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The Sleep Deprived Pastor

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About this blog

Highly caffeinated sermons, meditations, reflections and essays on Christian faith and living, contemplative spirituality, theology, comparative religion, and interreligious dialogue from a full-time United Methodist pastor, and  the proud, but sleep deprived father of a baby girl. I'm a long-time member of the UM Forums and Blogging Community and it's good to be back!!

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Marcus Aurelius

Seeing the Glory of Jesus Christ

John 12:20-33 Some Greeks Seek Jesus

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up

27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

“Seeing the Glory of Jesus Christ” Year B

A couple years ago my wife and I got to visit Washington D.C. It was my wife’s first time there, so it was awesome to be able to show her all the breathtaking sights of our nation’s capital. We went to all the major places...like the White House, the Capital Building, The Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument. We even got to see and tour the United Methodist Building. 

Another great thing about this trip was how we got to see the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. When we were there, I discovered something I was just fascinated by...The Jefferson Bible. Have any of you, my readers, ever heard of it? When it came to religion, the great Thomas Jefferson was what you call a deist. This is a belief where God creates and sets everything in motion, but is withdrawn from humanity. Deism was a really popular view back then and other founding fathers were Deists as well. 

So as a deist, Thomas Jefferson rejected belief in the God of the Bible. He didn’t believe in things like the Trinity or in miracles. He felt that the Gospels had been hijacked by Jesus’ followers to advance their own agendas and ideologies. But in spite of all that, he loved the teachings of Jesus. He adopted His teachings as a moral code to guide his life. He said that Jesus taught "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

And that leads us to the Jefferson Bible. Using a razor and glue, Thomas Jefferson meticulously cut up four copies of the Gospels in English, French, Greek, and Latin. He kept only certain passages, the ones he felt were authentic sayings of Jesus and without the miracles. Jefferson’s version ends with Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. There is no resurrection and no Easter Sunday. He felt all of that was a myth. Jefferson called this version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. As a history lover, it’s such an interesting story and it’s fascinating that he took all the time and effort to make that book. 

So at the Smithsonian I got to see the original from 1820, encased in glass. And I was also able to buy a Smithsonian Edition copy that was created from high resolution photographs of the original. 

But I think what’s most interesting about that story is the fact that…like the Greeks in our text….he really wanted to see Jesus. But what kind of Jesus? Was it the real Jesus? Or was it a Jesus entirely of his own making?

And when we fast forward to today, all of that brings us to an interesting question. How do Americans see Jesus Christ today? I think it’s safe to say that almost everybody has an opinion about Jesus. And as I was preparing for this sermon, I got curious about where people stand. 

So, I did what you always do when you get curious about something….I typed the question into Google. The results were interesting. The vast majority of Americans believe that Jesus was a real historical figure…approximately 92%. But the next Barna survey result was really interesting. 83% of Americans still describe themselves as “Christians”…..but only 56% of that number believes that Jesus is actually divine and that He literally rose from the dead. 26% felt that Jesus was only a great moral teacher, much like the Buddha or the Prophet Mohammed. Another 18% said they just weren’t sure about His divinity. So in sum….at least 92% of Americans still want to see Jesus. But is it the real Jesus? Or is it a Jesus of our own making?

In my essay this morning, I’d simply like to explore this request…”we wish to see Jesus.” So it’s my hope that after today, each of us, dear readers, will be able to see the glory of Jesus Christ more clearly. And to do that, we have to lift our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to the Cross. May the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit open our minds to the understanding of His word and open our hearts so that we may feel His love coursing through us.

To begin, our Gospel lesson is set in the context of the Passover festival. As I said recently, Passover was one of the holiest feast days of the Jewish faith. Thousands of faithful pilgrims would have flocked to the Temple from all over the Mediterranean to celebrate and make their offerings to God. 

But not everybody who came….were Jews. John says, “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, Sir we wish to see Jesus.” Now the question is why. Why would these Gentiles come all the way from Greece to see Jesus? 

Well, for one thing…there was no Instagram. It’s hard to believe, but in those days you couldn’t just hold up a phone…take a picture or a video….and then send it to all your friends in a few seconds. If you wanted to see somebody…you actually had to get up out of the house and do it. Imagine that?  And we complain about our connection speeds….first world problems!

For another….I suspect news of Jesus…had already travelled that far….with no help from social media. See, I think they’d probably gotten wind of some of the things He was teaching. Jesus was saying and doing some pretty radical things. He taught with authority. He broke all the rules of social convention. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He had real compassion for the poor. He put down the religious leaders for their false piety. Then He told little children that they would be the greatest in God’s Kingdom. 

And then there were the miracles. Turning water in to wine. Calming storms and walking on water. Healing sick people and casting out demons. Maybe most importantly….Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead….and that’s a pretty big deal. So no doubt all of this stuff was traveling far and wide. They were probably hearing all these wild stories…all the way in Greece….and these people were like….”is this for real?” They wanted to see Jesus…because they were curious.

In other words, these Greeks were no different than…say….Thomas Jefferson…or Americans today. Curiosity is the great motivating force of research and discovery. And like Thomas Jefferson and so many of us today…I’m sure they had their own preconceived notions about who Jesus was. I’m sure they’d taken a mental razor and cut out the things they didn’t like or believe and glued in the things they did like and believe. 

I imagine they probably had their own Jefferson Bibles by the time they reached Jesus and the Disciples. Now after they made their request to Philip, he did what a lot of us church leaders do when outsiders come to our doorsteps seeking God….he formed a committee. He went and told Andrew. They probably debated about it for an hour. Then maybe they took a vote. Annnnnnddd then they told Jesus. 

Their minds had to have been racing. They might’ve thought these would be the first Gentile followers of Christ. Or maybe they were apprehensive. Aren’t you here for just us Jews? I’m sure those two disciples had their razors and their glue just as the Greeks did. But on that day…none of them saw a Jesus of their own making. 

They saw the real deal. Now we don’t know this for sure, but I imagine Jesus turned and said these things to the entire crowd…Jews and Gentiles alike. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

This is the real Jesus. We can say we want to see Jesus, but is it the real Jesus or is it the Jesus we want to see? We can spend endless hours with our razors and our glue. We can glue in a safe Jesus, a Jesus we can control. 

We can glue in a Jesus who says some nice things, but we aren’t sure if He’s really divine. Or we can glue in Jesus who’s a divine butler who exists solely to grant our wishes and doesn’t ask for anything in return. We can do a lot of work with our razors and our glue.

But when we encounter the real Jesus, the glass cases of our own Gospels shatter. The pages crumble…they fall apart and wither in to dust. You see, that’s one of the key purposes of John’s Gospel. 

He wants us to see Jesus as He actually is….beyond our limited perception of reality…beyond our physical and our mental understanding….beyond our razors and our glue. He wants us to see the great spiritual reality of Jesus Christ….and to respond by believing and trusting in Him as the one sent by God. The thing is, though, seeing Christ in His real glory isn’t all that easy to do because it flies in the face of just about everything we do believe in. Let me explain.

This concept of life from death would’ve made very little sense to the original audience of this Gospel. It’s widely accepted that this Gospel and all the writings attributed to John the Beloved Disciple are the products of a Johannine community of churches in Asia Minor. They were dedicated to preserving the teachings of John, but like most of the other early Christian communities, they were persecuted heavily…by both Romans and Jews.

And as they were being persecuted and martyred…they had to wonder….how can death possibly bring life? Here they were living in another place and time...and they wondered...where is this supposed glory of Christ? These questions are similar for us today, too. As a culture we try to avoid thinking about death. We cling desperately to the good things we have because we want life and still waters. And yet, our lives our filled with little deaths.

Sometimes our circumstances shift and the old securities go and the only roads before us…go right through the valleys. So we wonder. How can the fallen wheat of our lives really bear fruit?

In fact, I originally wrote this essay during the Christian season of Lent…I think this is the heart of what Lent really means. Our symbolic gestures of giving things up, our extra time spent in prayer…all of those things are important, yes. But the reality of Lent is that Lent comes to each of us in its own due time. At its heart, Lent is “Media vita in morte sumus ”…”In the midst of life we are in death.” “In the midst of life we are in death.” 

No one’s immune from suffering, loss, the fear of death, or death itself. In other words…Lent isn’t always about choosing our losses…no….it’s the season for acknowledging them…for coming to grips with them. It’s the awareness that even as we’re living and drawing breath….we’re also dying. Heavy stuff.

And this is why our razors and our glue are useless. If we try to create a Jesus of our own making, then we miss this spiritual reality. We miss the full expression of what God is offering to us through Christ. 

We miss seeing Christ in His real glory, and so we miss our opportunity to be lifted up…even in the midst of our own deaths, big or small.

So what is the real glory of Christ? The glory of Christ is the Cross and the fact that life will be offered to all people through death. Now that just might be the most theologically complex sentence I’ve ever said…so naturally, we’re going to have to unpack it. I think it’s safe to say the meaning of the Cross is the most difficult thing to understand and explain in all of Christianity. I bet most of us get a headache whenever we even try to think about it.

And it’s been debated from the earliest days of the church right up to our time. There’s entire classes in seminary devoted to making sense of it. Some have said that the Cross was a ransom…a payment that bought the world freedom from sin and death. Some have said that the Cross was substitutionary…that Christ took on victimhood and died in our place to atone for our sins and guilt. 

Some have said the Cross is our “moral exemplar”….that through His life and death on the Cross, Christ shows us how to live. Now I think there’s validity to all these theories. I think all of them might reflect part of the truth of this great Mystery.  

But what’s interesting for our message today…is that all these “classical theories” of Atonement are completely absent from John’s Gospel. John focuses on one thing. He’s focused completely on the restoration of the relationship between God and humanity. 

When Jesus turns to Philip and Andrew and the Greeks He’s saying “If You want to see me as I am, if you want to see me in glory….then you have to see this…you have to see the Cross.” Why? It’s the sign of His true glory because it reveals God’s everlasting, self-emptying, self-surrendering love for all of humanity. He becomes what we are and He endures what we endure. The doubts, the fears, the little deaths, the weaknesses of the ‘Father, save me from this hour’ moments…He takes those things all onto Himself because…He loves us that much. So in the end, the Cross isn’t ultimately about paying ransoms or substitutions and the need for someone to be punished because of sin. 

Through His death on the Cross, Jesus Christ is creating a new reality.  It’s a new reality that says you are reconciled to God. You are loved and accepted by God.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Indeed, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Out of His death He brings us new life.

 

 

 

 

So if we want to see Christ in glory, then we have to look at Him as He’s being raised up on the Cross….because the Cross is our signpost that points to the limitless bounds of His love and the unfathomable depths He will go to…just to be in relationship with us. 

In the words of the great Saint Catherine of Siena: “As a child who sucks the milk from his mother’s breast, likewise we, in love with God, draw love from Jesus crucified, always following His footsteps and walking with Him on the path of humiliation, pain and insults. We do not seek joy elsewhere than in Jesus and we avoid any glory which is not that of the Cross. Embrace Jesus crucified, loving and beloved, and in him you will find true life because He is God made man. Let your heart and your soul burn with the fire of love drawn from Jesus on the Cross!” My sisters and brothers…this…this is how life comes from death. 

This is how the dying wheat that falls to the ground bears fruit. All we have to do is put away our razors and our glue and see the glory of Jesus Christ. And when we look on Him who was raised up for us, we should also be raised up. Maybe you’re cast down today. Maybe you’re grieving over the death of a loved one. Maybe you’re having financial troubles. 

Maybe your marriage is strained or you’re fighting with members of your family. It’s in these moments...as the wheat is falling where we feel the most vulnerable and the most alone. But if we let go….if we just let the wheat fall….we’ll see that we’re not alone. 

We’ll see that we’re not just God’s second-class citizens clinging to words in a 2,000 year old book…no….we’ll see that He’s here….that He’s with us….and that He’s lifting us...and all people up and drawing us to Himself....in the power of His reconciling love that flows from the Cross. 

Today I’m going to leave you with the words of a poem written by an Eastern Orthodox Monk by the name of Fr. Seraphim Rose, a poem that beautifully sums up the true glory of Christ bringing life from death on the Cross. 

And it’s a poem that has brought me comfort and hope as some of my own wheat fell to the ground. My friends, may it be so for you as well:

"Come to Me, says the Way,

The way seems long only because you cannot see the end.

But when you reach the end and look back, the way will seem so very short.

And you will see that you could have never known happiness

Unless you had known this sadness.

You will be thankful.

You will be glad things happened just as they did.

That they are just as they are.

You will be thankful in the harbor, if only you can endure to the end.

 

To be empty is to be filled. To be tattered is to be renewed.

Follow Me, says the Way, Descend into the Valley,

Enter the city, and then be raised with me in ignominy

Torn and Tattered, Dragged down to the most abased place on earth, Atop the highest tree

On the highest hill outside the city.

 

Follow me, says the Way

Hollow, empty, selfless

Resting in forsakenness, There abide in Me as I abide in You.

Abide in the highest, You who have been abased in the depths with Me.

Be filled with Me, you who have been emptied with Me,

Be renewed, you who have been tattered with Me.

Taste incorruption, You who have lain in the grave with Me.” (Taken from Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene)

Amen. 

 

Marcus Aurelius

Reading the Fine Print

Ephesians 2:1-10 By Grace Through Faith

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

“Reading the Fine Print”

When you think of the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde…usually the first thing that comes to mind is his wit. He was quite the socialite in Victorian era London and he had such a reputation for be a conversationalist that people were always writing down what he said. To this day you can still buy books of his wit and wisdom. Just to name a few examples, on hard work he said that “Work is the curse of thedrinking classes.” On living within one’s means he said “Anyone who lives within their means simply suffers from a lack of imagination.” 

On good versus bad he said “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." And on happiness he said “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go." Isn’t that the truth? In short, he was extremely funny…and brilliant. 

But arguably one of his greatest literary masterpieces is the exact opposite of all that. The Picture of Dorian Gray which was originally published in 1890 is a dark, brooding, and haunting novel about the evil and wickedness that resides in human nature. In comparing that to our Epistle reading for the day…if the Apostle Paul had read his book he probably would have put a blurb on there that said “very accurate.” 

Dorian Gray was this very good looking, young and wealthy aristocrat who was the subject of a famous artist’s portrait. At first, Dorian is a good and kind man, but through the artist he meets another wealthy aristocrat by the name of Lord Henry Wotton. Wotton teaches Gray about a hedonistic worldview…that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life. 

Because of this, Gray is filled with this overwhelming sense of pride and vanity. He comes to believe that his beauty is his most important quality and he’s terrified of losing it and growing old. So one night in a fit of rage…he curses the portrait and he sells his soul…ensuring that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. The wish is granted. He descends into a world of vice and amoral experiences. He maintains his youth and beauty while the portrait records every one of his sins and becomes extremely warped. One tragedy after another ensues. He wrecks all kinds of lives. He ends up killing his friend the artist. 

The novel finally ends when he looks at the painting. He goes into the drawing room, throws back the curtain covering his portrait…and he’s appalled and horrified. He sees this disgusting and monstrous image of who he really is…and he destroys it…which ends up killing him in the process. 

This is grim stuff. It isn’t light reading….but it is a masterpiece and like I said, this is a book that the Apostle Paul would have applauded. See, I think Dorian Gray is a perfect visual representation of the human condition….of what being ‘dead in sin’ as Paul calls it actually looks like. The things that we do because of our condition may not appear to affect the outer person…not on the surface….but they affect us on the inside. It’s so easy for us to say that we’re all basically good…but I wonder….do we look more like the Picture of Dorian Gray on the inside…without God? Maybe it’s not as extreme as that, but the possibility is definitely there. All in all, this is a complex question. Our Scripture lesson for this blog meditation is one of the most commonly quoted passages in the entire New Testament. 

It was instrumental in the Protestant Reformation and in the thought of Martin Luther….that we are saved by grace through faith. Now as I researched Ephesians chapter 2 this past week…one thing that really stood out to me is how a lot of commentaries and even sermons take the text in one of two directions. You can either emphasize the bad in humanity or you can emphasize the grace of God. Now both of these things are important, but there’s a lot going on here. In fact…this thing reads….almost like a giant run-on sentence. It’s a mouthful…and because of that…it’s easy to miss the fine print. 

The great Episcopalian social activist and theologian William Stringfellow once said: “Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issue of ethics and…of politics…is how to live humanly during the fall. Any viable ethic must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, and decadence of the Fall.” 

In short, what he’s saying is for us to arrive at any real sense of ethical behavior…we have to be real about our situation. We have to be real about who we are. This isn’t an easy thing to do. In fact, I think that might be one of the reasons why Christianity is in a bit of decline in America. The dominant view of our culture, going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, is that humanity is basically good and our main problem is that we lose touch with our inner goodness. Oppressive or distorting societal structures are usually to blame for this. For example, if you’re born in poverty…you’re more likely to turn to a life of crime. Now there’s certainly truth to all of that. 

But Stringfellow shatters that myth as a sole responsibility…arguing that these structures are in place because we’re fallen. Poverty exists because we’re fallen and it’s in our nature to horde our resources rather than to share them. Yes, we’re made in the image of God and there’s good in each and every one of us. But we’re fallen. As Paul says here, we’re ‘dead in our trespasses and sin.’ We don’t want to go in to a room and see this ugly portrait of ourselves like in the Picture of Dorian Gray. But this is the reality of humanity and it isn’t an easy one to face. And the thing is we don’t have to be Dorian Gray. This comes about simply as a result of our orientation. If we allow ourselves to be shaped by self-interest rather than orienting ourselves towards God and loving our neighbors…then we become a kind of Dorian Gray. 

Now that’s an important point here. God is the source of life. God is the source of all that is. But what it means to be a child of wrath is to pursue the opposite… the way of selfishness….the way of Dorian Gray…is death and nothingness. See there’s a lot of bad teaching out there that makes God into a vindictive bully. He’s angry. He’s ready to smite everybody. But that’s not the case. 

A few weeks ago we learned as we studied Noah’s flood that God promised that He’d never act in a vengeful way towards humanity again. He was the first repentant. So what this means…to be children of wrath… is…you’re going to get exactly what you pursue. God says this world, this age is perishing and He wants us to live for the age to come. But when we pursue the nothingness of this world, our reward is of the world. We’re perishing, dying by our own design. 

And being a person of faith doesn’t make us immune to at least some of this Dorian Gray effect. One of the great saints of monasticism, John Cassian in his famous work the Conferences observed how so many monks and nuns who’d supposedly renounced wealth and the world….became possessive over silly things like a book or a pen. At one point, he describes a monk who flew into a rage over losing a dull pocket knife. He must’ve been having a pretty bad day. But you get the idea. The voices of people like William Stringfellow tell us that an ethic of nice just doesn’t cut it. We’re not as good as we think we are. 

This is why I think Lent is such an important time in the Christian year because it teaches us that the road to an Easter resurrection has to pass through repentance of all that we’ve done and all that we’ve failed to do. Things like denial, passive neglect, scape-goating, or rationalizations on our parts only delay our healing and add more scars and blemishes to our own portraits. 

And yet…things do get better. 

In fact…if you, my dear reader, own a Bible in your home….I want you, if you’ll indulge me for just a moment, to go get it out and set it down next to whatever device you’re reading this on. Then turn to this text and pause for just a moment and look at verse 4. What does it say there? It says “But God.” Now if you’re like me and you underline and highlight your books, I want you to draw a little arrow around those words “But God.” Don’t worry. It’s not blasphemy. It’s not sacrilege.

Why an arrow? My friends, the key to this whole text…is in those two simple words….”But God.” While everything seems grim and hopeless, look more carefully at Paul’s words. For me, for all of you, for every follower of Christ…all of that stuff is past tense. You were dead…you once lived….But God. That arrow…there’s a movement here. You’re no longer what you once were. Paul says “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” 

This is the most important thing I could ever share with you my dear readers…and I mean ever: you are loved by God. That’s it. You are loved by God. If I didn’t love what I do, I could probably just retire if you get that one thing. See what Paul does here in verses 1-3 is diagnose our condition….and then he says in verse 4….you’re cured. You’re healed. And notice how all of this is also past tense. It’s already been done. It’s already happened, once and for all. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross has changed us from being these “children of wrath” to being His dearly beloved children and friends. Sin, death, and the devil have been defeated. 

There was once this infinite gap between God and humanity…but it’s been closed. We’re now reconciled to God through the bridge of Jesus Christ and the cross. 

I want each and every one of you to meditate on this today. Let it really sink in. Just like John Cassian once said, we’re never completely free from our old nature in this life. When we struggle with the sins and the imperfections in our lives…when we become obsessed with material things and our material pursuits….when we fail and when we falter….we need to remember this. 

Instead of being depressed about our struggles…we need to remember that we are loved by God…even if we’re losing our daily battles. Jesus walks into that drawing room, throws back that curtain covering each of our portraits and no matter what He sees there…whether it’s just a few minor imperfections and blemishes or whether it’s twisted and rotten….He says….I love you anyway. I can do something with this. 

And I’m not just being poetic. I’m being literal. In verse 10 when it says that we’re a work of God…the Greek word for work here is “poiehma”…which translates into “poem” and “work of art.” We are God’s poetic work of art. 

We are God’s poetic work of art. Isn’t that incredible? I want you to feel loved today…becausethat’s our reality. I’ll take this flawed and messed up painting and I’ll erase every flaw and every imperfection with my nail pierced hands. And I’ll redo it…and I’ll make you beautiful again. And every time you stumble, and every time you fall I’ll paint over it again and again…because you’ll always be beautiful to me. 

That’s what grace is. It literally means “unmerited favor.” God loves us even if we don’t deserve it. We don’t work our way into God’s Kingdom. We don’t buy our way in. All we have is bit coin. It isn’t really worth anything. No.  We’re beneficiaries. It’s just like if someone left us an inheritance of unimaginable wealth. We can’t repay it…but we respond with our loyalty. And that’s just what faith is. Belief plus trust. We trust in what God has done for us.

Now at this point we could say “amen” and call it a day. A lot of sermons on this text do. But if we did, we’d be missing the fine print.When I was a kid I had the original Nintendo and every game used to come with an instruction manual. I never read them. I’d just dive in and try to start playing the game. But then I wouldn’t know what in the heck I was doing. I’d just end up dying over and over again. After about a hundred “game over” screens I’d finally pick up the instruction manual. And that’s how it is with us spiritually sometimes. I’m saved. I’m good to go. But wait a minute. You’ve got to read the fine print. We’re not done yet. 

Verse 10 says we’re “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” What this means for us, simply put, is that by God’s grace we were created to create goodness in the world. See, we’re not saved by works….we’re saved for works. 

We don’t get into the Kingdom of God with our works...we bring the Kingdom of God here with our works. They’re part of the goal that God had in mind saving us. God has set things up so that each and every one of us here has the opportunity to do good works. It doesn’t matter if you doubt your ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re scared to step out in faith. Each of us has an eternally designed job description that includes the tasks, the abilities, and the places to serve. You may not even know it…but you’re ready for work. 

 And I’ve got to be blunt. If you want a sign that you’re truly alive in Christ…if you want a sign that everything I’m saying today is true and applies to you….this is it. You’re God’s beautiful work of art…and that should fill you with a Spirit driven desire to create more beauty in the world. To create life where there’s death. 

This is how we show our appreciation for what God has done for us. This is how we bring glory to God in a world that so desperately needs it. We should be doing good works in every area of our lives. We practice it at work, at school, at home, in our families and in our marriages. Now is that you? Does good works describe and define your life? That’s the fine print. That’s the sign of life. 

Maybe that doesn’t describe you. Your faith is important to you. You read your Bibles and your devotional books. You pray and you come to church on Sundays. All of that’s good. All of that’s important. But it’s not the definitive sign of life that we see coming from the great “but God” change in us.

And as ministers people like me…we have to admit our own mistakes as well. We have to be real with ourselves too…and that’s part of the problem….when we reduce salvation to a moment in time…as if being saved is simply so that all of us can go to heaven when we die. Is that why God saves us? No. That’s honestly bad teaching. We are God’s work of art and He saves us out of love and He wants us to respond by giving that love to others.

So if we’re not doing that right now…the good news is we still have time. In fact, when you go home today…or when you have time later this week…just type in to Google “United Methodist Spiritual Gifts test.” 

Even if you’ve done one before, it’s always good to look again and see where you might be growing. So if you take just 20-30 minutes of your day to do this…you’ll start to see God’s magnificent brush strokes in your life. You’ll start to see what you’re capable of. And I’d love to hear about it. You can comment on this blog or private message me. I’d love to learn about all  spiritual gifts of my readers and how you’re using them because it inspires all of us to get to work ourselves.

 Oscar Wilde created a lot of beauty in his lifetime, beauty that we still appreciate today. And a lot of it was through humor. Yes, it’s true that he was really funny. But some of his statements were profound. He was in many ways a philosopher, and sometimes he spoke like a theologian. He once said:  “Everyone may not be good, but there's always something good in everyone. Never judge anyone shortly because every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” That applies to each and every one of us in this Sanctuary today. There is potential in all of us. God has put an end to the death to which we cling and He’s given us new life as His works of art in creation. 

And when we heed His call to find our place in God’s mission, we too become artists. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Marcus Aurelius

A Lion at the Barrier

John 2:13-22 Jesus Cleanses the Temple

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.”17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple,and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

A Lion at the Barrier

I’ve said a number of times that C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite Christian writers and that he’s one of my heroes in the faith. In fact, his life and writings have inspired me so much that I’m basically just turning into a C.S. Lewis quote generator. Just the other night at our Bible study I quoted or referenced him so many times I actually lost count. So, I figure I may as well do it again. Why not, right? If you guys start to get tired of all the Lewis references, just let me know, okay?

 I like his fiction writing too. That was actually how I got introduced to him. When I was about 7 or 8 years old my parents got me the boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia books. I read those books and that was what opened the floodgates to my love of fantasy and science fiction. There was no going back after that. I was hooked. Those were my favorite books as a kid and so naturally when I became a Christian and I found out that he was this former atheist who’d become a theologian and a defender of the faith…well I had to read him. You could call that “divine required reading.” But after I read almost all of his non-fiction books…I went back and I re-read the Narnia books. Talk about a nostalgic trip down memory lane. 

But you know, I loved them even more the second time around…because then I knew he had all these Christian references in them. In fact, those books are an allegory or metaphorical re-telling of the Gospel stories in this beautiful fantasy world.

And there’s this incredibly powerful scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Trader that always stood out to me. I’d forgotten so much of those books from when I first read them as a kid….but not this one scene. The main characters, Lucy and Edmund are out on their adventure and they come to this beautiful grassy field that stretches out as far as the eye can see. But in the middle of the field they see this strange white spot. So they’re curious. They take off running until they finally reach this white spot in the field. Now remember this is a fantasy story. There’s this pure white lamb, standing there. And the lamb is cooking a fish breakfast…and it turns out….this breakfast is for them. Now this white lamb is meant to be a Christ like figure. And his cooking for them symbolizes the Eucharist, how God, through Christ provides our spiritual nourishment. The story says it’s the most delicious breakfast they’ve ever had. 

