Monday, June 26, 2017

Sick to Death

The scriptures referred to are Romans 6:1b-11 and Matthew 10:24-39.

I think most people were saddened when they learned that Carrie Fisher died. And since she was only 60 years old, and life expectancy for a woman that age is 83, many of us suspected that the damage done by her self-confessed drug abuse probably shortened her life. This week the coroner determined that among the factors behind her heart attack were sleep apnea, cocaine ingested within the last 72 hours and traces of heroin and ecstasy. And immediately people were making an issue of this. On Facebook I saw one rather rude defense of her privacy that was tagged by the person who posted it: “I'm glad she died high on Ecstasy. Good for her.”

First of all, she wasn't high on ecstasy. The traces in her system were so small that they couldn't determine when she had taken it, but it was long before she had taken the cocaine.

Secondly, I am not happy she died at all. I wanted to see her live to be a sassy old lady and Grande Dame of Hollywood. And I am especially saddened that she was still having trouble fighting her drug problems. I don't condemn her because she was also battling what we used to call manic depression, and quite frankly I had been wondering if she was taking Lithium, the prescription drug of choice. It can also exacerbate heart disease and might have hastened her death as it had Jeremy Brett, who also had bipolar disease. But, no, it was illegal drugs.

Let's put it this way. What if Carrie had Type 1 diabetes, had died in a diabetic coma and the coroner had found that her last meal was an entire chocolate cake with sprinkles and gumdrops? Would you applaud that? Now you are not responsible for having Type 1 diabetes, the cause of which is unknown but is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. But once you are diagnosed you are responsible when it comes to taking your insulin, watching what you eat and how much you exercise. Or you will die. It may seem unfair but you have to accept it and move ahead with taking care of your health. Mary Tyler Moore was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 33. She took care of it and lived to be 80.

We now know some people are born susceptible to addiction. It's a brain illness. It is in their DNA and the science of epigenetics tells us that the genes responsible for addiction could be inherited already turned on because your parents or grandparents drank or took drugs. It doesn't mean you are doomed to addiction, just that you are at a greater risk than the average person, in the same way someone with a family history of heart disease has a higher risk of developing that. The proper response to having that greater risk is greater care. Carrie Fisher said she took dangerous drugs as a form of self-medication for her mental illness. And as her daughter Billie Lourd said, “she died from it.”

My point is that Carrie was sick. You don't rejoice when someone dies from an illness. You sure as heck don't rejoice when one of the factors in their death was a lapse in self-care.

Why am I going on about this? Because I find illness is a good metaphor for sin, the thing that afflicts us spiritually. The Bible does imply that we inherit our propensity for sin, what theologians call “original sin.” Some people say that if we inherit it, we can't be held responsible for it by God. That entirely misses the point. It's like inheriting a disease. You may not be responsible for having it but once you get the diagnosis, you are responsible for getting help. Otherwise you are like the men I saw on my skid row ministry in college. Far from denying their problem, they would say, “I'm an alcoholic.” But by that admission, they meant that they couldn't help themselves. In their eyes, their diagnosis sealed their fate. They didn't want help; they wanted money to buy booze.

If you are born with a disease, that sucks. But unless you want to get worse and/or die, you get help. You go to the doctor, you get a treatment regimen and you follow it. That usually means giving up things you'd rather keep and doing things you'd rather not. It's no fun but dealing with a disease isn't about enjoying it. It's about getting better.

That's what Paul is getting at in our passage from Romans. He has just said that where sin increased, God's grace increased more. And Paul is anticipating, perhaps based on previous experiences, some dunderhead saying, “well, isn't more grace a good thing? Maybe we should sin more to further increase it.” Which is like saying the budget for emergency services has increased in response to more heroin overdoses. Since more emergency services are good, to get an even bigger budget we need more heroin overdoses! It's nonsensical. We are talking about a matter of life and death.

The problem I think stems from muddled thinking about good and evil. The problem is we associate being bad with fun and being good with not having fun. I think this goes back to when we were kids and being good meant not jumping on the couch, and not tormenting the cat, and taking a nap whether you want to or not, and eating fruits and vegetables instead of candy and junk food. When you're a kid all these rules seem arbitrary. It's not until you are an adult and are responsible for a small human being that you remember the times you fell and hit your head because you were jumping on the couch, and the time the harassed cat whipped around and scratched you and you bled, and all the times you got cranky and miserable because you didn't take a nap, and the time you went to a friend's birthday party and had chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream and candy and got sick as a dog afterward. When you are an adult, you realize a lot of the rules parents make are for your own good. Why do we think it's different with God's rules?

God doesn't hate sin because he hates fun. We wouldn't be able to have pleasure at all if he hadn't created us with that capacity. But not all sources of fun are good for us. Some are helpful and some are harmful. God hates sin because it makes us do things that are both self-destructive and destructive to our relationships with others and with him. God hates sin because he loves us.

Sin is spiritual illness. It is only fun in the way that the manic phase of bipolar disease is. It may be exhilarating for a while but it will be followed by coming down hard into a depression. I had an aunt with the disease. I saw her come down off the high of mania twice. And while she was manic, she spent money she didn't have, went without sleep and put my poor uncle in a nursing home before his time. Drugs and alcohol can similarly make you feel good for a short period and then run you straight into the brick wall of reality and consequences. And so can sin.

Carrie Fisher's problems began at age 3 when her father Eddie Fisher's adultery was discovered. He had an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. That probably felt great while it lasted. But when Taylor's best friend, Fisher's wife Debbie Reynolds, divorced him, the former teen idol's career nosedived. He lost his TV show and his record label. Taylor eventually divorced Fisher for Richard Burton, which whom she was having an affair. When her dad published a salacious tell-all memoir, Carrie quipped she was going to have her DNA fumigated. And that was the hallmark of Carrie's humor: it was rueful. She knew it was humorous in the telling but she never hid the fact that it was hell in the living. She said, “If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

Eddie Fisher married 5 times. Debbie Reynolds married 3 times. Elizabeth Taylor married 7 times. That left Carrie Fisher with such a convoluted and confusing family that when her daughter started dating another Hollywood scion, they were worried that they might be related. So Carrie had to work out the family tree to assure them that they weren't.

That's just the damage adultery can do. People hardly consider that a sin anymore. Now the harm murder does is obvious as well as robbery. And if you think of people in the news, it's not hard to see how things Jesus condemned like deceit, jealousy, slander, arrogance, greed and foolishness can also wreck lives. (By the way, I know that celebrities are not more sinful than the rest of us; it's just that their follies are made public. They know firsthand what Jesus says in today's gospel: “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Thus they are ready-made and familiar examples of human frailty.)

As Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a person but its end is the way that leads to death.” We know that sins like murder do so, but that's even true of the less scandalous sins. Yes, overdosing will kill you; so will overeating. Gluttony just takes more time and we humans are terrible in recognizing slow and stealthy threats. People didn't get serious about safe sex until folks started dying of AIDS. Most smokers don't get serious about quitting until they are diagnosed with cancer or a serious respiratory disease. We are not going to get serious about global warming until people start dropping dead from the heat and you have to put on wading boots to walk down the streets of Key West as the sea level rises.

Ironically while sin kills, the solution also involves dying. Paul says, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Paul is using Jesus' death and resurrection as a metaphor for our transformation in Christ. We die to sin and arise to new life as a new creation.

