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Comfort in Our Anxiety.

December 7, 2018 - 12:25pm

We have seen all sorts of really traumatic and difficult things over this past year and it would not be difficult to become anxious and depressed. Yet we have also seen things that encourage and bring hope such as the rescue of the soccer team boys in Thailand. So as the stress and hectic rush leading to Christmas begins to overwhelm us, we are reminded in scripture not to be anxious. The Apostle Paul tells us not to be anxious—not to worry—about anything. But we tend to be people who worry about everything.
We worry about what will happen if someone doesn’t show up for the big family Christmas dinner (and also about what might happen if they do!). We worry about getting into the right school or university and about the financial aid package coming through. We worry about the cancer coming back and about our company being bought out. We worry about the security of our jobs and the safety of our kids. The congregation I serve has had a difficult year with the death of a number of deeply faithful and involved members who had been part of the fellowship for 30 to 40 years and the distraction of problems with the local Council. I would not be surprised if a number of our members were worried about what the future will bring and how long we can last as an entity despite over 150 years of life as a congregation.
With so much to worry about, how is it that St Paul of Tarsus can tell us not to worry and not to be anxious? When Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in his Nazi prison cell, he penned a poem that included these words to the effect that we fearlessly wait, come what may, because God is with us on every new day. St Paul, writing to the church in Philippi from his own prison cell, says something similar. Why is it that we need not be anxious or afraid? Is it because whatever we are worried about is really “no big deal”? Or because God guarantees that everything will turn out for the best? Or even because God won’t give us any more hardship or pain than we can handle?

No. St Paul says that we need not be anxious or afraid because “the Lord is near.” That is the good news to which everything else in this text is tethered. “The Lord (our God) is near,” even while we wait for him to come in all his fullness. In fact, St Paul says, he is as close as a prayer. And when God’s children take their worries and anxieties to the Lord in prayer, he will exchange their anxiety for his peace and calm their worried hearts with his love.
The sight of a mother cradling a squirming child in her arms and singing lullabies over him until he finally goes limp may be one of the sweetest and most serene things we can witness in this life. It’s a scene as old as time, and perhaps it is what the prophet Zephaniah had in mind when he wrote one of the final (and most famous!) verses of his book: “The LORD your God is in your midst …. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). When heard in the context of the other lectionary passages for the Third Sunday of Advent, God’s often anxious and worried children can receive these words as an invitation to climb into the lap of their heavenly parent so that our heavenly parent might sooth them with the songs of his love and care.
Then, having heard these songs, they might offer him one of their own, perhaps borrowing words from the prophet Isaiah: “God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). While the Apostle Paul seems to be doing everything, he can to free us from anxiety, John the Baptist seems to be doing everything he can to create anxiety in us. John’s words are so full of alarm, he seems so determined to set us on edge. For John, the news that “the Lord is near” is not only a promise that ought to comfort the afflicted. It is also a promise that ought to afflict the comfortable!

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Full of Emergency!

November 30, 2018 - 7:03am

Well I am early this week with my blog and I could say I am so excited as we begin the season of Advent on Sunday. A Sunday when we remember to find hope and not to get swamped by a world that seems Full of Emergency! But I have to be honest and say that the excitement of preparing for God's entry into the world hasn't quite gripped me yet and I have still to build up my feelings of hope. I am early simply because I have time and doing the blog now means I will hopefully get rest earlier on a Friday night.

But back to this weeks reading from Luke on this first Sunday of Advent. The events Jesus describes in Luke 21 would be enough to make even the bravest souls run for cover. This chapter is “full of emergency …. it’s a whole drum roll of disaster.”  Seas surge. Planets shake. The earth groans and threatens to come undone. The world Jesus describes is full of events both terrible and terrifying. In other words, the world Jesus describes is not unlike our own. Wars? We’ve got those. Persecutions? Yes. Leaders kowtowing to vested interest of a few? Sure. Leaders who lie and cheat so that those who are poor and struggling become poorer?  Yes, they exist. Greed and Abuse that destroy innocence? We have them.         We’ve got all those and many locally here in Australia. Natural disasters? Yes certainly as we fail to deal with the reality of Climate Change. Why only in the last 2 weeks there has been flooding and storms in both Australia and Aotearoa (NZ) and fire storms in California and Queensland here in Australia. Have you visited News websites lately? Jesus’s predictions seem to be ripped right from the latest headlines. Are these terrible events a sign that the end is indeed near? Are they an indication that Jesus might come, in all his power and glory, next Tuesday afternoon? Perhaps. But perhaps such speculation misses the point. Perhaps the point is that it always feels like the end of the world somewhere. That somewhere might be in a Bola-stricken village in Africa or in the bombed-out streets of the Middle East.
But that somewhere might also be in the heart of the person in the pew who was laid off last week, or who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or who is facing their first Christmas alone. All these things can feel like the end of the world and can make us want to run for cover, to cower in a corner and quiver with fear. Yet Jesus insists that we need not be afraid. Instead, when things seem to be going from bad to worse to worse again, Jesus invites us to stand tall, to lift up our heads, and to strain our eyes toward the horizon because it is precisely at such desperate moments that he promises to come.

He may not come to us today as he will one day—riding on the clouds, with all his power and glory on full display. But he will be there by his Spirit, he still promises to come. And that is good news for today—even if the world does not end tomorrow! Sometimes we struggle to see this possibility in the depths of the problems of our lives. Often, we find it difficult as humans to believe and find the patience to await and be prepared for the promise to be fulfilled.
Patience may be a virtue. But it is not one most of us want to cultivate. Instead, we download apps on our phones that let us skip the line at the coffee place that is “in” at the moment, pay for subscriptions with on-line companies that entitle us to quick delivery of our latest purchases, and spend our Friday nights watching whatever is available on Netflix Instant. We do not like to wait for coffee or a slow Internet connection. And we do not like to wait for God. We do not want to be patient and I am on that list at times. Like many, I want my phone connection to be working right now, my lunch in five minutes not fifteen. I often have to be reminded or remind myself about patience.

As one Anne Lamott observes, believing in God is easy. It is waiting on God that is hard.  Psalm 25 and Jeremiah 33 come as encouragement to those who are tired of waiting for God and who may be ready to give up. These texts from this week’s scriptures set for reading assure us that the one for whom we wait is faithful. Because he kept the promise he made through the prophet Jeremiah in Christ’s first advent, we can trust that he has not forgotten us, but will remember us according to his unfailing love.
Someone I read but can’t remember the name of once wrote that the greatest challenge for people who believe in Christ’s second coming is to live the sort of life that reflects God’s call and Jesus’ example. It means that people will observe and say, so that’s how people are going to live when Gods call and example in Jesus takes over our world.  God’s people are called to act with love grace and righteousness. We are then assured that all such a life is not ultimately a result of our own striving but is the gift of the one who makes us “blameless in the sort of life that reveals God’s call to us. God would enable us to see a picture of holiness with a promise to “increase and enrich [our] love.” Such behaviour would be a sign to all that we are able to be  lead into paths that are “loving and faithful.”