And as they eat…they have this conversation about how to get to the land of Aslan…or heaven. So the lamb begins to explain the way and then this incredible thing happens. Lewis describes it like this: “His Snow White fur flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan the lion himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.” Wow. C.S. Lewis was illustrating a great truth of our faith…the Lamb is also the Lion. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. So in Him we see the qualities that we would consider to be lamb like…He’s gentle…He’s meek…but in today’s Gospel reading we see a decisive change in Him. We see the lion. 

Now we hear that catchy song about how God’s not dead and how He’s roaring like a lion…but I’m not sure we actually like that image. Jesus is angry…He’s roaring like a lion….and it’s awkward. It makes us uncomfortable and uneasy. If you have a friend or a co-worker that isn’t a believer and you want to tell him or her a little bit about Jesus….this probably isn’t the story you’re going to use.

So here we are. We’ve got a lion on our hands today instead of a lamb. And  what the heck do we do with Him? In fact, we might even be wondering if Jesus just needed some anger management or a little stress relief yoga. Well…the purpose of this blog today is to reveal a Lion who stands at the barrier…ready to tear down and destroy anything that that prevents people from encountering God. 

Now the story is confusing, so I have to take a moment to address the 'controversies' surrounding this passage. It’s in all four of our Gospels but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke…it takes place at the end…right before Jesus is betrayed and arrested. It’s thought that His actions in the Temple were what led to His arrest and the plot to kill Him. But in John’s Gospel it’s placed at the beginning. So which is it? What’s going on here? There’s a few different theories. Some…in an effort to reconcile the texts have actually said that Jesus did this more than once. 

You know, in this three year ministry…it’s time for that annual getting mad and driving out the money changers trip. By the second or third year though…you’d think the money changers would have probably seen it coming. "Jesus is coming today, let’s close up shop early!" This scenario I think is...pretty unlikely.

A second theory says John was right. They say the other Gospel writers changed the timing to show why Jesus was crucified. But the majority of New Testament scholars think the others had it chronologically right and John changed it to make atheological point. This is the view I agree with. John puts it at the beginning because he wants his readers to get something right from the onset….the Temple is no longer the location of God. No…when God becomes flesh in Jesus Christ…God’s presence is now in what Jesus is saying and doing. It’s not in a building. So in a way…what’s going on here…is symbolic. 

It means the end of the whole temple system. This massive building that took 40 some years to build…is no longer valid. It’s no longer needed. So in a sense Jesus driving out the money changers…is like Jesus walking in to a bank and saying I’d like to close this checking account. It’s obsolete. We won’t be using it anymore. That’s John’s overarching theological point and that’s why I think he switched the timeframe.

But there’s a lot to unpack with the immediate context of this too. It was the Passover and this was the greatest festival time of the Jewish people. Thousands of pilgrims would’ve come in to Jerusalem for the feast. Pontius Pilate knew it was pandemonium so he increased the presence of Roman guards and soldiers all over the city. A mass of humanity. So Jesus and the disciples make their way through the throngs of people and into the temple…specifically in the large space that was known as the Court of the Gentiles. 

This was the one place where Gentile seekers of the God of Abraham could go to learn about Yahweh or to worship Yahweh. So this is where Jesus encounters the money changers. They were lined up all over the place like street vendors outside a concert hall or a sporting event. And that thought leads us to the actual problem…and why Jesus got so ticked off. If you’re like me, you like to go to sporting events. My dad was an OSU grad and so he was a season ticket holder for many years. We would go to almost every Buckeyes game. But if you go to sporting events…you know how it is. Those beers are like 9 dollars. Those tiny little pizzas with five slices are…what…ten bucks? 5 bucks if you just want a bottled water…right? That’s what’s going on here. 

What the money changers were doing wasn’t a sin in and of itself. There was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was a necessary function. People came from all over the country…miles and miles….to Jerusalem for Passover. This was in the days before Uber. It could take days or even weeks to get there. 

And you couldn’t just bring animals from all over the place to make your sacrifice at the temple. They couldn’t make the long trek. So you had to buy one. But you can’t buy one with the standard Roman currency. Why? It was actually for spiritual reasons. The Roman coins had Caesar’s face on them and the writing on the coins…literally declared him to be a god. So it was idolatry. It was a violation of the first commandment. 

So that wasn’t the problem. The function they performed should have been good. But in reality several High Priests set it up so they were making massive profits. It was your $9 Bud Light. The costs of those animals….were fifteen times higher than what they should’ve been. So if you bought a lamb from outside the temple…you pay the equivalent of a dollar. You buy one from inside the Temple you pay $15. No Black Friday deals. No Amazon prime. New Testament scholars have said the high priests were making the equivalent of a $170 million a year with this. So Jesus gets mad and makes a whip. 

This thing would have hurt like hell if you got hit by it. He starts turning over tables and swinging His whip at the money changers. The scene would have been utterly chaotic. People running and screaming. Animals running. And Jesus says “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” That’s the key to the whole story. You can underline it in your Bibles at home. That was the issue. The High Priests had created barriers to seeking and worshiping God. This was the only access to the Temple that the Gentiles had. 

But if you were a Gentile seeking to know who this God was…what would you think…seeing that? What would be your first impression of Yahweh? How does that song go…it’s all about the Benjamin’s baby? And if you were a Jewish person…chances are you’d be turned away if you couldn’t afford those outrageous prices. No prayer or offering for you this time. Better luck next year.” Just imagine the heartbreak of all that. You want to draw near to the place where God dwells…and you can’t afford it. The bouncers throw you out. Barriers.

Now at first glance this Gospel lesson might seem pretty far removed from our world today. We might even be tempted to think this was a uniquely Jewish problem. But it isn’t. Let me tell you a quick story.

It was 2010 and my wife and I were looking for a new church home. We’d been visiting a few different places and we decided to visit an Eastern Orthodox Church. At the time, it seemed like a natural fit because I was studying with Greek Orthodox Monks and taking retreats at their monastery. I became really good friends with one of the monks and he invited us to the church where he served. So we went.

The sanctuary was breathtaking. The most amazing I’ve ever seen in my life. I thought to myself…maybe this is what heaven looks like. But the experience was shocking. Aside from our monk friend…not oneperson greeted us…or even smiled at us.  We were the only visitors in that church and not one word of welcome. At one point we walked right by the parish priest and he didn’t even bother to say so much as a “hello” to us. In fact, people were seriously looking at us like….’what are they doing here?’ It dawned on me that we were the only people there that weren’t ethnically Greek. Apparently if you weren’t Greek, you weren’t welcome. Now surely not every Orthodox church is like that…that’s not at all what I’m saying. But it was probably the worst church experience I’ve ever had. Here you’ve got this beautiful cathedral…and yet what we saw was a spiritual arrogance…a spiritual ugliness. We’re better than you. You don’t belong here. 

Our monk friend was actually apologizing to us afterwards. He invited us to come back again and promised it would be different the next time…but we never did. Like the money changers in that temple they’d erected this impenetrable spiritual barrier. They were denying people access to God. It’s funny…I contrast that experience with my seminary trip to Korea. Now the churches we visited there…we didn’t even speak the same language. But it didn’t matter. My classmates and I were welcomed by the people in every church we went to. Everyone was coming up to us and shaking our hands. We sang hymns together…them in Korean and us in English…..and that…that was Christian fellowship. That was Christian love. Any potential barrier just evaporated…and we experienced that unity….that oneness of what it means…to be the body of Christ. That my sisters and brothers...is the new Temple. 

The Holy Spirit is inside each one of us and we become the new temple when we gather in Christian fellowship and worship.

So the question becomes….what kind of Christians will wbe? There’s a lion that stands outside the doors of all our churches…. and all of our hearts....ready to tear down and destroy anything that that prevents people from encountering God. We’re a divisive culture and in spite of ourselves….we bring that ugliness….the spirit of those money changers….into the church. I think most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it…because that’s just the way we’re used to being. 

We’ll reject someone because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. We’ll reject someone because of the box that they check for their political party. We’ll reject someone because of the way they dress. We’ll reject someone because of where they live or their income status. 

Now the church I'm privileged to serve as pastor is totally unlike what we encountered in that Orthodox church all those years ago. The difference is night and day. It's truly like a big family and that’s how church should be. But I'm always challenging even the people of my parish to practice holy introspection.... because, my dear readers, just like with them, if we’re being honest with ourselves…we’ve all probably erected barriers at some point and intentionally or unintentionally….denied people access to God. It’s so easy to do. I’ve done it myself. If we had all day...I’d tell you some personal stories about how I’ve messed up. We all do it.

But let me tell you…That lion’s going to drive out anything thing that’s keeping us from being a welcoming community of faith. This is where our text picks up from my previous blog entry…denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. Here’s the deal. The more we’re committed to Christ and His Kingdom…the less these worldly things matter. We shouldn’t be erecting barriers…we should be tearing them down. The causes of peace, love, and justice…should be all-consuming for us. That’s the true way of the Cross and Christian discipleship. 

And the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is giving all of us a tough message today. He’s telling us….through the theology of John….it’s not just about the building and the property. It’s about having an outward focus not aninward focus. We come here every Sunday because worship and being in community helps us to see God in all areas of life. But we can’t horde these things like those money changers at the Passover. 

No, we have to redistribute the 'wealth' God’s given us. The gravitational pull of our lives has to be outward…from the church to the community…from one believer to a neighbor and from the church to the world. 

As Christians we must always be asking....what more can we do to be a radically welcoming community of faith? What risks can we take? Are we ready to try and fail? What barriers can we tear down in this community that prevent people’s access to God? These have to be driving questions here and with God’s help I know we can keep doing great things. 

We’re being called to be lions ourselves. That’s the bottom line. And that’s the really scary thing about this passage. Take up your crosses and follow me. Be imitators of me. God’s telling us that we have to go from being lambs to lions sometimes…just like what happened with Aslan in that scene from Narnia. We drive out the spirit of the money changers from our own house. Then we go out into our town and into the world and we drive out the spirit of the money changers there. He’s saying tear down the barriers…tear down the walls. There’s so many things in our world today that prevent people from having access to God. 

And the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is calling us to be ready with our own whips and to come out swinging. 

Let’s work to clear the pathways of people’s hearts so that God can come in. It’s not an easy task to become lions. Can we do it? Amen. 

A Question for my Readers: Have you ever had a negative experience at church like I did? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. What happened and how did it make you feel? Did you ever return to the church, or was that it for you? My prayers are with all those whom we have wounded, either intentionally or unintentionally. 

 

Marcus Aurelius

On the Road to Discipleship

A Reflection on Mark 8: 27-38: “On the Road to Discipleship”

I had a friend once who really wanted me to die. In fact, you might say he was trying to “kill” me. Now you might think that doesn’t sound like a very good friend, but it turns out that was exactly what I needed. In fact, he was a literal answer to a prayer. And no, it wasn’t because I had a death-wish!

Now many of you have read about parts of my story on here before. It was the early 2,000’s and I had this powerful experience of God that made me become a believer. But the idea of become a true follower of Christ, a disciple of Christ, that was another matter altogether. I’ll be straight up. It was a struggle. I was used to my partying lifestyle, I was used to doing things my way, I was used to getting whatever I wanted. Remember, I’m an only child, so I was spoiled pretty rotten. In short, I was pretty self-absorbed. Now in the end, none of that brought about good results. I struggled with depression for years, and I felt like I was stuck in this lifestyle that I just couldn’t get out of. It was tough. I was literally reading my Bible, books of theology, and going to church by day and partying by night. 

So I started reading this book by Saint Francis De Sales called “Introduction to the Devout Life.” It’s one of the most powerful books on spiritual formation and Christian discipleship ever written. Now in it, he talks about the importance of “spiritual friendship.” He says we can’t grow as Christians unless we have a spiritual friend that through a united love in Christ will “bind souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them.” 

I realized that was what I needed. And so I started praying for it. God, help me to find a spiritual friend. God answered that prayer. One night I was at church and this guy excitedly started calling my name. Surprised, I stopped to talk to him…and I was like…”uh, do I know you?” Turns out, I’d gone to high school with him. We had met in high school. I didn’t remember him but he remembered me. So we exchanged numbers and we started hanging out after that. It didn’t take long before we were inseparable. He quickly became more than a friend; he was a brother. It was through his help and his influence that I was finally able to leave my old life behind. 

He brought me to his Bible study and I started making other Christian friends…people who accepted me as I was. People who knew my past, but knew Christ could free me from it. God gave me my “spiritual friend.”But he was always trying to kill me. There was one night I’ll never forget as long as I live. It was in the middle of the summer…this beautiful evening…we’d just gotten out of the Saturday evening church service. We’d been singing some awesome praise songs so my spirits were soaring. And I’d heard a wonderful sermon that made me feel really good. 

In short, I was riding high. Then we were heading home in his red pickup truck, windows down, just enjoying the summer breeze…and he says…”what are you gonna do when you get home tonight?” I told him I was going to write. Most of you guys probably know by now that I’m a writer…I’ve been writing ever since I was in the 7th grade. Well, I was working on a sci-fi short story and I was anxious to get home and work on it. So I started telling him all about my story. But my friend…he was always pretty blunt.

As I’m telling him about my work…he suddenly cuts me off and he says…”Well, you know, that sounds pretty good. But why do you write that crap? Why don’t you give your writing to Jesus? You have this talent and you should be using it for Him, man. You could be writing sermons. You could probably be another C.S. Lewis if you wanted to be. So why do you waste your time writing that garbage?” Oh man….it was seriously like somebody punched me in the gut. That’s my writing. Are you kidding me? He may as well have asked me to cut off my arm. I guess that’s what a real spiritual friend’s supposed to do, right? I didn’t know that at the time. 

Hell, I was too egotistical. I just brushed it off and kept right on going with my sci-fi stories. My friend wanted me to die because he was driving me forward on the road to discipleship.

And that thought brings us to our Gospel reflection for this blog entry. It reminds me of the season of Lent, where we’re wise to ponder not only the crosses in our sanctuaries, but the picture of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem as He calls His disciples to take up their own crosses and to walk with Him on the paths of love and service. May the God who is One in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit guide our understanding as we study His Word.

I suspect that Peter was probably feeling a lot like me when I got out of the church that night so many years ago. Maybe there was an uplifting praise song in his head. Maybe there was a warm summer breeze that afternoon in Caesarea Philippi. And you know he was feeling good too because he’d just gotten an A+ on Jesus’ pop quiz about His identity. He was having that windows or top down, riding high experience on the highway too…the only thing missing was the red pickup truck. But then, like a true spiritual friend, Jesus gives him that all too familiar discipleship punch to the gut.

He starts saying He’s going to have to “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now the thing is, this would have made no sense to Peter. You know, we can point to stories like this and laugh at him and say he wasn’t the sharpest sword in the arsenal…but that’s because we know the story. It isn’t fair. 

The reality is he, just like virtually everybody else in first century Israel had a completely different understanding of what the Messiah was supposed to be. They were expecting a superhuman leader who would overthrow the Roman Empire, re-gather God’s chosen people from the four corners of the globe, and make Jerusalem the center of the world…establishing this perfect and unending reign of God. That’s what they were looking for.

    And everything they’d seen up to that point fit the bill to a tee. Here’s Jesus casting out demons, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, calming storms, walking on the water, feeding multitudes…and oh yeah…raising the dead. So in short, they wanted a God of power and might. 

They wanted a God who’s going to put an end to suffering….not march right into it. And you know what? If we’re being honest with ourselves…we can relate to this. Those televangelists flying around on their private jets…they got all that money and wealth….because their bastardized version of the Gospel sells. God wants you to be healthy and wealthy all the time. Pay to come to my crusade and my touch of the spirit will heal you of whatever ails you. Say a few prayers and donate to my ministry and God will make all your wildest dreams come true. Believe it like you already have it and money’s just gonna come pouring in. 

This stuff infuriates me. It doesn’t matter that it’s completely detached from reality…it sells because it plays off our ego. It sells because it tells us what we want to hear. On that road to discipleship, how many times do we pull up to the drive-thru and we say I’ll take a crown with no cross, thank you very much?

    Peter’s just like us. Is it any wonder he “rebukes” him? Now when it says that…I think it means Peter pulls him aside. He puts his arm around Him and he says, “Now Jesus of course I think you’re the Messiah. But you’ve got your facts wrong. You’ve got to stop saying stuff like this or you’re going to lose all your credibility. Start acting like the Messiah! Tell us about all the good things you’re going to do. Let’s not hear any more nonsense about suffering and dying!”  And so Jesus gives Peter the ultimate discipleship punch to the gut: “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Here, Satan, through the mouth of Peter…is telling Jesus to take the easy way out. 

    But Jesus doesn’t bite. Instead He throws down the gauntlet. He says look, you’re going to come to a fork in the road….you’re going to have to either set your GPS on the earthly things or the heavenly things. The road to discipleship is a one-way street, and it’s through the cross. 

     And yet, when I say that…I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got to tell you what it doesn’t mean first.

    Now in case you didn't know it already....I’m a sci-fi geek. So naturally I love my Star Wars…especially the originals. And one of my favorite characters, if not my favorite…has always been C-3PO. It’s because he cracks me up. His constant “we’re doomed!” cynicism is hysterical. But there’s one scene in the original movie that I think is profound. He’s walking through the desert with R2D2 and he says of being a droid, “We seem to be made to suffer…it’s our lot in life.” He’s just a machine…he’s not really worth anything. And if we’re not careful…we can adopt that attitude about ourselves. It’s a spiritually dangerous mistake. 

    See, it’s not the extreme opposite of the prosperity gospel. I’ll never forget this classroom debate in seminary and the topic was “Is it better spiritually to be poor?” and one of the students was talking about how she knew this Pastor that had bought an expensive motorcycle. She was talking about it….like it was the unpardonable sin. As if to be a true disciple we have to take a vow poverty and live like monks with our heads down…dead to the world…gloom and doom like our old buddy C-3PO. If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, you better not want to have “fun” in life. 

    No, point blank…this text isn’t telling us to go out and become monks or nuns. That’s a spiritual gift. Some people are called to that. It’s not for everybody. Jesus isn’t saying we have to give up this or that. He isn’t saying you can’t go on vacation or buy a motorcycle. Furthermore, this text isn’t telling us that every time we suffer or something bad happens to us that we’re supposed to just adopt this defeatist attitude and say it’s our cross or it’s our lot in life. Can suffering be redemptive? Yes. Absolutely. I’ve experienced it in my own life too. But that doesn’t mean we should treat everything as a “cross.” Jesus isn’t saying “go out into the world and get beat up every day!” I have to set the record straight because the meaning of this passage has been butchered throughout the centuries and it’s been used to perpetuate abuse and manipulate others. 

We’re not called to be victims. We’re not called to embrace abuse or suffering as some kind of twisted mark of virtue. We see Jesus freeing people from bondage of all kinds throughout all 4 Gospels so anything else is a false gospel. No, when he tells us to take up our cross, He’s telling us to do the opposite of what the world expects of us. Verse 33 can also be translated as “You are thinking not as God thinks, but as human beings do.”

    Worldly things. Peter was ready for prestige, power, and dominion. He was ready to claim King David’s throne. He was ready for ruling the nations.

    Worldly things. The Super Bowl was just a few weeks ago…I’m still excited about that Eagles win, but you know, a lot of people watch the Super Bowl for the ads. If you’re not a football fan…you still tune in for all the new commercials every year. 

I’ve got to be honest I didn’t really care for the ones this past year…I didn’t think they were all that funny. But it’s amazing the power that these things have over our lives. 

    They spend so much time, energy, creativity and money on these ads….why? Well, it’s because they’re designed to make us feel inadequate so we need to go out and buy something new because it promises to make us feel better about ourselves. And I’ll tell you what…social media does this too. Somebody you know updates their status to say “In a relationship” and it makes you feel all the more lonely. Somebody else uploads pictures of their new car and it makes you wonder why your 10 year old car is always in the shop.  But here’s the thing: all of that stuff is a lie. And social media, well, so much of that is a fake snapshot of life. You see only what people want you to see. We see the supposedly perfect lives of others and it depresses us…when in reality…it’s all smoke and mirrors. 

    In our culture, we’re beat up and run down. We tell ourselves that we’ve got to be ambitious, decisive and energetic…and so we become totally self-absorbed. We end up spending all our days…worrying about ourselves and whether we measure up or not. One of my favorite Christian writers, the great Henri Nouwen summed up this dilemma perfectly when he said “Everything in me wants to move upward. Downward mobility with Jesus goes radically against my inclinations, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I’m a part.” In other words, we project our own desires onto our relationship with God and we seek to make God in our image. 

We want to tame Jesus…domesticate Him…make Him harmless and comfortable. We want Him to give us easy solutions to all our problems. We want Him to fill in all the blanks of the things we think we need in life. That is of course, if we have time for God at all. Even in my own life, I can easily think of how quickly my hours and my days just evaporate. And so before I know it, I’m making sure my alarm is set for the next day. All too often, I live my life as if I’ve been shot out of a canon. All too often I miss opportunities to be thinking about the Ultimate Concerns. I’m just too busy devoting my attention to trivial things. All too often I miss opportunities to take up my cross because I’m too focused on what’s already on my to-do list. 

But to take up the cross means the opposite of what we expect and what we think we need.  What this passage means is that we’ve got to set aside our own interests in order to ascertain God’s interests. The Lutheran Pastor David Lose calls this the “inverted logic” of the Kingdom of God. The logic of the world tells us from an early age the only way to find security is through possessions or power. But the logic of the heavenly…of taking up our crosses….says that we’ll only find lasting fulfillment as we give of ourselves, put others first, and take up burdens on behalf of one another. 

In short…we have to lose ourselves to find ourselves. What I mean by that is we have to enter into this paradox that admits…we don’t know ourselves. We don’t know what’s best for us. So we let go of who we are, we let go of what we’ve been…and we enter into what Paul Tillich calls “The New Being.” This isn’t about self-annihilation…it’s about receiving a new identity all together. We surrender what our consumer culture defines as “life” and we’re reborn into the abundant life God wants for us. Let’s trade the illusions and the smoke and mirrors for the real thing. See, when we make that exchange and we start down the true road to discipleship, we’ll see that life is the better life. We’ll see that our greatest joys…the times when we feel most alive….don’t come from things we’ve bought or earned….they come when we put our relationships first. They come when we’re doing acts of service. They come when we make sacrifices caring for others. 

My sisters and brothers, everyone who is reading this blog today....I want you to remember that you are part of a royal priesthood…the priesthood of all believers. Take up your crosses and follow Jesus on the road to discipleship. It may be as simple as listening rather than speaking first. It may be as simple as shoveling snow for your neighbor. It may be baking some cookies and delivering it to someone who’s day it’ll brighten. It may be calling someone in the hospital. It may be just being present and sitting with someone who has dementia and isn’t even aware that you’re there. 

This is what Jesus means when He says “Those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.” Thank God, for those who help us die to ourselves. You know, I think we really do need a spiritual friend just like Saint Francis De Sales once said. Most of the time we choose our friends because of common interests and sometimes because they tell us what we want to hear. We like our friends to make us feel good.  But now we know that’s more of the worldly thinking that Jesus is talking about. We need a friend who holds us accountable. 

We need a friend who points us in the right direction and sets our spirits on heavenly things. I’m blessed I had my spiritual friend Brian because he did all of that for me. Yes, I’m that selfish dude who’s used to getting his way. But more than a decade after we had that conversation on that warm summer evening, I finally listened to his advice. I took all my writing…years and years worth of short stories, novels, poems, plays…I put it all in a box and tucked it away in a closet. In tears I said out loud, “all I have, all I am, is yours God.” I offered up my writing to God.

 I said if it was His will, I’d never touch a keyboard or a pen again. And now…here I am…writing sermons every week…writing theological papers, essays, and articles…..using the talent God gave me for others…just as Brian said I should be doing. Every week, every time my fingers touch the keyboard…it’s an act of surrender…of going down the road to discipleship…and let me tell you….I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. May Almighty God help each one of us to be His true disciples, taking up their own crosses and walking with Him on the paths of love and service. Amen.

Marcus Aurelius

Vertigo & The Mystical Experience

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A Reflection On Mark 9:2-9: “Vertigo & The Mystical Experience”

 

Every now and then, over the course of our lives, we get to experience what can best be described as a mystical experience. A mystical experience is a moment in time where it seems as if the veil between heaven and earth is blurred, and we’re drawn into a profound experience of the divine and the sacred. It’s an entirely subjective experience…we can’t prove them…we can’t authenticate them….but if you’ve ever had one you just know that they’re real and that they’re from God. We never forget those rare moments when we have them. And sometimes they can shape the course of our whole lives. These mystical experiences are our spiritual mountain tops. It’s the summit of the religious life. I’ve been blessed to have such experiences myself.

In fact, I such an experience just a couple years ago. It happened because I decided to go on, what was for me….a pilgrimage. You know, a pilgrimage is where you go on a special religious journey as an act of devotion…usually to a shrine, a sacred place, or a retreat. I was in Louisville Kentucky for a conference…and there was one place…that I just had to go to while I was down there. I’d been wanting to go to this place for so many years there was literally an aching in my heart to do it. And so I finally did. I drove for about an hour outside of Louisville. I came to a part in my drive where I was just surrounded by what seemed like an endless forest on both sides of the road. It was early spring and all the trees were in bloom. It was so beautiful and majestic. By that point my heart was pounding. I was almost there…this place I’d been dreaming of. I came around a bend….and there it was….this massive, sprawling white building that looked like a fortress. It was overwhelming. There were tears in my eyes as the great Abbey of Gethsemane came in to view. The fact that I was going to a monastery alone was really exciting for me. But that wasn’t what made it a pilgrimage. What made it a pilgrimage was the fact that the Abbey of Gethsemane was the home of my spiritual hero…a man whose writings have had a profound impact on my life, my spiritual journey, my walk with God….and even my vocation as a Pastor. 

His name was Thomas Merton and he lived there as a Trappist Monk for 27 years until his death in 1968. 

That day ended up being one of the most incredible days of my life. I spent the afternoon talking with a monk, Brother Paul, who had actually studied under Merton, and he took me on a tour of the monastery…and he even took me to Thomas Merton’s hermitage where he lived out the final years of his life. That was unreal. The hermitage is off limits to the public…but I was allowed to go back there because I was a seminarian.

 I sat in the hermitage of my hero with this wonderful monk and we appropriately talked about the writings of the mystics and the contemplatives. Then, after my meeting with him….I just spent some time walking the grounds in meditation and prayer. For me, that was a mountain top experience that's what we're really looking at here. Mountain top experiences. This mountain top experience with Jesus on what came to be known as the Transfiguration…and our own experiences. What do they mean for us? We’re going to consider the relationship between the experience of God’s reality and the response to God’s reality. Experience and response. 

