing it, it just happens. The list goes on and on. I am not sure exactly what I think about these words.

Yet they point in a direction that does make sense to me. Our choice is to live life in some way. If  "healthy eating" may not be 100% defined there are some principles which do matter (calories taken in and calories burned are important, some foods are better for you than others). I think Bonhoeffer's point reinforces something I do believe is true. Living in the world we can choose to love, worship and obey God or not. And the circumstances, especially when they are painful and horrible, do not change that commitment at all. I am called to trust and be faithful. Fortunately, God Incarnate (Jesus is the answer, truly) is ample reason to engage in this enterprise. He is model and sign of hope. He is the One who embraced judgment (clearly an abuse of justice!) and absorbed the horror (beaten, mocked, crucified). In the darkest moments of that horror He cried out for mercy, not on Himself but others ("Father forgive them, they know not what they do"). He prayed Psalm 22. He handed over His last breath to God. I cannot understand it and my theological theories seem almost disrespectful of the human/divine reality which they seek to explain. In the end, we can meditate and worship, follow and serve. Or not.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On Being a Bad Dad

We have read about King David the last couple weeks in Morning Prayer.. I have been struck by the family dynamics in 13&14. David had multiple wives. The commandments seem to say only one is permitted. For many years I was troubled by this. I wondered why the Bible did not condemn David's polygamy. It was a long time before I made sense of the descriptive nature of the Biblical narratives. The prescriptive (do and don't) was spelled out in the Law and Israel's written prophets. The "prophets" (in Jewish writings what we call "historical narratives" are also called the prophets, a hint into how to read them, perhaps?) which contains Samuel&Kings illustrates why that point is made in Torah. Too many wives/moms is behind most Bible tragedies....

David is a bad dad, to me. He seems very weak in these chapters. Maybe his sin with Bathsheba caused this? Briefly the narrative then my reaction:

Amnon was David's first born son and in line to be king. His half brother (Absalom) had a sister Tamar with whom he was very close. Amnon lusted/"loved" Tamar and was worrying himself sick pining for her. One day Amnon's advisor suggested that Amnon feign illness so he could ask the King (David) to send his sister to feed/nurse him, then he could seduce her. So Amnon did it and as Tamar begged him not to bring this shame on  her, his lust overwhelmed reason and he raped her. Then, we read, he loathed her. His hatred for her was stronger than his 'love' had been which only served to increase her shame. Absalom took his sister in (she was in ashes doing public mourning). King David was angry but said nothing because "he loved Amnon." Absalom bided his time. Note, David did nothing!

It is a horrible story in so many ways. How could a dad remain silent in such a situation? Was David's own guilt for his similar activities (getting a man killed to have his wife) what froze him to inaction? How can a man "after God's own heart" be so terrible? The situation festered in Absalom's heart until one say he hosted a party at sheep shearing time. When the wine was flowing at an agreed upon moment Absalom's men fell on and murdered Amnon. Afterward, the prince fled and remained in exile for three years. David mourned the loss of his two sons and he "yearned for Absalom."  Yet the King did not act!

Eventually through the intercession of his general Joab, David is persuaded to allow Absalom to return home, but he insisted that Absalom go to his own house and not come into the king's presence. Why not reconcile? Why leave it hanging? Why not act on the yearning? The text is silent and we can only speculate. In the end, Absalom leads a rebellion, short lived in success, and he is eventually struck down and killed. David's mourning is so heart wrenching that it is easy to forget that he had failed to act as a father should before the last wicked turn of events.

How could a Biblical hero be such a rotten dad? And how could God allow such a man to rule? Some might point to this and argue that obviously God is not involved. That is one option. Another option is to study the story to see how God is at work among us. It turns out that loving God does not make us perfect. It turns out that Children's Bible stories are only partly true, we edit out the darker shades. The Bible, like real life, is full of good and bad. David is not a role model of perfect behavior. He is another example of the dictum "all have sinned and fallen short." (everyone except Jesus) Prayer, Bible study, personal disciplines do not save us from sinfulness. Faith, hope, love do not either. Not yet, at least. God does. Just not now. The promise is some day he will. In the meantime, we are wise if we learn a lesson from David and act better than he did. We are also wise to understand that we will also make mistakes, sometimes huge mistakes. God is merciful. Someday He will set all things straight. In the meantime we try our best and trust Him for the rest.