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Things Are Not How They Appear.

November 23, 2018 - 12:39pm

“Is Jesus really the king?” It was Pilate’s question in John 18. But it is ours too. In a world that seems to be constantly falling apart (despite Psalm 93’s insistence that the King of kings has set it firmly in its place), it can be hard to believe that Jesus is really the king. Yet our faith tells us he is. But as Jesus reminds us in John 18, he is a different kind of king. Sometimes, he chooses to clothe himself in weakness instead of strength. As we read in the Psalms from our scriptures sometimes, he robes himself in meekness instead of majesty. Sometimes, he comes as the king of the cross instead of the king of glory.
Australians it seems are like North Americans in that they seem quick to blame their politicians when things go wrong but slow to give them credit when things go right. Although I must admit in recent times it is harder to find the things that are going right. King David it seems knew better and he uses soaring poetry to celebrate the difference a good king can make and to declare that another king (an even greater king than him!) is coming. David declares that it will happen. And thanks be to God, we Christians have faith that in Jesus Christ, it has.
I read somewhere that some years ago in the USA the company, Allstate Insurance ran a popular advertising campaign featuring a character named “Mayhem.” In each ad, Mayhem takes on a new form (a satellite dish, a texting teenager, or a poorly secured Christmas tree) to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. After each incident, an ominous voice says, “Mayhem is everywhere. . . are you in good hands?” In a world full of mayhem, those Christians who come into worship this week may be wondering if they are in good hands. We hope that they may leave with the assurance that they are because Jesus is king.
As we think and reflect upon Kings and kingship I am reminded that there is a scene in The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy and her friends have finally gained an audience with the legendary Wizard. Smoke fills the air, his voice booms around them, and the four friends quake with fear—until Dorothy’s little dog Toto slips away, pulls back a curtain, and exposes the real Oz. That is when Dorothy and her friends discover that things are not how they first appeared. The great and powerful Oz is not so great and powerful after all.
Something similar happens in our scripture from Revelation 1 this week. Only this time, when the curtain is pulled back, the situation is reversed. With an oppressive emperor sitting on the throne in Rome and persecution breaking out all around them, John’s congregations may well have wondered if Jesus Christ was so great and powerful after all. It is chaos, not Jesus that appears to rule their world. Yet Revelation 1 insists that things are not how they appear. When the curtain is pulled back, Jesus Christ is not only revealed to be the one who will be the ruler of the kings of the earth.
No. He is spoken of as the one who is the ruler of the kings of the earth. Despite how things may first appear, his power and reign are seen as a present reality. John the writer of Revelation’s drives this point home when he twice insists that the Lord God is the one who is and was and will be (if you read Revelations 1 note how John breaks the expected sequence of past/present/future in order to place the present tense in the emphatic position). The “isness” of God’s presence and Christ’s reign are what the church celebrates on this Christ the King Sunday. Yes, we use the image that someday every eye will see him coming on the clouds. But those who have the eyes of faith can see that God is with us—today. So those of faith then say that Jesus is king—today. So he deserves our worship and allegiance—today.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs


November 16, 2018 - 8:44pm

When we woke up this morning, many of us stepped into a world of expectations. This was not a conscious decision; it's just where we live, in a land where life is so good we have the luxury of taking many things for granted. The air conditioning stayed on, so we could awake to a comfortable room temperature; and if it was dark when we awoke, we reached for a light switch, so the invisible dangers could be revealed. Then we walked into a room with running water inside the house. On a Sunday some of you will be even listening to my voice over the sound system you expected and hoped to work so you could hear me when I turned the switch on. However this Sunday will be different in that we are in Melbourne but the expectations are still there.

So many things we expect in life we just take for granted until something doesn't work. The alarm doesn't go off. It's hot in the house. The light switch is non-responsive. We panic for a minute. We get frustrated. Then we think, "This is not how my day is supposed to be. My life is supposed to play out in such a way that I have all that I need to be comfortable. However, this morning, somebody or something flipped the script. And now I have no power when I'm supposed to have power."
Most of the rest of our world plays out a very different script; a minor power outage is disappointing. Outside of our country or outside of our neighbourhood there are problems and concerns many of us can't even begin to comprehend. There are illnesses that can't be treated, people dying in need of food, political and civil unrest, and overt exploitation and abuse of humanity and nature. A power outage in most of the world is a good day. Yet many of us see the discomfort and shock of power outages in this country, natural disasters like hurricanes and weather-pattern changes, wars in places where wars have been waged since the beginning of recorded history, and some of us interpret these events as "the sign of the times."

Where we live, 'be alert' became more a catch-cry in the 'war against terror' or a tool in the weaponry of road-safety campaigners, than an issue of spiritual 'safety'. What kinds of spheres do we need to be alert in where we live? What do we expect our world to be like in such an environment? One field in which we certainly need to remain spiritually alert and informed about our expectations is in the face of the multitudinous cranks out there, peddling extremist, fundamentalist versions of what Jesus is on about.
Not just in what we consider 'extremist' churches, but within mainline ones these days. The recent debates and news about abuse issues and about same gender acknowledgement are some examples. It can happen!
It doesn’t just happen out there somewhere but can happen right here amongst one’s own community.  How can we live in our time and God's time at the same time, in the world and in the church as Christ's Body, and do it free from fear? 'Perfect love casts out fear' says John. Persecution of Christians these days in some of our societies is just as likely to come from fundamentalist protestant or catholic factions within churches more than from outside.

Those out there in the wide margins can still persecute and the possibility is growing within in some quarters. The places where misguided people try to draw in church margins tightly round fellow Christians. Isn't it ironic that that's the way Jesus' warnings may be fulfilled today? That Jesus speaks of wars, earthquakes, and famines, as 'the beginning of birth-pangs' could be a helpful way of exploring the pains that our world still - as always - labours under. We have become very comfortable with the expectation that all will remain the same or get better. I really wonder where our focus might be. Is it in the expectation of all the comforts being there and available all the time?
On the other hand, is it on where God calls us to be and is it on the most important thing of God’s great love for us. What do we really have to bear to bring something worthwhile to birth? Have we even thought about it? Have we thought about what it is we are meant to be doing here and now?  As distinct from theological philosophising, what practical and constructive steps must we take to 'endure to the end'? I will leave you with some more questions to ponder over the next weeks before our focus is taken to shops and parties and gifts and all the other trappings of our western Christmas lifestyle.
Are we as Christians or even those outside the faith listening for what we say and working out how we act in love as we face those whom we meet day to day? And what is this end that Jesus talks about? Whom, is the end for and is it important? Is the Christian call to be working to enable God’s kingdom to be here and now in his love the most important thing? Is this scripture passage too close to the bone?

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Societies Fringe Dwellers.