As you may know I like to use the metaphor of a heart transplant for salvation. In the case of heart failure, the only way to avoid death is to get a new heart. Which means someone has to die and donate their heart. It also means you need to have enough faith in the doctor to let him render you unconscious, stop your heart, cut it out and implant and attach a new heart. When you're awake again, you have a new heart and a new start in life. In the same way Jesus dies to give us life, his life. We can only access this by showing faith in him. If we let him change our hearts, we will have new life in him.

If you got a life-saving heart transplant, you would follow doctor's orders and change your lifestyle. To go back to your old lifestyle—eating blooming onions and smoking and not exercising—would be morally wrong for one thing; someone died to give you that heart. It would also be stupid. Why would you want to go back to being out of breath, having chest pain, having your legs swell up, and just generally feeling bad all over again? Having been granted a new life, why would you want to court death?

Which is why Paul is aghast that people would so misinterpret the fact that we are saved by God's grace rather than works as to think that only belief matters and not behavior. Again this goes to back to thinking that all rules are arbitrary, rather like the rules of etiquette. For example, in the West folks shake hands; in the East people bow to each other. But God's rules are really like the rules of good health, designed to improve and maintain our spiritual health and our relationships with ourselves, with each other and with God.

So Paul says it is like our old sinful self died on that cross with Jesus. And with it died our enslavement to sin. Addiction is a good metaphor for enslavement. Because while people rarely get addicted overnight, with time they do find their recreational activity or use of a substance has gone from a pastime to a hobby to a habit to a cruel master. Addiction changes the brain, bypassing the normal paths to its reward centers. Eventually the brain stops naturally producing dopamine and other neurotransmitters that give us pleasure, because the substance we are ingesting is acting as a substitute. Breaking addiction, therefore, means changing your brain. The spiritual analogue is the renewal of the mind Paul urges in Romans 12:2. And the Greek word for repent literally means “think differently.” If you keep thinking and acting the same way as you were, and expect things will change, you will be disappointed. And you might end up dead.

There were warning signs for Carrie. In 1985, after being sober for months she accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills and prescription meds and was hospitalized. In 2005 a friend died in her home of a combination of cocaine and oxycodone that aggravated undiagnosed heart disease. That was a prophetic death and naturally it upset Carrie. Yet she said, “I was a nut for a year and in that year I took drugs again.” That's how enslaving addiction is.

Carrie Fisher used her fame to educate people about mental illness and drug abuse. I hope her death, like that of Robin Williams, will wake more people up to these issues and make them seek help. Because many people do get free from addiction, including people like Eric Clapton, Russell Brand, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert Downey Jr., and Daniel Ratcliffe of Harry Potter fame. A lot of folks do it by joining a 12 step program, the first 3 steps of which are admitting you cannot manage your life because of your addiction, realizing God can do it and then turning your life over to him. If it sounds familiar, it is because the 12 steps were derived from Christianity.

If we want to get free of the things that make our spiritual lives unmanageable, if we want to break free of the self-destructive habits that sabotage our lives and relationships, we have to admit we have become slaves to those things. We need to trust God and turn our life over to him. We need to let him remove our heart of stone and give us a good heart, the heart of Jesus, so that we can live a new life through him. We need to leave behind the dead and deadly things of our old life and let his Spirit change and renew our mind.


We live in a world with significance. Our choices count, even ones we don't put much thought into. Our choices affect our lives and the lives of others, including our children. We also live in a world where time only moves in one direction: forward. We cannot change the past. But neither must we let the past determine our future. Even second is a second chance. We can change course. We can turn from the things that promise pleasure but deliver destruction, disease and death. We can turn to the God of life and healing and wholeness. We can let the love of Jesus rule our hearts. We can follow in his steps, knowing that if we stumble, our companion, Jesus, will help us back up on our feet, offering forgiveness, restoration and strength to persevere. He will never leave us and he will never give up on us. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Charged

Imagine a version of the parable of the Good Samaritan where, instead of passing by the man beaten and left for dead, the priest and the Levite came over to him and said, “I feel really bad for you. I can't touch you because if you die it would make me ritually unclean to serve in the temple but I want you to know: my heart goes out to you. I really do hope you get better.” And then they walk away. Two question would arise. Would that do the beaten man any good? And would he believe a word of it?

Of course not. Words are easy. In a situation like that, only actions show your true feelings. Look at it this way: had the man been the son of either the priest or the Levite, they would have been administering first aid in a split second. We lie with our lips; the truth is in our lives.

Jesus knew that. In today's gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:23) we are told that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'” And if he were in a modern church, they would have said a prayer and left it at that. But Jesus isn't that kind of person. If he sees someone who needs help, he provides it. First off, he realizes that not everyone who needs to hear the gospel is in this crowd. There was no mass media then. How could Jesus increase the range of his message? Send out the disciples.

Disciple” is just another word for “student.” And part of learning is being able to articulate what you've been taught. Admittedly the message is rather simple. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (In Matthew "the kingdom of heaven" is a euphemism for the kingdom of God, for those Jews who wanted to avoid using God's name in vain, even accidentally.) It's possible that Jesus is sending them out with a teaser message to make people curious. In the average Jew's mind, this message meant the end of the present evil age was near and the Messianic age is nigh. And that would make people wonder if the Messiah was already here. And who he was.

But why would anyone believe the disciples, especially with such a cryptic message? The healings, of course. Anybody can say the Messianic age is coming, but if the heralds of the Messiah can heal people, then that's all the proof most folks will need. And if the Twelve are doing it in Jesus' name, that answers the question of who the Messiah is.

But I don't want you to get the impression that Jesus was simply using healings to get the message out. Our passage says that he had compassion on the crowd. It's possible that Jesus pitied the people simply for not knowing the gospel but that's unlikely. The word used is the strongest possible Greek word for pity, according to William Barclay. Barclay also points out that, except in the parables, this word for compassion is only used about Jesus. He feels compassion for the sick (Matt 14:14), the blind (Matt 20:34), those with leprosy (Mark 1:41), the widow of Nain about to bury her only son (Luke 7:13), and the crowd of 5000 hungry people he will eventually feed (Matt 15:32). In this passage, the people Jesus has compassion for are described as harassed and helpless. The Greek literally says “flayed and scattered.” That's what moves Jesus.

That's another reason Jesus sends the disciples out not only to preach but to heal. There were no hospitals then. There was no medical science to speak of. This is 100 years before the birth of Galen, the Greek physician and surgeon, who would influence medicine for the next 1300 years. A large part of Jesus' ministry was healing those who had no other option for getting better. And to extend the range of his healing, he enlists the disciples.

Again part of the learning process is putting what you learn to work. In my nursing school we spent half the day in a classroom and the other half on a hospital floor, taking care of patients. Hospitals and nursing homes routinely hire newly graduated nurses and put them to work, under supervision, even before they pass their licensure exams. So what Jesus is doing is like having medical interns work in the clinic. He's taught the disciples what to do; now it's time for them to put it into practice.

And yet Jesus chooses some rather ordinary guys. They aren't wealthy; they aren't scholars; they aren't priests or Levites. 4 are fishermen, and 2 are enemies! Simon the Canaanite is called in Luke 6:16 "the Zealot," meaning he was part of a movement that called for the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. He should have been at the throat of Matthew, a tax collector for the Romans. We can only surmise that, as Matthew left his old life behind to follow Jesus, Simon did likewise with his old political position. So the guys might be ordinary but the fellowship is anything but.

