Thursday, July 30, 2009

What's the heart of the matter?

After I read the Scriptures, I like to sit for just a few minutes and reflect, and sometimes, I'll write a response in my journal. I did so today, taking as my prompt the Daily Office Gospel, Mark 7.1-23.

Jesus is disputing with a group of Pharisees, who reproach him and his disciples for eating without washing their hands.

The Pharisees are serious about their Jewish faith. They want to do the right thing, at least the majority of them do, I believe.

They're just wrong about the right thing.

The right thing, Jesus says, the heart of the matter, is not the external, but the internal. It's not dirty hands, but a dirty hearts.

Jesus knows these Pharisees, that their hearts are filthy.

To paraphrase Him: "Moses says you must set aside some resources for God. But you invoke Moses and set aside all your resources, including those that Moses says should be used for the care of your aged parents, for your own selfish purposes."

Jesus sees through the Pharisees's empty words and practices to their hearts and challenges them, teaching them that what counts with His Heavenly Father.

What's important is a person's heart, which reflects the quality of his or her relationship with God.

Jesus wants these Pharisees to examine their hearts:

Are you loyal to God above all? Have you given your lives to God completely, including the uses of your resources? Do you seek God and God alone, live for God and God alone?

They aren't and don't. Jesus may not have reached all of them, but perhaps He reached some of them with the truth.

Today, as I entered into a conversation with Jesus, I examined my own heart and found it unclean. The Gospel led me to repentence and deeper conversion of life.

And the gospel prompted me to think about how this text might speak to the church today and specifically about our clash over human sexuality, homosexuality in particular.

Aren't many of us focused on the wrong thing? Concerned, sometimes obsessively, about externals, not internals, about outward things, not inward things, about washed or unwashed hands, not washed or unwashed hearts.

We've made this debate about sex, when it should appropriately be about relationships--about
the people involved in heterosexual or homosexual relationships: the character of the people involved, the quality of their relationships, and their commitment to Christ.

Whether we're gay or straight, are we truly committed to Christ and to following Him as our Savior and Lord, especially in all our relationships? Gay or straight, does our love for others, including that physical expression of love, reflect the love of Jesus Christ?

The Gospels and the New Testament, together with the Prayer Book sacramental rite of Holy Matrimony uphold Jesus as the standard and measure of love.

Jesus showed His love for humanity by serving us, by suffering and dying and rising from the grave for our salvation, by teaching us and empowering by the Holy Spirit to love, even giving up our lives for others, friends and enemies alike.

His heart was pure. His love was pure.

Whatever our sexuality, our love for others should reflect this pure, Christly love. The heart of the matter is not clean hands, but a clean heart. A heart that is wholly God's and loves out of it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Angry with God

She said, "I'm so angry with God."

I listened and encouraged her to tell God how she felt. Not to hold back anything.

When bad things happen, people often get angry with God. I've been angry with God myself on many occasions, and I've told God, "I'm angry with you." I've also said, "It's just not fair."

Perhaps you've been in a similar place, or one day will be.

It's impossible to live in this world and not experience trauma and tragedy: a child develops a life-threatening or life-limiting illness. Someone close to us dies suddenly. Family conflict worsens; it doesn't ease.

And we think, "It's so unfair. We've done our part: believed in God, gone to church, said our prayers, given tithes on our earnings, lived good lives.

But God's let us down, failing to keep His part of the bargain, which is to protect us and our loved ones from pain and suffering.

So, we do what's natural, human, and blame God, saying God didn't keep His part of the bargain. And we rail at Him. We might even stop believing in God, thinking Him indifferent, cruel or non-existent.

But the truth is that God has never promised us suffering-free lives. We'll all know heartbreak. Perhaps even many, many times.

That's why the cross is important to me. Why I cling to the cross, which, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, human beings use for death, but God uses for life.

The passion and death of Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of the world, show us a God who opens His arms wide to human suffering, even death on the cross, taking it all to Himself and transforming it.

Jesus suffers, dies, and is buried.