Now when I mention the Transfiguration, you might think I’m talking about a new Transformers movie….you really don’t hear the word “Transfiguration” all that often. It marks the halfway point in three of the four Gospels…and it’s where we see that Jesus was “more than meets the eye.”  Peter, James, and John witnessed a transformation that was bigger even than Optimus Prime. They had a mystical, mountain top experience….greater than any in human history.But to begin to understand this story as something real and tangible we have to consider the scope of the whole Bible here…and then we start to see that this is a pattern that God uses all throughout the Scriptures. There’s quite a few stories of mystical encounters with God…but one that’s immediately relevant to our text today is Moses. Now a lot of you probably already know this story. 

He’s on the top of Mount Sinai and suddenly this swirling cloud appears and it surrounds the entire mountain. God speaks to him from the cloud and God gives him the moral laws known as the Ten Commandments. And then something strange happens. He asks to see the glory of God…and God tells Him “no.” He says no one can see His face and live…so He says I’ll show you my back side. So the cloud passes and Moses is only able to catch this tiny glimpse of God. But it was a profound experience of the reality of God.

Another person that this happened to was the Prophet Elijah. Elijah had stood up to all the corruption and idol worship and he was literally run out of town. So he’d about given up. He was totally miserable and he goes and hides in a cave in the mountains. He spends the night there. And in the deep darkness and isolation of that place God comes to him. Once again He passes by in the form of a cloud. Then God shows Elijah all these incredible things….winds that tore the rocks apart, earthquakes and fire. It was a profound experience of the reality of God.

And these experiences don’t end with the Gospels. It happens to Paul. 

Paul’s out on a mission to wipe out some pesky Christians when suddenly this brilliant white light appears that knocks him off his horse and strikes him blind. It’s another profound experience of the reality of God. Like I said, it’s a common thread throughout the Scriptures.

All these stories have another thing in common too. They happen in challenging or crossroads moments in the life of the believer. Think about that. Moses was down and out. Elijah was depressed and had given up on his calling. Saul of Tarsus was badly misinformed about the Christians. 

And now as we move to our Gospel lesson for the day…we find out that was the case with Peter, James, and John too. They were experiencing confusion and turmoil. Peter had just named Jesus as the Messiah….but then Jesus starts talking about how He’s going to suffer and die. In other words, He’s not the Messiah they were expecting. So they have no clue what’s going on. Here they’d been following Jesus all this time as He’s going from town to town preaching, healing, casting out demons…and then this. They might’ve felt like they didn’t even know Him anymore. Crossroads.

In all these examples...God stepped in with His mountain top experiences in some of the most difficult moments of their lives. That should be a lesson for us. If you’re ever wondering why it seems like you don’t hear from God or why you’re not having these power encounters with God…maybe it’s because you’re not supposed to be. Maybe it’s because you don’t need it right now. Saint John of the Cross is widely considered one of the greatest Christian mystics in the history of the church. In his book “The Dark Night of the Soul,” he talks about how the mystical experience should never be an end unto itself. 

He argues that if we were to keep having these mountain top moments over and over again we’d become obsessed with them….they’d be like a drug. It’s all we would want. We’d lose our grip on reality….and the things God is calling us to do. So that’s why you don’t have these voices from the clouds moments all that often. They only come with a purpose. They only come when we need them. More on that in a bit.

Jesus’ inner circle….they needed that mountain top experience. They were breaking ranks. They were grumbling and they were confused. So Jesus literally takes them up the mountain....the 1800 foot high Mount Tabor near Nazareth. And there at the summit, Jesus changes right before their eyes. The Greek word that’s used here is “metamorphosis” or “changes form.” So like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly…Jesus is transfigured. His face was glistening like the sun. His robes are a brilliant white. Moses and Elijah appeared….one embodying the Law and the other embodying the prophets…and they surround Jesus…Jesus who is the completion and the fulfillment of these things. 

Then a cloud appears; a cloud like the one that appeared to Moses and Elijah….but this time….they don’t see just the “back side” of God…they see God in the fullness of glory…in Jesus Christ…and they live because this moment…the Transfiguration is a sign of the age to come…of the fullness of the Kingdom. Out of the cloud a voice speaks and says “this is my Son whom I dearly love. Listen to Him!” Then, just as quickly as it came…it ended. Only Jesus is there with His awestruck disciples.

But this wild and incredible story leaves us with a question….why do we have these experiences? It brings me back to my earlier point. Our mystical experiences have a purpose and they only come when we need them. God takes us to the spiritual mountain top to give us vision and to see the possibilities in life. When we’re at the crossroads and those turning points, He gives us the mystical encounters so that we can see past the haze of our doubts, the fog of our uncertainty, and the trees of our obstacles. God’s given you a purpose in life and sometimes He has to take you up higher than you’ve ever been so you can see that purpose more clearly. This is the degree I should be pursing in school. This is how I should be a better husband. This is how I should raise my kids. God wants me to be a teacher, a plumber, or an engineer. This is the path I take to get there.

As I walked up and down the beautiful grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemane, just praying and meditating, I felt closer to God than I had in years. When I attended Mass and listened to the monks chanting Vespers my soul was just….alive. And when I placed my hand on my hero Thomas Merton’s grave and said a prayer I felt this profound sense of completion. But as I drove home that night, I realized that that experience was so much more than just a visit to where my hero lived. 

No, it was a mountain top experience because God had given me exactly what I needed. Peace. I was in my second year of seminary and I was stressed and burnt out. I felt like I was always working, always running. There was no peace. Here I was studying to be a pastor and God felt like He was a million miles away. He was like some kind of abstraction because I was just so busy all the time. But there’s a gate that leads to the monastery grounds and on that gate are the carved words “God Alone.” I spent that day alone with God and it brought me back to life. 

It reminded me to renew my contemplative practice…to spend time in prayer and meditation with God. It gave me the strength and the inspiration to keep pressing on. And that’s the point of the mystical experience. We have profound experiences of God’s reality to give us insight, strength, inspiration, and encouragement for the journey. To remind us that God loves us.

But just like this story of the Transfiguration…these things only last for a moment. We blink and they’re gone. And what happens when they’ve gone? Well, suddenly we experience vertigo. We suddenly realize that we’re on a great height and our hearts begin to flutter, we start to lose our balance and we feel like we need to get down. 

I love lighthouses. And I’ve climbed a lot of lighthouses in my day….in places like Maine and Florida. I always make the long and grueling climb because I want to see the view from the top. It’s always so amazing. You have these incredible views of the ocean and the surrounding city or countryside. It takes your breath away. But with me it’s pretty funny. I look around…I take it all in….but then reality kicks in. I remember that….I’m scared of heights. 

My heart starts to flutter a bit and my legs get a wobbly….and it’s time to go back down! If you have a profound experience of God at any point in your life, you can bet that God’s going to give you vertigo afterwards. It’s like Saint John of the Cross said….we can’t stay on the top of the mountain forever. We have to come down. But why? Why do we have to come back down? Why is it just these fleeting glimpses?

Saint Teresa of Avila, another great mystic of the Christian church gives us the answer. She says you can only tell the legitimacy of a mountain top experience by the fruit that it bears. Did you get that? You can only tell the legitimacy of a mountain top experience by the fruit that it bears. We know the reality of our experience of God by our response to it….by what it causes us to do.

Let’s go back to those examples. When Moses comes down from the mountain everything’s gone to hell and a hand basket. The Israelites have built a golden calf. The guy he left in charge was right there worshiping the idol. Moses. You’ve got a job to do. Get down from this mountain and get my people back in line. Use this Law that I gave you to bring the Israelites to the Promise Land. Elijah just wanted to sulk in that cave. But God shows him all these incredible things and then He says to him “Elijah, you’ve got a job to do.” Go anoint these new kings. Speak to my people. After Paul gets knocked from his horse and blinded, God tells Him to get up and go into the city to go to the House of Ananias. And shortly after that, God’s going to tell Him to spread His name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.

In the case of Peter, James, and John….they come down with Jesus to an absolute mess…calling to mind what happened to Moses. Some of the disciples were bitterly squabbling with some experts in the Jewish Law. Another group of disciples had badly botched healing a boy, and so Jesus ends up doing it Himself. Then Jesus puts His hands on His hips, shakes His head in frustration and says, “You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” And what He means is…it’s you that’s supposed to be doing this work. Jesus was trying to train the disciples and work Himself out of a job. 

Here’s the deal. If you have an experience like this, it’s because God wants you to do something. He has something for you that only you can do. God gives us these moments where we experience His reality so that we can respond to Him in service. He’s going to convict you that He’s really there…and then He’s going to tell you to get down from the mountain and get to work. Christianity’s not meant to be a spectator sport. If we’re just sitting up in the bleachers eating popcorn, we’re not doing it right.

See the thing is, I think a lot of us want to respond like Peter when we have a mountain top experience. It scares the heck out of us….especially if God is telling us to get out of the stands and to do something. And so we want to build shrines. We want to put our experiences of God in a box...into something we can understand, something that makes us feel comfortable and safe. But that just isn’t how God works. We come down the mountain into the messes of the real world and real life. You have this deep experience with God….but your job still stinks, you’re still fighting with your spouse at home, you’re stressed out and there’s no break in sight. 

But God wants you to bring that mountain top experience into the messes of your lives. He wants you to do something with it. He wants you to start praying for your nasty boss. He wants you to apologize to your wife or your husband. He wants you to bring the Kingdom into the ordinariness of life. We can tell people about our mountain top experiences till we’re blue in the face, but no one will believe it. No, we have to show them. We have to bring the mystical into the mundane. 

You know, Thomas Merton thought that by leaving the worldly life, by becoming a monk and entering the monastery he was running to the mountain. He thought it was there that he would have these profound, life-altering encounters with God. But it didn’t happen. In quite a few of his journal entries you actually sense this deep spiritual restlessness. So you know where he finally had his mountain top experience? It was on a busy street corner in Louisville Kentucky.

On March 12, 1958 Thomas Merton was out running errands for the monastery when God brought him to the top of the mountain. He writes, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…” He’d gone to the monastery to escape from the world and God brought him to the top of the mountain to turn his heart back towards the world. 

And so Thomas Merton responded to this experience with action…by heeding God’s call to love the world and all people. He became a powerful voice for peace during the Vietnam War, for civil rights and the interfaith movement. It’s my prayer that God will lead each and every one of you to the mountain top, if He hasn’t already. I pray that He’ll give you that perfectly clear line of sight above all the messes and all the noises in your lives…but then I pray that He’ll give you that overwhelming sense of vertigo…to bring you right back down the mountain…so that we can cause a metamorphosis….in the world around us. Amen.

 

 

Marcus Aurelius

A Meditation on Isaiah 40:21-31 “Comfort amidst the Unexpected and the Uncertain”

    Can I start today's blog by asking my readers a tough question? How many of you have ever gotten fired from a job before? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. Was it sudden? Or did you see it coming? Was it a shock to the system or were you glad to go?

Well, full disclosure…I have to raise my hand. If I’m perfectly honest, so much of my working life has been a lot like the old arcade game Frogger. 

If you’ve never played it, the object of the game is to move your little frog across a busy intersection to get home. There’s all these obstacles like cars and trucks in your way. If you stay in one place for too long…splat…you’re done. Yeah, a lot of my jobs were like that. So no surprise I saw a game over screen.

I’ll never forget…I was working for this large franchise of a major cell phone company. At one time, they had stores all over the state. I started off in their customer retention department…which was calling past customers to come in and upgrade their phones. 

Within a month or two I was their top salesperson and so the owner of the company asked if I would also work out on the sales floor to help one of their lagging stores. Within another month or two I was the top salesperson of that store. And I was doing both the retention sales and the retail….so I was making a killing by commission standards. I was also getting the attention of the higher-ups in the company. They very seriously started talking to me about the possibility of opening up my own franchise store. And they were so impressed with my work they were saying they would be willing to help with the initial investment. 

Now I come from a very business minded family so when I talked to them about the franchise possibility, they were on board. It seemed like it was really going to become a reality. I had just turned 30, so I thought I was doing pretty good for myself. I was about to own my own store. I’d watch these store owners pull into the parking lots in their BMW’s and Jaguars and I’d think to myself….that’s going to be me pretty soon. Everything was falling in to place and the future seemed like a done deal.

There was only one last thing to do before I got my own store….they wanted to train me how to manage the daily operations of an existing one.

They sent me to train with the best owner in the company. And I could tell he didn’t like me from the start. He was always short, snide, and rude with me. In retrospect, I think he saw me as competition. Well, one night he just abruptly tells me he’s leaving, tells me to close up, and walks out. The problem was….he hadn’t trained me….on how to close the store. It freaked me out. 

I counted down all the registers, I called the guy’s assistant manager. He told me how to post the reports for the day and gave me the alarm codes. 

I locked up, breathed a sigh of relief, and went home.

The next day this owner called me in to his office and tells me that the technician had left the basement door where they do repairs unlocked and that I hadn’t locked it when I left. I said I didn’t know anybody even used that door and that I’d appreciate in the future he’d tell me things like that. And if you’re going to leave abruptly you might at least tell me what to do. 

Then he looked at me with this smug grin and says “Well, unfortunately there won’t be a future for you. Leaving that door unlocked posed a big security risk to our company. We’re going to have to let you go.”

I was stunned. In an instant I went from thinking I was on my way to becoming this franchisee big shot to wondering how I was going to be able to pay rent for the month.

The future that seemed so sure, so foolproof suddenly became lost under a dark cloud of uncertainty. Have you ever been there? 

Do you know what I’m talking about? We have a certain illusion of control over our lives…that things are going to go as we expect them to. But then we’re hit with the unexpected and the uncertain and those illusions are shattered. We realize we don’t have the kind of control that we think. 

We realize that we walk a delicate path between happiness and pain, light and dark. We realize that there are very little constants and that our circumstances are always subject to change. 

    So where do we turn in moments like these? It’s easy to lose hope. Again, I’d love to hear about your experiences and how things worked out for you in the comments section.

Today we’re going to be taking a look at the historical context of this powerful passage of Scripture and we’re going to see how the situations that the Israelites faced so many centuries ago can speak to us now about God’s presence in our lives in the midst of the unexpected and the uncertain. 

 

    Hezekiah was one of the few righteous kings of Judah. He restored worship of the one true God, Yahweh, all throughout Judah. He brought prosperity and expansion. 

Later on, he tried cozying up to Babylon in the north and becoming allies with them. Things were going really well.

But evidently that last part was a mistake because Isaiah comes to him in chapter 39. He says “days are coming when all that is in your house, which your ancestors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord.”

The unexpected. You think your enemies are gone. You think the future is wide open and full of promise. But then you find out that backwater kingdom to the northeast…is suddenly going to become the next great super-power…and that nothing will be left. And that’s exactly what happened. 

In 597 BCE Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The Temple was completely destroyed and all the wealth of the Kingdom was plundered and taken to Babylon. But most importantly, the majority of the Jewish people themselves were taken in captivity. It was the beginning of the exile. In an instant, the Jewish way of life was completely lost. In Babylon, most of them lived in labor camps and worked as slaves. The unexpected. 

Now between Isaiah chapter 39 and 40…there’s actually a time difference of 70 years. That’s how long the Jewish people were in exile. 70 long years. The unexpected gave way to the uncertain. I’m sure most of them didn’t feel any hope for the future. I’m sure most of them felt that God had completely abandoned them.

And as time passed the prosperity and happiness of Jerusalem became a distant memory. It’s said that the Jewish people often sat by the rivers in Babylon, just weeping. 

But while the Israelites were being swept up in the winds of the unexpected, uncertainty, and change, the prophet Isaiah knew these things weren’t simply a matter of chance, bad luck, or some kind of curses from on high. No, he understood these shifting of the sands as being the human condition. All flesh is like grass. The grass withers. The flower fades. My brothers and sisters, these aren’t easy words to hear. And yet, they give us perspective. 

They help us to strip away the idols that we create in our own lives; idols of pride, idols of control, idols of power and invincibility. 

The Prophet Isaiah witnessed the ebb and flow of human history in a broken and fallen world. He witnessed the rise and fall of nations. And he stood with his people in times of triumph and disaster; joy and sorrow. Isaiah understood the words of the great teacher who came before him, the teacher who said “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The seasons come and go…and everything under the sun is subject to perpetual change. 

Isaiah knew they were prisoners to more than just the Babylonians. They were prisoners to time itself. 

That’s the true exile; deeper even than their terrible circumstances. 

See, if you really think about it, we’re ALL exiles. We lost the paradise we were created for. And the unexpected, the uncertain….we can’t escape these things. Maybe that’s why they’d all but given up. Now the irony of this chapter is that it was written just as Babylon itself was collapsing. The Persians were the next superpower. They conquered Babylon. And they freed the Jewish people. They told them they could go home and live in peace. 

But a lot of them didn’t want to. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple was gone. They didn’t want to rebuild. They were so used to living with their circumstances it was easier to just stay where they were, crying by the side of the river. And we can all relate to that too, can’t we?  These tempests of the unexpected and the uncertain…they can throw our whole lives into such chaos that we grow weary and exhausted. We can’t fight it anymore. We surrender and we let the winds blow us where they will. 

The great philosopher Albert Camus said the only real philosophical question is trying to judge whether life is even worth living or not. 

And we might all find ourselves asking that same question when we lose a loved one….or when our marriage of so many years suddenly falls apart….or when we lose our job and we’re afraid we’re going to have to sell our house. These are the circumstances…the unexpected…and the uncertain…that remind us we too are in exile. 

But the ancient prophet understood reality more than that modern philosopher. 

See, he knew that it’s only when we understand our place that we could learn to soar like eagles in spite of our circumstances….because while the philosopher said we’re alone in the universe and that life itself ultimately has no meaning…the prophet said that the universe was fashioned by the hands of a providential God….a God who is transcendent and immanent…a God who knows each of us….by name. 

God is transcendent. What does that mean? The Prophet says God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth. God is greater than the heavens and the earth. God is above everything that exists…that’s what transcendence means. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Our Milky Way is just a tiny part of it. But these things didn’t come about by time and chance. God created all of it. Comfort my people, God says. Tell them that the endless stars in the night sky aren’t gods as the Babylonians believe. Tell them I created them, numbered them and named them. Tell them that there’s a power behind the universe….a power that’s made all things and that sustains creation. 

Just as he did with the Israelites, the prophet is calling us to change our orientation. The Babylonians made idols with their hands. 

We make them with our hearts. Hundreds of years after the time of Isaiah, Paul said what was wrong with the Romans was the fact that they exchanged “the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” See, Isaiah and Paul are telling us to be careful. There are so many good things in creation…things that we’re meant to enjoy…but they should never, ever take the place of the Creator who is above all these things. We grow faint, we grow weary when we start to lose our grip on the things we think we possess. 

The things we try to plant, the things we try to sew….all of them can be caught up in the whirlwinds of the unexpected and the uncertain. So, Isaiah says, don’t hold up anything in creation as being equal to the Creator. Everything in this world around us is subject to change. Don’t hold on to worldly things for dear life. Hold on to the one thing that doesn’t change…the transcendent God who has made all things. The text says lift up your eyes on high because that’s where we find comfort. 

But by itself, maybe that’s not enough. Because even if we say there’s a power behind the universe….that doesn’t necessarily mean He’s on our side, does it? That doesn’t mean He cares. What if He just created everything and then decided to leave and take a long vacation? If you’ve been in exile like the Israelites it’s easy to see how you might start to think that way. Or worse. What if you adopt a kind of fatalism? You start to say maybe God threw these unexpected things into my path. I’ve done terrible things so maybe I deserve this illness.  

No. In times of the unexpected and uncertainty, the Prophet wants us to remember that God is providential. What does that mean? God’s providence means that God is in complete control of the universe. He brought everything into existence and He calls all things by name….which means…God has a plan for everything. Time doesn’t move forward with endless chains of random events…time is guided by God with a purpose.  Now that doesn’t mean God causes everything to happen. 

That’s a mistake a lot of people make when talking about God’s providence. 

What it means is that God has a plan for reconciliation….for bringing all created things back to Himself. This exile of God’s fallen creation ends in reconciliation and restoration. 

    So what does God’s providence mean for you and I? Well, let’s say things are going so well for you on the road of life that you’re coasting along on cruise control. But then suddenly an obstacle is flung in your path that leaves you scrambling. With God’s providence we see that God’s still working and moving in our lives...in spite of our circumstances. No matter what happens…even if you end up in a ditch, God is there. 

When we face the unexpected and the uncertain, God promises that He’ll be with us. God has a plan.

In other words, God in His love for you will get you through it. No matter how bleak the situation is…you’re told you have to move in to a care facility. You’re told the company is closing its doors forever. No matter what we have to face God promises to give you the strength and power to face it. But by itself, maybe that’s not enough either. 

If something unexpected has just happened to you…if you’re living with uncertainty right now…you might be saying…all of this sounds nice on paper…but how do I know it’s true? 

How do I know that God really cares about me?

We know God’s promises are true because God is immanent. What does that mean?  God’s immanence means that He’s also within and near His creation. In other words, God’s never far away. God never takes vacations. He gives power to the faint and he increases the strength of the powerless through Christ. God is always with us in Christ. 

This God who sits above the circle of the earth came down and became one of us in Jesus Christ. The transcendent became immanent. So in Christ, all of Isaiah’s promises became reality. 

Christ is the friend who sticks closer than a brother. Christ is our Good Shepherd who leads us through every valley of the unexpected and the uncertain. Comfort my people…I am with you…I am right beside you. 

In the face of the unexpected and the uncertain, we can soar like eagles above all the changing landscapes of our lives when Christ is the source of our strength.

 There was a time when the Apostle Paul grew faint and weary. But it was in that dark moment of his life that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Whenever you find yourself facing the unexpected and the uncertain go to the Lord in prayer…ask Him to give you the strength, the courage and the peace to face whatever lies ahead. He’ll give it to you. He’ll be right there with you. 

In closing, sometimes we just need a reminder of that. That day I got fired and all my plans for the future went up in smoke I just sat there in the parking lot of that shopping center watching the cars go by. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even think. It seemed like my life was over. I must’ve been there so long it was getting dark and that finally snapped me out of my stupor. I picked up my phone and I called my Mom. 

I told her what happened and she just kept telling me to trust God over and over again. She said Neil, God’s always been with you. Don’t let something like this cause you to doubt that. And then she read me these words from Isaiah 40. 

Just like the Israelites in exile, my circumstances almost caused me to forget all the things God had done in my life. 

But sometimes…in these places of uncertainty and the unexpected… all we need is that reminder that God is with us and to seek His strength. Are you in need of a reminder today? Are you in need of His strength? It’s right here..Do this in memory of me.

In the Christian church we celebrate Holy Communion. In worship, it’s in the celebration of this Sacred Mystery where we find that reminder and that strength. When we say the words of our Great Thanksgiving from the liturgy...we recall the story of God’s providence...God’s plan...from the beginning...and we bring it into the present moment, our moment. It’s alive, it’s in our midst.

And when we take the bread and cup, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ gives Himself to us as our offering. “Take my body, take my blood...let it give you nourishment and strength. I want you to run, not walk.”

So whenever we face the unexpected and the uncertain...let’s remember to come to the Table. It’s the greatest source of comfort there is. Amen. 

 

 

Marcus Aurelius

Can God Help a Struggling Loved One?

Mark 1:21-28 “Can God A Struggling Loved One?”

     Just because you’re a Pastor doesn’t mean you always have a direct pipeline to God. Pastoral ministry also doesn’t come with an instruction manual, a troubleshooting guide or FAQ’s. So naturally there’s going to be times when you have questions or you need some advice…especially if you’re a rookie like me. Now one such outlet for this is God’s gift of social media and clergy forums. With just a couple clicks of your phone you can literally ask hundreds of other pastors for some advice. 

     Recently I came across a really interesting story that a pastor posted about. He said he was at home sleeping…it’s about 115 am…..when suddenly he gets this phone call from a young lady who was asking if he was pastor. When he said the he was, she asked him if he could come and pray over her house because they were experiencing some kind of paranormal activity. He said she was very coherent and that she described the activity in great detail. He offered to pray with her over the phone instead. She seemed satisfied and after that she hung up. So he was asking other pastors if he did the right thing or if he should do any kind of follow-up.

     I was really intrigued by this one, so I started reading all the comments. Most people supported what he did and a few of them had been in similar situations. But one thing I guess that sort of surprised me was the fact that most of the pastors who responded were saying that these things should be done primarily “as a comfort to the families.” In other words, most of them really didn’t seem to think that there were any real spiritual forces in play. That bothered me a little bit.

     This week we’re continuing our blog series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and the question for this week is….”Can God help my Struggling Loved One?” Now in the video it's a little girl asking if God can help her older brother....and in the notes for the series…we’re never told what was actually wrong with the girl’s brother. All we see is this sad and reflective look on her face when she says it on the video. It breaks your heart and makes you wonder what was really happening in her life. But the United Methodist Communications gave me a clue with this series…they recommended Mark 1:21-28 as the sermon text to go along with this question. That suggests to me that whatever her situation was, it’s not unlike the lady who called a pastor at 115 in the morning seeking help. It suggests a spiritual dimension to whatever problem her brother was facing. 

     I suspect that some of us might be asking the same question today. You might have a relative or a friend who needs God’s help. Maybe they’re battling an addiction. Maybe they’re struggling with depression or they’re suicidal. Maybe it’s jealousy, workaholism…or greed. Whatever the case may be, the Bible teaches us to view human beings in a holistic manner. We’re not just independent parts…we make up a whole person with both a physical and a spiritual nature…and these things are deeply intertwined. So when we talk about helping a person, we’ve got to acknowledge that there’s a spiritual dimension to so many of our problems. 

     During His earthly ministry, Jesus always healed the whole person. And one of the ways He did that was by opposing the forces of evil that robbed the children of God of all the things that God hoped and intended for them. And He commanded the disciples and us in turn to do the same thing. 

     In a recent sermon I talked about the theology that emerged in the wake of the enlightenment. In the 19th and 20th centuries some of the most prominent theologians scoffed at the idea of the miraculous and the supernatural. They downplayed all of it. And we’re still living with the effects of that even today. So while in places like the Global South where Christianity is just exploding in growth…we’re hearing all these stories of the miraculous. Powerful faith healings. The dead being raised. Demons and unclean spirits being cast out. And meanwhile, in the West…we’re kind of scratching our heads like…is that stuff for real? But if we look at our history and our tradition…we start to see that these things might not be so far-fetched.

     See, belief that the world is filled with spiritual powers, both wicked and good…was widespread in the ancient Near East. Our Old Testament writers assumed the existence of angels and they also wrote about evil spirits like the one who tormented King Saul. It’s also where we get the first references to “Satan” which literally means “adversary.” But when we talk about spiritual forces in Biblical times…I think we have to make a key distinction here…because I think this is one of the things we tend to get hung up on. It’s so easy to misinterpret and misrepresent the spiritual forces that are opposed to God. Yes, there are two teams on the field. But one team is like the New England Patriots…or better yet....the Philadelphia Eagles,,,,,and the other….is like a pee wee football team. It’s not much of a game. 