And they are charged with an extraordinary mission: Proclaim the good news. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. And do so without taking payment. Jesus wants the disciples to rely on whoever is hospitable for their food and accommodations. He doesn't want them taking money. Rabbis in that day would not take payment to teach. Jesus doesn't want his disciples to be tempted to favor anyone or to become or even look corrupted. They are to operate on faith, trusting that God will see to their needs.

If all this seems incredibly naive on Jesus' part, he knows that. “See, I am sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16) Sheep and doves are prey; wolves and snakes are predators. And yet, though he is sending them into danger, Jesus' most visible concession is to send them out two by two, according to Mark 6:7. Still, since Jesus explicitly forbids his followers to use violence, that means they need to use their minds when faced with opposition. Just like Jesus. He is smart. He knows how the world works. He knows how people really act. But not only is he smart, he's wise. He knows what matters in the end. He knows what is truly valuable. And it's not having a lot of physical power and it's not winning as the world sees winning. It's serving God. It's serving those created in the image of God. It's becoming the person God created you to be: loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and generous and faithful and gentle and self-controlled. And wise.

We have examples of this. Paul was shrewd enough to invoke his Roman citizenship when he faced injustice. (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11) It allowed him to proclaim the gospel to high officials. He also tailored his presentation of the gospel to his audience (Acts 17:22-23) and even to confound his enemies (Acts 23:6-8).

Jesus himself was able to disarm his opponents when they tried to set theological and moral traps for him. He used the design of a coin to parry a question about taxes while simultaneously asserting that our lives belong to God. When they questioned his authority, he turned the question back on them by asking about John the Baptist's authority. When they planted a man with a withered hand in the front row of a synagogue, Jesus asked if doing good was permitted on the Sabbath and then told the man to stretch out his hand. (Mark 3:1-6) Jesus flipped the script. Instead of doing what they expected, instead of following their script, he reframed the problem and changed the question. He never forgot the real issues at stake: loving God and loving people.

A lot of the problems we have in this world are about priorities. We put everything else ahead of God and  other people. When you look at the ethical decisions people make, it is obvious that we put personal success ahead of God and other people. We put the attainment of power and the maintenance of privilege ahead of God and other people. We put personal pleasure ahead of God and other people. We put our own comfort and convenience ahead of God and other people. We put money ahead of God and people. Budgets are moral documents, revealing our priorities, and yet some who call themselves Christians balk when they feel too much money is spent on things that help people and not enough on things that kill them. That's even true when we are talking about our own warriors. We have the largest military budget in the world. And yet for every dollar we spend on our military, we spend less than 24 cents caring for our veterans. Not only does the country ask them to die for us, it evidently prefers that they do. If they live, they cost more.  We have made the bottom line our top priority. As someone pointed out, we are supposed to love people and use things; instead we love things and use people.

When you look at the world the way Jesus did, putting God and other people first, you are bound to run into opposition. I can't think of anyone persecuted for maintaining the status quo. Nobody is oppressed for saying things are fine the way they are. But if you say that things are bad the way they are, if you point out society's problems, if you say we need change, that gets you persecuted.

Change scares because change hurts. Change scares because change either alters or eliminates the familiar. Because change scares, changing things takes courage. And make no mistake, the gospel is not about preserving the status quo. Jesus charges us to change the world.

Jesus charges us to “cure the sick.” Sicknesses are called disorders. We have a disordered society. As we said, our priorities are out of order. We love the wrong things or we love them in the wrong order, putting things like popularity and power and partisanship above God and other people. We need to cure that. Which means we must first accept the diagnosis. Humanity fights this by generating a lot of denial. We are going to have to admit we are sick and then let the Spirit of the God who is love heal us.

Jesus charges us to “raise the dead.” A large number of people in this world are spiritually dead. They don't respond to things of the Spirit. They can't see beyond the things of this passing world to glimpse the things that are eternal. "What you see is what you get," they say. Blind to what is behind this world, what undergirds it, what binds it together, they blunder into the dead end of distraction and dissolution. We need to raise the dead. We need to lift them up so that they can see what is above and around them and breathe in the Spirit of the God who gives all things meaning.

Jesus charges us to “cleanse the lepers.” There are a lot of people who are treated as pariahs in society, people who are blamed for not being like everyone else, people who hurting but whose cries for love and empathy and inclusion are ignored. We want them to shut up and stay away lest their troubling differences infect us. (Luke 18:39) But at the risk of becoming unclean, Jesus reached out and healed lepers. (Mark 1:40-42) We need to do likewise, reaching out to the hurting and the excluded and heal the breaches in our communities.

Jesus charges us to “cast out demons.” A lot of people are fighting their demons, the adverse experiences and personal issues that bedevil them and cause them to act out and harm themselves and others. Instead of punishing them, we need to help them face the legion of problems that make their life hell, to cast away the things that drag them down and to put them in touch with the Spirit of the God of peace.

How do we do it? Through the power of the Spirit. Jesus sent the disciples out 2 by 2. Wherever 2 are 3 are gathered in his name, the Spirit of Jesus is there. (Matt 18:20) He is with us. He will never leave us or forsake us.  

Now as then Jesus calls ordinary people. He teaches and empowers us and then sends us out into a disordered the world to proclaim the good news of healing and resurrection, of inclusion and triumph over darkness and to proclaim it not only with our words but with acts of love. And every time we do it, the Kingdom of God comes that much nearer.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Needless Complication?

I get a lot of technical questions thrown at me at the jail. People there have little to do except read their Bibles and think. The most common question I get is about the Nephilim. Their first and most intriguing appearance is in Genesis 6:4. There we are told they were giants who were the product of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” These giants pop up a handful of times in the first 6 books of the Bible and generate a lot of curiosity. Nowadays I simply send the inmates who ask about them photocopies of a couple of pages from the book Hard Sayings of the Bible, detailing the 3 basic interpretations.

Other frequently asked questions are about the apocryphal Book of Enoch, the names of God, the composition, transmission, and translation of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, early church history, and whether Roman Catholicism is Christian. So it's a good thing I am a Bible and theology and church history geek, meaning I not only study these things but enjoy really getting into the details. And unlike my experience in the world outside, I rarely see inmates' eyes glaze over when I explain. They really want to know.

Occasionally I will get questioned about the Trinity. Mostly folks just don't understand it. It seems to them a needless complication of the doctrine of God. Why do we still retain it?

Well, it's not like anybody sat down and decided that the nature of God needed to be made more difficult. Rather it is that Christians started noticing things about their experience of God and needed some framework to deal with the paradox they encountered. That God was the creator of us and all that exists was obvious. The problem came when Jesus arrived.

Had Jesus of Nazareth been the kind of Messiah most Jews expected there would have been no problem. Had he simply been King David 2.0, leading a revolt against the Romans occupying Jewish land and setting up a kingdom of God on earth, his followers would have been fine with that. Had he been a prophet or high priest who brought the people back to the observance of God's laws, that would have been OK. But Jesus was different. He healed many more people than either Elijah or Elisha had. He even raised the dead. He fed multitudes with a few loaves of bread and some fish. He stopped storms. Most notably, he walked on water. And having been killed in the most horrible and bloody way the Romans had concocted, Jesus rose again. Clearly Jesus was not merely a man of God. People had referred to him by an old royal title, the son of God. But it looked more and more as if this was literally true. And that caused a problem for monotheistic Jews, which all of the first Christians were.

