Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Good Father and the Two Boys


Joshua 5:9-12     Psalm 32     2 Corinthians 5:16-21    Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32

In Luke, the religious leaders are "grumbling'' because Jesus welcomed sinners. The Greek word only appears twice in the New Testament (here and Luke 19), both times in reference to Jesus’ embrace of sinners. It occurs three in the Jewish Bible [Exodus 16:2, 7, 8; Numbers 14:2 and Joshua 9:18, 24]. The three times in Exodus are from the story of Israel’s murmuring against Moses because they were thirsty. While they were focused on the man, Moses, they were really turning from God. Murmuring is rebellion against God.

The parable is pretty transparent. Obviously, the younger brother represents "the sinners," while the older brother is the religious leaders grumbling against Jesus. The story seems to say that all people are God’s children, the sinners should repent and those already at home should welcome them back. Typically, we read the parable as a condemnation of the religiously self-righteous. So it is interesting that while the Father does not go in search of the younger son, He does go out to seek the older brother. I believe Jesus is letting us no that, really, no one is righteous: we are all lost, but, Good News, the Father loves us. These are deep words: "All that I have is yours....come into the celebration!"

Today, however, I invite you to look within your own heart, where both brothers (you can make them sisters) live. The younger son represents the flesh—the part of you ruled by desires (passions) which lead away from God. The key insight is that the younger son wanted to do his own thing, as do each of us. Do not be deceived. It is not just the wild decadent life of a young man which constitutes “squandering the inheritance.” The gaudy sins of the flesh are obvious and we must tame these impulses and temptations through prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines. However, we are far more likely to squander our inheritance on mundane things. Jesus warned the church that the pre-occupations of daily life can cause us to drift away from God. The most dangerous passions, we have learned, are masquerading as virtues. 

Which brings us to the turning point of the young son’s story. “He came to himself,” it says. I think what that means is the “false ego self” was unmasked. We can speculate about what wounds, lies, doubts and fears had led him to leave. We do know that he did not understand his identity as a son. Now, finally, he remembered (re-member: put the pieces back together as a whole) his father and life in the father’s house. Maybe his repentance is motivated by selfishness? Whatever the case, returning home and speaking the words receive an unmerited love and welcome.

The older son reflects the dark side or shadow of our goodness. Being good has its own dynamics and so it often judgmental and resentful. Paradoxically, for example, serious minded Christians can look down on those who do not take faith seriously, but non-believers can be equally self-righteous in declaring "I am not one of those church-going hypocrites." Self-righteousness is fed by the feeling that we have been treated unfairly and resentment that others are getting a better deal. It delights in seeing other people pay for their crimes. It is also blind. It is so blind. He cannot see himself. The tragedy of the older son is a failure to recognize his status as an heir. He does not see how he is treating the father the same way as his brother did. He does not see that “Everything I have is yours.” He does not see the pain of his brother, only his sins. He cannot feel compassion or intimacy. He probably never saw His Father's heartbreak. The demons afflicting the self-righteous are more dangerous because they are more subtle, and the wounds they feed on are more deeply hidden.

The Father is disrespected and unloved by both his sons. It is a tragic picture, made all the worse because it accurately reflects how each of us relate to God. The warning of the story is that while the Father’s love is never in question, our response is. The work of repentance is to trust in the Father’s love, to look for the sons within our hearts, and to lay the unique way work in us before Him, and ask Him to heal and cooperate in the process.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Lent 3 Journey into God

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Moses is a shepherd—a common biblical metaphor for leadership. It is also an image of love and care for the needy. In our journey to God, love and care for others is a prerequisite.

The encounter occurs "behind the mountain" in the “wilderness.” The Hebrew word for desert—midbar—has the same root as the Hebrew dabar—which means speak and word. We must strip away the daily distractions and find a quiet place to hear God. We must journey through emptiness beyond the mundane to find Him.

God appears as a fire in a thistle bush. The story of Adam’s sin is quietly at play—remember the earth was cursed and would produce bramble. It is as if God were redeeming the earth through this holy fire. The same fire is in Genesis when God made covenant with Abraham. The same fire appears at Pentecost. The same fire can engulf us if we trust.

God told Moses to take off his sandals. We must approach God with reverence and a heart of worship. The secular age has diminished God for centuries. We are victims of its poisonous treason. A regular practice of humbling ourselves before God is the antidote.

