Sunday, February 26, 2012

Turning Back aka "Repentance"

Question: "Why was Moses wandering through the desert for 40 years?" Answer: “Because men refuse to ask directions.”

I find this humorous piece to be a nice lead-in to the reality that there are more than just a few, both men and women, who had been in those embarrassing situations when, no matter how confident they were at the start of a journey, they ended up being lost.

Most of you who drive might recall having that feeling when something didn’t seem quite right. The familiar sites weren’t there; the landmarks and turns were nowhere to be seen. Things were not simply right. And when that happens, the only resolve you have is that you need to get back on the right track.

Now, making that resolve may sound easy, as easy as making a couple of quick turns, or it may mean having to backtrack for however long you have been going the wrong direction. Either way, there’s no use delaying. You’ve got to get back to the right track and, as those GPS units would immediately tell you, you need to start “recalculating.”

The gospel passage we just heard from Mark has some promptings for us; similar to the annoying “recalculating” GPS prompts as the navigation device resets for us a new set of directions. It might actually sound annoying because we are in “denial” that we are, in reality, lost.

Jesus, according to Mark, proclaimed the Good News of God, and said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News."

“Repent, and believe in the Good News."

This is the alarming prompt that we hear when we go off the expected course of Christian living. This was Jesus’ message when he began his public ministry after his baptism and his trying time of forty days in the desert.

Unlike the prompt that precedes before the GPS device reconfigures a different set of directions made ready for us to follow that will eventually set us in the right direction, these words of Jesus, prompting us to “repent, and believe in the Good News" are our “invitations” to do our own “recalculating” and would only do us good if we have the willingness to follow a new set of directions for both our daily living and our spiritual life.

“Repent, and believe in the Good News."

I noted earlier that this prompting might actually sound “annoying” because there are many of us who are in “denial” that we are, in reality, lost. This attitude is quite common and especially because this new prompting requires us to do our own “recalculating” amidst this altogether different route that we might be tempted to enjoy, after all. Again, just to be a bit graphic here, it’s when you suspect you’re heading towards the opposite direction but then you begin to “enjoy” the sharp turns and the rolling hills as opposed to the original flat and monotonous landscape and then you hear “recalculating”; and you say: “What?”

It’s this kind of annoyance that sneaks up on us especially on those occasions when we know we’re headed the opposite direction in our practice of our discipleship but then we’ve begun “enjoying” those “sharp turns” and new “landmarks of excitement” as we stay on this dangerous, wrong path.

Every so often, the same prompt is given us: “Repent, and believe in the Good News." So, rather than say “But I’m having fun” we might as well say “Oh yeah?” and so you pay closer attention to the prompting that might eventually take you home, safe, rather than get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

So, what’s with this thing about “repenting”? What’s with this spiritual “recalculating”? Here’s my take on that.

Jesus invites all of us to choose a change in lifestyle, a lifestyle that we might find enjoyable and might satiate our varying appetites but, in reality, runs contrary to our Lord’s expectations from those who claim they want to follow him.

This is the lifestyle that prohibits us from a faithful discharge of our baptismal covenant of loving not only God in and through Jesus but in every person as well. On the contrary, we are prompted to affirm this thereby allowing us to follow Jesus and not just being contented to worship him. This change of lifestyle is not imposed, but failure to accept it has disastrous consequences. We might be enjoying those “luscious scenery and cool breeze of excitement” but the truth is that we’re headed the opposite direction.

The only sensible resolve is for us to turn around and get back to the right track. This willful act of turning around is called  “Repentance,” or “Metanoia” in its popular Greek origin. It is a change of mind and heart, a lifelong process of transformation. It entails a paradigm shift from disloyalty to loyalty to someone who ought to matter most in our life, Jesus.

In “inviting” us to change, Jesus is not asking for the temporary foregoing of something pleasurable, like giving up chocolate or smoking for Lent. Sometimes such practices become simply a test of willpower. The “metanoia” to which Jesus invites us is both a turning away from whatever inhibits the full blooming of the divine intent for creation and a turning toward the source of divine love.

“Repent, and believe in the Good News."

Today is the First Sunday in Lent; a season in our church year when we hear the prompting "to change” the loudest. Indeed, there is no better time to begin our heading back to our intended direction than now. These forty days in Lent are indeed short but that makes it even more important that we begin it now.

Good intentions to make better lifestyle choices in the future become empty rhetoric in light of the urgency of Jesus’ invitation. We cannot afford to stay any longer on that wrong direction no matter how exciting it has been laid out before our eyes.

Now is the time to do it. Now is the time for all of us to turn around. And when we do, we once again see the familiar landmarks and while there may be less of those “exciting turns” the good news is that we’re back on track and safe in God’s hands.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


“Being in a condition of darkness, what do you most desire?”

The appropriate response to this question is “light”. It’s a Q & A (Question and Answer) that would not require any second-guessing. When you are in a condition of darkness, the very thing that you would desire or want is “light”, thereby putting an end to the fear or anxiety or even confusion that surely abound in such a state of being.

While some may associate darkness with calmness and serenity, others regard it to be somehow breeding fear and anxiety. Kids learn this early in life when they tell mother “Leave the lights on, Mom”. They “know” that with lights on, those terrifying “monsters” in the closet have no chance to come out and scare the heck out of them.

Darkness also induces confusion. From experience, we know that we usually end up getting disoriented without light in the room or in the house. We could only rely on our ability to remember where things are but as a norm, darkness prompts confusion.