There were scriptural precedents for this, however. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there are appearances by the “angel of the Lord,” who speaks for and sometimes as God. Because he sometimes is identified with God and sometimes is seen as distinct from God, Jewish thinkers saw him as a theophany or an appearance by God in humanoid form.

And then in Proverbs 8, wisdom personified speaks. “From eternity I was appointed, from the beginning, from before the world existed....When he established the heavens, I was there; when he marked out the horizon over the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above, when the fountains of the deep grew strong, when he gave the sea his decree that the waters should not pass over his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him as a master craftsman....” (Proverbs 8:23, 27-30) So God's wisdom is spoken of as a separate person who works with him in creation. And on a few occasions Jesus did identify himself with the wisdom of God. (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:49-51; Matt. 23:34-37)

The wisdom or logos of God was a common theme of both Jewish and Gentile philosophers. The logos, which could be translated “word,” was the rhyme and reason for the world, the ordering principle behind it. John's gospel seizes on this concept and begins, “In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us....” (John 1:1-3, 14) Notice the parallels with Proverbs 8, where wisdom is with God and helps in creation.

So the idea that an aspect of God could be a person sharing his attributes had been established. And this helped the early Christians who were trying to wrap their minds around how Jesus could be God while at the same time his Father was God. 

So how did the Holy Spirit come into this?

The Spirit of God was mentioned frequently in the Old Testament beginning with the very second verse in Genesis, at the dawn of creation. At first the Spirit of God was seen as a supernatural force, rather like the wind, that could not be seen but whose power could be experienced. God's Spirit was given to kings, priests and prophets, who were anointed to carry out his will. The Spirit might come upon such persons to speak or prophesy through them, often in an ecstatic state. And the prophets spoke of the coming age when the Spirit would renew creation and be poured out not just on leaders but on all people.

Jesus spoke of the Spirit as a person. Blasphemy against himself, the Son of Man, would be forgiven but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:31-32) How could insulting an impersonal force be more grave than insulting Jesus, unless the Spirit was also a divine person? And in John 14:16 Jesus speaks of the Spirit as another parakletos or advocate who would take over that role in the life of the church. 

But the biggest reason that the church saw the Holy Spirit as another divine person has got to be their experience of him beginning with Pentecost. The Spirit spoke through them, guided them, has a mind (Romans 8:27), and can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). They realized that the Spirit was not simply an impersonal energy but God living in them. (Romans 8:9-11)

So the early Christians observed 4 facts about God: the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, and yet there is one God. The Trinity was not formulated to explain away this paradox but to preserve it. But why?

Because the early church experienced God in all 3 ways. They saw God's work in creation and knew of his wisdom, justice and mercy in his law. The Twelve and the Seventy had spent a lot of time with Jesus and 500 had seen him after his resurrection. From Pentecost on, they felt and knew the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. They also did not feel that God was merely putting on 3 different masks or that Jesus was shadowboxing when praying to or speaking of the Father as a separate person whom he was obeying or the Holy Spirit whom the Father was sending. And yet the unity of the three was so complete there was no sense that any one divine person was acting apart from or in opposition to any other. The Trinity was the church's way of acknowledging all of these experiences while resisting the temptation to oversimplify reality.

As science is our attempt to explain the natural world, theology is our attempt to explain the ways of God. As science has to deal with counterintuitive facts, like light behaving both as a particle and as a wave, and the extremely odd behavior of subautomic particles, so theology has to deal with things we discover about God that are also difficult to comprehend. Of course there are several difficult areas in their respective fields that scientists and theologians continue to wrestle with as they try to bring all of the data together. When someone ignores certain scientifically established facts in creating a theory, it's bad science. When people ignore the basics of the faith to assert something about God, it's bad theology.

But is it important that the average person understand these things? Not in the detail that experts do but just as we should all know some basic science, Christians should know basic theology. And let me relate something that has helped me understand the Trinity.

In 1 John 4:8, we are told that God is love. It doesn't say that God is loving, but that God is love itself. If we take that not as a poetic sentiment but a literal fact, then God is an eternal act of love. And if that is true, there has to be more than one person in the Godhead. God is not unrequited love, like the love Charlie Brown has for the little redhaired girl. That's merely a crush or an infatuation. For it to be true love, it has to be reciprocated. So the Triune God is the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

That means that since we are created in the image of God, we are most like God when we in a loving relationship, whether it is a friendship, or a romantic relationship, or a family, or a loving community. And that's important for Christians to know.

The fact is that we still experience God in different ways. There are times when we are out in nature or looking up at the night sky or looking through a microscope or listening to the latest news from science or watching a baby discover the world and her own body and her abilities, when it hits us that this universe is both amazingly vast and complex and yet intricately coordinated. It may seem random and chaotic at times and yet it always obeys the laws of math and physics and chemistry. Our brains are able to do more than just keep us alive and help us decide if the the other things in our environment are things we should fight or flee or feed on or fertilize. We think and we understand and we appreciate and we invent arts and sciences. Even unbelieving scientists confess to feeling awe about this cosmos. They marvel at the fact that the universe seems fine-tuned to allow life and ourselves exist. We Christians can feel gratitude to our Creator as well. And gratitude is a key element of psychological well-being.

But a God who is merely a creator, who is far above us in knowledge and wisdom and power, can also make us feel very much alone in our place in the universe. The people of Israel felt grateful that God simply deigned to send down his law and his word to guide and comfort us. But God did more than that. He sent his living Word, the ultimate in self-expression, his son, to become one of us, to live a human life. He shows us both what God is like and what we can be. And through his crucifixion, he shows us the extent of God's love. Through his resurrection, he shows us God's power and intention to restore life and wholeness to all of creation. Consequently, we Christians know that nothing we encounter in our lives is foreign to him. He understands firsthand what it is like to be human. And that includes pain and suffering and sorrow and death. But we also know that no matter how dire our situation is, there is hope because not even death can defeat our God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. (Romans 8:38-39)

But now that Jesus has gone back to the Father, we might feel abandoned and orphaned. Yet God is still present with and in us through his Spirit. He awakens us spiritually, giving us new life and recreating us in the image of God we see in Jesus, which our self-destructive ways have marred and obscured. He speaks to us and speaks for us. He drives us and restrains us. He reminds us and inspires us. He equips each of us and binds all of us. The Spirit leads us to become the people God intends us to be.


We can, and should, experience God in all three ways: above us, beside us, in us. And even if our minds have trouble taking this all in, we need to remember that his ways are not ours. A god small enough for our minds to comprehend is a god too small to be the source of all creation, nor the rhyme and reason behind it, nor the power energizing it. A big and complex and awesome universe like ours requires an even bigger and more complex and much more awesome Creator. Man is not the measure of all things. God is. And thank God for that. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Putting It All Together

The scripture referred to is 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.

I don't think jigsaw puzzles will ever go away but a couple of decades ago they were really hot. I know this because one of the people I worked with at the radio station was really into them. She used to get catalogs of nothing but puzzles. There were 3-D puzzles where, when you were done, you would have a jigsaw model of the Eiffel tower or Buckingham palace. One puzzle they offered had a thousand pieces but no actual picture. Everything was a uniform red. It was the most difficult to put together...and the most pointless. Aside from the challenge, why would you spend hours and days putting together this puzzle only to be rewarded with a 2 foot by 18 inch red rectangle?