November 9, 2018 - 12:53pm

Often, something positive eventually comes from a disaster. This does not mean that the disaster was God’s way of achieving the positive. The birth of David results from Ruth’s union with Boaz (encouraged by Naomi), but the biblical events preceding that— Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s incest with his daughters, the famine and death of Naomi’s family— are not God’s preferred method of bringing grace into the world.
If we look at Divorce despite it not being ideal and not what God wants for us it is necessary because of our choices and mistakes. The way God calls us to live as shown in the life of Jesus seems so perfect, yet we are forgiven as we struggle to live in a holy way. Out of divorce can come positive things as we evaluate our own mistakes in the relationship and work towards not making them again. Out of the pain can come positive growth that enables the person going through divorce to be much more fully present and available in their following relationships including maybe a new partner.
One of the first widow’s I ever understood to be a widow was young. She was someone I had known in the community and her husband died of a heart attack while playing basketball. He was twenty-nine. Suddenly, the notion of widowhood became clear to me. It was not that a woman simply outlived her husband, but that there was a blank space at the table, an empty side of the bed, a phone number that goes unanswered, conversations that become one-sided. Widows and widowers of all ages and circumstances frequently surround us. And we forget their status.

We forget that they are among those considered most vulnerable and most wise in Scripture. We forget that God’s heart is with them. It is critical to remember that her beloved, deceased partner may not have been a saint, but she will still grieve. That the person still living is still thinking of their loved one, even if you are afraid to bring up the subject. That she may grow accustomed to her new state, but never stop missing the ones who rest in light. Being widowed, being left out of partnership, should not mean being left out of community.
Let not the community of God forsake those who mourn. It is not enough to say God is with them. We are to be the hands, words, and consolation of the Spirit with widows, orphans, and strangers. Throughout his ministry, Jesus called to attention those on the margins of society, those who had previously gone unnoticed, the poor, the blind, the lame, the beggars, the lepers, military personnel, and widows. It’s a reminder particularly as many of us in Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) will be marking Armistice or Remembrance Day which falls this Sunday. These are the same people we find on the margins of our societies today. Those who still are excluded, those whom society looks down on or simply ignores. A widow, living in poverty created by the institution charged with her care. An aged person placed in a Home as there is no one to manage things for them or even visit them.
This gospel reading from Mark 12 that continues today doesn’t seem like good news: A widow giving her all to a corrupt institution, an institution that fails to care for her as it is supposed to do. But she gives anyway. And Jesus commends her giving. He commends her and condemns the system. Jesus holds her up as an example of how small but significant acts can break down a cycle of injustice and corruption.
In the culture of Jesus, widows were non-people. Without a man to support or validate them in society, they were non-beings. Vulnerable and invalid, it was easy not to see them. It is easy not to see the people on our streets living without shelter, food or clothing. It’s easy not see the desperation of the refugees trying to reach countries where they might be better off. It’s easy to blame the poor, the immigrants, the refugees, the disabled and many others who are suffering. Yet, Jesus not only notices widows on many occasions during his ministry, in this week’s text, he actually uses a widow to teach trust and reliance on God.
This gospel is not talking to us about a comparative giving table, steering the prosperous to give more. It is encouragement for those who go against the grain, who practice subversion in whatever way they can, even in the face of injustice. Who, by their subversion, make inroads into creating justice and fairness for all God’s people. It doesn’t always take placards and a lot of shouting for trends and policies to be reversed. Persistent, simple subversion also does the trick.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Vain Offerings

November 2, 2018 - 10:29am

In this week’s Gospel reading from Mark 12 Jesus has already argued with the Pharisees and Herodians about paying taxes to Caesar, and with the Sadducees about the concept of resurrection. Now a scribe, overhearing their arguments and judging Jesus to be a smart cookie, poses his question. It's odd that Jesus gives him a straight answer instead of an object lesson (as when he asked for a coin from the Pharisees) or a counter-question. Perhaps he knows the scribe is asking a genuine question and doesn't have a hidden agenda?
In Matthew's version (22:34-40) and in Luke's version (10:25-28), the questioner is a lawyer who is testing Jesus. Mark's scribe seems to be honest. Mark's story is also unusual in that the scribe congratulates Jesus on giving a good answer, and that Jesus responds by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God.". The Pharisees and Sadducees have just been shown up by a lowly scribe! He even gets in a dig at the Sadducees' focus on the temple, "This is much more important than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."
There is something touching in this encounter that offers hope to churches today. Despite those who try to control Jesus, to manipulate or discredit him, there is still hope for the few who come to him with genuine questions.

Have you ever thought about, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?... bring no more vain offerings” means for us as those who seek to live as Jesus did. Let’s try another tack. God is lonely for us. God, our Creator, our very help in time of need, longs for us, for our love, for our prayers for help, for prayers of praise and thanksgiving. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul is often quoted.
Have you ever wondered why God, our heavenly parent who formed us in her own image, longs for the companionship that comes during times of silent prayer and meditation; during times when we talk and laugh out loud with God; when we cry out in sorrow and petition; and yes, even, perhaps most especially, at those times when we scream in anger. These are the presents, the gifts that we can bring to our God who desires no material evidence of our love. What can our high spires, our golden chalices, our "burnt offerings" give to God that God does not already have?
Shall we seek to adorn the throne of the One who, according to Revelation, sits on the golden throne surrounded by worshipping creatures crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy?" Shall we expect to augment the One who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? How redundant that would be. No, these are but window dressing, substitutes for what God really wants from us: “...and the second is like unto it you shall love your neighbor as yourself...” As the prophet Micah reminded us, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God. 

Martin Smith, SSSE, is Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. His book, Co-Creation with God, provides profound insights into the way we view our relationship with our Creator-Parent. Martin's thesis is that God invites and welcomes our co-equal participation in the unfolding of our lives and future. Posing this provocative question, "God, what are we to make of this?" Martin counsels us to allow a partnership to form in which we jointly create our future according to the will of God.
Carter Heyward, feminist theologian at the Episcopal Divinity School and author of numerous books, says, "In the beginning was the relationship." Thus, relating to and with God enriches us and, Martin suggests, enriches the heart of God, also. How can you say that you love God whom you have not seen, when you hate creation and your neighbour whom you have seen?
Another gift that we can present to God is to mirror the love so freely given to us in our relationships of peace, harmony and justice with others in the world. This gift we can bring before God in thanksgiving and praise for God's love. We can allow that love to be a model for all of our earthly relationships. We can understand that God's will for us is that we should love equality, do justice, love our neighbors, those living anywhere in this global village, and walk in humble thanksgiving for the incredible blessings of God's love.
We are to demonstrate fairness in our business dealings, compassion and justice in our encounters with other human beings, see the face of God in both friend and foe, and invite the holy spirit to be present in all dialogues, discussions, and relationships. This is what is called for by the Prophet Isaiah and it stands as a blueprint for how God wishes us to live.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

