Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tragic Moments

Flag outside the Piedmont Post Office lowered at half-mast as a
mark of respect for the victims of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
I recently wrote a piece on what influences us for the Piedmont Citizen.  It was written before the tragic shooting in the movie theater early in the morning of July 20th this month in Colorado.  My article seemed kind of light in the wake of a nation's wrestling with such a senseless act.

When we experience this kind of loss, we are often asking the question, "Why?"  We want to ascribe some kind of meaning to it so that we can compartmentalize it in the sensible section of life.  We would like all of life to be in this section and do our best to either put things there or to ignore them completely.

I've spoken about free will and how I don't think God takes people from this life as much as God receives them.  That can be comforting but there are times we need to rage at the senselessness of what life deals us.

Lamentations, commonly attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, addresses a people that ran into the buzz saw of the Babylonian empire almost 2600 years ago.  Their capital city - their holy city - of Jerusalem including their temple was destroyed.  Their people were killed and carried away.  What kind of sense would you make of this?

Here's the author's take on the violence done to them:
     I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; 2he has driven and brought 
     me into darkness without any light; 3against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, 
     all day long. 4He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; 5he has 
     besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; 6he has made me sit in darkness 
     like the dead of long ago. 7He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put 
     heavy chains on me; 8though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; 9he has blocked 
     my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.
                                                                                        Lamentations 3:1-9, NRSV

Although I attribute the brutality to the misspent free will of the Babylonians, it sometimes feels good to rage against someone close to us.  God may fill this role for us and sometimes pastors stand in for God as the human representative.  I've been on the receiving end of a lot of anger before that didn't seem appropriate for the circumstance at hand.  I attribute it to anger at God for some other issue.

Lamentations continues to spit and cuss through the chapter before the author begins to turn back toward hope.  Have you ever cried until you can't cry anymore?  Sometimes we have to get it out of our system, like expelling a poison.  Only then can we look toward something positive.

     21But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22The steadfast love of the Lord never 
     ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23they are new every morning; great is your 
     faithfulness. 24“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 
     25The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 26It is good that 
     one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
                                                                                         Lamentations 3:21-26, NRSV

My prayer is that the people of Aurora, Colorado may come to this understanding of God's love in their life more quickly than slowly.  The cruel act of one individual has changed their lives for the worse.  It would be easy to become hardened and bitter to the world because of it.  Bitterness is a disease that seems to spread so easily.  

The gunman surely was bitter.  

My hope is that they do not learn from him but rather rise up in spite of him.  But in the meantime, we weep and gnash our teeth with them, just as God surely does.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Freedom and Faith

As I work on Sunday's sermon, I'm using the text from Mark 6:1-13 where Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth.  The language has always fascinated me from verse 5, "he was unable to do any miracles there".

The Revised Standard Version states, "...he could do no mighty works there,..."  If you look at Matthew's account of this story, 13:58 states, "...he did not do many mighty works there,..."  Scholars believe that Matthew's Gospel is based upon Mark's and it is interesting to see the language change.  Almost as if Matthew was saying, "He could have done them but he chose not to."

I believe we all have free will - our trouble
begins when we use it to hurt others
or ourselves which is sometimes debatable!
Photo by Beniamin Pop of Romania
But both versions agree it had to do with unbelief.

This really allows us to ask the question, how much do we have to do with our own faith, healing and salvation?

John Calvin's famous TULIP referring to salvation includes the following points:

Total Depravity – the idea that all human beings are in a state of sin (total refers to all people rather than all people are totally evil).  People are unable to choose God because their natures are corrupt and choose self.  Only God can grant this grace to an individual.

Unconditional Election – salvation is not based on merit or works but is entirely the work of God in human beings.

Limited Atonement – only the sins of the elect were atoned for by Jesus’ death.

Irresistible Grace – when God desires for someone to be saved, God will make it happen – i.e. overcome resistance or obstacles.  A person cannot resist God.

Perseverance of the Saints – those whom God has chosen for salvation cannot fall away from salvation (once saved, always saved).  Those who backslide were likely not saved to begin with (not those of the elect).

John Wesley followed the tenets of Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch Reformed Theologian of the 16th Century which tended to disagree with the final four points.  As I prepare for worship for Sunday, I looked for an affirmation of faith that incorporated the Arminian understanding dealing with salvation and free will but didn't find anything.  So here's what I wrote.  I invite you to look for the differences in Arminianism and Calvinism:

                    We believe that God is always the initiator in our salvation and refer to this 
                    as prevenient grace.  We have the free will to accept or reject God’s

                    We believe that salvation is authored by God’s grace.  This is a free gift 
                    uninfluenced by human action or merit.  Our salvation comes through our 
                    acceptance of the atoning gift of Jesus Christ and his subsequent Lordship 
                    of our lives.

                    We believe that the love of God and this free grace through cross and 
                    resurrection is for all people.

                    We believe that while God seeks out all people, God does not force our 
                    belief or faith and that this grace may be resisted.

                    We believe that God gives disciples of Jesus Christ the freedom and power 
                    to resist sin but that this is also freedom to reject God’s grace through 
                    persistent, unrepentant sin.

                    We believe that no matter our choices, God continues to love us and will 
                    always seek after us, offering us mercy, grace and salvation.

You can see that free will is essential to this and that we do have control over our choices - even the choice of grace or rejection.  I think that this shows up in this week's gospel lesson.  Clearly the people of Nazareth resist the grace offered in their midst.

So our struggle really becomes, "How do we resist God's grace in our lives and how can we do this less often?