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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Put Your Head Down and Pull the Cart

Holy Week readings for the Daily Office supplement our reflections on the passion of our Lord. This week, as I have mentioned several times, is in liturgical 'real time'--the last week of Jesus is well documented and we can dig deeply into them on the days of the week they took place. 

Monday we read from Jeremiah 12:1-6. It is a challenging reading, as it faces the very questions which atheists and agnostics throw in our face when they make their arguments against God-belief. I will paraphrase Jeremiah's words and God's response.

(Jeremiah) I know you will win the argument, Lord, but I do wonder why evil people prosper? It seems like there is no justice, the bad guys do well. Poor folks are getting the raw end of the deal, they try to do right but the oppressors walk away with the victory. The folks who say that God does not matter seem to be right.
(God) Jeremiah, if you cannot handle the present troubles what are you going to do when the real problems arrive? This is nothing compared to what you will face in the future. Unfortunately, it turns out that your own family has betrayed you and intends to do you harm--do not trust them.

There is not much prosperity gospel in Jeremiah. His experience was not one of "abundant blessings" even if the Lord did provide for him. Jeremiah is not a foot stomping, hand clapping, "ain't life grand!" happy believer. He lived in dark days with a gathering storm which would destroy all that he knew and loved. He also had insight into God, a God who mourned the loss of His "beloved" (v7) people whose infidelity and rejection and injustice were now coming home to roost. They have made it desolate and it mourns Me declares God about His people. So God confirms their choices and makes them desolate.

Why is the world the way it is? How come the innocent suffer and the bad guys win so often? Why is injustice often the way to great riches? I think Jeremiah's answer is that God hands us (corporately) over to our choices. The world is ours, in many ways, and we are free to do as we choose. Those choices have consequences, both in this world and in the Divine realm. Judgment, here and now, is often less than just to our eyes. God does not intervene as we deem He should or must. The God of Jeremiah does act, but it is concert with our actions. Jeremiah's doom and gloom are reflective of his time--the fall of the nation and destruction of the Temple were really gloomy. Yet, in other places, we hear a promise of future renewal. Dark days will give way to new light. Hope is the final message, even if in the meantime there are unpleasant days.

Too often God is described as the one who makes all our troubles go away. He is a helicopter mom/dad ever ready to rescue us from any folly. No consequences, no challenges. The words of Jeremiah add another layer to our theo-logy (God talk). Here is the Father God who tells his children, "Suck it up. If you think this is tough you are not going to be able to handle what comes next." The Lord, because He loves us, wants us to be brave and strong, too. We are here to build souls ready to love and worship God. Faithful service is central. Jesus learned obedience through what He suffered, unfortunately we need the same lessons. That is what it means to live in a fallen world, a place where some may doubt God exists, but no one can doubt there is sin and evil! In such a world, we must often time lower our head and pull the cart. Slowly walking with our load. Doing it all, regardless of the circumstances, because we love the One Who made us, we adore the One Who is saving us, and we obey the One Who calls us into fellowship with Him. 


Sunday, March 29, 2015


Jesus' death is writ large today in liturgical churches. Sundays are the day when the whole community gathers, so today, after the Palm Procession (the 'real time' part of reliving Jesus last week) we will enter the church and the Gospel account will be the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Next Sunday, Easter, we will read the rest of the story.

On Thursday and Friday, once again in 'real time', we will remember and celebrate the Last Supper and Crucifixion on the days that they happened that first time. Those days are less well attended. In many places people, including Christians, will celebrate Easter egg hunts. Not sure why Good Friday is a good day for Easter egg hunts in the mind of Christians, but then most Christians in these parts are intentionally non-liturgical. 

The suffering and death of Jesus are God's intervention into the suffering and death in the world around us. The deep mystery is not solved when we read these words. There is, however, hope.

Whatever else happened during that awful time period of emotional distress, physical torture and spiritual battle with the prince of this world--we know that Jesus faced it with courage. Mel Gibson captured that in his movie when Jesus was being scourged. Having been driven to the ground by the pain, it appeared that the beating was done. Then, slowly and with difficulty, Jesus stood back up. For a moment, the unbelieving face of the Roman soldier provided a wordless commentary on the proceedings. It was a powerful image and revelatory for me of the strength and shocking commitment that Jesus had made to be faithful to His mission. A bittersweet reminder of Who He is and what He did.

Too often, our high Christologies cross over into a denial of His humanity. In an effort to emphasize God incarnate, we are all about God and forget about incarnate. Jesus, God become human, was certainly never in doubt about His humanity. Every weary day He knew it, every hungry moment He felt it, every distressing and frustrating day He experienced it. Each time the limits of time and space crushed down upon Him, every unexpected adventure and disappointment, they all made clear to Him, over and again, the challenges of daily life and the need for faith, hope and love, yes, but also courage...

