Easter Sunday is one of the most joyous days of the year for Christians all over the world. We celebrate the triumph of life over death, love over hate, inclusion over exclusion. But, this year, in the midst of our celebrating, we also felt the shock, pain, and anger, over the bombings of churches in Sri Lanka. Very much like the feelings we felt when Muslims were killed while in prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand not so long ago.The reality of the world we live in is that no one gets away clean when it comes to our actions that divide, and judge, and turn to violence. We are all guilty. I know we don’t want to admit that. We’d rather be the victim all the time, blame the other for all that is wrong in the world, hide behind our self-righteousness. Again, no one get away clean here.Sometimes I think the worst response we make in response to this reality is to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” Which is to say, things can’t change, God really has no power in the world, faith is just naive, or simply a way of checking out, giving up, smothering the pain with a false sense of security.And the violence continues.Some ask, perhaps many ask, “Why does God let these things happen? Why does God allow suffering in the world?” It’s a valid question.The scriptures are clear on two things regarding suffering. The first is found in Genesis, when we learn that humanity, represented by Adam and Eve (the Hebrew word Adam literally means humanity), is, in our desire to acquire the knowledge of good and evil we acquired the power to choose between the two. This powerful knowledge was the risky thing God allowed in order to have a relationship with us humans, a relationship based on choice. The risk was, obviously, we could choose evil. But a true relationship with God had to allow that freedom to choose otherwise it was not possible for us to have a true relationship with God.Evil, then, is the turning away from a relationship with God.The whole of the scriptures is the story of how God works to make things right in light of that risky allowance. From Noah, to Abraham and Sara, to the Prophets, God works to make things right. In the end, God makes the decision that the only realistic way of making things right with the world is to enter the world. Emmanuel. God with us. The Word becomes flesh. Jesus of Nazareth.That’s the second thing. Jesus confronts the powers of evil represented in the civil authority and the religious authority, both evil in the systematic oppression and violence they have come to believe are the real powers in the universe. And those powers do exactly what they always do. They violently destroy the one who challenges their authority, their world view.And so God suffers.Just like we do. Just like we have. The depth of love God has for us humans is that God was willing to suffer so that we would never be alone in our suffering. God is right there with us. Walking with us through the difficulties and the pain. God was with those Muslims murdered in New Zealand, was with those Christians who were murdered in Sri Lanka. Wherever there is suffering there we will find God, in the midst of it all, working to bring something lifegiving out of it all. That’s the true meaning of Easter. The cross of Good Friday has been neutered. Death has lost its grip on us all. No matter what else happens, in the end, love wins.
The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.
I remember reading about the life of Albert Schweitzer, a remarkable person of many talents. He was a well known organist, theologian, physician, author. His book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus was on many seminary professors must read list. The interesting thing about the book, which was Schweitzer’s doctoral thesis, is that, in the end, all Schweitzer could say about the historical Jesus is, “He comes to us as one unknown.”Albert Schweitzer had read every book ever written about Jesus, had read Scripture throughly, and concluded that the historical Jesus was difficult to pin down. One of the characteristics of religion, of any religion, is the practitioner’s sense of mystery. The element of mystery is what draws us into relationship with the divine. Another early 20th Century theologian, Rudolph Otto, in his book, The Idea of the Holy, wrote that any encounter with the divine is both terrifying and fascinating. We want to run away, but can’t because we are so drawn to it. The ineffability of God is what draws us to God. The mystery of God is what draws us to God.I mean, if we knew all there was to know about God how exciting would that be? Some of you might be saying, “But we do know all there is to know about God,” or at least our preacher does! If that is the case let me ask you a question. We just read or heard about the first photo of a phenomenon in space called a Black Hole. Einstein predicted they were present but we never had visual proof until now.We know a lot about the universe, but we don’t know all there is to know about the universe. So if that is the case, and God created the universe, how can we claim we know all there is to know about God, but can’t say the same about the thing God created?And what about the fact that God says over and over again, “See, I’m doing a new thing.” How can we know God completely if God is always doing something new, something we didn’t expect.Jesus is a great example of God doing a new thing. No one expected Jesus. Oh there were clues scattered throughout the Scriptures. But no one expected Jesus. That is why this week is so important for Christians all over the world, so important we call it Holy. In fact, early Christians thought it so important they took 40 days to prepare for it, took a week to enter into its mystery, celebrated it for three days, and reflected on it for fifty days beyond that. Almost one out of every three days each calendar year is spent on Easter, whether preparing, or celebrating, or reflecting on.But sadly, in our hyper busy, overly networked lives we Christians might barely spend one day, Easter Sunday, celebrating the most significant event in human history. And that event? God has entered into human history, revealed to us that death is not the ultimate power in the universe, showed us how to be truly human, gave us the opportunity to participate in the work of creating communities of agape love (agape love—a love for, and active work on behalf of the least and lowest).The mystery of this all comes to us in the actions of washing each other’s feet, sharing a meal of bread and wine, standing in the presence of the power of death, a death we enter into ourselves in order to experience the fullness of life as God intended for us.Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!
“Do not fear to hope tho’ the wicked rage and rise,
our God sees not as we see, success is not the prize.
Do not fear to hope for tho’ the night be long,
the race shall not be to the swift, the fight not to the strong.”
