Sunday, November 24, 2013


In last week's post, I tried to find meaning in the way Jesus talked about life. I posited that the life we live as followers of Jesus is more than simple biological existence, even when that existence is at its material best. I also argued that this life that Jesus talked about is eternal life and that our promised eternal life has, in fact, already begun. We can glimpse this truth in some grace-filled moments. We should always be mindful that that we are living the true life, and, of course, we should live as if we knew it.

The corollary of LIFE is DEATH.

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will live and never die. John 5:25

If Jesus is life as he states here, then the absence of Jesus is death. Now it’s fair to note here that there are differing views on this concept. It is known that the earliest Christians believed they would not die, meaning they would not stop breathing, metabolizing, thinking etc. Some Christians, today, believe that death is not an intended part of creation, that our parting from our original purpose (see Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man) brought about death.

Certainly Jesus talked enough about “not tasting death” for people to conclude this. I am, however, declining to address this argument. We know that we do die. Our prayers ease our loved ones into a holy and peaceful death. If death were ever not part of the plan, it certainly is in the plan now.

But clearly the death that Jesus is talking about in the above passage from John, is a living death, a darker and more hopeless death than what we naturally face. It is a life without life, without the animating force of Christ. It’s a life with no comfort, no purpose, no connection with God. It’s death.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

If our life is more than mere biological function, if we are living beyond our material selves, then death would also be something beyond a simple biological end. If eternal life can enter into our lived existence now, then I believe that death can also overtake our living selves. As we see in the passage above, Paul connects this death with sin.

Let’s look anew at the tried and true association of sin, Original Sin in particular, with death. Let’s rework the notion that we die physically because humanity fell from grace. Let's tinker with the timeline while we're at it. Let’s write a new story.

Imagine a human, a young man; we'll call him Adam. He is driving to his Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s happily anticipating getting together with family, eating his Gran’s delicious mincemeat pie, watching a little football. The sun is shining on the open road. He is at peace with the world; he thinks he might even believe in God after all.

Then along comes a bunch of kids in a pick-up truck nearly running him off the road. He is furious, thinks of all sorts of evil outcomes for the youngsters, remembers that he doesn't really like his cousin Ralph and thinks that his girlfriend, Eve, might be breaking up with him. Suddenly, his calm is upended. He now has enemies, doubts, anger. Maybe he chases after the kids to let them know how stupid they are. Maybe he picks a fight with his cousin at dinner. Maybe he refuses to say grace with the family. Maybe he jumps the gun and breaks up with Eve himself. By text!

Or….maybe he just shakes his head at these reckless kids and says “Idiots.” Maybe he wonders if they have somewhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe he hopes the police pull them over so they'll learn better. Then maybe he loves his family even more than ever, gives his Gran and extra big hug, teases his cousin gently, roots for the home team and falls asleep with a smile on his face.

I don’t want to overstate this young man’s state of grace or lack of it; we aren't talking about great evil or great saintliness here. But I hope you can see with me how one scenario is full of life and the other verges on death. A few days like this – and we've all had them – and our friend Adam is heading more surely in one direction or another.

Death then, the sort of death that Jesus tells us we can avoid, is, at the very least, a life without him. It’s a life of sin, of emptiness, of quarrels and spite. It might even be a life of crime and violence. 

Let’s hope this modern Adam finds the right way this time and doesn't let his pride take him over. Let’s hope he sees that the unpleasant people he meets are also children of God who are just finding their way as he is. Let’s also hope that he and Eve stay together, make a family, have LIFE. I think they will.

Monday, November 18, 2013

This is your LIFE

In Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith, the extremely brilliant Kathleen Norris, compiles a list of words that have perplexed her over the years of her faith journey. Norris is one of my favorite writers and I read her book with great pleasure. She did, however, somehow omit three words that have perplexed me over some years.

In the next three posts on this blog, I will attempt to unravel my tangled thoughts on LIFE, DEATH and KINGDOM.

First, LIFE.

