Sunday, November 20, 2005
My first thought was to pray to God she will grow up in a time when civility in discourse has a renaissance in this country. My second thought was to again pray, this time that God would awaken us to the problem of evil.
There is a distinct problem with many in America concerning a confrontation with evil. I think much of the problem may stem from a seismic shift from traditional moral values to the current prevailing view of moral relativism. We're hesitant to posit as "truth" anything outside of what is true for us. We feel uncomfortable invading someone else's space by telling them that what they are doing is wrong. We're victims of feelings-- so much so that we fail to see that feelings are of much less importance than the survival of a culture.
I wonder if this shift has something to do with people ignoring the call traditional morality places on their own lives. Perhaps they embrace moral relativism as a way of excusing their own behavior, or of insulating themselves against criticism from others. Aldous Huxley, at least, was honest about the reasons for his abandonment of morality and his attack on religion. He said, "We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. ...There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and sexual revolt: We could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever."
What arrogance! Why do I say that? I think it's extremely arrogant to assume a position that has proven in the past to lead to the downfall of a culture-- to believe that somehow a claim to sophistication will create a different result from the same behavior.
Something to think about.
Sunday, October 09, 2005
I've put a little of my political perspectives on display. I thought it time to reveal a little of the theological side. I wrote and preached this sermon several years ago, but I believe it can give a glimpse into my understanding of this "Jesus" whom I seek to serve. I hope you find it at least readable. I left my original textual emphases intact.
“Only a Heartbeat Away From Love”
A Sermon based on Mark 10:17-30
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
18 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good-- except God alone.
19 You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"
20 "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
22 At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?"
27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
Jesus was just leaving the local house that was his base of operations. He had been having a wonderful time with the local children and their parents. The disciples were probably still a little grumpy because they had been trying to shield their Teacher from stream of visitors and had been taken to task for their over-protectiveness. I bring this up because we move from a point where Jesus realigns the disciples’ perspective by taking those whom we regard as distractions and putting them right smack dab in the middle in a effort to make us pay attention! We jump from a graphic picture of Jesus painting the kingdom as only being able to be received by those who are very small, very needy. No room for independent, autonomous, self-made, self-sufficient folks here in this kingdom.
We jump from this scene to something at the exact opposite end of the spectrum! There’s someone knocking at the door, seeking to be put at the center! Let’s look!
All of a sudden, there’s the screech of tires at the curb. Out from behind the reigns of the BMW chariot jumps this man in a custom-cut Brooks Brothers robe and Reebok top-of-the-line sandals. He sprints down the block and catches up with Jesus and his entourage. And then he does something really bizarre! He literally throws himself down on his knees in front of Jesus! What in the world? (And I can just hear the disciples in the background. “Oh no, not another one!” And you know there were at least a few eyeballs rolling heavenward!)
WHO IS THIS GUY??
We’ll find out more as the story progresses, but we know this much to start with. Mark identifies him as someone who has great wealth, Luke calls him a ‘ruler’—possibly a member of an official council or court, and Matthew calls him ‘young’. He’s obviously not your average Judean. We would probably not be far off base in deducing that this man was a man of stature, and of some learning, and MOST of all-- RICH.
The question that intrigues me is why would an obviously educated man, self-sufficient, well-respected in the community—a person with everything we think of as necessary for living the ‘good life’—fling himself head-long into the dust at the feet of a penniless carpenter from Nazareth? My hunch is that God is preparing to show everyone involved once again that, within every human created by the hand of the Father, there is one, special place that sits empty—one special room within the deepest chamber of the heart, reserved to be occupied by the Creator, and Him alone. My guess is that there had to be something missing from this rich, young man’s life. Something that was at the core of his being. Something that caused him to overflow with emotion and forget protocol and image. Something that demanded an answer. “Good teacher,” he asked, “What must I DO to inherit eternal life?” Eternal life is just another way of saying “kingdom of God” in Mark’s Gospel. As Will Willimon notes, this young man had been very successful at getting to the top of the worldly kingdom. Now he was wondering what it would take to ‘make it’ in God’s kingdom. Hey, Jesus, what are the things I have to DO to get membership in this place?
Let us read on and see what God had in store for this young man (and for you and for me).
I’m not sure Jesus would have been familiar with the phrase—“Whoa, jump back, Jack!”, but that could almost be a paraphrase of Jesus’ reaction to this unexpected visitor and the situation they found themselves in. His initial reply is almost curt. “Why do you call me good?”, Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” William Barclay suggests that Jesus wanted the man to respond from calm logic and not from the emotional state he was in. I believe also that Jesus wanted the man to consider WHO he was asking. Jesus wanted him to be able to objectively count the cost, not consumed in a sentimental passion for Jesus the teacher, but to able to see the call of God clearly through Him.
