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Freedom from Fear

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenThe Ascension (1775), oil on canvas. 81 x 73 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

At 15, Lisa started becoming very anxious following her parent’s divorce. She and her younger brother lived with their mother and saw their father weekly. The arrangements were amicable. Shortly after the divorce her father had a stroke and was in the hospital for several weeks. Within weeks, Lisa started getting nervous when her mother went out to the shops—even for short periods (under an hour). She texted and rang her mother every 3–4 minutes to ask if she was alright, and when she was coming back to the house. Lisa’s story, related on a British medical website, illustrates a psychological condition called Separation Anxiety. It’s an extreme form of a common problem: the fear of abandonment. Many of us have worried about losing a loved one. It’s a common fear.

In Acts 1:1-11, the resurrected Jesus returns miraculously to his Heavenly Father: Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us as the disciples were watching “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). I wonder if the Ascension of Jesus filled them with wonder or fear. Probably both.

The first lesson of the Ascension was taught by angels who appeared to the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11). The ascension gives believers hope in the Second Coming. What goes up must come down. If Jesus had simply stopped appearing to the disciples, it would have created doubt about his promise to return.

What about Jesus’s promise to remain with his disciples? “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). How does the Ascension square with the Lord’s promise to remain with us? Jesus returned to heaven but his presence remains in several ways.

Because he is God, Jesus is present everywhere, even if we cannot see him. Theologically this is called omnipresence. His presence extends to all places. To God the Psalmist sings,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.

We see Jesus’s presence in creation and we hear it in the Word of God. In the pages of Holy Scripture, Jesus speaks to us and we meet him in its pages.

Jesus is also present to us in the Eucharist. The bread and wine of the Sacrament becomes his body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is our communion with him. The word “communion” comes from Latin, formed by the prefix com- (“with” or “together”) plus the root unus (“oneness” or “union”). In the Eucharist we become one with Jesus and each other.

Finally, Jesus is present to us in the Holy Spirit. Before ascending to heaven, the Lord promised to send the Comforter. This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (which we celebrate next Sunday) when the Spirit blew through the upper room like a hurricane and flaming tongues appeared. Since then, he lives inside all believers. In baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “the water of Baptism truly signifies that our birth into divine life is given to us in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 694). The Bible says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 6:4). We should have no separation anxiety, knowing that we have been made children of God.

On this Ascension Sunday, let us remember Jesus remains with us.  Because he is with us, we can have confidence and freedom from fear.

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The Prodigal Leper

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Healing a Leper (ca. 1650-1655), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The following parable was inspired by Mark 1:40-45.

There once were two lepers. One obeyed the Law of Moses, keeping far from other people. The other broke the Law of Moses by going up to a healer and begging to be healed. After the healer touched him and cured him of his leprosy, he sternly warned the man not to tell anyone about his healing. The healer told him to obey the Law, show himself to a priest, and offer an appropriate sacrifice for his healing. Again, the man disobeyed. Instead of going to the priest and offering a sacrifice, he blabbed to everyone about what the healer had done, even though the healer told him not to. As word spread of the leper’s healing, people flocked to the healer so much so that he had to stay in lonely places outside towns.

One day as the healer was wandering alone he saw in the distance the leper who obeyed the Law of Moses. Upon seeing the healer, the leper began to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” The healer tried to approach the leper to heal him, but the man ran away.

The healer stood there dumbfounded. He was able to heal the sinful leper who broke the Law, but he couldn’t heal the righteous leper who kept the Law.

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Who Am I?

Who_Am_I_(1921)_-_4 (2)

For the past seven or eight months, I’ve been in therapy. Not because there’s anything wrong with me. I’m not schizophrenic, bipolar, neurotic, alcoholic, nor am I thinking of harming myself or others. So why did I start seeing a psychologist? As I approached the big five-oh (which I’m thankful to have behind me), I was struggling with issues of identity. Who am I? What do I want to be? While I’m still working on answers, wrestling with those questions has led me to a career change, which I discussed in my last post.

