Thursday, April 30, 2009

'I Bless The Rains Down In Africa'

Today's Word:
Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch)
Psalm 66:8-20 (When I appealed to God in words, praise was on the tip of my tongue)
John 6:44-51 (The Bread of Life Discourse V: "The bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world")

The scene shifts temporarily from the unrest in Jerusalem to the sojourns of the apostle Philip. Yesterday's passage had him traveling north to Samaria - a place with which Jews held much enmity. While one might expect that Philip would encounter as much hostility in Samaria as in Jerusalem, Luke records that he was accepted almost immediately Many are baptized. He's successful enough that Peter and John soon follow and call for the people to receive the Holy Spirit. With the relatively short distance between these areas, we can surmise with some accuracy that this new development didn't sit well with Saul and his followers. Still, it shows how powerful was the preaching of the apostles and how much the people longed to hear God's word.

With a new base of believers established to the north, Philip is prompted to head south, along the road toward Gaza and Egypt. While traveling, he meets up with the carriage of an official of the Ethiopian court; the national treasurer. He is returning to his country from Jerusalem. Luke states that this official was worshiping there, so it would appear he is following the Jewish faith. He is reading the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) and is not certain of whom the writer is referring. Philip, having recently received the revelation connecting this passage to Jesus, shares this with the treasurer as they continue their journey south. They come upon a spring of water, and Philip is asked if there is any reason not to receive baptism on the spot. Philip senses that this man is ready and once it takes place, Philip is whisked away elsewhere, leaving our Ethiopian official to marvel at what has happened and praise God the remainder of his journey home.

Philip may not have made it to Africa himself; but the Church eventually established a community in Alexandria in Egypt. Thus was the Gospel planted on another continent. It would spread soon enough across the Roman Empire and the three continents which were parts of it. Like the rains from the heavens, or the manna in the desert, the Good News was heard, found, and eagerly received. It's also important to note that, apart from the hostility in Jerusalem, that many experienced a conversion of heart in relative peace. A Spirit-filled people were finding meaning and a direction in their lives. Blessed are those who hold a similar meaning and direction today!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

We Remember and We Hope

Today's Word:
Acts 8:1-8 (Deacon Stephen is buried; the Apostle Philip preaches the Gospel in Samaria; Saul of Tarsus leads a severe persecution against the Church)
Psalm 66:1-7 (Sing praise to the glory of God's name)
John 6:35-40 (The Bread of Life Discourse IV: To him who believes "I will raise him up on the last day")

Persecution for what you believe. Suffering and loss, because you choose to stand for something important. The Church at Jerusalem was still in its infancy, and innocent people were being dragged from their homes and imprisoned. Some would even die.

This wasn't the first time in history something like this happened, nor would it be the last. Nor would such a thing be limited to one seemingly obscure group of people.

Shoulder to the wheel
For someone else's selfish gain
Here there is no choosing
Working the clay
Wearing their anger like a ball and chain
Fire in the field
Underneath the blazing sun
But soon the sun was faded
And freedom was a song
I heard them singing when the day was done
Singing to the holy one

Lead me on
Lead me on
To a place where the river runs
Into your keeping, oh
Lead me on
Lead me on
The awaited deliverance
Comforts the seeking...lead on

Waiting for the train
Labeled with a golden star
Heavy-hearted boarding
Whispers in the dark
"Where are we going--is it very far?"
Bitter cold terrain
Echoes of a slamming door
In chambers made for sleeping
Voices like thunder in a mighty roar
Crying to the Lord


Man hurts man
Time and time, time again
And we drown in the wake of our power
Somebody tell me why

CHORUS (twice)

--Lead Me On
Amy Grant, Wayne Kirkpatrick, & Michael W. Smith

The song's verses are references to the Hebrew Exodus and the Holocaust during World War II. The Exodus is remembered in the festival of Passover, celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar; the remembrance of the Holocaust takes place two weeks later.

All of these serve to remind us of the hope that exists among people in the wake of tragedy. Those devout in the practice of Judaism are still hopeful that the promised Messiah will come. Christians are hopeful because the Messiah has come.

And the Jews of Saul's time were not the only people who persecuted. Later, the Romans would attempt to stop the spread of Christianity. And Christians themselves would not hold back; the Crusades, the Holocaust itself, and the witch hunts of the 17th and 18th Centuries were all perpetrated - and with disregard to the dignity and respect for all life to which Jesus calls us - by Christians.

As a virtue, Hope does not mean that what is hoped for happens with no commitment to change by the hopeful. What we hope for is possible if we are willing to accept the things we can change within ourselves. We're all hoping that the outbreak of swine flu does not reach the pandemic level that some predict; but at the same time we are taking extra precaution; being more aware of practicing good hygienichabits; and if we know what's good for us, not going to work or school if we are truly sick.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Path to Glory

Today's Word:
Acts 7:51-8:1 (Stephen stoned:"I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God")
Psalm 31:3-8, 17, 21 (Let your face shine upon your servant)
John 6:30-35 (The Bread of Life Discourse III: "Those who come to me will not hunger, and who believe in me shall not thirst")

(To the younger readers who may stroll in, 'stoned' does not mean intoxicated.)

Deacon Stephen, introduced yesterday, had a much shorter stint as a minister of God than most. I'm not sure why he was called to the Lord before Peter. Luke's accounting in Acts would indicate that after that first Pentecost, Peter was a fairly convincing speaker on his own. I could speculate for some time; but the answer that repeatedly comes back to me is simply that the Lord simply had more for Peter to accomplish.

Deacon Stephen was quite possibly as zealous for Christ after the fact as was John the Baptist before it. Most serious students of Biblical history place the time of Stephen's ministry between 3-5 years after Jesus. It was becoming clear that "Jesusmania" (a term lyricist Tim Rice coined) or "Jesus freaks" (a term Toby McKeehan more recently wrote) were not disappearing with the absence of their point person; and not just in and around Jerusalem, but all the way to Rome. This was simply not going to go away. More drastic and desperate action would have to be taken; flogging and imprisonment were not enough.

Further, the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, could not stand to have their motives exposed. Perhaps they had come to realize that Jesus was the promised Messiah after all - and they were responsible for his death. Still, there was no remorse - only anger, hatred and the determination that this would be stopped; and before it got so out of hand that Rome would declare the equivalent of martial law, with the possibility of an even bigger blood bath.

Deacon Stephen saw the Light waiting for him. As he, bound and chained, was attacked and killed by those throwing stones at him, he took as his mantle that of his Lord and Master, begging forgiveness for his attackers, asking Jesus to receive his spirit. And yet, God had someone at the ready to replace him; a man who at that moment was as far from believing as the east is from the west. A ripple would become an engulfing tsunami.

At no point in Deacon Stephen's life of service to the Christian community and dedication to God do we see a concern that he was ever in need. He was fed a steady diet of the Bread of Life, whose sweetness is like no other; and the cup of eternal salvation, a cup that never ran dry. He left a profound legacy for the Church, not the least of which is embodied in the order of deacons - to proclaim the Word of God, and to work for social justice in the trenches. He was among the earliest examples of someone who loved God and others in proclaiming Christ.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Path To Holiness

Today's Word:
Acts 6:8-15 (Deacon Stephen, filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit, testifies to the truth)
Psalm 119:23-30 (Remove from me the way of falsehood; favor me with your law)
John 6:22-29 (The Bread of Life Discourse, Part II: "Do not work for food that perishes, but for that which endures for eternal life")

On Friday the daily Lectionary began to read through John 6. This will continue throughout the week. This chapter, known as the "Bread of Life Discourse, " is of special importance in the celebration of the Eucharist - Holy Communion; for it is here that the evangelist, drawing on Jesus' teaching, explains something that is still not quite understood in the Church at large - transubstantiation.