In games we like complexity and yet when it comes to reality, we like simplicity. We like it when some complex phenomenon can be reduced to one or two things. We like it when things are binary: black and while, pure good and absolute evil, the simple truth and completely false. Which is why we like stories like Star Wars. Blow up the Death Star, kill the emperor and the universe is saved. But life is more complicated than that.

More than any of us our Creator knows how intricate life is and so we shouldn't be surprised that diversity is part of his plan for redeeming his creation. On the surface it sounds simple. Jesus died for our sins. We just have to trust in him and we are saved. So why didn't Jesus just march from the tomb to Rome and start putting the world under his rule? As we've said before, it wasn't because he wasn't ready; it's because we weren't.

Usually a ruler doesn't need your love. He gets power and you have to obey or he will punish you. But the kingdom of God doesn't work that way. God is Love. We are created in God's image, which means we were created to love. But love requires free will. Without it we are preprogrammed robots. Real love requires making a decision to love. And if the choice is to be genuine, you also have to have the ability to decide not to love.

By eschewing coercion and use of force, Jesus chooses to give the people of the world plenty of time to consider his offer to join his kingdom. The evidence of his identity and mission are there for all who care to examine the record. If you don't find his spiritual insights to be true, his moral reasoning to be compelling and his way of love a better way to deal with life, so be it. You can try instead to make the world better through appeals to pure logic or the application of force. We do that already and this is the world that doing that gets you.

Jesus realized his words alone wouldn't convince some people, so he used demonstrations of love as well. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He defended the powerless and welcomed the outcast. He forgave sinners and restored children to their parents and a brother to his sisters. He took what was broken and made it whole.

And he knew we would need to do the same. So he sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to continue his mission, to deliver his words and continue his works. But it's not a simple task. It's complicated and so the Spirit gives us multiple gifts to do it effectively.

In today's passage from 1 Corinthians Paul tells us “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6) Paul talks of 3 categories of things the Spirit grants: gifts, services and activities. We tend to focus on gifts, the abilities that people have, but neglect the fact that the Spirit also gives us services, or ministries, and activities in which to use them. And Paul tells us that God activates them in everyone. We all have some of these gifts, ministries and activities.

Nobody however has all of them. Not the clergy, not the church secretary, not the Senior Warden or Congregational President. No one is Superman, with all the powers: super strength, super speed, heat vision and the ability to fly. Honestly I don't understand the reason he needs the rest of the Justice League. He can do everything that they can. (Except Batman. Batman's superpower is that he is 10 steps ahead of everyone. And scary, to boot)

Looking for a Superman, a person who can do it all, is not even biblical. In our alternate Old Testament lesson (Numbers 11:24-30) Moses, unable to do everything for the people of Israel, has been told to choose 70 elders to help with administration. God's Spirit is given to them, including two guys who aren't gathered with the rest but are still back in the camp. When Joshua tells Moses to stop them, he says, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” In our passage from Acts (2:1-21) God does exactly that. And in 1 Corinthians Paul tells us how this works out in a practical fashion—through the gifts, services and activities given by the Spirit. “All of these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (1 Cor. 12:11) And he enumerates a number of gifts. Later in the chapter but after our lectionary reading cuts off, Paul lists some of the ministries the Spirit gives: apostles, prophets, teachers, administrators and so on. (1 Cor. 12:28) And then he drives his point home: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all do miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:29) His rhetorical questions are obviously intended to elicit a series of “No”s. No one can do everything. No one is Superman or Supergirl. But we are all team members with specific skills and abilities.

And that's good. If we believed that one person could do it all, we'd let him. We would sit back and watch. We wouldn't do what we can and should do because that special person will take care of everything. And then when that person fails, we can blame him or her for not being omnicompetent.

But God made it so that we need each other. When a horse is born, it stands up within the first hour. Other species do that as well. Humans don't. For the better part of a year we remain helpless and for a lot longer than that, we are still unable to do many of the tasks we need to do in order to stay alive and safe. Nobody is born independent. And we never really are, at any stage in life. Even when we can feed ourselves, we need someone to provide food. We need people to teach us how to read and how to think correctly and how to act properly. We need help getting a job, help moving, help getting money in the form of loans for getting a car or a house. We rely on the protection of laws, police, firefighters and EMTs. When we are sick or injured we need doctors, nurses, CNAs and therapists. As we inevitably decline towards the end of life we need people to help and take care of us. We are all supported by a great web of other human beings.

In America, we have this myth of the rugged individualist, who doesn't need anyone. And we have a torrent of reality TV shows depicting people dropped off in the wild, surviving by their wits and skills. But if you think for a second, you realize they always have a crew behind the camera, including a medic. And several times the contestants have gotten injured or an infection or suffered heat stroke or gotten sick with malaria, spotted fever, or dengue fever. And had they actually been alone, they would have died. In fact, if you look closely at these shows, they just reinforce how vulnerable individual humans are and how we never would have survived as a species were it not for our communal way of life.

God is Love and he made us that way. We survive and thrive because of love. We survive and thrive as Christians because of the body of Christ, the diverse community of those called from every nation, race, class and walk of life to follow Jesus, united by his love. God doesn't want Lone Ranger Christians.

Another reason it is good that none of us has all the gifts is that we must therefore work together to show the world Jesus' love in action. We demonstrate how a bunch of ordinary people can do beautiful things for God through using our gifts in concert. But if we are going to have an impact in this world for him, we need to do beautiful and useful things for the larger community as well.

The gifts are for the support of the body of Christ but also for reaching out to the world. Paul puts apostles first. What are they except missionaries sent out by Jesus to share the gospel with all nations? Next come prophets, those who speak God's word, not only to those who believe but to those who don't. Then teachers, who communicate the faith to, among others, those who have just joined God's community and want to learn more. As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple pointed out, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

And you know what the world needs right now? Hope. I noticed when I first started working at the jail that I did not see so many crises of faith as crises of hope. People were teetering on the brink of despair. And I see the same thing in the world today. People are worried about the future. Things don't seem to be going in the right direction. Life is getting harder. Society is getting less kind and more unforgiving. 

Part of this has come from the world leaving behind the Christian bases for hope. If you abandon the idea of a loving God who is working to redeem and renew the world, you have a world with no meaning or direction. If you take away the idea that human beings were created in the image of God and therefore have inherent worth, you have no justification for treating people as equals. If you remove the idea that there is an afterlife where injustices are redressed, you end up with a world where there is no reason to delay gratification nor any reason to fear the consequences of what you do if you just manage to get away with things long enough. In such a world, becoming a Hitler makes sense if you can get away with it. He did want he wanted to and when it looked like the Allies might lay hands on him, he ate a bullet and that was that. If the 6 million Jews and 5 to 7 million others he killed no longer exist in any real sense, if death is final, justice is a joke.

And that is not an isolated instance in human history. Everyday bad things happen to good people. Sometimes the wrong people die young. Bad people achieve success, often at the expense of good people. The strong frequently bully the weak. If we have no hope in Christ we might as well eat, drink and be merry before death and nonexistence overtakes us. (1 Cor. 15:32; Isaiah 22:13)

The world has lost hope. We have hope because we have the Spirit of the God who is love. The Spirit is what enabled the disciples, who had been hiding in an upstairs room in fear, to step out into public and boldly proclaim the good news. The Spirit is what enabled them to leave home and country and go throughout the known world to tell more people about Jesus. The Spirit is what enabled them to face death unafraid. The Spirit is what enabled the church to survive the deaths of the original apostles as well as all the attempts to suppress and obliterate the faith. The Spirit is what has brought people back to the gospel and the teachings of Jesus over and over whenever the church strayed from them.