     In those days a belief system about the spiritual realms emerged that was called dualism. In the dualistic worldview the forces of good and evil were equal and they were locked in an ongoing or eternal war. Zoroastrianism…a religion that survives today in a tiny minority was of that worldview. But this was never the view of those who wrote our Hebrew Bible. Yes, "Satan" was this adversary who was cast out of heaven and he had these angels who followed him…but they were never seen as being equal to God in any way, shape, or form. In many ways what came to be Rabbinic Judaism and then later on Christianity…their theology was a strong reaction against dualism. So while much of the competing belief systems of the day taught that good and evil were eternal concepts…sort of like the Yin and the Yang of Daoism….the writers of our scriptures unanimously believed that there is only one supreme and eternal power in the universe. God. 

     Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose conversion I talked about in a previous blog a couple weeks ago, drew from the writings of the Apostle Paul and he concluded that evil is an absence or a lack…just like darkness is an absence of light. That’s what evil really is according to our tradition. And that brings us to our text this morning. One thing my Dad and I have always had in common is our love for Westerns. That’s been one of the really fun things about living with him again. On any given night if I’m not working and Amelia, our daughter, is behaving…chances are my Dad and I are watching a Western. Even my wife is getting into it.

     Now one thing you can pretty much count on in any western…is the showdown. Think High Noon. There’s this tense, dramatic music as the camera pans back and forth between the good guy and the bad guy’s faces….who’s gonna draw first? Who’s gonna win the duel? Our Gospel lesson for the day…reads like a showdown from a Western. Capernaum was a small town on the upper northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Now this congregation would have been made up of humble people. There would have been fishermen, merchants, craftsmen, laborers, and their wives. And just like we come to church on Sundays, they would’ve been feeling different emotions as they took their seats. But that day would have been a little bit different. There would’ve been a sense of expectation in the air. They were eagerly awaiting the sermon from the Nazarene who’d been causing such a stir in the countryside. He was the guest speaker for the day.

     And they weren’t disappointed. The text says they were astonished at his teaching. The original word literally meant “to strike with panic or be in a state of shock.” We don’t know what He said that day, but apparently it packed a pretty big punch. Now why is this? Our lesson says he taught with “authority.” That’s a very important word for our question today. Because then it happens. Now I imagine this scene like a Western showdown. 

     The door swings open and there’s a loud bang as it slams against the wall. In walks this this man who was possessed by evil spirits. I’m guessing he was dressed in all black. Jesus was probably dressed in all white. I’m sure they were ponchos. Now He disrupts the whole service…screaming at Jesus…asking if He had come to destroy the spirits that have taken possession of him. The townspeople were probably just staring at both of them in wide eyed terror. A deafening silence falls over that synagogue by the sea. Maybe you could hear the waves gently lapping against the shore. Cue that showdown music. Zoom in on Jesus’ face, then zoom in on the possessed man’s face…and back again. Then Jesus says “be silent and come out of him.” 

     The poor guy goes into convulsions and he’s howling incoherently. But Jesus forbids him to say another word. He falls to the ground rolling around on the dusty floor…but then he stands up and his despair has been broken. He rises to wholeness, joy, and peace. He’s been healed. Now we don’t know anything else about him, but I’m guessing this guy was a lost cause. He might have been somebody like the town drunk or the crazy homeless person who lived at the edge of town. But in an instant, Jesus heals him and sets him free. Then Jesus walks out of there without another word into the setting sun. The credits roll.

     But if this were a movie, it would have spawned a lot of sequels. The Gospel of Mark frequently talks about Jesus healing people. Sometimes the healings are physical. Other times the person in need of healing is possessed by something that’s spiritual, emotional, or mental. Just like the story for today.  And that makes me think back to that pastor’s thread on social media. Jesus was like the High Plains Drifter, roaming from town to town healing people and casting out demons. But man, are we skeptical. Just like we struggle to believe in the miraculous, we struggle to believe in the supernatural. And I'm saying this....on a blog....on a paranormal forum!!

     If someone calls you up at 1am and they say there’s something unseen going on in their house…we’ll help…as “a comfort to the family” but we don’t believe there’s actually anything going on there, do we? See, we can’t help but look at these stories and just think to ourselves that people in the ancient world just didn’t know as much about science and medicine as we do now. Whenever a person was hurt or sick with some kind of unexplainable disease, they believed it had to be demonic…because that was all they knew. And that’s fine. That’s one way of thinking about it. And maybe there’s even some truth to it.

     We really are able to heal lots of sicknesses with modern medicine. We might even say that medicine is part of the way God heals people in the world today. So maybe if this guy could’ve been taken to a modern day psychiatrist he would’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, epilepsy, or some other kind of mental illness. He’d be given medications that’d heal him. Okay. Fair enough. But go ahead and cue that Western showdown music…because I’m going to submit to all of you today that even with all this scientific knowledge…people today are just as overcome by demons and evil spirits as they were back in the time of Jesus. Period. 

     Now at this point some of you might be rolling your eyes. At first glance, I can’t say I blame you. When we think of the demonic…the first things that come to our minds…are some pretty stupid stuff. Late night paranormal TV shows. Humans that’ve become monsters…levitating in the air with their heads spinning around in circles and foaming at the mouth. Creepy dolls. It’s silliness.

     So what are some of the demons that can possess us? Well I can think of a few. How about the demons of shame, low self-esteem, addictions, hoarding and overspending, over-eating, over-indulging? Just watch a few hours of reality TV and you might see a number of demons that plague humanity today. What about those times in our lives when we rely on certain things to make us feel good…and they do…for a while…but in the end they end up destroying our peace of mind, our self-confidence, and even our self-respect? And why not take it to a deeper level? One thing that I always emphasize in my teaching is the reality of sin…that humanity is fragmented…and we see the reality of sin everywhere. But why are we like this? Why are we all out of whack? All we have to do is look at the theology of Genesis chapter 1 and 3. 

     The spirit of evil in the form of a serpent tricked humanity into thinking we can make it on our own without any sort of God to sustain us. We thought we could judge for ourselves what’s evil and what’s good…and that’s what opened the door and allowed the darkness to come flooding in. These demons, they can take over our individual lives and they can take over whole societies. If we need proof of that all we need to do is look at Germany during World War II. That was a demon possessed, evil culture. How else can we explain the extermination of six million Jews…in the name of some perceived goodness? 

     And here as we as we recall the horrific images of families being ripped apart at the border with this ongoing immigration crisis …we know those unclean spirits of racism, intolerance, and hatred are still present with us to this day….they keep rearing their ugly heads…even in our culture. How else can we explain such a frightening and disturbing lack of compassion? And let’s look more closely. There’s demons on our streets today. I turn on the local news just to see the weather…and instead I hear story after story of murders, shootings, robberies and sexual assaults. So many lives tragically lost over this heroin epidemic. Demons. Evil and unclean spirits. Make no mistake…they’re all around us. And any time we ignore it, any time we pretend the problems aren’t there…they just multiply and get worse. 

     By now you might be squirming in your seats. Its uncomfortable talking about this stuff isn’t it? But here’s the thing. There’s good news. Can God help a struggling loved one? You bet He can. Let’s observe a couple things about this healing. First, it was believed in ancient times if you knew someone’s name you had some kind of power over them. So when the demon says in v24 “I know who you are” he’s trying to assert his authority over Christ’s and bring Him under his control. But it doesn’t work. Just like I said earlier…this isn’t a dualistic universe…there’s no yin and yang. The Thrice Holy God is in control and the light sends the darkness packing. And this story tells us that there’s hope even for the worst of us. You or someone you know might be a million miles away from God. Her brother might seem impenetrable, irredeemable and impossible. But as we see here, Christ doesn’t reject anybody. 

     The people of that synagogue probably would’ve called the ushers and kicked that guy out. But Jesus…Jesus shows him love and compassion. He ministers to him and heals him. Christ is the true authority and He can free us from any evil that has us in bondage. But there’s more. Jesus has given that power to us. There’s no need to be afraid of demons, unclean spirits or engaging in spiritual warfare because Jesus has entrusted His continuing mission to us in the church. Later on inMark chapter 3 He calls the 12 to follow Him up the mountain and there He commissioned them and the Church they founded with two jobs: to preach the gospel and cast out demons.

     These unclean spirits, they’re not some awesome power to be feared…they’re more like leeches that want to attach themselves to our negativity and our weaknesses. They’re parasites, nothing more. So there’s but one key if you find yourself locked in spiritual warfare. You name these unclean spirits…these parasites…and you replace them with the Spirit of God. If the Enemy wants to flood your mind with negative thoughts and things that aren’t even true, you pray, you claim the authority of Christ over your life…that He is in the center of your heart…and you cast them out just as He did in that little synagogue by the sea 2,000 years ago. And if you get a phone call at 1am from someone whose in a struggle with these parasites, don’t be afraid to minister to them…because on the Day of Pentecost the same authority that Jesus had in Capernaum has now fallen on us, His church. 

     This means that every one of our churches has the power and authority to cast out demons…both individually and in our society. Not just the Pastors. Not just the prayer ministry team. Everyone. Just like that poor girl’s brother, our world today is in need of healing. There are so many demons and unclean spirits that need to be confronted, cast out and destroyed. But our God is gracious and powerful. Our God has all authority and He’s sent His Church to preach the good news and to cast out demons.

     So as we logoff this forum today, let’s claim our power and authority. Let’s help everyone we can to see themselves as God’s precious children, even as they battle their demons. Let’s use our power to bring comfort to the afflicted, healing to the broken, and hope to the hurting. Let’s proclaim the good news that by the grace of Christ we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us. Amen.

© 2018 ENG/Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Does God Have a Purpose for My Life?

John 1:29-42 “Does God have a purpose for my life?”

"I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you.
I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls 
Only to be with you.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for."

     Do any of you know those words….what that’s from? It’s the lyrics from U2’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I’ve said that I’m a big music lover. Now I’m an 80s kid and so I love 80s music…even to this day. It’s an automatic nostalgia trip for me. And so when I karaoke….yes I karaoke even though I’m terrible…..its exercise in self-deprecating humor….I always sing 80s music. Mister Mister. Tears for Fears. New Order. Phil Collins and Genesis.  On and on. But when I was a kid…back when MTV was a new thing and they actually played music videos….there was one group that…whenever one of their songs came on …it just took me to another place. It was U2. So it was 1987…I was ten years old…and that was a great year for music. My Mom took me out and bought me the first two records that I ever owned….Michael Jackson’s Bad and U2’s the Joshua Tree. I played that Joshua Tree record and sang along to it so many times I knew every line of every song by heart. And that song I just quoted…it was…and is to this day…one of my favorite songs of all time.

     Now unless you’re a diehard fan of U2 like me…you probably didn’t know that there’s a rare version of this song with a gospel choir from Harlem. In that version, there’s an interview with the Edge at the beginning and he talks about how the song was always intended to be a gospel song. He says you may not hear it in the original music, but the lyrics are all gospel. The song is really about the unending yearning and the searching that makes up so much of the spiritual journey. In other words, it’s our story. It’s the search for meaning, for purpose…for something greater. 

     This week we’re continuing our blog series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and the question that this child asked might very well be the toughest of the whole bunch. “Does God have a purpose for my life?” Wow. This is a question many of us wrestle with for years…sometimes even our whole lives. And here we see that an 8 year old is asking the question to end all questions. What are we looking for? Now I’m not sitting here at my computer pretending that I, of all people, have the answer to this question. I’m not a self-help practitioner. I’m not a mystic guru. I’m not a life coach. How does somebody get that job anyway? What are the qualifications, I wonder? But on a good day…on a good day…maybe I can be like the first disciples. Maybe I can point. See, the Gospel…it promises something. It promises a new life in Christ. It promises a transformation. But what does that even mean? What does it look like? Today let’s try our best to go on a journey of discovery. 


     A 12th century Persian poet once said the famous line: "Every being is intended to be on earth for a certain purpose." Now that’s a nice thought to be sure…but it’s not so easy to be lived out, is it? If it really exists, it’s not so easy to discover, is it? The question this elementary schooler (from our UMC Discipleship campaign) is asking us this week…is really what’s called an existential question. In other words it’s a philosophical question about life and the meaning of life. And every single one of us faces these existential questions. It’s what it means to be human. 

     We’re aware of our own being, we’re aware of the threat of non-being, and those two things are held  in tension. They cause us to ask questions about the nature of our being. Now I know this is some pretty heavy stuff.But the reality is you don’t have to get lost in religious, theological, or philosophical jargon to talk about this subject. 

     You can bring it right down to earth because the fact is…every single one of us feels this innate longing for something that defines our lives. But it also has to be something we canintegrate, something we can act on. It can’t be passive. And we know that this ever elusive search is real because we see what happens if we don’t find some kind of purpose in our lives. All we have to do is look at some successful people that we know…they can be successful in their relationships or in their careers…but you’re having that late night conversation with them over a beer or a glass of wine…and they suddenly tell you that they feel off-track….or that there’s something missing from their lives. So how do we miss it? How do we miss finding our purpose? 

     Well, a lot of our dreams get beaten out of us by the demands of our daily lives. I’ll never forget one day when I was a kid my parents and I were visiting my Aunt and Uncle for a cookout. Their neighbors were there and the husband…he very seriously asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was probably 12. I told him I wanted to be a writer. And I’ll never forget….in front of everybody…he looks me dead in the eyes and he says “Son, writing doesn’t pay the bills.” It was like somebody punched me in the gut. But maybe it was a sign of things to come….because I fired back and I said, “sir, does paying the bills make you happy?” 

     See, when that kid asks if God has a purpose for our lives…we’ve got to realize there’s two levels to that question. There’s a subjective level and an objective level. Think of it as being like layers on a cake. The subjective meaning is…what is it that drives you personally? What purpose gets you out of bed in the morning? 

     Now this is as close to a life coach as I’m going to get here. I’m not even going to charge fifty bucks for this.  But the American philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell said the key to what I’m calling subjective meaning or purpose in life is to…find and follow your bliss. Find and follow your bliss. To follow your bliss you identify the pursuit that you’re most passionate about and you give yourself absolutely to it. In so doing, you reach your fullest potential and serve your community to the greatest possible extent. He says, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.” Find and follow your bliss. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I agree with that. That’s the key to finding a subjective sense of purpose in your life. I’d encourage all of you to watch his PBS video The Power of Myth to get a sense of this. But see, I’d take it a step further than him, he was sort of an agnostic. I’d say the Holy Spirit plants these passions inside us. They’re God given. 

     Here’s an example of all this. I was recently visiting the home of a parishioner. She had all this beautiful artwork that she’d done and I was just stunned. I didn’t even know she was an artist. And I asked her if she sold her work…and she said no…if she got into that business side…that would take the bliss out of doing it. You do the thing for its own sake. I wrote stories because I wanted to write stories. You sing because you love to sing. In other words, doing the thing you’re passionate about should be its own reward. There. A little bit of life coaching from my spiritual perspective. 

     But I’m a Pastor. So here’s the other side of the coin. Even if you find subjective meaning in life, it’s still not going to complete you. It’s still not going to give you ultimate meaning or ground of being. You’ll still end up like Bono singing “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” You’ve got to have both.. both subjective and objective meaning. Why? Because the existential questions are still looming. We may find our bliss in writing or painting, in traveling the world with our spouses, in raising a child….but that threat of non-being is still looming over us. We might say my life has a purpose…but does life itself have a purpose….or are we just meaningless specks of dust in a dying universe? These questions are what the German theologian Paul Tillich called the Ultimate Concerns…that there’s a greater purpose, an objective purpose outside of ourselves. And that brings me to our text which is the focus of this blog entry.
 

     You guys were probably starting to wonder when I was going to get there. Andrew and this unnamed disciple were out searching for these Ultimate Concerns or objective purpose. Just like Bono roaming the streets of Vegas in that old U2 video, Andrew and the other one go to where the action is. They heard about this man who said he was paving the way for the coming Messiah. They knew if the Messiah actually came it would be a world changing event. They joined up with John for the same reasons we’re spiritually seeking today. They were looking for something bigger than themselves. And so what happens? 


     One day they’re out by the river and John suddenly points and says “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” In other words, it’s him.  It’s the person they’ve been hearing about day after day…and so they take off after Him. Then Jesus turns around and ask the million dollar question: “What are you looking for?” In other words, why are you following me? What do you hope to gain? Those are the questions…the Ultimate Concerns. And here’s the thing. Jesus is turning to each one of us today and asking the same thing. “What are you looking for?” Why are you a Christian? This is tough.  A lot of us…myself included…we struggle to answer that question. We’re stressed out at our task-oriented jobs, our busy schedules and booked calendars. We’re dissatisfied aren’t we? But Jesus puts the brakes on all that and He asks us…what things are worth living and laboring for? Jesus asks them this really tough, existential question…and then they respond with “Where are you staying?” Now you might think this is a smh or smack my head moment…why would they ask something so dumb? Is that all they care about? The Hyatt or Motel 6? But the Greek word that’s used here can also mean abiding…as in…”Abide in me, and I in you.” They weren’t looking for a hotel room, they were looking for a relationship. So Jesus tells those men “come and see.” Experience this taste of a relationship with me and you’ll never be the same again. You’ll never be satisfied with anything less. An old hymn puts it like this…”Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless seas; Day by day, his sweet voice soundeth saying, Christian follow me.” 

     So they follow him, and this leads to an Epiphany experience…a powerful awareness of God’s reality and presence in their lives. When they followed Him, Jesus showed them not only who He was, but who they were with their new life in God. This is why later on in the text he renames Simon…Peter…or Rock. If you accept my invitation you’re given a new identity and a new purpose. Christ sees ahead, Christ sees what you can’t. Jesus sees what you can accomplish in your life. When I started school…in my 30s….it was so scary, let me tell you. 
I had no idea whether I could do it or not. But I just took it one day at a time…and God was there. He reaffirmed me when I doubted, He picked me up when I stumbled, and He taught me from my failures. Jesus sees your potential…He knows what you can become if you’d take that invitation to come and see…even if you yourself have no clue where you’re going. In other words, when God asks you to do something….He knows what He’s doing. You are the only person for that job. Just like John the Baptist, just like Simon Peter. So when Jesus named Him the Rock…He saw…not just Peter the denier, not just the “oh you of little faith…” He saw the instrument who would bring thousands to the faith and ultimately give his life for it. Never let your past or your present keep you from taking Jesus’ invitation to come and see because Jesus looks deeply into your soul and He sees the best in you. He’ll transform those broken things in your life with purpose and new life when you follow Him. See, when Andrew went to Jesus’ home and spent some time with Him, Jesus made Andrew feel like he was somebody who mattered. 

     Jesus helped Andrew see that he was someone significant to God and to the world….and so are you…each one of you. When you follow Christ He’ll turn your possibilities into purpose. 
     

     And then He’ll turn you outward. One of the major differences that our faith should make in bringing a sense of purpose to our lives is a desire to share it. There are so many people, especially those with no religious faith or those who’re struggling with these Ultimate Concerns....they might find hope in relationship with Christ. See that faith in Christ and that relationship with Him…that can be our objective and our subjective purpose…that’s the existential value of faith. It says there’s meaning outside of ourselves…the universe isn’t just a product of time and chance. No, in Him we live and move and have our being. Objective meaning. The Holy Spirit fills us with these gifts and talents…our bliss…and He wants us to share it with others. Subjective meaning. Come and see. We’re charged with inviting others to come and see. Andrew raced off and he invited his brother. It’s like John is directly challenging us here. 

     If being a part of worship on Sundays is inspiring us for the week ahead, why aren’t we inviting people we know? If devotional readings like this are inspiring us....why aren't we sharing it with people who need them? If  we’re down and we turn to the Word of God and it brings us hope in the darkness, why aren’t we sharing that light with those around us? Andrew wants us to answer that child’s question by saying “I’ve found the Messiah.” And we demonstrate the love he had for his brother when we invite people to “come and see.” It’s not about sales pitches, it’s not about getting someone to a decision….it’s simply an invitation. God’s transformed my life. Share that and it becomes an invitation. We come and see, then we go and tell.  

     That’s a life of purpose. But it might not answer all our questions. In the end, we still might find ourselves saying:

“I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one.
Bleed into one. 
But yes, I’m still running. 
You broke the bonds
And you loosed my chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

     You know, when Bono wrote that song all those years ago, even though he said it was a gospel song…a lot of Pastors and critics denounced it. They didn’t like the way it ended. How could he have found Jesus and the Kingdom…if he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for? Well, if you ask me, Bono would have made a pretty good theologian. The great CS Lewis once said “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” We fill our lives with a bunch of “if only’s.” 

     If only I had a better job, if only I could find my soul mate, if only I was more attractive….but even with those things we never feel quite satisfied. What he’s saying is that every single desire and longing that springs up in us…for love, for safety, for security and belonging….these things are never going to be truly satisfied in this life. They’re all pointers to another place…a place that’s inaccessible to us right now.

     So in the end, Bono is right. Even with Jesus, even with a great faith that moves mountains….we still haven’t found what we’re looking for. This is what it means to be in the world and not of it. Paul says of the Romans, “Their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.”Yes, there is purpose in our lives…but our lives are also going to be marked with disappointment, with times when we find ourselves saying “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” But through it all….we can be content...because we’ve been given an invitation to follow a path that says one day…one day…all of these longings…will be fulfilled. That’s the difference between finding only a subjective purpose in life verses finding one that’s grounded in the hope of the eternal. Yes we’re still running, but we’re not running aimlessly. 

     We’re marching on towards our true destination and our true purpose where the things that we’re longing for, things that can only be experienced in part now will be realized in full then.We’ll find what we’re looking for not when we believe in the Kingdom come….but when we experience it as the reality that we were created for. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

© 2018 ENG/Marcus Aurelius


 

Marcus Aurelius

Can God Change a Person's Mind?

Matthew 3:13-17, Acts 11: 1-18 “Can God Change People’s Minds about how they act?”

     Grace and peace to all my readers here on Unexplained Mysteries. I make no apologies for being a creature of habit. I like my house, my study, and my books all to be arranged in a certain way. And there’s more. I’m especially a creature of habit when it comes to eating. When we go to a restaurant I tend to order the same thing every single time. When we were living in Dublin we had our favorite Chinese takeout. We loved that place so much that we’d eat there at least once a week. 

     But I pretty much got the same thing every time…Wor Sue Gai with fried rice and wonton soup. I ordered that dinner so many times that..eventually, I’d call in there to place my order and the owner who always answered the phone would say…”the usual?” Yep. The usual. That Wor Sue Gai was a major part of my life, like a faithful old friend…that is…until I got food poisoning from it. Now that was enough to stop your creature of habit in his tracks!

     But sometimes are habits are good for us. They help us get through the day. We can cruise on auto-pilot. But the problem is….we’ve got bad habits, too. In fact, I bet if I were to take a poll from every reader here….now that we’re about halfway through the new year I’m sure a few of you had New Year’s resolutions to quit some bad habit. Do you remember those? What were they? I’m going to give up my midnight snacks. I’m going to cut down on my caffeine intake. Uh oh, I failed that one miserably. I’m going to quit smoking. The list just goes on and on, right? And so we resolve to change our bad habits. We mean to, we really do. But how is it going? Sometimes we succeed…but a lot of times, we fail. Now why is that? Is it because you’re a terrible person? Ha, I doubt that. But we can be pretty hard on ourselves. No, we fail because habits are extremely hard to change. They're hard to change because they're so ingrained….they're almost-automatic.

     And so this Sunday we continue our blog series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and we’re very appropriately going to be looking at this child’s question: “Can God Change People’s Minds about how they act?” We’re going to be looking at two people who, even though they were very set in their ways, God was able to break through and disrupt their routines. Then we’ll talk about how God used one of these people…to change even more minds. 

     This might be an important message for you if God is trying to break you of some kind of habit. It might be important to you if you know someone who has a destructive habit…or maybe they just don’t know Christ…and they have a hardness of heart against Christianity or religious faith in general and so your heart aches for them. Or maybe this message will be important to you if you’re worried about governments and the leadership in this world. There’s so much political tension all across the globe. 

     John the Baptist was a creature of habit. He was a man with a job. And I think it’s safe to say that he loved his job. I mean who wouldn’t like wearing clothing made of camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey on your lunch breaks? But Seriously,he had the most important prophetic job in our entire Bible. His job title was just one word: “forerunner.” He was the one God sent ahead of Jesus. He was the one who prepared the way for the Messiah.

     And believe me…this wasn’t one of those jobs where you do one day’s worth of training on the internet and then you hit the ground running totally clueless. John the Baptist understood his job description completely as the forerunner. 

     That’s why when people came out to the Jordan to be baptized by him, he would always say: “I only baptize you with water as a sign of repentance, but after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to carry, one who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John knew who he was and what he was supposed to do....to prepare others for the coming of the Messiah.

     So it must’ve been pretty confusing for him when Jesus, this promised Messiah whose coming he’d been proclaiming suddenly approached him one day at the Jordan River and asked John…to baptize Him.

     Has something like this ever happened to you? Has your boss or someone you worked for ever asked you to do something you thought was just plain crazy? If you’re like me, you probably asked a bunch of questions. As politely as possible…you check and re-check…are you surethat’s what you want me to do? And…that’s exactly what John does here. “What? Me baptize you? You should be the one baptizing me!”

     John would have been the model employee. He knew his mission and purpose. But this wasn’t it. This was something that was pretty far outside the box. And maybe some of you…as 2018 is now upon us….have that same kind of feeling. Maybe you feel like God’s nudging you to do something…and you’re like…huh? See, Jesus called him to step out of his comfort zone and embrace something unexpected. 

     It was Jesus who persuaded John to change his job description and go along with the spirit of the moment and be the instrument of God who would baptize the Messiah. It was Jesus who asked John to change. And Jesus just might be asking us to make some changes here in 2018.

     But you know what? We have to give John some credit here too. It was only when he stepped out in faith that his heart was opened for transformation to take place. Can God change how we act? Yes, but we have to be willing to embrace change…and that isn’t always easy. 

     See, it was because he listened, because he trusted God to lead him in a new way…that he took a leap of faith and then the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and heard the voice of God. And so it is with us. Jesus always and everywhere calls us to step out of our comfort zones, to be open to hearing a challenge or move in a new direction, and to respond to each new situation that calls our attention. Maybe it’s to break a habit. Maybe it’s to start a new ministry. Maybe it’s to join the church. Maybe it’s a career move. Maybe it’s a decision to have a child. Maybe it’s to witness to somebody who doesn’t know Christ. 

     But whatever it is, my sisters and brothers, looking at the example of John the Baptist…I just want to tell you one thing…trust in God in 2018. Be willing to step out in faith. That’s the key to God changing our own hearts and minds. Step out in faith. 

     Almost 20 years ago now, God called me into the ministry. I ran from that call for years…I considered it something from my past….and I buried it. But then one day in 2009 while taking a nap, God gave me a dream. I woke up…and I decided…for once in my life…to trust God and to take Him at His Word. I went to Bible College, then to seminary. There were times I was overcome with doubt. There were times I thought maybe I’d lost my mind. There were times I was so terrified that I just wanted to bury my head in the sand. But I took that leap of faith…I trusted God…and I just kept following the path He vaguely set before me. And now, by His grace…I’m here.