Why is David such a bad dad? A myriad of reasons, all summed up in one word: sin. It is why we need a savior, even  the best of us. It is why we need a savior.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

On Telling Your Daughter Good Bye

I do not often write about my family, it is not that kind of blog. No one needs their lives publicized and available for anyone to read and discuss. However, the recent experience of taking my first born to college has some universal content....

The trip though uneventful and ordinary was packed with deep meaning and significance. It is a true turning point. The days were what you would expect. We ate. She diddled with her cell phone. We went shopping for the things she needed; then we went again for what we had not found (or overlooked--lamps need light bulbs). Four young women, now room mates, were all going through their own transitions, even as we their parents were negotiating our own life changes. Friday afternoon our own time came to an end as we kissed our firstborn goodbye: literally and figuratively.

I always wanted to be a manly man, but it just wasn't in the cards. I am emotional. Sometimes I choke up leading prayers or preaching. Funerals almost always makes me cry, especially when it is a friend. So, as I held my baby girl in the hall way I cried. I turned and left, but in the elevator I texted her, "wave out the window."  As we looked up to the top floor I could make her out. It was a nice picture to keep in my head. "Bye, my angel girl!" I had prayed in her room for quite a while and gave her one last silent blessing. God, Who entrusted me with her care for most of the last two decades, would continue to be her primary care taker. I just had to come to grips with that....

Some 2,000+ others were doing the exact same thing at Alabama over those days. What I am experiencing is not unique. It is also not a tragic loss. It is an emptiness crowned with fullness. It is pain seasoned with pride, excitement and gratitude. It is a good bye which will open hundreds of hellos for her in the days ahead. It is, in middle America, a developmental stage and part of life. It is awesome. Yet for all that, it is also sad for a daddy who loves his little girl (and already felt like he saw her too little and talked with her not enough).

Today at eucharist I had a lump in my throat. I missed her more intensely, because going to church is like steroids for emotions. Being 'nearer to God' seems to make everything more intense. It did not help that three other young ladies were making their final appearance at church before their departures to college. I have been their priest since they were in primary school. Love means never being able to say 'good-bye' without a sense of loss!

Now, like anyone suffering a loss I have received lots of words of wisdom. By far the most common is, "she is only a few hours away, you can go see her anytime." I did not see her today, as I usually do on Sunday. It was not awful and the rest of us enjoyed a nice meal together. I imagine we could have driven down to eat with her tonight and turned around to drive back. It just did not seem reasonable. Truth be told, it is only a few hours drive. Truth be told, I will have to drive for almost four hours to see her. In either case, she is gone. I will not see her today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. She is far enough away to make me miss her...

Like many dads I know, I made a decision to be a different kind of dad then was popular in other times (my grandpa for example) and in other places. I sunk my life into my kids. It was a choice. I spent lots of time trying to educate, comfort and guide them. I do not hunt, golf or engage in hobbies. I work. I exercise. I spend time with family. Lots of men do that now. It is remarkably rewarding. [She is a National Merit Scholar and she told me that watching her mom with her baby brother made her realize how much she owed her mom for that early education.] I took great delight in her successes (there were many) and suffered with her in failures and wounds (more than a few). But choices create behaviors, action beget habits, a way of life forms a character and role, and identity. In other words, you get used to being dad. Part of you is gone when the children grow up and move away.

I know this is not the end of her life (or mine). But do not kid yourself; it is a dress rehearsal. It is a "type" of funeral. It is a small "d" death. Just like I can see the upside of her going off to school, in the Final Good Bye there will also be an upside. We do not weep because they are in a worse place. We weep because we miss them. I guess some people do not care if their kids are gone. Maybe some people do not enjoy seeing them on a regular basis. Maybe some parents never went upstairs and sat and talked about things, or held them when they cried, or comforted them when they were afraid. Maybe some parents just are happy to see their kids gone. Not me. It is sad and difficult, just like it should be.

And for all those people who feel compelled to explain to me (and those like me) that it is no big deal all I can say is. I buried my mom. I buried my dad. I understand that moving away is not death. I also know lots of my friends have kids they see once a year, if that, because they are spread out all over the USA and beyond. I know you can learn to live with it and get used to it. I do not miss my old friends and family as much any more. I am just not sure that is always a good thing. It is not "abundant life" it is just getting accustomed to the absence.

I repeat, facing and feeling the loss is a dress rehearsal for death. The distance can be bridged now with phones or mail or cars. But at this given moment the distance is sufficient to cut us off temporarily from each other. Death is a permanent experience of that distance. Trusting the unknown future to the Lord we worship is the same be it first day of school a mile down the road or 213 miles down several roads. All of life is a "type" of deeper reality. All of it. We can choose to go deeper and make the connections or stay on the surface and avoid sad feelings. We can avoid any feelings at all...