Between this chapter in this particular Gospel and the words spoken by Jesus at his last Passover Seder (This bread is my body; this cup is my blood; when you gather, do this in remembrance of me) have formed the basis of  this Catholic doctrine. Christ is totally and fully present in the forms of the bread and wine once the words of consecration are spoken by the priest at Mass. It's a heavy doctrine, one not easily explained let alone accepted. John 6 will be featured on six consecutive Sundays later this summer, when every Catholic congregation will have another opportunity to reflect on this great mystery of faith.
Now, Catholicism may teach of the "Real Presence," but those who live the message of Christ have Jesus 'really present' within them and revealed to others. A community "loving God, loving others, and proclaiming Christ" is - at least to me - just as much Eucharist as the consecrated bread and wine. You the reader know who you are and where you stand. The Real Presence is meant to make Jesus "really present" to others. It seems so simple, but that we are human and have to be reminded of this means we are still walking on our journey in faith; the path to holiness; the road that leads to Heaven.

One person who most likely needed no such reminder was Deacon Stephen. One of the original seven chosen from among the community and blessed by the Apostles by the laying on of hands, and the patron of my office within the Church, Stephen soon eclipsed his brother deacons in furthering Jesus' mission. He not only was fair in the distribution of the Church's goods to the poor and widowed; he was a gifted orator and, per today's account (Acts 6:9-10) a strong debater in defense of the Truth. In Acts 7:1-53 he testifies succinctly the whole of salvation history and Truth has yet another day in court.

Deacon Stephen is among the first people outside the Apostles who figure prominently in the earliest days of the Church. (Matthias became the surrogate 12th Apostle; see Acts1:15-26.) His ministry; his 'career' if you would; would be eclipsed much too soon, as we shall be reminded. He is still among those I look to as an example; for even though my footsteps are directed differently, I must still be prepared to defend my beliefs as a follower of Christ to the best of my ability.

Pastor Paul made a good point yesterday that relates to this. He gave his sermon yesterday while handcuffed. It is rather thought-provoking that most of us will never have to be literally chained or imprisoned for our beliefs; yet the fact that we probably won't has led to a sense of complacency over the centuries. And as we will recall over the next few days, an event that might only appear to us as ripples on the water was an engulfing tsunami to at least one of the men who observed Deacon Stephen's oration and admonition.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

When In Our Music God Is Glorified

The Third Sunday of Easter

Today's Word:
Acts 3:13-19 (Peter: 'I know you put Jesus to death out of ignorance, just as your leaders did')
Psalm 4:2-9 (Lord, let your face shine on us)
1 John 2:1-5 (Whoever keeps His word has the love of God truly perfected in him)
Luke 24:35-48 ("Peace be with you!")

Philippians 1:12-26 (Paul of Tarsus: "I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die")

For a reflection on today's Gospel reading, please see my post "I Haven't Eaten in Three Days!" of Easter Thursday, April 16, in the blog archives.

This weekend passing has been a very busy one. For one, it's one of the frequent enough hiccups in my schedule where I sing in both churches on the same weekend - with my Catholic community on Saturday, and the folks at Cornerstone UMC on Sunday. Saturday's occasion was a big one - sixteen young adults and two a bit older received the sacrament of Confirmation from the Bishop of Joliet  - in Catholicism, the bishop is the ordinary minister of the sacrament (there are very few exceptions to this).

There were also two weddings yesterday, one in each of my extended families. Because of the commitment and the distance, we did not go to either of the weddings. As it turned out, as there was no way I could go to one without hurting feelings over the other, I am prompted to be humbly thankful that I was busy; and also to pray for long and happy marriages for both couples.

When Confirmation is celebrated, it can sometimes seem like the clashing of the old and the young, the traditional and the contemporary. As the recipients are young, it would be helpful if the liturgy was more suited to their level (especially with regard to music, as music is probably the most flexible and subjective component within ritual). In many a Catholic environment, you have kids in their teens and whose lifestyles 'clash' with a bishop three to five times their age. In that specific environment, the bishop always wins. Cornerstone will hold their celebration of Confirmation at the end of May. At this point, I had arbitrarily made myself available to be there that Sunday; a chance to compare and contrast.

For various reasons I was the designated song leader for this Mass. I was prepared enough. Yet the older I get, and the more I realize what I did and received on the day of my ordination fifteen years ago, the stronger the pull of emotional energy through me when the high Masses of the year take place. I now experience increasing difficulty maintaining my composure when a traditional hymn such as Come, Holy Ghost is part of the liturgy - and the bigger it is, the more energy I feel being pulled through me.

I picked up one very important thing the bishop said in his homily to all gathered. He summarized it to the younger folks by saying that "Confirmation is not Graduation." I remembered that earlier in my life I believed that the Church had all the answers to getting through this life; it was among my reasoning why I felt called to serve within the Church. Here is the #1 person of the diocese saying this quest goes on infinitely. He's correct, of course - a journey in faith is a lifelong process. While the Church may hold all known revelation, not all has been revealed. That's something I could easily have overlooked when I was younger.

Today, in a less formal and more contemporary setting, my son and I returned to Cornerstone. And once again, I felt I was prepared enough. Here, I play bass guitar in addition to singing. I am no virtuoso at the instrument - those who know me well and have followed this blog from the start know this well. After all these years I play just well enough to tackle singing at the same time.

My dear wife's been playing with the Oriental literary form, the haiku. Today I read some of her handiwork; among the offerings:

Haiku is easy
The original Twitter
(If Twitter could think!)

(Punctuation emphasis mine)

I'm not as quick on my feet writing this stuff - she makes it look easy. Looking at the length of some of my musings, coupled with my demeanor, the best I could compose - with her help - is:

I like bigger words
Simple words can say a lot
Silence is golden

Anyway, I have a big mou--- I mean, voice, and I'm not afraid to use it. When the energy is there in the right mix, I will help 'raise the roof'. I know that better now than I ever have.

Pastor Paul's sermon on Philippians 1:12-26 also caught me looking at what I do. In the light of what I wrote here on Friday, commenting on Dave Ramsey's "Town Hall for Hope", I had to ask myself: Is what I do serving Christ or serving self? At different points along my journey, I realize that I didn't always have my priorities straight. While I felt the need to question Dave's motives, I also turned this into an opportunity to question my own. That's a good thing. Whatever his motives are, the fact is that people have been helped through his program. I don't know him well enough to be certain if my appraisal of his priorities where it comes to proclaiming the Gospel are true. I do know that Jesus said He who is not against us is for us; and Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Philippians that intent is secondary if the message of hope and about Christ is being proclaimed. 

And with that, I had no qualms about giving everything I could find in myself to singing a similar message of hope:
Let the song arise, yeah! Everyone sing a new Hallelujah!

Between all of us gathered in that place, the roof was definitely raised just a bit.

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound

So has the Church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue,

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the Light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight,

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always
Alleluia! Amen.

--When In Our Music God Is Glorified
Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Red-Letter Day

Feast of St. Mark, Evangelist
Patron of captives and imprisoned people; glaziers; lawyers; lions; and notaries

Mark is believed to be the young man who ran away when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:51-52), and the “John whose other name was Mark” (Acts 12:25). He was a disciple of Saint Peter the Apostle who traveled with him to Rome, and was referred to as “my son Mark” by the first Pope. He also traveled with his cousin Saint Barnabas, and with Saint Paul through Cyprus; evangelized in Alexandria, Egypt; established the Church there; served as its first bishop; and founded the first famous Christian school. He is considered to be the author of the earliest canonical Gospel.

Today's Word:
1 Peter 5:5-14 (Cast all your worries upon God because he cares for you)
Psalm 89:2-3, 6-7, 16-17 (Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord)
Mark 16:15-20 (The Great Commission and Jesus' Ascension)

The evangelist Mark (or followers of his in the Church at Alexandria) has the honor of the first recorded account of Jesus' life and teachings - that is, the earliest of the gospels accepted into the canon of Christian Scripture. It is also the shortest of the four.

Of all the Gospels, Mark leaves us a clear impression of just how human Jesus was; consumed with a passion and a mission to proclaim the kingdom of God established on earth. There are many references to the need for repentance and to have faith; and when faith is found lacking among the disciples, Jesus expresses his humanity in the form of frustration. In Mark the person of Jesus is depicted with an unaffected naturalness. He reacts to events with authentic human emotion: pity (1:44), anger (3:5), triumph (4:40), sympathy (5:36; 6:34), surprise (6:9), admiration (7:29; 10:21), sadness (14:33-34), and indignation (14:48-49).

