Sunday, September 30, 2018

Power of Prayer

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

"Shalom" is a Kingdom of God word. It means "peace," including health, welfare and prosperity. When God is King, all will be well. We will be well. We pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Father."

Until that day, we serve God by proclaiming His coming kingdom in word and deed. This is Ancient Christian faith. James tell us to pray and praise; constant prayer in every circumstance. James says go to the church leaders for healing. James tells us to "confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed." Sin and sickness overlap. Jesus want to heal us: body and soul, mind, heart and spirit. Jesus also sends us to do the same for others. Prayer is the door which opens us to Him.  James has great trust in the power of prayer and so must we. He begins the letter (1:5) by saying "ask in faith, never doubting--for the doubter must not expect to receive anything form the Lord." Doubt and fear are drain prayer of its life.

This is our crisis; can we pray with faith? Can we see ourselves and repent of our sins? It is not enough to just 'say' the creed and confession; we must trust and repent. We must let the Holy Spirit heal and transform us by making us one with God in theosis.

The church today is in deep trouble across the board. It is tempting to give in to despair. But the Book of Numbers reminds us that this is nothing new. The unbelief and rebellion of Israel is a template for our own troubled times. We read from Numbers 11:1 "now the people became like those who complain." If we are complainers (and we are), we are not the first generation to be so... However, verse 4 further identifies a "collection" of people which is probably best translated as "riff-raff." These people have a "strong craving." In Genesis this word is used for Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit. It is the same “sinful passion” which wounds our hearts and cut us off from God. We read that Israel disdains the manna pining after worldly foods, but the church does the same. We, too, take the Eucharist for granted while craving all that world has to offer instead. People skip church without a second thought, while others would distribute eucharist to anyone who walks in the door. We deceive ourselves that we are different, better than those Israelites, but we are not.

James says confess your sins to one another to be healed. We do confess our sins together each week, but we must go deeper to receive the healing. We must face ourselves and uncover the passions and secret sin at work within us. If you do not like the Enneagram find another tool or a spiritual guide, to hep with this vital work. Jesus offers healing, let us bring to Him our maladies.

However, the church in every age struggles with sin. Moses gets mad at God and asks to die. The apostles stop someone from exorcising demons in Jesus’ name because he did not follow them. We each, in our own way, despair of the ministry or become an obstacle to it. We are all prone to forget that God is not in our service, we are in His. Our nous is truly darkened. We are prone to sin.

Jesus warns us not to sin. Jesus says pluck out the sinful eye, cut off the sinful hand, avoid sin whatever the cost. Sin is an obstacle to God’s mercy; especially when it leads the little ones astray. How can we confront this evil within the church? Only by first repenting ourselves. Only by being a people of faithful prayer first. We must pray “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!" We embrace a discipleship focused on repenting and being healed—and the apostolic ministry of healing others and reconciling them with God.

Prayer of faith can do great things. Focus on Jesus and pray expecting great things.
addendum. Expectant prayer envisions the outcome and trusts God is able and willing to make it happen. An illustration. Long ago a minister in a rural community called together the area farmers during a brutal drought. He invited them to come together one afternoon and to pray for God to provide rain to the dry land. At the appointed time the farmers began to arrive, and all encircled the minister as they waited to begin. He looked around at the assembly and then sadly said, "Go home, there is no use in us praying." The people were shocked and began to ask him, "Why? Why cancel? We came a long way, shouldn't we pray?" The minister listened to them all for a moment and then answered them with these words. "You have come together, today, to ask God to open the heavens and pour forth rain upon the earth.... Yet not a single one of you brought an umbrella."

The prayer of faith can do amazing things.
prayer of faith is expectant.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Road to Messiah Identity

Isaiah 50:4-9     Psalm 116:1-8      James 3:1-12      Mark 8:27-36

Jesus asks the disciples, "who do you say I am?" because personal identity matters even to Jesus. Colossians 1:15 says that Jesus "is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation." The Ancient Fathers say that the divine image is within us, but we have lost the likeness. This means we are no longer our true self. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, so that the Word can become our flesh to unite us with God. This is theosis.

Ephesians 4 explains the human predicament: "They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart." The Greek word literally means a callus, and refers to the heart being covered by a hardened barrier. What is this callus on our heart?