Courage to overcome the fear.
Courage to stay the course. 
Courage to be Messiah and do Messianic things.
Courage to take the beating, take the pain, take the isolation, take the abuse...courage to look into the empty darkness and cling to faith that God is, in spite of all evidence to the contrary...God is.

Not enough is made of the need for courage to be a disciple. In days ahead, that virtue will be needed more and more. Only the brave will remain standing, only the brave who believe, as Jesus believed, that in the end God can and will make sense of it all... even the torture and pain, the suffering, and, yes, the death. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Jesus Does Not Like Death

We are knocking at the Holy Week door today. Tomorrow night we will have our Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday service with two more on Sunday. It is here.

The Morning Prayer Gospel was from John, the Lazarus story. There is a sort of "real time" aspect to all this now, as the liturgical days reflect the last week of Jesus' life (except of course He manages to conquer death!). In the Fourth Gospel, the Lazarus event is connected to the decision to kill Jesus (they plot to kill Lazarus again as well). So it is an excellent choice for the weekend before Holy Week.

There is a great deal of material there, much of it resonant with our lives. "Let's go die with Him!" Thomas courageously announces when the disciples point out to Jesus the danger of returning to the environs of Jerusalem. Sadly, like me (and you?) big talk does not produce big walk. Thomas and most everyone else will flee and hide when the moment of truth arrives. There is some solace in knowing I am not alone on the "failure train" and that even those who knew Him best were unfaithful. But only some solace. In the end, "being like everyone else" when everyone else is rotten is still rotten....

The reaction of Martha when Jesus arrives sounds (possibly) accusatory. "If you had been here my brother would not have died..." Certainly sounds similar to the words so many have uttered with me when they are in similar situations of loss. There is a sense that God could never have allowed such tragedy, and there is a deep sense of His distance. Yet, Martha adds a strong sense of trust, "yet even now I know God will give you whatever you ask." Such profound faith in the midst of profound loss. It is a reminder that we have to do prep work for such times, if you are not connected before hand, personal tragedy cannot, will not, magically generate a sense of spiritual peace and depth.

Martha believes in the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus challenges her understanding when He says, "I am the resurrection and the life." Those are pretty meaty words to be saying to a grieving sister, standing at the visitation after a funeral. Who would dare say such a thing? It is easy to forget the human reality....

In our times it is common to speak about death as something God orders. "He takes you when He is ready" people say. Or "God needed your momma/daddy/child/etc in heaven so He took them." Death is considered part of God's plan in this scenario. A convenient way to make room for the next generation. However, Jesus' response seems counter to that view of God. Ponder with me:

Does Jesus tell Martha, "he is with God now"? Nope!
Does Jesus tell her, "he is in a better place"? Nope!
Does Jesus tell her anything which sounds like what we hear people talk about at funerals?
Jesus seems to think death is bad. It makes him angry (or sad--the Greek is not crystal clear). In fact, on several occasions Jesus brings back the dead. I think, Jesus did not like death. I think, God does not like death. I think (based on Paul) death came into the world through sin. I think God does not like sin either...

My guess is Jesus did not like death because God is a God of life and living. Jesus viewed death as an enemy (death is called the last enemy, right?). So Jesus brings the dead to life in part because He can, and He hates death. I think death is the norm in this fallen world because it is fallen. God's plan is to REDEEM the dead and raise them to life. Death bad, Life good!

Next week we celebrate the holy days when God's solution to sin and death is unveiled. Jesus, God become man, will die. Death cannot hold Him (imagine death is a dragon and Jesus gets swallowed and then proceeds to kill the dragon from inside).

SO do not fear death, Jesus wins.
For now, we mourn those we have lost, but we know God will take them back. God, in Jesus, is a victor over death. Not sure what matters more than that!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Consider the Source

Jeremiah 26 provides a warning. Thus says the not hold back a word. It may be they will listen, and everyone turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the evil which I intend to do to them because of their evil doings.

The people do not believe the word. Jeremiah tells them it is a word from God. Do with me as you see fit  he says, but with a warning that if they kill him they will bring innocent blood down upon their heads. The prince and people change their mind, this man is from God, he shall not die.

What is the source of our knowledge and wisdom? The church is not one. It does not speak with a single voice. The charges and counter charges fly between those who claim to speak the truth. Whom to trust? With Jeremiah it easy, he is in the Bible. We know who he is and so it is obvious to us. But what if we lived then? What if we were in an audience where he made his stunning and frightening declarations? We are constantly bombarded with this warning or that. People tell us their 'visions' of the future and give us warnings. How are we to discern to which we will listen? At times all the words are just noise. Perhaps we would have seen Jeremiah as one more noisy voice trying to disrupt our peace.