One of the benefits of no longer being a pastor is getting to hear other people preach. The sermon this morning concerned issues of identity. In the Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus quizzes Simon Peter, asking who people say he (Jesus) is, then asking Peter his opinion. Peter’s answer to the question earns him praise, not because he studied for the test and made an A, but because someone whispered the right answer in his ear: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v. 17). Grace, not nature (“flesh and blood”), enlightened Peter’s understanding of Jesus’s identity. And that grace came from Peter’s relationship with God (“my Father in heaven”). The preacher made the point that to know Jesus the way Peter did we must be willing to follow Peter’s life and example. He ended his message with this: “How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to know Jesus the way Peter did?” Good question.

Peter followed the Lord closely but imperfectly. When Jesus was on trial for his life, Peter lied about knowing Jesus to save his own skin. St. John Chrysostom speculated that Peter “fell into sin so that, remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them.” Acknowledging our own sins allows us to do the same. Confession and repentance not only build self-knowledge and humility, they also develop empathy and encourage us to show mercy.

Studying today’s Bible lesson inevitably leads us to turn the main question back on ourselves: Who am I? It’s a difficult question. As with the original question, the right answer doesn’t come from preparation but from grace. The phrase “know thyself” was inscribed on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi. The inscription implies that self-knowledge is an essential part of worship. That doesn’t mean religion is primarily self-focused. It isn’t about us. But as we grow in our knowledge and love of God and others, we also grow in our knowledge and love of ourselves.

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True Repentance

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Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), National Gallery of Art

The Gospel reading last Sunday, Matthew 3:1-12, introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. We need to set the record straight about one thing: he wasn’t a Baptist, at least not in the denominational sense of the word. Even though he’s called “the Baptist,” he wasn’t a member of a Baptist Church. His title means that he was known for baptizing. John turned a Jewish ritual bath for converts into a sign of repentance. Let’s keep in mind the Baptist movement originated in England in the early 1600s. John wasn’t the first Baptist preacher. He was the last Old Testament prophet (in style, message, temperament), even though he appears in the New Testament.

John lived in the desert. He wore weird clothing. He ate bugs. Some people thought he was Elijah the prophet come back from the grave. A cross between Grizzly Adams and Jonathan Edwards, John preached hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, telling listeners to turn or burn, get right or get left behind. When the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes showed up to have their sins washed away, he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

How do we know if we’ve truly repented of our sin? The short answer is that we don’t keep doing it. Since John fits the mold of an Old Testament prophet, it would be instructive to ask a rabbi what repentance means in the Jewish tradition. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, here’s how the famous Rabbi Maimonides answered the question, What constitutes complete repentance?  He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent.” (Jewish Literacy, rev. ed., p. 608; citing Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva,” 2:1).

Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes the future Peaceable Kingdom, so beautifully illustrated by the painter Edward Hicks:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

I always assumed God will take away the predatory instinct from these animals. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is that the wolf still wants to eat the lamb but chooses not to and the lion still wants to devour the calf but refrains. This is a picture of true repentance.

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Thankful for Suffering

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What would you have tomorrow, if you only had what you thanked God for today? Would you have health? A roof over your head? What about clean drinking water, breathable air, and the ability to read? Would you have freedom to worship and express your opinions?

The Bible tells us to give thanks “always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Yet we take so many of God’s blessings for granted.

Luke 17:11-17 tells the story of a leper who was thankful for being healed by Jesus. Ten lepers were healed but only one turned back and thanked him. What would have shocked the original hearers most was the fact that he, the hero of the story, was a Samaritan, not a Jew. It’s a lesson about racism as much as gratitude.

