Archive for August 2018

James 1:16-27
[Real religion is] to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep neself from being polluted by the world.”

There was a time, I’m old enough to remember, when religious people had 84 reasons to believe the world was going to end in 1984. Then there was a time, not long after that, when many churches, my own included, stockpiled batteries, bottled water, and baby diapers, because they were convinced that Y2K would make such things valuable. There was a time when almost every Christian woman I knew, wore a little angel on their shoulder (for protection or advice, I never found out). Unicorn chasing would be in the Christian Olympics, if we ever decided to have our own, because we think the Greek one has too many pagan symbols. Such malarky gives religion a bad name.

Jesus’s brother James is blunt, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

When I was younger, I was taught by well meaning religious people that the “stain of the world” was drugs, sex, and rock&roll. Now that I am mature enough to recognize such teaching as malarky, I see that the stain of the world is populism, greed, and whatever is considered “truth” on cable news.

James is the most practical of the New Testament books, and may give us the clearest view of Jesus’s day to day teaching. James devotes the second chapter of his little book rebuking Christians for bringing the world’s love of the rich, famous, and powerful, into the church. There was in his day a moral majority that thought being poor was a sin. There is today, a majority in many churches who are content to ignore people of color and their concerns about our society. Churches by their silence, paint themselves with the stain of the world that is racism.

In this first chapter, though, James sets the stage for telling us in no uncertain terms that real religion consists of caring for widows and orphans (verse 27). He tells us first:

  • The rich should look forward to losing everything and being humiliated (James 1:10)
  • That we should be suspicious of the things everyone believes, ie we should be “quick to listen” (1:19) In today’s world of information, this means that we should take care to listen to the best sources of news and slow to accept what isn’t in writing and footnoted by valid research.
  • That we should be slow to anger… for it doesn’t serve God’s purposes (1:19-20). Jesus links anger and fear. There are today, those who seek to make us angry by keeping us fearful.

Religions is all about widows and orphans, James says. They were the most vulnerable members of first century society. Their position correlates today to those among us without adequate health insurance, those whose jobs or military service may be dangerous (leaving behind widows/widowers), those who fail to earn a descent wage, and those who must flee their country in search of refuge. It is the world's stain, to respect those in authority who think themselves Christian while creating virtual orphans at the border through their family separation policy.

See the next installent on James, chapter 2:  Poverty

The moral minority
Pentecost 15
Psalm 84
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere

I have a problem with Psalm 84. It’s one of those poems that doesn’t make sense once you tear it apart. “My temple is a place where even a swallow finds a place to nest,” makes as much sense as, “My love is like a red, red, rose.” Howling, just feet away from the altar in Solomon’s temple, were lines of sacrificial sheep and boxes of doves, ready to be slaughtered. Temple sacrifice, up until 70 AD, was madness, bleating sheep, and nasty priests. Blood flowed on the rock where Abraham once bond Isaac. Did I mention that child abuse is one of the problems that the church is still dealing with?

So what is this psalm really about? It’s not about the church building, even though it mentions courts, doorways, and altars. Like a fine haiku, it speaks about what it doesn’t have words for. It tells us how there was a fellowship among the pilgrims as they walked for days together, over the Negev, to where they could worship. It tells us how the few days they spent crowded together as a congregation, sharing inadequate facilities with people from all over the world, was better than 1,000s of days spent in a nicer, more convenient, location. (By the way, the Hajj has been happening this week for Moslems) Its about a religious experience that the children of our churches often know better than the adults who serve as deacons and trustees. To be with other people of faith is a blessing, pure and simple.

Architecture does not equal religion
Pentecost 21
1 Kings 3:5-14
[God answered Solomon's prayer saying] I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart

God must not like our prayers because he keeps giving us the opposite of what we ask for. We ask for patience and we receive more frustrations. We ask for peace in our household and we receive more conflict. We ask for enough wealth to be secure and we find ourselves jobless and dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I get the feeling that God’s intention is to throw us fully into life, like a baby being thrown into the deep end of the pool. We pray, “Lord give us a firm foundation of truth,” by which we mean that He should make us smart enough to always be right. God responds, “Hey it’s time for your swimming lesson. Keep your head up and remember to breathe.”

The story is that young King Solomon felt totally unprepared for his ascent to the throne. So, he prayed and God said, “Now be careful what you ask for, because I’m only going to grant you one wish.” He could have asked to become so smart that he would never have to worry about ever being wrong. He could have asked to be a great deal maker, always winning. He could have asked to become the self-help guru of his time, so that all his kids and wives and neighbors would seek out his advice. He could have asked to be made a powerful leader, with an arsenal of clever weapons, so that he could defeat whoever dared to disagree with him.

Now, its important that you read I Kings 3:5-12 carefully. Young Solomon does not ask to be made smart or always right, the way we would have. Instead he prays for an understanding heart, so that he might discern what is right in the midst of life’s difficult decisions. God grants him wisdom, which is not the same thing as self-confidence, in fact, the two may be opposites.

The story goes on and King Solomon also becomes smart, rich, and a successful political leader. I have come to believe that these things have little to do with his initial gift of spiritual wisdom. For most people, discerning God’s will takes you in the opposite direction from riches, sexual prowess, and winning. It took Jesus to the cross.

Pop psychologists often ask, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” Each time we get into conflict, we face this choice. The way out of the conflict isn’t through doubling down on being right. It is through discerning the humble path that God is calling us to walk. Since I don’t think happiness is the same thing as wisdom, I would rephrase the question, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to live with a heart at peace (Shalom)?”

We live in difficult times. The respectful give and take that once marked our political process is gone. Unity in the United Methodist Church is in jeopardy. It is harder than ever to raise our children with the confidence they need to succeed. Be careful what you pray for. We have been cast into deep waters. Ambiguity is the new normal. We seek God in the few spare moments that we have between crises. Half drowned and treading water, we pray for wisdom in the wet. Give me a discerning heart, O Lord.

And God is pleased. Our prayer is answered.

I'd rather be uncertain & afloat than grounded & no longer afloat
Pentecost 15
Psalm 130
Matthew 16:26
My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.

I have a love-hate relationship with mornings. As a self-employed author, I have great flexibility regarding when and where I work. But the Holy Spirit and my own creative whit have their own plans. I have discovered that early morning hours are golden. But rarer than diamonds are the times when the cat, dog, or my bladder wakes me while it is still night, and instead of cursing these intrusions, I grab coffee and write like one possessed. In Psalm 130 we read, “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.” Something has awoken the psalmist to an hour when all he or she can do is pray. Perhaps they are at the bedside of a sick loved one, or a refugees escaping in the dark, or perhaps they stand with the watchman on the wall, keeping guard over a city at peril. They pray soulfully. They pray deep. The Holy Spirit is very much with them.

  There are three content buckets to this morning prayer: First, a humble plea for forgiveness. It is impossible to live fully without at certain points risking our religion for the sake of our love. In the morning, we sometimes wrestle with what we have been passionate about and seek God’s understanding concerning what drives us. Second, there is the plea for one’s nation, whether that be ancient Israel or today’s America. When will we leave our political bubbles and discover again the pure morning air of God’s steadfast love for all people? Finally, beneath all the words of this psalm, and behind those hours that we spend pacing the hallway and watching for the dawn, is a concern for our own soul. For didn’t Jesus once ask, what good is it for one to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s soul? (Matthew 16:26) Pray on!

Many people find early morning the best time for regular devotions
Pentecost 12