I remember hearing this song’s refrain way back in 1985. It’s a really good hymn/song. But, like a lot of things, over time, the words slipped from my memory. Until today. What triggered my memory was an article I was reading in the paper that said, in part, “while hope can be inspiring, rage (caused by fear) is intoxicating.”Hope can be inspiring, but rage/fear is intoxicating.Think about that for a moment. What do you fear? What do people tell you you should fear? The news we read is often fearful, the news we watch is often fearful, the conversations we have are often fearful. Even some Christians preach fearful messages. Which strikes me as odd since God says, “Do not be afraid” or words to that effect quite often in the Bible. In fact there are some who suggest the Bible says “Do not fear” or “Do not be afraid” 366 times, one for each day of the year, and an extra time for leap year. My own search of the Bible came up with only about 145 times the phrase is found in scripture.But here’s the deal. I don’t think it really matters how many times God tells us to not be afraid. Once would be enough for me. But God says it often. Often enough that we Christians ought to take it seriously. Fear is a powerful emotion to be sure. I do believe it is intoxicating. One of the reasons it is powerful is its aggressiveness. And, conversely, God is not aggressive. Some of you will probably disagree with this, but if God is as aggressive as fear, why is fear so dominant in our cultural discourse? What I have come to know, and believe, in my own faith journey is that God prefers to whisper while fear has to shout. The irony is fear has to shout because it knows it is the weaker power. The scriptures tell us that God is love. Not, God is like love, or, is close to love. God is love. That being the case, Love (God) is the greatest power. And love has no need to shout. Another hymn/song, written by Gregory Norbet, is based on words from the Prophet Hosea. “Come back to me with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart.” It is a beautiful, gentle song. Like a whisper. “Long have I waited for your coming home to me, and living deeply our new life” This is God speaking to us through the prophet.We are now in the midst of the Season of Lent, a time of deep reflection on the mystery of God’s love expressed through the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Christians it is the holiest time of year. It can be a homecoming of sorts.We live in a world that shouts at us all the time that we must live in fear. God speaks to us again and again, softly, gently, like a whisper: Come back to me with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart. Live not in fear, but choose to live in hopefulness. It is a choice you can make every day.Do not fear to hope.
Question. Who said, “Love your enemies.”? If you said, “Jesus,” you are correct, but, who said it first? If you said, “Mo Tzu, the Chinese contemporary of Confucius,” you would also be correct. Who knows? There might be several others who have said love your enemies. The prophet Jeremiah comes close when he tells the people to pray for the welfare of the city, when the city in question is actually the city of the Israelite’s enemy. Does the possibility that there might be multiple answers to the question challenge what you thought to be the one true answer?Does it raise doubts about what you know, or think you know?Is doubting such a bad thing? Put another way, is it acceptable for a person of faith to have doubts about his or her faith?I would submit that doubting is an important aspect of one’s faith. That’s because faith demands that we trust in things we cannot explain or prove, or even understand at times. Reverend Eugene Peterson paraphrased Hebrews 11:1-2 this way, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”Faith, this firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living, is what sustains people despite all the evidence to the contrary. Faith allows room for doubt.Yet many who claim to have faith seem to have based that faith on the assumption that facts and proofs are available. In other words, some base their faith in certitude. They are certain about what they believe. They make no room for doubt. And too often this leads to judgmentalism and hypocrisy.Something I have said, and written before, is that I have “bet my life” on the teachings of Jesus. For me that is a statement of faith. My faith tells me that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Emmanuel. God with us. My faith tells me that Jesus was crucified, and died and that three days later he rose from the dead, a sign that humankind’s bondage to the sin of idolatry and death had come to an end. My faith tells me that God continues the work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, building God’s kingdom here on earth, because one day God will make God’s dwelling here on earth, a renewed and transformed earth, and we humans will reclaim our original work of caring for creation.I cannot prove that any of this is true. To be sure, there is evidence that this is true. But what is often evident is not always based in fact or proof. (Maybe that is why Jesus told us we must approach God like little children).On my desk, and it has been on the desks I have sat at for the past twenty years of ministry, is a poem by Robert Frost. It is a constant reminder of the wonder and mystery of God. A God we can only know through faith.
I often see flowers from a passing car
that are gone before I can tell what they are.
I want to get out of the train and go back
to see what they were beside the track.
I name all the flowers I am sure they weren’t;
not fireweed loving where woods have burnt—
not bluebells gracing a tunnel mouth—
not lupine living on sand and drouth.
Was something brushed across my mind
that no one on earth will ever find?
Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
not in position to look too close.
“The trick, it seems, is to be able to hold both things very close—the gratitude and the misery—and then, with a semblance of faith, to let them fly.”
The tendency in our culture is to think everything as binary. Good or bad. Black or White. Up or down. Winners or losers. Which is why the concept of greatness is, de facto, the thing we are told we should strive for. From Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” to Ronald Regan’s “Make America Great Again,” the ideal is greatness. In fact, the notion of greatness as a worthy goal is not debated. What constitutes greatness may be debated, but not the worthiness of greatness itself.But what about that which is ordinary, that which is everyday? Christianity has lived with a liturgical calendar for centuries. It outlines the days and seasons of the church year (which begins, by the way, with the First Sunday in Advent each year, and ends with the Celebration of the Reign of Christ the Sunday before Advent) with different colors and biblical themes. There is the Season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany which lasts about 40 days, give or take. The Season of Lent/Easter/Pentecost lasts about 97 days, give or take. The rest of the church year is called Ordinary Time.And since we Christians spend most of our time in ordinariness, the question might be, “What does it mean to live ordinarily?” It almost seems to fly in the face of our quest for greatness. But, what if living an ordinary life is actually healthier than striving for greatness?Said another way, “Why not strive for the good enough life?” In my Wesleyan Christian tradition I was taught to live by three simple rules. First, Do No Harm. Second, to Do Good. Third, to Stay in Love with God. Each day I try to live by those rules. Through good times and bad, when I’m full of life and when I’m dog tired. At the end of the day it might not be considered great by some, but it is good enough. Sometimes my best is better than other times.You see, ordinary is not really a measure of adequacy or ability, but, rather the effort to take on the difficulties of daily living, extending oneself for the benefit of others. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said the greatest commandment is to love God, Self and Others. As a parent I want to be the kind of father that exemplifies and teaches my children to be resilient, compassionate and loving despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they are able to make their way, and leave the world a better place than they found it.Writer Avram Alpert adds this, “Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.” (The Good Enough Life. NY Times. February 20, 2019)Eastern faith traditions are centered in this middle way or good-enough lifestyle. It’s goal is to achieve a balance in life. But I also believe Jesus offers the same kind of balance, a way of living in harmonic relationship with the divine, with self and with others. Wouldn’t it be great if we focused each day on living a good-enough life?