The Spirit gives us courage to face a world that on the surface seems meaningless. The Spirit compels us to rescue people from that perception of the world, to bring them out of what appears to be an indifferent universe into a realization that the universe was created out of love. The world is not essentially bad or uncaring; what we see is a good world gone bad, a world corrupted by misuse and abuse of God's gifts, a world that can be good again.

But because it is a whole world, filled with every kind of people, we need every person in the church to use their diverse skills to do the complex job of putting the pieces back together again. We need to listen to the Spirit and discover the gifts we each have been equipped with and the ministries and the activities we were each equipped for. We need to see what part or parts of the world interest us and then apply our gifts to putting things right in that area. We need Christian builders, cops, filmmakers, scientists, social workers, artists, teachers, engineers, dancers, doctors, civil servants, farmers, journalists, dieticians, firefighters, actors, nurses, athletes, writers, economists, musicians, inmates, former inmates and yes, even politicians, to ask the Spirit to guide them to use their gifts “for the common good,” as Paul puts it. (1 Cor. 12:7)

Because the true definition of goodness is that which is intended to benefit all. In fact evil can be defined as a narrow definition of good: what's good for me or mine and to hell with everybody else. That's a manageable philosophy. Nice and simple. But Jesus died for all. We who follow Jesus must act for the good of all. That's a tall order. “All” covers a lot of territory and involves a lot of complicated issues. If you try to calculate all that is required it can be overwhelming.

And that's why the Spirit gives the church the people we need with the gifts we need to do what Jesus told us. He knows that none of us is Superman. He doesn't expect us to do it all. We just need to pick what we are interested in and good at and work on that.

Remember the old riddle: you know how you eat an entire elephant? One bite at a time. You know how you put together a thousand piece puzzle? One piece at a time. You know how you fix a broken world? One problem at a time. But it helps if you have a whole lot of people working on these tasks from every angle, with every conceivable skill, united by one Spirit.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Enemy of Success

The primary passage of scripture referred to is 1 Peter 4:12-14. 

Several years ago I realized that of all the obstacles to success the most insidious is success itself. When a person or a group or a company become successful, they are rewarded with wealth and power, and then in order to preserve those things they face choices. What of the things they did to become successful must they drop and what must they keep doing in order to stay successful? Techniques that get you to the top are not necessarily the same as the techniques that keep you on top. Many a revolutionary warrior has proved to be a terrible ruler. And often charisma may help you get to a position of leadership but then you need character to actually lead. And confidence is not the same as competence. Success changes the game and you can't be a one-trick pony or a one-hit wonder. To maintain your success, you not only need to determine what skills and techniques you need to retain, you also need to pick up new ones and you may have to discard others. The problem is discerning between the three.

We see this in comedians like Jay Leno, who get to the top by being sharp and edgy, and then, when offered a sitcom or a talk show, must become more warm and fuzzy and above all, must not offend their wider audience. We see it in companies like Apple that take risks and are innovative until they become big and profitable and then keep tinkering with their earlier triumphs rather than create something truly new. Or we see it in movements that catch fire and achieve their goal and then cast about looking for a new cause. Like the March of Dimes, which was originally exclusively focused on polio and once that was dealt with, switched to improving maternal and infant health, premature births and infant mortality. They are doing great work but they have a much lower profile these days.

I got to thinking about this because our passage in 1st Peter is speaking to the church in a difficult time. The church today is also in a difficult time but it is a different sort of difficulty we face. The early church was small and had to deal with persecution. Depending on the specific emperor and local officials you could suffer for being a Christian. If the church had died then, it was because Christians were literally dying. Today if churches are dying, it is, I think, because we have had too great a success.

By this I don't mean that we have converted everyone; in fact, we have done a pretty bad job at that. But we did make the brand “Christian” popular, and for a while the majority of people in this country self-identified as Christians. But once it became ubiquitous, it was no longer novel or special. Now the brand is cooling and people are abandoning it for the next cool label, like neo-paganism or atheism or a vague spirituality. And I think part of this was because we made becoming a Christian too easy.

It used to be that it was harder to be a Christian. You had to become a disciple first. You had to really want to learn the faith and follow Jesus. When Christians were persecuted, that cut down drastically on the people who were just doing it for the novelty. You have to have a really deep conviction that something is the right thing to do if pursuing it can get you killed. But even after Constantine ended imperial persecution of Christians, the church would withhold baptism until after a person spent 3 years as a catechumen.

A major problem arose when missionaries were sent to the barbarian tribes throughout Europe, the same ones who eventually brought about the fall of Rome. The missionaries would go to the tribe's chieftain or king and try to convert him. If they succeeded, then he would decree that his people were now Christians and order them to get baptized. Insufficiently instructed in the faith and illiterate to boot, these converts were Christians in name only. A lot of them were pagans at heart and in some cases, their gods were smuggled into Christianity under the guise of being local saints. The Irish Saint Brigid may in fact have been a Christianized Celtic goddess.

A similar problem arose with the evangelism in the last part of the 20th century. It often used sales techniques and a simplified version of the gospel to get people to say the “Sinner's prayer” and then consider themselves saved. Now this can bring a person to follow Jesus, as it did with Barbara Brown Taylor, who was speed-converted in college by someone using a tract. Taylor wondered what had she just committed herself to and not only did she do the research but eventually became an Episcopal priest and one of the best preachers in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, many people who get a canned 4 Spiritual Laws-like presentation do not follow it up. One of the things that the Billy Graham organization used to do right was involve local churches in counselling those who came forward at his “crusades” and he always encouraged new Christians to get involved in a church.

As far as numbers were concerned, quick and painless conversions worked. As recently as 1990, 86% of Americans said they were Christian. Churches were planted with an attitude of “if you build it, they will come.” But just as 45% of eligible voters don't bother to participate in our democracy, 52% of self-identified Christians don't bother to attend church weekly. Small wonder that 3,700 churches close each year.

Success can make you complacent. Living in a country where it seems like almost everybody is a Christian has made the church take a lot of things for granted. We have not concentrated on real evangelism. We have not concentrated on making sure Christians know what they believe and why they believe it and why it matters. We have not realized that having a so-called Christian nation doesn't immunize us against injustice and corruption any more than the nations of Israel and Judea were able to remain righteous under Davidic kings. Every one of our presidents, and the vast majority of our governors, legislators and members of Congress say they are Christians. If that's true, they must take responsibility for the state of our nation.

There is one advantage to being a minority faith under persecution and that is that it causes you to focus on what is vital. Such as the fact that you have no expectation that following your faith will be easy. Our passage from 1st Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Or to put it in other words, you are saying that the King of kings and Lord of lords is not the divine emperor of Rome but a Jewish carpenter who happens to be the actual Son of God. Of course you are experiencing push-back. And remember that they crucified him. So “you are sharing Christ's sufferings...” What should your response be to this persecution, according to our passage from 1st Peter? Air your grievances? Make an issue about people saying “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Refuse to bake cakes for people you disagree with? Sue someone?

