Aren’t You Afraid of Rejection?

I have had some friends that worry about me. They are afraid I am setting myself up for a fall. They are afraid that if I do not find a church to serve that I will slip back into the darkness and self-doubt that lead me into the crisis of a few years ago. I can fully understand their concern. As I stated in a previous blog, I face an uphill battle in our current culture. Everything from my age, my defeats, and my struggles make me a not-very-likely candidate to pastor a church. One friend even told me I was trying to reinvent myself again. I replied to this friend that if I was trying to reinvent myself, I hope I would fail miserably.

I am seeking to serve again because I have felt a movement of God in my soul to do so. This gives me all the confidence that I need to pursue this path. Also, God has given me a gift. The gift is that of patience. I am not going to go into panic mode if I do not immediately get an invitation to return to the pastorate. The very fact that God wants me to seek is good enough for me.

I have already faced a multitude of doubts and fears. I have already faced waves of discouragement and disappointment. These have come during attempts by the enemy to bind me to desolation. However, I know that desolation does not come from God. I will not let the enemy’s efforts overcome me. God has made me a promise that I now fully understand. God will not forsake me, abandon me, or give up on me. God will act in my favor. The Holy Spirit of God lives in my heart. God will not make a church call me. God does not work in this manner. I would not want God to work in this manner.

I have never felt closer to the Lord than I feel now. Even though I now live on the edge of poverty, living with the physical challenges that aging has brought into my life, and must contend with mean memories, I know God loves me. I know that the time I have now I have because of God. I have been given the opportunity to learn how to love more deeply. I have learned that the mean memories do not define me. I know that I can find peace no matter what situation or circumstance I will face.

I have learned to reflect. I have learned to contemplate. I have learned to meditate. I have found prayer much more satisfying. I am a traveler on a spiritual journey. I have discovered which paths are beneficial and which lead to snares and traps. I know I do not walk alone.  I feel certain there is a church, a gathering, that can benefit from my experiences and knowledge granted to me by our Lord. It may take a long, long time to find somewhere to land. Until that time I will rejoice in patience, promise, and the purpose that God has given to me. I will write sermons and blogs. I will witness and love. I will study and be ready.

People used to say, “If you see David and a bear get into a fight, pray for the bear.” Now, I have no doubt the bear would win, but instead of fighting the bear you will see me striving to feed the bear. Such are the blessings of God.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

Luke 19: 28-40    Fickle Friends and Focused Foes

I love watching people when they gather at the church on Sunday mornings.  As I see people who are once again comfortable hugging, shaking hands and smiling at one another without the need of a mask it is obvious that there are many friendships among those who attend church. I am thankful that most people took wearing a mask seriously during the pandemic, but now we are starting to wear them less. We should always put the safety of others above our own convenience. As believers, we need to keep this forefront in our thinking.

I have a question. What exactly is a friend?  I am sure if I were to ask you to define the meaning of the word “friend”, there would be as many different answers as there are people here today. Some of us only have a very few people we call friends. Others of us would say anyone who’s not my enemy is my friend. The definition does depend upon the person making the claim or assigning the title.

Social networking has become a big thing in our culture. With social media, to be a friend means to accept someone who sends you a friend request.  Then, if they make you mad or you just want to ignore them you can click an icon on the computer screen and defriend them. 

Some people would likely admit they have friends they have never met in person. They are “friends” on social media.

I believe a friendship is a relationship.  It can be a deep, intimate involved relationship or a simple shallow acquaintance. When a friendship is deep, it is a form of love.

In fact, the Bible states, no greater love has anyone than their willingness to lie down their lives for their friends. To give one’s life would be a very committed friendship.

But would we be willing to give our lives for someone who did not like us, someone who considered us an enemy?  Not very likely.  Many people find it hard to be civil to someone who does not like them, much less be willing to make self-sacrifice on their behalf.

Yet, this is exactly what Jesus did.  The scripture states, “while we were yet enemies of God Jesus died for us”, so great was his love for each and every person who ever lived.  In reality, we worship God who loves.

Still, some would say, I don’t care what the Bible says. It is just an old book of myths and legends that people believed before our modern scientific age gave us better knowledge.

Forgive my thoughts but I am amazed at how arrogant people can be in their ignorance. I know the words arrogant and ignorant are harsh, but they need to be because of the damage that can be done.

The insights we can gain from the Bible regarding God’s love have been proven true experientially over the centuries and still teach us more about life-and-death, love, and hate, good and evil, hope and hopelessness, than any other knowledge human beings have been able to acquire.  This knowledge can change our lives or our circumstances and give us answers and assurance that transcends mere facts or philosophies. It is the knowledge that is experiential.