With his next statement, Jesus really sets up the young ruler. “You know the commandments…”. And dutifully, he replied, “Why Teacher, all these I have kept since I became of age!” (13, when a Jewish boy assumed personal responsibility for obeying the Law). Of all the commandments, one, ONLY ONE, was a positive injunction, and that only within the family circle. What did the young man reply? “I have managed to keep ALL the DON’TS!! I’m RESPECTABLE!! I’ve not HARMED anyone!!”. By his answer, he exposes his theology—my worth is measured by what I haven’t done…..thank God I’m not like other sinners!!
I find it extremely interesting that, in this opening dialog, neither Jesus or the young man touch upon the part of the LAW that Jesus himself identifies as being most important, loving God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength! Perhaps Jesus didn’t mention it on purpose! Perhaps it was to gauge the young man’s spiritual temperature. To find out whether his life revolved around the Lord or the Law.
Mark now gives us the up close and personal—the zoom lens. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” They faced each other, eye to eye. One searching. One so wanting to give. Can’t you just see it in your mind’s eye? Can’t you just feel the electricity in the air?
Jesus took dead aim at his heart and said, “GO / SELL / GIVE / COME / FOLLOW!” We know that He actually said, “One thing you still lack. Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But I have the feeling that, as these words came from the lips of Jesus, the only ones that penetrated were, GO / SELL / GIVE / COME / FOLLOW.
There was silence. I just know there was—and the heartbeat of a man who had come face to face with God and was now called on to decide whether he would conform his life to God’s call, or continue to struggle under the burden of making God’s will conform to his ideas about how his life should run, and who would be in control.
Can’t you see the high drama of the moment? This, folks, was a personal turning point. A fork in the road. And Jesus left no doubt about where the diverging paths led. What price was the young man willing to pay to let God be God? To have the peace and assurance and rest that had driven him to his knees in the dust?
You see, this was a shock! Jesus was saying that this man’s wealth was NOT a sign of divine favor, but it was a big problem! Get rid of the custom wardrobe, ditch the wheels, liquidate the portfolio. You want to be in the kingdom? You need to invest all of yourself in it!
The man stares back at Jesus. Silence—but he can hear his heart pounding away inside of him. Yet in the end, he ignores his heart. He doesn’t want to hear it. I can almost picture the words boiling up within, wanting to explode from his lips. “JESUS!! Isn’t there some other way?? Can’t you use me where I am? After all, I’m a respectable man! WHY DO YOU DEMAND SUCH A SACRIFICE FROM ME??” But the words don’t come, for he knows the answer. His head rules, and the weight of his decision causes his face to fall. The camera pans back, and we see him rise, brush himself off and slowly walk back to that custom-built chariot, destined to return to his split-level condo, his calendar of social events, even his place in the synagogue. He was only a heartbeat away from love…and he faltered. Mark simply records that “He went away sad, for he had great wealth.”
THE REST OF THE STORY
As the dust settles as the chariot roars off, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Wow, do you guys realize how hard it is to get these rich guys into the Kingdom?” He may have said it to the disciples, but the words leap off the page and hit us, the church, right where we live. And just like Ed McMahon setting up Johnny Carson, their reply was predictable. “Just how hard is it? We need an explanation here. We don’t understand!”
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.
Notice how Jesus addressed his disciples—Children!! Hello?? Anybody listening??
That hard?? Who then can be saved?? I mean if all these people that have it made really don’t have it made, what hope is there for the rest of us??
“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’”
Again, I want to borrow from Will Willimon, who had such an insightful vision into this story. “Just in case you watched the previous episode with Jesus sweeping the little children into his arms and thought that was a nice, sweet, easy thing to come to Jesus, Mark records this. We can only come to Jesus as a small, needy child. But there is nothing easy or sweet about it. It is hard.”
Not only is it hard, Jesus says, on our own, it’s flat impossible. It’s impossible without giving up whatever devices we’ve built, acquired, inherited, saved up for, planned for, or invested in that wind up being our wall of defense, our assurance of our well-being, our private well-spring – our god. ANYTHING we look to for security before the Father.
You see, this is a “call” story. Plain and simple. And there’s no escaping it. Jesus is in the calling business, that is his job. And trust me, God is in the habit of doing the impossible. And that’s good news! Or is it? —you make the call.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Now all things are possible. All things are possible. It is even possible to get a large camel through the eye of a needle. That’s possible. But it will be extremely hard on the camel.”