If nothing else, this 'just the facts' account of Jesus should leave no doubt that the Son of Man (as Mark quoted Jesus' referring to himself) was the Son of God in the flesh; Emmanuel, God with us.

The first reading for today from the apostle Peter may have been heard or read by Mark in that day - Mark is named toward the end of the passage. I am prompted by the verse I quoted above, Cast all your worries upon God because he cares for you. It is a call to turn to God first. Out of everything in the long post I made yesterday, this is the key thing for me to remember. All things are possible through turning to God first. Getting through difficulties is best possible by turning to God in prayer, examining where I am through where I've been, and discerning what steps need to be taken.

Oh happy day
Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
Oh when he washed
When Jesus washed
He washed my sins away!
Oh happy day

He taught me how to watch and fight and pray
yes, fight and pray
And he'll rejoice
and He'll rejoice in things we say
yes, things we say

Oh happy day,
Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
Oh when he washed
He washed my sins away

--O Happy Day
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
based on an 18th Century hymn, cf. Acts 8:35

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Gospel of Prosperity?

Today's Word:
Acts 5:34-42 (The Apostles rejoice that they are found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name of Jesus)
Psalm 27:1-14 (One thing I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord)
John 6:1-15 (The Bread of Life Discourse, Part I: 5000 men are fed with five loaves and two fish)

I have to be cautious - in the process of exploring my thoughts, I might find myself at odds with people whose presence in my life I honestly appreciate.

Having said this, I must step into a foray in which I find myself straddled once more.

Last Sunday, while at Cornerstone, my son and I learned of an 'event' that took place yesterday; Dave Ramsey's "Town Hall for Hope." Dave Ramsey is a financial counseling 'guru' (I know that's not his title, but let's just leave it at that). His philosophy - to get out of debt and stay out - was born of his own experiences and yes, even his own misfortune. From this came Financial Peace University, a series of weekly seminars designed to help people get control of their finances.

I wrote back toward the beginning of this series that my autistic son expressed an interest in attending these seminars. For several reasons it was determined that this wouldn't work out: my schedule; cost; and also that my son doesn't fully understand what this is all about. My wife and I did some more research, and have considered picking up Dave Ramsey's course materials and using this as a basis for our son's ongoing education curriculum. At the moment that's tabled but hasn't been ruled out. I borrowed one of Ramsey's books from our local library and read through it in the meantime.

The early publicity regarding yesterday's event, "Town Hall for Hope," left me with the impression that this might be a closed-circuit event; a website was given in Cornerstone's bulletin, and I went to the site to get more information. I gathered the same sort of thing; although I thought there might be a slight chance that the program would be streamed on the Internet or available on YouTube after the live event. I told my son that it would be better for us to watch this at home on our computer if at all possible. Call me whatever you will for doing this, but I felt it better to do so on our own turf if possible.

Ramsey also hosts a radio and TV program; the latter airs nightly on the Fox Business Network on cable/satellite. When we first heard of FPU we figured it was a good idea to watch his show, to test the waters as it were; a 'try before you buy' which coincided with my reading the book I'd picked up at the library. We watched his show a couple nights a week for two or three weeks. My son would happily announce "and tonight we watch Dave Ramsey!" And the show would start, and after ten minutes or so, he'd get more interested in his computer, or whatever was the next thing on his mind. It had all but been forgotten until last Sunday.

Last evening, as I kept refreshing the couple of websites that were publicizing the town hall meeting (looking for a live stream), I decided to flip on the TV and figure out what Fox Business Network would be airing in Ramsey's absence; most likely a repeat of one of his regular programs. I discovered that not only was the channel covering the preview to the event; it would be broadcasting it live as well. (So much for all the elaborate hook-ups at the reported 6000 venues - mostly churches - who covered the event. Everyone who went could have saved the fuel it cost to drive there and back. Most of those venues could have saved the cost of the electricity and the time it took to make sure they were on the closed internet connection carrying the meeting.)

By being able to watch this at home, I became aware of several things about which, while still hopeful, quite frankly, I'm not encouraged.

The venue at which the town hall meeting was held (and the four that Fox chose to follow-up with additional live coverage) were all what Pastor Paul calls 'megachurches.' A year ago, he had bristled with the underlying concept of what the Christian Church was becoming at places like this - a purveyor of spiritual goods and services as opposed to the model community of the infant Church described in Acts, chapter 4. You won't tend to find this type of place in the trenches; those places already hit hard by a slowing or failing (take your pick) economy. And while the host site is a church, there's almost nothing inside of the building apart from the name of the place that would indicate in any way that it's one of the houses of God. Perhaps it's covered in the multimedia presentations when an actual service is taking place. I'm also reminded that it's people who make up the Church. However, when neither is readily apparent, one has to wonder where the presence of God is! The multimedia presentation showed nothing - perhaps they could not, given that this was going out over commercial television - but there was no indication of anything else, either - no invocation before, no prayer of those gathered after. For that matter, there was only scant reference to God at all. Is Ramsey so naive as to assume we're all on the same page as Christians as he is? I don't know.

If this event had been broadcast on one of the Christian-based networks such as TBN, this oversight might not have occurred. If it had been made a closed-circuit event only, as it appeared to have been publicized, there would probably have been less over which to show concern. If it were available for internet viewing only after the live event had finished, it would have at least postponed those concerns for a few days or even allayed some of them. But this was broadcast by the Fox News media. And it has all the appearances of having been planned that way from the onset. Toward the end of the event, I went back to the website for to refresh the screens - and a prepared, after-the-fact statement was now posted - though the event was still taking place!

Keep in mind that the Fox news media's philosophy is on the far right, perhaps only second to the likes of Rush Limbaugh. This is the wing of journalism supportive of the Republican Party, the one now fear-mongering further the financial and business communities (let alone the public at large) by smearing the new president's plans for economic stability/recovery (take your pick) before the administration has even held office for 100 days. I realize that there are many groups of people who are concerned about President Obama's positions on many issues. That's a big reason for media blitzes on so many fronts; but can we at least give the person the opportunity to lay out the changes for which we the people presumably elected him to office?

There's no doubt in my mind that there are many people who are helped and will be helped by Ramsey's program. The one who stands to gain the most, though, is Ramsey himself. And in words he comes off more about worshipping the dollar than the God whose name appears on it. Yes, he has a step-back, face things calmly, tested and working approach, but there's nothing in it that's new. My wife reminded me at 3:30 this morning that these ideas were being discussed in Christian communities - perhaps not so big and not so deeply indebted - fifteen years ago.My dear wife reminded me this morning that Amish communities have lived 'debt-free' for nearly 400 years. In my life and the life of my family, had I listened then; had I applied that logic fifteen years ago I might have avoided some if not all of what took place in the last ten.

I am thankful that the light bulb moment came for me sooner this time rather than later. I do not discount Dave Ramsey's mission, vision, or even ministry, if he chooses to call it that. But God is the ultimate giver of hope, and turning to Him - or even getting out from under the strain of financial bondage without turning to Him first - involves a personal conversion of mind and heart, and a change in lifestyle. For far too long we have interpreted the Scriptures in terms of fiscal prosperity. While it is one such outcome among the cultures of biblical times, it is not necessarily a personal one. We are at a crossroads. I cannot tell you if life as we know it  will get worse before it gets better. Ask ten people and you may get ten different answers. How many of us are willing to live with less, so that others might have more?

There are a couple of things I have learned over the last 9-1/2 weeks over which I confess guilt, here and now:

1) I confess that there were lots of things to which I did not listen; nor was my mind open, and I am sorry for any and all pain suffered as a result of love/concern/respect for me. I do not know, nor should I pretend that I know, every means and every situation. I am no expert at any one thing. I am better at some things and worse at others. That is part of normal human life. I'm happy about my successes and not so with my failures; but as much as I dislike failure I will embrace it and take responsibility for it if it is mine.

2a) I believe now, more than ever, that ministry should be collaborative, as it was in the infant Christian Church; and that everyone - should be encouraged to participate to the level that can be accomplished without severe pain. That means those who want to serve and need help doing so due to some handicap should do so with loving assistance. Nobody - and I mean nobody - should have sole possession of first place, as it were.

