Rich in Poverty

The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. – Matthew 26:11

We all know who the poor are. It's obvious. We see them every day. Many of us actually fit the bill for being poor.

This passage from Matthew's Gospel is a troubling one. The context is the story of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, breaking open an expensive bottle of perfume and anointing Jesus' feet. The disciples grumbled saying, "This was expensive perfume. Why wasn't it sold and the money given to the poor?"

Jesus, though, saw things a bit differently. Mary was in poverty. She probably spent all she had to purchase the perfume so she could anoint Jesus' feet with it. In the kingdom of God, there is nothing more precious, more valuable, than the full self giving of oneself, in love, to God. Remember the time Jesus and his disciples were in the temple observing people giving their tithes? They saw both rich and poor giving money, but it was of the poor woman who gave all she had that Jesus said, "This woman has given more than anyone else. They gave out of their wealth, but she has given out of her poverty." The same principle applies here with Mary. Not only would it have been cruel to take the heart offered gift from Mary and give it to someone else, but it would be an insult to her poverty and sincerity in her self giving.

Jesus did not take what she did lightly. He was not glorifying in himself. Rather, he showed the utmost humility in receiving from a woman in poverty. He was not above her. He did not set himself as superior to her and her gift. He graciously received it.

The "poor" in the original quote are not merely those of financial poverty, but anyone who is in great need. Whether it be ignorance, addiction, entitlement, or whatever, these are people who are in deep and desperate need. We often think of them as victims of their own foolishness. And perhaps they are, but that does not eliminate their present situation.

As Christians, we are to condemn NO ONE. We are to love all. We are to pray for our enemies (and not in the sense of asking God to 'get them' or 'make them like us'), bless those who curse us and give sustenance to any who are in need of it.

The world is full of poverty of all sorts. We have not been called to eradicate it, as it will never happen, but we are called to love, to feed, to give.

Piety and Me

aristotle-philosopher-for-though-we-love-both-the-truth-and-our-friends-pietyFor most of my adult life, including also my teen years, I have striven to be a pious Christian. Being a questioner by nature, I have always wanted to know exactly what piety is and how to obtain it.

I remember in high school “senior seminar” class, we studied the American puritans, briefly. I recall being impressed with their austerity and conviction and wondered how they arrived at such certainty and willingness to be faithful to their beliefs. I have always been introspective, and this questioning about puritan piety led me to a time of deep reflection. I was filled with doubts about myself, as most teens tend to be, but I also had, unknown at the time to me, clinical depression.

I loved God. I loved the Church. I loved Christianity. I was persuaded in the depths of my soul that it was the true and correct faith and that I should and would live the rest of my life seeking to be as good and loyal and pious a Christian as possible.

But, in the cocktail of emotions that was my inner self, I could not settle down on anything. I was down and sad most of the time. I would try to be good, and fail over and over. Every time I believed I had made some success, I would fall back; all because of my emotional distress over which I had no control. I thought, however, it was my own fault and the fundamentalism I was raised in reinforced this.

In the year after I graduated from high school, I left the Baptist church of my youth, and became Reformed Presbyterian and a Calvinist. Calvinism, with it’s far reaching implications, gave some structure for me to bind up my emotions. I began to read the works of the Puritans and formed my piety after theirs. In doing so, I very nearly destroyed myself. I was wracked with guilt, constantly. I saw myself as a failure as a Christian and a human being. Perversely, Reformed theology lauds such a view of oneself. It is on this pretense that one may “flee to Christ, resting only in him.” And so, I did.

As the years passed and I reached my mid 20’s, I began to realize that I was actually dying inside. The more I worked to be holy and pious, the more reviling I found myself to be. I began to explore Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and discovered a rich trove of spirituality that not only supplemented my Puritan approach, but seemed to correct it…for a while.

I married in 1994 at the age of 24. We had a very Reformed wedding and continued to attend the Presbyterian church of which I was a member. Then, one year into our marriage, we went to seminary. It was a seminary of a conservative denomination in the Episcopal tradition. At first, I was stoked, but as time went on, the pressures of school, work and marriage took a mighty toll on my life. I was literally falling apart at the seams and had no idea what to do about it.