Part of why I am sad is because it is over. She has left behind the life we knew for eighteen years (a life which had been disappearing for much of the last four years). And that, in the end, is what death means. But looking at her perched and ready to dive into all manner of opportunities I am happy and excited for her. Just like God's Kingdom gives consolation to us as we bury a casket. Jesus said blessed are those who mourn. Mourning a loss, even a happy loss, is part of life. I do not regret being sad about saying good-bye. Nor do I have any illusions that she is not really gone in a significant way, even if I will see here again from time to time. And I know in two years her brother will also make his leap into the next stage. And I guess the baby will some day as well... And some day, one by one, we will all "graduate" and head off to the "last stage" of life as we enter the Kingdom. Having learned how to accept loss (face it full on, meditate on it, and suffer it with joy and hope and then continue with the journey) will be excellent preparation for that day. Until then, we do well to take advantage of each dress rehearsal.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Peter: Home Run and Strike Out

The Gospel for today should be a continuation of Mk 8:22-33. (However, it is a Feast Day, The Transfiguration which takes precedence with its own set of readings). It is my habit to pray with the cycle, just because of the continuation. So today I saw three scenes in rapid succession. First Jesus encounters a blind man, whom He heals. But not all at once and not without some strange use of His own spittle. There is much to wonder about here. Eye maladies are common in dirt poor areas.Without access to medical care and medicine, minor things become major things. It is probably likely that the man went blind. This makes sense of his statement that he could see, but people look like walking trees (how else would he know what a tree looks like).

It is not common for Jesus' miracles to unfold in slow motion. Perhaps Mark is making another point with the narrative? Immediately afterward, Jesus has them in Caesarea Phillipi.There was a temple there, of recent construction, made in honor of the god Caesar. CONTEXT matters. Jesus' question is not asked just anywhere, but in the location where the Romans worship the "god-man" Roman emperor. The answer, as we know, includes the popular opinions about Jesus' identity (tied to prophet role). However, when Jesus asks the guys "Who do you say I am?" it is Peter who answers.

You are the Messiah (Christ in Greek, Annointed in English), or, the King. The problem is, the word King has lots of connotation. In the Jewish Bible there are extensive reflections on what a king is and what a king does. Most of it is not flattering. In the end, the people who run government tend to take care of themselves and their friends. It is the way humans act. If you or I were the King it would be no different. However, Jesus is different. He explains that King means rejection, suffering, death and resurrection. Hard words to hear and harder to understand.

Peter, recently successful in answering the question, suddenly feels compelled to correct Jesus. The Greek word, "rebuke," appears frequently to describe Jesus' treatment of demons. Peter rebukes Jesus. Let that idea sink in. Jesus in response rebukes Peter. So there you have it. Peter goes from the only guy who "gets it" to the guy who "misses it" the most. Which brings us back to the slow motion healing of the blind guy.

"Can you see?" Jesus asks.
"kinda, sorta," the man replied. The blind man, who is a type of Peter, needs more time. Peter, who is a type of the church//disciple, also needs more time.

Yes he hit a home run, knocked one out of the park. Peter looked to be in the groove, but as quickly as the next moment he was floundering and at odds with Jesus and God's plan. Peter's wisdom and insight are only part of the puzzle of Peter. There is so much ignorance and darkness there as well. In him. In us.

The church today, and all Christians, are still floundering around much of the time. Middle class life styles and the values of a typical American do not mesh well with the Gospel message of a crucified Messiah. I shudder when I hear most Christians talk about Jesus because they, like me, have twisted Him to fit their own wants and needs (often in a finely developed theology). [This includes the people who have left church, too. probably more so!] Even if we "get it" in part, we miss it badly in other parts. All of us, even the professionals (especially the professionals) like me, are more prone, as Jesus said, to "think like man than God." In the end, Jesus heals and gives us sight. But it takes a long time and requires some of His spit (whatever that might be a symbol of). It also takes time and we do well to not trust our (in)sight too much.