Having spent so many hours in Bible study and contemplating weighty things of God, I often feel like I am not closer to knowing. I have increased clarity in some areas, but in others I still stumble in the dark. God remains as ungraspable and mysterious as the day I gave him my life. I donthink it is important to return to the Source. In prayer and silence open ourselves to the Father. Invite the Spirit guide. Live in Christ and welcome Him live to in you. Not so we can never be in error, but so that even in error we are God's own. It is not a quest for right, it is a quest for God. It is not a quest for power or prestige, it is a quest for God. It is not a quest for me and mine doing well, it is a quest for me and mine to be in God's realm.

Jeremiah said that God's House would be destroyed. Such words sounded blasphemous to pious ears of his time. In our own time we, too, have assumptions and beliefs which are equally precious to us, and equally in error. I do not know what mine are and you may not know what yours are. It is enough to know that we are in error (here or there) and to desire to be in God. To seek God. Those who seek God first will eventually know the truth, and in the meantime we must be humble believers, open to God and where He takes us. Open to hear God's truth, and not simply expect our assumptions and beliefs to be supported.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Good Shepherd

The St. Louis Cardinals are different from the Roman Cardinals. The former are a baseball team and the latter are special bishops who are able to vote for the next pope. Asking, "are the Cardinals in town?" would have a different reference which was obvious in each place. The "obvious" is obvious to an insider. It is not obvious to an outsider. We are outsiders to much of the Bible; we have a different context.

When Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd" even in a sheep-free place like Memphis Tennessee we are able to make sense of it. We get it is not literal, it is figurative. It is not Jesus' His occupation, it is Jesus' true identity.

I often write about the limits of approaching the Bible only seeking the literal, plain meaning. I have rejected the concept that the symbolic is "merely/only" symbolic and a work of heretics and unbelievers. Today, at Bible study, it came up again. What we discussed in there may be helpful here.

Young children are concrete. They take things literally.  If you say, "you are a pain in the neck," a young child thinks your neck is hurting. This is why children's books are simple and straight forward stories.

David ran into the house. David bumped into the table. The flowers fell over. "Oh, no!" said Mom. "Do not run."

The story is simple and easy to follow. However, after a number of years we are introduced to poetry. Many of us did not like poetry. We said things like, "why don't they just say what they mean?" We got frustrated because of the complexity of it all. Suddenly, "running in the house" may symbolize a freedom from rules which shackle the heart. Knocking over flowers may mean reworking the beliefs of one's childhood to prepare for a new opportunity. Mom may represent our fear to take a chance and try new things. Literature has value because the story can be representative and we can connect with the deeper meaning.

A single word can convey a host of meaning. The word 'Dachau,' for example, refers to a Nazi death camp. The word stirs up so much emotional meaning: it can be used to summarize great evil, or loss, or the extermination of something, someone. In other words, in the real world in which we live, the deeper, more adult way of communicating is symbolic. It takes intelligence to create and understand a simile, an analogy, or to use alliteration, rhyme, or other literary tools.

In the ancient world, the belief in Jewish circles and among early church teachers was that the symbolic (or spiritual) was deeper, more mysterious, and the more important repose of God's revelation. The literal, straightforward, simple reading was just that: simple. It was true, but the least important meaning of a text. 

So when Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," He is employing an analogy, a symbol. however, the simple image (care taker) is not necessarily the fullest meaning of His usage. It is helpful to read the books Jesus read to get sense for what He is referring to. Shepherds, in prophetic literature, are the Kings of the Jews. Kings.... "I am the Good Shepherd" is a political statement, sure it implies care taking and all that, but it is primarily a declaration that Jesus is the Messiah/Anointed One (true King). Face it, Jesus was not crucified from preaching love and healing the sick. On the cross it said "the King of the Jews." Jesus was killed (on the literal level) because the Romans recognized He was asserting His dominion over Caesar. Christ (christos = anointed) is attached to His name as a title for that reason. 

God's Word has a depth to it because God is deeper than a second grade reader! There is a reason why revelation means 'unveiling" in Greek. What God reveals must be unveiled. Too often, adults, even very intelligent adults, act like 5 year olds when they read the Bible. We suspend all our intellectual function and pretend like what we know from real life does not apply to God. We are satisfied to read the Bible as if it were a second grade text book. In truth, the multi-layered, multi-valent word of Scripture is an invitation to enter the heart of God. We must understand what the ancient Christians (like Jesus, Paul and Peter) knew. There is more to revelation than meets the eye. Symbolism is not a lower form of truth. Who among us is disappointed to learn that Jesus did not work in a field with sheep? Isn't it better to understand the depth of meaning in the word, shepherd, and to understand Jesus calls us to covenant faithfulness with Him who is our King?

Reading the Bible, like reading poetry, is hard work. Yet, the reward of uncovering meaning is worth the struggle. After all, who worships a God who is limited to communicating on a second grade reading level?    

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Grace Defined

reflections on Jeremiah 23:16-32 and Mark 8:31-9:1

One of the best parts about being a priest is that every week I get to proclaim the Gospel. Every week it happens. And I am not talking about my preaching. Our eucharistic canon (the prayers we pray) are a summary of the Good News. Who God is. What we are. How God has acted, is acting and will act on our behalf. The whole message of grace and salvation.