A Loud Faith

October 26, 2018 - 11:37am

Words are powerful. Words can shape us. Amazingly, words can build us or break us, melt us or meld us. Words sometimes define who we are or prophesy who we will be. Words can demean or insult. “You’ll never amount to anything.” “You’re just lazy.” They can transform us or bring us to our knees. “You have cancer.” “Will you marry me?” “I love you.” “You’re fired.” “I don’t care.” “You have the right to remain silent.” Sometimes words have power because of their volume. Adjusting the volume can affect the impact of just about any word.
If you have been or ever watched a mother who has learned the power of a whispered, “Come here, right now!” I’ve also learned the importance of raising my voice, “young man, a car!” when I sense the wobbly, bicycling six-year-old is in danger. Of course, our body language, tone, and facial expressions all contribute to the power of our words. In Bartimaeus, the blind beggar’s encounter with Jesus, words matter in Mark 10 from our scriptures this week. Because of his blindness, Bartimaeus has to rely on words a more than others. He doesn’t see Jesus coming his way, he just hears about it from others and then he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The response of the crowd is that “many sternly warned him to be quiet. . ..” Sometimes you can sense the power of words by how many “shhhs” trail after those words. Bartimaeus was told to be quiet. Do you know what it’s like to be censored or hushed? Sometimes it happens when you point out an injustice at work or at school or in the church. Sometimes it happens when you finally name the elephant in the room. I’ve seen it happen in committee meetings and Bible studies. I’ve seen it occur in family settings and between married couples.

I remember meeting a person whose sister has a mental disability. In her family, no one talks openly about this reality. I once said to this person, “Why don’t you just bring it up sometime when you are talking to your parents?” They said, “No way, I can’t even imagine saying the words.” This person was silenced by the power of family dynamics before she could even open her mouth.
Where do you feel silenced? At work? Is it on committees such as the parent teacher association or even at church maybe? Is it within your own family? What are the words you can’t even imagine saying? What are the words you can’t even imagine saying above a whisper? Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus and is told by more than one person to be quiet. For most of us that would be all it would take to shut us down. Most of us are quick to read social cues or the emotional climate of our various settings. Most of us will pay attention to facial expressions or watch others to see how to behave.
And, if someone had to actually tell us we were behaving rudely or speaking out inappropriately, they wouldn’t have to tell us more than once before we’d modify our behaviour. If your boss or your teacher or God forbid, even I in my role as a minister told you to be quiet, most of you probably would. Bartimaeus is a little different. He’s a little bolder. Maybe it is the blindness that creates a missed visual cue or two. Maybe it is simply his intense need. Maybe he has matured to the point where he doesn’t care what others think. Whatever it is, when Bartimaeus is silenced, he just turns up the volume and “cried out even more loudly.”
Can you imagine turning up the volume on your faith? Can you imagine turning up the volume when you cry out to God? Can you imagine turning up the volume when others are saying, “Shhh, be quiet?” Can you imagine asking for mercy or sight or healing in the loudest voice you can manage? Bartimaeus turns up the volume because he senses Jesus is near. He cries out and the scripture tells us that Jesus stops in his tracks. “Jesus stood still.” Can you picture that moment with the audio on?

Bartimaeus is told by many to be quiet. He cries out louder and louder until his loud cry of faith causes Jesus to freeze. Then, powerful words are exchanged. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers “My teacher, let me see again.” Bartimaeus speaks and because of his loud faith, healing happens. I wonder what would happen if you and I turned up the volume on our faith a bit? What if you and I cried out to God a little louder?
What if we were sure enough about what we wanted from Jesus that we could shout it out at the top of our lungs? What if having Jesus stop in our midst was more important than pleasing our critics or having good manners or doing what others expected of us? Words are powerful. In the right place, at the right time, spoken loudly enough, words can even stop a saviour and bring healing. It then raises the question of each one of us as to how loud our faith is.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

The Servant

October 19, 2018 - 1:27pm

Once, in a time long past but remembered in stories and recalled by bits of pottery dug up from mounds of earth that experts say were once towns, there lived a servant. This servant, or so he proclaimed himself, had no visible master. This peculiarity disturbed many people who met him. His job, if you could call it a job, was to do the will of his master, who had sent him to serve those whom he met. Exactly when he had become a servant is not agreed upon in the memory of his friends (who were few), though many people flocked to see him at work, doing his master's will.
People came from far and wide to witness the great things that the servant was doing. He himself took no credit for his work, he was, he always said, only serving his master. His master must have been very poor himself, for the servant lived on the land and from gifts that were given to him by the people to whom he was sent to serve. He had no fine clothes, his accent was coarse, and he was not particularly attractive physically. There was no deceit in his words. He spoke only truth. In his presence the sick were healed, the lame walked, the deaf could hear, the dumb could speak. Before him, all evil fled.

Eventually, the servant drew such crowds that the governor of the region and the police were threatened with his presence. The local ministers and boards of the local church found fault with the way he talked about God. Therefore, the two groups, politicians and religious leaders, conspired to have him arrested on false charges and put to death-for the good of the people, of course. The servant was obviously a dangerous man. A wandering servant with no visible means of support and no verifiable master was dangerous to the wealth and wisdom of the world.
The authorities oppressed him at every turn, forcing him to flee for his life, but the servant did not complain. In fact, eventually he let himself be captured, walked into an ambush when he could have fled. Court convened in the middle of the night. The state's witnesses were brought to speak against him. A mob denounced him. He was despised and rejected. Given over to the guards, he was beaten and bruised, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, the humble servant was taken away to his death. In the end he was alone, his master did not come to defend him from death. He died.
The servant died a death reserved for the unrighteous. A rich man donated a grave site for him, a cave dug from the cliff. Some women and the rich man took the servant's body and placed it in the tomb. Then soldiers rolled a large rock into the entrance of the tomb and stood watch to make sure, there was no disturbance or unrest. His few friends deserted the servant and hid behind closed doors in fear of their lives. This is not a very pleasant story, but it is very plausible. The world is cruel to the goodness and selflessness of servant hood. Everyone wants to be a master. Powerful oppressors fear truth and power that is not theirs to control. Not much, hope for servants, at least not much hope for servants of the invisible master (if there are any still walking the earth, or ever were).
However, this story does not end there, and this is the suspicious part, the part that only certain people accept. However, servants of the invisible master, whoever they are, accept it. The story told among the servants is that on the first day of the week some women friends of the servant went to the cave tomb and found it empty. That's not the end of the story either. His friends, hiding out behind locked doors, say that the servant came and stood in their midst and gave them a gift of new life. Others of his friends say that he appeared to them, but they did not recognise him until they sat down and ate together.

His friends say the servant still lives in the hearts of those who will let him into their hearts. They know this because they see the servant at work in women and men who are also willing to let themselves be servants of the invisible master. The living servants find that, still, truth is not always welcome and that power respects power and not servant hood. But in service of the master they find joyful life everlasting and that is worth all that servant hood brings.Once, the servant said to his friends some great words of truth that came quietly, intimately, as secrets are told among friends. The servant also stated that whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all.
Jesus is the servant. God was his invisible master. We, if we choose to be, are the friends through whom the servant still serves all people: the rich, the poor, the outcast, the popular, the illiterate, and the educated--all people. The invitation is always open to let Jesus be a servant to us and through us for the salvation of the world. Even today, the invitation is always open to receive the servant into our hearts so that he may lead us to eternal life.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Can We Let Go?