It is not hopeless. Apparently we will be rebuked from time to time, but if we hang on and keep trusting some day it will all  be clear. In the meantime, we do well not to be too terribly self-impressed by our own wisdom and not get too woefully sad and depressed by our own failures. We do best to keep our faltering eyes on Jesus and follow Him. Close proximity is the antidote and hope! Close proximity to a Messiah on a cross means we get some "wood work" done ourselves. Some things are only understood with experience...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Prove It

Today's Gospel for Morning Prayer comes from Mark 8. The Pharisees began to argue with Jesus, seeking a sign from heaven, to test Him.
The Greek word, peirazo, occurs four times in Mark's Gospel. The first time is in chapter one when Jesus is in the desert and Satan came to test/tempt Him.[the word peirazo means to try or test to determine the quality, it also means to tempt, to induce someone to do evil]

Because of Mt and Lk we tend to see the temptations/trial of Jesus through the lense of the "three temptations." Mark does not have that. Mk sees Jesus recapitulating Israel in the exodus desert. Even so, it is interesting that the word occurs three more times in Mark. Here, in 8:11, the Pharisees want a sign from heaven. This is basically what the temptations of Satan seek as well. Have God prove you are who you say you are. Show us a sign!!!

In 10:2 the test will be the question, "is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" [keep in mind what I have written about the last week: what is the original context of the question? Herod the tetrarch has married the wife of his brother! the question is politically charged--Mk 6:17 "For Herod had sent men who arrested John..on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her."] The Pharisees are probably trying to get Jesus killed.

The last time it occurs, 12:15 is when Jesus is asked, "Is it lawful to pay the tax?" Once again this is a political question. If Jesus says, "no" then the Romans would have cause to execute Him for sedition. If Jesus says "yes' then the Jewish people will be 'turned off' because Jesus accepted the intolerable oppression of a foreign invader. Jesus asks, "why do you test Me?" then says, "show me the coin." [A side note, Jesus did not have the coin (which was considered unclean and an abomination because it had an image on it!). When the critic of Jesus fished it out of his pocket, no doubt Jesus took a step back and looked at it with horror. At that moment the person trying to test Jesus was busted--he had the coin! Jesus' clever answer (Give to Caesar what is his--that infernal coin--and give to God what is God's--obedience to Torah/Divine Instruction) avoids the trap they set.]

Testing Jesus, however, did not end in 35AD. Why do we test Jesus? Why do we demand God prove Himself? So much of the anger which is manifest in agnostic/atheist types comes from God's failure to "prove He exists." The paradox, I see that same anger in Believers (including myself). We all want proof. We all want the unmistakable, no doubt about it, clear and sure sign from heaven. And just for emphasis we would not mind a second (and a third--greed again) to cement the case.

We stumble at taking Jesus at His word (and deed). We come up with lame excuses for the resurrection faith of the apostles. We write off the parts of the story which we find too "supernatural." Why?

Because we want God at our disposal, we do not want to be at His. We want a savior, but not much interested in a Lord. We want to run things, have God answerable to us. So we come up with the list: If you are God why do kids die? Why are there sad things and painful things? And really, the real question which we really care about, why can't things go MY way??!!??

Demanding a sign is the act of someone who thinks they are in charge, not God. It is the demand of silly human beings. Why silly? Because, in the end, if God is God then we should worship Him, not command Him to do parlor tricks to meet our criteria. A God Who allows people to demand proofs and then supplies them is not God...

The world is the way it is. Christian explanations for the troubles of the world are reasonable, even if not always satisfying. Things are not the way God originally desired, because God handed things over to freedom of choice. Also there are other 'forces' at work (i.e. demonic). The basic message: God has rescued us in Jesus and He expects us to trust Him and live lives worthy of one who has been redeemed at the expense of the Cross. Someday it will all be set right, in the meantime, do what God asks.

And God never asks for us to come up with demands for signs, proofs or any other tests for Himself. In fact, God asks us for the sign. God says, "Show Me a sign of repentance." Jesus says, "Show your fruits."

The one being tested and tried is me, and you. We are the ones who must "prove it." Until we get that right, things will continue upside down!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Cure for Pleonexia

Colossians 3:1-11 and Lk 12:13-21 are the texts

Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

I am not going to use this as a whip today, but I would say that if your home is larger than 400 square feet and it does not have a dirt floor, if you do not carry a bucket to a river for your water, if you have heat and air conditioning, a vehicle and safe, flat roads, and if diarrhea is an irritant and inconvenience, but not a deadly disease, then by the world's standards you are rich.... And if you think rich only refers to people in Forbes' lists then what I have to say may apply to you!

Greed, the Greek word pleonexia literally means ‘having more’. There is nothing wrong with wanting more, unless you have enough. Greed is a disordered desire to have more for the sake of having more. Greed is rooted in insecurity & fueled by a sense of insatiable deprivation. Want and Need are normal, Greed is not.