The voice from the fire declares “I am the God of your fathers. I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” It is family and covenant—love and intimacy—which are at the center of His communication. It displays His compassionate concern, which is clearly expressed in what follows: "I have seen their oppression, I have heard their cries. I know their pain.  I have come to save." The Hebrew ‘know’ conveys intimacy. God participates with us in our pain, most completely in the cross of Jesus. The movement of salvation is theosis, God comes down to bring the people up.

The gift of Salvation is participatory. Paul warns us God’s grace met with resistance and the Israelites perished in the desert. Likewise, Jesus tells His own listeners that unless they repentant they too will perish. Repent (metanoia) means to take on a new mind and return to God. Salvation is a process of cooperation. Furthermore, the Lord uses humans to save.  God told Moses, "I send you." An apostle is one who is sent—each of us has a mission. The more we cooperate with God, the more we are healed in body, soul, spirit! The more we mediate salvation to others, the more it grows in us!

Ideally, Lent is a journey through our own desert; an encounter with God in a quiet, holy place. There we meet the God whose Name is "I am who I am." Salvation unites us with God. We, too, must become who we are. Too often, our name is "I am who you want me to be" as we comply with the world. Too often our name is "I am what my wounds, fears, doubts and desires deceive me to be" Original Sin means that we were all born into a world where God is distant--but He still sees, He hears, He knows and He continues to comes down to save us from slavery. The world is still run by the Pharaohs who forbids us to worship God. Too often we embrace this slavery—so Jesus warns us, “Repent,” “Turn back!” “Get your mind right!” And remember, we are also sent. Sent to carry the Jesus within us—to heal, to teach, to deliver--to save the world.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Ash Wednesday: On Actors and Roles

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17    Psalm 103   2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10   Mt 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus says ,"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be." The prophet Joel declares, "Even now, says the Lord, return to Me with all your heart...rend your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord..."

Our heart is our core identity, it is our True Self. Jesus says that our desires reveal our identity. It is not easy to know, however, what we really treasure and who we really are. We have all had the experience of saying "I do not know what I want." Self-knowledge is part of the path to God, it is at the center of our searching. I believe that this is why Jesus issues a warning about being "hypocrites" (the Greek word means 'actors' and by extension those who intentionally try to present themselves as better than they are). When Jesus says, "Beware," I don't think that this is a judgement, it is spiritual  instruction, an invitation "to be aware and pay attention." Jesus knows that every human is an actor playing many roles, so He wants us to be aware of the dangers involved.

From our earliest days we are told how to act, what to think, how to feel. No one truly loves us just the way we are. Those who love us most seek to change us most! There have always been demands that we perform according to expectations. We call it socialization, and it is necessary for children to be socialized, but make no mistake, socialization is learning to pretend. You don't like the food? Who cares, eat it and tell grandma "it tastes good." You don't like the gift? Doesn't matter, you are to smile and fake gratitude. There are rules for behavior and we learn early and often that authenticity has a limited place. We begin to create an "outer self" which we present to the world in order to deal with the conflicting demands. We focus on what others want us to be, and in the process lose awareness of who God created us to be.

Being socialized is not a bad thing, but it is "acting school." So we chose the roles which we would  play to get our needs met, or to avoid getting hurt. Others impose roles upon us--with rewards for compliance and punishment for failures. Our heart, the real core identity, puts on a persona (Greek word for actor's masks). The persona or ego, "Me," is expressed in a variety of "roles" or "identities" which the True Self, "I," generate to meet the demands of different settings with different people. The myriad labels which identify us are also "false selves." We are called brave, smart, ugly or useless and over identify with these descriptors. It is important to understand, the roles which we played were part of us, but they were also 'hypocrites'--acting. Over the passage of time, we lost touch with the I, the Image of God and True Self. Hurts and pains scar us and we shield our Self in roles. Success and pleasure reinforce pro-social roles. It is not that the "masks" have nothing to do with who we are, it is that they are a distortion. And the role of the subconscious and unconscious is vital here. That is what Jesus is warning us about. Being a faithful Jew--He mentions three Jewish practices (prayer, fasting, alms)--can be divorced from the heart, Jesus warns.  Anything can be twisted into an effort to manipulate approval. The most dangerous audience is the one within us! We must be aware of our motivation, especially when we are involved in the things of God. Jesus warns us, "Beloved children, if your goal is a performance for something other than union with God, then that is what you get." Jesus is really warning us, "Don't forget about God. Seek union with the Father in all you do."

Professional actors frequently get lost in the roles they play. We amateurs almost always get lost in the identities which we create. While it is good to act better than we really are, it becomes a problem  if we lose connection with our heart. When acting ceases to be a battle against the passions (sinful desires), then the  actor (Greek "hypocrites") is at risk of becoming 'hypocrital' or a sham. The tragedy is, unreflective people rarely recognize how often we are shams. We fool ourselves, even if we don't fool others.