2b) In that light, I offer myself -who I am- on an 'as needed' or 'as desired' basis. I have no longing to be on top. I'd be lying if I said I don't want to be in the spotlight on occasion - but I am happy just to be part of the group and be recognized as such.

3) We must not dispense with tradition at the expense of the latest innovation. At the same time, we must not turn down innovation at the expense of tradition whose meaning is no longer applicable to the present or future.

4) While Jesus said, "Nobody comes to the Father except through Me" and "Whatever sins you forgive are forgiven; and whatever sins you retain are retained"; He also said that sinners were entering the gates of Heaven ahead of the righteous. This speaks of a great mystery and come-uppance that the Church has yet to resolve. It may never get fully resolved as long as people are involved, no matter how good they are.

5) If I claim to be Christian, I had better be able to live up to it. I will fail, but I will also make good. I must be open and respective of the multi-faceted path Christianity has become - God is Lord of ALL, and Jesus died for ALL. This means that I will jump fences and I will appreciate it. And if my heart and soul become fixed in the wrong way because I sat on one side of the fence too long, it is time to jump it; or even knock it down if it's a fence I arbitrarily put up.

For Lent I took as a discipline an avoidance of the broadcast news media. After eleven days of returning to it, it's clear to me that I should reinstate the discipline. I cannot ignore it completely; that would be the wrong thing to do. But love and thankfulness for each new day should not be pre-empted by how much the cost of living has increased, or how many people are out of work. Jesus said that would always be with us, and we have to manage it - but not as the first nor the last order of the day. I have said this more than once: I don't need horror stories or movies to get scared; all I have to do is watch the evening news.

The reality portrayed on the news is not my reality. Both realities must co-exist; yet inasmuch as I am able, I will promote what is good; what is the better portion.

If, after reading this, you are hurt, I apologize; I hurt too, and don't like to see others hurt as a result of my own shortcomings. If you are confused, you are not alone: I can also get confused and send mixed signals. I can hear the same thing twice over time and have different reactions each time.

I appreciate your presence in my life. Thanks for walking with me on this journey, no matter how long or in what capacity it takes place. Thank you also for allowing me to walk with you, wherever you are.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tales of Willie the Bard and George

Feast of Saint George, Martyr
Patron of England, Barcelona, Malta, Genoa, Portugal, Germany, Valencia, Aragon, Sicily, Greece, Canada, Catalonia, and Lithuania
Also: archers, armorers, butchers, Boy Scouts, equestrians, farm workers, and knights
His glorious combat at Diosopolis or Lydda in Palestine all Churches of East and West celebrate from antiquity.

Today's Word:
Acts 5:27-33 (Peter: "We must obey God rather than men")
Psalm 34:17-20 (When the just cry out, the Lord hears them)
John 3:31-36 (The One who comes from heaven is above all)

Hear ye! Hear ye!

The Honorable Richard M. Daley, Lord Mayor of Chicago, hath proclaimed this day "Talk Like Shakespeare Day." Yay, verily!

The renowned Bard of Avon was born 445 years ago today. Coincidentally, it is also the 393rd anniversary of his death.

I'm not going to carry on quotething Shakespeare; if I wanted to do that, I'd visiteth the Bristol Renaissance Faire this summer.

But 2B - or not 2B - that is the question! (Or it was the first year my wife and I were married; we lived in Apartment 2B.)

Anyway, English speaking Christians owe Will some gratitude for his ability to turn a phrase. It would influence writing for several generations afterward.  He lived at the time the second major translation of the Bible was made in the English language, the 'Authorised' Version of 1611; the first, the Great Bible, was commissioned by Henry VIII. It was more commonly named for the reigning British monarch who authorized it, King James I:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
      he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:
      he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
      for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
      I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
      thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
      thou anointest my head with oil;
      my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
      and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

(Psalm 23, King James Version)

Verily, I tell thee, 'tis still a thing of beauty, and a joy forever.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

For the Beauty of the Earth

Earth Day 2009

Today's Word:
Acts 5:17-26 (The Apostles are jailed, but an angel is sent from God to free them)
Psalm 34:2-9 (The Lord hears the cry of the poor)
John 3:16-21 (The Numbers of Hope)

For a reflection on today's Gospel passage, please look for the March 22 post, "Mass Marketing,", by clicking in the archives.

It's the 39th annual Earth Day.
I think the voices of history speak the proper sentiment better than I.

   O my soul, bless God! God, my God, how great you are!
      beautifully, gloriously robed,
   Dressed up in sunshine,
      and all heaven stretched out for your tent.
   You built your palace on the ocean deeps,
      made a chariot out of clouds and took off on wind-wings.
   You commandeered winds as messengers,
      appointed fire and flame as ambassadors.
   You set earth on a firm foundation
      so that nothing can shake it, ever.
   You blanketed earth with ocean,
      covered the mountains with deep waters;
   Then you roared and the water ran away—
      your thunder crash put it to flight.
   Mountains pushed up, valleys spread out
      in the places you assigned them.
   You set boundaries between earth and sea;
      never again will earth be flooded.
   You started the springs and rivers,
      sent them flowing among the hills.
   All the wild animals now drink their fill,
      wild donkeys quench their thirst.
   Along the riverbanks the birds build nests,
      ravens make their voices heard.
   You water the mountains from your heavenly cisterns;
      earth is supplied with plenty of water.
   You make grass grow for the livestock,
      hay for the animals that plow the ground.

   Oh yes, God brings grain from the land,
      wine to make people happy,
   Their faces glowing with health,
      a people well-fed and hearty.
   God's trees are well-watered—
      the Lebanon cedars he planted.
   Birds build their nests in those trees;
      look—the stork at home in the treetop.
   Mountain goats climb about the cliffs;
      badgers burrow among the rocks.
   The moon keeps track of the seasons,
      the sun is in charge of each day.
   When it's dark and night takes over,
      all the forest creatures come out.
   The young lions roar for their prey,
      clamoring to God for their supper.
   When the sun comes up, they vanish,
      lazily stretched out in their dens.
   Meanwhile, men and women go out to work,
      busy at their jobs until evening.

   What a wildly wonderful world, God!
      You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
      made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.
   Oh, look—the deep, wide sea,
      brimming with fish past counting,
      sardines and sharks and salmon.
   Ships plow those waters,
      and Leviathan, your pet dragon, romps in them.
   All the creatures look expectantly to you
      to give them their meals on time.
   You come, and they gather around;
      you open your hand and they eat from it.
   If you turned your back,
      they'd die in a minute—
   Take back your Spirit and they die,
      revert to original mud;
   Send out your Spirit and they spring to life—
      the whole countryside in bloom and blossom.

   The glory of God—let it last forever!
      Let God enjoy his creation!
   He takes one look at earth and triggers an earthquake,
      points a finger at the mountains, and volcanoes erupt.

   Oh, let me sing to God all my life long,
      sing hymns to my God as long as I live!
   Oh, let my song please him;
      I'm so pleased to be singing to God.
   O my soul, bless God!

(Psalm 104, "The Message" by Eugene H. Peterson)

With this kind of enthusiasm, may we be mindful that man's 'dominion' over Planet Mother Earth should be looked as that of a caretaker. May we be judicious in our future use of this planet's resources, as an investment for the generations to come.

Consider that none of us have ever seen...

A bison throw a cigarette butt out a car window

A flock of geese rip the top off a mountain

A seal cause an oil spill

A hippo drive a Hummer off a dealer's lot

A lemur leave the faucet dripping

A raccoon go out for the evening and leave all the lights in the house on

A bobcat fight legislation to lower smokestack emissions

A songbird sing "Drill Baby, Drill"

A panda dump raw sewage into a river

A pride of lions so dependent on oil that they're willing to wage war over it

A slug (the real kind) claim that our biggest worry is global cooling

A gorilla fail to keep its tires properly inflated

A salmon pollute a stream with mercury

An elephant claim that his God says it's okay to pillage the world's natural resources willy-nilly because pachyderms are the "chosen ones"

A lizard mock public transportation

A penguin claim that the melting polar ice caps are no big deal

A crocodile think up new ways to go overboard on plastic packaging for portable electronics

For the beauty of the earth
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies.

Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light. (Refrain)

For the joy of ear and eye,
For the heart and mind’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
Linking sense to sound and sight. (Refrain)

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild. (Refrain)

For Thy Church, that evermore
Lifteth holy hands above,
Offering up on every shore
Her pure sacrifice of love. (Refrain)

For the martyrs’ crown of light,
For Thy prophets’ eagle eye,
For Thy bold confessors’ might,
For the lips of infancy. (Refrain)

For Thy virgins’ robes of snow,
For Thy maiden mother mild,
For Thyself, with hearts aglow,
Jesus, Victim undefiled. (Refrain)

For each perfect gift of Thine,
To our race so freely given,
Graces human and divine,
Flowers of earth and buds of Heaven. (Refrain)

--For The Beauty Of The Earth (1864)
Folliot S. Pierpoint

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Far Cry From Communal Living

Today's Word:
Acts 4:32-37 (The community of believers held all possessions in common)
Psalm 93:1-5 (The Lord is King, robed in majesty)
John 3:7-15 (Jesus continues his dialogue with Nicodemus on being 'born of spirit')

I confess I was all but going to take a pass today - the Lectionary continues with the passages from the point left off yesterday - until I found in one of the almanac/blogs I frequently visit that two big historical events occurred on this date. Traditionally, it's the 2062nd anniversary of the founding of the City of Rome; much of the impact of ancient Roman civilization is still apparent today.

It's also the 500th anniversary of the ascension of Henry VIII to the throne of England. When this Henry became king, he was all of seventeen years of age.

In roughly 1450 years Christianity had gone from quasi-communal living where everything was owned in common, to a place where the faithful were led around under the guise of the faith by a power struggle between the Church, the various heads of state, and a few folks I'll call "free range" theologians (for the sake of simplicity). This last group somehow seemed to fly under the radar as it were while the papal monarchy and the state monarchies were making and breaking alliances at the drop of a hat (or a crown or a tiara, papal or otherwise).

The Renaissance had taken place. There had been a grand awakening of the human spirit. The movers and shakers of the day were doing that. The entrepreneurs were entreprenuring. Some guy named Cristoforo Columbo claimed to have found a way to India and the East by sailing West. During Henry's reign as king, Ferdinand Magellan would set sail for the first 'world' tour. (He didn't quite finish it, but his crew did).

England didn't get into this new foray in world exploration until long after Henry died; even though Columbus' maiden voyage to the New World took place long before Henry took the throne. In England, he had made himself the center of attention on several fronts which caused a great deal of unrest in England for much of his reign.

Most history buffs can tell the story better than I; just about everyone knows that Henry went through six wives to satisfy his cravings, not the least of which included making sure there would be a male heir to take the throne after him. He condemned Luther as a heretic on one hand, but on the other took for himself the title of Supreme Head of the Church in England when the papacy in Rome would not annul his first marriage, to Catharine of Aragon. Two of his Lord Chancellors were Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, both shrewd and manipulative power brokers. Where on one side Wolsey used his influence as high clergyman to manipulate people, Cromwell sought to make religion totally subservient to the state. During Henry's reign, Protestants were being burnt for heresy even while Catholics were being executed for refusing to take the oath of supremacy.

In the end, the most succinct way I can put things is that Henry didn't practice what he preached. The background of his early years as king indicate that he was a capable and just ruler until he became fixed on the lack of a son to replace him at the proper time. But it's also evident that the rest of the heads of Europe and the Church were part of the problems of the time and no real solutions were forthcoming. The Faith had become a word that the heads of state and religion were all vieing to defend to their own liking; while the faithful struggled to find God's hand in this, often at the cost of their lives.

Indeed, power corrupts - and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Do the Nations Rage?

Today's Word:
Acts 4:23-31 (After Peter and John are released, the community prays for continued inspired preaching; all are filled with the Holy Spirit)
Psalm 2: 1-9 (Why do the nations rage, and the people utter folly?)
John 3:1-8 (Nicodemus meets Jesus: "How can a man once grown old be born again?")

As we have exhausted the accounts of the Resurrection, the Church now turns in these weeks of Easter to the life of the first Christian community; and to passages in the Gospels (particularly John) that deal with new life in Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

I know one way that God speaks to me where I am happens when an event from my life is echoed in at least one of the selected readings.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the killing of twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver.

I had forgotten the number - and it's odd that it represents the twelve apostles and Jesus. It also happened shortly after I had to give up my active diaconal ministry. This sure didn't help anyone at the time, let alone me.

Like the 1995 incident in Oklahoma City I recalled yesterday, this tragedy added to the growing number of sad events that looked to be falling with rather close proximity to Easter. Not that it would have been any less tragic at any other time; it just seemed that over a period of a few years, a lot more events like these - especially ones at schools - took place in April or May. When contrasted with the joy of the Resurrection, it makes the words of the psalmist all the more poignant: Why do the nations rage? What is your problem, people?

As our young - the future of the world - come of age, they see the sorry state of their country and their world - the one they are to inherit as adults - dutifully reported by the news media. They are seeing the folly of bureaucracy at every level. Having been encouraged to be free thinkers in the hallowed halls of education, they are also reminded that they as yet don't have a voice in their own future. They will enter an adult world where they may be sent off to war and be killed; or find that their further education takes place on the street; or will enter college looking for a degree in a field that may not even exist when they graduate, or may not have a job for them. They will see the relative heaven their parents raised them in shattered by the time they graduate, if not sooner.

Like their counterparts as adults, some will be blessed - they don't accept defeat and keep looking for that which will lead them to stable relationships and a fighting chance at a good future. Some will live from day to day, and somehow get by. Others, overwhelmed by a constant barrage of negativity reported in the news, see no hope for them in this hostile world. Some of these will succumb to temptation, anything from a slight misdemeanor to perpetrating a tragedy like the one at Columbine.

We can't sugar-coat the world to our kids forever. That would give them a false sense of hope. We can't leave them hopeless, either. We have to be realistic. How can we do this? It's much like Nicodemus' questions to Jesus that evening. What Jesus told him seemed impossible. How is one 'born again?'

We must be people of faith. Faith begets hope, and hope can beget even more hope if we hold on to it.

Being "faith-full" requires us to be firm in our resolve to live within our means, with the people and situations in which we're placed, and to affirm all that is good while avoiding the rest with determination. For some this determination will take every bit of personal strength one can muster, and more that when looking back, was one of those times when "I didn't know I had it in me." (Because you let God work in you!)

Having hope means you embrace the potential for personal change (conversion), change only you can control; but can also have a profound effect on others as they may embrace their own personal changes by your example.

Former Vice President Al Gore said this of the Columbine tragedy:
"To the world that is watching us, let us remind them that the young killers of Columbine High School do not stand for the spirit of America...we can stop the violence and the hate. In a culture rife with violence -- where too many young people place too little value on a human life -- we can rise up and say no more."

If it is to be, it must begin with me - at home, at the grass roots level; with diligence, determination, and compassion; in love, faith, and hope.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lord, In Your Mercy...

Second Sunday of Easter
Divine Mercy Sunday
Today's Word:
Acts 4:32-35 (The community of believers was of one heart and mind)
Psalm 118:1-2, 13-15, 22-24 (Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love is everlasting)
1 John 5:1-6 (The victory that conquers the world is our faith)
John 20:19-31 ("Receive the Holy Spirit;" forgive sins in Jesus' name; 'Doubting' Thomas)

Also: Philippians 1:3-11 (He who has begun a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ)

Today I have added a fifth passage from the Bible - the first four are from the Catholic Lectionary for today, and I don't want to let it pass without reflecting on John's story of the Apostle Thomas' witness. I'll come back to it.

My son and I were at Cornerstone today for the first time in six weeks, though; and I'm posting after I went there instead of earlier this morning, it is most appropriate that I include the passage from Philippians, which is the subject of the next six weeks of sermons there. I won't get to them all, and I'll more than likely miss their inspired take on Philippians 2:6-11 (see April 5, Palm Sunday); but the weeks following Easter is a good time to think about the 'good work' begun.

Having hung out in a strictly Catholic environment for the last six weeks (including two funerals last week) had me anticipating and somewhat edgy about heading back to work with a group of people I deeply and seriously appreciate. Even though both congregations are Christian, they are different in theology and diehards of either group have been known to be critical of the other for some obtuse reason.