October 12, 2018 - 12:28pm

We all have heard the saying, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." Many who are Christian have grown up hearing children's sermons or Sunday school lessons that describe the Christian life as a journey to heaven. It's as if heaven is some place "out there," out of our reach or experience, but if we live good lives and are not bad boys and girls, when we die we will go to heaven. The man in the scripture from Mark 10 is not talking about going to heaven. He's interested in how to experience eternal life in the here-and-now.
Perhaps in exploring his profound question, we can lay to rest the notion that heaven or eternal life, whichever expression we choose, is a "place" or something outside and unreachable through human experience. We are all conditioned by our environment. What have we kept since we were little children? As adults, we bring our histories, circumstances, and experiences with us. Our outlook on life is tied to this conditioning. Parents, teachers, friends, neighbours, work associates, and enemies have all contributed to who we are, what we think, and how we live.
The man in Mark's story (Mark 10:17-31) was also conditioned by such influences. He never murdered anyone, didn't run around on his wife, never stole anything from anybody, never told a lie, had not defrauded anyone, and had honoured his parents. This man could be described as the preeminent community example of integrity. But there was one thing in his life that had taken complete hold of him—his possessions.

I am persuaded that Jesus never talked about "going to heaven." He talked about "experiencing heaven." As he said, "The kingdom of heaven is among [or within] you." He never talked about us being good in this life, so we can get to heaven; he talked about heaven in this life. What the man in the story needs to do is what we all need to do— discern and discover how to allow ourselves to be claimed by the love of God. In doing so, we embark on a lifetime journey (now and eternal) of experiencing the goodness of God, the same goodness that claimed Jesus.
We do know that this man had many possessions and in another of the Gospel’s Luke describes him as a ruler which may be significant. As a ruler, he would know what it was to have power over peoples' lives. Who better than this man to understand the power of possessions over one's own life? I believe this man leads us all to Jesus. We all have something that possesses, or rules, and interferes with us living life on God's terms. The man's question is our question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Let's pause and consider why he used the word inherit.

The word inherit in the text is klironómisi in Greek. One of its shades of meaning is "to share in." The man is essentially asking, "What must I do to share in God's blessings?" Jesus tells him that he needs to come to grips with the one thing that keeps him from sharing life on God's terms, namely, his wealth. It is clear from the man's response that he has much work to do. He realises it will be nearly impossible for him to relinquish what he holds dear. It is his barrier to sharing in the blessings of God.
What must you and I do to share in the promise of God's blessings? What areas of our lives need some work so that we may share in God's life, life that is eternal? Based on Jesus' encounter with the man, God understands that we all have something in our lives that rules us. It is no accident that the writer notes Jesus' encounter is based on his compassion toward the man.  
We Christians follow the teachings of the one who completely understands how difficult—but not impossible—it is to rule over those things that would dominate us or rule over us. The person of Jesus shows us how to live such a life. So, what are our "rulers"? What gets in our way of being followers of Jesus' example? What sends us away shocked and grieving because we think we cannot live without them? Is it wealth, our phone, our position or even a prized possession? Each of us must answer this question for ourselves.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Deep Connection.

October 5, 2018 - 2:08pm
"This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," says Adam in the Hebrew Scripture called Genesis. Adam immediately recognises his deep connection to the new human being standing before him, a connection that God has woven deeply into the fabric of their lives. For us in the West today, it's very easy for us to focus only on the individuality of Adam and Eve-the union of a single man and a single woman that the ancient story seems to represent.
And it's easy for us to carry that individualistic notion of marriage into Jesus' teachings about divorce, too. It is still too easy sadly, for us today to take the worst of patriarchy and act as if women were not partners, inferior and of less value than our animals.  This still true often during divorce.  When Jesus talks about the dissolution of marriage in today's Gospel, our cultural and legal perspective tempts us to hear him talking only about a man and woman: two individuals who entered into covenant with each other-and we are tempted to hear that the pain of divorce involves only them, at least for the most part.
But in Jesus' time, marriage and divorce were not just about the man and the woman. They were about two families representing many generations, property, honour, and status. Divorce was not just an individual event; it was a risky break of confidence that could lead to family feuds, shame, and hardship for numerous people. The hardness of heart Jesus speaks of seems not only to point to the potential suffering of the woman, who must return in shame to her family of origin; but it also points to the suffering of two entire families and the greater community.
For those of us today who have lived through the pain of divorce, whether our own or others', this ancient understanding of marriage and divorce seems to ring truer than we might think at first. Even today, marriage and divorce affect many more than just those who sign the forms and enter or dissolve the legal contracts. Eve with the acceptance of same gender relationships and marriage not just one part of the relationship suffers but many of the relationships that are part of the two people’s lives. They often affect parents, friends, and siblings, who sometimes wrestle with the part they played or failed to play in a marriage or relationship that didn't work; and they certainly impact children as their schedules and lives must be forever altered.
Jesus' hard teaching about marriage and divorce, then, isn't just for a man and woman. Likewise, the recognition of Adam when he sees Eve is ultimately is a profound statement about how interconnected the whole human family really is. It is about how divorce, as painfully necessary as it can sometimes be, ultimately tears at the fabric of this human family and affects all of us, and the world around us. And here is where today's teaching about divorce touches our world and our church. Divorce is not just about two people. It's about all of those places where we have become hard of heart and have failed to recognise each other as "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;" places where we tear and unbind, sometimes mercilessly, the ties between us that God made at the foundation of creation.
It's that hardness that we struggle with as we watch the painful realities of conflict in our worlds politics. As we watch people like the US President and our Australian Conservative politicians tear their respective nations apart instead of seeking good for all.  This is important as we reckon with hunger and disease in the world, as wealthy and poor become further divided; as we suffer fear from the cold heartedness that brings war and terrorism to us and to our sisters and brothers abroad; and as we struggle, with abuse that we often heap on the natural world, divorcing ourselves from our deep ties with the natural order and the heritage of a healthy planet we are called by our God to be leaving for our children.
And it is also this hardness that we must be wary of in a time when some in our greater community talk about schism in politics and breaking away. It comes at a time when some in the Uniting Church contemplate divorcing their part of the church as we of the nascent and growing Uniting denomination know it. Of course, the reality is that there will continue to be divorce. And it will be painful. No contract, prenuptial agreement, certificate of dismissal, or any other carefully crafted parting of the ways can get us off that hook.
Jesus holds up that pain to the Pharisees, and to us today as the need and the longing for deep connection that God intends for all of us. It is that hope that we celebrate together when we gather to pray and when we break bread together.  It's a hope that Jesus witnesses to in his life, and that Christ brings to us through the resurrection. And that hope is the good news that runs like a thread through this week’s scripture passages from the three-year lectionary.
We are a family, a community, a people, and a world that suffers from divorce of all kinds. But it is precisely that world that God in Christ enters - and not just with a hope to ultimately end divorce, but with a mission to heal all of us who suffer from it; to heal our hardness of heart, and to help us recognise again that we truly belong to each other, to the world we call home, and we belong ultimately to a God who has, for all eternity, refused to divorce us.
Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Whose Side Are You On?