     Jesus asks us to be open because this was His way. He was open. He was open to changing His plans. He was open to changing His mind. He was open so He could respond to the needs of the people He met. For example, think about His encounter with the first disciples. There they were, Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, casting their fishing nets into the sea. Jesus came walking by, spots them out there on their boats, and He calls out to them with the most incredible greeting in all of human history…”Come away and follow me! I will make you fishers of people!”

     He was headed somewhere, but then when He saw them, He changed His plans. He took the time to notice them, to speak to them, to invite them into relationship. And he invited them to follow Him and to be a part of His work. And so they did it. Their lives were already set…they had good jobs and families. They were set in their routines and they had their good and bad habits. But then Jesus comes and says put all of that behind you…and they actually did it. They got off the boat and they followed Him. They took that leap of faith. And you know what’s so incredible about that?

     He saw in that simple fisherman the instrument who would open the door and welcome a new people into the Kingdom of God. Let’s turn to our second lesson for the day, Acts 11.

     I talked about getting food poisoning from eating that Wor Sue Gai. I got so sick that…after that…I could never bring myself to go back there. If you’ve ever had it, you know food poisoning is some pretty nasty business. That’s why…when I go eat at some places that I’m not too sure about…I pray Gordon Ramsey’s famous before meal prayer. “Oh God, please bless this food…and don’t let it make me sick.” 

     Peter was probably thinking something along those lines when he had that dream. Down comes this blanket with creepy, crawling snakes, vultures and all kinds of other weird animals on it. God says “here’s your lunch, Peter. Dig in. Bon appetite.” But Peter doesn’t just reject it like Wor Sue Gai with a side of salmonella….his “no” came from deep within. All his life, Peter had been an observant Jew and he’d always prided himself on remaining ritually clean. See, this was the toughest habit to break. This “no” was a result of years of religious conditioning. 

     Let me explain. These dietary laws weren’t just a matter of obedience to the Law. It was a matter of religious identity, a symbol of who these Jews were as people of God. In fact, this is one of the major reasons why the Jewish people survived and maintained their national identity…even through the exile. When in Rome…do as the Romans do? Nope….through centuries of persecution at the hands of the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans….they never changed who they were. They never gave up their unique identity. 

     And that’s exactly what God was telling Peter to do. He was being asked to change everything he’d been taught as important in his faith. Go to the house of the enemy…to the very people that are persecuting you….and baptize their whole household. Can you imagine that? Go to the very household of the kind of people that nailed His Lord and teacher to a tree….and welcome them into the Kingdom of God. Talk about being asked to change something in your life! Talk about being asked to do something you don’t want to do! Talk about taking a leap of faith…a leap that might literally get you killed if you’re wrong. But he does! By God, he does it!

     The Holy Spirit fell on Peter and Cornelius and everyone in that house…and let me tell you something. Because Peter allowed God to change his mind and he was willing to risk his life and take that leap of faith…God used him to change the course of human history. The importance of what took place in that house cannot be understated.  Up to that point the Christians were just a tiny little sect. Church historians and scholars have rightly argued that if Peter hadn’t gone to the house of Cornelius….Christianity….probably wouldn’t have survived. Either Romans or Zealous Jews would have stamped it out. 

     But instead, he goes back to Jerusalem and he changes the minds of the church leaders too. So the changing of that one mind brought about the changing of thousands. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”

     My point is this: don’t ever let anyone make you think that God can’t change someone’s mind about how they act. There is nothing in this world that can contain the Good News of the Kingdom of God. God can break through the toughest obstacles, crack the toughest hearts, and change the most stubborn minds. Open hearts, open minds, open doors….you better believe it!! God says “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.”

     So if you know someone that isn’t a believer and you’re concerned about the path their on…what do you do for them? If you’ve got a relative or a friend who’s battling an addiction…what do you do for them? If you’re worried about world events and are afraid certain leaders might be marching us on a path to war…what do you do for them? 

     You pray for them. And then you go and you pray for them some more. I’m so serious. Every one of us in this sanctuary needs to be a prayer warrior. Every person of faith needs to be an intercessor. To a person who’s struggling, your witness can be powerful. Your presence can be comforting. Your willingness to confront and to show tough love can tear down barriers. But nothing works like prayer. Nothing. 

     When Peter was going to those church leaders in Jerusalem…I guarantee you that every step of the way…he was praying. God, open their hearts to the fact that you’re doing a new thing. God, break down their barriers and their walls. God, just convict them and change their minds. The text says they fell silent. 

     Whoever it is you’re praying for, whatever it is they need…pray for that same silence to come on them. I talk about silence a lot because that’s the door the Holy Spirit comes through. Pray for that hardness of heart in your loved one to be pierced with the silence of the Holy Spirit. Ask God to lead them to a place where every other voice and every other noise and distraction is drowned out…that all distractions are removed…so that the voice of the Spirit is the only voice that can be heard. Take a leap of faith to become a prayer warrior…to pray for that person or that world leader…without ceasing. 

     Like the Apostle Paul, “I urge you by the love of the Spirit to strive in prayer.” Let me give you an example of what that striving in prayer can bring about.There was once a man who was known for his wild and dissolute life. He was a partier, a drunk, a womanizer. His mother desperately tried to convert him to Christianity, but instead he ran away from her and joined a cult. He was about as far from God as you could get. But every single day his mother would go into the church and pray for him. She would literally sit there for hours…crying and praying over her wayward son. After years of this, one day a priest asked her who she was praying for. She said it was her son and the priest said to her “surely the child of so many tears will not be lost.” 

     Shortly after that, one day, this man was in a garden in Milan when he heard a child singing the words: “Take it up and read. Take it up and read.” At first he thought it was some weird game, but then he realized he’d never heard it before. He looked over and he saw a Bible sitting on a park bench and suddenly it hit him…that God might be telling him to read the Scriptures. The pages of that Bible were blowing in the warm summer breeze and he picked it up only to read the words: “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” The man fell to his knees and wept. He became a Christian in that instant…because God changed his heart and his mind…through the power of prayer.

    That man was Saint Augustine of Hippo…the greatest theologian in the 2,000 year history of the Christian Church. Through the prayers of his faithful mother, Saint Monica…God changed his mind….and he became the greatest mind the church has ever produced. Never let anyone tell you that God can’t change someone’s mind. No, you pray for that person. You be a Saint Monica for that person. You pray for them when you wake up. You pray for them when you go to sleep. You pray for them every single day. 

     Matthew Henry put it like this 300 years ago: “As God must be sought unto for the restraining of the ill will of our enemies, so he must also be sought for the preserving and increasing of the good will of our friends; for God has the hearts of both one and the other in his hands.”

     My friends, by prayer we can influence the wills of presidents and kings…senators and governors. Like Nineveh old, the power of prayer can bring about repentance and change the fate of nations. By prayer we can influence the wills of both our friends and our enemies. By prayer we can influence the lives of everyone that’s important to us. “Can God change a person’s mind about how they act?” The answer is yes. God can change our minds if we’re willing to trust Him and make a leap of faith. And God can change the minds of those we care about if we’re willing to become intercessors like Saint Monica. So let us resolve to fight all of our battles…on bended knee. Amen.

© 2018 ENG/Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Why Was Jesus Born to a Poor Family?

Matthew 25:31-45 “Why is it that God Chose for Jesus to be Born into a Poor Family?”

    Grace and peace to all of my readers here on Unexplained Mysteries. This week I’ll be starting a new blog series which I previewed last week (with a blog on doubt), called “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” that will be running for my next few posts. This past year, our United Methodist Communications started a very successful ad campaign that featured conversations with children. They were asked to share their thoughts about God and about the mission statement of our denomination…to open hearts, minds and doors. 

     The advertisements featured elementary-aged youngsters answering questions such as, "What does it mean to have an open heart?" The children's inspiring answers reveal what seems to be a special connection with God. I watched some of these videos myself…they’re powerful and inspiring. If you haven’t seen them yet, you can see them on rethinkchurch.org. I definitely recommend looking at them. But the people from United Methodist Communications made sure it was a two-way conversation. 

     These elementary school aged children….were also asked to share their deepest questions about God. 

     The result…the depth and the heartfelt sincerity of their questioning…was just astonishing. 

    It reminds me of St. Anselm’s motto of “Fides Quaerens Intellectum” or “faith seeking understanding.” What that means is we begin in faith and trust, but we think in questions…we search for a deeper understanding. See, the Christian faith isn’t and never should be about having all the answers…it’s about asking the right questions. No matter where you’re at in life, we should all be cultivating this faith that seeks understanding. 

     So in that spirit, over the next 5 weeks…inspired by some really hard questions…we’re going to let these children lead us on a journey of asking questions in the name of our faith. And as we travel together, let’s take some time to reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, and where God is calling us to go…both as people of faith.

     You know, the traditional lectionary reading for Epiphany every winter is from Matthew 2 and it shows a sharp contrast between the King Herod the Great and Jesus. Jesus was born in a stable but Herod lived in a palace. Jesus was a helpless infant but Herod possessed great power. Jesus would prove to be a man of great love and compassion, but Herod was cruel and violent. 

     So it’s no wonder that while the 3 Wise Men, strangers from another Kingdom want to go lay offerings at the feet of the Heavenly King….the worldly King was desperately trying to hold on to his power and eliminate any rivals. The shadow of these threats from worldly powers seem to hang over Jesus’ entire earthly ministry…so why did God choose for Jesus to be born into a poor family?

    And the question is just as relevant for us today. We know that income inequality and poverty in this country have reached frightening levels. 

     As part of an introduction to this particular sermon, the United Methodist Communications linked a series of episodes from the radio show On the Media called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” Now I managed to get through it, but let me tell you…it wasn’t easy. It took me into a challenging world of presuppositions that we make about the poor…that many of us, myself included, sometimes take to be the truth. 

     For example, it confronts the issue of assigning blame for people’s poverty: they’re poor because they lack will-power…they’re poor because they have no work ethic….they’re poor because they have failed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It also asks the question whether there really is equal opportunity for everyone in America. The show does an amazing job of breaking down a lot of our stereotypes about people living in poverty. 

     And it shows some of the real reasons why so many people can’t seem to climb out of poverty no matter how hard they try.

    So I’m sharing this with you today not only because I think it’s worth listening to, but also because it helps to point right at some of the issues that keep us from being able to act like Christ and to help our neighbors in need. 

     The language and labels we use to talk about people…whether its class, gender, race, education or income levels…they not only limit our compassion, but also our willingness to confront and respond to these questions as communities of faith. 

    But to be able to respond to these things as the sheep God calls us to be, we have to back up a little bit. 

Our young person wanted to know why Jesus was born to a poor family, and see, when we look back at the Scriptures and throughout history we begin to realize…this is how God has always dealt with His people. 

    From the beginning, God was reluctant to give the Jewish people a king. We go back to First Samuel and the idea was that God would essentially rule over the people directly with the Prophet Samuel as His mouthpiece. But he was getting old and so they wanted to have a king just like all the other nations. 

     But God had a reason for not giving Israel a king up to that point. 

     It was because He didn’t want them to put all their trust in worldly rulers instead of God Himself. Samuel prays to God about what to do, and God tells him those words you never want to hear in a relationship…it’s not you, it’s me. 

     God said when they’re asking you for a king, they’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting me. This is what my people have done all along…they bow down to worldly powers and they chase after other gods. 

     Having a king and trusting in worldly powers will only make them worse, but if that’s what they want, we’ll give it to them and I’ll teach them from it. 

    So most of you probably know what happens. Saul was just like so many who hold power, both in ancient times and in the present day. He starts off good, but ends up so corrupt that God asks Samuel to appoint a replacement. 

     Samuel already had his mind set on someone…but God tells him “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” God didn’t choose a king because of his looks, because of his wealth, or because of his power and influence. 

     God only cared about one thing….the heart. The scrawny and disheveled shepherd gets called in from the fields…and God chooses David to become the true king. God said that this lowly, nobody shepherd was “a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'”

     Of all the people God could choose….of all the people God could identify Himself with…He identifies with the humble and lowly shepherd…the exact opposite of Saul…and every other King in those ancient days. In fact, some of the rulers of nearby countries probably thought it was a joke when they heard that a shepherd had become the King of Israel. But that’s how God works, see? David was a type of Christ. 

     In Isaiah chapter 66 God says He favors those who have a humble heart and contrite spirit. God has always identified Himself with the poor and the lowly. 

    In other words, then, what we have here in our Gospel lesson for the day…is quite literally a visual representation of that fact. But what that tells us…shouldn’t be a cause for fear…it should be a cause for rejoicing. 

     Our text today reminds us in the starkest terms possible one of the key messages that Jesus brought to the world: Those whom this world considers insignificant are very significant to God. 

    But let’s be real. That message is challenging for many of us. It cuts against the grain of everything our culture lifts up as being a successful life. It challenges the American Dream. It puts the brakes on our love with capitalism and what really equates to survival of the fittest. And to us as Christians…it asks another disturbing question….where do we find Jesus?

    A lot of us, we wear crosses or crucifixes as a symbol of our faith and of Christ’s presence. 

     Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others…we tell you that Jesus is present in the sacrament of Holy Communion….even though we may differ somewhat as to how. Some will say Jesus is found in these leather bound books that we read from every Sunday. And of course, most of us will say that He is present with us as we worship and that He’s always in our hearts. But is that all?

    Yes, Jesus is found in the Eucharist…I believe it’s my duty as a minister of the Christian gospel to magnify the sacraments. Yes, Jesus is found in our Holy Bibles…that’s where we go when we seek understanding. 

    Yes, He’s present in our worship…when two or more gather in His name. He’s in our hearts and the power of His witness is in the symbols that we wear. But is that all?

    The child asked “why was Jesus born to a poor family?” It’s because God doesn’t see the world in the same terms as we do. Jesus came to reverse the order of the world. 

     He came to teach us that those whom the world considers insignificant are very significant to God. When the Israelites demanded a King he chose a scraggly, uneducated shepherd to be his king. 

    And then the unthinkable happens. God humbles Himself….God condescends…God stoops and comes down…to our level. In Christ, God became flesh….but He enters the world…not in a palace…but in a manger. Once again, Jesus reverses the order of the world. 

    So where is He?

    Saint Matthew tells us “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Jesus is living out on the streets. Jesus is in the soup kitchen lines. 

     Jesus is waiting at the Salvation Army to get a coat and some fresh clothes. Jesus is in the hospital. Jesus is in prison. Jesus is with the drug addicts. Jesus is in the refugee camp. As another Pastor once put it, wherever people are in need, wherever people suffer, wherever people do without their basic needs…Jesus is there. And He isn’t there just to comfort them, He’s suffering right there alongside them. That’s where we find Jesus.

    The wise men went out searching for Jesus and they found Him in the lowest, most unlikely of places. And this is true because Jesus embodied the very core of His message…that in God’s Kingdom…everyone is significant. Every. Single. Person. In God’s Kingdom, all are welcome at the table. In God’s Kingdom, Jesus is just as likely to be born to a poor, pregnant, unmarried teenage girl as he is to a wealthy business owner. In God’s Kingdom, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man….instead….all are one in Jesus. The lesson of the Epiphany is that God in Christ has turned the world upside down. 

     He judges…separating the sheep and the goats…not with the eyes of a King drunk with power…but with the eyes of a shepherd, clothed in rags and living among the least and the forgotten.

    And so, when Jesus judges, it’s not just going to be about our behavior…it’s going to be about our very….our orientation. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

     As I was preparing for this blog, I took the time to study some of the artwork depicting the Last Judgment. I looked at Michelangelo’s famous work from the renaissance and several paintings from the middle ages. A lot of those paintings were loosely based on this passage. But you know what? 

     I don’t think any of them really captured the true essence of Jesus’ words here. See, when I think of the sheep and the goats…the reality is a shepherd in those days would separate the sheep from the goats every night…and if you came out there and saw the animals….you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. You wouldn’t know the sheep from the goats. They each walked their own path, but in the dark they looked alike. 

    Now, I think that’s the point, see? The sheep and the goats…they’re essentially already separated…they're already walking their own paths….and Jesus is…essentially the after-school crossing guard. That’s why they were initially surprised about their judgment because they were already living one way or the other. The sheep and the goats….it’s all about orientation. We can either live for self and die to others or we can live for others and die to self. What Jesus is looking for is how we answer that one question of alignment.

    One of the great spiritual leaders of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi once said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Amen and amen.  A lot of Western new age spiritual practice today is very much a bi-product of our materialistic culture…and it’s focused on you the consumer. I’m going to pick and choose what I believe. I’m going to find God (only) out in nature, in the sunsets. 

     It’s all about us, and what we get from our spirituality. If we don’t like it we try something new or we go somewhere else. 

     But speaking as a Christian and as a scholar of comparative religion who works in the field of interfaith dialogue….Gandhi was right…and what I can tell you is this: you can distinguish authentic spiritual practice from pop culture, consumer driven spirituality by one thing….authentic spirituality and religious experience turns you inward to turn you outward. In other words, we come to church to nourish and refresh our souls…so we can then get out there and do the work. 

     Our inward practice should equip us for the outward work of God’s Kingdom. Authentic spirituality is a both/and, not either/or.

    And this thinking leads me to one of our great Saints in the Christian tradition, Francis. I think everybody knows his name…and that he loved animals…but not everybody knows his story. He was actually a spoiled rich kid. He loved music, poetry, drinking and women. In other words….he was a medieval frat boy. But then one day when he was riding out of town to go to a party, he saw a leper by the side of the road. 

     Now lepers were feared and despised in his day too….but something compelled him to get off his horse and he goes over to the leper. He gives him all his money and then…to the astonishment of all the onlookers…he hugged the man and kissed him on the cheek. He would later say the moment of embracing that diseased man….was the first time he’d ever known peace. Francis got back on his horse and when he turned to look back at the leper…he was gone. Francis knew he had ministered to Jesus Himself…and from that day forward He was a changed man. He died to self to live for others. As you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.

    I really like the Christian writer Ann Lamott…she’s hysterically funny and at times she’s profound. In one of her books, she talks about her Presbyterian Church outside San Francisco.  This is the place where she became a Christian.  She says that “Ken” started coming to her church right after his partner died of AIDS.  Ken had the disease as well and Anne Lamott describes him as an emaciated scarecrow of a man, with a lopsided face that lit up when he smiled.  Ken told the congregation that when his long-time partner died, Jesus entered into the place in his heart that was broken, and Jesus had never left.  Over the year that Ken attended the church, he had won almost everyone over.  But there was a woman in the choir, Rinola – a lady who had always been taught that Ken’s way of life and that Ken himself was an abomination.  To her, Ken was someone to be avoided. Well, one day, during the hymns, the congregation got to its feet all except for Ken, who had become so sickly and frail he could no longer stand on his own. All of them started singing, His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and when they began to sing, “Why do I feel discouraged, why do the shadows fall,” Rinola began to cry.  She left the choir and walked over to Ken. Rinola lifted him out of the pew and held him like a little ragdoll.  The two of them sang together, cried together, … WERE children of God together.  Anne Lamott said she wasn’t sure if that was a full-fledged miracle or not, but as we look at our text this morning to answer that child’s question….I think we know the answer. She died to self to live for others. As you did it for the least of these, you have done it for me.

     As I bring this entry to a close, the fact that Jesus was born to a poor family teaches us one final lesson. Not only are we to view all of the people of the world as God’s beloved children….we also need to remember that we are beloved children of God. This passage isn’t scary. It’s good news. God cares about each man, woman and child, no matter who they are or where they come from. My sisters and brothers…take these things with you always….on days of joy and in times of trouble….you are significant to God. You matter to this world. Your failures and your shortcomings are forgiven by God. You are loved by God. Each one of you…you are important. You are important to this world, and your presence in this world matters. Your witness and your testimony matter. Your life matters. Like those wise men who travelled so far to bring gifts to the Savior of the world…so let us go on to change the world for the sake of the One who gave us the gift of His life for the world. In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

 

 

    

    

Marcus Aurelius

John 20:19-31 “Is it wrong to have doubts and to question God?”

When you think of news stories that top the headlines, you don’t normally think of religious stories. If there’s any at all…in the newspapers they tend to be towards the back. If you’re looking online, they’re generally towards the bottom. But every now and then a particular religious story will really make waves and get a lot of attention.

Well, there was one such story just a few years ago that made international headlines.

 It was in all the newspapers, it was all over the internet, and it was on just about every news show…the networks and cable. Not to mention…a few late night talk shows. Now in each of these stories, the tag line was almost always the same….”Archbishop Doubts the Existence of God.” Naturally, It was a big deal.

So here’s the gist of it. One morning, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury was out for a run with his dog and he suddenly began to wonder why God had failed to intervene and prevent the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, France. 

Instead of keeping those questions to himself…he spoke very candidly about them in a later interview. 

This is what he said. I’m quoting it verbatim. "The other day I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God: 'Look, this is all very well but isn't it about time you did something – if you're there'. "Where are you in all this?'” He goes on: “There are moments, sure, where you think 'Is there a God? Where is God?” Later on he says maybe these are things the Archbishop of Canterbury shouldn’t be saying.

It’s no surprise that everybody was in an uproar after that. I remember it clearly. 

The International Business Times called it “the doubt of the century.”  One popular atheist writer took to social media and proclaimed: “VICTORY!” The “Daily Show” account joked, “Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God. Adds: ‘But atheism doesn’t pay them bills, sooo ...”

Now this didn’t make the headlines, but I’m sure that Christian leaders from all over the globe were probably saying that he’d committed a grievous sin. Some probably were calling for him to step down. 

What do you guys think, I wonder? Is that something he should or shouldn’t have said?

This week we’re concluding our sermon series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and this week’s question is a fitting end to all of it. I guess you could say it ties everything together. Today a young man has presented us with the question “Is it wrong to have doubts and to question God?” So in this sermon we’re going to be taking a look at the place of doubt in religious belief. 

Hopefully along the way we’ll see not only how to dispel some of our doubts, but also how we can learn to embrace our doubts rather than letting them immobilize us and paralyze our faith.

    To begin, I must say it doesn’t surprise me that this boy, who’s probably no more than 10, has such doubts. We forget sometimes that our children can be miniature philosophers. Just as we’ve seen over the past month in this sermon series, they ask questions about meaning, about life and death, identity. They ask about so many things that we probably haven’t thought much about since we were kids. 

One of my favorite theologians, the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested the primary challenge facing the Church in the United States in the 21st is the fact that for a lot of us…God’s no longer a primary actor in the story of our lives. It’s not meant to be a slam; it’s just the reality. We’re too busy. Our lives are too fast paced and hectic to slow down for God and to really think about these Ultimate Concerns.

So what do we do when one of our young philosophers ask us questions like these?  

Or what happens when we end up in a situation like the Archbishop? What happens when something springs up in our path that causes us to ask questions about our faith or to have doubts about it? It could be a personal tragedy or some horrific world event. It could be something from your past that you’ve never worked through. It could be something intellectual. Maybe someone or something challenged your beliefs and its pushed you so far outside your comfort zone you’re not sure what to think anymore. You just kind of go through the motions. 

Any number of things can cause us to question God and to have doubts about our faith. And if you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve never had any doubts. I have a strong faith’ you’ll probably end up in this spot sooner or later too. That’s just the way it is. 

And when that time of doubt comes, we don’t make it easy on ourselves, do we? Chances are your first reaction to it…is to beat yourself up over it. You become your own worst critic. You think to yourself, what’s wrong with me? Why am I thinking like this? You might start comparing yourself to other people around you. Man, why can’t I have faith like so and so? 

 And you might think God’s angry at you. You might think He’s going to zap you with a lightning bolt if you don’t suck it up. Then that leads to guilt. You feel guilty sitting here on Sundays. You feel guilty taking Holy Communion…or you may skip it all together because now you feel unworthy of it. This is what happens when the hamster wheels of doubt start spinning uncontrollably. I’m sure a number of you have been there before. 

Now do you know why that happens? Well, one of the major reasons is because we don’t think about our thoughts. We don’t think about our thoughts. 

We have our thoughts of doubt and then we add thoughts of self-judgment, guilt, and condemnation on top of that. The hamster wheels just keep spinning and spinning like that. 

But the reality is doubt is a part of our knowledge. It’s inherent in the constitution of the human mind. Put simply, it’s who we are. Doubt is in our DNA. Our faculties are finite. The more we think about, the more we’ll doubt. The more we know…the more we’ll see that we don’t know. Trying to run from our doubt would be like trying to run from our shadows. 

Doubt is a permanent element in our lives and our doubts grow as we grow. Doubt is literally at the root of our intellectual growth. 

And in most cases our doubts don’t interfere with our daily lives. Essentially all our knowledge is infected with some kind of doubt but we don’t let that stop us. We can’t be certain about much of anything…but we act. We form relationships and let new people into our lives even when we don’t really know them. We start businesses when we’re not sure if they’ll succeed or not. We’ll embark on things like new jobs and school in spite of all the risks. 

So if we waited until we were certain about something before we acted….well, chances are…we’d never get anything done. 

When you really think about it, we need doubts to, don’t we? I mean it’s hard for us to believe…but for centuries people thought the earth was flat. If you sailed to the edges of the maps of the known world you’d fall off the map and end up in outer space or something. Christopher Columbus doubted that and he sailed to the New World. Thank God for doubters, that’s all I can say. Doubt is the great destroyer of error.

The point is, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s nothing to beat ourselves up over. 

But here’s the thing. Doubt looks different when we take it into the realms of morality and religion. If we start to have doubts about our convictions…it means we’re slipping. It means we’re deficient. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. And so we feel guilty for having doubts. We make it an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not have doubts.”  And a lot of times we respond the doubts of other people unfairly and unsympathetically too. 

We hit ‘em over the head with dogma and platitudes as if we have answers to every single question. “You need to pray more.” “Your faith isn’t big enough.” 

It reminds me of this call center I used to work at. It was a sales job and we had a script that we used. You stick to the script or else. And that script had about a dozen responses for every objection the customer would come up with. Now is it any wonder that most of the employees didn’t work there for longer than a month or two? You know, to be successful in sales, the first thing you learn is to put the customer’s needs above everything else. 

Every person has unique and individual needs, so you listen to them, you get to know them. 

The key to being a good salesperson isn’t being a good talker; it’s being a good listener. So when somebody comes up to us, knowing we’re Christians…and they say…”where was God when my brother got sick?” and we look down at our cheat sheet…and we say “well, we live in a fallen world…” chances are it’s not going to work. Insensitive, stock answers just don’t cut it. And Jesus knew that.

The text that I picked for this question is read every year in the Lectionary on the Sunday following Easter. Now here’s the reason for that.

It allows us to see the reality that every one of Jesus’ followers were filled with doubt. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early on Easter morning. The sun was just beginning to rise and the shadows were long. A ‘messenger’ suddenly appears and tells her that Jesus isn’t there. She doesn’t believe it. And when Jesus approaches her she thinks it’s someone else. She’s filled with doubt. But Jesus doesn’t hit her with some kind of dogma or platitudes. He says her name. 

And somehow…His saying her name overcomes her doubt…and she knows it’s Him.