The quest for truth includes determining what motivates us. The motivations for our "acting" vary from person to person. It is influenced by genes and environment, and the choices we make. There are some general categories, however. We seek to do it right or connect with others, to be successful or 'just be me'. We need information, security, excitement, control or peace. We all have predictable patterns because we are driven by particular guiding impulses, shaped by particular viewpoints and ruled by certain desires.

There is no way around it. In this world we are all hypocrites/actors. We must, however, become aware of the "persons" we are acting because the different roles we play impact our relationship with God. That's Jesus' point. We play the same games with Him that we play with others, because its the same game we play with ourselves. The journey into your own heart is not easy. Most of us have spent our much of our lives avoiding the truth about ourselves. Distractions, after all, are the central feature of modern life.

Jesus says that discipleship means carrying a cross. He said that we must die in order to live. The spiritual masters always make clear, it is the ego which must die, not the True Self (I). The ego is "me," the false selves "I" employ to negotiate my worries and fears, my doubts and wounds, my hungers and needs, and my sinful inclination and distance from God, self and others.

This is Lent, and it will end on Good Friday with Jesus on a cross. Jesus dies to become Who He is: Messiah, Savior, Son. He asks us to do the same. That's not something we can fake--we can't pretend to die to false selves. It has to be our heart's desire. If we treasure it then He will redeem our True Self and live in our heart. We will become one with Him. If we do the hard work then the  Holy Spirit will graciously make us our True Self. Forty days of discovering, living and dying. It begins now.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Lenten ideas

The goal of life is theosis (divinization): literally this is a union in love as Jesus, God the Word, "becomes flesh" in each of us. It means participating in what Jesus is—and we are actually a God-filled human. Other metaphors to describe this include “being holy,” “salvation//healing” or being loved by and loving God as His child. The entire church together is called the Bride of Christ—the union of husband and wife (the core of marriage) means that the two become one. Hence, with Jesus and the church there is real unity of God and Humanity.


Does union with God diminish my humanity? No, it diminishes the power of sin and death, which eat away at my humanity. It enhances my humanity in beauty and goodness.

Does union with God entail heroic acts of otherworldliness? No, it frees me from the dehumanizing ‘worldliness’ of original sin and it redeems every part of life.

What does Lent have to do with this union? The Last Sunday of Epiphany proclaims the metamorphosis of Jesus in the Transfiguration. It is the manifestation of the divine light within Him, which is also to be in us. This light heals our brokenness and raises us from the grave. Union with God destroys the power of death and frees us from all those things which negatively impact us.


In Lent we admit that we are separated from God. We focus on one of the barriers in particular. We engage in a “disciple practice” (or discipline) to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Over six weeks, hopefully, this practice removes the barrier.

The movement of Lent includes removal/emptying and acquiring/filling.

1.     Removal: “Fasting” or "Self denial" is giving up something or removing something in one of the dimensions of your self.

a.     Physical Realm. This discipline aims to quell the urges and desires, but also includes health needs. Fasting (not eating for a set time period or abstaining from particular types of food or drink) is an ancient practice. It is a way to get freed from obsessive eating or drinking—a direct assault on gluttony. It can also quiet the body and open the soul in prayer. Fasting from types of noise are also helpful (like radio, TV, cell phone, computer). Literally not filling your head with competing images or sounds allows a quieting of the soul. Anything that breaks our addiction to pleasure and obsession with ourselves is a worthy pursuit.

b.     Social realm. Are there people who bring you down? Or who pull you away? Are there folks with whom you need to spend less time? Look at your schedule. Are there activities which increase your stress, increase negativity, or diminish your faith, hope and love? Are there places you should avoid or stop frequenting for the same reason?

c.      Financial. If you had to ask Jesus for the charge card would He smile about the purchase? Are there things you could stop purchasing for a while and benefit yourself and others? Where is greed or avarice at work? 

d.     Intellectual. What ideas are you inputting? Who is instructing your world view? Are there thoughts you should be cutting out to make room for more helpful thoughts?  

e.     Emotional. Are you addressing the triggers to negative emotions? Harsh self judgement, negative thoughts, worries and anxieties? Are there practices which keep you from receiving and giving love?