Often times, Good News is equated with being "positive" or "upbeat." The entertainment culture infects the preaching culture (and probably always has). People know what they want to hear, so they think the preacher better say it. Sometimes, it is easy to equate "happy" with "grace" (and grace does produce happiness!) but in the end, grace is always about Truth.

Jeremiah was an energetic critic of the preaching in his own day. He rebuked those contemporaries who had a message which had great appeal then (and now), but was not the word of God. A sampling of Jeremiah's message:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord."

So what is up here? (see 2 Kings for information), Jeremiah was born during Josiah's reforms. Prior to that there had been massive apostasy and infidelity. Josiah died young and his sons were failures as well. Hope for renewal was replaced by renewed evil. The religion of Israel mixed in pagan practices and idolatry. Yet the prophets were preaching "it shall be well with you" to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart."

God said, "I did not send them." 

Grace defined, I titled today's blog, because the good news (about which I have written much the last few days) is only Good News if it is true. Truth, not content, determines whether or not a message is worth hearing. The prophets told the people what they wanted to hear. It was a pleasant message. The problem is, the message had no basis in reality.  

The definition of grace is not telling people "it is okay."
The definition of grace is not "choices and behaviors do not matter."
The definition of grace is not, "God is a softie, He is so desperate to be your buddy that you can walk all over Him and He will accept it."

Grace is acceptance into a Kingdom where God is the King. It is a place of unconditional love and acceptance (you are loved, period) but an invitation to a covenant ("will you be my people?"). It is a call to join a people, to be part of a clan, a family, a tribe. It is a call to live together and love the others as God loves you. Grace is abounding in all of this. Grace, however, is not indifference. Grace is not God turning a blind eye to infidelity and injustice. 

The prophets who perverted God's covenant grace were called out by Jeremiah. God rejects their lies. So, you and I are also called to reject the lies of grace which is no grace. This principle is at work in Mark, as well. Jesus told the disciples that He must suffer and die. And He said it plainly. Peter rebukes the Lord for saying that. Suffering and death are not upbeat! Rejection is not good news. Peter wants something happy-clappy to celebrate, like getting crowned as King and being in charge, not this "downer message of rejection and death." Jesus makes clear what His assessment of Peter's critique is. Get behind me satan... Peter, the best apostle, was a mouthpiece of the evil one! The truth is, Jesus was going to die, and the truth is what matters.

I end with Jesus' own words to define grace. Grace, God's unmerited love and forgiveness, God's offer of life in abundance. 

Jesus said, "If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever lose his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." 

Grace? Yes it is. Saving, amazing grace. God rescues us from all the sin and death. God provides us with life eternal. God makes us a citizen in His kingdom. God adopts us as His child. It is worth so much more than we could ever pay. It is worth more than we have to offer, but..... it costs all that we have. That is the truth.    

Friday, March 20, 2015

How sweet it is to be loved by Him

All of the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but in my (sin-shaped) experience some parts of it are 'more' inspiring than others. Perhaps some day I will get holy enough to get the fullest depth in every word, but probably not this week! 

Today, I was reading John 6 (Bread of Life) which is on a Catholic boy's short list of "most important words in the Word." Jesus said, "My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink...unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will have not life in you." Now the Greek word for 'eat' is pretty graphic. It means to "munch, gnaw or chew things like vegetables and nuts." It is used of animals eating. It is not dainty or refined. I now, it makes the Gospel sound kind of like cannibalism [this was one of the charges the ancient Romans made against Christians. And be aware, this graphic usage is Jesus' response to the people who were offended by what He said, the same people who disputed among themselves saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Ever wonder why Jesus' response to the question wasn't "Hey it is just a metaphor!" Something to ponder...] Jesus promises those who take communion: you will abide in Me and I in you... In light of that I decided to add a eucharist to our Morning Prayer. It is the first time I have had a spontaneous communion service. I was very open to the promise of Jesus as we took communion--and the eternal consequences of that act!

Connected to that promise was the other reading, Romans 8:28-39. "in everything God works for good with those who love Him..." That was our meditation verse for most of the morning (Friday Lenten mini-retreat). Around the table sat a small group of precious people; most of them had suffered deep and horrible losses. They were all there, sorting through the memories of the "wreckage" and each able to say, "I still believe, I still trust, I still love God." It is important (as one woman reminded us) to remember that God is not the author of the evil, He is not the author of death. God does not do terrible things to us to make us grow. [God is the Author of Salvation. God redeems the evil and bad, He takes death and reshapes it into resurrection life.] Meditating on and discussing the bad things (the part of "in all things" that is most difficult to see good in) helped us identify, in flesh and blood realism, the actual good God had worked in our lives. 