So what happens next? She runs off to tell the other disciples what happened. And they think she’s crazy. Mary’s just being too emotional. Mary’s hallucinating. 

Then, later that night….they’re all huddled together in the Upper Room and suddenly, Jesus miraculously appears to them. The doors were shut., the windows were closed. But there He is…and it scared the heck out of them. They weren’t high-fiving each other. They weren’t saying….”See, Jesus is back…you owe me 5 bucks.” 

Nope. They suddenly thought they were in The Haunting of the Upper Room. They’re filled with doubt. 

But Jesus shows them His wounds and then He eats with Him. He’s real. And so they overcame their doubts. 

There’s no such thing as a stock answer to our doubts. We have to look to Jesus to meet our needs. We pray and we point. And doubt isn’t something to be afraid of or ashamed of either because here we see that doubt is at the very heart of the Easter message. And that brings us to the Biblical King of doubters, Thomas. 

Now Thomas is an interesting figure, both in the Gospels and in the historical traditions that emerged about the rest of his life. 

And even though we tend treat him like a bad Sunday school lesson: “for heaven’s sake, don’t be a doubter like Thomas!!” he’s always been a compelling figure to most believers. Why? Because he’s a kindred spirit; we can relate to him. Thomas is the guy who doesn’t have a blind faith. Thomas questions, he doubts, he thinks, and he ponders. Our little guy from the video would have liked him. See, whenever we meet him in the scriptures…he’s asking questions. He’s a realist. 

For example, when Jesus is saying all this nice poetic stuff about mansions and preparing a place for them….he scratches his head and says: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going and we don’t know the way.” 

In our cartoon version of him, we think Thomas is the guy without much faith. But that’s actually not true. Remember Fides Quarens Intellectum…faith seeking understanding? That’s exactly what he’s doing. He wants to take it to a deeper level. 

Now we don’t know why he wasn’t there that first night. Maybe he was out getting McDonalds for everybody. 

Maybe he was like some of us when we’re really depressed. He just wanted to be alone. Maybe he just needed some time to think. But whatever the case, just like all these other resurrection encounters…when he’s told what happened he doesn’t buy it. He’s full of doubt. Maybe these guys were all so grief stricken they’d lost their minds. 

But then Jesus meets Thomas’ unique need too. He needed empirical proof…to see and to touch. And notice how Jesus responds…He just gives it to Him. He doesn’t yell at him. He doesn’t judge him. He doesn’t berate him for having doubts. 

He gives him what he needs and it enables Thomas to make the most profound declaration of faith in the entire New Testament…”My Lord and my God!” 

So now here we are, 2,000 years later. Maybe you or someone you know is plagued with some kind of nagging doubt and it’s really hard to make that kind of confession of faith. If you profess your faith at all there’s no enthusiasm. No life. Just doubt and going through the motions. The question is…how can this story get us to Thomas’ enthusiasm? 

Jesus says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ How is that possible? 

Well, John tells us. Right here. “These things are written so that you might believe.” The story has its own clues and I’ll tell you….there’s four major ways to get past our doubts in this text.

First, offer it up to God. Like I said, the Easter story is filled with doubt and yet Jesus meets each one of their unique needs. With thanksgiving make your requests known to God and just say….Lord, I believe…help me in my unbelief. He knows that each and every one of us has doubts. He doesn’t judge you for it. He doesn’t condemn you for it. He loves you just as you are. So don’t be afraid to go to him and just offer up your doubts to God. 

Secondly, when you have doubts…be in community. That was Thomas’ only mistake here. He left and went off on his own. We need our friends in the faith. We need one another. You know, when my mother died I could have fallen into a storm of doubts…of why’s and what if’s…and sometimes those are there. I can’t help it. But your love and support really kept me going…and it deepened my faith. Share your doubts with other believers. Remember, we are the Body of Christ. 

Sometimes all we need is some words of encouragement or a comforting touch or hug. 

When we come together as the Body of Christ, it’s through each other that we experience His healing love and presence. 

Finally, you ask these questions. You bring them to light. And you do one of two things with them. So I’d like you to do something for me to help with this. I want each one of you to take a moment and write down in your sermon notes one question you have about God and your faith. Maybe it’s something that’s been nagging at you for years. 

Maybe it’s something trivial like…”why did God create spiders?” I’d like to know that one too. Or why is my loved one is so much pain? 

I want you to name it today and create the space for an authentic encounter with God. You have two choices after you write it down.

First, you can seek. Fides Quarens Intellectum. Seek understanding. Wrestle with your questions and see if you can find a way to answer them. Sign up and bring it to Coffee with the Pastor…but no guarantees there! Talk to other Christians about your doubts. Research. Read your Bibles. Read some books. In other words, be hungry. 

As important as being in church or Bible study is…it’s not enough. We have to cultivate an eagerness for spiritual knowledge, for the things of the God. 

If we don’t seek on our own, in our personal lives, our faith becomes stagnant. Your study of the Word, your study of the things of God…it leads to spiritual growth. The more you study, the more you’ll be mature and firm in your faith. 

And then there’s one last thing you can do. You can learn to live with your doubts. When you go home, tear that bulletin up with your question and throw it in the trash. 

Let that be a symbolic gesture…saying I won’t let my doubts control me or define me. 

In the Book of Job, he went on doubting, complaining and questioning God for 38 chapters. Finally, God got tired of hearing all of Job’s doubts and He basically says to him “Be quiet and calm down Job. I’m tired of all your wailing and doubting. I’m here for you, I love you…but you’re never going to have all the answers to your questions in this life. Just keep calm and learn to trust me in spite of all your doubts.” That’s how faith works. 

Its belief and hope and trust in an unseen reality in spite of all our doubts. Anything else, it wouldn’t be faith.

Over the past month we’ve learned to ask questions about our faith. 

We’ve learned that asking questions is vital to our beliefs. And today we’ve learned that our doubts are what actually lead us to growth. But if we aren’t careful, we can let our doubts paralyze us. Our doubts and questions can become a waste of time, a waste of life, and a waste of our intellectual and spiritual energy. So sometimes we have to learn to accept our doubts and forgive ourselves for having them. Then we crumple them up, throw them in the trash, and move on. 

The church historian Eusebius wrote that the disciple Thomas went all the way to India and founded several churches and a large Christian community there and was ultimately martyred for his faith. He got past his doubt. 

And if all the naysayers had just taken the time to listen to the whole interview, they would have seen that the Archbishop of Canterbury got past his doubts too. Like Job, God didn’t give him the answers he was seeking. Instead, Archbishop Welby shifted his focus. This is what he said:

 “We know Jesus, we can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain about loads of things, but we know about Jesus. We can talk about Jesus…I always do that because most of the other questions, I just can’t answer. So when my life gets challenging, I keep going and call to Jesus to help me, and he picks me up.” Amen to that. 

Thank God for Archbishop Justin Welby. Thank God for his honesty and thank God for his openness to share his doubts. Let’s follow in his footsteps. Let’s share our doubts and our questions with one another.

 But in the midst of it, let’s just keep talking about Jesus…because sometimes…that’s all we can do.

Marcus Aurelius

A Sermon For Pentecost Sunday

Sermon 5/20/18 Acts 2: 1-21 Pentecost Year B “Proclaim Jubilee!”

     If you’re from Ohio, I think it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to complain about the weather. Now a good part of the time, I think that’s pretty warranted, isn’t it? Most recently….it was the winter that….refused….to…..just end.You know, it’s funny…back in February my In-Laws were talking about how they couldn’t wait for Spring….and I told them….half-jokingly….half-seriously….I don’t call it spring until May. They’d talk about it warming up in April and I’d say….don’t count on it….we might have a blizzard. 

     And we would laugh. But then April comes….and it turns out….maybe I do have the gift of prophecy. Snow. Cold. Freezing rain. It was all there.

     I think we’re always complaining about the weather because it really does seem like you can experience all four seasons inone week in Ohio. There’s some pretty good memes out there that make fun of this. My favorite one has the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials and it says “I don’t always have my air conditioner and heat running in the same week....but when I do….it’s because I live in Ohio.” Spot on, right?

     Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’re a bit too hard on our weather here sometimes. Maybe we ought to give our Ohio weather some more love. I’ve lived in Ohio pretty much my whole life, and yeah, while the weather is terrible sometimes….other than your occasional Polar Vortexes, blizzards, and flooding….the weather isn’t extreme. I mean we don’t have all the crazy stuff you’d see on the Weather Channel if you watched it 24 hours a day…so in some ways, you could say we’re blessed.

     In fact, I don’t think I’d ever experienced any kind of extreme weather until we went to Hong Kong in 2013 with the family. Hurricanes or typhoons as they call them in Asia are sadly frequent there. And one was quite literally bearing down on Hong Kong the first couple of days we were there.

     So I’ll never forget that first night in Hong Kong because that was my first real experience of extreme and frightening weather. 

     They have a warning level system for typhoons…and that particular one was a Signal 8 typhoon….which means that “gale force or stronger winds are imminent.” Everything closes: schools, offices, tours, public transport, taxis, shops, restaurants, ferries, trains, flights.

     Now in the past, my Mom….was my weather channel App. I’m not kidding. She was always watching the News and the Weather Channel. So she would always call me with weather updates. If I didn’t answer for whatever reason, she’d leave a message. 

     You should bring an umbrella to class, it’s going to rain today. Drive carefully, it’s going to snow and they’re saying the roads are going to be slick for the morning commute. I never had to watch the weather or look at an app because I could pretty much count on my Mom to call me with any important updates. Looking back….it’s amazing how you really miss those trivial and even funny things like that when they’re gone…you know….what I wouldn’t give for an update on tomorrow’s forecast from Mom.

     But so there we are in Hong Kong and I had a Facebook message from my Cousin…asking about the typhoon and asking if we were all right. 

     Please call your Mom and Dad. Of course my Mom knew about the weather clear on the other side of the world….and of course she was worried, because, well, that’s where we were…..so we called her. 

     Now I kept trying to reassure her that everything was okay. It’s not that bad. It’s not even raining here right now. But as I’m saying all this….I’m not so sure myself. I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’m from Ohio. We don’t do typhoons. I’m out of my depth. And even though we’re in this massively tall high rise hotel….the wind is just….pounding the hotel. I can hear it howling and howling through that ultra-thick glass. 

     You can feel it reverberating against the building. So I’m telling my mom….yeah….everything’s okay….and I’m looking at them like….is everything okay? The hotel isn’t going to blow over is it?

     And then the next day….well, it was just bizarre. We went out so we could get to my brother-in-law’s apartment and the Signal 8 warning was still in effect. Now even though it wasn’t really doing much of anything….the streets of Hong Kong were absolutely deserted. Not soul. It was suddenly like we were on the Walking Dead or something.They take that warning level seriously. 

     That alone was pretty scary for this Ohio boy….are we waiting for something bad to happen? Is this the calm before the storm? This whole trip that we’d planned down to every last detail….was now suddenly all up in the air and totally unpredictable. 

     Unpredictable weather…you know….that’s a lot like what the early church experienced on the Day of Pentecost. 

     There was a vague promise from Jesus….that He was going to send the Paraclete….the Comforter, the Advocate….the Holy Spirit…and that things were about to change. 

     Now I can’t help but wonder…if we sanitize this a bit in the church. I’m not sure if we really know what to do with Pentecost…so we turn it in to this big celebration. I’ve seen a few things over the years. Children processing while waving these big red streamers. Or maybe everybody in the church wears red that day. And well…here I am…wearing red today. And make no mistake…it is a celebration. 

     But maybe it’s not this cookie-cutter thing….because maybe…just maybe the coming of the Pentecost….is more like a Signal 8 Typhoon Warning. 

     Out of this seeming chaos and disorder….out of the gale force winds and rain and thunder and lightning…something new emerges….a new beginning….a new order….a new way of being and a new way of doing. Its unpredictable like Ohio weather and so we’re confused. So let me put forth a theory to you guys….you can tell me what you think later…maybe we don’t know what to do with Pentecost….because we don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit. For us mainline Protestants….the Holy Spirit’s like the guy…that you know is at the party….but you don’t actually see Him there. 

     You find His name on the guest list, you go looking for Him, but you miss him. And then maybe you hear about himafterwards….oh, He was the life of the party. But you missed it. We missed it. I swear, that’s where we are with the Holy Spirit. 

     And so here we are in 2018….and maybe we’re clueless about Pentecost…and maybe we’re clueless about the Holy Spirit. And I say all these things….when I know we need His power and His presence the most. 

     I’m so happy to be celebrating my first Pentecost and Heritage Sunday as a head pastor…and yet…and yet….a part of me feels like I’m back at that weird and bizarre day on the streets of Hong Kong. These thick and gray storm clouds seem to be rolling in everywhere we look. The typhoon sirens are ringing out in the distance. 

     The streets are deserted….everyone seems to be hunkering down. Everyone seems to be giving us an ominous forecast. If you're United Methodist, you know we’re in danger of a split and schism starting at our special General Conference in 2019. And the catholic church, meaning the church universal is losing members and influence….the sky is falling and what are we going to do? Well, maybe we need to take a deep breath for starters…because that’s where everything begins….with breath.

     We consider creation. Genesis tells us that God made human beings from dust…from the mud and dirt of the earth. God shapes us out of this clay like a kid building a sand castle on the beach. But then God breathes into this earthen mannequin God’s own breath and the human being is suddenly alive….a creature of both matter and spirit. So it’s God’s own breath that animates us, that makes us live. And our Psalter reading for the day interprets this breath of God….as none other than the very Spirit of God. We see there that the Spirit of God breathes life in to all of creation…and the Spirit of God sustains the lives of all things in creations. In short, it’s the breath of the Spirit that gives us the breath of life.

     But most of us, we know the story. We break our first covenant with God and death enters in to the picture…our breath becomes a fragile, temporary, and fleeting thing that passes away. Time itself begins….and thus….each of us….we breathe a first breath and we breathe a last breath. And so God does something miraculous to restore our breath. He comes down in Christ and becomes the very mud and dirt of creation that we are. 

     He experiences his first breath as a human being and He experiences His last breath on the Cross at Golgotha. And yet, this isn’t the end of the story. That same breath of God, that same Spirit of God that creates and sustains all life….it comes on Christ and raises Him from the dead as the first fruits of a new creation. 

     And so this is where we find the Disciples as our narrative begins. They’ve experienced the risen Christ. They’ve met Him. They’ve broken bread with Him and touched the wound in His side. Then they saw Him ascend into Heaven….leaving them only with that vague promise that the Paraclete….the breath of God, the Spirit of God….the author and sustainer of all life and the One who raised Christ from the dead….would soon come upon them….and through them fill and renew the whole creation. 

     But before all that….there was the waiting period. And this wasn’t the kind of anticipation when, God forbid, your Amazon package is a day late. No, this was like when you’re at urgent care because you’re feeling awful but the place is packed. It’s that agonizing waiting…that take a number and have a seat waiting.

     One of my favorite living Christian thinkers, Father Richard Rohr, explains this waiting period in a profound way. He calls it the “First Novena” or a time of Holy Waiting and prayer for nine days. Like fasting. Like Lent. He says that we can’t truly appreciate presence unless we first appreciate absence. In other words, he says we have to experience emptiness and voids to create the space to be filled. And so that’s exactly what happens. 

     The disciples were like me in that hotel room in Hong Kong….pacing up and down the floor, looking out the window….wondering what’s going to happen next. Are we going to be okay?

     And so all their heads were bowed in prayer when a breeze suddenly began to move among them, just enough to make their hair stand up on end. Then it was more than a breeze. Literally, “an echoing sound as of a mighty wind borne violently” just roared through the whole house like the whir of a tornado. Their robes were flapping wildly and things were crashing and hitting the ground. The Spirit of God had come upon them! This fiery presence suddenly appeared in their midst and then it divided into separate flame-like tongues that danced over every single head. John the Baptist had promised a baptism of fire…and now it was here! The Holy Spirit blows in through the windows and doors. The Holy Spirit blows in to each one of them this breath of new life….and then….and then….the Holy Spirit blows them out the door. 

     They were filled with the Holy Spirit and as they spoke, each person in the crowd could hear them in their own language. This wasn’t Google Translator….this was the breath and the power of God! That my friends….is what happened at Pentecost.

     We fast forward to today….and we’re like…okay…so what? I’ll wear my party hat for the service. I’ll have my cake….and then I’ll go home for a nap. Sure there may have been a time for all that enthusiasm, wind and fire, but we civilized Christians know better now and we have to be careful…not to get carried away, right? I mean…that door is closed, isn’t it? We don’t experience stuff like that now do we?  I think that’s the case in a lot of churches today. 

     We want just enough religion and spirituality to feel good about ourselves….but not so much that it shakes up our routines and changes our way of living. We don’t really know if He really is present inside each one of us and we really don’t want to get blown out the door. Speaking of Father Richard Rohr again, he calls this a “cosmetic piety”…one that’s intended to look good on the surface, but lacks any real depth or complexity. And the truth is, most of us probably fall in to that category at one time or another. 

     But once again, my brothers and sisters, all we have to do…is take a deep breath. 

     The Book of Ezekiel says “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” God’s Spirit….breath and wind….can put flesh on a skeleton and call it life….whether it’s a nation or a church…or whether it’s you and me. 

     Some of us, we’re coming in to this sanctuary today and we may have never even heard of Pentecost before. Some of us, we’re coming in to this sanctuary today and we’ve never felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives before. We’re not even sure if it’s real. Some of us, we’re coming in to this sanctuary today and we’re just feeling spiritually dead. Maybe you’ve felt the Spirit before, but right now you’re just running on fumes. If any of these things describe how you feel today….I want you to say these words out loud “Breathe on me, breath of God.” “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” On this Pentecost Sunday, let these words be a prayer for revival and new life in each and every one of us.

     There’s this great story and parable from the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This one monk asks an elder monk how he can really live into his faith with his whole being and in answer the elder monk stands up all dramatically. He raises his hands to the heavens…there’s a woosh….and all ten of his fingers become lamps of flame. And he says…..”if you will it, all your life can become as of fire.” If you will it, all your life can become as of fire. As I said earlier…to be empty…is to create the space to be filled. 

     If you came in to this sanctuary feeling empty and ambivalent….running on spiritual fumes…this is right where God wants you. Pentecost isn’t this single and static moment in time…it’s right here, right now. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

     But just know that if you open those windows, if you open those doors…it’s going to be a Signal 8 typhoon roaring in to your life and it’s going to blow you right out the door.

     It’s going to send all our prejudices, biases, and misconceptions toppling down in a violent rush of wind.

     I say this because Pentecost shows us that people who didn’t share the same language, people who were violently at odds with one another….began hearing from one another the Good News of Jesus Christ and they were united in a way that transcended geography and politics. 

    Indeed, on Pentecost Sunday…the reversal of the Tower of Babel had begun….and it continues on to this day. When we recite the Apostle's Creed in worship here every week, we say we “believe in the holy catholic church.” Every time we say those words we are united with the whole church both visible and invisible. We move from beyond our local parish and we’re connected with every congregation, every denomination and every cultural tradition. This is what it means to live in to the reality of the Pentecost. Indeed, every Sunday can and should be...a little Pentecost.

     Like I was saying earlier, these are difficult times in the life of our denomination and in our culture. 

     The winds of change are shaking us and rattling us. We’re afraid we’re losing our relevance. 

     We’re afraid we’re going to end up broken and divided, just like our fragmented world around us. But we have to take heart. The Wind of the Spirit is always blowing in the direction of the reality of the empty tomb and Easter Sunday as the exact remedy that our ailing world needs. 

     The wind of the Spirit is always blowing us in the direction of community building…..of overcoming divisions and removing the barriers that separate people…to bring them together in new life. To be empty is to be filled….every challenge…is a new opportunity. 

     On United Methodist Heritage Sunday, we are especially reminded of all this…from within the history of our own tradition. John Wesley was a failed missionary and a failed Anglican priest…a depressed and bitter man who’d strived for holiness…but ended up with barely any faith at all. But then one day he joined in prayer with some Moravians and a signal 8 typhoon suddenly came roaring in to his life. As he put it, “my heart was strangely warmed.” If you will it, all your life can become as of fire. His faith and imagination for the Gospel were ignited for the beginning of a new ministry….a ministry of teaching and preaching….of proclaiming the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit and it swept through the English countryside…to rich and poor alike and it brought about a great spiritual awakening in England and in the American Colonies. 

     And this same fire that was there for the Disciples and there for John Wesley and the people called Methodists…it’s alive and active in you and me….guiding, inspiring, directing, renewing, advocating, and remaking us in to the very likeness of God. So let’s put aside our earthly cares and fears. Let’s all take a deep breath….and say it out loud, let your words be a prayer….“Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen. 

 

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Marcus Aurelius

A Farewell of Sorts

A few years ago, I was sitting in the living room of my apartment watching television when I got to thinking about my future. It had been a whirlwind; I’d walked away from my career in sales to pursue a long ignored call into the ministry and I started Bible College with the intention of getting into seminary.

Anxiety washed over me. Could I really do this? Could I really achieve my goals and make it to seminary? Four years ago, it seemed like a distant, almost impossible dream. I often questioned myself, wondering if I’d made the right decisions. Sometimes I still do. I’m still not sure I’m worthy of any of this, indeed, I doubt I ever will be.

But that particular night, I needed some type of reassurance, some way of making the intangible more tangible. So I put on my long wool coat and fedora hat and walked out into the biting December wind and just decided to drive to the seminary I wanted to attend one day.

I made this long trek in the middle of the night, a light snow was falling. I arrived at the seminary campus and found that it was mostly deserted as most of the students had left the dorms and apartments to go home for the holidays. I parked the car and just walked up and down the campus. I tried to imagine myself being a student there, being a seminarian. It was difficult. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to make it through college, let alone seminary.

So I did the one thing I always do when I feel weak and am in doubt. I prayed. As I walked up and down the grounds of the seminary, I prayed “Lord please help me get here. Please make this real. Please make this happen.”

Now here it is four years later, and that distant dream has been realized with God’s help. I graduated with my Leadership and Ministry degree Summa Cum Laude. Not only did I get accepted to the seminary, I also got a partial scholarship. I’m already well into my first semester and while I am enjoying my classes and the work, it is very overwhelming. It is a whole new world and a greater challenge than any I have yet faced.

It is no wonder that I find myself wresting with the same kind of nerves and anxiety. Am I really cut out for this? Can I do it? But I remind myself of Paul and his Missionary Journeys. I’m sure he had his doubts too…but he pressed on. I must learn to do the same. Perseverance has become my motto, my creed.

I’ve overcome a lot of adversity, challenges and pain to get here. I know there will be more of that on this new journey, but I must once again persevere. This is why my favorite passage in the entire Bible is Romans 5: 3-4 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character; hope.” I must live my these words.

And as a new journey begins, one must sadly come to a close. I joined this forum several years ago as a place to learn to write about, articulate and defend my beliefs as well as learn from people who hold different beliefs than I. I never imagined that I would come to care about it so much. I got so busy with my school work that I completely dropped off the forums. When I came back here last December, I saw that my last post had been over three years ago.

But I never forgot about this place. I looked forward to a time when I could come back and resume my discussions and debates with everyone. When I finished college in December, I finally had that opportunity. I started writing like mad again; catching up with old forum friends and making new ones. I started this blog, having never really blogged before in my life. But with words of encouragement from friends like MarkDohle I kept writing and I watched in amazement as my readership began to soar. I had no idea the impact this would have.

I have been a writer since I was a little kid, and this blog has provided me a wonderful outlet to use this God-given ability and to glorify Him in the process. It has made for a wonderful several months of writing. I couldn’t be happier.

But because I know the demands of seminary are so great, I must regretfully draw my time here to a close; both on the blog and the forums. This is a farewell, of sorts.

First and foremost, I want to thank all of my readers. You have honored me with your presence here and that you took the time to read my posts and comment on them. I also want to thank some of my friends on the forum: MarkDohle, Paranoid Android, LibstaK, Jor-el, and then, Liquid Gardens, Shadowhive, XenoFish…and so many others…you’re all amazing and I’m blessed to know you, even on an internet forum. Please feel free to contact me on here; I will regularly check my messages even if I don’t have time to post on the forums. I’d even be willing to give out my personal email or social media contact info if any of you wish to get in contact with me like that. Just send me a message on here and let me know. You guys will ever remain in my thoughts and prayers. Please pray for me as well, that the Lord will help me to walk this seminary journey the whole way and complete it, however difficult the roads may be.

I also want to send a special shout out to the guy who basically became my forum “arch-nemesis,” Davros of Skaro. We had some really memorable exchanges over the past several months, and I enjoyed them immensely. I won’t forget our debates. Thank you Davros for challenging me and pushing me so many times, and I hope you won’t be too offended when I say that I will also remember you in my prayers!!

Thank you, everyone, for an amazing journey. I am going to miss this place; it saddens me to even write this post. But I have to emphasize that this goodbye hopefully will not be permanent. This is temporary. I will still read the forums on here and post occasionally when and if I have the time. I will also leave the lights on and the door unlocked….when I’m on break from seminary from time to time, you will most certainly see me popping up on the forums and on this blog. I have to go on this new journey for now, but the wonderful forums of UM and the Urban Contemplative blog will remain as my vacation home.

Until next time, goodbye and God bless……

Marcus Aurelius

Music for the Soul

Those who know me know that I am a lover of Sacred Music: Gregorian, Byzantine and Orthodox Chants and High Masses and Liturgies. There are certain songs that stir my soul and this is one of those songs. It transports me to another place. I thought I would share it with my readers; the link is below. May you be blessed and edified by it:

These haunting words are translated in English below...

Latin

Spem in alium nunquam habui

Praeter in te, Deus Israel

Qui irasceris et propitius eris

et omnia peccata hominum

in tribulatione dimittis

Domine Deus

Creator caeli et terrae

respice humilitatem nostram

English

I have never put my hope in any other

but in You, O God of Israel

who can show both anger and graciousness,

and who absolves all the sins

of suffering man

Lord God,

Creator of Heaven and Earth

be mindful of our lowliness

Marcus Aurelius

Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to "Heaven?"

This is a blog entry that I suppose is long overdue; one, because I have been very busy and haven't had time to write anything lately and two, because it is a subject that I am frequently asked about and called out on, both on internet forums like this one and in real life. As many of you know, I am about to become a seminarian and I'm studying to become an ordained minister. The call of Jesus Christ on my life is the central part of my life; to me there is nothing more important than this.

But then again, as many of you also know, I am very actively involved in interfaith work. I've been studying comparative religion for over a decade; I've read the sacred literature of the five major world religions; I've read their greatest writers, their mystics and their saints as well. I've had the opportunity to travel around the world visiting numerous holy sites believed to be sacred to these great faiths. I've prayed with Muslims, Jews and Hindus. I've meditated with Buddhist monks.

My Master of Divinity will be specialized in Interreligious Contexts, and my ultimate goal is to eventually pursue a doctorate in comparative religion and to teach and write books on the subject. I consider people like Thomas Merton and Huston Smith as my heroes.