I think it includes the 'persona, or 'mask' which is our "ego." While the ego flows from the True Self, it is not the image of God. An ego is necessary to survive in the world. It is impossible to simply be completely open. But the ego, who we are in the world, is not our true self. Our "personal identity" is a co-creation, including what others imposed upon us and what we fashion in order to live in this fallen world. The ego includes the "roles" we play in order to survive and thrive. Like an actor, we sometimes forget that we are not the roles we play, and we have all lost ourselves in the roles we play. Over time the ego identity hardens, covering the image of God in our heart with a callus which separates us from God, each other and even ourselves. "Who am I?" is the hardest question to answer because we spend much of our life avoiding the answer. Even if Jesus knew who He was, He still shares in our complicated human situation of keeping the ego from replacing the Self.

Jesus is the Messiah. Today we sing: "Crown Him with many crowns," but clearly are many crowns and different types of people have their own preference [+see below]:

A Messiah who is a righteous teacher of impeccable perfection, or the Shepherd who feeds the flock and heals the sheep. A successful King to rival Rome, or a Special Man like no others. A Wisdom Messiah who is the source esoteric information, a King who makes us safe and secure. A Messiah who saves us from pain, defeats oppressors on behalf of the poor and needy and reigns as Prince of Peace. Each is part of Jesus' Messianic identity--but however authentic they were part of His ego, not His True Self.

While we would crown Him with many crowns, He remains faithful to the Father's will and  His true identity, so He takes up the crown of thorns. The Cross: suffering, death and resurrection is the authentic, holy path of the Messiah Jesus.

Hebrews 5:8-9 says "Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered; and having been made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him." The Scriptures sometime say things which we might not ever realize are true. I always thought that the Jesus was perfect, I never thought he had to learn obedience, I never thought that suffering perfected Him. I guess I never thought through the implications of the Incarnation--that Jesus is really human.  

Jesus had to defeat the Passions and the False Identities which sought to control Him, and ultimately destroy Him. Jesus had to rebuke Satan's lies and human thinking. Jesus had to struggle to hear His Father's voice through the cacophony of false voices everywhere.

On the cross, Jesus does perfectly what He says we also must do. We must carry a cross and let the ego be crucified. The ego, that hardened callus on our heart that keeps the image of God hidden within us and separates us from God. The cross does not appeal, so, we prefer what is false and turn from holiness because the cost is too great. We are seduced by the same half truths and deceived like everyone else. We prefer to play a character which we know is "not me" to simply make it through another day.

Messianic pretenders perish. The crucifixion frees Jesus from becoming anti-Christ, a counterfeit Messiah who does the good things people want, but turns His back on God in the process.

We are called to be holy--to become what we already are, Children of God. Only the Holy Spirit can achieve this miracle of making us the image and likeness of God. The cross is the process. Hear Romans 6:5ff "For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved by sin."

+The Enneagram's Nine Paths might be a helpful model to look at the basic types of "persona".
Each one has its strengths and special challenges. These different types would each have a particular vision of Messiah, and what He should be doing. Each view is partial, limited and therefore contains truth but not the whole truth. God's perspective would not only include, but also transcend each one, and this is Jesus' point. To be Messiah is beyond our understanding--so He says "tell no one" as He begins to school them in the godly definition of Messiah. Definitions matter.  Death and weakness as the expression of God's power is beyond the grasp of human beings....
Family Systems are another model for understanding the ego image and roles we play.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Job, Jesus and Preparation for Sunday

This Sunday we will be reading from the 8 chapter of Mark. It is the climax of the Gospel, the moment where, at Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus is declared to be the Messiah. The setting is a ripe context, being located near the springs which become the River Jordan and Mount Hermon (the Tribe of Dan had an ancient cult site there, 1 Enoch 13 associates it with Enoch's vision) it is an ancient pagan sanctuary to the god Pan and is a city built by a son of Herod, which he named for the Roman Emperor and himself. The archaeologists have discovered an ancient temple, to the Emperor?, as well. The demonic and world powers stand, lurking, as Jesus asks the question: Who am I? 