I post this passage once more, because of it's great relevance to me as a wandering minstrel and a fence straddler:

The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ's love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:
They kill us in cold blood because they hate you.
We're sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. (Romans 8:34-39, "The Message" by Eugene H. Peterson)

I should remember this passage (it's one of Paul of Tarsus' better ones) every time I'm in mixed company; which is just about all the time. Consider that a few of my Catholic musician colleagues are more of the religion of musical theater...

Just a comment on something I noticed - and I was not the only one who picked up on it. The Cornerstone youth have a food concession going in the church foyer; they're doing this to raise funds for their summer mission camp work. Good idea. But when an announcement was shown on the multimedia screen, and then the lights dimmed as the service was about to start, I got the feeling I was attending a showing of Fireproof at the Bijou. I was thankfully reminded that this was indeed a worship service as it wasn't followed by 25 minutes of previews of coming events.

...and my extended family is at times so far removed from reality that commenting on them might nauseate the good reader. In fact, just mentioning them is more attention than I intended to give them.

The series started off with Pastor Calvin taking a turn at the pulpit - he's the associate/assimilating pastor at Cornerstone, and I've known him almost as long as I've known Mike...

Sidebar 2:
BTW, I realized I did a huge disservice by not including Calvin in the list of folks who see this automatically. My apologies, my friend - and I hope you have time to go back and read a few of the better things I've hopefully written since I began this blog. And Pastor Paul gave me the impression he had a classic Lent. I pray that whatever the challenge was, he's through the worst of it now.

...Cal started off with a remark about how all of us need to open up the Scriptures and let the Word speak to us - something which was a product of the Reformation, as Catholics were of the mindset that Sacred Scripture was the exclusive province of the ordained clergy. Well, for centuries it indeed was - first, until Gutenberg invented movable type, Bibles were copied by hand, under less than ideal working conditions. Second, there was a feeling among the hierarchy that putting the Bible in the hands and language of "Joe the Plumber" of 1500 or so would lead to all sorts of false interpretations. But there was also the mindset of "Joe the Plumber" and "Joe the Blacksmith" and "Joe the Farmer" and even "Trader Joe" that perhaps the Church wasn't being completely honest with that sacred trust. Both were right.

My point is: after cloistering myself for six weeks, Cal's statement put me on edge; it got under my skin momentarily, like an itch begging to be scratched. As quickly as it hit me, though, the thought was dismissed. We're on the same side. One day, perhaps, people will be able to put all sorts of division behind them. It would be nice if it happened in my lifetime. I have my doubts about it, but there is always hope. And there will be love. Dwelling on this in the wrong way has happened one too many times. Things are different now. I will never be the same again.


Back in 1995, I was given the honor to exercise one of my faculties as a deacon and preach on the Catholic readings for this day. There's a built-in theme (three, in fact); so putting together a 10-15 minute reflection on it is not such a tremendous task. More often than not, though, real life throws better curve balls than most major league baseball pitchers. During Easter Week in 1995, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed by a domestic

That, to me, was too significant of an event to ignore. As close to the celebration of the Resurrection as it was, this shattered the joy and was a cold slap in the face. Tragedies of this nature beg of me to ask where God's hand is. Where would the hope of the risen Lord be in its wake? Did this not give rise to doubt? Could this not demand proof of all I believe and profess by wanting to see Jesus with my own eyes?

Needless to say, I gave it my best; asking God to speak the words through me that would remove the sting of tragedy and reaffirm the power of faith, the strength of belief in the resurrection; that God would prevail.

I have no doubts that God's words were indeed spoken. Though unbeknownst to me the wheels of change were being set in motion that would soon change the landscape and push my journey into darkness for a time, this last opportunity topreach was all His. It was not the proudest moment of my life; anything I said then has been lost from memory. That I only remember the event and nothing more is what should be. That I am reminded again and again that the story of man persists in staring God in the face unholy should deepen my resolve to be guided by His way of compassion, mercy, justice, and forgiveness. While I must live among the evils of the world, I must not - for the sake of the people I love and serve, for they too hold an image and likeness of God - fall prey to it.
terrorist and 168 people lost their lives.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Weaker Gender?

Easter Saturday

Today's Word:
Acts 4:13-21 ("What are we to do with the followers of Jesus?"
Psalm 118:14-21 (I will praise you, Lord; for you have rescued me)
Mark 16:9-15 (Jesus appears to the Eleven and rebukes them for their weak faith in failing to believe Mary Magdalene's witness)

I decided as I sat down this morning that I was going to push as much as possible to keep up reflecting and writing at least until Pentecost Sunday. That's May 31 - six weeks from tomorrow - at least 43 more days.

Then my mind went totally blank and I couldn't come up with anything. I moved away from my desk, and went about my business.

Now, some seven hours later, the obvious is staring me in the face.

One of the details about Jesus' resurrection that is consistent in all four Gospels: Upon his exit from the tomb, the message is first received by women. Noted among them is Mary Magdalene, who is perhaps the most fervent of Jesus' female believers apart from his mother.

The gospels are not clear whether Mary or the other women believe immediately upon learning of the news. I am guessing that they are, based on what I've come to understand over the course of my journey in faith.

On the whole, women have a stronger sense of spirituality than men. I say this in part because I've been taught that women are 'wired' that way; the 'left vs. right' brain balance tends to prove this out. Yes, there are great spiritual men; the Church saw to it that we know of them. However, most of the ones we know about weren't married, to my best knowledge. The first Christian leader after Jesus - Peter - was married, as his mother-in-law was the subject of a miraculous cure.

There's an old adage, "Behind every good man stands a great woman." Again, I see this as true. It's clearly evident that they were meant to be. They are the ones who bear, give birth, and nurse children. As Jesus walked the "Via Dolorosa" on the day of his crucifixion, the women were there weeping for him, attending to his what little comfort they could give him. They went to anoint his body after his burial. The men? We don't even read directions, let alone ask for them. Peter's a real good example of this, as I've already observed.

Is it any surprise, then, that the remaining apostles balked at the report from Mary and the other women that they'd been told that Jesus had been raised, that they'd even seen Him? Not at all. Nor should it be surprising that Jesus might call the guys on the carpet for it. The theme of weak faith and a potentially frustrated Jesus is consistent in Mark's gospel. Be that as it may, this sets the stage for the development of the Christian faith - one where women's roles are more prominent than they have ever been in a patriarchal society.

It's important to understand going forward, then and now, that the ideal in Christian ministry should be collaborative. It will not be easy for the New Testament authors to define this, but Luke and Paul of Tarsus manage to at least put this on the table.

To all of the wonderful ladies who have helped me grow in wisdom and spirit - all the way from my mother and grandmothers through the Sisters of Mercy who taught me in school; from the women who assisted me in ministry formation and those who stand beside their husbands in ministry to those who are ministers themselves; and last, but certainly not least; to my dearest wife and companion, who always challenges me lovingly to be my best: You are not weak. You are strong.

Thank you with all my heart.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another Fish Story

Easter Friday

Today's Word
Acts 4:1-12 (Peter and John are arrested; Peter further testifies in Jesus' behalf)
Psalm 118:1-4, 22-27 (The Lord is God, and He has given us light)
John 21:1:14 (An amazing catch)

A new day.

Peter, a fisherman by trade before he was fully initiated in the Holy Spirit had (for the time being, anyway) had returned to his profession. Some of the disciples had chosen to join him. Calm waters at sea and being away from noisy crowds would give these men a chance to clear their heads and consider all that had recently happened.

Well, as can happen on fishing trips, neither the fish nor the men seemed to be taking the bait. The guys are out on the boat all night and didn't have anything to show for it . Morning comes, and a figure is seen on the beach. Perhaps the boat is just far enough offshore that they can't make out who it is. This new arrival asks if they had any luck fishing, and when the report comes back that nothing was caught, he suggests making another cast of the nets. The men do this, and the nets are filled to the breaking point! Where did all these fish come from?

John immediately sees this as the miracle it is, and tells Peter: "It is the Lord!"