As such, the readers of the Unexplained Mysteries Forum have seen me defending the various religions in debates on countless threads. I argue for religious tolerance, freedom of religion; and for others to learn to understand our neighbors who practice different faiths. I've also argued for these things in real life. At my former Bible College for example (a very conservative and evangelical school) I did a presentation in my Missions class on the Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, and I openly criticized the Christian missionary efforts over there, as the vast majority of the aid they offer is contingent upon Christian conversion, as in "we will give you food if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior." My audience was naturally shocked. There was a stunned silence in the room when it came time for questions.

But then someone raised their hand and asked me the same question I have heard so many times: "You say you are a Christian. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven?"

Then just a few days ago, on a UM thread where I was defending Islam, a conservative Christian said this to me:

Marcus you seem to love Muslims so much that you should convert to their faith. After all you are in an interfaith movement so you must be compromising your beliefs, why not embrace the lot? By claiming to be a Christian and at the same time belong to an interfaith movements, shows me, without doubt you are not a Christian and your statement is an oxymoron.

He also said this:

Your "Master in Divinity" makes a joke out of true knowledge of God, it is full of psychology and rubbish that just push you further and further away from the truth.

This is not the first time someone has called into question my Christianity and my faith in Jesus over my seemingly "liberal" stance on other religions. It

has happened to me a number of times on this forum, and even more so in real life. Thus, it is high time I respond to these charges in some detail. But from the onset, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am just sharing my own opinion. I am not "infallible" and nor am I condemning my more conservative Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently than me. Their opinions are valid and they should not be looked at with disdain.

Indeed, one could argue that there are actually more Christians who believe differently than I do. There are three different theological categories that one can fall into when it comes to other religions. I will describe each view, then I will fairly critique the other views and finally explain to you why I have the position that I do. I am paraphrasing these definitions from my favorite living theologian, Allister McGrath.

So to start off, let's look at that most common of beliefs; what theologians call exclusivism or particularism. 'A particularist is someone who believes that only those who hear and respond to the Christian gospel can be saved. As noted, this may very well remain the majority view.' A particularist takes claims like John 14:6 as being completely literal: "Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." It should be noted that not only Christians are particularists, indeed, a kind of particularism can be found in just about every world religion.

Christian theologians such as Karl Barth hold the particularist view. Barth taught that there is no knowledge of God apart from Jesus Christ. Many prominent atheist writers have attacked this view in particular, perhaps fairly arguing that this is the form of religion that leads to bigotry and even extremism. It's "my way or the highway." But Karl Barth's theology was unique in this regard. While he argued that salvation was only available in Christ, he also argued for the eventual eschatological victory of Grace over unbelief. Thus, when time itself comes to an end, all will come to faith in Jesus Christ without exception.

The second theological stance on other religions is known as Pluralism. This is the position that many of my critics and detractors think that I hold. It is not.Pluralism 'is the view which holds that all the religious traditions of humanity are equally valid manifestations of, and paths to, the same core of religious reality.' Philosophers like John Hick advance this position. No one religion holds any special access to God; whatever path you follow gets you to the same destination.

The third theological stance on other religions is known as Inclusivism. This is the position that I actually hold. 'Inclusivism is the idea that although Christianity represents the normative revelation of God, salvation is nonetheless possible for those who belong to other religious traditions.' "This class of approach includes parallelism, a form of inclusivism which recognizes the obvious differences between the religions, and argues that each religion is to be seen as valid, in that it achieves its own specific goals.

I have many problems against the theological particularism of so many fundamentalists and evangelicals, but one is chief above all of them. If Jesus Christ is the only way into heaven; then what about all the people who never heard the gospel message? What about a Chinese person who simply never came into contact with Christianity? What about a person who lives with a remote tribe in Papa New Guinea? These persons necessarily must be punching a one way ticket to hell through no fault of their own, if this is indeed the case. But that begs even deeper questions. How can we say that God is loving when He knowingly sends people to hell simply because they can't pass their entrance exam...which is only one question "Who is the Way the Truth and the Life?" How is He loving if you just don't know the answer?? Furthermore, the particularist view contradicts otherpassages that we see in scripture. 2 Peter 3:9 says: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." How does the Lord will that none should perish, and yet, He allows countless numbers of people to perish? If He doesn't want anyone to perish, then why doesn't He do a better job sending out His missionaries?

Barth's idea, while appealing, and undoubtedly the best of the particularists, doesn't sit well with me either. First of all, the concept, strictly speaking, is unbiblical. While I would certainly like this to be true, I simply can't find any scriptural evidence to support it. It was yet another one of Barth's existential leaps that lack a rational basis. He made his argument from silence. Second, he unapologetically states that everyone will be saved. What does this do to morality? Religion, at its core provides an objective grounds for ethical behavior; yet such a concept while appealing at a glance, actually calls into question objective morality and slides dangerously towards subjectivism. Stalin and Mother Teresa will find equal footing in heaven? At a very basic and fundamental level, nearly every religion teaches that we reap what we sew. If we do bad things, bad things will happen to us, both in this world and the next. Yet Barth sidesteps this whole issue with his positivism.

My second major problem with particularism is its unflappable sense of imperialism. When taken to extremes, it can become a kind of megalomania that leads to much of the religious strife and conflicts we see all around the world today. Particularism led to the Crusades, the inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials to 9/11 and to ISIS. Indeed, it was immediately after 9/11 that the first books of the New Atheist movement began to appear and subsequently fly off the shelves. Religion, they rightly argued, often leads to all manner of violence and oppression, thus their conclusion was that in the wake of 9/11, the world would simply be "better off" without religion. This is a relevant, powerful, and devastating critique that theists of all stripes should take heed of.

I would argue that it is not religion that needs to disappear, but rather that particularism needs to disappear, at least eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that we live in a global economy and our demographics have radically changed over the past few decades. Just in my little apartment complex alone I have both Hindus, Muslims and Jews living all around me. Jesus Christ commanded us to love our neighbors, but the particularists would have us either ignore them at best, or shun them at worst. My first blog entry this year was about a Muslim billboard that had fundamentalists in my city outraged. Do we really need more of that in our own backyard, much less around the world? As one who has prayed alongside people of other faiths, it saddens me profoundly to see followers of these great traditions constantly fighting against one another.

But I am not a pluralist. Let me tell you why. While I believe we must be pluralistic in social terms (i.e. recognizing and respecting the religious differences of our neighbors) I do not believe we should adopt pluralism philosophically or theologically. One of the main reasons for this is that philosophical pluralism does not respect the differences between religions. Simply put, every religion has its truth claims; every religion teaches that it is the correct path to follow to reach God, heaven or enlightenment. But philosophical pluralism would eschew all of this and instead posit that it is all part of the same "divine reality." I personally feel that this is a vast reductionism of religious practice in general; it reduces religion down to a subjective and emotional experience of a purely personal "transcendence." Thus, we can all come to this great spiritual buffet table and pick out what we like and discard the rest. You like "karma" so you put that on your plate, but you don't like "hell" so you keep that off your plate like stale bread. Thus, the self, the individual becomes the final arbiter of what is true and what is not. Yet, if everything is subjective in philosophical pluralism, how do we know that any of it is true? How do we know that our mystical experiences are nothing more than the human experience; that is to say grasping for a divine reality that may or may not be there? You see, this is what happens when you throw out special revelation; the theological idea that God has spoken to us in specific times and places, guiding our systems of belief. No genuine practitioner of any faith would advocate such a view; it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or even a Buddhist....at some point special revelation was handed down to us either by God Himself or an enlightened religious teacher, and it is these revelations that lead to the truth claims of that religion, (i.e. particularism). Philosophical pluralism would do away with particularism...by doing away with objective truth. And the idea that everything could be part of "one divine reality" is quite simply theologically incoherent. No kind of revelation is possible beyond the general. This is why I could never be a true pluralist, and neither could any Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. It just doesn't make any sense!!

But there is a third option, or a middle way. One could be an inclusivist; I myself am one. Of this view, the little known Catholic theologian Jean Danielou once wrote: "The domain of Christ and of the Church extends beyond the limits of the explicit revelation of Christ and of the visible expression of the Church. In every age and every land there have been men who believed in Christ without knowing Him and who have belonged invisibly to the visible Church." Another great Catholic theologian named Karl Rahner argued this in a fourfold point which I shall describe below:

1. "Christianity is the absolute religion, founded on the unique event of the self-revelation of God in Christ. But this revelation took place at a specific point in history. Those who lived before this point, or those who have yet to hear about this point, would thus seem to be excluded from salvation-which is contrary to the saving will of God."

2. "For this reason, despite their errors and shortcomings, non-Christian religious traditions are valid and capable of mediating the saving grace of God."

3. "The faithful adherent of a non-Christian religious tradition is thus to be regarded as an anonymous Christian."

4. "Other religious traditions will not be displaced by Christianity. Religious pluralism will continue to be a feature of human existence."

I am a Christian, through and through. I believe that all of revelation culminated in the Incarnation, the earthly ministry, and the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that all the other religions point to the truth while Jesus Christ is the truth. Indeed, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only do I see it, but by it I see everything else."

But as noted, I believe that one can come to that Way indirectly; they can enter into heaven through the back door rather than through the front door. C.S. Lewis argued this very same point: "There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good pagans long before Christ's birth may have been in this position."

In God in the Dock, he wrote: "Of course it should be pointed out that though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. And it should be made totally clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected."

Most importantly, the inclusivist view regarding other religions is a Biblical one."For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law." (Romans 2:14) he idea behind this is quite simple, really. If all truth comes from God, then necessarily, whatever is true in other religions is from God. These religions, then, contain in them enough general and special revelation to be 'a law to themselves.' Thus, the person who lives with a tribe in Papa New Guinea, who looks to the stars and all the creation around him and concludes "someone made this", then knows God despite only possessing general revelation. By the same token, a Hindu who has a highly evolved theology and system of ethics, though he does not know Christ, he knows God from the special revelation contained in his religion. His moral way of life points him to God.

This view was upheld in the Second Vatican Council, which states: "the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men."

So far I have been arguing Inclusivism from my own Christian position. But wait a minute, you ask! What if you are wrong and Allah is God? What if you are wrong and Krishna is God? Being a lifelong student of comparative religion, I would still argue for the Inclusivist position!! One can make just a solid case for Inclusivism even if you follow one of these other paths! Let me just highlight some for you:

The Holy Quran says: "To every people [we have sent] a messenger." (10:48) and "We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds. To Allah you will all return, so he will inform you of that wherein you differed." (5:48)

From Islam, we learn God could have made us all the same; but He didn't. We will all return to Him and He will judge us 'wherein we differed.'

In the Bhagavad Gita, the great religious text of Hinduism, Krishna, who is an Incarnation of God, says this: "Wherever dharma declines and the purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself on earth. I am born in every age to protect the good, to destroy evil, and to reestablish dharma." and this: "When a person is devoted to something with complete faith, I unify his faith in that. Then, when his faith is completely unified, he gains the object of his devotion. In this way, every desire is fulfilled by me." Indeed, within the Hindu system, we find the concept of radical inclusion. God will take whatever subjective faith we have and make it objective.

I could go on with more examples, but you probably get the idea. One can argue for religious Inclusivism regardless of which faith you practice because it celebrates what we have in common and it accepts, acknowledges and respects the fact that we also have differences. It is my opinion that if the religious leaders of the future push for both social pluralism and theological inclusivism, we will eliminate much of the religious division division and strife all around the world and here at home. We will learn to work together, stemming from an Ethic that is Objectively True. Indeed, we will learn to

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Marcus Aurelius

"I told you that I have made a bridge of the Word, my only-begotten Son, and such is the truth. I want you to realize, my children, that by Adam's sinful disobedience the road was so broken up that no one could reach everlasting life. Since they had no share in the good for which I had created them, they did not give me the return of glory they owed me, and so my truth was not fulfilled. What is this truth? That I had created them in my image and likeness so that they might have eternal life, sharing in my being and enjoying my supreme eternal tenderness and goodness. But because of their sin they never reach this goal and never fulfilled my truth, for sin closed heaven and the door of my mercy."

"This sin sprouted thorns and troublesome vexations. My creatures found rebellion within themselves, for as soon as they rebelled against me, they became rebels against themselves. Their innocence lost, the flesh rebelled against the spirit and they became as beasts."

"With sin there came at once the flood of a stormy river that beat against them constantly with its waves, bringing weariness and troubles from themselves as well as from the devil and the world. You were all drowning, because not one of you, for all your righteousness could reach eternal life.'

"But I wanted to undo these great troubles of yours. So I gave you a bridge, my Son, so that you could cross over the river, the stormy sea of this darksome life, without being drowned."

"So the height stooped to the earth of your humanity, bridging the chasm between us and rebuilding the road. And why should He have made of Himself a roadway? So that you might in truth come to the same joy as the angels. But my Son's having made of himself a bridge for you could not bring you to life unless you make your way along that bridge."

-Saint Catherine of Sienna, The Dialogue

Marcus Aurelius

Mary: Ever-Virgin

Growing up in a Protestant home and having spent many years in an Evangelical Church, I was always baffled by the veneration of Mary. I would see the Icons, statues and medallions of Mary, and like many Protestants, I mistakenly thought Catholic and Orthodox Christians somehow worshiped Mary. This was all the more perplexing because in all the years I spent in my Evangelical Church, the only time I could recall Mary ever even being mentioned was during the Christmas season. So what was the deal with Mary? It wasn’t until I researched Marian theology myself that I came to the conclusion that my presuppositions concerning her were all wrong and that she was and is indeed the Most Holy Queen. My aim with these blogs is to clear up some of the misunderstandings about her, and to show how one Protestant came to love and praise the Mother of God.

One of the fundamental misunderstandings Protestants have towards Mary is this idea of her perpetual virginity. How can this be, they say, when the Scriptures clearly indicate that Jesus had siblings? There are about ten instances in the New Testament where "brothers" and "sisters" of the Lord are mentioned (Matt. 12:46; Matt. 13:55; Mark 3:31–34; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19–20; John 2:12, 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5). The Protestant view, that Mary was only a Virgin until she gave birth to Jesus seems to be the correct one here, in light of all these Scriptures. It should be an open and shut case, right?

I would have to say not so fast; we can’t close the book so quickly. For just as these above verses point to “brothers” and “sisters” of the Lord, there is not one verse in the entire New Testament that says Mary bore other children besides Jesus. And if the scriptures are silent about the issue, how can we reach a conclusion either way?

The answer is simple. We have to go to Tradition and the writings of the Early Church. What did they say? What did they believe? The answer will be shocking to many Protestants: they overwhelmingly believed in the Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God.

I want to turn your attention to an important historical doctrine regarding the Perpetual Virginity of Mary called the Protoevangelium of James, which was written probably less than sixty years after the conclusion of Mary’s earthly life (traditionally around A.D. 120), when memories of her life were still vivid in the minds of the early church.

Now I know that many of my Protestant friends might cry ‘foul’ the moment I try to submit an Apocryphal Gospel as ‘evidence’, so let me take a moment to address those concerns. First, it must be stated clearly that this is not a Gnostic Gospel. There is none of the ‘matter is evil’ philosophy of the Gnostics in the book, nor is there anything in it that contradicts the Canonical 4 Gospels of our New Testament. It should also be noted that even though James was not the author of the book, many of the great Church Fathers regarded its content as being factual and authoritative. It is referenced frequently by the likes of Epiphanius, Hilary, John Chrysostom, Cyril, Ambrose and others.

According to the world-renowned patristics scholar, Johannes Quasten: "The principal aim of the whole writing [Protoevangelium of James] is to prove the perpetual and inviolate virginity of Mary before, in, and after the birth of Christ" (Patrology, 1:120–1).’

In it, we learn that Mary’s birth was prophesied and when Mary was old enough, her life was dedicated to the service of the Temple. Hers was to be a life of continual and devoted service to the Lord and she would not live the life of an ordinary Jewish girl, getting married and having children. She had vowed to remain a lifelong virgin. In short, Mary was to be like the ancient version of a Nun. At the temple, the priests recognized her holiness: “And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.”

But when she reached maturity, ritual purity became an issue. “And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord? And they said to the high priest: You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto you, that also will we do. And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her.” The High Priest was given an answer; she was to have a guardian or protector. “And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. And the heralds went out through all the circuit of Judæa, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all ran.”

Joseph, an elderly widower who already had children, was chosen to be her spouse. “You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord your God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; Numbers 16:31-33 how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in your house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping.” These prove that the “brethren of the Lord” were Jesus’ stepbrothers, Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. Of this, Origen wrote: "The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity."

Joseph was charged with guarding her virginity; and then the narrative unfolds much the same way as the 4 Gospels; however in ch9 v7 it is worthy to note that when the Angel of the Lord first speaks to Mary, he uses the same greeting as found in the Gospel of Luke “Hail thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with thee; thou art blessed among women.” Many Protestants have objected to that translation and have even changed it to take emphasis away from Mary; but this proves that according to tradition, this was the view held by the majority of the Early Church. And who are we to refute those who were the closest to her?

Finally, when it comes to the birth of Jesus, the Protoevangelium provides us with a powerful, yet graphic description of her virginity. A midwife named Salome refused to believe that a Virgin could give birth. Like Doubting Thomas, she demanded to see for herself…and to touch her. “Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.” Salome repents of her unbelief and her hand was healed. This fact led Saint Cyril of Alexandria to conclude that: “"[T]he Word himself, coming into the Blessed Virgin herself, assumed for himself his own temple from the substance of the Virgin and came forth from her a man in all that could be externally discerned, while interiorly he was true God. Therefore he kept his Mother a virgin even after her childbearing"

Hail Holy Queen

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Our life, our sweetness and our hope.

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, To thee do we send up our sighs, Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Amen.

Marcus Aurelius

"Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love-outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves-the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified by them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. But whatever is in God is really identical with Him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.

Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.

Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him."

-Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

1961

Marcus Aurelius

Help Me in My Unbelief: The Struggle with Doubt

Over the years, I’ve had a number of Christians tell me that they’ve struggled with doubt, often for long periods of time. This doubt could have come for any number of reasons; a prayer of theirs seemingly went unanswered; they felt God had abandoned them during a time of trial; or perhaps someone leveled an intellectual objection at them that they could not answer and it caused them to question their faith. But while the circumstances for the doubt may vary, the end result is usually the same: they feel as though they are a weaker Christian for having doubts. Thus, our initial cause for doubt usually creates a vicious cycle of doubt in which we pile doubt on top of doubt to the point where we wonder if we have any faith left at all. But while we often let our doubts paralyze us, what does God think of our doubts?

To get an answer to this question, the first place we should look is in the Gospel of Mark. In the ninth chapter, we meet a man whose son was possessed by a demon that had been tormenting him all his life. The boy’s condition was awful; “Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” Like any loving father, he almost certainly consulted numerous doctors and physicians; but to no avail. No one could help the boy. Then, probably as a last resort he hears of the miracle worker Jesus and His disciples and thinks maybe they can succeed where everyone else has failed; after all, what did he have to lose at that point?

So he brings the boy to the disciples; and this too is met with catastrophic failure. They were unable to help the boy’s condition. Imagine how the father must have felt when one after the other, the disciples tried to heal him and could not. He probably shook his head in disgust thinking these supposed miracle workers were no miracle workers at all. He probably thought they were just a bunch of frauds and that the claims he’d been hearing were bogus. So then he goes to Jesus and says “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

The response of Jesus is shocking and direct. He says “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” Now notice how He doesn’t condemn the father for his faithlessness and doubt; instead He speaks of the whole generation, and indeed, what He said could also apply to our generation.

Perhaps the root of our unbelief begins with our own predispositions. All too often we claim to believe in God, we claim to have faith, and yet we default to the position of philosophical naturalism. We believe in a God who is there, but yet we would handcuff that God behind the natural order of things. This passage of scripture shows that things were no different in ancient times; the father doesn’t believe his son can be healed because he probably doesn’t believe in miracles at all. Even when we claim to believe in God and to have faith; it’s so hard not to think that we live in a closed system in which God cannot or does not act and miracles are simply impossible.

But as Christians, we have to reframe that mentality. As an avid gamer, I’d like to challenge you for a moment to think of our reality as a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game. MMO’s are known for attracting thousands of players from around the world and putting them into a virtual world that seemingly runs on its own. MMO’s have their own cities and inhabitants, their own governments and economies, wildlife and monsters. They are meant to be a totally immersive experience, and they usually are. I’ve certainly been addicted to playing a couple of them!

And yet we know that these games run on servers, and that the developers are frequently changing things in the game world. They put in innumerable updates and patches to improve the experience.

Now we know that God created our world, we know that He created the natural order; so if He is the developer, can He not act within His own system? Can He not interject “updates” and “patches” into the system as He sees fit? This is how we should look at the very Incarnation of Jesus Christ; it was not merely a patch; it was an overhaul. It was an invasion. With the Incarnation, God changed the natural order. The Kingdom; this unseen (greater) reality was made known in the person of Jesus Christ, and the power of that Kingdom that He implemented continues on to this day. The same force that would later heal this boy possessed by demons is still with us. So while we cannot always know the will of God; we must never assume that God cannot or will not act in decisive and powerful ways in our own lives today.

With that said, perhaps the root of our unbelief goes much deeper than our predispositions. Perhaps our predispositions are actually the ‘symptoms’ of a greater ‘illness.’ I would argue that unbelief is part of our fallen human nature and that because of our fall in the garden we are “children in whom there is no faithfulness” (Deut 32:20). We have layered doubt upon doubt from the very beginning when we tried to hide our faces from the Lord while He searched for us in the cool of the afternoon. In short, we doubt because we cannot help ourselves. By nature, we would sooner lean on anyone or anything rather than the Lord. By nature we would forsake the Fountain and grasp for “cisterns which have no water.”

So rather than hate on yourself because you have doubts, you should instead realize that it is only natural to have doubts and that our doubts will never fully go away until the Kingdom is finally realized in full. Having doubt does not make you a weaker Christian; it just means that you are human. And you would do well to remember that you are in pretty good company!

For example, in Hebrews 11 it talks about the Heroes of Faith. Every one of those heroes experienced periods of great doubt. Abraham didn’t trust God that he would have children, so he lay with his servant. Moses thought he was too old and not a good enough speaker to liberate the people of Israel. David slew Goliath and yet he was terrified that Saul would kill him. Elijah brought low a whole horde of false prophets and yet he hid from Jezebel in a cave. Doubt is simply a part of who we are, and we must learn to accept that fact. While doubt can be a painful process, it is an important part of our spiritual maturation.

As one writer put it, “many Christians fall into the trap of assuming that faith and doubt are mutually exclusive. They imagine that a real believer would never question the grounds for his faith and if one experiences doubt, his faith isn’t true. When confronted with arguments against Christianity they are thrown into a sea of doubt, believing that every plausible objection must be answered before they can rest in their faith.” But the story of the desperate father in Mark chapter 9 shows us this is not the case.

The father says to Jesus: “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” He says if; if you can do something. This shows us that even a weak prayer, a prayer full of doubt is better than no prayer at all. So rather than falling into the abject defeatism of our doubts, we should be bringing them to God in prayer. He can hear us whether we are full of faith or full of doubt.

Jesus tells this poor father that anything is possible if he would just have the faith, and that is when he cries out with those famous words: “I believe; help my unbelief!” In this powerful statement we see that he has the foundation of belief; he has a kind of faith. His faith is like the poster that hung on Special Agent Fox Mulder’s wall from the X-Files; his faith said “I Want to Believe.” He just needed a little help to get there, and so do we. Don’t stop praying because of your doubts; pray through them, pray about them. Say as this father said: “help me in my unbelief.”

It is in times of doubt that we need to draw near to the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.” The Holy Spirit is our comforter; it is in Him that we can find rest from our troubles. And moreover; He is our teacher. He testifies to our hearts the Truth of the Gospel, a truth that the world cannot understand, a truth that the world designates as “foolishness” (1 Cor 1:27-28). It is the Holy Spirit who will help us to overcome the obstacles of belief.

You see, I think there are times when we misunderstand what the Holy Spirit is or does; we may think of Him as a force or as a presence, but He is a Person. We can pray to Him, speak to Him directly and be assured that He will help us in our doubts, for “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

And in your time of doubt, you would do well to know that the Holy Spirit is probably already present within you. Have you ever thought “God exists”, “I am reconciled to God” or “Jesus Christ loves me”? If you have believed such things, now or in the past, it is the Holy Spirit that has revealed it to you; He is the Source of all Truth He has already planted the seed of wisdom within you, or else you would have never believed Christianity to be true in the first place. I have argued on these blogs that the Christian God exists and that there is evidence for that belief; but ultimately, as others have pointed out; our faith is not dependent on such argumentation and evidence. Our faith is dependent upon the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

So when you go through times of doubt as you naturally will, it is to the Holy Spirit that you should pray, so that He can ease your mind, answer your doubts and convict you of His eternal love for you. Holy Spirit we believe, help us in our unbelief.

PRAYER TO THE HOLY SPIRIT

Come, Holy Spirit,

fill my heart with Your holy gifts.

Let my weakness be penetrated with Your strength this very day

that I may fulfill all the duties of my state conscientiously, that I may do what is right and just.

Let my charity be such as to offend no one, and hurt no one's

feelings; so generous as to pardon sincerely any wrong done to me.

Assist me, O Holy Spirit,

in all my trials of life, enlighten me in my ignorance, advise me in my doubts, strengthen me in my weakness, help me in all my needs, protect me in

temptations and console me in afflictions.

Graciously hear me, O Holy Spirit, and pour Your light into my

heart, my soul, and my mind.

Assist me to live a holy life and to grow in goodness and grace.

Amen.

Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations I: The Bhaddekaratta Sutta

I don't always have time to write a new blog post. My goal is to get one up on a weekly basis, but sometimes life gets in the way. So in an effort to bless my dear readers, I am going to be launching a new (occasional) series of blogs when I don't have time for an original composition. I shall call this series the Meditations and it will be a collection of writings from various religious traditions; the scriptures, the great mystics and saints that have impacted my life and my own spiritual journey. May these Meditations bless you as they have blessed me. So without further ado, here is a powerful Buddhist scripture from the Pali Canon...

The Bhaddekaratta Sutta: A Single Excellent Night

I. Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindinka's Park. There he addressed the bhikkhus thus: "Bhikkhus"-"Venerable sir," they replied. The Blessed One said this:

II. "Bhikkhus, I shall teach you the summary and exposition of One Who Has Had a Single Excellent Night. Listen and attend closely to what I shall say." -"Yes, venerable sir," the bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this:

III. "Let not a person revive the past

Or on the future build his hopes;

For the past has been left behind

And the future has not been reached.

Instead with insight let him see

Each presently arisen state;

Let him know that and be sure of it,

Invincibly, unshakeably.

Today the effort must be made;

Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?

No bargain with Mortality

Can keep him and his hordes away,

But one who dwells thus ardently,

Relentlessly, by day, by night-

It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,

Who has had a single excellent night.