The Daily Cycle of Prayer has included chapters of The Book of Job for three weeks now. Job is a familiar story even if few have actually read the whole book. It presents the dilemma of an innocent man suffering and accusing God of injustice, while his pious friends insist that "all things happen for a reason" and that he must have sinned. Job had lost all his children and all his wealth, covered with sores he begged to die, while asserting his innocence and God's injustice.  This year, though, I realized that Job's situation is the Christian call. Jesus says that He takes precedence over our family, our wealth, and our very self... He says this many times and in many ways, but nothing is more stark as His words in Mark 8: "If you would be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me." However horrific the story of Job appears to us, the Lord Jesus makes it the criteria for following Him.

The answer to the book of Job is Jesus.
In Jesus, God redeems innocent suffering as He embraces it in the human flesh of the Divine Man, His Son, Jesus. Every accusation of Job must be reframed as God responds, "I am with you in this." Job's question (Job 14:14), "Can a man die and live again?" is also answered in Jesus. The hopeless human condition of suffering and then death is redeemed in Jesus. The complaint that God is above it all, untouched by His creation, is proven, in Jesus, to be a false accusation.

The mystery of innocent suffering (and God rebukes the friends of Job who declare that no one is innocent and no suffering is undeserved) remains a mystery. Humans cannot philosophize it away, and for those in torment the wise words ring empty. We do well to recognize, as the Book of Job seems to imply, that it is beyond us to understand. Perhaps there is something intrinsic to the nature of God? Perhaps there is more to be revealed which will make sense of it all? Whatever else might be said about human suffering, the suffering Messiah, God become Man and literally holding our hand and walking with us as we enter the crucible, means that our pain is not meaningless. It matters to God. 

Why is the loss of all part of discipleship? Does it mean that we must literally leave our family and possessions, embracing extreme poverty as the only venue to our savior? What does such suffering mean? Sunday we will broach this sublime subject. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Healing Works: Faith in Action

Isaiah 35:4-7   James 2:1-17   Mark 7:24-37

Isaiah says to the fearful, "Be strong, do not fear...God will come and save you." This is a direct address to each of us, for fear is that deadliest passion which cuts us off from God and ourselves. Isaiah speaks of YHWH's promise to heal the blind, deaf, lame and mute and renew us with living waters. We are called to believe.

When James' asks, "What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?" He is saying that faith is more than an intellectual process; it is 'trust in action.' Mark 7 illustrates this dynamic, working trust. If you believe Jesus heals, then go to Him. That is the work of faith.

The Gentile woman believed and she worked extra hard to find Jesus as He hid. It is an awkward situation on many levels, but this mother's love for her daughter emboldened her to desperate measures. Jesus responded to her humble trust by saving the girl. Some undefined "they" brought the deaf-mute to Jesus. They too believed and acted. So what "work of faith" are we called to today?

Do you know someone who is broken physically or spiritually? Do you believe Jesus heals? Then Take them to Him.

Are you being asked to take the demonic* seriously. Jesus believe they were real. In the NT it comes up a lot [demon (63), satan (36) and devil (35)] with eight  stories of exorcism, plus summary references to Jesus casting out demons or giving His apostles that power. Demons aren't the cause of everything, but is pretending they don't exist a suitable strategy?

Maybe we need to bring the little girl--the child within each of us--to get freed of Satan's power. Fr Francis MacNutt, a healer and exorcist, teaches that wounds, sins and unforgiveness are fertile ground for the work of the demonic. Satan first laid hands on us as children. Almost as an affirmation of this insight, two adults came to my office and spontaneously shared the ongoing impact of their childhood experiences. Redemption is a hard work of faith and we must cooperate. Jesus saves, but we must face our inner self and go to Him.

Or perhaps we must see how we are the deaf mute. We each have our own nous--our soul or personality which is the way we function in the world (think, feel, perceive, judge, act). We are each  deaf, or hard of hearing, in particular ways. We are deaf to some of  God's word. We are also deaf to others, especially those who are different from us. To not listen to God is to sin. Sin can deafen our nous more and more. Speech can mean more than just talking. We are called to witness to Jesus' Kingdom, but most of us are mute on the subject. Some types of personalities find it very hard to say things like "I need help," or "I am wrong," or "I am sorry." If repentance includes confession, how can we be saved by our silence? Speech is gift--when we verbalize inner issues we are open to healing. Jesus heals us and gives us voice; so we must speak.