Greed is a twisted, sick & sinful reaction to need. The show on TV about "hoarders" give but one sad insight into greed run amuck. Yet a careful look at our attics and the size of our "barns" (houses) is a sad reminder that we are all touched by the illness. Greed is also “faith-less” flowing out of a radical mistrust of God and other people. It is coldly competitive. It destroys everyone it touches.

God is generous… generous and gracious. He is a Giver. We have seen this in the Gospel readings all summer. Let's review:

Jesus healed the boy of a Roman soldier, an occupier.
Jesus stopped a funeral procession and raised a dead man for compassion sake.
A woman pours oil on Jesus’ feet in gratitude for God’s generous mercy.
Jesus exorcises demons from a Gentile man living in tombs (unclean, unclean, unclean) then responds to the rude treatment He gets with graciousness . 
Jesus refuses the apostle’s request to call down fire on Samaritans who rejected Him. He does not respond in kind to their mistreatment.
Jesus shares His power and authority with His disciples for the sake of others.
Jesus allows a woman to sit at His feet giving her equivalent status to men, showing her unparalleled respect.

Over and over again we have see God, in and through Jesus, showing mercy and kindness to the “undeserving.” He refuses to retaliate against enemies. He rescues and blesses people for compassion’s sake. He acts with compassion and mercy, treating people better than they expect or deserve. God's mission statement?
His mission is to be incredibly generous with His time and talent and the treasure which is within Him, benefiting others He meets. Always. even when they are not deserving or grateful.

On a recent flight I had an experience of generosity. I was trying to balance Levi, his car seat, his stroller, and two bags. Ann sent me on ahead while she remained at the gate undergoing an extra-thorough examination by the TSA team. [Apparently, counter-terrorism experts have decided that moms, armed with baby wipes and formula, are a high level security risk!] As I struggled to keep Levi right side up and everything else spilling all over the floor, the pilot, on his way to the cock pit, grabbed some of my stuff and said, “Let me give you a hand.”

The simple act was quite helpful to me and quite generous of him. The pilot’s job description does not include baggage handler. What he did and how he did it were an act of grace. It was unexpected and unmerited. He could have just as easily said, “Please get out of my way so I can get to work.” Instead he chose to help.

That is how Jesus reveals God to be.
God is the pilot of the “airship earth.” God’s focus and concern is more global than our own. It is easy to imagine God is too busy with the big picture to take note of what is happening to us in our little lives. It is a rational assumption that we do not matter. We may not have faith; we may not trust that God really cares. So, we turn to ourselves. We spend our time, talent and energy gathering so we won’t feel dependent. We get more and more—building bigger barns and silos to store our stuff. Sadly, it is a failed mission before it starts.

Greed has no goal line. It only has a horizon.
If we have one, we need one more. 
If we have ten, we need one more. 
If we a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand… a million, it does not matter. 
We still need one more.
We can never rest. Or feel gratitude. Ever….
We cannot see the needs of others; we just feel our desire for more and compete with others to get it.

Because Jesus loves you, He says, “Avoid it in all its forms.”
We do not need bigger barns. We need to
Trust God….Be grateful….Be generous…Be at peace.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

It is all about ME! not

 I recently wrote about JFK to illustrate how events become literature. While somewhat dated now, it is probably one of the clearest examples of an event with many eye witnesses and numerous "actors" which still remains shrouded in endless debates about exactly what happened. (Though no one denies the President was shot) Yesterday I tried to show how not understanding the context of the story leads to misinterpretation, with an example from NPR.

My point is that any event (not just JFK), whether great or small, is only "partially" experienced. There are aspects of any event which are outside the purview of even an eyewitness. Many things, for example, are not noticed. [A recent tv show on the brain had a woman doing a magic trick with cards. At the end of the segment they asked if you noticed the following, her hair was changed, some of her clothes were changed, and the man she was doing the trick with changed. The changes were pretty dramatic (short haired guy to a longer haired guy, her hair in a pony tail to being down, etc.) and would have been noticeable if the viewer (me) was not so intent on  how the card trick was being performed. In other words, we do not "see" what we are not looking at, even if it happens in front of our eyes.] Only bits and pieces of any event are actually "experienced" and sometimes our "experience" is inaccurate. [hence the widespread different "experiences" of eye witnesses at Dallas that day]

Next comes the "telling" which often folds in "interpreting." Why is an event worthy of telling? The original witness and later repeaters each have their reasons. The person who writes it down has their reasons. In  the Gospels, the person who gathered the oral and written materials and ordered them into the final form of the written Gospel has their reasons. [PLUS, we have God at work through the Holy Spirit which adds another dimension!]