Thursday, September 01, 2005
Perhaps we need these natural disasters from time to time to knock the secular humanists off their high horse. Man isn't getting better. Man never will on his own. Most of the outpouring of support for the victims of this disaster won't be from your friendly home-town free thinkers societies, but rather from a variety of Christian organizations- most notably, the Salvation Army. There will be a stream of donations and volunteer work crews coming from churches of every denomination in the coming days and weeks. Before some of you who read this fly into an outrage, let me explain that I don't believe charity is the sole province of the Christian or "religious" person. All I am pointing out is that Christianity calls followers to give to those less fortunate, and to do so not out of a sense of guilt or obligation, but because to do so is an extension of the love of God.
Off spirituality and on to politics, what I find appalling in the reporting surrounding the disaster is an underlying assumption that somehow humans are responsible for the scale of the disaster. I've heard outrageous claims that Bush or Haley Barbour is to blame for the hurricane because they "caused" global warming. I wonder who (or what) they blame Camille on? What about the great flood of 1927? What about Andrew? I could go on and on. One has to wonder about whether the intent of the journalists is to present news surrounding the event, or simply use the event as a springboard for more partisan politicking. I think one of the current "screams" is that "Bush voted to decrease funding for New Orleans flood control in the 2006 budget". How interesting- how irrelevant. I guess these folks don't believe that the Republican Congress won't allocate additional funding to deal with the disaster.
Another screaming point is that the government isn't moving fast enough. Stop for a moment and think. How fast do you think you could organize the logistics to move thousands of troops with the necessary equipment to a disaster area with limited access? Right now, officials believe they will have 24,000 troops in the New Orleans area by Monday. That's a massive response to organize and implement within a week. How fast, realistically, can you deal with the problems of a city of 480,000? How quickly can you arrange to deal with a total evacuation of that many people? How do you plan "on the fly" to deal with unanticipated breaches of major levees surrounding the city?
Although it's probably valid to say that there are things that could have been done better, most people would do well to remember that this isn't a board game or a computer simulation. The best laid plans can fall apart when a disaster doesn't unfold according to the scenarios you rehearsed.
I know this may be a foreign concept to some, but how about giving some encouragement to those staying up around the clock to organize disaster relief? Screaming won't do much but distract them from their primary task.
Friday, August 26, 2005
I'm a bona fide conservative, but I defy anyone to categorize me as heartless. My definition of a conservative is someone who loves and respects the best of what has been handed down to us by people who, themselves, learned the hard way. While honoring our heritage, I have studied enough history to realize that our forefathers fall very short of perfection. I'm wary of moralizing and pontificating by people who have never had the worry of wondering where the next house payment was coming from or where to cut back so you could get your kids in braces.
I believe in community. I mourn the passing of the days where there were no 6-foot privacy fences and rear-entry garages that keep people from sayin' howdy to each other as they go to or from work. I think it's a safe but sad bet that the average family in the average suburb only knows 2 or 3 other families on that block. I think we're worse off for living in a time when parents sue teachers for raising their voices to a child (which is about the only tool left in their disciplinary arsenal) instead of allowing the teacher to apply the board of education to the seat of knowledge.
I believe in the value of hard work. I don't believe that any work, when performed to the best of one's ability, is to be looked down on or considered as inferior. I believe we should take care of those who truly cannot earn a living, but I believe that almost everyone has something they can contribute back to the community. Even for those who need our support, we should seek out a way that they can feel they have something to give in return.
I believe in God. Funny, but 30 years ago, that declaration would not be controversial. I weary to the point of anger with the smug (and ignorant) generation that glibly talks about all the "abuses" heaped on mankind by "religion", while at the same time ignoring the great positive contributions. Man has been, is, and always will be a depraved creature. We possess the potential to do the greatest good or the cruelist evil. As Malcolm Muggeridge observed, "Human depravity is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but also the most philosophically resistant." Man's instinct is to blame whatever evil comes from humanity on "religion" and take personal credit for any good that might occur. A simple refutation of this perspective can be formed from basic principles in logic and philosophy. Has mankind abused the power that comes from claiming to speak for God? Most certainly! The real issue, however, is whether the proclamations of someone who claims to speak for God tie back to the highest teachings of what they claim their moral authority springs from. In short, judge the follower by the handbook, not the handbook by the actions of the follower.
I believe in patriotism. I believe in it especially because I have seen what a lack of it can do to a country. Patriotism is the glue that holds the melting-pot together. Patriotism seeks to build a country up, not tear it down. It doesn't ignore when its government does wrong, but it also doesn't become myopic to the point that it can see no good at all.
I don't fear immigration, but I fear the attitude that sees an agenda of assimilation as an affront to the immigrant's native culture. I fear standards so low that Balkanization is a more likely result than cultural integration. In short, I rue the rise of hyphenated Americans.
I welcome debate, I detest diatribe. My invitation (plagiarizing the Bible) is "come, let us reason together".