Perhaps you found another invitation in the Gospel today. Whatever you heard, remember to hear and act on it, to believe and do the work of faith. Jesus want to save us and He stands ready.

MacNutt's book is excellent

Sunday, September 2, 2018

On Law

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Deuteronomy is structured as a series of "speeches" by Moses, providing historical context for the Law/Instruction received from God and providing a framework (blessings/curses) for all that is to follow leading up to the Exile.

Our reading today begins: Israel, "shama" (Listen/hear/obey/pay attention/give heed) to the choq and mishpat . The first of these is translated laws, decrees, limits, statute. It comes from the root to cut or hack, and includes the idea of engraving (making a permanent decree), while mishpat means to pass judgement and can also mean law or rule, expectations of justice. The command to do the Lord's will is connected to a specific promise: "so that you may live to enter and occupy the land the Lord is giving you." Note the mundane and temporal connection to the Law--it is not so that one can "die and go to heaven" but rather that one "can live and enter the Land." Both verses 2 and 5 declare this same promise. The Torah as part of the gift of God's loving nearness is expressed eloquently in v 7&8 "For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has law and rules as perfect as this Teaching that I set before you this day?"

James picks up in the first chapter of his letter. having warned his readers that sin comes not from God's temptations but from the epithymia (desire, longing, craving, lust = the passions) within. We pick up today with the declaration that every good and perfect gift is from above; the Judeo-Christian recognition of God's initiative in the face of our struggle with sin. As the passions give birth to sin, so God's word of truth gives birth to His people--the first fruits of His creatures. This implanted word has the power to save our lives, but only if we "do the word.'' The ancient teachers all understood the difference between hearing as a passive exercise and an empty cognitive process as opposed to integrating what is heard and acting upon it. It's like looking at yourself in the mirror and then forgetting what you see. This will be at the heart of next week's famous verse--"faith without works is dead." Torah is the Law of Freedom, not freedom from obedience and doing good, but the freedom to believe, trust and obey in word and action.

How better to understand our excerpts from Mark 7 on clean and unclean? The Jewish Bible contains much on ritual purity which is not the same as moral purity. A poor analogy might be a dress code, where someone is barred entrance to a particular place because they are not wearing a tie. They are not in an "appropriate" condition to enter. The ritual purity laws were concerned with people in good moral standing who were otherwise off limits or barred entrance to the holy places. Mark 7, in the extended version, mixes two discussions, ritual purity and Jewish dietary practices, culminating with Jesus' declaration on moral purity, that is, what makes someone impure is what comes from their heart (and He lists some of the deadly passions, or sinful desires, which lurk within each of us.

Jesus lists a series of sins and one notes that they appear prominently in the Nine Paths literature as well. Jesus clearly contrasts sins with the pious practices of religious groups, in this case the Pharisees. In our own time, we are familiar with debates about eating meat on Friday, dancing or drinking, and more recently recycling and various hot social topics are fodder for argument. Jesus' point is that one can not raise these to the level of the deadly passions. One cannot negate God's word and replace it with "our group's particular worries and concerns."

Jews are no more apt to embrace rules to justify themselves than any other group, and they were certainly not the worst offenders in the time of Jesus. If our religious practices are one way of asserting our identity and making sense of life, they are not the only way. Any parent who has shopped for clothing in the wrong store quickly learns that there are dress codes in school--one the official school code and the other the "word of mouth/traditions" of the children--and it is often the latter which brings down the greater pain. Humans create their own laws of unfreedom all the time. It is part of the fallen condition. Religion is but one place to do this.

In summary, we are confronted today with reflections on the place of law (Torah instruction) in the time of Jesus and in our own day. It requires courage to look in that mirror James speaks of and see our face, to discover the particular passions within our souls. It takes hard work to remember what we saw there and battle against it. And it takes the grace of the Holy Spirit to transform us into Children of God. In the mean time, Jesus warns, we must be aware of our tendency to emphasize the wrong things--our own 'traditions and practices'--while losing touch with the real evil at work within us. The Torah and Tradition of Israel, like the Gospel and Tradition of Ancient Christianity, are at the heart of the journey from enslavement to the passions into children of God, embracing His instruction and acting on it. No one is saved in a moment, it is always a long, challenging process of turning hearing into doing. If the road seems overlong, do not despair. It is God who will accomplish within you the new birth in Jesus.