Lastly we read these words: If God is for us who can be against us?...For I am sure that neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I want to be loved and so do you. We want to be some one who matters. We want to believe we have worth. There is always someone out there ready and willing to tell us that we are garbage, that we are ugly, stupid, useless. And we hear their voices and we internalize their hard words. Sadly, for many, those could be the voices of family; people who are "supposed" to love us!!! Or, maybe, the voices are inside your head. The demonic accuser telling you there is no hope, no love, no truth. There is also the inner accuser, you telling yourself, "no one can love me, I am not worthy, I am a loser, I am unlovable..."

Paul's message gives hope. "NOTHING..."  "NOTHING, (now or ever) can separate you from God's love." Except not believing it. Except listening to those other voices which tell us it is not, cannot, be true. The love is there, but it can be rejected. So accept it!

Jesus' message: "I am food" He says, "look in and through the bread and wine to see it is me. I am feeding you. Giving you life... Giving myself for you and to you." "Me," Jesus says, "living in you. Forever together, two become one." Communion, "one with," a sign/sacrament today of a reality into forever.

It was a great day today, reading and sharing God's Word... I wish you had been here with us.   

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Worth It

One definition of a priest is a person in the Good News business. Another definition of a priest is someone in the Bad News business. I have been doing this work since 1984, and in preparation some seven years prior to that. Even during a decade long hiatus from ministry I was still "the priest" to those with whom I worked. (something ontological going on, but I digress)

I have reached a point where decades separate me from many of the folks with whom I have worked. The babies have had babies, the pretty young moms are now grandma's and the manly men are sometimes gray and stooped. People do not look like my memories of them at all. 

In the last few years I have gotten calls from people in that distant past. People who are suffering, or sick or dying; crying out for help. People calling with "bad news." Sometimes it is for a caring ear. Sometimes to connect me with a corpse, literally. Often it is because they don't know who else to call. It is amazing the ties that bind. [It is a reminder that we can make an indelible impression in a short time which lasts a lifetime. Lots of people remember you and think about you. Let that govern how you interact today!]

Bad News... They often say those very words. "Hey, Father, remember me? I have bad news..." Often times, there is an apology. "I think of you often, I should have called before... I don't know why I always wait for something bad to happen before I call."

So what to say in response? I know that the sufferings of the present are nothing compared to the glory to be revealed (good news: It is SO WORTH IT, whatever it is) I know that the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from he dead dwells in you...He will give life to your mortal bodies as well. (good news: the horror is temporary. It is so worth it, hang in---better days, the best days, are coming!)

Bad news...Good news.
Life trumps death
Glory overwhelms the wounds and scars (even from a cross) with light and beauty.

I got good news for your bad news, bad is temporary, good is eternal. Bad is redeemable. Bad is potentially reworkable, transformed into good. I know you can't see it now, perhaps, but that doesn't make it less real or true. Perhaps being saved by faith means that once you believe good news the teeth and fangs of bad news are less vicious (or your body less aware of the pain). Good News---words of hope and life and joy---can distract us from the Bad News.

And when you are in the Good News business, people impacted by the bad news turn to you. They call. even if it has been, twenty, thirty years. They call because they want good news. They want it because they were created for it, it is their truest, deepest nature.

SO trust your deepest hopes. It is true: Good News.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015


I am a food person. I have probably never really been 'hungry' not in the real sense of the word. Even when I have done extended fasts, there was always food nearby. I am comfortably middle class and always have been. 

The discipline of fasting is easier to me then the harder work of eating in moderation. I do not know if it is my "wiring" or habits picked up from the American environment of abundance. I do not, based on my observance of the bodies I encounter each day, think I am alone in this. 

Jesus says, "Do no labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you..." I take such words seriously. First of all, it is easy to forget that His experience was different from ours. Very different. He did not live in a time or place of abundant food. Many of the people with whom He came in contact were third world poor and no doubt often malnourished. There was little need for weight loss clinics or liposuction because there were not cokes and potato chips to snack on. [ours is a different struggle] I am certain that Jesus' audiences had been hungry, truly hungry, and to hear Him speak about 'food that perishes' went to the core of their life. Face it, the really poor struggle each day to get food to eat. No storehouse. No refrigerator.

This is not a call to guilt. When third world people come to this country and succeed, their children adopt our practices. Like I said, ours is a different struggle.

Yet if Jesus could look the hungry in the eyes and say, "do not pursue this food, but pursue a different kind of food" then Jesus is offering something real. What is it?

Himself. Identifying with the Manna (from the Israelites' desert experience), Jesus says that He is food. Food for 'the ages" or eternity. Food which will last forever.

Such food matters, especially in this time when death continues to take its victims in spite of our advances and improvements. If in other times and places people died too young for lack of food, today too much food kills people too young. But, truth be told, even the right amount of the best foods can only delay death. It is inevitable.