Valentine’s Day. February 14th. Many of us celebrated by doing romantic dinners with significant others, buying roses, or champagne, or chocolate. Rich food, especially desserts.All in the name of love.Saint Valentine has come to represent the essence of love and all that love means to us. On the other hand, I’ve been at Vons while men line up with flowers or chocolate or balloons (that say “I love you!”) or maybe all three. On their way home from work. I know I’ve spent last minute time putting together something I hope would be meaningful for Sara, something that let her know I loved her. This year we planned ahead and decided we would have a nice dinner, a nice bottle of wine, and we would get each other a card. That’s it.But, for us, that is enough for now. So the question I have is about love, what it means for you, and how love makes sense in your life. Because if you know anything about Saint Valentine you know that love for him meant his martyrdom. Which is why he is a Saint. Saint Valentine lived in the 3rd Century near Rome according to some accounts. He was arrested for marrying Christians (which was forbidden) primarily so they would not be forced to serve in the Roman Army. He was arrested, and when he would not stop his work (and also because he apparently tried to convert the Caesar to Christianity) he was beheaded. He was canonized late in the 5th Century. February 14 was the day he was martyred, which is why that is the date we celebrate his Sainthood. What kind of love motivates someone to give their lives for another? What does that have to do with romance? As the song says, “What’s love got to do with it?”In the Greco-Roman world Saint Valentine lived in there were three words for love. In English there is only one. While context is very important in English (I can say I love ice cream, and I love my wife, and mean two different things, and most will get that.) the Greek language is more specific. The three words for love in Ancient Greek are Eros, Philios, and Agape.Eros is, generally, thought of as romantic love. You know, the flowers, chocolate kind of love. What we mostly celebrate on Saint Valentine’s Day. And there is nothing wrong with romance. In fact, Sara and I have a mini celebration of our anniversary every 15th of the month, which is the date we got married. It’s always a special evening in some way. We also have “date night” on Fridays as often as we can. Busy lives often distance people from the intimacy they need, so it’s good to build in specific times to step back and simply spend time together without distractions.But Eros love is not for anyone but my wife. Philios might be best understood as a love for one’s brothers and sisters, including those we are not directly related to. The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, is a compound Greek word meaning just that. That kind of love is not romantic, but is a genuine concern for the welfare of those we are connected to.And then there is Agape. Often called God’s love. Jesus used agape in his command to love one another. (John 15:12) It’s a love that is willing to lay down one’s life for another. For Christians it is the active advocacy that we have for the well-being of creation and all that live in it. It’s a love transcends all other loves, allows other loves to exist. It’s how God loves us.Whether we like it or not.
I believe in God!” I was the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo at the time, and heard about a restaurant that made great clam chowder over in Pismo Beach. So I went there one evening to check it out. While waiting for my table I took a seat at the lounge counter and ordered a glass of wine. The man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. You know, the usual chit chat, nothing earth shaking. And then he asked the question I was waiting for. “So, what do you do for a living?”“I’m the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo.”There was a pause of about ten seconds while the man stared at me. “I believe in God!” he said.It seemed to me he said it in a way that had given me some kind of super power. Like I could call down thunder and lightning if the man didn’t believe in God. On another occasion I was playing golf at a local course in SLO, and was paired with a guy I had never met. We didn’t say much to each other during the round, but he swore after every shot, slammed clubs into the ground, and generally seemed really angry about the whole thing. This went on for several holes, until at the 12th tee box he asked, “So what do you do for a living?”“I’m the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo.”The man never said another word.I’ve shared these experiences several time with friends, but I’ve never had the opportunity to follow up with the question that has been in my mind all along. What does it mean to say you believe in God?We live in a country that, according to most pollsters, 80% of respondents claim belief in God. But what do these people mean by “god?” Because even a casual observation of the actions and desires of many (at least according to polls) indicate their belief in God is not the God I am familiar with. You know, the one in the Bible.Mind you, there are at least three ways to interpret and understand the God of the Bible. The first, and obvious version is the Jewish one. After all the Old Testament is a testament to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (And by extension the God of Ishmael and Mohammad.) This is a God who seeks first and foremost economic justice for the people. God calls for the care for the poor and disenfranchised over 2000 times. God’s prophets rail against the rich and powerful when they do not regard the less fortunate as brothers and sisters. God even warns the people that they had better take care of aliens (we call them migrants), lest they forget they were once aliens themselves.The God of the New Testament is the same God, yet raises the bar by revealing his very self. Emmanuel. God with us. Or as the Gospel of John says, The Word of God become flesh. Jesus is the model of how followers of God should live if they really believe in God. One place that sums this up is in Matthew 25, where Jesus says, “Whatever you do to these the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”The Apostle Paul provides insight into living the God-life in First Corinthians when he says the greatest of all things is Love. And how does he describe love? Patient. Kind. Never envious or boastful. Never arrogant or rude. Never insists on its own way. Bears, and hopes, and endures all things. This is the God I believe in. And you. Do you believe in God?
“The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.”Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.This weekend we remember one of the Saints of the church, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Above, and within my commentary, are some of his many quotes. He talked a lot about justice. Justice is talked about a lot in the Bible as well. In fact, the words righteousness and justice mean virtually the same thing.So anytime you hear the word righteousness, you might remember that righteousness is justice. And vice versa. But, is righteousness/justice a fixed condition? Or does it have the capacity to evolve? “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”I raise the question because there seems to be a lot of confusion about what righteousness/justice means in our culture, indeed throughout the world. Build the Wall. Lock her up. Impeach. Me too. Times up.I would argue that even the Bible reveals an evolution in the concept of what constitutes righteousness/justice. Or perhaps a better way of saying this is the Judeo/Christian Scriptures are aware that humans have the power to bend their interpretations of them in order to support their particular applications of righteousness/justice. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”Similarly we might ask whether the Declaration of Independence claim that “All men are created equal” means only men, or are women included?With apologies to Seth Godin (one of my favorite bloggers), there was a time when righteous men, settled their differences with swordplay, or with pistols. There was a time when women bound their feet, and shamed those who didn’t. There was a time when righteous men owned slaves. Over time those so-called righteous behaviors have become unrighteous, these so-called just behaviors are now considered unjust. But here’s the rub. We live in a culture that, even as most people have come to recognize the human capacity to act with compassion, to embrace diversity and inclusion over singularity and exclusion, to believe we humans are capable of much more than we often realize, there are those who insist that the former ways are the correct ways despite the harm caused by those ways.“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”And so, on this weekend of remembrance and celebration, there are some who will show contempt and disdain. While many want to share their gift of abundance, a gift and not an entitlement, there are those who want to build higher walls to keep others out. When many welcome others, not because they look or act like them, but because there is the belief that all means all, there will be those who firmly believe they are superior, that their way is better, that they are chosen.This is the world we live in. But hasn’t it always been like this?“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”One of my favorite jazz albums is called Land of Make Believe, by Chuck Mangione. The title track has a verse that goes like this:“In your world there was a KingWho once said, “I have a dream,”Now there’s a manWho knew the secret.”That man died, was assassinated, fifty years ago. For what he said he knew. This weekend we remember him. But what he knew is not a secret. Is it?