Now Peter, whom I've called upon before for his occasionally unorthodox reactions in his relationship with Jesus, jumps into the water and swims to shore. The seasoned fisherman doesn't want to wait or see to hauling in the catch - and this was his chosen profession! Well, it was until now.

John means to show us in this event how Peter had become ready to shift gears; change careers; "abandon it all for the sake of the call." There's still lots of unanswered questions - how this affects his family. It would appear that God would provide for them somehow. They most likely became disciples, seeing a big change in Peter and trusting that this was meant for him - the best way he could be the best he could be. Peter would still have to reconcile himself by affirming his love for Jesus three times - thus negating his triple denial on the eve of the crucifixion.

It's made rather clear throughout the New Testament that Peter had come from "Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" through "Let's build three tents" through Jesus' admonition "Get thee behind Me, Satan!" through denial to affirmation and leadership. His conversion took small steps over a long time, but was also a great leap of faith. Peter's life is not unlike ours in many ways. We claim we are unworthy; we may do brash, crazy, even stupid things. To protect ourselves we may stay on the sidelines and pretend we know less than we do. In the end, we must affirm our faith; our hope and belief that all will be well; and as a phrase from a well know TV series puts it, "boldly go where no man has gone before."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"I Haven't Eaten In Three Days"

Easter Thursday

Today's Word:
Acts 3:11-26 (Peter: "God raised up his servant and sent him to bless you")
Psalm 8:2-9 (O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth)
Luke 24:35-48 (Jesus: "Peace be with you!")

Today is the follow-up to our Emmaus moment. Our pair of disciples, having recognized Jesus as their traveling partner, return in haste to Jerusalem - no easy task as it was most likely under cover of darkness - and when they arrive, their story is corroborated by reports that the women who were looking after Jesus' body found the tomb empty.

Suddenly Jesus appears to them all - in the flesh!

Now it's likely that the risen Jesus looked like the radiant, glowing person described in the accounts of the Transfiguration (see March 8, We Don't Do This For Just Anyone). At that event, only Peter, John, and James had seen this revelation - and Peter's dumbstruck reaction (Let's build three tents) has always struck me as a bit comical. The reaction of the remaining apostles today has a similar effect. They are virtually falling over each other, awestruck at seeing Jesus not only alive, but glorified!

Luke doesn't indicate how long this awestruck feeling went on. It must have gone on a rather long time. He finally asks, "Have you anything here to eat?" (He did not eat at Emmaus; he vanished from the sight of the traveling disciples when he broke the bread and said the blessing at the beginning of the meal.) That seemed to do it! He really must be alive in the flesh if he wants to eat! He's given some baked fish to eat - this may have been among the reasons fish was allowed and became so popular on all the meatless Fridays Catholics observe.

This experience is a reminder to us to keep focused on what is important. Jesus had spoken to his disciples on many occasions that he would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. It was nearly impossible, given the manner and events that led to Jesus' crucifixion, that his disciples would stay focused. Peter and John watched from a distance, and Peter even denied he know Jesus. But we as "Easter People" know and believe!

I was thinkin' the other day,
"What if cartoons got saved?
They'd start singing praise
In a whole new way..."
Yeah, I was thinkin' the other day,
"What if cartoons got saved?
They'd start singing praise
In a whole new way..."

Fred and Wilma Flintstone
Sing "Yabba-dabba-doo-yah"
Scooby-doo and Shaggy:
And the Jetsons' dog named Astro:

(repeat chorus)

Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles:
"Cowabunga-loo-yah, Dude!"
Then there's, "Kermit the Frog here, singing,
And that little bald guy, Elmer Fudd:

(repeat chorus)

Oh that big old moose and his friend Rocky,
And our favourite bear named Yogi,
"Hey, Boo-Boo-loo-ya"
Then there's all those little blue guys
And they'd sing, "Hah-la-la-la-la-la-la-lay-la-lay-loo-yah"
How about Beavis and that other guy?

Now, there's a point to this looney-tune
I'm not an Animaniac
But there's a lot of praisin' to do
And cartoons weren't made for that
It's our job
So, let's sing hallelujah!

Chris Rice

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Emmaus Revisited - The Journey Home

Easter Wednesday

Today's Word:
Acts 3:1-10 (Peter: "I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus, rise and walk")
Psalm 105:1-9 (Rejoice, O hearts that seek the Lord)
Luke 24:13-35 (Emmaus Revisited: "Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?")

Is it possible that it took being brought to the lowest point in my life to truly witness the presence of the unseen God?

I had lost nearly everything. I was out of work for nearly seven months; I felt too disgraced to set foot in the parish where I had served. I was contacted about a potential job opportunity 120 miles from anybody I knew; I went to be interviewed but it never panned out. (Well, not until two weeks after I accepted the position I currently hold.) Many people honestly thought I had indeed moved away. Eventually that also happened, and it had to happen quickly. Not because of anything my wife or I had done or failed to do; my original landlords had passed away and their son could not afford to keep and maintain the place, so he ultimately sold it. Sandwiched in all of this was the ultimate in personal financial disaster.

When you feel sad
Or under a curse
Your life is bad
Your prospects are worse
Your wife is crying, sighing
And your olive tree is dying
Temples are graying
Teeth are decaying
And creditors weighing your purse...
(how did he know?)

Your mood and your robe
Are both a deep blue
You'd bet that Job
Had nothing on you
Don't forget that when you get to Heaven
You'll be blessed
Yes, it's all for the best

--All For The Best
(excerpt) from Godspell (1970)
Stephen Schwartz

I tried getting reestablished in the parish in my neighborhood, the one I attended as a child; the one where I met Charles; the one where it all began. That wasn't working, either. What seemed to be working was Cornerstone.

Cornerstone was birthed in 1999, as two other established communities merged. For the first five years their services were held in a school gymnasium. I would take my son there, as I had no reason not to. The atmosphere was less formal, and the music was more contemporary. (Unless you're watching a hockey or baseball game, an organ seems out of place in a school gymnasium.) My son liked the upbeat music, and liked having me at his side, something I had been unable to do. Even on the occasions when I would sing (at my friend Mike's request), my son came with me and I was able to sit with him most of the time - and had him in eyesight when I was busy.

When the new building at Cornerstone was ready, a new innovation was added - multimedia. This did away with program sheets and hymnals; everything was projected on screens. This also gave Pastor Paul the ability to throw in video clips that assisted in whatever the week's theme was. I explained to my son that this was all done with computers. He had become quite familiar with what technology could do. I'm guessing that this really appealed to him; in any case he would look forward to each trip.

Meanwhile, the director at Ascension (the Catholic parish at which I now serve) contacted me early in 2001. I am surprised she found me. (In retrospect, we hadn't moved yet and our phone number hadn't changed, so I shouldn't have been so shocked.) She was looking for male singers for the choir there - and there was a stipend involved, more than I'd ever known about.Advantage:  would be compensated. Disadvantage: church was 25 miles away, and I wasn't sure I was ready to go through all this again.

had to think about this. I had to pray over it. And I wanted to consult with the two people that knew me best.

First, I ran this by my wife. She had never wanted me to quit everything, but to understand what was most important. She told me that I had been completely miserable over the nearly two years that I was not active. Now that my employment was stable, she said that I should go back. A part of me was always going to be attached to God through the Church and she did not want to hold that back. The compensation more than covered the expense of driving there and back. I told her the minute it should get out of hand I would quit.

Next, I talked to my friend Mike. As a paid musician himself, he didn't give it a second thought. Take it, he said. I realize now that he lived by those words.

With that, I accepted the offer. It wasn't all that simple, though. There was my son's interest at Cornerstone. It was the best chance he had at learning about community. It was also a place where people talked to him. And I was interested as well. Between Mike and Pastor Paul, I realized that here was something I didn't want to set aside thoughtlessly. So whenever my schedule allowed it, I'd take my son and head out to Cornerstone. People there were always happy to see us. They still are.
I have become a modern day "wandering minstrel."

At the present time, though, I can't think of a better place to be. I have one foot resting in the roots of holy tradition. In order to know where you are, you need to know where you've been. The other foot is resting in fresh, new ground; and the freshness of that message speaks to me as loudly as does tradition. There are some who think that could be wrong, especially among those clinging more to tradition. I politely disagree. To me, one complements the other. Our theological differences (more a stumbling block politically at the point they were made nearly 500 years ago) should not keep us apart.