 When Christians talk about “life” they are often intending eternal life. The idea of life after death has been a part of many major faiths for thousands of years. The ancient Jews did not believe that the soul lived on after death, but by Jesus’ time the idea of “resurrection” was fairly well-established although it was still a matter of some debate. Christians believe in eternal life, although most of us are willing to admit that we don’t actually know what happens then or there.

Beautiful as our ordinary life is with its blessings of fresh air, meaningful work, sex and chocolate, I think Jesus was intending something more when he talked about LIFE. And Jesus talked about life a lot.

I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.  John 10:10

This line is usually quoted to assure people that their lives will be happy. I think that’s a mis-reading. The abundance promised here is a fullness, a completeness. We know Jesus wasn't talking about goods or even family or friends. Jesus never prized those things. He is promising nothing less than a God-filled life, the life he, in fact, lived on earth. Jesus’ mission was to bring us into that life, to make that life possible for us.

He who finds his life will lose it. Matthew 7:14:

Here again is another familiar line. It is less comforting on the surface but no less comforting when we look deeply into it. When we find the life that Jesus wants us to have, we lose our old life. In the parlance of our time, losing our old life means giving up on friends, family, job, home, habits, pleasures or even all of the above. Jesus is not asking that. He is offering us a life of abundance, a life filled with God in whatever context we are right now. No need to leave your family, move to a faraway town or join a monastery. When we take up that offer, we lose our old life, the empty life, the hard-hearted, stiff necked life of no God. When we find our life, we find our true selves, the selves we were created to be.

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. . John 14:6*

This statement is the most compelling because it identifies Jesus as life itself. Our lives depend on Jesus. No one reaches God except through him. This life that we long for, that is our gift, this life that is more than biological existence and more even than our daily activities, pleasures and pains is Jesus himself. The mystery of this life of ours in Christ can never really be explained. But it can be experienced. It can be glimpsed, fleetingly felt.

I would wager anything that, if you are reading this post, you have felt this “life” at some point. It is beautiful, but a life of faith isn't about peak moments of sublime grace. What we must do is search for the life that is promised to us and trust that we are living it daily.

And this life we are living, this God-filled life of grace is, in fact, eternal life. In other words, eternal life has already begun. We only have to realize it and live it. 

Yes, we continue is some way after “death”. Yes, God is in charge of that. And, no, we don’t know what our life after death will be like. The Scriptural promises of eternal life are many and convincing. But I don’t think Jesus meant us to bide our time in hopes of the afterlife. I think Jesus was telling us that the life he promised is available to us as soon as we follow him. When Jesus is life to you, as he said in the passage quoted above, you are living eternal life.

Imagine your life infused with God. Your home, the work you do, the people you love, all the things that make you laugh or smile or cry – all this is in God. Everything in life is more than we see or know. Every word, act, song, dance has meaning materially and spiritually. Jesus who walked on this earth made this life for us. This is abundant life. This is eternal life. This is holiness.

Listen in your mind and heart to the words of the hymn:

Breathe on my breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.

*That this statement has long been an excuse for Christian exceptionalism is to be regretted. Personally I hold that the belief that Jesus only cares about, influences or saves those who are professed Christians is the most egregious nonsense. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Where does the Money Go?

Years ago a friend of mine stated that he didn't want his church offering going to any “social programs.” I’m not sure what programs he meant. It certainly wasn't the Halloween party or the Rector’s Tea, both of which were superbly social. I’m afraid he meant that he didn't want any of his contribution to go to anything like “charity.” Our church, like many churches, had an emergency fund – I think it was kept in a tin box – that was used to help out people in need who showed up at our door. 

You are probably feeling tempted to judge this person, I certainly have judged him over the years and anyone else remotely like him. Let's not judge though. There are people who see the church as being apart from the community. Churches shouldn't act politically; they shouldn't have a presence at the AIDS Walk, for example. Churches shouldn't intrude on society’s ills or blessings; they shouldn't attempt to heal social wrongs. I remember people being scandalized at the presence of clergy and women religious at the March on Washington. Horrified, actually.

There is an instinct to keep church as just church, the place you go on Sundays, the place you go to get married or buried. It’s the place for hymns and prayers and Holy Communion.