Today, on this Palm Sunday, we focus the account of Jesus’s arrival at Jerusalem. Today is the beginning of Passion Week, the last week before Jesus’s crucifixion.

In the passage, we find Jesus interacting with three different groups of people. He’s interacting with his disciples, the crowd, and the religious leaders who are there wanting him to just go away. In this encounter, we find both fickle friends and focused foes amid them all.

In the account, Jesus sends some of the disciples on a mission, a special task, to get a donkey.  Even though this directive seems strange, they willingly comply. This is what a disciple does.

You hear the word disciple a lot at church. What exactly is a disciple? It is someone who’s dedicated to learning from a teacher.  Someone who is committed to following and learning.  Someone who seeks to become like the one they are following.

It is the purpose of the church to make disciples. Jesus’s last command to his followers was, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.  (Matt. 28:19-20 CEB)

Since this is the task of the church, the forces that work against humanity have done everything possible to get the church off track concerning its disciple-making responsibilities. Thus, the church is growing weaker, and more and more people do not get the blessing for the resources to spiritually thrive.  The result of this failure produces the multitude of social, moral, and spiritual problems human beings face today.

The disciples traveling with Jesus have seen Jesus reveal the wonders of the kingdom of heaven. They followed Jesus, often stumbling, and staggering on the way, as he taught and demonstrated the will of God and the way to God. They had insight and what Jesus could do through their experience with him and their desire to follow him faithfully is confirmed in their attempts at obedience whenever Jesus asked them to do something. The disciples who were sent to get the donkey found that donkey exactly where Jesus said it would be in the question that was asked they responded exactly as Jesus told them to do and as usual everything went just as Jesus said it would. When Jesus speaks what he says will be.

This is the most important aspect of faith. Faith is not just believing but knowing that God will do what God says God will do. It is the decision and commitment to be a friend of God in the deepest sense.

But one of the disciples was a fickle friend who became a focused foe.  Judas became dissatisfied with Jesus and then became a betrayer of Jesus.  In Matt. 26, just four days later, we are told, “His betrayer (Judas) had given them a sign: “Arrest the man I kiss.” Just then he came to Jesus and said, “Hello, Rabbi.” Then he kissed him.  But Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him. (Matt. 26:48-50 CEB)

Many people will say they are your friend if they can get something from you. These are the fickle friends of life. However, once you don’t have anything they want they move on to someone else. A whole lot of people think they can be a fickle friend of God and if things are going their way, they are fine, but as soon as they don’t get what they want they are upset. Usually, they blame God, blame the church, blame life, however, the real problem is with their hearts.

Many people join a church, walk down an aisle, and prayed a prayer; believing God now owes them heaven. Maybe they listen to some preacher who was after numbers called decisions.  Maybe they are fed a line about cheap grace and easy believe-ism have never been taught to be a disciple of Jesus. I really feel sorry for those who have been so deceived. They are like people who buy insurance from a con man to find out later that it is worthless.

I encounter people in crisis who cannot understand why God let whatever happens to them happen. Then they get mad at God because their faith does not sustain them. It is not God’s fault.

God has told us what is required. If we are to be God’s disciples, we must be willing to trust, even to the point of caring our own cross. When we make a true decision, however, it is not long before we realized just how good and true God is. God will be our friend.  Again, I stress when Jesus tells us, it will be!

The next people we meet is the crowd. These folks want to make Jesus a king but a week later they will cry crucify him. The crowd can be a very fickle friend who can become a focused, very focused foe.

We live in a time of crowds. The crowd consumes. The crowd becomes the wave of culture. The crowd thinks it should get its way. The crowd worships its own way. There is no darker dictatorship in this world than the dictatorship of the majority.

Crowds are not our friends. A deceptive person or persons can manipulate a crowd. A crowd is easily used. The crowd wanted to make Moses take them back to slavery in Egypt. The crowd was implicated in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is the crowd, manipulated by the religious leaders, which will force Pilate to order Jesus’s death.

Today the crowd wants to be entertained. The crowd wants to accept that which God says is unacceptable. Too many crowds are manipulated by the prejudices of past and present, by the pandering politicians, and by the phony promises of commercial corporate culture that push us to the point of selfishness and away from God.   We wonder why things are as bad as they are. If you are part of the crowd, you have the risk of compromising your soul.

The last group is religious leaders. These are the keepers of the status quo. These leaders seek to manipulate the crowd. They tell Jesus to shut the people up.  They are not friends of God.  Their interest is themselves.

When religious leaders are concerned more about their positions, their profits, and the privileges they believe they are entitled to, the church suffers from scandals, decline, and corruption. Look at verse 39.