It’s wonderful to thank God for healing, but what about those who aren’t healed? Almost 50 years ago Christian author and radio host Joni Eareckson Tada was paralyzed in a diving accident that left her in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. She begged God for healing but no healing came. Here’s what she wrote in Charisma Magazine about that experience:

God’s “no” answer to my physical healing more than 40 years ago was a “yes” to a deeper healing—a better one. His answer bound me to other believers and taught me so much about myself. It has purged sin from my life, it has strengthened my commitment to Him, forced me to depend on His grace. His wiser, deeper answer has stretched my hope, refined my faith, and helped me to know Him better.

It isn’t easy, but many people have learned the wisdom of being thankful not only in suffering but for suffering. I haven’t mastered this art. Not by a longshot. My natural reaction when God allows hardship into my life is to wallow in self-pity and ask, Why me? What I have I done to deserve this? That approach reveals a misunderstanding of God’s will. God wants what’s best for us, not what’s easiest.

People who haven’t suffered are insufferable. People who endure hardship and suffering have an opportunity to become better people, but it doesn’t work automatically. Suffering can make us better or it can make us bitter. The choice is ours. We must make up our minds how we will choose, because suffering is universal. Eventually everyone suffers in this life. It’s as inescapable as death and taxes.

There’s much good that can come out of suffering. For starters, suffering humbles us. It’s difficult to remain proud, when pain and hardship has laid you low. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest churches in the world. It sits over the cave where ancient tradition tells us Jesus was born. To enter and see the place where Jesus was born, you have to go through a small door called the Door of Humility. It may have been built small to keep people from entering the church on horseback. It has an important effect on those who walk in. The tiny door forces visitors to bow as they enter. By bending down as they approach the holy site, they symbolically check their pride and egos at the door. Suffering is the real door of humility.

Not only does suffering promote humility, it changes lives for the better. History is full of stories of people powerfully transformed and made better by suffering. Our lives can be changed by suffering too, if we offer our suffering to God and allow God to use it for our good.

The greatest example of God using suffering for a greater good is the passion of Christ. The suffering of Jesus brought about the salvation of the world. It provided a channel of mercy through which the healing streams flow from God to man. Because he suffered on the cross in this life, we don’t have to suffer separation from God in the next. That’s Good News worth believing and sharing.

But there’s another benefit of suffering that most have never heard of. God invites us to participate in Christ’s saving death not only by believing but also by joining our suffering to the suffering of Christ for the good of others (Colossians 1:24). Don’t ask me how that works. I don’t know. But I believe it because it’s in Scripture.

Mother Teresa dedicated her whole life to serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India. Here’s what she said about suffering: “Suffering is nothing by itself. But suffering shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift, the most beautiful, a token of love.”

As we count our blessings this Thanksgiving for all the good gifts God’s given us, let’s not forget to thank God for one of his greatest gifts: the gift of suffering.

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Disappointment in Prayer

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“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Jesus understood how easy it is for his followers to become discouraged. That’s why he told his disciples “to pray always and not lose heart.”

The first time I remember being disappointed with prayer was when I was 12. My uncle was dying of lung cancer. The phone would ring early in the morning. It was my Aunt Laura calling from Connecticut to give my mother the latest update on Uncle Ray’s condition. When she hung up the phone, my mother would do two things. She’d go in the bathroom and throw up. The stress was too much for her. And she would pray. She prayed more for my Uncle Ray’s healing than I had ever known her to pray for anything. She sent money to a prominent televangelist, because he said if she did God would work a miracle. As my uncle slid closer toward death, she prayed more and gave more. It didn’t work. Despite all the praying and giving, Uncle Ray died.

What do we do when we pray and are discouraged because God doesn’t answer, or says no, or gives us a different answer than the one we wanted? Jesus said the answer is to “pray always and not lose heart.” Easier said than done.

Psalm 136:1 says, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.” God isn’t just good. He’s good to me. Even when he doesn’t give me what I want, God loves me dearly and wants what’s best for me. The only way I can persevere in prayer is when I trust God and believe in his goodness.

The Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) reminds us we need to keep on believing and keep on praying no matter what. Nowhere in the Bible will you find a verse that says to just ask God once and then stop asking.

An important part of persevering in prayer is humility. We have to be humble enough to realize that what we want isn’t always what God knows is best. That’s why Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but thy will be done” (Luke 22:42).

According to William Barclay, judges like the one in the parable were paid magistrates who were notorious for taking bribes. A defenseless widow like the one in the story stood little chance of winning her suit. She prevailed because she wore the judge down by her persistence. The story has a happy ending, even if real life often does not.

What do we do with this parable when we know that God doesn’t always fix things the way good people want it, even good people who pray persistently? We have to remember that every promise of scripture isn’t absolute but relative. If God promises to heal or perform miracles for those who have enough faith, that doesn’t mean God is under any obligation to heal or perform miracles. Faith doesn’t just mean believing you’ll get what you want.

Faith means trusting in God, regardless of whether he does what we want him to do. Faith means praying, “Thy will be done,” not “My will be done.” Faith means believing that God will answer us but understanding that he may not give us the answer we want.

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Lenten Journey

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Grand Bara Desert, Djibouti, Africa

Today is the second Sunday of Lent. Lent is a forty day period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter. It recalls the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before he was tempted by the devil. The number 40 in the Bible is symbolic of testing. Not testing like an exam, but testing like a refiner’s fire. Not only does the spiritual journey of Lent remind us of Jesus’ ordeal, but I can also see a parallel between his journey into the Palestinian wilderness and my journey into the Djiboutian wilderness.

The Bible passage for today, Luke 9:28-43, has two seemingly unrelated miracle stories: the Transfiguration and the Healing of a Demon-Possessed Boy. One takes place on a mountaintop, the other on the plain. One is a private miracle witnessed by only three disciples, the other by a large crowd. In one miracle Jesus himself is changed, in the other Jesus changes someone else. In one God speaks from heaven, in the other a demon speaks from the one he possessed. One provokes fear and silence, the other amazement. Despite the stark contrasts, these two stories are complimentary, not contradictory. They represent the two journeys of the Christian life: the inward journey of prayer and the outward journey of service.

The background to the first miracle, the Transfiguration, is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matt. 16:21). Yet Peter resisted Jesus’ prediction and even rebuked Jesus for saying he must be killed then raised to life. The other disciples didn’t have any better understanding. Before the Resurrection they shared the Jewish view that the Messiah would be a conquering king who slays the wicked, not a suffering servant who dies for them.

Jesus chooses three disciples – Peter, James, and John – to witness his Transfiguration. Luke tells us, And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:29-32). A cloud then covers him and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Moses and Elijah are significant, because they represent the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. The point is that both the Law and the Prophets discuss the death of Jesus, even though the Jews – including Peter – failed to understand.

The purpose of the Transfiguration was twofold: to remove the offense of the cross from the disciples’ hearts and to give the disciples hope that the body of Jesus will be raised and glorified after his death. The miracle gives us the same hope for our own bodies. In the Book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (Phil. 3:20-21).

In the second miracle story Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy with epileptic seizures. The disciples hadn’t been able to cast the demon out. Presumably these were the disciples who weren’t with him on the mountain. Throughout Luke’s Gospel there is a special focus on the poor and needy, the outsiders and the neglected. This story demonstrates Jesus’ love for those at the margins of society.

Lent invites us on a spiritual journey into the wilderness. Our sins are exposed and by God’s grace removed. Jesus is the Light of the World. His light not only reveals our imperfections, but cleanses and transforms us. We cannot encounter God without being changed. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29b). The more time we spend with God, the more we become like him, and the more his light will shine through us and on those in darkness.

During Lent God invites us to become intentional about both the journey inward and the journey outward. What would our lives would look like if each one of us took God up on his invitation? What would our church look like if we all did? I’m not exactly sure, but I’d love to find out!

 

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