Is it fear that prompts some of us to see church this way? Are we afraid that our Christian faith might lead down some road we aren't ready to travel? Or is it an aesthetic reaction against anything un-beautiful, anything that clashes with silver chalices and sung canticles? Because church can be a haven for us…for me. I go there for peace and comfort. God wants me to have peace and comfort, doesn't he? There are Psalms that say so.

As beautiful as church is for me, as much as I treasure its rites and long for its safe and gentle embrace, I know that the church of Christ has to be a force in the world. I only have to read about three paragraphs into any Gospel account to see that Jesus actually forced himself on the world. He put himself in a volatile context, both through his Old Testament references and the imagery of his teachings. He stretched his hands into many a sweaty sick bed, embraced many an outcast. He ruined many a smart dinner party. He rattled many an august cage. If there were any beauty about his ministry, it was not visible to the naked eye.

It is our work in the world that makes us Christians. It is our Christianity that emboldens us to go out and work in the world. Churches must reach out into the community, and not just to attract new members (and more pledges). Churches, if they are to be Christ-like, must do the work of Christ. They must find the ones who need them. They must act out the Gospel as well as proclaim it.

But what if we don’t agree with how our church is acting out the Gospel? There are naturally some congregations, denominations that are not suited for you or for me. I couldn't belong to a church that burned the Koran, to cite an extreme example. On smaller matters, however, a more generous approach is needed.
Our church hosts an open dinner every week. People in need of food or just fellowship come regularly for both. It’s free. It’s open. It’s lovely. Has it made any disciples? I couldn't say.  Has it kept anyone from starving? Again, I have no way of knowing. Perhaps it’s useless. Perhaps it’s crucial and life changing. Perhaps ten years from now someone will turn her life around because of a kindness she received at this Open Supper. This is not a program that my friend would have supported. He would have tried to make sure his weekly contribution did not go to this meal.

In my opinion, he would have been wrong – was wrong. Is the Open Supper a proven success? Not at all. Is it a waste of time and money? God only knows. This is where our trust in God has to come in. If our leaders are making prayerful decisions about church activities, if we take part in these decisions, I believe we have to trust that our work will yield results even if we can’t see them right away – or ever.

These are just a few extra thoughts as we enter fully into stewardship season. Please be generous to your church, even if it’s only a dollar or two.. Please also, call your congregation to embody the Gospel and be a force in your world, even if only for a day.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Stewardship Season

If Twitter is any indication, clergy do not enjoy preaching about stewardship. And although it’s been a while since I heard any churlish comments like “Not another sermon about money,” I doubt that parishioners enjoy these homilies either. But, being servants of Christ, we all soldier on, preach and hear about pledges and budgets, fill out our pledge cards, stuff our envelopes each Sunday, count up the offering and church goes on for another year.

I wish it were just slightly otherwise. I wish it could be actually seen as holy, joyous and right. At the offering each Sunday, we pray:

Priest: All things come of thee, O Lord,
People: And of thine own have we given thee.

This is hardly an original proclamation. It is as familiar as “the peace that passes understanding”. Nevertheless, like so much of what we pray, we don’t take it seriously.

Everything is God’s. If we think we've earned our riches, we are surely kidding ourselves. In human terms, we earn wages and dividends; perhaps we inherit stocks and property. Human arrangements, however, do not reflect God. Our homes, our food, our children are God’s. Just ask anyone who has lost a house, a livelihood or a son or daughter. Our dependence on God is not some poetic frill that we utter but do not mean. It is complete and final.

Having an opportunity to affirm this truth by offering up some of the fruits of the earth that we happen to be holding in our hands at this moment should be seized upon gladly, not grumbled over. That we are blessed with a reminder of God’s ownership of us and all that is ours is a grace, a blessing. To see that gift for what it is - is holy.

I am not suggesting that people give more than they can. Certainly, some folks are called to actual voluntary poverty, but this is not for everyone. What is for everyone, though, is the grace that comes from knowing that our gift, whether large or small or even negligible, is given in love and for love.