They cannot even tell the disciples from the crowd they are so myopic in trying to save their own status. They have forgotten their purpose.

When we forget our purpose.  When we ignore God’s love and grace, we are not friends of God.  When we treat God as a commodity, a status symbol, or simply another way to try and make ourselves better than other people, we are at the best fickle friends, shallow in every way, but more likely foes who are focused on our own agendas.

This is not a good place to be. 

In the book of Jude, the Scripture starts, “But you, dear friends: build each other upon the foundation of your most holy faith, pray in the Holy Spirit, keep each other in the love of God, wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will give you eternal life. Have mercy on those who doubt. Save some by snatching them from the fire. Fearing God, have mercy on some, hating even the clothing contaminated by their sinful urges. (Jude 1:20-23 CEB)

This is what it means to be a disciple.  This is what it means to be a friend of God.  Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn. 15:14 CEB)

There is no better time than now to decide, to commit, to give your all to become a friend of Jesus, a friend of God.

The 70th Psalm and the Monks of the Thebaid

There is a paraphrase at the beginning of Palm 70 that makes the following plea, “O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me!” This prayer of pleading is used as the beginning invocation in many devotions and office hours (scheduled times of prayer) that people use in prayer. The Psalm itself is a prayer of pleading concerning the enemies one is facing. This is a prayer for rescue. It is not a prayer for strength, for courage, for perseverance, it is a pleading to God because only God can change the outcome. There is nothing we can do and everything we can do. We can pray.

Can we really change the outcome? This is the wrong question. The right question is, “Can God influence this situation; respond to this prayer? Do we believe God will consider our cry? A prayer willing to trust, “Not my will Lord but your will,” is that needs to be God’s need for us to understand.

From the fourth century A.D., the desert Thebaid of Egypt was the home of thousands of monks and nuns who made the desert a city peopled with Christians striving toward heaven in the angelic way of life.[1] This prayer from the beginning of Psalm 70 vocalizes the real struggle we face every day. Our existence in this world is one of physical struggles and of a spiritual struggle every day of our lives. Psalm 70 speaks to the very real possibility of threat, a feeling of coming despair, and the fear we encounter when we realize we are not in control. We often just do not realize how much we are embraced by God’s grace and control in this world. We live in a relationship with a God who is always working for our good. Not through force but with the influence of faith.

A ritual of prayer invoking the fast intercession and immediate mercy can help us maintain a good anchor for the discernment of God’s desire for us daily. Such is the gift of information and aid of the contemplative practices of believers of the past. In this way, we do not just connect, but build roots.


[1] sjkp.org/products/the-northern-thebaid-monastic-saints-of-the-russian-north

An Attitude of Attention

My lectio time today was spent on the Gospel reading from Year C for March 23, 2022. In this passage, Jesus is tying himself to the faith of God’s people. Jesus is making a commitment to keep the law and use it properly. In this passage, Jesus warns those who would “edit” the commands of Scripture they are hurting themselves. I love the ESV Bible’s translation that uses the word relax to describe what this editing does.

No one knows the dangers of fundamentalism more than I do. I know how it can seem like a lifejacket but then changes to a straitjacket as it hardens our hearts and turns us into Pharisees and Sadducees. I know how the Bible can be used as a tool of indoctrination rather than illumination. But I have also seen how, in the name of popular theology, the Bible’s instructions and directions are called old-fashioned, legalistic, irrelevant for our cultural setting.

The first recorded temptation in the Scripture was one of taking a “relaxed” view of the instructions given to human beings by the Lord, “And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. (Gen. 3:2-4 ESV)

I recently sat through a seminar in which the speaker claimed that, especially in the Old Testament, the writers made mistakes. They got it wrong. But we, with our modern scholarship and “new” philosophical insights do not have to pay attention to those difficult passages. We can edit them. We can help to relax them. We need to do whatever we can to make the Bible fit us rather than trying to get us to fit the Bible. We must make the Bible fit into our version of relevant.

I think I would rather just say that there are certain things in the Bible I do not understand nor believe we can ever understand this side of eternity. I am not afraid of mystery. I am not intimidated by the words, “I don’t know.”

I fully understand that each of us makes choices about what we accept as truth, as guidance, as direction, and expectations from the Scripture. Each of us has been created with the power of choice. Through choice, we decide what we will have faith in and what we will not. Jesus speaks of the fulfillment of the law. Do we believe Jesus? This is a choice of faith. If we look for reasons not to believe the Bible, we will find them. If we look for reasons to reject the Bible, I have no doubt we will succeed. There will always be tares (weeds) among the wheat. There are always reasons to doubt.