But on the third day, God raises Him from the grave, demonstrating that His love is stronger than anything bad that could ever happen to us in this world, even death. Nothing can separate us from Him and His love for us in Jesus Christ.

There will be a suffering and death for all of us. For all of those we love.

But God promises us that He'll hold us up in the midst of our traumas and tragedies. God will journey with us until we reach that place, that new world, where, Isaiah prophesies, "suffering and sorrow will be no more."

In the Easter acclamation, we declare our faith, "Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."

Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High God, is risen--over the worst things that can ever happen to us here. That's the hope of the Christian faith. That's the Gospel.

Yes, I'll still get angry with God. I'll still say it's not fair when something bad happens to me or a family member or a parishioner.

And I'll let God know how I feel, because I'm in relationship with Him, a deep and close one. I know He can handle my feelings, even my anger and disappointment.

And I know, by faith, that I can handle anything that comes my way in this life, with His help.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Steps in prayer

The other day I was leaving the fitness center after a swim and saw a church member. We waved to one another. I walked over, shook his hand, and we chatted.

Prayer is like that.

If you read books on prayer--and I've read bookshelves full of them--you'll find plenty of definitions of prayer, most of them providing helpful insights into this ancient spiritual practice and enhancing one's experience of it.

Early one morning last week, while it was still dark, I was unable to sleep and got up. As I usually do, the first thing I did when I awoke was to pray.

If was as if God spoke to me, revealing a definition of prayer that was both simple and profound.

God defined prayer for me, saying, "Prayer is taking a step closer to me."

But back to the fitness center.

When I saw my friend in the lobby, I took a step toward him. Another step. Another. And then another until we shook hands and talked with one another. My steps had taken me closer to him.

Similarly, the spiritual distance between us and God--distance that exists because of us, not because of God--is reduced and then eliminated as we take one step after another, closer and closer to God through the daily discipline of prayer.

It doesn't matter the kind of prayer we pray--thanksgiving, petition, intercession, confession, oblation, adoration--but only that we pray. And pray daily. As many times as we can every day.

God, I'll keep taking those steps toward you every day, until we're face to face, hand in hand, as my friend and I were in the fitness center lobby.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A response to rising atheism

In New York City, according to the New York Times today, an atheist group is sponsoring an advertising campaign. They're putting their messages on buses, subways, even overhead, with airplanes trailing banners that say something like, "You don't have to believe in God to be a good, moral person."

And the campaign is having some success--encouraging atheists, the article notes, to "come out of the closet" and boast their atheist identity. Further, the campaign is converting others, turning them to belief in non-belief.

The Times asserts that atheism is on the rise.

I don't have anything against atheists personally. I know atheists. And doubtless many of them are good, moral people--their motivation not theistic, but something else, perhaps humanistic.

What I do have against some atheists, however, particularly Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, is that they use the "straw man" argument so often in their attacks on religion.

The straw man is that logical fallacy where one distorts one's opponent's argument and then knock it down effortlessly. In doing so, one looks like a genius.

One of the favorite straw man arguments that atheists make involves citing some terrible thing that religious people did: the Crusades, the Inquisition, Israeli brutality against Palestinians, September 11.

Citing these examples, one then concludes that religion is malign, religious people deluded at best and dangerous or deadly at worst, and one rejects religion.

Arguing this way, atheists easily dismiss religion and religious people and the many contributions they have made to humankind because of their faith commitment.

These contributions include: orphanages, hospitals, and schools; the abolition of slavery, civil rights for oppressed people, and in my Episcopal Church today, a genuine commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, eliminating poverty, disease, and other global curses on humankind.

I'm sympathetic to, even appreciative of atheists.

When I get to know atheists, I usually find some deep hurt, disappointment or disillusionment because we religious people often fail to live what we believe; we Christians, for instance, follow the God of love and yet we do some unloving things to others.

Still, I'm grateful to atheists; they serve an important function for people who believe in God--if we take their critiques of us seriously and then live more fully and faithfully according to the best of our traditions.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The God of surpluses

You've probably heard or read the word "surplus" very little lately in the media, even in the church. We're fixated on budged deficits. At the federal, state, local levels. In our personal, fiscal lives. In our churches or other houses of worship.