Happy New Year! 2019. It truly is a time to take stock, look forward, and set goals. Some may question the importance of marking a new year, but, Biblically speaking, we are told that God has given us time in order that we might mark the days, months, seasons and years. (And then there is the comedian who proffered that God gave us time so everything wouldn’t happen at once.) In any event, I’m guessing at least some of you have made resolutions for 2019, set goals of some sort, and thought of 2019 as a new beginning. A kind of reset button for our lives.I think that’s a good thing.But what kind of goals should we set? What kinds of resolutions? Tara Parker-Pope, in an article in the New York Times, offered an answer to these questions. She is the founding editor of Well, The Times’s award-winning consumer health site. She won an Emmy in 2013 for the video series “Life, Interrupted” and is the author of “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage.” @taraparkerpope In her 20 years of writing about health she has come to realize wellness can be summed up in four words. That’s it. Four words.Move. Nourish. Refresh. Connect.I don’t think I need to add much to these four words in order to make sense out of them. I mean, movement (some might say exercise) is acknowledged by health experts as very important for us. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. I walk two miles every day (well, most days anyway). I play golf about once a week, and when I can I walk.Nourishment is not to be equated with anything we can get from a drive thru window. I’ve actually discovered it is less expensive and tastier if I buy fresh food and prepare it at home. I’ve also come to realize that many people don’t know how to cook! So I’m going to be offering a basic cooking class on Saturdays, beginning February 2nd. Refreshment really has to do with self care. Quiet time. Or time doing something you really love to do, like a hobby or activity. When was the last time you read a good book? Or saw a movie? The Bible gives us the proper ratio of work to rest. 6 to 1. Six days we work, one day we rest. But it is intended to be a Sabbath rest. A time for disconnection from all things work related, and time to simply be.And connection does not include Facebook or Twitter. No, connection is more personal. Conversation with someone over a cup of coffee. Eating dinner together with family without distractions like TV, or Smart Phones. Hanging out with friends and loved ones. I just celebrated my 71st birthday and the best part of it was simply spending time with my wife and some friends. Good food, great conversation and lots of laughter. Connection.So that’s it. Actually I would add a couple of other things. They are easy to do. But, they are also easy not to do.Be grateful. Be hopeful. Be compassionate. Be forgiving.If the only prayer you ever say is “Thank you God,” that is enough. If you can move beyond a false kind of optimism that is never satisfying, and live with the hope that, in the end, all will be well, that is life changing. If you can live compassionately, which is to say you grow in the ability to empathize with others and their plight, that is humanizing. And if you can forgive. Yourself. Those who have hurt you. You will know the way of God.It’s called the power of love.
We hear the Christmas stories every year, but have we ever thought how those first Christians might have “heard” them? The Prophetic Promise that God would send a savior had been recounted for 700 years, and still no fulfillment. In fact, the Romans now occupied Judea as well as most of the Ancient Near East (what we call the Middle East today). The Roman Empire had come to be as a result of the military campaign led by Octavian against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian decisively defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle off the coast of Greece near a city called Actium. The victory led to the reuniting of the Roman Republic, but led to the shift from democracy to dictatorship. Why? Because Octavian was thought to be the savior of the world. His name was changed to Augustus (meaning “one to be worshipped”) and carried the titles of Savior, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords.Into that historical setting Jesus was born, told through the Gospel of Luke. Can you see how subversive Luke’s Nativity Story was in light of the realities of living in the Roman Empire? It was literally a clash of kingdoms, God’s Kingdom against the Roman Empire.Have you ever thought that the Christmas Story might be subversive?And if it is subversive, what does the story subvert? Does a subversive Christmas Story speak to our world today?The other Christmas Story, the one told by Matthew, has the same theme, but a different setting, and by reason, a different audience. The main players in the Matthean drama are Joseph, who receives messages from God through dreams, Herod, King of Judea, and the Magi, Gentile visitors from the East. The Gospel of Matthew offers Jesus as a new Moses, and if you know the story of Moses you will see the parallels.The heart of the comparison is Moses act of liberating the Hebrew people from slavery under the oppression of Pharaoh, and Jesus freeing us all from the slavery to sin, in particular the sin of idolatry. In the one it is a physical liberation, and in the other it is a spiritual liberation.In both it is a clash of Kingdoms, of reigns, once again.The Magi, Gentiles, recognize the reign of God as supreme to any earthly king and come to pay homage. Herod responds in violence. Because his kingdom was being threatened by another, a Kingdom rooted in compassion, love, forgiveness. That’s the part we don’t often focus on as part of the Christmas Story, but it’s there. It is referred to as the Slaughter of the Innocents, and is found in Matthew 2:16-18. Warned in a dream, Joseph flees with Mary and their child Jesus to Egypt. They become refugees, migrants seeking safety from the violence happening in their homeland. Eventually Herod dies, and in another dream Joseph is told he can safely return to Judea. But they cannot go home. Not to Bethlehem, which was their home. No, they are led to the region of Galilee, and settle in a town called Nazareth. What would it be like to have to leave your home, and travel to a foreign land in order to find shelter, and safety? Where would you go in order to escape the earthly reigns of kingdoms and governments that thrive on violence, lies, oppression, injustice? Where could you go to experience the power of love and compassion that is at the heart of the Christmas Stories contained in Luke and Matthew? Where would you go?And know that there is where God has made a home for you.