I owe it to my son to give him the backdrop, the spiritual safety net he needs. In my mind, there is nothing wrong with being part of two places. If one is sincerely following God, he or she will go wherever God leads - even if it runs against the current. After all, God worked through Moses to part the Red Sea!

There will always be those who disagree. They don't know me well enough to understand that this way works; they only shake their heads and through body language state that this is something they're just not interested in doing, even once.

I've had a few lengthier conversations with Pastor Paul when opportunities arose. In one of his conversations I remember him telling me that I "got it." I make no such claim; we only get it fully when we reach the journey's end. I am not there yet; and I am not foolish enough to think that I'm even close. What I claim is that every good thing comes from God. We shouldn't balk at taking chances based on human interpretation of God's presence and/or Jesus' teaching in our lives. We must always strive to look past the naysayers and the purveyors of doom and gloom. We must take life seriously, one day at a time.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life, make the best of it. Hope is ours! We will make it to the Promised Land, to the place we're supposed to be!

Can you hear, there's a new song
Breaking out from the children of freedom
Every race and every nation
Sing it out sing a new Hallelujah

Let us sing love to the nations
Bringing hope of the grace that has freed us
Make Him known and make Him famous
Sing it out sing a new Hallelujah

Let the church arise!
Let love reach to the other side
Alive come alive
Let the song arise

Oh yes I sing a new song
Reaching out with a new Hallelujah
Every son and every daughter
Everyone sing a new Hallelujah

Let the song arise
Let love reach to the other side
Alive come alive
Let the song arise

Whoa whoa yeah
Let the song arise
Let the song arise yeah (2x)

Let the world sing a new Hallelujah
From Africa to Australia
From Brazil to China
From New York to Chicago!

Let the Church arise!
Let love reach to the other side!
Alive - Come alive -
Let the song arise!!

Everyone sing a new Hallelujah!! (2x)
--A New Hallelujah (2008)
Michael W. Smith

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Gardener - Finding A Lost Treasure

Easter Tuesday

Today's Word:
Acts 2:36-41 (Peter: "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation")
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-22 (The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord)
John 20:11-18 (Mary Magdalene: "If you carried him away, tell me where you laid him and I will take him")

On Easter Sunday I posted the lyrics to an obscure song from 1971, from memory. This was for all practical purposes before the CCM or 'Jesus music' became buzzwords, let alone its own multimillion dollar industry. Today I want to tell you where that song came from.

I'm not well versed on how it all started - maybe the evolution of popular music simply inspired people at just the right time. Musical theater was apparently moving away from the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein, and the 'concept' record album was coming into popularity. But even at the level of the hit single, as we entered the 1970s, something unusual was taking place. Judy Collins made it into the top five with an a capella rendering of the hymn Amazing Grace. By 1973, Sister Janet Mead made a one-hit wonder for herself with a contemporary setting of the Lord's Prayer. Elvis Presley had recorded How Great Thou Art - with an entire album of hymns - in 1966; he had recorded a similar project in 1960.

There were three blockbuster recordings that were first heard in the early 1970s. First was Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar (lyrics by Tim Rice), which I've quoted from frequently in this series. On its heels was the musical Godspell, loosely based on the Gospel of Matthew, written by Stephen Schwartz. And the third was a little-known project that had been in the works for three years - Truth of Truths, an ambitious project putting key stories from the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) in a then-contemporary setting.

Truth of Truths went the one place where the others did not. Where Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell end with the death of Jesus, TOT covers the Resurrection and its finale deals with the Book of Revelation.

It was released in the spring of 1971, and was billed as a road-show rock opera (an attempt to capitalize on the success of The Who's Tommy and JCS). It was first performed live at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles on Easter Sunday 1971 before an audience of over 3,000 people. TOT's producer and co-writer, Ray Ruff, was looking to take this as far as he possibly could. However, financial backing for something like this was almost unheard of in 1971. Still, Ruff managed to get TOT performed in six cities that year, and thousands of albums sold. Among the people who helped promote the album was a man named Jon Rivers, who was until only a few weeks ago the morning drive host on K-LOVE radio stations across the country. At that time he was hosting a syndicated program called Powerline, that evangelized using lyrics from popular songs of the day.

I was one of those who happened to hear excerpts from TOT on Rivers' show. I was impressed by just about anything musically that managed to incorporate religious themes, and had my own copy of both Godspell and JCS, even as controversial as the latter was at the time it was released. I likewise bought a copy of TOT when I had the chance. I had the album for many years, until the development of CDs made the old vinyl LPs obsolete. Then, because I had to free up space, I parted with all the LPs I could no longer play. If I'd only knew then where this recording was destined, I would have kept it.

Ray Ruff had plans of getting Truth of Truths performed in more cities, and was prepared to make another pressing of the album - all of which took time to bankroll, and he was doing this on his own as no major record label thought it would sell. Still, there were always people interested as the word got out. Then, one fateful day in 1973, all the master recording tapes and files to TOT were destroyed in a fire set, reports say, by a person on the staff of Ruff's recording company who had declared himself a devil worshipper. Ruff had no backup. TOT was lost, save those fortunate people who had purchased the original vinyl recordings. (Some cassette recordings were also sold from the original masters, but the quality of cassette tape was quite inferior in those days.)

It would have seemed that TOT was lost forever - but upon reaching the 30th anniversary of its first performance, Ruff began considering the possibility of remastering the recording from vinyl in order to release it on CD. Computer technology had reached the point where this was possible and reasonable quality could be achieved. Re-recording with a fresh cast was considered but rejected, again due to cost. Some of the people involved with the original release had died over the years. Ray himself passed away in September 2005, his dream unfulfilled.

But this story has a hopeful ending. Ruff's widow and one of his business partners owned the copyright on the original recording and have continued working on the project since Ray's death. As of March 12 of this year announcements at several websites where TOT has been discussed at length indicate that the CD release of the original recording will finally happen later in 2009. I will be watching for it.

God will have mercy
He'll forgive us of all our sins
He'll guide us to the Promised Land
If we turn to Him
If we turn to Him
Let My people go
Let My people go

--Let My People Go

Awake, awake O Israel
God is sending you a Messiah
Help is coming
Help is coming
This man will arise from the dead
And ascend into heaven

--Prophecies of the Coming Messiah
(excerpt) from Truth of Truths (1971)
words and music by Ray Ruff (1938-2005) and Val Stoecklein

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Bribe and The Hope

Easter Monday

Today's Word:
Acts 2:22-33 (Peter: "God raised Jesus up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it")
Psalm 16:1-2, 5-11 (Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope)
Matthew 28:8-15 (The sleeping guards are bribed by the chief priests; the story: The body of Jesus was stolen by disciples during the night)

The lengths some will go to...
The thing that strikes me as odd is: Why was this tidbit included in Matthew's gospel? I suppose we could make the case that as Matthew's audience consisted primarily of Jewish converts, this was the story being passed around Jerusalem. But the appearance of this caveat seems rather strange, considering Matthew's use of Old Testament quotes to affirm his belief and build his case that Jesus is the Messiah.

What a strange temptation - and nonetheless, it appears in sacred Scripture.
Still, the power of the resurrection contains a hope far greater than the lure of a bribe to keep quiet.!

I saw it again today in the face of a little child
Looking through the eyes of fear and uncertainty
It echoed in a cry for freedom across the street and across the miles
Cries from the heart to find the missing part

Where is the hope, where is the peace?
That will make this life complete
For every man, woman, boy, and girl
Looking for heaven in the real world

To stand in the pouring rain and believe the sun will shine again
To know that the grave is not the end
To feel the embrace of grace and cross the line where real life begins
And know in your heart you've found the missing part

There is a hope, there is a peace
That will make this life complete
For every man, woman, boy, and girl
Looking for heaven in the real world
Heaven in the real world

It happened one night with a tiny baby's birth
God heard creation crying and He sent heaven to earth

He is the hope, He is the peace
That will make this life complete
For every man, woman, boy and girl
Looking for heaven in the real world

--Heaven in the Real World (1994)
Steven Curtis Chapman