IV. "How, bhikkhus, does one revive the past? One nurtures delight there thinking, 'I had such material form in the past.' One nurtures delight there thinking 'I had such feeling in the past...'I had such perception in the past,'...'I had such formations in the past,'....'I had such consciousness in the past.' That is how one relives the past."

V. "And how bhikkhus, does one not revive the past? One oes not nurture delight there thinking, 'I had such material form in the past.' One does not nurture delight there thinking 'I had such feeling in the past'...'I had such perception in the past,'...'I had such formations in the past,'...'I had such consciousness in the past.' That is how one does not revive the past."

VI. "And how, bhikkhus does one build hope upon the future? One nurtures delight there thinking, 'May I have such material form in the future!' One nurtures delight there thinking, 'May I have such feeling in the future!'....'May I have such perception in the future!'....'May I have such formations in the future!'...'May I have such consciousness in the future!' That is how one builds up hope upon the future."

VII. "And how bhikkhus, does one not build up hopes upon the future? One does not nurture delight there thinking, 'May I have such material form in the future!' One does not nurture delight there thinking, 'May I have such feeling in the future!'...'May I have such perception in the future!'...'May I have such formations in the future!'...'May I have such consciousness in the future!' That is how one does not build up hope upon the future.

VIII. "And how, bhikkhus, is one vanquished in regard to presently arisen states? Here, bhikkhus, an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, regards material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form. He regards feeling as self...perception as self...formations as self..consciousness as self, or self as possessed of consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That is how one is vanquished in regard to presently arisen states.

IX. "And how, bhikkhus, is one invincible in regard to presently arisen states? Here, bhikkhus, a well-taught noble disciple, who has regard for noble ones and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, who has regard for noble ones and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, who has regard for true men and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, does not regard material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form. He does not regard feeling as self...perception as self...formations as self...consciousness as self, or self as possessed of consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That is how one is invincible in regard to presently arisen states."

X. "Let not a person revive the past....

He who has had a single excellent night.

XI."So it was with reference to this that it was said: 'Bhikkhus, I shall teach you the summary and exposition of "One Who Has Had a Single Excellent Night."

That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One's words.

Marcus Aurelius

The Seeking God

If God exists, then why is He so shy? Why doesn’t He reveal Himself in more ‘obvious’ ways? Those questions form the basis of an argument against the existence of God that has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years, the argument from “divine hiddenness”. As a former atheist, I can relate to the argument; it’s a tough question. I remember many years ago riding in a car with a friend and we came across a billboard that depicted a blue sky and some pretty white clouds and it read: “Looking for God?” At the bottom, it advertised going to a local church to ‘get answers.’ I laughed and I said to my friend “yeah, I looked for God, but I sure as hell didn’t find Him!” I joked that the blue sky and clouds represented what God really was; nothing but empty space. Seeking God was like seeking a passing cloud; pointless.

The crux of the argument from “divine hiddenness” is this: What kind of God would let well-meaning, intelligent people who seek good evidence of the divine in the midst of this suffering world fail to find it? Why does the seeker come up empty? Why are their efforts frustrated? Not only have I dealt with this objection myself, I’ve also come across many people who have had the same problem. They seek after God and they find nothing. They ask for a sign and no sign comes. They ask for something in prayer and the prayer goes unanswered. It really makes you think no one is there, that no one is listening, right?

But what if I told you that the problem lies not with our intention, but with our orientation? The great Sufi mystic Bayazid Bistami once said “for thirty years I sought God. But when I looked carefully I found that in reality God was the seeker and I the sought.” Put simply, our God is the Seeking God. To be able to truly seek God, we must first realize that He is seeking us.

We learn that God was seeking us right from the beginning, all the way back in Genesis. You probably know the story. They ate the forbidden fruit, they became aware of their nakedness and they hastily sewed clothes together from fig leaves to hide their shame from one another. And then they try to hide from God Himself. And yet, God is not content to let them hide. He comes down and He seeks them out. Despite the fact that He knows full well where they are, He asks “where are you?” The Seeking God forces them to acknowledge their hiddenness. It is not God who hides from us; it is we who hide from God. That moment in the Garden is the pattern for all of human history. Thus, it is our orientation from the very beginning to seek to hide ourselves from the presence of God. Isaiah 59:2 echoes this in saying: “Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you.”

The theme of the Seeking God continues throughout the entire Old Testament. We see how God communicates with His people, even when they aren’t trying to seek Him. He reaches out to people caught up in the midst of their daily routines or in the dead of night. He interrupts them. He comes to Abram in the middle of the night and tells him to pack all His things, take His family and go to a land “that I will show you.” After his stint in Egypt, Moses was seemingly content living out his retirement as a shepherd when God suddenly appears to him in the Burning Bush and calls him to be the liberator of the Hebrew people. In the story of Jonah, God calls him to be a prophet to the people of Nineveh, but he runs away. God then pursues Jonah relentlessly until he finally comes to terms with God’s plan. These stories serve to remind us that it is God who takes the initiative.

This pattern of the Seeking God culminates in Jesus Christ; when through the Incarnation God Himself comes down to visit His people. The theologian George Eldon Ladd wrote “In Jesus, God has taken the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign.” We may try to hide from God, we may try to run from God, but He comes to us, and He comes to us out of love. In the words of Jesus Himself, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

I would encourage any of my readers who are curious about this concept and would like to explore it in more detail to please read the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15. Jesus was facing harsh criticism from the religious leaders of His day for ministering to sinners and even being in their presence. The great truth of the Seeking God is laid out in three Parables that Jesus taught. He said that it was His divine purpose to search out the sheep that had strayed; to seek the coin that had been lost, and to welcome the prodigal back into the family even though he was unworthy of forgiveness. It is God’s initiative every time. The shepherd searches for the lost sheep; the woman sweeps the house looking for the lost coin; the father longs for his son’s return. Thus, the sinner does not turn to God; God turns to the sinner.

So why is it that our efforts to seek God are frustrated? Why is it when we look for God we come up with “divine hiddenness” instead of divine presence? It goes back to that problem of orientation. We do not seek God in the power of our own strength, but by trusting in the power of His might. We look for Him as though He were somewhere else, when He has been with us all along. The poet Rumi put it like this: “If in thirst you drink water from a cup, you see God in it. Those who are not in love with god will only see their own faces in it.” We are to seek God in love and in trust, knowing that He is already there, seeking us.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20)

The Almighty is standing at the door of your heart, knocking. Will you bid Him to enter?

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Marcus Aurelius

Praying Without Ceasing

I call myself a Christian and yet, more often than not, I find that I have little time for God. It’s always something! Most mornings, I wake up with the best of intentions; it’s 7am, cold and quiet, and the sun isn’t even up yet. I get out of bed; pull my Bible off the bookshelf, thinking it’s time for some early morning devotions and prayer. This is meant to be my alone time with God.

But almost every morning; something will distract me from that. My phone starts ringing or I pass by the kitchen and realize I forgot to do the dishes the night before. What about that email I still need to reply to? On any given day I can find a thousand distractions to keep me from even a few minutes with God.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you ever feel like the daily grind has you too busy to spend any time alone with God? If your answer is yes, I’d like to show you how you can have that alone time with God no matter where you are or what you are doing, whether it’s sitting in a cubicle, being stuck in a traffic jam or mowing your lawn.

While this may seem it’s just a problem of our technological age, you aren’t alone in wondering how to find the time to pray. An anonymous 19th century Russian believer was wrestling with the same issue and it gave way to one of the greatest spiritual works in the long history of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I came to church to attend the Liturgy and entered just as the Epistle was being read. The reading was from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, which says in part ‘pray without ceasing.’ These words made a deep impression on me and I started thinking of how it could be possible for a man to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention.”

And so begins the quest of a spiritual seeker, and a book which I would recommend to all of you called the Way of a Pilgrim. The writer travels across Russia talking to priests, monks and devout laypeople; hoping to find out how to pray without ceasing. On each leg of the journey he is met with disappointment, hardship and spiritual struggle.

Finally, he meets an Abbot who teaches him the Prayer of the Heart, better known as the Jesus Prayer. The Abbot tells him “Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”

The Jesus prayer is quite simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

The key to cultivating the prayer is to say it with awareness and focus on the heart. You say it from your heart, from the very depths of your being. This allows the wandering mind to descend into the heart, pushing all other thoughts aside. Have faith that the Lord is hearing you, listening to you and drawing near to you as you recite the words. This will ground you in prayer no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Of this, Saint John of Kronstadt once said: “When you pray, keep to the rule that it is better to say five words from the depth of your heart than ten thousand words with your tongue only.”

If you are willing to practice it several times a day, eventually it will become totally engrained in your mind and you will find yourself doing it all the time. “For a whole week I stayed alone in my hut and recited the Jesus Prayer six thousand times every day, neither worrying about anything nor paying attention to the distracting thoughts...I became so accustomed to the Prayer that if for a short while I stopped reciting it I felt as if I were missing something.”

The Jesus Prayer has helped me to silence the anxious ramblings of my mind and to ground myself in the presence of God. With it, my heart is turned to prayer at all hours of the day and night, no matter where I am or what I am doing. Indeed, it has become a part of me.

And it is perhaps the most Biblical prayer we could ever make; for as a Greek Orthodox monk once told me, “In the Orthodox tradition we call the Jesus prayer the Prayer of the Heart, not just because we say it from the heart, but because in that one sentence is contained the very heart of the Gospel message.

Marcus Aurelius

The Resurrection of Hope: My Story

Have you ever felt like your own walk with God has been a long and winding one? Have you ever been plagued with difficulties and doubts, highs and lows? Mine is such a story. Recently in my blogs I've been talking about the philosophical and theological implications surrounding the word "hope". Today I am going to do something different; I'm simply going to tell you my story and how I came to live a life resurrected by hope.

I had a good childhood, with two amazing parents. My mother used to read to me from the Bible, and from an early age I was a believer in Jesus Christ. I always wanted to hear and learn more about Him. We used to talk about God for hours, and as soon as I could read, I was reading in the Bible. I know now the Holy Spirit was at work in those days, planting a seed deep within me.

But as a teenager, things turned horribly sour. I experienced a lot of abuse at school. I was bullied heavily. I was always getting in fights and I was in trouble constantly. I was lonely, withdrawn and depressed. I began to think ‘if God is so loving, then why would He let me suffer like this?’ I felt my prayers were unanswered and unheard. It wasn’t long before I became a very vocal atheist.

I started partying all the time, drinking, doing all kinds of drugs, and getting involved in one meaningless relationship after another. For a time, I was happy in this state. My existence was about the pleasure of the moment. But by the time I reached my early twenties I was burnt out and horribly depressed. Life had no meaning for me anymore, no purpose. I was having suicidal thoughts all the time; I just wanted to die and be done with it.

Yet when I sought to end my life, it was the Lord who saved it. One night when I was really down, I challenged God to speak to me. I said ‘if you exist, you better speak to me now.’ I pulled an old Bible off the shelf and opened it right to the Book of Ecclesiastes whose words open with “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless. A chasing after the wind.” Reading it was like reading my own thoughts. There on the page, in the Word of God was the story of my life up to that point. I’d been chasing after the wind, living a life without God and without hope. So I accepted Jesus into my heart that night. I ceased my crazy lifestyle at once; joined a church and was baptized. There were even people who felt the Lord had placed a calling on my life into ministry, so I joined my churches leadership training program.

Now it sounds like my story should end here, doesn’t it? But this isn’t it. Like I said, my walk with God has been a long and winding one. By this point, God had led me out of my spiritual Egypt, but I hadn’t reached the promised land just yet. I still had to spend my time wandering in the wilderness.

I say this because even though I had accepted Christ in my heart, even though I was trying to heed His call on my life; the fact is I’d never really surrendered to Him. I had what I like to describe as my “Jonah Moment,” I suddenly decided I didn’t want anything to do with the ministry and I ran from the call.

So I had accepted Christ in my heart, but I was content to live with only a fraction of Him. I was content to put Him in the background rather than in the foreground. I spent those ‘wilderness’ years chasing after the wind again. I was focused on a relationship that would last for 7 years, a relationship that everyone I knew had advised me against. I was focused on my sales career, just to try to make increasing amounts of money and enjoy this lavish lifestyle I'd set up for myself and become accustomed to. I had very little time for God because I’d built up this whole new identity for myself. I was happy. I thought I was living this perfect little life.

But like Jonah, I had to have my ‘whale’ moment. And when that whale came in 2009, it swallowed me utterly. My relationship had been deteriorating for a few months. Well one night I walked in and caught her in the act; she’d been cheating on me. I was devastated and broken hearted. I never saw it coming. I had to move back in with my parents because I didn’t even have any place to go. And just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, a week after all this had gone down I went out for drinks with a well-meaning friend who was just trying to console me. Next thing you know I was pulled over for speeding and because I’d been drinking that night it wasn’t long before I was sitting in the back of a squad car and in handcuffs.

It was the absolute lowest point in my life. In just the span of a week everything had fallen apart. My life as I knew it...was over.

But in all of this, there was one big difference. In the past when I suffered, I ran from God. This time when I suffered, I ran to God!! As all of this was happening, I kept thinking of the words of Job “though you slay me, yet will I trust in you.” I claimed it as a promise. For days, weeks, I just kept saying those words over and over again. As I would lie in bed awake at night, unable to sleep: “though you slay me, yet will I trust in you.”

One night I finally reached a breaking point; I was overwhelmed by all the things that happened to me, I was on the floor crying I was in so much pain and I just asked God why? Why did You let all these things happen to me?

Finally, I just wanted to calm myself, so I picked up my Bible to do some devotions. I’d been reading the Book of Galatians, and I’d left off at chapter 2. Almost immediately I came to the words of Galatians 2:20 where it says “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who lives, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

There was my answer. It all became very clear to me. I’d never truly surrendered. I’d never truly died to myself. So this was it, I’d suffered my Cross. He’d stripped me of this life I’d been building for myself so He could finally live in me.

And like Job, He restored me. Here I’d been living all these years like a dead man walking, but He resurrected me from this scrap heap of life. When I’d lost my way and didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life and I prayed “Lord I will do whatever work you want me to do” He reaffirmed that long forgotten call into the ministry over my life and blessed me with an unprecedented opportunity at Ohio Christian University, where I just finished up my degree in Leadership and Ministry and graduated with honors just this past Saturday. I start seminary in the fall and have been blessed with a scholarship. When I lost the woman who I thought would be my wife, and I prayed “Lord if it is your will for me to be alone and never marry, so be it” He blessed me with meeting the woman who became my wife in May of 2012.. She is the love of my life and is the exact opposite of all the women from my past. She supports everything I do, she prays with me and for me, and when I’m in doubt she is the one who pushes me and makes me a better man.

And when I prayed for a new church to call home, He led me to the United Methodist Church. The mission statement of my home church, “responding to the reality of God” drew me in; and now I’m responding to the reality in ways I never would have thought possible! As part of my schooling I had the privilege of interning with my pastor for one year and to learn what it’s like to be in ministry and to even participate in things like worship leadership, preaching and teaching. With God's help, I am now pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church. I was also blessed to become a Stephen Minister there, to help those who are hurting like I was.

It is amazing when I stop and reflect on just how much God has transformed my life. Just a few years ago, I thought my life was over, I thought my life was ruined. All my hope was gone. But now He has given me a new beginning, a new hope, and a new purpose and is helping me to achieve things I never would have thought possible. I don't think I will ever know or understand why He has shown me all of this favor, but I know He is there, guiding my path. During my graduation ceremony on Saturday, when they called my name and I walked across the stage to receive my degree, I thought of the words of Jesus from John 15:5 "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

So as I write these words today, I can honestly say that the surrendered life to God that is so hard for us to do because we all want that control over our lives; is far better than anything we could ever do on our own. In surrendering, I became free. And when we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ, we can be reborn in the glory and hope of His resurrection. I’m living proof of that.

Marcus Aurelius

I have always been a big fan of the science fiction genre; whether its literature, film or even video games. I can trace this interest all the way back to childhood when I first saw the 1960 classic the Time Machine. Every time the main character would wind up that chair to travel through time, my eyes would just go wide with amazement. The idea of time travel is just fascinating. I think that’s always been part of the draw of science fiction; it makes us think of limitless possibilities and fills us with a sense of wonder and hope for the future.

One rainy afternoon a few years ago I sat down and read H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. A sense of anticipation came over me, and as I turned page after page, there was this distinct feeling of reconnecting with my childhood memories of the movie. It was one of those rare moments where you feel like a kid again. By the time I got to the end of the book, my eyes did go wide with amazement; amazement of an altogether different sort. I was shocked to find that the story was completely different than the movie. The traveler goes forward into the distant future to discover the destiny of man; but he doesn’t find alien races or technological marvels. He finds nothing. All that is left is a dead earth, save for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun. The only sounds are the rush of the wind and the gentle ripple of the sea. “Beyond these lifeless sounds,” writes Wells, “the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.” I put down the book in a stunned…silence. This was not at all what I had expected. The ending of the Time Machine reminds me a bit of the existential crisis of postmodern man. What do we have to look forward to at the end of our journey; with all our toiling, our passions, our struggles and our ambition? If the naturalist worldview is correct, not very much.

Last week I talked about the hope of humanism, demonstrating how the ‘New Atheists’ have substituted the pessimism of old with a more attractive, humanist Utopian idealism. But several atheist writers have emerged to attack and critique this ‘hope’ of the New Atheism. They accuse people like Dawkins of “going soft.” As one prominent atheist blogger put it, “We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time.” When put under the microscope; atheism cannot offer us hope. If we are simply the products of random time and chance in a blind and impersonal cosmos, then life ultimately has no objective, purpose or meaning. Just like the ending of the Time Machine, it is a deep silence and a profound nothingness that awaits us.

You see, under the naturalist worldview, we simply cannot get around the fact that everything ends in death. The great Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said “Alexander the Great and his stable boy were leveled in death.” How can there be any real hope in humanism if this is the case? All I can do is to try to escape from this inevitable reality. All I can do is to try to “authenticate myself” in any way possible.

But everything changes if God exists. The Christian view of God is important because it suggests that God is personal; He has revealed Himself to us in space and time; He has invaded human history with the Incarnation. The faceless now has a face; the unknowable has been made known. Thus God is not some blind watchmaker who sets the world in motion for no real purpose; rather He has created us to be in relationship with Himself. It is in this way that life suddenly has an objective meaning and purpose. You are not the product of random time and chance; rather you are the product of a loving God. You are not a momentary blip of being; rather you are a being of eternal significance. Your actions are not simply methods of escape or ways to “authenticate yourself”; rather what you do today matters eternally. Why must we debase ourselves with such naturalism? Why must we descend into despair and worthlessness when the Christian God says we are of infinite worth? My point here is that God has endowed us with reason above all other creation not so that we might despair of our condition; but so that our condition might cause us to seek Him. “Pain,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I cannot escape the reality of suffering. The Buddha taught that life itself is suffering and the Christian would agree with that wisdom. We live in a broken and fallen world that is not operating as it was intended. I have likened it to a computer virus infecting the operating system. The computer still powers up; you can still run most of your programs; but it is erratic. It runs more slowly than it should. It shuts down unexpectedly. Every time you turn it on, you wonder how much longer it is going to last. But while the naturalist, the atheist or the humanist must somehow insert meaning into life when there is none; the Christian says there actually is meaning. We see the world for how it actually is, not as we wish it to be.

To the naturalist, no amount of “authenticating ourselves” can eclipse the fact that if we are merely the product of random causes, our suffering also has no meaning. Suffering is just another random event of which we are nothing more than helpless prisoners. Some might call it ‘fate,’ for rather than subjecting themselves to a benevolent God, naturalists have instead subjected themselves to a blind determinism. The grave is ever looming, and that is all there is.

By contrast, the Christian worldview says there is meaning even in the midst of our suffering. Even though there is a virus infecting our operating system, God uses it to bring about good. I can think of no better example of this than the story of Jacob. After all that happened to him, he was still able to confidently utter those famous words “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” And as Christians we can claim that as a promise. Our trials can be used to bring about good.

You see, most people understand hope as a kind of wishful thinking. We want something to happen, so we hope for a certain outcome that may or may not work out. I hope the weather will be nice enough so I can take a walk today. I hope I get that promotion at work because I really need the money. But the Christian does not view hope in this way. The biblical definition of hope is “confident expectation.” Christian hope is the confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised us that it will.

But this hope is not Utopian. It does not say I will be healed of my every illness, it does not say God will make me healthy and wealthy, it does not say that all wars will be ended or that we will reach distant galaxies. Rather, it says “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” It says that I am not alone; that the God who Himself became man and suffered as a man is with me, suffering with me as I suffer. This is what the Psalmist means when he says “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When I suffer, I am not cast adrift at sea without any sense of purpose or hope; rather, God is my refuge and in that refuge I am given the strength to get through the trial; not to try to “authenticate myself” around it.

According to the naturalistic worldview, suffering, sickness and death can have no meaning. But to the Christian, we believe that behind this broken world there is a sovereign God who will one day do a system restore to this faulty operating system and set it back to the original factory default. I can believe this because God has promised it and because He has demonstrated it in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the pattern.

At the end of my previous blog on the resurrection, I asked the question “what if it were true?” If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, then the great reversal has begun. Death itself has been defeated. To the atheist; death claims everything. But to the Christian; death is but a passing through a doorway from one method of being into another. You are not a random collection of atoms to be dissolved; you are ceaseless, eternal. As Christ was raised, we shall be raised, for He said: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” He gives us the promise, all we have to do is believe it, even if it is a struggle; then we too can live in the hope of confident expectation where death does not have the final word.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand,

All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils His lovely face,

I rest on His unchanging grace;

In every high and stormy gale,

My anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant, His blood,

Support me in the whelming flood;

When all around my soul gives way,

He then is all my hope and stay.

(My Hope is Built, 1834)

Marcus Aurelius

The Resurrection of Hope Part I: Hope and Humanism

I was doing some spring cleaning the other day, and while rummaging through a bunch of dust covered boxes I found an old Obama “Hope” sticker from his 2008 election campaign. I’m sure you remember those. It has a picture of his face in red and blue colors with the words “hope” in all capital letters. For just a moment, I was reminded of the fervor of that election year, a fervor that I myself bought into. I went to see him speak during a Democratic rally held at a local area high school football field. He talked about how he was going to turn the economy around, how he was going to create new jobs and help the suffering middle class. He said he was going to end our foreign wars and favor diplomacy over aggression. He was saying all the things I so desperately wanted to hear and I found myself completely hooked. The “hope” sticker went up on my refrigerator that very night.

Clearly, I was not alone. He won the election in a landslide, and just about everyone I knew did indeed place their hopes in him. People seemed to think he would change the world and right all wrongs. But what happened as a result of our hopes? Our economy is in shambles, the middle class is being eviscerated, unemployment is rampant, and we always seem to be teetering on the brink of some new conflict. A survey says only 30% of the population feels our country is headed in the right direction. In short, our hopes were dashed. My “hope” sticker went from its prominent place on the refrigerator to a forgotten about box stuffed in a closet. To me, this is just another indictment of the false hopes of humanism; that world leaders and governments always have our best interests in mind and will fundamentally change the world and change lives for the better.

I cannot help but contrast the hope of humanism with the hope of my Christian faith. This past Sunday was Easter, and this year my church did things a little differently. Several people from our congregation went up front, one after the other, and talked about how Jesus Christ had transformed their lives and given them hope. In the United Methodist Church, we call this “faith sharing.” This was not the first time I’ve heard such testimonies. I’ve heard countless people talk about how they were freed from addictions, depression, abusive parents or relationships and all manner of bondage. I’ve even heard people talk about how they were healed of various physical afflictions and ailments. Skeptics of Christianity and religion often say that our faith is pie in the sky; but they ignore the transformative power of faith in our daily lives. Our lives have been transformed by hope.

I have asked these same skeptics a question; “what does the atheist hope in?” As of yet, I do not believe I have found a satisfactory answer. This matter is an easy one for me to probe, because I was once an atheist myself. Long before people jumped on the God Delusion bandwagon, I was reading the great atheist philosophers of old. The works of Nietzsche, Hume, Sartre, Camus and Schopenhauer once lined my bookshelves. Many of their views were not near as rosy as the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others.

Russell once wrote “that man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Sartre, whose “Being and Nothingness” was one of my favorite books when I was an atheist, echoed this when in his final interview he said: “With this third world war, which is going to break out one day, with this miserable ensemble that our planet is, despair returns to tempt me again. The idea that we will not ever finish it, that there is not any goal, that there are only individual goals for which people struggle. People start small revolutions, but there is not a goal for humanity, there is nothing that interests mankind, there are only disruptions”.

For Sartre and Camus, atheist “hope” boiled down to one thing; “authenticity.” Sartre argued that we live in an “absurd universe”, the total of which is “ridiculous.” All we can do, then, is to authenticate ourselves by an act of will. It doesn’t matter which direction you go; if you find a wallet on the ground you can either return it or steal it, because either way, you will have “authenticated yourself.” Such was the “hope” of the ‘old guard’ of the atheist philosophers that I was once so heavily influenced by; a kind of blind existentialism.

But now there has been a distinct paradigm shift in atheistic philosophy. With the explosion of the New Atheists onto the philosophical scene, we have moved from a naturalist despair or a subjective existentialism to a more broad sense of utopian idealism. These harsh critics of religion have put new clothes on the old guard to make it appear more attractive for pop culture consumption. Indeed, the New Atheists have become evangelists in their own right. We have gone from the bleak writings of a Sartre to “Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have and it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move. And that’s a pretty big hope.” Substitute pessimism for a repackaged utopian ideal and you have the New Atheism. Open the windows; the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming; spring has come to atheism at last, after a long, long winter!!

It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as being irrational; are themselves guilty of irrationality. It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as having a blind faith; are themselves guilty of having a blind faith. They say that we can “end all wars” and have “world peace” (especially if we get rid of religion!). They say we can “end poverty” and “end world hunger”. They say we can bring about better economic conditions for all of mankind. They say we will go out to the infinite stars. They say that secular morality will replace the need for a god. And while these things (with the exception of that last one) are certainly what we should always be striving for; they are at the same time unrealistic expectations in their totality. It is nothing more than a repackaged utopian philosophy brought into the 21st century. The writer of Ecclesiastes said “there is nothing new under the sun”, and indeed there isn’t. I wish I could say that we have the power to end all wars, for example, but there have always been wars and there will always be wars. Because the desire for selfish gain has always been and will always be rooted deeply in the human heart; the utopian world that these New Atheists tout in their books and in their lectures is simply impossible. They advocate reason over faith; but this is not reason, this is faith of an altogether different kind, and is thus a flight from reason. Perhaps the ‘old guard’ would have seen this as well. They are guilty of the same non-rational leap that they accuse theists of taking.

And like the utopian philosophers of old and the “hope” stickers of the present day, these ‘hopes’ will ultimately be dashed by reality. When we take off the rose tinted glasses of the New Atheism, we see the hope of humanism for what it really is. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on in its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest tomorrow, himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”

So what does the Christian hope in? I will be examining that in the second and final part of this series. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, thank you for coming with me on this journey and please stay tuned……

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