I prefer to take the path of knowledge that I can confirm and trust. The vast majority of the Scripture speaks about the blessings God gives. If speaks of God’s patience and of God’s unconditional love. The commandments and directives of Scripture give us parameters and insights into how to live the best life we can. I have yet to discover a relaxing of any commandment as beneficial to me or others. I fact, I have found the opposite to be true. The more I grow in the gift and skill of discernment, the more I realize just how much the commandments and directives save me from suffering and pain.

I can live with mystery. I do not worship at the idol of certainty. I can live with some confusion or lack of understanding. I cannot abide by an attitude of judgment and control. I ask God that I not be tempted to relax any part of the law. I ask God to help me with issues of unbelief. I am grateful for the blessings I have received from my faith in a world filled with skepticism. I am thankful for an attitude of attention that leads me to trust God’s word rather than edit it on my own.

An Apophatic Prayer

Happy those who can make this prayer their own:

Christ, you see who I am. For me, not to hide anything in my heart from you is a necessity. You were a human being, too. And when my inner self seems to be pulled in a thousand different directions, my thirsting heart reaches the point of praying: “Enable me to live a life rooted in you, Jesus the Christ; unify my desire and my thirst.” [1]

This is a sound prayer. This is a prayer of a desire that has the potential of leading what I believe is the right direction. A prayer of desire that mirrors the desire of God for us.

I recently added a spiritual practice to my own life for Lent. I use the first part of the breath prayer and the prayer Jesus repeated in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but thy will.” If Jesus found comfort and nurturing strength during a difficult time of spiritual endurance, then I feel I can trust such a repeated prayer to be able to help me.  This is what I pray as I breathe in, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and when I breathe out I pray, “Lord not my will but thine.” I use this form in apophatic prayer twice a day when possible. I do find it to be a source of comfort and assurance in this prayer. It is a practice worth exploring.

Just a brief note to share with others traveling on the Way.


[1] From <http://www.taize.fr/en_article75.html>&nbsp;

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12:1-8    What Do You Think About Most?

In the book of Romans, Paul makes the following statement, “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:5 CEB)

In the book of Philippians, the Holy Spirit leads Paul to write, “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” (Phil. 4:8 CEB)

In our passage today, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are hosting a meal in honor of Jesus.   They want to honor Jesus because Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead.  Good reason to honor someone. 

The gathering takes place at the home of Simon, a man who had a skin disease and was likely healed by Jesus.  Why at Simon’s home and not Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’s?  The account does not tell us the reason, but the most likely home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was too small. 

Who else attended this gathering?  There is no guess list, but in Matthew and Mark the versions indicate the disciples were there. 

Our passage tells us Martha was doing what she loved to do, serving the guest and Lazarus joined the people at the table.  However, Mary, dear sweet Mary, does something unusual.   She comes in with a jar of very expensive perfume and wipes Jesus’s feet with it. 

Now, we might think this is very strange behavior.  Perfume on the feet?  I could be wrong, but today, a man might wear cologne but not many would embrace perfuming the feet.

Before we judge Mary to be just short of a full deck, we need to remember what it was like to live in that culture.  They did not have air conditioning.  They did not have electricity.  The only fans they had worked by human muscle.  There was no sewage system, clothes received washing by hand and most people could not change into new clothing every day.  Needless to say, the odor in a home, a room, could be at times unpleasant. 

Our passage tells us, “The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume.” Mary’s gift not only was an act of love to Jesus but a gift to all who were present as well.  Still, Mary’s act of love causes agitation in some.  Judas is especially upset.  In Matthew’s account, the disciple is angry.  In Mark’s account, some of the disciples are angry.  John puts his focus on Judas and then tells us why Judas is angry.  John tells us Judas was a thief.  John affirms what Paul writes, “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.”

I am sure some of the disciples heard Judas complain and some likely agreed.  Why did Jesus let this happen?  Was all Jesus’s talk about caring for the poor just a political ploy? 

Make no mistake, Jesus cares for the poor.  God cares for the poor.  God knows their plight.  God speaks to us of embracing empathy and compassion toward the poor. God is very much aware of injustice, inequality, and oppressive systems that benefit a few at the expense of many.  Jesus did not grow up in a wealthy house.  Carpenters had to work hard for low wages to survive economically.  Jesus knew what it meant to be poor.

The Psalmist writes, “Because the poor won’t be forgotten forever, the hope of those who suffer won’t be lost for all time.” (Ps. 9:18 CEB)

Proverbs tells us, “Those who exploit the powerless anger their maker, while those who are kind to the poor honor God.” (Prov. 14:31 CEB) and, “Those who close their ears to the cries of the poor will themselves call out but receive no answer.” (Prov. 21:13 CEB) Jesus himself said a key part of his mission was, “The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” Which is from Isaiah 61:1.