There's just not enough money or food or time or whatever it is to go around. So, hold back. Cut back. Conserve your precious, limited resources. Stock your cellar with canned goods and bottled water. In fact, go to your cellar now, because the sky really is falling.

It's time for everyone to fixate somewhere else for awhile, even always. And that's on God.

God reminded me of my need to refocus--off fear--this morning during Morning Prayer and in my reading and study both of the gospel lesson for today, Mark 4.1-20, and in my reading ahead for my sermon this Sunday, John's account in 6. 1-21 of Jesus' feeding of the crowd.

Feeding--or, more broadly, God's meeting our needs as people, as citizens, as the followers of Jesus Christ--comes through faith in God who loves us and by acting in faith.

Faith--I'm continuing to learn, as I did in my prayer with Scripture this morning-- releases God's power to act upon us, within us, through us in the world.

To borrow from the Mark reading this morning, God takes that tiny seed, His word of assurance to us that He loves and cares for us, that word which is received by us in faith, and God makes the word root and grow and bear abundance. That abundance more than meets our needs, whatever they are, however great they are, with a surplus left over.

I rejoice that my God is a God not of deficit thinking and acting, but a God of surplus thinking and acting.

And in His word to me today, I hear Him say, Ken, stop living in fear. Live in faith. Focus on me, not on fear; on my surplus, not on your deficit.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

General Convention 2009 and what's really important

The Episcopal Church is in the news once again because General Convention is under way, and deputies to convention, together with bishops of the church are discussing and debating certain realities and how the church should respond to them.

One reality--"life on the ground," as some people at convention describe it--is human sexuality. Some of us human beings are heterosexual; others are homosexual; and still others are bisexual and transgendered. Some people, reportedly, have no sexual interest or desire at all.

Scientific studies show that a particular sexuality or a range of sexualities is a given in our creation, like skin color. Ultimately, sexuality is a mystery. I can't begin to understand why I'm heterosexual, while friends, church members, others are something else.

Whatever their sexuality, I try to accept people for who they are. Sexuality is not the defining factor or issue for me.

What defines human beings, for me, is not their sexuality, but their character. The kind of people they are and how they live their values and beliefs daily.

What defines Christians, despite a lot of the media coverage of General Convention and the rhetoric and actions of certain groups within the church, is not fundamentally our sexuality, but our relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And what defines us is our commitment to Christ, which we show daily by living our baptismal promises, including loving our neighbors, seeking and serving the needy; working for justice, reconciliation, and peace; respecting the dignity of every human being.

At General Convention, we Episcopalians are dealing with many different realities--with what we're meeting on the ground, as it were--sexuality being one reality. Facing and responding to the world as it is, not the world as it used to be or would like it to be, is one of the things I most appreciate about my church.

We face reality, rather than flee it. And we're doing so now, at convention thorugh leglislation, just as secular leglislatures meet, discuss issues and differences, and make decisions, which often involve compromises. In the case of convention, these decisions often become laws or canons.

This is the legislative process that we, the Episcopal Church, developed when we approved our first Constitution and Canons in the 18th century. It's not perfect. What system is?

Ultimately, however, what should guide us as individual Christians and collectively as the church is not canon law; Jesus lived and died and rose again to show that love--self-giving, self-emptying love--should rule us, not law. Love, he teaches, fulfills the law and the prophets.

And love shows itself is working for the very best for others, even suffering and dying for them, whoever they are and whatever their sexuality.

We Christians should stand out before others, especially the skeptics and cynics, by how selflessly and sacrifically we love, especially those with whom we disagree or even dislike, not by whether we win or lose votes and gain the passage or rejection of certain resolutions.

Look at how they love one another should be what people say of us.

God will judge me not on the basis of my sexuality, but on the degree to which I've loved according to the example of Jesus Christ and in His Spirit.

And I believe that's how God will judge the Episcopal Church and every church, too.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Grand daughter June Elizabeth sees the stove at home and says, "Hot. Hot." She takes a bite of dinner and pronounces it, "Hot. Hot."