As the song goes, “Tis the season to be jolly.” I must admit that this time of year is one of my favorites. It really is a time for celebration, family gatherings, socializing with friends. And yet there is troubling news coming out pretty often now, news that isn’t good. It seems that America is suffering from a loneliness epidemic. Two surveys, the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, and healthcare provider Cigna reveal that most Americans suffer from a strong sense of isolation and loneliness. The Gallup-Sharecare survey involved 160,000 adults in 2017, asking them about things like financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose, and community connectedness.Turns out 2017 was the worst year for well being than any year since the study began 10 years ago.Nearly half of respondents in the Cigna survey said they sometimes or always feel lonely or left out. A little more than 1 in 10 said zero people know them well. Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska outlines these concerns in his book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. He points out that 45,000 Americans will commit suicide this year, and more than 70,000 will die from drug overdoses.Sounds more like a bleak mid-winter than joy to the world.One question that arises out of this somber information is how this can be when we are living in the age of instant communication? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social applications offer plenty of opportunity to talk with each other, share what’s going on, develop relationships. Or so they say. And I know several people who use those apps for that express purpose. But as another song says, “Is that all there is?”Whenever I’m faced with perplexing questions I turn to the source of my hope, which is my faith in God, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. What does Jesus teach me that can help me make a meaningful response to the issues at hand?The first thing that jumps out at me is that Jesus, as he began his ministry, formed a community. It seems we were created to live in community. But what does that mean, to live in community? Aren’t we doing that whether we like it or not? Isn’t Facebook a community? When I take the next step of looking to thoroughly understanding the role of community in Jesus’ life, I can clearly affirm one thing: Community is the embodiment of self-sacrificial living. Let me say that again.Community is the embodiment of self-sacrificial living.Self-sacrificial living is a way of living that puts the good of the community above the good for oneself. In my prayers I often say, “Let this be for our good, and the good of all concerned.” It is the awareness that, ironically, if I am caring for the well being of the community, that sense of well being will come back to me. In other words, if I am showing compassion for my neighbor, I will also experience compassion. If I am taking time to know someone, I, too, will be known.It’s one thing to say I have 1000 friends on social media. It is another to say I have a friend next door. Or down the block. Someone I can sit and talk with, actually sit and talk with.Ultimately the embodiment of self-sacrificial living is at the heart of the Christmas story. Emmanuel. God with us. God makes a home with us. God creates community with us. Interestingly, the decline in well being parallels the decline in church communities. And yet, many will be drawn to church at Christmas. Maybe it’s time to come home.
I don’t know if you ever thought about it too much, but every holiday we celebrate involves sharing a meal. And I mean every holiday, no matter whether it’s a religious event or civil event. And Thanksgiving is completely about the meal. Thanksgiving IS the meal.Some of us prepare for days. Others go out to eat. Still others travel to be with family and friends. And it is one of my favorite holidays. Mainly because of the absence of commercialization. Most other holidays, even religious days, have been commercialized to the point we sometimes miss the significance of the day itself. Not Thanksgiving. It’s hard to over commercialize a turkey.So here are my observations about Thanksgiving, along with the insights that make it such an important day for me.My first observation is the care and preparation we put into the meal. I am the cook in our family so I make my menu (and don’t even try to introduce too many new dishes), create my shopping list, and hit the market a couple of days before Thanksgiving day. Then I detail out what dishes I will make at what time and what day so I’m not overwhelmed on the day itself.And while I’m busy with that my wife is busy with the table decorations, which take planning as well. We also have a tradition of taking a scripture, many times a Psalm, and breaking it into individual verses for each of our guests to read as part of our giving thanks. Like a Norman Rockwell painting it all comes together and the table looks beautiful. Two minutes later the table is a complete mess, people passing food around, gravy spilling in the table cloth, our Thanksgiving tableaux yielding to the natural human tendency to be a little messy. That’s right. We humans can be quite messy. In all manner of ways. It’s who we are. Meals are messy. And please, that doesn’t even include the mess in the kitchen.We are messy, but we are also capable of cleaning up. So I skip the stress. There will be a mess. And then we clean it up.Something else I have come to appreciate is the fact that there always seems to be enough food. No matter who shows up unexpectedly there is always enough food. And there are leftovers.Which brings me to the connection between Thanksgiving and my Christian faith. There are so many times Jesus spends time with people eating, sharing a meal, from a simple dinner of fish and bread to a wedding banquet. Food seems to be at the heart of God’s message of compassion, mercy and grace.The night before Jesus dies, on the eve of his execution, he gathered his friends. To share a meal. I can imagine him, preparing for what was to come, and wondering what gift he could give his disciples that would help them remember all he had taught them, all he had revealed to them about what it meant to live in God’s kingdom. The gift he gave? A meal.Not any meal. Jesus actually identified himself with the meal, with the bread and wine, calling it his very body and very lifeblood. He also told them that whenever they broke bread and shared a cup as the way of remembering him, he would be present with them. How present?It is said that we are what we eat, which means the more we come to understand what Jesus did in that meal, what he still does in that meal, we become his body and his lifeblood. We become the compassionate, loving presence of Christ in the world. And I’m thankful for that gift. Thanksgiving blessings to you and yours.
The Beatitudes is one of the better known passages from the New Testament. They are the beginning, or prelude, to what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” They are in the Gospel of Matthew.Jesus’ primary mission was to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus was the personification of what it meant to live life in God’s Kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount outlines what we can do to live the Kingdom life. The Beatitudes are the prelude, or summary of what it means to recognize someone living in God’s Kingdom.The nine Beatitudes, or “blessings” are broken into three sections. Contrary to the notion that they represent characteristics of different people on their faith journey, they describe the process by which we become followers of Christ.The first three are, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.When we realize that we have put our faith into many different places, or things such as money, power, prestige and so forth, and we realize that we are still left wanting for something more, we come face to face with our poverty of Spirit. Recognizing our poverty of Spirit leads us to mourn, to mourn what we have lost, mourn what we have become, mourn what we have missed in life.But we find comfort in our mourning, which leads to humility, or meekness. Now meekness is not being a doormat! It is recognizing that without God we can do nothing, and that placing our trust in other things to find meaning is ultimately lacking.The next three are, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful for mercy shall be theirs. Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.In response to this new awareness we begin to hunger and thirst for righteousness. In Scripture the words righteousness and justice mean the same thing: God’s desire for healing and reconciliation, forgiveness and restoration of wholeness for the human community.And that leads to the practice of mercy. To be merciful is to emphasize with and advocate for the well being of all those who are in need, physically and spiritually. Acts of mercy lead to purity of heart. To be pure in heart is to place your life completely into God’s hands. It is the affirmation of the one God. There is no room for other gods in our lives.The last three are, Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven and Blessed are you when people revile you on my account.We are called to be peacemakers. It isn’t enough that we have peace. The peace of Christ is something to be shared. But this takes courage because there will always be pushback from the powers of violence and hate. We will face persecution of some kind. People will revile us, and oppress us because of our faith in Jesus. After all, isn’t that what happened to Jesus? Should we expect any less? In our day and age we won’t necessarily experience physical violence, although some of our brothers and sisters truly do. Ours is more often the loss of friendships, public humiliation, marginalization, disrespect.And when that happens what does Jesus say to do? Rejoice! He says to rejoice! Because we have been welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. Here and now. Not later on when we die. Here and now. God is here and now.And we are blessed.