In addition, let’s not forget what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus raised his eyes to the disciples and said: “Happy are you who are poor because God’s kingdom is yours.” (Lk. 6:20 CEB)

So this is not a situation of Jesus backtracking.  The issue is not the poor, the value of the perfume, but the action of Mary and what motivated her to do this.  Mary had been attacked before for how she responded to Jesus.  When Jesus visited Mary and Martha the first time, Martha criticized both Jesus and Mary for not worrying about dinner.   Martha came to Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.” (Lk. 10:40-42 CEB)

Mary had made a discovery.  Mary had discovered that as one listens and learns from Jesus, one got closer to God.  Mary discovered putting one’s focus on loving Jesus made an incredible difference in one’s life.

So, when Judas tries to make Mary feel guilty about lavishing this expensive perfume upon Jesus, (which also made the room more pleasant for everyone else), it did not get to her because she had chosen the better part. 

In Matthew and Mark, both accounts also add the following, “I tell you the truth that wherever in the whole world this good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:13 CEB)

Mary’s thoughts, her actions, her focus was on Jesus.  She grasps the importance of his life.  She craves insight into his message.  She accepted the affirmation he gave her that she had chosen the best path. Mary wanted to give Jesus her best because of the best Jesus gave to her. 

How much did that perfume cost to rub on Jesus’s feet?  Mark says three hundred denaria with a denaria being about a day’s pay.  Luke states it was 500 denaria.  John says it was worth a year’s wages.  But for Mary, the opportunity to love Jesus is priceless. For those who can imagine what it would have been like to love Jesus as Mary did. Imagine being able to look in his eyes, to feel love directed to you by the One who is Emanual, God with us. The One who is the beginning and the end. Mary was able to experience Jesus, the one, we all are seeking to know as deeply as we can.

God gives us grace, forgiveness, and hope.  Jesus gave us his life.  The Holy Spirit gives us guidance and spiritual gifts.  And what does the trinity ask from us?  We are asked to accept the love and to be restored to the person we are created to be. We are invited to an ancient dance of dancing with God.

“People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:5 CEB)

Mary was thinking and acting on a love for the Lord.  What do we spend the most time thinking about?  What is the most important commandment a person can fulfill?  Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mk. 12:29-30 CEB)

Finally, let us follow the example of Mary as directed by the Holy Spirit, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is– what is good and pleasing and mature.  (Rom. 12:2 CEB)

It is time for God’s people to give ourselves over to thinking, “What can we do for our God, our Lord, who has done so much for us.” There is a group of believers in Dallas who say, “let me extend an umbrella to you.” What an umbrella of love Jesus extends to Mary.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus, therefore, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So, they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table.  Mary, therefore, took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn. 12:1-8 ESV)

Each day, we can be like Mary. We can be like Mary when we are showing love to the least of these and thus doing then for Jesus. Each day. Maybe we can begin to think of Jesus more and more.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Prodigal Son, this story is perhaps one of the best-known parables Jesus spoke. It is a story that resonates with forgiveness and acceptance. Yet, this parable would have been shocking to the people who first heard it. Why, because it violated so many of the cultural norms of Jesus’s day. First, there was the emphasis the culture put on honoring one’s parents. Both sons did not seem to do so. Then there is cultural theology that believed you reap what you sow. Also, in this culture, it was the older brother who was supposed to be celebrated and not the prodigal. So, in many ways, this parable in Jesus’s day was all kinds of wrong.

The word prodigal is not a word we often use. It is a word meaning spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant (I looked it up). Why would Jesus use this parable? Jesus is striving to let people know about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where all are welcome, where all can be restored, where all are loved no matter what has happened in the past. This parable teaches us about what it means that God is love.

In Jesus’s day, and in ours as well, it is easy to make God into a cultural symbol, a spiritual abstract. The Pharisees and Sadducees used the idea of God to build a religious system and a social control device. They believed they could manipulate the concept of God to serve their interests. They even felt a need to defend God. A god who needs defending is not much of a god at all. These symptoms of spiritual dysfunction seem to still be with us today. God does not want to be a perception but a being who personally cares for us regardless of anything. A God of limitless compassion and patient perseverance.

But what about the questions. Questions can easily arise from this parable. Why did the son want to leave the father’s home? Why did he think he could ask for the money? Why did the father give it to him?

We can also focus on what happens to the young man. How can he be so naïve, so taken in by so-called friends who only want to take advantage of him? Perhaps we can identify with the young man in some of our own foolish choices. I know I can. Was he angry for how he was used? Was he bitter? And then, when “he came to himself” was this not just more a matter of his own self-interest? Was he truly sorry for what he had done? What are our thoughts about this young man?