I wish the world's leaders would listen to June Elizabeth and do something about the heat. Now.

The majority of the world's leading scientists, along with some world leaders, our president among them, acknowledge that the earth is warming up at an alarming rate, putting my grand daughters--all of us in peril.

And yet, according to The New York Times report today on the G-8 Summit in Italy, world leaders are unable to agree on how to cool off the planet and prevent the ruinious consequences of climate change.

It's hot, and it's getting hotter.

In the past when Penny and I visited Scotland in the summer, we enjoyed cloudy days, a little drizzle or rain, and cool temperatures. But this year, we felt as if we were back home in Missouri in July, sweating through heat, humidity, searing sunshine.

The only relief we found was during our hikes in the mountains. (But for how long will I be able to say that?)

As I stood on the mountain tops of western Scotland and the islands, looking out onto the blue sea and the green slopes below me, I thought about the beauty of God's creation and about the peril that creation faces because of our patterns of wasteful consumption and our over-reliance upon fossil fuels.

(And, yes, Penny and I left a large carbon footprint ourselves in traveling by airplane to Scotland and hiring a car for our first week there and buying grapes from Chile at one of the shops. But we're going to buy carbon credits to compensate for our consumption of fossil fuels.)

June Elizabeth is right. "Hot. Hot." It's time for our world leaders and for everyone else, especially those who still insist that the planet is not endangered, to realize just how hot it is and to turn down the temperature on the stove.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Real celebrity

Penny and I were enjoying breakfast at our hotel on Iona, when one of the guests asked, "Did you hear that Michael Jackson's dead?"

We hadn't.

For days thereafter, the entertainer's death was about the only news the British media reported from America.

I'm saddened by Jackson's tragic death. And tragic life.

He was talented, to be sure, but also tormented by demons. The media reported that he was addicted to drugs, including painkillers, following a stage accident several years ago.

I think he was addicted to something else: celebrity.

From a very early age, Jackson was in the spotlight, performing in front of thousands of fans, applauded for his considerable talent.

Who wouldn't get a rush from such attention? Who wouldn't want more of it? Jackson did. At the time of his death, he was preparing for a come-back concert in London.

Something in him needed the audience's praise, even adoration.

We Americans live in a celebrity-suffused culture. We read about celebrities in supermarket tabloids. We watch America's Got Talent and American Idol and dream of our "15 minutes of fame," as Andy Warhol put it.

But seeking celebrity in the way that so many stars do, including Jackson, is like any other addiction, and addiction is a disease process that results in death, unless it's stopped.

The person addicted to celebrity needs increasing amounts of this drug to sustain his or her high. And he or she devotes more and more time and energy to getting that drug, even at great personal cost.


The addicted person believes that celebrity is the only thing that will elevate him or her above the ordinary, bringing value and happiness.

Without fame, there is only nothingness, the celebrity-seeker reasons.

And yet celebrity only disappoints. It's an idol in that sense. It delivers only emptiness, hollowness of soul. And in extreme cases, death.

Watch the film, The Wrestler, and see how the pursuit of celebrity slowly erodes a man's relationships, isolates him, and ultimately kills him.

People can and do recover from addictions, including to celebrity, when they acknowledge their addiction, surrender their lives to their Higher Power or God, and commit themselves to recovery.

The Good News is that we don't have to become celebrities in the People magazine sense to have value and to be loved. We're already celebrities. Real ones in God's eyes.

At our creation, Genesis says, God declares us good, very good. Our goodness is in our creation.

And God shows us that He loves us and that we're inherently lovable in Jesus Christ--through His ministry, on the cross, and in His resurrection from the grave.

God pours His love into our hearts in the Holy Spirit.

Nothing, the apostle Paul says, will ever separate us from God's love for us in Jesus Christ. Not sin. Not death. Nothing at all.

To know real celebrity, and the happiness and contenment that come with it, we have only to acknowledge that we're God's beloved children. And live as His children in relationship with Him.

I pray for Michael Jackson, that now, in the presence of God in Heaven, he knows that he is good, is loved,and is at peace.