No. We are told to rejoice. Because we know we are on the right track; we are doing what God wants us to do. Imagine for a minute a TV evangelist telling his audience that instead of God making them rich, they can expect instead to suffer for following Jesus. Not only would it be hard for that preacher to turn around and ask for a 65 million dollar private jet, I imagine what would really suffer would be his ratings. Because that's not what modern American Christians want or expect to hear.

While individual Christians may not suffer, at least not in the West, our churches are. And part of that comes down to our success—and our worship of success. Churches are considered successful if they have lots of members, big facilities, and big budgets, just like successful companies. You rarely see churches touted as successful for simply being faithful to Jesus and doing what he told us to do: feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty, welcome the immigrant, clothe the threadbare, visit the sick and the imprisoned, love your enemy, give to all who ask, forgive others, ask for forgiveness, treat others as we wish to be treated, turn the other cheek, preach the gospel, make disciples, trust in Jesus. And such churches don't get credit for these things because they can't all be captured by metrics. For instance, I can tell you how many men, women and children I have baptized here or at the jail but I cannot tell you how many lives have been changed by my ministry. Sometimes it's the little things, the singular comment, the small act of kindness that has the greatest impact.

By buying into the world's ideas of success, we set ourselves up to fail. After all, by the world's standards our founder was a failure when he was executed at age 33. So we need to look at what the Bible sees as success.

First off it is not being rich or popular. Those are things the world cares about. But you can have those things and be spiritually or psychologically unhealthy. Howard Hughes was a billionaire who was nevertheless a physically and psychologically ill person. Hitler was a world leader who dominated much of Europe and became wealthy through sales of his book, Nazi party funds, getting royalties on his image on stamps and by having the government exempt him from taxes, and yet he was spiritually bankrupt.

Wealth has many inherent temptations: to put one's pleasures ahead of others, to increase one's riches through unethical means and to abuse the power wealth offers. Love of money is condemned by both Jesus and Paul. (Matthew 6:24; 1 Timothy 6:10) What is true for wealthy people holds true for wealthy churches. Yet the Bible is not wholly anti-affluence. Paul summarizes God's attitude towards the wealthy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

So what is the Bible's definition of success? It may surprise you to find out that the word “success” only appears in scripture once! The nearest equivalent to the idea of successful in the Bible is the term “blessed,” which appears in scripture 302 times. So let's look at a few of those verses.

By the way, the Hebrew word esher can be translated as either “blessed” or “happy.” It comes from a root word that means “to be straight, right, level.” The Greek equivalent makarios also means “blessed” or “happy.” It can be translated “fortunate” or “well-off” too. But what the Bible says about being blessed or happy is different from the world's definition.

Psalm 1 says blessed is the person who delights in God's laws and does not go along with those who do wrong. Psalm 2 says blessed are they who put their trust in God's son, our King. Psalm 32 says blessed is the person whose sin God forgives. Psalm 40:4 says blessed is the one who trusts God and does not respect the arrogant, nor is diverted by lies or false gods. Psalm 41 says blessed is the one who cares for the poor. Psalm 84:5 says blessed is the one whose strength is in God.

In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) Jesus has a very counterintuitive list of who is blessed: those who recognize their spiritual poverty, those who mourn, those who are gentle, those who are thirsty and starving for all that is right, those who show mercy, those whose hearts are cleansed, those who make peace with others, those who are persecuted for pursuing what is right. Those are not qualities the world generally sees as signs of success. But God does.

Ultimately, we are blessed when we are in the right relationship with God, our neighbors and ourselves. Those who are blessed are those whom God has made whole. And remembering that might be one way to make our churches healthier.

In 1 Peter 3:9, we are enjoined to “bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing.” We can bless the people of the world by bringing them to the wholeness that is in Jesus. When Jesus was sending out the Twelve to spread the gospel and heal, he told them : “Freely you received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) Rather than doing what the world does—assessing he who has the most of something as successful—let us see who can give the most.

What have we freely received? God's love, shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. Our salvation, a gift from God's grace, accessed through trust in him. His Spirit, poured out on all his people. The gifts of his Spirit, the skills and talents he has granted us to do the work he has given us to do. A people, a community, brothers and sisters in Christ, to uphold us and support our growth in Christ. That's an awful lot.

In addition, we have a building of which I am the sole mortal inhabitant most days.

So what can we do with all that we have? How can we use our God-given assets to bless others in our community? How can we pass on what we have received by God's grace to those who need what Jesus offers? That's our task. That's our challenge. We need to look at what God has graciously given us and then look at our neighbors and ask ourselves how can we show them love in specific and concrete ways. If we don't, if we fail to love our neighbor, we will die. Like thousands of other churches.

I nearly died a year and 5 months ago. I left rehab a year ago this weekend. It was not easy and I was nowhere near back to normal. But like Jacob who wrestled with the angel of the Lord, I came out it with a blessing—and a limp. Evidently God didn't want me to die. And I don't think he wants this church to die. But we have a lot of work to do if we are going to get back on our feet. 

And we won't get there by looking back longingly at what was. We need to look forward. Just as I couldn't measure my progress by how well others were doing in therapy, we can't let ourselves get caught up in envying what other churches are doing. I had to concentrate on doing what I needed to do. We need to follow the path God has laid out for us. I needed to step out of my comfort zone and push myself a little bit farther every day. We need to do the same. I had to let go of my pride and let other people help me. We need to reach out to others who can help us. I had to engage muscles I never suspected were necessary for walking. We are going to have to do things we never did before. We will have to make sacrifices. And it will hurt. But, believe me, the blessings will be worth it. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the Right Spirit

Imagine an alien had arrived last Sunday, Mother's Day. Now imagine that this alien was a clone grown in an artificial womb and raised by the otherwordly equivalent of worker bees. Now imagine you are trying to make it understand what we humans mean by the word “mother.” It might initially have problems with the whole concept of one being giving birth to another. But even if you could get that across to it, what about all the other things that come under the term of mother. Mothers feed their young from their own bodies. They comfort them. They protect them. They teach them facts. They teach them social ettiquette. They teach them morality. They act as role models. They encourage them. They make themselves available to their offspring, even when their childen are adults and supposedly don't need them anymore. And then there's the fact that some mothers aren't the biological giver of life. They can adopt childen, informally as well as legally. And what if there wasn't a single word in that alien's language that encompassed all that the word “mother” means.

That's the problem we have with the key word used in John's gospel for the Holy Spirit. The Greek word is parakletos and there is no equivalent word in English. The King James version translates it as “comforter.” The RSV renders it “counselor.” The New RSV gives it as “advocate.” Still others translate it as “helper,” “someone to stand by you,” and “he who is to befriend you.” They are all correct and they are all insufficient to explain everything that the original Greek word means. So let's look at what this word reveals to us about God's Holy Spirit. (And I want to thank William Barclay's book New Testament Words for much of what follows.)

Parakletos literally means “one who is called in.” The question is “called in to do what?” So we need to look at what it meant in ordinary speech at the time of the New Testament. What kind of person would you call in to help you? If you needed advice, a counsellor . The Spirit is called the Spirit of truth by Jesus. He will guide us into all truth. (John 16:13) Specifically, he will reveal truth about Jesus and remind us what he taught. When we ask ourselves about specific situations “What would Jesus do?” or “What would Jesus have me do?” we need to listen to the Spirit. (Yes, Jesus drove the corrupt moneychangers out of the temple but that stands out precisely because it is so different from how Jesus usually acted. We are not God. We are forbidden by Jesus himself from passing a final verdict on someone else or acting aggressively towards others.) We need to listen to the Spirit who, through Paul, says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

What other kind of person would you call in to help you? If you were undertaking a hard task or battling an adversary, an ally. In the Old Testament the Spirit of the Lord enables the judges and kings of Israel to rule and protect the nation. The Spirit inspired the prophets to reveal God's will and perform mighty acts in his name. It was by the power of the Spirit that Jesus did his acts of healing (Matthew 12:28), routing the spiritual forces that oppressed and inflicted suffering upon people.