Then there is the resentment of the older brother. Perhaps some of us can sympathize with his feelings. Have you had feelings of being treated unfairly? Can you think of times you were bitter against someone to whom you are related? Have you ever felt you were owed more for your efforts?

This older brother seems to be caught up in his own party, a pity party.

Sometimes the privileged get upset when they are not recognized for what they see as their right. This son felt his father owed him for being “the good son.” This son was angry. The son seemed to be sickened but the extravagant event thrown by the father for this loser son. Resentment can breed a lot of spiritual problems. Resentment fuels disrespect, disdain, and delivers us into the hands of an egocentric poor-me mindset. Resentment can poison relationships and degrade love. It clouds the mind and feeds the bitterness we find in the older brother’s words.

And then there is the father. Poor gullible father. Don’t you think the father knew this could happen when he gave his son the money? Isn’t the father an enabler of the prodigal behavior? Should he not have done more for the older brother? Was it fair the way he welcomed the son back with no apparent consequences?

Let’s stop our questions and speculations. Our questions do not do justice to the parable. Questions like these miss the point. The Kingdom of God is about God’s love, God’s acceptance, not our social values, not our opinion of ethical references, or any misguided theology. The father has the right to love his son. The father has the right to accept his son back. The father has the right to celebrate. The father has the right to exhort his older son. What the father receives is pure joy.

Listen to the words of Jesus, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Lk. 15:7 ESV)

The father has no preconceived conditions. The father has only joy. The father does not ask for any explanation. The father has no need for any reasons. The father is just elated that his son, his prodigal son, is standing there before him. This is what matters.

From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God is there for people. God accepts people. God waits for people. God loves people. God rejoices when people turn to God for guidance, help, and restoration. Jesus loves people. If any son had reason to question the father, it was Jesus himself. The path for Jesus to come to the Father was not through a “when he came to himself situation,” (Lk. 15:17 ESV) but to a deliberate choice, Jesus himself accepted through the crucifixion and resurrection. For Jesus, the focus was God the Father’s will not his own.

Parables can lead us to reflection. How does this parable make you feel? How do you relate to it? As I relate to the parable, I would like to think I was not the prodigal. I would like to think I was not the older brother, but I know that I am both. I have made many foolish decisions that lead me away from my heavenly Father. I have made foolish evaluations of what I thought God should do or not do. Questioning what I perceived as God’s action, God’s intention.

I am so thankful for a God that is willing to accept me. A God who acts like the father in this parable. A Father Jesus calls, Abba, daddy. That I too can call, Abba, daddy.

Perhaps we want to know more. Did the younger prodigal change his ways and become a faithful son who learned a valuable lesson? Did the older brother come around and allow forgiveness, family, and faith to take the place of resentment? We are not told. Maybe, we are supposed to finish the story in our own lives? What do you think?

I close with these words for the first letter written by the Apostle John, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 Jn. 4:7-11 ESV)

Why Do I Hope?

“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Pet. 3:15 ESV)

I have a strong desire to be a pastor again. I believe this desire is from God. I have this desire knowing full well that to have the opportunity to be a pastor again is going to require overcoming a mountain of obstacles.

First, I have not pastored a church in the last four years. My last pastorate was a disaster. The denomination I was serving in seemed to be very glad to get rid of me. Also, I do not interview well. I cannot sell myself. Second, I am sixty-seven years old in a culture that no long views age as being an asset. Churches want young pastors with families. I have a wonderful family, but I am not young. Third, a few years ago, in a pit of despair and pain, I took my own life. Not tried, but did kill myself. I shot myself in the head with a .45 caliber pistol. God performed a miracle. God sent me back. Most churches today would see this as a sign of instability, not a miracle, thus will avoid me like the plague. Fourth, with this act of despair, I damaged my voice, disfigured myself, and I must deal with chronic pain (which I am managing well). I still have a lot of energy, creativity, little if no brain damage, and I am overall healthy but I do look old. Fifth, I have no network, no social structure to help me get my foot in the door. Sixth, when I was younger, my being an activist for truth and integrity, I made a whole lot of enemies who do not forget. Lastly, my last name, Montoya, has its own baggage. The last church I served was horrified by my last name. When people first see me and find out I am not Hispanic, I usually get the question, “Montoya, what nationality is that.” This is sad, but a reality in our fallen world.