It has happened every Halloween for over a decade. I never expect it, but when it happens I am filled with joy. It feels like a gift of love and devotion. I haven’t earned it. It feels like a love I will not lose despite the fact I mostly don't think about it until it happens. Here's how it happens...I'll come home from work and there will be a box sitting next to the mailbox. Not a big box, about the size of the container of blueberries you buy at Costco. Plain brown wrapper. Addressed to "Obi-Ron" (a reminder that I once dressed up as Obi-Wan Kenobi for the kids Halloween carnival at church. I still have my Light Saber. And now a personalized license plate!).Inside this box? Halloween cookies. Homemade, in the shape of Jack-O-Lanterns, frosted to create smiling happy faces. Chocolate cookies. Orange frosting. They taste wonderful. And that’s it.We Christians talk a lot about the Grace of God and I'm often asked by non-Christians what that means. For me it's like that box of Halloween cookies. They always show up on my doorstep, especially when I'm not expecting them. As I said before, I didn't "earn" them. I apparently cannot "lose" them. They are a free gift, a gift of love.One of the core faith claims Christianity makes is that there not only is a God who creates and sustains all things, but God does all of this out of love. In fact, our scriptures say that God IS love. Unfortunately, and all too often God's gift of love is turned into an object of manipulation, creating a climate of judgment, fear and exclusivity.What I mean by this is we can take the free gift of love God gives and turn it into a kind of commodity, a thing that can be meted out to those who fit the mold, follow the rules, do not stray. In a recent polling of people 18-35 years old it was discovered that the top three words this demographic group used to describe Christianity were judgmental, hypocritical and old fashioned. Those words do not describe the Christians I know. But it does describe Christians I have encountered.Please don't misunderstand. I know there are rules we must live by, rules—commandments really—that Jesus issued. And the number one commandment is to love. Not to judge. To love. In fact, Christianity claims God's ultimate judgment is a judgment of love. I mean, even as the soldiers were nailing nails into Jesus' hands he was asking God to forgive them. (Luke 24:32-34) The Apostle Paul wrote that even while we were still enemies of God, God reconciled us to him. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)Which brings me back to that box of Halloween cookies.I'll bet there are Christians who will question and even condemn the fact I have used Halloween as a means of describing God's grace. Ok. I get that. But, really?!They are cookies. Lovingly made and shared with no expectation of a response in kind. Wonderful, homemade cookies. Gifts from the heart.Isn't that what grace is all about?But, you might wonder, is there a catch? I guess you could say there is a catch of sorts. But only if your choose to be caught. Once you become aware of this grace, this unmerited gift of love for you, a gift you didn't ask for, a gift you will never lose...What kind of response will you make in return?
I feel like everything I read or hear on the news is negative. So much suffering in the world. A few are making out really well, while many suffer. Our political leaders stuck in their own partisan ruts, thinking only of what is in it for them and their tribe. Families torn apart. People left to live in fear. I have to remind myself of the Apostle Paul’s words almost daily, that, ““suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)“But,” you might ask, “how can I deal with the suffering in the world?” Good question. Is there anything we can do to help us, to remind us that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produced hope, and hope does not disappoint? I can only answer the question by sharing what helps me.There is a picture in my office that is part of a gift from the congregation I served in San Luis Obispo from 2001-2006. The inscription that goes with the picture says, Pastor Ron, Thank you for responding to God’s call by so graciously sharing your gifts of word, music, prophecy, teaching, and pastoral care with us during this, our time together...”The picture is of a single red rose seemingly growing out of nowhere. This is the story of that rose.I began my appointment as pastor of the United Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo on July 1, 2001. I received the assignment call from my Bishop in March of that year. So, prior to my appointment, I met some of the leadership on Palm Sunday, which was in April. They showed me around the church grounds, the church campus.The following Sunday, Easter Sunday, I received a call from one of their church leaders around 6:30 a.m. The news was not good. An arsonist had broken into the Sanctuary earlier that morning and set it ablaze. The fire destroyed the entire Sanctuary and fellowship hall. And, so, I began my time as pastor of this congregation in the aftermath of this devastating attack.We were a church family without a home.A crew came in and cleared the debris from the area leaving bare ground covered with a wood chip ground cover. It became a constant reminder of our loss. Occasionally I would walk up to the empty lot where the Sanctuary once stood. And I would wonder. What is in store for us?One of those such days I walked up to the empty lot and something caught my eye. I couldn’t quite make out what is was. It was pretty small, but the color looked out of place. As I got closer to the thing I realized it was a flower, a red rose, not just any old red rose, but a perfectly beautiful red rose.Growing out of nowhere. I took a picture of it. It is the picture in the gift the people of San Luis Obispo gave me.It was as if God spoke to all of us through that rose, saying, “I’ll have the last word here. I am the Lord of all creation. I am the Lord of life. I love you and will never abandon you. This is my sign, a life giving sign. Don’t ever forget this.”We rebuilt a beautiful new church home, serving the community in so many ways, bringing God’s love into places where love is missing. I look at that picture and remember. Out of suffering came hope. Because of our endurance. That created character.And hope did not disappoint.