So what are you hungry for: soul-hungry, heart and core of your identity hungry? Are you willing to face your hunger, to dig deeper than the pangs in your belly to face the eternal hunger?

In two weeks we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus thought He was the answer to what you need. Are you willing to ponder Him and seek Him? Or are you thinking pizza, or a salad, or whatever you consume this day is enough to make sense of your life?   

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Show Your Work

One gripe among parents which I hear from time to time is that their child made a low grad on a Math test even though they had the answers right. The problem was the instructions wanted them "to show your work" and the child had not done it. Sometimes "the work" reveals as much as the final answer. Thinking about what we are doing, be it math or anything else in life, requires focus and concentration. I think this is part of the spiritual discipline of "living in the moment" and "being present." It is very hard for us, who live lives of constant distraction and endless activity with a need for 'quicker' and 'faster' and 'immediate' results to ponder much of anything. Maybe I am projecting here, but I have to think I am not the only one who feels like life is an endless series of hundred yard dashes...

If we want to understand Scripture, is it not true that we also need to pause and ponder how we should actually read Scripture? The three readings for the Daily Office today include a story from Mark 8. Jesus is in the boat with His disciples after a particularly frustrating day (People demanding some sign from heaven to prove him). Jesus asks (with a deep sigh) "Why do you people need a sign, there will be no sign." Once in the boat with His disciples He warns them, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod," and they thought He was talking about bread...

Read the prophets of Israel. Read the words of Jesus. Read them and ask this question, "Is it straightforward communication?" When Jesus got in the boat, why the cryptic statement? 

God speaks in visions and images. I daresay we (who read the Bible) believe it. But not really, not totally. We believe it as a datum of faith--a factoid--but do not embrace it as the fundamental "lense" through which we "see" God. In the end, we are too Modern to allow ourselves to think in ancient ways. Too concerned with facts to seek Truth.

It is said that Protestants believe "only grace, only faith, only Scripture." "Only Scripture"... Yet if we read Scripture as though it were a text book, is not our "only Scripture" compounded by "only a modern world view, only a modern set of assumptions about things"? As I have said before, we "know" the original languages of the Bible are Hebrew and Greek, but we forget the language systems are more than just words and that Greek and Hebrew are also ancient cultures. We forget the rules of reading and writing of their time matter. We also forget that God does not speak in bullet points, He communicates in paraboles (Greek) or maschal (Hebrew). The word 'parable' as popularly understood by us does not convey all the richness of meaning that the Hebrew contains.

Today I teach on Galatians. The two sons born of two wives (4:21-5:1), one slave one free. Hagar is Mount Sinai the present Jerusalem. The child of promise, born of Sara, is free. We are children of the promise, like Isaac. What is more important to me than Paul's point is Paul's use of the Bible. The logic of the argument, or better, the illustration, is not what interests me here. What I find fascinating is the illustration itself. Paul is showing his work here for us. He is turning the plain meaning of Scripture on its head. He is saying that the Jews are offspring of Hagar and that the Gentiles are Isaac (the father of Jacob, the father of Israel--the Jews!). Such a reading and approach are what matter most here, even more than the final message. So often I hear believers become incensed at the idea that something in the Bible is symbolic, as if symbolism were akin to heresy or apostasy. Yet here Paul says clearly that the saving truth of the Genesis account is deeper and metaphorical. 

I want to share some insights from ancient Jews about the Bible in the days ahead. I do this because Jesus and Paul were ancient Jews. (it is also the same one that the Church Fathers used.) We have to understand that the Bible is not in English and it is not in Modern. We must encounter God's Word on His terms, not our own.

It invites us to read Scripture as an ancient. And that takes time and reflection. Fortunately, Paul has given us a model how to do it. and the model includes, even embraces, symbolism. And symbols are notoriously difficult to unravel. And we are an impatient people...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Words of Consolation and Hope in the Face of Death

words shared at a memorial service for the father of a dear friend. May they provide hope and peace to any who suffer the death of a loved one....
The human capacity for memory is one of our greatest gifts. Yet, we live in a time when college educated people do not know basic history. One of our most dread diseases is Alzheimer’s, which afflicts over 5 million citizens. In a way, Alzheimer’s is a symbol of our culture. To lose one’s memories is to lose one’s identity. To live in a time of corporate memory loss only compounds the problem. Who are we, as a people, if we have no memory?

The ancient Jews were a people of memory. The stories of heroes from the past are a major part of their sacred text. Beginning with the Torah there are numerous narratives which focus on people.

Ancient Jewish prayers usually include memories and exhortations to remember. “God, remember how you saved our Fathers, now visit us with the same salvation!” Remembering is at the heart of the Jewish faith.

Christians, as disciples of the Jew Jesus, have a memory meal--Last Supper//Eucharist--as the central act of worship. Each time we gather, we, too, remember God’s saving deeds culminating in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

To remember is to bring to mind again. It is to ‘recall’, literally to call back to consciousness that which is buried within. In English, if to ‘dismember’ is to cut up into pieces, then to “re-member” is to bring the pieces back together in a whole and complete unity.