Unfortunately, we do not always know what the assumptions and motivations of the original "tellers" is. When we talk about Jesus we do not think about the claims of Caesar or the historic Davidic monarchy. We do not think about exiled Jews and foreign invaders or abject poverty and people looking for hope in the midst of oppression. Jesus did, so did the writers. That was their world. This context "gap" creates possibilities of misunderstanding.

Let's take, for example, a miracle of Jesus. He meets a leper and cures the guy. Why is that important and worthy of retelling? There are always at least TWO contexts: the context of the written word and the context of the reader (in fact there are many more, some overlapping). The problem is, I, as a reader, bring my context with me unconsciously. My assumptions, my interests, my concerns always shape my reading. I think the typical white, western, rationalist, middle-aged consumer Christian comes with a particular context.
1. Most of us have never seen a leper (except in movies!)
2. Most of us have never seen anything like a miraculous healing of a leper (maybe somebody with cancer got better, but we never saw skin purified before our very eyes).
3. Most of us were indoctrinated early in life with the basic faith (catechism or otherwise) and we buy the idea that "Jesus is God."
4. Most of us know that the claim is not universally accepted (lots of people think Jesus is not God), but we have emotional investment in the proposition (He saved us and we believe it and we argue for it for love of Jesus--or love of arguing, sometimes).
5. We want some serious proof that Jesus is God, so He needs to do Godlike things which we can point at and say, "See, Jesus is GOD! Obviously..."
6. Healing a leper on the spot would be a pretty solid example of a proof.
7. SO: when we read that Jesus healed a leper we "read" that 'Jesus showed He was God by doing something impossible and anyone with eyes to see knows that He must be God.'

When we read the story we read a story titles "proof text that Jesus is God." In fact, many Christians see the Bible as a proof text, hence the famous "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."

I think this is pretty commonly the way we read the Bible. It was my way for much of my life. It is driven by fear, in part, by faith, in part, and by assumptions (almost in toto). It really seemed likely that Jesus was proving He was God because what else would have made Him do it, right?

It helps to be aware of "my context" and how it influences my reading of the Scriptures, or anything.
What it "means to me" is always filtered through "me." Having looked at "me" it is time to take seriously that it is not all about me. Matthew has different concerns, so does Paul. So does the author of 1&2 Samuel. In fact, every book of the Bible was written by someone who was not a white, middle class, American living in the post WWII era. And as such, we have to do some homework to make sure that we can get some insight into the other context (the writing itself).

Friday, August 2, 2013

Say It Ain't So!

I heard the following exchange on National Public Radio some days ago. It perfectly illustrated my next point on reading the Bible.

The hosts, a man and woman, were reviewing listener feedback. Apparently, they had greatly upset some lady with their promo to a story on the doping charge against track star Tyson Gay. The story headline was "Tyson Gay: Say It Ain't So!" The woman had heard the promo but not the actual story. She thought that the story was about the boxer, Mike Tyson, and that he was homosexual. She was livid that NPR had a story which was unfriendly to homosexuality. In fact, she said, "This is NPR!" alluding to the fact that she expected that NPR should be on board with a pro-gay view point. [Okay, no diatribe here, but am I the only one who finds it odd that we are constantly being told that calling NPR liberal is wrong, yet here is an "insider conversation" where all the parties were quite clear that NPR is liberal?!?]

The hosts made the point, with nervous laughter, that the story was not about that at all, quickly adding "not that there is anything wrong with it if he were." There was plenty of apologizing and giddiness over the whole misunderstanding. As the brief discussion came to an end the female host said, "Well we need to be careful what we say because people may not understand it."

What does this have to do with the Bible?

First of all, Tyson Gay used performance enhancing drugs to run faster. Like the former basketball star from Memphis, Rudy Gay, he has the misfortune of having a name which is loaded with meaning. The letters g-a-y no longer mean carefree and happy, and they are associated with one of the current hot buttons in society. So any time that name is said, it stirs up other referents in the minds of many. In fact, few of us know the name Tyson Gay because track is no longer widely watched. My guess is the typical adult in this country cannot name any track stars from the last ten years. The same cannot be said of the media hyped discussions on homosexuality=gay.