When 2001 and 9/11 happened, I was in a state of major depression. I had spent nearly that entire summer in bed; unable to work or do anything meaningful. My wife and I were fighting every day and in February 2002, she left me. I returned to my parents house as a broken, confused, essentially dying, man. In late 2002 I admitted myself to the hospital for suicidal thoughts and was sent to a mental hospital for a week. There I was diagnosed with major depression and put on medication. I began to feel better. A lot better. I was beginning to see some light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Yet, I was still broken inside. My faith had failed me. My mentors and their promises of happiness if I obeyed the Lord failed me. My orthodoxy failed me. The only things that did not fail me were my parents and a few close friends.

After I was on the meds for several years, I thought I had “dealt” with the underlying issues that were causing my depression. So, under my doctors supervision, I went off the medications. Within six months I was suicidal again and again admitted myself to the hospital. However, this time, I was determined not to come out of the hospital the same person. I made an oath to myself that I would find out the truth about myself, God and the world, and then I would be free. What I didn’t realize, was that by making such a promise to myself, I had already taken the first step in the right direction by acknowledging that the ways of the past had not worked and I needed to separate myself from them.

I began to systematically deconstruct my entire moral and ethical system in my head. I seriously wanted to start over again and I did my best to rid myself of any and all baggage from the past. I realized what I needed was not to be good or follow the rules, but to have someone, like my parents, who loved me unconditionally. I needed a God like that. Not the God of the Puritans who was impossible to approach and only rewarded impossibly difficult to keep rules.

I was nearly 40 by the time I came to myself, as a real person, and decided I would no longer believe anything simply because someone told me, no matter who they were or what esteem I held them in. I determined to find the truth, but this time without so much baggage from Fundamentalism. I largely threw that out the door with it’s narrow piety and legalism.

Now, as I am in my mid 40’s, reaching on toward 50, I still feel the baggage that I have tried to offload. But, the future is much brighter. In the past, I had lived my life in fear of everything, especially hell. But I have made it clear to myself that I will fear nothing because where there is fear, there is not love. Love being the key to happiness.

My piety has greatly changed from my teenage years. I still love God, the church not so much because of the horrendous abuse and evil I have experienced in it. I still want to be holy. I still pray every day. I still seek to do the will of God, but my perspective is very different now. Whereas before, I would be mystified at how to be “good”, I no longer feel the need. Being a Christian is not about right doctrine, tradition, or a specific brand of piety, but about following Jesus. According to St James, “True religion and undefiled before God and the Father, is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” There is a vast difference between the piety of James and that of most Christian traditions today. Most traditions have lost sight of the simplicity of piety as “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” and myopically focused on the emotional/internal aspect of piety. Feeling right has trumped doing right. In fact, doing right, in these traditions, cannot be pleasing to God unless it is done from a “pure heart” aka: right emotional state. I’ve left that all behind. All that matters to me and God is that widows and orphans and anyone who is oppressed, disenfranchised, marginalized, should be treated with love and respect and dignity as is becoming for a human being. I will stand against injustice wherever I see it.

This is genuine piety. Say your rosary. Do your prostrations. Pray the daily office. Fine. But these are merely peripheral practices that have little if anything to do with piety. If you do not love your neighbor as yourself, you have failed both God and the Gospel. That is the bottom line.

How to Fix the Border Problem

d0dcf869247f0494e7f38adab27e2b241112136037-500x338Christians in the United States of America, are you concerned about our borders? Are you concerned about the de-christianization of America?

I have words for you.

Psalm 146.

It is not the duty of the US government to protect and defend Christianity. There is no official religion of these United States and, indeed, separation of Church and State are written into the warp and woof of who we are as a nation. All religions have a place here under our government, and each has the very same rights and privilege as our own: the free exercise of religion.

Do you want a Christian nation? It will never, indeed cannot, happen under our current Constitution. Do you want people to be Christians? Then start with yourself and begin living like Jesus. Stop your dogmatism. Stop the arrogance. Stop with the superiority complex. Start feeding and caring for the poor. Start loving the outcast, the disenfranchised, the minorities. Start treating all as human beings who bear the dignity of God’s image. Stop telling others how to live. Instead, show them a better way by living it yourself. You cannot legislate religion.