September 28, 2018 - 1:49pm

We’re coming to the end of that month of the year in which many regions of the country see competition at its highest level. On most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, stadiums and gymnasiums have been filled with the faithful from all walks of life, as their teams compete to bring honour and glory to their respective team or districts. This can bring out both the best and worst in players, onlookers and parents.
Many of you will remember with smiles and nods some of the pranks and tricks pulled due to rivalries between schools, teams or university groups. How many of you still harbour a mascot, jumper or flag in their bottom drawer or out in the garage. Mascots still seem to be popular, but we don’t, like some overseas countries, offer prayer and blessing for our school team, district team or side in the national competition. Games still seem to generate the sort of rivalry that makes opponents though decorate their club rooms or gym.
I wonder if we would go as far as some of the American teams and put up a huge sign that read of such things as “God is on Our Side!” When such banners go up it must bring gasps of surprise. I sometimes wonder what the group’s motivation may have been as God apparently didn’t always play well and teams didn’t always win the contest. This week’s scripture readings reflect a sense of God being on the side of those whose stories are set for this week. In the Hebrew scripture, Esther, when facing the destruction of her people and possibly herself, trusts that her behaviour and faith in God will deliver her and her people from what awaits them.
James in chapter 5 tells us that in facing suffering, illness, or sinfulness, with God on our side, we can be delivered.  In the Mark 9, the disciples wonder if someone not from their circle can indeed do some of the things that they’ve been entrusted to do. In all the readings for this week, it is not so much a matter of whose side God is on, as it is whose side we are on.  James would not have shared with us this powerful mandate for prayer if his faith did not reflect his willingness to be on God’s side. Jesus tells his disciples that we control—or should control—how we live our lives to reflect whether we’re on God’s side.
It is a role or vocation that we seek to take on as the baptised. It is a journey that we are called to support the newly baptised on. To be on God’s side means to have a commitment to go beyond just ourselves and our needs and to open our eyes and ears to God’s leading. To be like Esther, we must love like God, love our fellow human beings and be genuinely concerned about their well-being and safety.
As Jacinda Arden, the New Zealand Prime Minister spoke at the United Nations in this last week, she called for a different world order - one that puts kindness" ahead of isolationism, rejection and racism. Her speech directly challenged the view of the world outlined by the US President. She went on to say that, "We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless 'other', to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism. Or we can acknowledge the problems we have and seek to fix them." I would add we can seek to be on God’s side and seek the goodness in and of all of creation.
Christians are called to have that faith that says our conversations with God are important especially as we seek help, healing and the lifting of discomfort of others. The way Jesus lived his life calls us to help others. Our call involves commitments of deep faith. To care about others begins with a faith that accepts Gods care for us. We are called to pray for others on a regular basis understanding that God hears all prayers. To care about others means that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear the needs of those who are suffering around us. This may involve leaving our comfort zones, our areas of security and familiarity, to travel to those parts of our community where previously we have been afraid to go or have felt unwanted.
This may also involve opening up doors of communication that will reveal hurts and pains for healing. To care about others may involve our confronting ourselves about how we’ve lived to this point. It may mean our having to change from being self-centred to God-centred and other-centred. The faith adventure that Jesus called us to follow can start in the lavish palace of a foreign king, in lush pastures turned to savage battlefields, in the quiet of a prayer room or worship area, or in the comfort and quiet of our own homes. At all these times our God is with us. God promises to continue to be with us. What better adventure can we hope for.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

The Gift of Breath

September 21, 2018 - 1:45pm

In the Hebrew language of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly called the Old Testament, there is a wonderful word, ruach, which can be translated as breath, spirit, or wind. In Genesis 1:1, God's Spirit moves over the face of the watery chaos and brings forth life. In Ezekiel 37, God's Spirit is breathed into the valley of dry bones, and there is life. In the New Testament, the Greek word is pneuma.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, "the wind blows where it chooses" (John 3:8). In John 20, after the Resurrection, Jesus comes to the disciples and breathes on them, and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. . .." And in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, there is a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit. God's Spirit dwells within us, as close to us as our next breath. To live is to breathe. One of the psalmists says, to breathe is to praise God. It is an imperative. Christians and Jewish people believe that we are created for the praise of God.
To breathe in is to receive the grace of God. To breathe out is to offer praise to God with our words and with our lives. We inhale, and we exhale. There is a natural rhythm. In the same way that music has beats and measures, our lives are measured. There is evening and morning, each day measured. There are six days of work and one day of rest, each week measured. Well in a way in today’s world this seems more of a hope than a fact. God has ordered our lives in such a way that we give and receive, work and rest, inhale and exhale. This is God's intention.

However, our human temptation is to live outside God's will for us. We do not live measured lives. We do not live ordered lives. We sometimes live hurried and chaotic lives. Yet this is not God's purpose for us. We were created to receive grace and to offer praise. But at times we forget to praise.
Many of us, even the most sophisticated among us, can become enslaved to destructive patterns of living. Years ago, I read about the experience of a group of world-class climbers who had died on Mount Everest. An interesting comment was made by one of the expert guides in that field. "Most of the people who die climbing Mount Everest," he said, "make it to the top. They die on the way down. They discover, after they have made it, that they do not have enough oxygen to get down the mountain. Or they make bad decisions, critical errors, because of the lack of oxygen." This is a parable of us.
The spiritual life is our oxygen. We may get everything we want in this life and die in the process. Lack of spiritual insight may lead us to choose things that are not really important in place of what is nearest and life-giving to us. What is God's order and design for you? This question is one sadly not thought about often even amongst Christians and other Religions. In worship that is shaped by the Scriptures we begin to understand that praise is an essential experience for God's people. We forget to give thanks for our lives sustained by our very breath. The rhythm that fires who we are and what we are as individuals.
This has a number of practical implications for us. In worship we discover an order and a design for our lives that we ignore at our peril. If our lives are cluttered or overwhelmed, we need to reorient ourselves toward God, who grants each day to us as a gift. Have you ever tried looking at each day as a gift? It’s amazing how that changes one’s perspective in the mornings. I find my grumpiness depleted and a certain joy about facing the day to come.