Secondly, the title refers to an event from almost 100 years ago. My Chicago White Sox were in the World Series, heavily favored to beat the Cincinnati Reds. The players were not well paid in those days, and the Chicago owner, Comiskey, was especially tight-fisted. Gamblers approached a player, who drew in other players, and the small group decided to lose on purpose. Timely errors and easy pitches over the middle of the plate, coupled with intentionally making outs when batting, were all it took. The Sox lost, and it was obvious to many that they were not playing their best. Some time later there was a trial and the players came to court. There is a story (the actual history of it is disputed!) that when the best player, Joe Jackson, was walking out of the court a heart broken boy cried out to him, "Say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so!" Whether there was an actual exchange like that or not, the story summed up the response to the whole sad affair. In a time when baseball was THE sport, the horror of baseball's second best hitter being part of a plot to intentionally lose the World Series was unthinkable. The words, "say it ain't so" are forever part of the story. And they continue to be the code word for any sports scandal which we wish was not true.

The NPR story meant to convey the wish that a decorated runner had been clean. The woman, probably unaware of the ChiSox scandal or the track star, assumed it was about a betteer known boxer coming out of the closet and so she reacted with indignation that, she assumed, her NPR radio station had broken with the accepted party line and implied that the boxer being gay was not a great thing.

When we read the Bible, we do not (cannot) catch all of the allusions or references. We fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. We assume our world view, not theirs. An easy example is found in Genesis. Lots of self identified "Bible Believing Christians" find themselves arguing about the historicity of Noah's Flood. Why? Because they assume it is an historical story about an actual event. They further assume that anyone who does not declare it to be "exactly what took place" is part of the Modernist/Liberal Christian or Secular Humanist plot to overthrow Christianity. [Side note, perhaps a diatribe, I believe there is a plot to overthrow Christianity and I believe the Modernist/Liberal Christians are players in it and I believe that Secular Humanists are players in it. In fact, both groups are pretty straightforward about it.... Of course, the same people who are denying NPR has a liberal bent are also denying the Christianity is under attack....] So what about someone who believes in the authority of Scripture and professes Divine inspiration yet approaches the story from a different angle? What would someone like that say? (me, for example)

I would say that the context for reading Noah's ark are the ancient flood stories which the ancient Jews heard and knew from their neighbors. THAT is the context. The original story tellers were dealing with what the Sumerians and Babylonians were espousing. In other words, it is about Gilgamesh, not secular doubters. [for a list of fifteen or so go to] The Lord was revealing to the Jews what kind of God He is through the story. He is saying, "There are not a bunch of gods drowning folks for making too much noise." The Noah story, read in Biblical context, is about undoing creation (waters come back). It is about sin and chaos and God's dreams for the world being ruined by humans getting "worser and worser." It is about God saving a small remnant (sort of like what happened in Israel when the whole dream came to a crashing close). Noah is a reminder that when everything is wiped out (by ravaging hoards of foreign armies which destroy the kingdom and exile the people) God finds a way to keep things going by saving (God Redeems!) a small group. In Psalms 124 (key verses "when our enemies attacked us" coupled with "the flood would have swept us away") and 144 ("set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters, from the hands of aliens") we see the Gentiles as equated with watery chaos. Get it?

Mike Tyson is not gay.
Noah's ark is not about the worst flood ever.
It is our assumptions which lead us to the obvious (and ERRANT) interpretation.
It is no big deal, unless of course it keeps us from understanding the message. Water, chaos, people of God, Gentiles, sin, death, life: all these and more are laid out in the wonderful stories of creation/Genesis 1 and new creation/Noah. They reappear later in the Jesus story. He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Her, too!)
So read the story like an ancient Jew and find the deeper reality being revealed.

So where did the story come from? An event, actually lots of events. Storms and floods are still part of our experience. A few years ago the Mississippi river swelled to many miles wider than normal. Entire towns were wiped out. Gone. In ancient times such monumental disasters would be remembered. [There is a reason why 'The Flood' story is found in so many cultures...] The theological implications of the event(s) played large on the minds and emotions of the people telling the story. The resulting narratives are an expression of understanding: an interpretation of reality, which is more or less true. God inspired Genesis, so the account there contains more reliable truth than the Sumerians and Babylonians. It conveys a Godview on this. Now, every narrative can be interpreted in numerous ways (hence sometimes when I write one person finds it inspirational and another declares it garbage and toxic waste unfit for humans to see or hear) and our preconceived ideas can tease out valuable insights from anything. That is the interplay of text and reader.