The death of a loved one is a personal tragedy for those who survive. Left behind, they grieve his absence and feel the loss. All they have now are memories--a bitter sweet gift. For the very memories which bring us joy for what we had, also sharpen the pain for what we have lost. Memories, ironically especially the best memories, create a deeper sense of what was and is no more.

In the Christian faith, however, the “re-membering” has a deeper, more powerful meaning. For resurrection is the ultimate “re-membering.” God has promised that someday we will each be ‘brought back’ and pieced together as one. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s victory over death. His resurrection is the sign that our hope is not in vain. If God raised Jesus then it is reasonable to believe resurrection is not wishful thinking but a reality.

The remembrance of heroes past, therefore, contains an anticipation for the future. Those who died in God, will live again.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul. Sarah, Rebekah, Ruth, Judith, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. Those names from the past will be our neighbors and friends in the Kingdom to be revealed. Dying is a fleeting moment of transition. Death has no power over those who belong to God.

If we remember God’s promise and trust Him, then the bitterness and pain of loss is not without hope. And we know, God remembers us. He never forgets! And His remembering has the power to give life and renew love.

The Horror; the Hope!

Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, later the basis for the Viet Nam movie, Apocalypse Now, famously ends with the protagonist's dying whisper: "the horror, the horror..."

Such words seem to summarize the prophet Jeremiah's message in chapters 7-10. "My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me." laments God's mouthpiece to the unfaithful people. "For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded, I mourn and dismay has taken hold on me," he groans. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?"

Jeremiah's assessment of the situation is that his people are faithless/unfaithful. Their hearts do not belong to the God Who saved them and planted them in the land. The people foolishly look to gods which did not create the world. They are all adulterers, a company of treacherous men. They bend their tongue like a bow; falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know Me," says the Lord,"Let everyone beware of his neighbor , and put no trust in any brother..."  It goes on and on about lies and mistrust.

Are things so bad here today? Is it the case (per the media) that the government and business, the police and the military are nothing but scoundrels? Is everyone a liar and a thief? I think not. I think my world and experience is not so unpleasant as all that. But the time of Jeremiah was literally a moment of Divine wrath and judgment; perhaps in his day there were people who though he had overstated his case. Perhaps they were thinking "it isn't so bad."

Even so, one cannot argue that there is carnage about us: pollution, disease, unfairness and economic inequality. Lost loves and broken relationships, shattered dreams and hopelessness. People often are angry; violence in word and deed does occur. If things are good they are not always good, nor are they good for everyone.

The malady, at its heart, is the 'other gods' (the powers to which we pledge allegiance rather than embrace God's way). Worship is a submission to Him, in ways which are life giving for us and for others. Obedience is Kingdom compliance with values and virtues which will make our world a better more humane place. Our Gospel reading this morning is point on. (John 8:12) Jesus said "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." He who follows Me...
Following Jesus (discipleship) is the key to faith.
Where Jesus walked He left behind people who were healed, freed, reconciled; people with hope and joy and new purpose. That is the Kingdom. It is what Jeremiah called his people to embrace. It is what Jesus calls His people to embrace. It is the same then as now. The problems we face--all of them--are a function of infidelity to God. In Lent we are called to get our heads on straight and embrace choices that mean we follow Him. The alternative is "the horror, the horror...and a heart of darkness." GO follow Jesus! GO to the Light.    

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Faith of Jesus to faith in Jesus

The Fourth Gospel presents to us the deeper meaning of the historical life and death of the Lord Jesus. His life fulfills the hopes and promises of God to Israel. He is the new Genesis creation account. He is the Incarnate Word of God, who is identified as "the Lamb of God" (an uncertain reference but possibly connected to the Passover Lamb as well as the Redeemer Lamb) [see the Jewish Apocalyptic works: Test. Jos. 19.8; Test. Ben. 3.8; 1 Enoch 89–90]. At Cana there is a Marriage Feast where Jesus replaces the jars for ritual purity with the superabundant (best) wine (of the Kingdom). Later we will see a Bread miracle and also preaching connected to the Light and Living Waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. Without going into every detail, the Fourth Gospel wants you to know that Jesus is The Fulfillment of Judaism-- its story, its practices, its feasts.

Hence, the unique placement of Jesus' cleansing the Temple (at the beginning not end) may be an intentional thematic theological declaration. While Jesus' self-referential statements provide historical insight into the accusations mentioned in the Synoptics at His trial (that He would destroy the Temple, may have been derived from the statement quoted here); for the Gospel writer's purposes, the statements equate Jesus and the Temple. In a sense, it provides for the idea that Jesus is the new place to encounter God. (He is The True Temple where God's Name is). [The conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well reinforces this: worship in Spirit and truth trumps location.]