The verb form of the word was used for rallying the troops about to go into battle, urging them on. And this is where we get to the translation “comforter.” While parakletos was on rare occasions used to mean “one who consoles,” when the translators of the King James version picked “comforter” that word had a different meaning. It comes from the Latin and means to fill with fortitude. This reflects the meaning of parakletos as encourager, literally “one who gives others courage.” The Spirit cheers us on when we need to be brave.

What other kind of person would you call in to help you? If you needed someone to plead your case in court, an advocate. A very common use of parakletos at that time was as a character witness when a person was being tried. He is the opposite of an accuser, which is what the devil is called. (Revelation 12:10) The Spirit speaks up for us, intercedes for us, defends us. In times of persecution, the Spirit will give us the right words at the right time. (Mark 13:11)

We have another intercessor and that is Jesus. In Hebrews 7:25, it says that, as our High Priest, he intercedes for us. 1 John 2:1 says, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One....” The word translated “advocate” is again parakletos. And indeed in today's gospel Jesus refers to the Spirit as another parakletos, whom the Father will send in his place to be with us forever. (John 14:16). William Barclay wrote, “In the Gospel, as Dr. G.H.C. Macgregor finely puts it, the Spirit is Christ's alter ego. The parakletos, the Spirit, is the constant, illuminating, strengthening, enabling presence of Jesus.” And in Acts 16:7, the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of Jesus.”

But doesn't this confuse the persons of the Trinity? Not really. If, as Jesus says, the Spirit does not speak on his own but relays what he hears, recalling what Jesus said and did and bringing it to remembrance, he is like an ambassador. He is the voice of the one who sent him. (John 16:13; 14:26) The persons of the Triune God who is Love are one, so united that what one does or says is the will of all. When we deal with the Spirit it is the same as if we were dealing with Jesus. There is perfect harmony there.

And that is the harmony that Jesus wants us to have with one another. We are the body of Christ, filled with the same Spirit that empowered him. And on the night he was betrayed after Jesus prayed for the disciples, he said, “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one—I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

We see couples and families that love each other, or say they do, but are fractious and frequently at odds with each other. And we know that this is not how love should be. Love should unite. Those in love should be a unified front. It should be “all for one and one for all.” That's what we should strive for. We may not always achieve perfect unity but we should always aspire to it.

Did you notice that Jesus pointed out a big reason why the world does not believe in him? “I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.... that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me....” If God is love and Jesus is God and we are followers of Jesus, we should display that love in all we think, say and do. But we don't. We called by one Spirit to be one body of Christ. But when we fight and maintain our rigid distinctions from other Christians, when we let our differences become divisions, when we are more concerned with what separates us rather than with all that we have in common, we deny that we belong to the God who is Love. We deny the ministry of reconciliation he has given us. We deny Christ because he said the world would know that we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35) and our actions make him out to be a liar. The world should look at us and say, “That's how people should act. That's how the world should be.” Instead, we don't look any different than anyone else in the world.

There are a lot of analyses of why the church is shrinking, why people, especially young people, are leaving. I think it is because we are not listening to or being guided by the Spirit. As someone once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” And that's because we often do not resemble him in what we say or what we do.

Jesus kicked off his ministry by proclaiming “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor....” A lot of American Christians haven't gotten that message. 56% of Evangelicals favor cutting economic aid to the poor around the world. 40% support cutting government assistance to the unemployed. More are in favor of decreasing funding to poor in the U.S. than the average non-Evangelical American is. Lest we pat ourselves on the back, a Pew Research Center survey found that 39% of Episcopalians and 47% of those in the ELCA said government aid to the poor does more harm than good. So helping the poor is bad? Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

Jesus said we are to love our neighbors and our enemies and he sent us out to preach the gospel to all nations. The first Gentile convert was an Ethiopian eunuch. Paul said that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Yet the church is racially divided. 86% of mainline Protestants are white. That's more than the 76% of Evangelicals who are white. And it shows in our attitudes. When asked if the police generally treat blacks and minorities the same as whites, 62% of white Evangelical Protestants and 47% of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics agree. But 75% of minority Protestants disagree. Obviously, we don't believe the experiences of our minority brothers and sisters in Christ. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

Jesus welcomed and healed Gentiles, who, since he never left the Holy Land, were either occupying Roman soldiers or immigrants. A recent survey of Evangelicals found that only 1 in 10 says the Bible influences their views on immigration. 1 in 5 say immigrants are a threat to law and order, a threat to the safety of our citizens, and a threat to traditional American customs and culture. 48% said recent immigrants are a drain on our economic resources. Only 40% saw this as an opportunity to show them love. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

In the prayer Jesus taught us, we ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sins against us. Yet in a Fetzer Institute survey, 58% of Americans feel there are instances where a person should never be forgiven. 41% put murder in that category, which rules out Moses and Paul being forgiven. 26% say abuse or sexual crimes should never be forgiven, so that excludes David. 22% say those who intentionally commit any crime should not be forgiven, which means Jesus was wrong to forgive the thief on the cross next to him. 71% of the respondents in this survey were Christian. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

God is love. Jesus is the God who is Love Incarnate. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of that Divine Love. If we do not reflect that same love, that same care for the disadvantaged, that same forgiveness for fellow sinners, it's because we have replaced his Spirit with beliefs and rules that are dead. Dead things don't respond to people or to the world around them. Dead things eventually smell and people stay away from them. Maybe that's why people are staying away from the church?

The great thing about God is that giving life is his specialty and bringing what is dead back to life is no problem for him. In fact, he brings spiritually dead people back to life in Christ everyday, every time someone realizes their condition and sincerely asks him to change them. As a church, we need to realize that we are dying and in some places, already dead and we need to ask God's Spirit, the giver of life, to resurrect us. We need to ask him to make us responsive to the world he loves so much and wants to save from all the things which deaden our spirits. We need to ask him to breathe new life into us and revive our love of Jesus and renew our desire to follow him and reignite our passion to tell others about him.


Any organization can stray from the spirit in which it was created. The NRA was founded by 2 Civil War veterans as a club to improve people's marksmanship with rifles, not as a Washington lobbying group, nor to endorse or oppose political candidates. The Red Cross, originally a humanitarian movement to care for wounded soldiers, promised to build houses in Haiti after the earthquake and failed spectacularly to accomplish what had never been their purpose. The church was founded to live out the Kingdom principles taught by and demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ and to spread the good news of God's love and grace. It was not intended to be a clique or a club or a cult or a political party or a “get rich quick” scheme. It was intended to be the community of God's people carrying out God's mission to reconcile all people to himself out of love. We tend to forget that. We need someone to remind us of what Jesus taught us about the church, someone to counsel us, someone to guide us, someone to help us, someone to act as an ally, someone to act as an advocate, someone to fill us with courage, someone to make sure we never lose the constant, illuminating, strengthening, enabling Spirit of Jesus.