When I was a seminarian waiting for my ordination interview one of my classmates, Tom, came to sit with me. I was called into the interview and was told I was being recommended for ordination. Filled with a sense of great joy mixed with relief I seemed to float out of the room to break the good news to Tom.He gave me a big hug, said something like, “Was there ever any doubt!?” And handed me a gift. It was a framed print by Sister Madaleva, a well known artist and nun. It was a cross and quote from Saint Francis.The quote was, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words.”If necessary use words. The phrase caught my attention. After all, I am a man of words, a preacher and teacher.Words are important. Words are powerful. They can inspire and encourage. They can tear down and wound. Imagine how we would communicate if we didn’t have language. The first book of the Bible says God worded creation into being. Light! Day! Night! Plants and animals! Humans! And so on. The Gospel of John says that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, a human that is the divine word of creation.So maybe Francis has a point. In fact, the Apostle James makes the same point in a different way when he charges us to be “doers of the word” and not just “hearers.” James goes so far as to say if we only hear the word, but do not put it into action, we haven’t really heard the word at all. There is a modern colloquialism that says it well.Walk the talk.There is a lot of talk going on in our daily living. “Talking heads” is a fitting description. Pushing different agendas, different interpretations, different opinions, different options. But where is the walk? It seems to me many folks are putting a lot of faith in some people’s words without checking out whether the words are matched by the walk.Jesus walked. And THEN he talked. And most of the time he spoke in response to those who questioned everything he did. Why? Because what he did was a direct challenge to those in power who were using that power to their own advantage, and at the expense of those not in power.And here we are, two thousand years later, facing the same inhumane conditions. You might think that if the followers of Jesus really walked the talk we would be living in a much different world. A world where those in power acted with compassion, and in the best interest of all concerned.Where we act as good neighbors.In response to a question about the greatest commandment, challenging him once again, Jesus told a story that we know as the story of the Good Samaritan. Stunned by the conclusion of the story the questioner answered Jesus’ question, “Which one was the good neighbor?” by saying, “The one who showed compassion.”Compassion is at the heart of Christian faith. Jesus describes compassion throughout his ministry, both in what he did, his walk, and what he said, his talk. And his focus was primarily on the needs of the poor and oppressed. So why is the church so silent on the needs of the poor and oppressed? Why is the focus more on the rich and powerful? Ultimately we will all be judged more by what we do than what we say. And rightly so. As a Christian I must take Francis’ words to heart.Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words.
Politics. Mostly yelling. Deep divisions. Both sides challenging the other. Polarization. Which lead to paralysis. And nothing gets done. Jesus actually lived in a similar time. But he challenged people to practice a different kind of politics.A politics of compassion.The challenge of living compassionately is embedded in the Shema, the ancient Jewish command to love God with everything we have, to love our neighbors, as we love ourselves. It was the answer Jesus gave to the Scribe who had asked what the greatest commandment was. And Jesus went so far as to say the Whole Law and the Prophets rested on that command.So, what does a politics of compassion look like? One of my seminary professors, Dr. Frank Rogers, described it this way.Rabbi Lea Rosen and her lesbian partner recently had moved into a town where Lea was to be the new Rabbi for the Temple there. They moved into a home that was kitty corner from Jack, an angry kind of person who, it became clear, was very anti marriage equality.One day Lea came out to her car to find a flyer attached to the car’s windshield by a huge stone, one that could easily shatter the windshield. The flyer said, “Anti Marriage Equality Rally this Saturday at the Park at Noon” and scribbled on the flyer was a note to Lea that said, “I dare you to try and stop us!”Rabbi Lea was shaken, and for the first time felt physically threatened. Her first thought, one many of us might have in a moment like this was to fight back. To threaten back.But she knew deep in her heart that that kind of response would not change anything. So she and her partner prayed. And listened. And then Lea acted.She wanted to know more about Jack, what his story was. Jack was a Catholic, a Deacon in the local parish.He also thought himself the “best chili maker in the whole state!” Jack was also active in the work of the animal shelter.Lea came up with an idea. She got all of her friends together and planned a Chili Cook-off for the Saturday of the marriage equality protest. The proceeds from the cook-off would go to the animal shelter. Saturday came and the two groups, the protester and the chili cookers, came to the park.Now, the chili cookers were having such a great time that the protesters really wanted to join them. Lea went over and invited Jack to join them saying, “I understand you are the best chili maker in the town,” to which Jack replied, “in the whole state!”Lea continued, “I wonder then, maybe you could come over and taste some of the chili and give your opinion.” Reluctantly, Jack went.To make a long story short, Jack and Lea, over the course of the next year, became friends.One day at the coffee shop Jack asked Lea how she knew she was a lesbian. She shared her story, and then asked if Jack had ever known a gay person. “My younger brother was gay,” he answered. “He had AIDS, and when he told our parents they ostracized him. The church ostracized him. He went to another town where he died alone. That was ten years ago.”“In my tradition, when someone dies, we say a Kaddish for him. I would be honored to say a Kaddish, our prayers for the dead, for your brother. Would you join me.”So Jack joined Rabbi Lea in the Temple, and, together, they said the prayers for Jack’s brother. And a wound from long ago began to heal. Two people, once politically opposed, shared their humanity.The politics of compassion.
In the 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus addresses the crowd concerning the actions of the church leaders. He tells the people that the church leaders do not practice what they preach, and then goes on the speak directly to the church leaders.‘Woe to you hypocrites!” Says Jesus. More than once. It is the focus of the entire chapter.As a church leader, a pastor, I must take this chapter to heart. We pastors all have to. Anyone in church leadership has to.Because the hypocrisy Jesus addresses in Chapter 23 is a problem still today.Many of you know I am a Notre Dame fan. I was in graduate school there in the early 80’s, in their Summer Sessions, studying liturgy. If you have ever watched a Notre Dame football game you might have seen the players leave the locker room for the field and touch a sign that says “Play like a Champion Today.”Well, a few Christmases ago Sara gave me a gift that hangs in my office. It is the same sign design the players touch as they head out to play. Except mine says “Pastor like a Champion Today.”I share this because I need to be reminded of the work to which God has called me. And this reminder—that I’m called to be a champion—is one we all need to be reminded of. We are all called to be champions. Every one of us.‘What kind of champion?” you ask.Each of us has to decide that, but as one who has committed to follow the teachings of Jesus my decision is already made. It comes down to three things, three biblical mandates that I call the Great Requirement, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission.You can find the Great Requirement in Micah 6:6-8. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.God’s sense of justice is not punitive. It is restorative. It is about making things right through Jesus’ death, a death that reveals the stupidity of thinking violence is the way to peace, or that death is the ultimate power in the universe. Justice is about healing and restoration to wholeness.Kindness is about doing no harm, acting with compassion, putting others above self interest. Walking with God, humbly, is a proper response to knowing God loves us, and we cannot earn that love, or lose that love.The Great Commandment is in John 13:34-35. Love one another. Here’s the part some miss. As Jesus has loved us, so we, too, must love one another. As Jesus loved us.The Great Commission is found at the end of each Gospel. Matthew 28:19-20 says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father. Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.Some interpret this passage as a means to denigrate other faiths. And in doing so they are violating the very command to love one another Jesus gave them. They are the hypocrites Jesus talked about in Matthew 23. If that is not convincing, try Matthew 5:44. (He says to love even our enemies there)A requirement. A commandment, and a commission. Not the Great Suggestions, or the Great If You Have Time. In the end, and I’ve said this on many occasions, they are easy to do. But—they are also easy not to do. That is why I know I need a reminder. That is why I have to make the choice to follow the teachings of Jesus every day. And you?Be a champion today.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men..." John Dalberg-Acton, in a letter dated1887
Two recent news events have rocked Christianity. Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willowcreek Church a 25,000 member church near Chicago, Illinois, was accused by several women of sexual harassment, leading to an early retirement for Pastor Hybels and the resignation of the entire Willowcreek Board of Elders as well as the two Senior Pastors.