You who depend on the US government to “save” this “christian” nation, go and read Psalm 146. Our hope is in the name of the Lord our God, not in presidents or congressmen/women. God cares not a whit for your concerns about immigration. He does care how you treat those immigrants. You want to recapture our nation for Christ? Be captured by him yourself, first. Ours is not a kingdom of this world. We do not win elections. We do not vote in this kingdom. We do not swear allegiance to any king, emperor, president or prime minister. We belong to Christ! We do not use the government to foster our own ends.

If you want to capture America for Jesus, it must be done one person at a time through our own faithful living out of the gospel. Any other worldly method cannot and will not ever be blessed by God.

Here, for your convenience, is Psalm 146. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it. This and this alone is the answer to our problems. America hasn’t failed, Christians have failed to honor their Lord through living holy and righteous lives.

146 Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord while I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3 Do not trust in princes,
In [c]mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 His spirit departs, he returns to [d]the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
5 How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
Who keeps [e]faith forever;
7 Who executes justice for the oppressed;
Who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free.
8 The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
The Lord raises up those who are bowed down;
The Lord loves the righteous;
9 The Lord [f]protects the [g]strangers;
He [h]supports the fatherless and the widow,
But He [i]thwarts the way of the wicked.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
Your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Hallelujah!

The Path to Peace

pT5e4eapcI have written about this a number of times, but it is more pertinent than ever that it be reiterated.

We live in times of great uncertainty and that uncertainty is rooted in fear. Fear of the future, fear of losing the comfortable paths of the past, fear of people who are different from us, and ultimately, fear of losing all that is familiar and being thrust into a world we did not ask for or want.

We are strongly tempted to cling to the past as though we can project its peace and security into the future by holding on to it. We do this in spite of the world falling apart all around us. We turn a blind eye to reality and grasp ever more firmly onto those things which are even now fading away before our eyes.

This week it became more apparent than ever that this is not simply an American problem. It is world wide, and the majority of the human race is in the grip of this fear. Falling markets, declining values, listless workers; everything points to the utter failure of human culture. There is no time in this brief essay to delve into or discuss the causes or reasons, for they are legion. I only wish to do one thing here, and that is point a clear way out.

I have said many times that the opposite of fear is not bravery. Bravery is doing something heroic in spite of ones fear. Not being afraid in the first place is quite a different thing. And, there is only one way to dispel fear: genuine, authentic, vibrant, love. Love is the exact opposite of fear and where it exists, fear cannot thrive.

We are beyond the point of no return. We have extended ourselves beyond the place where petty matters are relevant. There is no longer time to discriminate based on skin, religion, culture or anything else. Literally NOTHING, at this point, is more important than uniting behind our common humanity. We can argue point after point after point and we will sail ourselves and the whole human race into oblivion by our stubbornness and arrogance. We must leave the ways of fear behind and love one another. We must work for the common good. We can afford no less and we owe no less to our neighbor, our brother, our sister, our fathers and mothers.

Perfect love casts out fear, for where there is fear, love has not yet been made perfect.

It is time for honesty and humility, for grace and mercy, for love and kindness. Biases be damned. Opinions be damned. Do what is good and pure and clean and loving. Do not demand anyone conform to your criteria, simply do good to others. Forget “tough love.” The time for that is gone and what is needed now is love plain and simple.

Whatever your religion, you are obligated to love one another. Whatever your culture, you have been taught to be kind. Do it indiscriminately. Love and be kind to all alike, it makes no difference who or what they are.

God bless us all.