2.     Acquisition:

a.     The fasting allows you to make conscious choices to eat right and proportionately. It allows us to embrace exercise (physical and spiritual) to “fill us” in ways that “junk food” never can.

b.     Find a way to create “soul friendships” with people who are truly supportive to your growth. Maybe attend Morning Prayer or a Bible Study? Meet with a small group to pray and talk about the challenges of life.

c.      Alms. Give to the needy—it creates gratitude. There are few things more central to the Judaeo-Christian life style. If I have plenty I can provide for those who do not have enough. We support persecuted Christians, hungry, needy, old and young. Find something you feel passionate about and volunteer time or give money.

d.     Read. Study. Listen to podcasts. Go to Bible study or Sunday School. Research indicates that the average person needs to hear four positive things to balance out one negative thing. Our prayer and study connect us to God.

e.     Quiet time with God trusting in His love and mercy can increase hope and joy. I must face myself: studying my personality, my wounds and fears, my motivations and desires, my strengths and virtues. We are all a mix of light and dark.   

The acts of giving up cokes or chocolate can be a great Lenten discipline or a free-floating practice at the periphery of our life. “Giving up” is an opening, but for the purpose of “getting into”… We must find ourselves and give ourselves to God. We must find the resistance within us and allow the Holy Spirit to work God’s mercy in us.

Salvation as healing is something we all understand. Medicine is like grace—it comes to us and we cannot earn what it does. But cooperation with the grace (following the directions on the medicine) helps to make it more effective. Sleep, nutrition, etc. supplement the power of the medicine to heal us. The Holy Spirit is God’s medicine. Lent is a season of renewed cooperation. It is a time to be socially, intellectually, physically, emotionally more healthy. It is a time to offer all these dimension to God (spiritually healthy) and allow His hand to be upon us. We are not angels (pure spirits) who can focus on “spiritual stuff” in isolation from our whole being. Nor can we focus on ourselves in total disregard for the world and others. (“It is not good for the man to be alone” reminds us we are created to be part of an “us”) Lent is an all in this together season. It is a season of being made whole and holy (or better, to advance on the path to wholeness and holiness).

Pray more. Love more. Thank more. Repent more. Listen more. Praise more.

Complain less. Hate less. Begrudge less. Sin less. Talk less. Worry less.
And pray that everyone has a successful journey into God’s heart this lent!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Transformed in Light

Last Sunday of Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35      Psalm 99     2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2      Luke 9:28-43

For most of us, our 'prayer life' is a struggle. We aren't sure how to pray and when we do pray we usually wonder if anything is happening. I remember reading books on prayer in seminary. A common theme went something like this: "When it comes to prayer, we are always beginners." Forty years later I no longer wonder what that means.

When Jesus and the three disciples go up the mountain to pray, there is no question that something happened. As Luke says, "the outward appearance of Jesus' face was different." He also says "a bright light shone from His clothing." The Scriptures speak 243x of light. While it often refers to ordinary light, it is frequently a metaphor for God's presence and His glory. perhaps of great import, Jesus calls His followers children of light. When we pray, we are invisibly bathed in this holy light. God's glory fills us. Someday, united with Him, our faces will be different. Someday... But for now our prayer discipline is a preparation for that great day.

There are other stories of humans who already shine with divine light. Moses' close contact with God caused his face to shine. Moses had begged God to have mercy on Israel and go with the people--perhaps the light in Moses' face is a bit of that presence. Perhaps if we were closer to God that light would shine in us a bit more brightly?

Paul gives us hope. Through Jesus, we are freed from the veil of unbelief! We can see the glory of the Lord--God Himself shining in His Son. Even more amazing, "we are being transformed into the same image." This is from the Lord, the Spirit. It is a work God is doing in each one of us. Paul uses the term metamorphoo, the same word Matthew and Mark use to describe what happened to Jesus. It literally means to change into another form. Our new form is an eikon, the Greek word for image or likeness. In the Greek Bible this word appears in Genesis 1 (image) and in Jesus we are finally being repaired to become who God always meant us to be...

The centrality of the transfiguration to the church's teaching on theosis can not be overstated. If Jesus' true self lay hidden within Him until that moment, then can we be shocked that we must undergo a similar transformation? The image of God within us lays dormant under the false self, the wounds, doubts and fears. The passions are often unconsciously at work within us, and we fail in our struggle with sinful desires. All of this is part of this present 'darkness.' Too many of us are content to whistle in the dark, distracting ourselves from the hard work of conversion and loving God...

If the Christian life is a process of being healed of brokenness and saved from sin, then the power of God's light within us is the means. Paul says, "we have renounced the shameful things that one hides"--that is the holy work of conversion. God says of Jesus, "This is my Son, listen to Him." That obedience to Jesus is discipleship. What if this Lent we became children of light?