Two days ago a Grand Jury in Pennsylvania revealed that hundreds of Roman Catholic Priests had engaged in various forms of sexual assault and harassment that had been covered up for decades.
In past reflections I have written about how non-Christians view Christians, and the views aren’t very positive. But those views are from the outside, and Christians could more easily dismiss them as unfounded.
But now it is Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, who are questioning their belief, and trust, in the church.
This sobering news must not be a time of denial, nor must it be a time of defensiveness. The fact is there have always been improprieties among clergy, both Catholic and Protestant.
Unfortunately it is easy to see how all of this can happen. From my perspective as a pastor I have, no matter where I have been appointed to serve, been welcomed and trusted. From the very beginning. Without question. Without having to earn that trust. Sure, trust can be lost over time, but from the beginning there is an unquestioning trust by the church for its clergy.
That has always been a profound awareness for me, one that I challenges me every day to be worthy of such trust. I haven’t always hit the mark. I have always tried. And, for the most part, whenever I have come up short I have asked forgiveness, acknowledging my failure.
And I am forever grateful for a merciful God who taught us that forgiveness is the ultimate act of love.
So what are we to do? How, you might ask, do we go about recovering (or maybe achieving for the first time) authentic communities of faith? Especially as we acknowledge that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?
I was taught, and try every day to live by three rules, simple rules. They come from an Anglican Priest named John Wesley who lived in the 18th Century. He started a reform movement in Great Britain that led to the birth of the Methodist Church.
The first rule is Do No Harm. That’s it. Do no harm. To anyone or anything. Imagine what it would be like if we all lived by that rule alone. How about this: We live by this rule while on Facebook or Twitter.
The second rule is Do Good. It’s been attributed to Wesley that he said,
“Do all the good you can, in all places you can, in all ways that you can, to all people you can, at all times you can, a long as ever you can.”
The third rule is Stay in Love With God. People in love do loving things. Jesus said to love one another. Loving God creates moral character, care and concern for our neighbor, sustains us in times of trouble, moves us from despair to hope. Studying scripture, acts of service, worship, community, and fasting are all a part of loving God.
Yes, I said fasting. Prayer and fasting. Think of all the ways we can take a deep breath and disengage. There are so many ways one can fast. We can fast from TV, or all things electronic. Fast by disengaging from work and spending more time with those we love.
Three simple rules. They’re what I try to live by. How about you?
I wonder why we Christians can be so inflexible at times. Not that other religions don’t do the same. But for us Christians it is especially, what’s the word, ironic that we are so. I say ironic because we claim to believe in the ongoing redemptive work of God through Jesus, empowered by the Spirit as the Body of Christ. I know. That is a mouthful. Put simply, we Christians are carrying out the mission of building God’s kingdom, begun by Jesus but not completed yet. By the work of the Spirit we affirm that we are now the Body of Christ, the physical presence of Christ in the world, doing that work.That is the core of Christian belief outlined in the New Testament.Now it is no other than the Apostle Paul who reminded us that a body is one, but has many parts. The feet don’t tell the hands they are not necessary, or the ears tell the eyes they are not important. So how did we get to a point where the Body of Christ is so dysfunctional that we are seen by most people as “judgmental, hypocritical, and old fashioned?” (unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, and Why it Matters)I’m sure there are lots of reasons. I believe there is a process that leads to it, but also provides us with a way out of it. I call them the Four “R’s.”Christian belief begins with the personal experience of Jesus, dead and risen from the dead. How do we know this is true? It has been revealed to us by God the Creator. All of our experience begins with God’s revelation. God is the first actor. We love because God first loved us. We act in response to God’s actions.Revelation and Response, the first two “R’s” are essential to a healthy faith. The third “R” is that after we have responded to God’s revelation, whatever it might be, we pause at some point and reflect on it all. We reflect for two reasons. First we have the need to unpack what took place, to make sense of it, and second, to figure out a way to explain it to someone else.You see, our response is always spontaneous. We don’t think about it and then respond. We just respond. We respond with movements, words, songs, and actions filled with gratitude. They are often joyous, and can also bring us to our knees. They can be profound responses that bring us to tears, tears of unexplainable joy and peace.That is why reflection is important. It helps us attain a deeper understanding, a deeper meaning that can be shared. It also helps us recognize that we are not the only ones who are having these experiences! We are not alone!Our shared stories form us into community. Family. One Body.But then, and history bears this out, we add the fourth “R.” We make rules. In church language we call them rubrics. Rubric is a Latin word that means red which actually indicates the color of the instructions (rules) to follow in worship and, by extension, life. I believe the problem is, that over time, the rubrics have become the most important of the four “R’s.” And that’s a shame. Worse than that, our inflexibility actually leads to violence. In God’s name. Physical. Verbal. Judgmental. Violence.Rubrics have their place, I know. We need rules. But if they supersede God’s ongoing revelation haven’t we become the “Pharisees” of the 21st Century?We can be better than that. We must be.