What I want to do is provide insight into ancient writers. They are not Catholics or Baptists, they are not Liberals or Conservatives, they do not have weather satellites, consumer pop-culture, biology and physics. There world view is not medieval, modern or post-modern. They are not worried and concerned about all the same things we are. They lived in a much different world than we do. Yet, like us, they sought to know, love and serve God. They tried to make sense of things, at least the things they wanted to make sense of. And they interacted with God, same as us, and He spoke to them in ancient Hebrew using the illustrations which were sensible in their day and time. Today, English, Russian, German (and other languages) in a decidedly different social setting are His preferred mode. And someday, in the Great Day, it will all be clear. Glory be to God today and always and forever, amen.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bible reading and JFK

An archaeological debate about a piece of clay with some ancient scratching on it is set forth as a key piece of evidence for the Davidic monarchy in 1000BC. I read it here, which for some reason is not creating a link:

I think issues of history and the Bible are somewhat important. I use the term somewhat because it is not clear to me what "history" means when we are talking about events 3,000 years ago. I have often argued that the most important context of any piece of writing is the context of the writing, and the reader's context is of secondary importance. We sort of talked about that on Sunday morning when I popped in to do a Sunday school class. At least one man found it very helpful so I want to reflect on it here in the hopes that another might as well.

First of all, we need to think through what real life is like. When we communicate, what is the process that takes place?

1. In simplest terms, there is an event. The event has all manner of things taking place. No one is able to experience every single thing. People have different angles and view points.Some are 'key players/performers' some are 'participants' and some are 'audience/observer.' Some aspects are available for all to see while others are known to only a select few, or maybe no one at all. For example, John F. Kennedy was driving in the back seat of a car in Dallas. As the car turned he suddenly lurched forward and then almost immediately a death dealing head wound occurred. His wife and Governor Connelly were also present. There is no reasonable doubt that our President was assassinated on that day. So "the event" is historical. But what happened? Who shot him (theories abound)? Was there a cover up (theories abound)? Where was the shooter(s)? Various eye witnesses provide insight into the event as they share their own personal "experience." [and personal experience while real is often inaccurately understood] People claim there were shots from numerous locations. What happened and what they think/believe happened is not in sync.

2. "The event" is remembered and talked about. With the advent of modern technology we have access to the past which never existed before. The Zapruder film, scratchy as it is, provides a real time photographic record. People can study it and analyze it in ways that no one's personal memory can be studied. Ancient records do not have this degree of clarity. And as one talks about any event there are things which are left out and other details which are emphasized. Researchers find that people can create new "memories" by interacting and talking with others. So someone else can literally change what we "remember" by saying things to us.

3. The story we tell is influenced by other things. Was JFK being shot different than other people who were also shot that day? Yes, because JFK has a mythic quality that most people do not. He is the leader in "Camelot"--that is what his presidency was called. This means he was understood as a type of King Arthur by some. Hence, he is not just a shooting victim, he is a fallen 'king' and hero. His death is the end of an age. [and generationally speaking his death was the turning point; the end of the romanticized post-war years and the beginning of Viet Nam, riots, civil unrest, a failed LBJ refusing to run for President, culminating a decade later in the impeachment and resignation of a sitting President, Nixon (who is never, like his two predecessors known by his initials RMN).

4. Herein is the key. The murder is more than a man's death. A cold detailed account of the shooting may be clinically accurate, but it would always leave out what mattered most to the people of our nation. Like him or hate him, the JFK legacy is real. Debates and arguments about myth vs. reality ignores the fact that in his case, myth and reality co-exist. For decades afterwards one frequently saw pictures of President Kennedy (often beside Martin Luther King, Jr) in the homes of many simple people. I know I did, again and again.

There is more to reflect on but let's start here. What is the "true" story? How should it be told? What would you say the story is? What would a Kennedy-phile write? A Kennedy critic? How is seeing Kennedy as a philandering hypocrite going to influence the telling? Or Kennedy as the handsome young bright shining hope of our best days? How would the desire to use him as an example change what was said and left unsaid? If one was writing for the purpose of advocating gun control would that influence the details? Would a foreigner who hated America (say a Cuban national offended by the Bay of Pigs) or a MAFIA type angry at the Kennedy brothers for the prosecution of organized crime have a different take?

Obviously, yes. There is not one story. There are many stories. All based on an event, some more, some less data and fact focused. Some more interested in "the endless story" (too readily dismissed as myth) and the deeper resonance of the meaning for all  humans. And the fodder for endless discussion and reflection: after all, how many books have been written about Kennedy since his body slumped in the back seat of that limo fifty years ago?