In the Synoptics the Scripture quote about a den of thieves is from Jeremiah. Recall his condemnation of the First Temple precedes its demise and the parallels between Jeremiah and Jesus are stunning.

John, however, makes two other Scriptural allusions. Psalm 69 and Zechariah 14. Jesus' zeal for God's House is reflects the words of the psalmist. When a verse is quoted, the reader is supposed to go read the source. Psalm 69 is a stunning prayer about faith, hoped and despair. The Gospel author connects it to Jesus. The second quote is the last verse of Zechariah, (a prophet during the return of the Exiles and reconstruction of the Temple) in the Persian period. Zechariah, a Messianic and apocalyptic work, includes the promise that God will be king of all and that there will be no more traders in the House of God. In a sense, the Fourth Gospel tells us that this is who Jesus really is. God the true King is here! Prophecy is fulfilled!

Jesus passes judgment on the Temple and confronts the men who are the most powerful in all of Jerusalem. This declaration of judgment is His death sentence which He actively, almost aggressively embraces. It is also a revelation of the wrath of God. 

Jesus' bold declaration (destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up) is a profession of His faith in the Father. Jesus almost seems to scoff at the threats. The courage of Jesus is an inspiration to us as we cower beneath our particular burdens and challenges.

One value of Lent is time to ponder Jesus' faith and courage. He is human.The crucifixion was no surprise because Jesus, like any controversial figure, knew what happened to people who stand against the powerful. He understood what the Jewish authorities could do and what the Romans would do to Him. It is His faith in God that allows Him to face it. It is His faith which makes His life a revelation of God's salvation. And it is His faithfulness which draws us to trust Him. The faith of Jesus generates faith in Jesus.

Later theological insights into the deeper meaning of Jesus only serve to give content to what is fundamentally a personal response. In Lent, the one thing we must seek is a deeper relationship with the Lord---to love Him more deeply as we ponder Him more completely.

Each of us is invited into that new life of Jesus. Like Him we are called to trust the Father completely. Like Him we are bound to fidelity whatever the cost. The disciplines of Lent are meant as the practice field where we establish the habit of trusting Him and treasuring Him above our own comfort and safety. Once we understand that resurrection life trumps anything the Enemy can do, then like Jesus we can say, "destroy me if you will, but it is only temporary and some day I will be raised up." To live fully in the freedom of that faith will be hope, peace and joy in any and all circumstances. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015


1 Corinthians 6 will be our Sunday Schol text this weekend. Paul upbraids the Christians for taking each other to court (something that is still going on, sadly). Paul thinks it unthinkable. His reasoning includes the destiny of Christians to judge angels! We do not submit to pagans for wisdom, he says. This leads to the statement "do you not know the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?"

When was the last time you used this expression? My guess is, if you are like me, those words were translated in your unconscious mind almost immediately as "won't go to heaven"... But I want to offer another option. The Greek word translated as 'inherit' is a compound word ("a lot/portion" and "law") which means to get something 'by lots.' Now the Jewishness of the statement is more obvious. When Israel entered the Promised Land, those Hebrew slaves took the land and it was divided up among the people 'by lots.' In fact, the Hebrew word for "inherit" nachala occurs 224 times in the Bible. Numbers and Deuteronomy use it over 30x each. So it is a key concept and connected to God's salvation (in Moses) of bringing His People out of slavery and delivering them the land promised to Abraham (and his descendents). The land God rules...
One of the first is Exodus 15:7, the Song of Moses (recall the Hebrew in this song is more ancient than the rest of the text---like someone quoting Chaucer in an English paper, it would be obvious to us) speaks of Israel being planted on the Mount of [God's] inheritance.

"Inheriting the Kingdom" is to be part of God's People, to have a share or portion in the land He rules. Paul's vision is no doubt shaped by his Bible--and his Bible is made up of the books of the Jewish Testament. This is the vision we run across repeatedly, IF we have eyes to see.

Paul's list of the "unrighteous" includes the usual suspects, with a special focus on porneia (sexual sins). In a word, Paul says it is a sin against one's own body and a desecration of God's Temple! You are a dwelling place of God, he emphasizes. It is a good thought to ponder in Lent. We are His children, His beloved and He lives in us. It isn't about guilt and shame and fear---it is all about living and being what we are!

This is why, even if the Gentiles are 'free of the law' ("all things are lawful" is probably a quote by Paul of his Corinthian adversaries) that freedom is not for sin. Slogan Christianity appears to have been around since the beginning. Paul, a faithful Jew who believes in Jesus, was well aware of the grace of salvation (rescue) and the expectations of the covenant (If...then). In Jesus, he declares, God's promise to draw all nations into the "family" or better "blessings" of Abraham has been realized. Our task is to be faith-filled in response to this grace (good news) and that response includes living a life worthy of the call.

Lent is a time to root out the weeds of sin and death. Happy gardening.