So why do I have any hope of again being a pastor again? I hope because I know my desire comes from the Holy Spirit. I know God will not manipulate a church to call me, but God will aid me in my quest. God will sustain me. I know God didn’t call Abraham or Moses until they were advanced in age and I likely have many more years to give in service. I know God has given me the gifts and graces to shepherd a church and guide people to experience growth in their relationship with God. I know God will not let me sink back into the despair I allowed myself to sink to in the past. I know where God guides, God provides, even if what God provides is only patience and hope.

Also, through this blog I know I am contributing to the Kingdom. I know my blog is read throughout the world. I know my sermons are being used. I know my posts on spiritual direction and discernment are useful to others.

Desire and hope fuel action and intent. Action and intent are what God desires from us. God has performed miracles in my life, and I have no doubt God will do so again. Even if I am not called by a church, just having the desire God gives is encouragement enough to sustain my hope.

Do you have to be an Open and Relational Theologian, or can you be an Orthodox and Relational Theologian?

I have spent four weeks reading, studying, and participating in an Open and Relational Theology seminar with Dr. Tom Oord. Even though I cannot buy into the open aspect of Oord’s theological reasoning, I found out that I have been in the relational camp for a long time. I believe the relational aspect of Oord’s theological approach has a lot to offer spiritual direction.

Without trying to create a summary of synthesis of my last four weeks of work or offer a critique of what I cannot accept from Oord’s viewpoint, I will focus on what I believe aids in my understanding of spiritual direction. First and foremost, Oord believes that a loving God is not a controlling God. To this, I scream, Amen. God does not want to control our lives. God wants to be involved in every aspect of our lives, wants to influence our decisions without overt manipulation or any form of coercion.

God is love. Love requires freedom. Love requires risk. Love is vulnerable, accepting, forgiving, intimate, and choice honoring. God’s movements toward us can be accepted or rejected. God’s love is always faithful, even when we are not. God is always forgiving and accepting, even when we are not. God’s love does not depend upon us but is for us and with us always. This is why the Holy Spirit is always speaking to our hearts in times of consolation and desolation. Even while we are listening to our own willfulness and to the demonic spirits that are seeking to pull us away from God stays with us.

I also believe that the future is not set. I believe the future is comprised of possibilities and that God knows each possibility, of each possibility, of each possibility ad infimum. A love God is always working to lead us to good and is always seeking to influence our decision of what possibilities are open to us. God always desires the best for us even when we blow it. Therefore, we can trust that all things will work for good for those who love the Lord. God has an ultimate goal. God works with the infinite number of possibilities through a loving influence that will bring about the result that God desires and which also is in line with what love is. Therefore, sometimes miracles do happen to keep the possibilities open.

I also fully agree with Oord that God can and does change God’s mind. I fully agree that our relationship with God does influence God and can influence God’s work in our world. There are plenty of examples in the Scripture that verify this. God has no limitations other than God’s own nature of love. God is not time full but is truly timeless. When one’s theology is limited or controlled by time, be it by Calvin or Oord, it gives time a power that is controlling of God. If God is controlled, then God is not God.

In spiritual direction, time is simply a path chosen. We seek to discern what is best why we journey on the pilgrimage of life. God is always present, seeking to influence but never to control. Spiritual directors join us to help us see the possibilities and to be cautious about the deceptions. Thus, I believe that a relational theology does aid in our understanding of the world we cannot see with our eyes but which we can perceive with our hearts.

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:1-9 Responsible Grace

There is a question common to all human beings, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Some of us may wonder, “Why did something happen or not happen to me?  Was I not good enough?  Is God punishing me for something I have done?  Why, did God not answer my prayer?”  To be very honest, there is not a logical, rational, answer to these questions.  The unknowing can be very unsettling. 

In our current culture, many people, if they believe in God at all, embrace a moral, therapeutic, deism. What is moral, therapeutic deism? It is a view that God is about good behavior, being a good buddy, and being available only when we need God to help us. Many people, including Christians, engage in practical atheism (saying they believe but live like they don’t) or they simply do not care what God’s will is but instead decide for themselves what is good or bad.

Many people do not believe there is hell. Do you?   Many believe there will not be a judgment. Do you?  Many do not think there will be an accounting for our lives. Do you?  Do you believe God sees everything we do? Do you care that God knows everything we think and hears everything we say?  We have the right to believe whatever we want.  I strongly believe this is a God-given right. Our beliefs, our choices will affect how we respond when faced with a hard spiritual question we cannot answer.

In the narrative today, Jesus is questioned about the result of a Roman military action against some Galileans as they made the sacrifice. The Romans really didn’t care where they killed their enemy, just that they had the advantage when they did. This is a good military strategy. So, they killed these people while they were worshipping. 

The death of these Galileans did bring up a religious question, “Did the mixing of their blood make the sacrifices worthless, and thus did they die unclean from their sins?”