The Beastly Priest

There once was a priest
who was a little beast
His name was Daniel Brown.
Hellfire and damnation
was what he preached
in the church in the center of town.
Women would swoon
in the warm afternoon
when the heat of the hellfire was hot
Ol’ Daniel would bellow
and scare all his fellows
til repentance they had got.
The little ones cried
and the elderly died
under the hand of the beastly priest.
At judgement I”m sure
he’ll come out like manure
Because he didn’t care in the least.
When the graves open up
and the carrion birds sup
When Armageddon is nigh
Then Father Brown
will stroll into town
to watch all humanity die.
Some call him “Scratch”
others, after a match,
call him Lucifer because of his smell
But the truth, dark and sordid
Is Farther Brown always courted
The devil in his preaching of Hell.
The moral is this
you cannot achieve bliss
by threatening people with fear
For fear leads to dying
and eternal sighing
in the place where nothing is dear.
If you’re going to preach
then season your speech
with mercy and grace and love.
For this is the way
that in the end will pay
with everlasting joy up above.

The Truest Hope for Mankind

nativity-sceneThose who know me, know I take my faith very seriously.
Those who know me, know I try not to take life too seriously.
Those who know me, know I have a warped sense of humor.
Those who know me, know i am no prude or puritan.

On this Christmas night, 2015, what that means is I am again in wonder and awe that the Almighty God became human. I am not so confident in myself that I claim to comprehend what it means. My best guess is that the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, revealed himself as human being, born in the most humble way possible, to demonstrate to us what “impresses” God. In a world full of “christians” who believe that there are a few lucky souls who will make it to heaven, with the hellish destination being the primary one for most of humanity, I find myself thinking they must be joking. God, who knows nothing but absolute bliss, perfect happiness and everlasting joy, all in Himself, with no need for anything or anyone else, THIS God, became a creature who poops, pees, eats, sleeps and does everything a creature does. He humbled himself in order to send a few us to heaven? LOL! If God is going to do a work, he does it to its fullest. He doesn’t cut corners. He never fails. He didn’t come to save a few, he came to save us all! He defeated hell and death! He holds the keys to them both! Keys are for opening locks. He opens the gates of hell and of the grave so that those who are in them can be freed.

Are you in hell? Are you dying? He holds your keys. Someday, in this life or the next, you will be freed. Freed to be all you ever dreamed and hoped for and so much more that you cannot begin to imagine it.

Jesus shows us the way. Follow him. There is no hell he cannot rescue you from. No death so thorough, you cannot be raised. Follow him. Imitate him. Do what he did. Live as he lived. Trust him.

Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word and Logos of God, the truest Hope for mankind.

The Narcissistic Jesus

Jesus-Loves-Me1“Jesus loves me this I know.” How many times have we sung that children’s hymn? The message it teaches is wonderful; Jesus loves us all regardless of color, race, or any other defining characteristic. He loves us when we are weak or when we are strong. It doesn’t matter; his love for us is unconditional.

As we grow older, though, childhood memories fade and those which we can still recall to some degree, we look at through the eyes of experience; reinterpreting them. All too often we fail to retain our childhood understanding of Jesus’ love for us and replace it with something disturbing: The love of a narcissistic Jesus.

Through preaching, teaching and our own reflections on life we often come to feel if not outright believe, that Jesus only loves us in so far as we are like him. If you recall the ancient myth of Narcissus, you will remember that he drowned after falling into a pool of water while admiring his own reflection.

This is narcissism: loving oneself so much that one cannot love anything else that is not in ones own image. The end of narcissism is self-destruction. Death.

Is this really how we want to think of Jesus? Do we really want to cast him as one who only loves those who are like him? Surely this is an affront to the Love of God and twists it into an abominable thing. God is not a monster! He is kind and forgiving, loving, gentle, gracious. He does not love us by twisting us against our will to be what we are not. He loves us as we are. Yes, he offers us transformation, sanctification, theosis. He gives us grace to become beautiful as he is beautiful. But he does not love us on account of how much we are like him. He love us unconditionally. “But God showed forth his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”, says Saint Paul. That is to say he considered us friends, even intimate friends, before we ever sought him or knew him.

Jesus, the REAL Jesus, is not a narcissist. He loves me, this I know. Just as I am without one plea. He loves you. Just as you are. He calls you to higher, better, more beautiful things, but he loves you NOW. Do not give in to the narcissistic Jesus: THAT Jesus will drown you in guilt and grief.

Jesus loves me, this I know…