Also, God wants us to have times of rest, time for renewal, a time of catching our breath. What has happened to that thought. It seems to have disappeared as we have become caught up in bolting food as we rush out the door to catch the train or bus or get into our cars for the slow crawl to work in what is becoming massive car parks that slowly crawl along as our stress levels rise.
In the wholeness of creation there is the rest of God. We were created to praise God. When our hearts and minds and spirits are oriented toward God, we are not so critical of others, not so weighed down by everyday life. I wonder if we are able to stop and pray and imagine that God is speaking to us, each one of us, his beloved. Our God wants us to know that praise is as necessary to us as our next breath and when we worship our God, it is a foretaste of heaven. Add this thought: our God created us to receive and to give.
If you will breathe in and breathe out, you will discover the shape of your life. God did not create us for burnout or the pace of our lives. Our God wants to shape us, mould us, fill you, use us, breathe life into us.  Our God is delighted when we accept the gift of grace and respond with the gift of praise.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

The Teacher’s Achilles Heel

September 14, 2018 - 4:06am
As I prepare to go on Retreat for a few days this morning I have been looking at what our Christian may have to say about teaching especially in the letter of James. The teaching profession has always received mixed reactions and the following comments I make are at times with tongue in cheek. However, Teachers are universally revered while at the same time young people are advised not to become teachers because the salaries are low, and some even denigrate teachers. There is the “truism”: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This same ambivalence is found in the religious world. Theological professors and teachers are often paid ridiculously low salaries and are sometimes ridiculed by their students as being “unable to minister and pastor in a parish.”

This week when James in our scripture from the Letter of James chapter 3, talks about teaching, he is not just talking to any particular group. He is reminding us that all Christians who are baptised have a responsibility for sharing the faith, teaching the faith and living the faith. When a child becomes the newest member of the body of Christ they will, as they grow learn from observing the actions of the community that is present. The newly baptised will learn from observing daily living out of the community’s faith. From those learning’s, they will mature and take their place as each one has done before them and be a light of Christ in this world.
James tells us that most people in the church should avoid teaching because religious teachers will be held to a higher standard by God. Christians are meant to be careful about everything we say and do. James warns those teachers who cannot control their tongues. He goes on to imply that it is the Achilles heel for teachers who speak erroneously. James is quick to admit that all Christians commit sins of the tongue, not only teachers. It’s an assertion that hardly ever receives any argument. James could say with Isaiah the prophet, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Nevertheless, He gives several warnings against allowing one’s tongue to go unregulated.
James likens an unbridled tongue to a ship without a rudder, or a fire that is out of control. James also suggests that there are some areas where one can control one’s tongue. Blessing and cursing should not come from the same mouth. If speaking error is a sin into which we all fall, I wonder why James singles out teachers. He seems to believe that teachers are especially vulnerable to the problem of controlling what comes from their mouth. Teachers use words more frequently than do most people and their vocation has them bear a great burden.
Students hang on to their every word as those growing up in the Church and even outside the church will hang on to the words and take in the actions you show forth in your lives. Remember how important our role is, in sharing the faith and encouraging and supporting others in their faith journey. God will hold teachers and each one of us accountable for what we have taught about our faith and how we have demonstrated that faith in our lives. For ministers and for laypeople that teach and belong in the church, this can be discouraging.
To add to this warning, James says that our words are spiritual indicators. The words that we use indicate what is in our hearts. If our words are not spiritual, then we aren’t spiritual either. This does not mean that James is advocating for a spiritualist vocabulary. On the contrary, he wants our words to be judged by their sincerity. This idea is often ignored in conversations among Christians let alone to those outside the faith. In an attempt to “be spiritual” Christians are tempted to use religious language as a means to impress others. This is the very thing James warns against.
This kind of warning resounds throughout the book of James. He is worried that Christians will say all the right things but fail to do the right things. He argues with those who talk about faith but fail to emphasise deeds that come in reaction to God’s love and grace. The proof of one’s spirituality is not only what you say, but what you do. So, this warning about what you say is important. It is a reminder that words are deeds in the sense that they can help or hurt the person who speaks them and the person who hears them.
One might be tempted to become mute in light of James’s warning concerning the dangers of sinful speech. However, that is not what he recommends.  We are encouraged not to be silent, but we are to use our words wisely. Words can be hurtful, and they can injure at a distance. But words also can be used for good or for evil. The key is in learning how to control our tongues. This means learning to think before we speak. It also means choosing words that do not offend or label. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it important? It obviously is. Look at the current action in our Parliament if you need an example of how not to do it.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Faith and Works

September 7, 2018 - 12:54pm

In his book, “John Wesley for the 21st Century,” John Gooch writes: “All the understandings of “perfect” above have nothing to do with what Wesley meant by perfection. They are “perfectionism's,” the kind of dreams that drive advertising. We’re not going to get that “perfect” body by trying fad diets or achieve complete happiness because we drive a particular kind of car. They are “legalisms,” pushing the idea that if I just try hard enough, I can be perfect.”
Wesley seemed to be following some of the thoughts expounded from our scripture this week which comes from the Letter to James.  He used the words “perfection,” “holiness,” and “sanctification” interchangeably. To him, holiness was not so much an impossible goal to be striving for, but a way of life. In some ways, holiness means, “How we who profess to be Christian live as a Christian in a world where it’s often hard to do that?” In both the early church and in Wesley’s writings, being perfect meant being complete, whole, becoming everything God has put within us to become. This helpful and valid reasoning has come to the surface throughout our Christian History. What it means to me and in some ways to others is that perfection is different for each one of us, because each of us has different gifts and for each of us being complete and whole looks different.
But let’s get back to the idea of riches and how a Christian faces this issue. We are sometimes partial to the rich because we mistakenly assume that riches are a sign of God’s blessing and approval. But God does not promise earthly rewards or riches; in fact, Christ calls us to be ready to suffer for him and give up everything in order to hold on to eternal life. For that means I am to be unattached to the things of this world. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have things of this world for my well-being, it means that I need to view them as gifts for which I am called to use wisely and be a wise steward of.

God does love us and accept us “just as we are.” God does not expect us to measure up to some impossible standard of “righteousness” before God loves us. Maybe if we hold on to the thought that we will have untold riches in eternity if we are faithful in our present life will help us on our journey of faith. Holiness also means we practice doing good works. If spiritual disciplines help us practice our love for God, doing good works help us practice our love for neighbour. We may begin serving meals at the homeless shelter out of a sense of obligation, but if we keep “practicing,” we reach the point where we see homeless persons as children of God and find joy in our relationship with them.
Some further thoughts on James 2:1-17 follow which gives us all food for thought in this age of growing greed, personal gratification for its sake and an extreme individualism. In verse 14 of James 2 it says; “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? A primary test of faith is our attitude toward God’s and the way we are able to listen to his Word and living that in our everyday lives. “Be you doers of the word, and not hearers only.” A person might look at his face in a mirror and see that his face is dirty but do nothing about it.