Jesus answers the question with a question. The question Jesus brings up has to do with a well-known accident that had taken place recently. The accident killed people who would have been either hoping for a miracle of God or preparing for religious service. Was this the will of God? Why did God allow this to happen? Jesus does not say. What Jesus does do is make it clear bad things happen. 

Yes, bad things happen are more likely to happen to bad people because their life choices often put them in danger. However, bad things happen to good people.

But why?  Because bad things happen. Let me let you in on a secret, this world does not look at human beings as the crowning glory of creation, but as a meal or as a competitor for a meal.

We live in an environment in which earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, freezing temperatures, burning heat, droughts, accidents, disease, and violence are constant factors in which lives are lost.  This is the reality of a fallen world.  A world of death. 

I also believe, through my own experience, that there are other human and spiritual forces that attack us. Forces attack marriages, families, our jobs, our possessions, our freedoms, even our very lives. You can be the best person, the best Christian, the most favored of God’s people (just read the book of Job) and still face disasters.  No one is exempt.  There is no magic to prevent or avert this reality.

This is a deal-breaker for some people. They cannot accept the paradox of God being love, all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing and allow bad things to happen. So, they chose to believe God is a myth. Some try to create a theology that can figure out an answer. I have not found one yet that makes sense.

Others, like the people in Jesus day things happen because those afflicted did something wrong or were bad people. Some think God has abandoned us. Are they correct? No, it’s because this is the world we live in. We live in the domain of death.

Hebrews 9:27 tell us, “We are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” You can believe this or not. It is your right. However, what we think is not always the reality.

This sounds hopeless, but it is not the final word.  Yes, we live in the reality of death, but we also live in the reality of God’s love.  What we go through, God goes through. And while there are no sure answers or guarantees in this life, we do have the grace of God that surrounds us, reaches out to us, and will help us if we are but willing. 

For me, the question is not why do bad things happen, but instead, why do good things happen?  God’s grace has the power to bring good to us no matter what bad we encounter.  Also, we have the power to, during the bad, can become sources of God’s goodness, God’s grace, and God’s love.

Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians, (2:8-10) You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives in this imperfect, difficult world.

It is God’s desire that we learn to help one another in this life that is filled with questions we cannot answer.  Help each other with comfort and support, with hope and encouragement, and in developing a faith that can answer disaster with the challenge, “Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death?”  (1 Cor. 15:55) “As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 15:58)

Next in the narrative, Jesus tells a parable, a parable of the fig tree. What is this parable about? Surprise, it is not about the tree as much as it is about the caregiver of the tree.

This parable is about our relationship with God. Jesus is speaking to the people. He’s correcting the “what I think and what I want theology” of his day and of ours.  He is telling us something very important.

This parable is about attitude. It is about our attitude and God’s attitude. Without a doubt, we are the tree. No reason is stated why the tree will not produce fruit.  However, to produce fruit is the reason the tree exists.

Everyone has reasons, excuses, not to honor God. Everyone has reasons, excuses for why they are not faithful. Every Christian can come up with excuses as to why they neglect to do what God expects and thus do not produce fruit God created. This parable does not allow excuses. It does tell us what God is trying to do.

The owner is ready to let the tree reap the consequences of its fruitlessness. The caregiver wants to try one more time. This is grace.  An interchange between the owner and the caregiver reveals the truth of the parable.

The caregiver believes, perhaps it yet can fruit. This is the attitude of God. God does not ignore us.  God gets no pleasure from the pain and suffering we endure. God does not arbitrarily send plagues, disasters, or wars. If we read the Scripture, we find God always sends an advance warning that these things can happen. God tells us that this world has the capacity to grow worse and that catastrophes can and will happen. It is not because of the punitive judgment but the fact of the reality. It is because of the reality of death.  

What God wants is to work in our lives to see the fruit. This is a theology I believe the Scriptures teaches: the nature of God exceeds in love but will not exclude the responsibility grace expects. 

The fruit we produce is the fruit of grace.  Grace as we share our faith with one another, grace as the fruit of service to become Jesus to this world. This is what faith and trust in Jesus are all about.

Jesus came to make our desiring God’s will livable. He came to make sure we understand, that God wants us to understand who we are and why we are.

This is not about blame, shame, or excuses.  It is about responsible grace.  Why do bad things happen?  A better question is given to us by divine inspiration, “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Rom. 8:35)

Here is the answer the only answer we can trust, Paul writes, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Rom. 8:38-39)

This is grace.  This is what we need to seek and accept.  This is how we should live our lives, no matter how long or short they may be. It is our right to decide.