A second test concerns our attitude toward people and God’s creation. Apparently in those days there was a tendency to focus more attention on the wealthy than the poor. James says we are to have the same respect for all. Every person is an immortal soul and his life is sacred to God. Another test focuses upon our work. “Faith without works is dead.” We are saved by grace, but we express our gratitude by willingly working for our Lord. A most sensitive test is in the manner of our speech. James talks about the power of the tongue. The same mouth ought not to curse God and then try to praise God.
Think about the way in which you live out your Christian life. Do your words and actions inspire others to seek the Lord? If not, what would you have to change for this to happen?  Remember that every day there comes the challenge of the command: Let your light so shine that others may see your good works and glorify -- not you, but --- your loving parent, your God who is in heaven.
That is really the test of a Christian life, whether it does or does not, glorify our God.  If it does then there will shine out of our lives a great radiance, if only the wick of our life is illuminated by the light of Jesus. Then we shall be people who will bring light wherever we go, the light of love, of tender courtesy, of peace.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Living Faithfully

August 31, 2018 - 1:32pm

In this week’s Gospel from Mark 7 we hear of the Pharisees, who in their zeal for Judaism had turned their religion from a means into an end, from an affair of the heart to an outward form of external observance. Jesus was frustrated with the Pharisees, but I don't think he held them in the same contempt that many of us do today. Among the Jews of Jesus time, the Pharisees were the most faithful. Their religious system was designed to release the worship of the true God from the confines of the Temple and make it more accessible to all people in their daily lives.
They wanted to fulfil a prophecy of Jeremiah and that prophecy was a high ideal. I might add, they did their best to fulfil it. So, with the best of intentions, they applied the law to every aspect of life, and most of all, they were scrupulous about honouring the food which they received from God. God had brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and they gratefully took to heart what the Lord commanded them to do in return.
They believed in giving heed to the statutes and ordinances that God taught them to observe, so that they would live well in the land that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, had given them. They believed, you must neither add anything to what I command nor take anything away from it but keep the commandments of the Lord your God. They had accepted the call to observe the commandments diligently, for this would show wisdom and discernment to the peoples. It was believed that, when they heard all the statutes, people would say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!"
But something went terribly wrong. They were not respected as a wise and discerning people. They were treated with contempt, and they suffered under the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus told them that were not fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy, but Isaiah's. "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." When we talk about the Pharisees' problem we do so by making a distinction between law and gospel.
Many Christians believe we are saved by hearing and believing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is a false distinction. The Law and religion are good gifts from God, and both Paul and Jesus affirm that. But like all of God's good gifts they are subject to use or abuse, and they are abused when they're not practiced in the context of love. This is the most important point about the good news that Jesus bought. The good news is that our God is a God of love.
The trouble for the Pharisees was that they used the law to set themselves apart as better than other people and not to depend upon God. The name "Pharisees" means "separated ones." Perhaps the contempt they'd experienced from others led them to be contemptuous in return. The Pharisees had strict hygiene and dietary rules, particularly when it came to what they ate and what was washed. It sounds like today's Christian believers ending up in hell for eating meat with their salad fork.
Yet, if we are seeking to discover a true religion we need to be honest and admit that no matter how hard we try we can't get it right. If we miss the mark often enough, we may fear that we are headed for a bad end. In despair, we may seek reassurance in comparing ourselves to others. That's very thin ice because we can only compare our insides and their outsides.
In that case, the best we can hope for is a dull and formal religion in which we become like Anthony Trollope's Miss Thorne, whose "virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description." Perhaps it's time to think about renewing our covenant with God and setting aside some time to meditate on ways that we can be a more faithful and obedient Christians.
The law and the rules are a gift from God, but they are not meant as an end in themselves. They can be, however, instruments for expressing your love for God. That is the first commandment. Love God with everything you've got. There is, however, another gift, as important as the law, which shapes inward obedience the way the law shapes outward obedience. For the covenant you make is not just a covenant with God; it is also a covenant with God's people.
God has given us a precious gift to help us keep the commandments in love. That gift is the people in your life that you really cannot stand. Without them you cannot truly learn to love God. Let us pray that we may have the humility to forgive them as we have been forgiven and to love them as Jesus has loved us. That is the way of the true religion for which we have prayed.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs

Thin Places

August 24, 2018 - 1:16pm

The Da Vinci Code created a surge of renewed interest in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel. Psychics and paranormal researchers have long regarded Rosslyn as a “thin place,” where the natural and supernatural are said to overlap. It is seen as a place where the line between this world and other worlds is seen to be very thin. Some have suggested that Rosslyn Chapel was purposely constructed over a natural energy field to serve as a point of contact with aliens. There is a rumour that the remains of a crashed UFO are housed in a vault beneath the chapel.
I do not know what to believe except that people are drawn to thin places—to places where they can sense the supernatural. That is what Solomon’s temple was intended to be. Ironically, that is what a Christian church is supposed to be. People need for churches to be thin places where they can come and feel the presence of God. Maybe that is why it is so disheartening to come to church hoping to encounter a living God and find only a dead congregation in a lifeless worship service. A church can be an awfully thick place.
We’ve all heard people who love nature say they feel closer to God in the mountains than in church. Maybe they are just making excuses or cannot endure sound doctrine. Or maybe, just maybe, they are speaking from honest experience. Maybe they have gotten really tired of visiting God’s house when God is obviously not at home. There were lots of houses for lots of gods in the ancient world. The thing that made Solomon’s temple different was that on the day they dedicated this house of God, God actually showed up and moved in.
The cloud was God’s way of letting people know his presence. “When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house . . . for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” It hovered over Mount Sinai when Moses met with God. It led the children of Israel through the wilderness and later on it enveloped Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration.  The people could not actually see God, but at least they could see where God was. The cloud let them know they were in a very thin place.
This thinness really had nothing to do with natural energy fields or UFOs in the basement. It was simply that God was in the place. And whenever God is in a place then things get really thin. The concept of thin places need not conflict with the doctrine that God is in every place.  Solomon knew that no human-made structure could house God, but he felt divinely compelled to build a dwelling place for God. It was not that God needed a place like that. It was that God’s people needed a place like that. Solomon understood that the “heaven and the highest heaven” could not contain God. In all of space there is not a single spot where God is not. This is difficult for adults and children to comprehend.
A little boy once asked his Sunday school teacher, “Where is God?” “God is everywhere,” she replied. “Is God in my inkwell?” “Uh, yes,” answered the teacher, “I suppose so.” “Then I got him!” replied the boy as he clamped his hand over the top. Is God in the inkwell? Where is God? Really, I suppose God is in all. Yet, there are specific places where God’s presence is made known - places where God seems to be at home. A church is meant to be one of those places. There are some churches where God’s presence is so strong you can feel it. There are other churches where God’s presence is seemingly absent. You can feel that, too.
If there is such a thing as the presence of God in a church, there is also such a thing as the absence of God in a church. The sad thing is that religious activity can go on with or without God’s involvement. Religious activity is a sad substitute for a genuine experience with God. It’s as if we almost have the power to generate such an experience—as if our churches are without power simply because we have neglected to flip some spiritual breaker. But it is not as though we can coerce God into coming through assertive invocations. Neither can we conjure up God’s presence with emotional hype. We can no more control God’s movement than a farmer can control weather patterns.
There is apparently something about an earnest desire for God that attracts God. I guess even God likes to feel wanted. David wanted to experience God’s presence so much that his soul panted like a deer for the water. Solomon wanted it so much that he spent seven and a half years preparing a dwelling place for God. All the preparation and desire paid off the day the cloud of the Lord came and filled the house of the Lord. God moved in and made himself at home among his people. Heaven and Earth overlapped a little. All God’s people knew they were in a mighty thin place.

Categories: Syndicated Blogs