Hurt and discomfort are some of the resultant effects of darkness, as in tripping on your children’s toys that somehow have become part of your living room landscape along with that vacuum cleaner that never got put away.

These are a few of the reasons why when asked: “Being in a condition of darkness, what do you most desire?” we do not hesitate to reply “Light”. It is also a question that could have easily been floated around among members of the early church and to which a similar response would have been given, no doubt.

In some sense, a “condition of darkness” could have been attributed to the disturbing mindset that characterized the transition period of the early church. Putting this in context, recall that Christianity has its roots in the Jewish faith. Christianity was not an invention of some sort that somehow appeared out of nowhere. It was the Jewish religion that served as the opening act of the great salvation drama that prompted the formation of a group we now call Christians.

God chose to reveal the God-self by naming Abraham to be the father of a great nation. God chose to reveal what was expected of Israel with the giving of the Law through Moses. God also sent the Prophets in His attempt to remind Israel of the covenant that continued in spite of their repeated wanderings. It was also to them that God promised to send the Messiah; the Savior of mankind and this prophecy was believed by some to have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

These early believers of the new faith community included those who “dropped” their nets; who “left” their trade, their family and went to follow Jesus. They were the ones who first responded to the call of discipleship and continued to believe in Him, especially after His death and the convincing mystery called ‘resurrection’.

There were, however, those who were not so clear about this new dispensation, especially on the primacy of Jesus. They somehow became “confused” where Jesus’ death and resurrection stood vis-a-vis the Law and the Prophets. And the reason for this was due to the exceptional depth of how their faith was ingrained in them.

With their sense of history intertwined in their faith formation, it was not easy for most of them to let go of the primacy of the Law and the Torah. Moses was very much active in their religious milieu. The same could be said about the level of importance they ascribe to the Prophets. Of the major ones, Elijah gained quite a distinction. He and the other prophets continued to serve as beacons during Israel’s long perilous journey; hence, for those who were introduced to Jesus as the new leader, they saw him perhaps as of equal category with Jeremiah and Isaiah and Elijah, to name a few.

In other words, they had some un-clarity in their new set of faith beliefs regarding the primacy of Jesus. With Jesus physically no longer with them; having resurrected and ascended to His Father, the new community’s condition of “darkness” was beginning to foster “anxiety and confusion” and disunity so much so that they needed to be “enlightened” with the “light” that Jesus, the Son of God, represented.

The issue had to be settled and the onus was on those who chose to write the Gospel, the “Good News”, to tell the primacy of Jesus as above the Law and the Prophets. Hence, the story of the Transfiguration had to be told.

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  (Mark 9:2-9)

This story appears in all of the Synoptic Gospels, namely, Matthew, Mark and Luke. With a slight difference on the timeline of the event, with Matthew and Mark saying “after six days” while Luke says “after eight days”, all three are in agreement when it comes to the individuals who purportedly witnessed the event. Peter, James and his brother John saw it.

They are also in agreement in the way Jesus was portrayed, with his garments becoming white as light; becoming glistening as light and becoming dazzling white. Again, all three gospel accounts are in agreement that there were two others who were in conversation with Jesus; Moses and Elijah. The other things we readily notice include the voice that proclaimed Jesus as God’s son and that the witnesses were to “listen to him”. The final observation is that, in the end, Jesus was the only one left; Moses was gone. Elijah wasn’t there either and that they were not to tell others about it, not until after He has resurrected.

These distinct pieces in the Transfiguration Story are very much related to the introductory materials about “darkness and light”. Yes they are but perhaps not that obvious. So, let’s do some unpacking here.

Let me begin by saying that this gospel account fulfilled that need to provide some clarity as to who Jesus really is. Jesus, with his dazzling white raiment, could be viewed as a good imagery of how brightness is indeed a tool of illumination. In the case of the early faith community’s “confusion” and their being “in a condition of darkness”, they were induced to accept the “blinding” truth that Jesus, after all, transcended the Law and the Prophets. They, therefore, no longer had to cling to the old now that the new has come. This allusion to Jesus’ primacy over the Law and the Prophets is wonderfully illustrated in the scene where Jesus was in the midst of Moses and Elijah and after that transfiguring moment, when they were back to reality, Moses, the icon of the Law and Elijah, the icon of the Prophets, were nowhere to be seen. In other words, only Jesus remained; only Jesus really matters.

This was the truth about the Transfiguration Story. This gospel story, with all its surreal language, was a strong reminder of Jesus’ centrality in their faith. It is this very same truth that has been passed down to us and continues to be a source of clarity amidst conditions of darkness.

One scene in the Transfiguration Story that is so relevant to us is the thundering voice heard, claiming Jesus as God’s beloved Son, also enjoining them to “listen to him”. Hearing this reminds us of yet another dire need that has to be addressed; our being “lost” amidst these “voices” competing to attract our attention.

I happen to have frequent nightmares and as the term suggests, they often leave me gasping for breath when I am back to reality. One of these nightmares is about me drowning but not the kind of drowning that happens in a body of water. This was “drowning” amidst loud voices; lots of voices that seem to “push” me down into some kind of an abyss and usually ends with me gasping for air; hence, the imagery of drowning.

In some sense, this imagery speaks of the conflicting interests that demand our attention and even our loyalty and in the process blurs our vision about who God is in our lives. Our work, unabated, pulls us away from that focal point. Our family may follow suit, along with all other “voices” claiming our undivided attention. But we all know that they are not really the ones that should matter. It should be God.

The Transfiguration Story could help us in this regard. The thundering voice once said: “This is my beloved Son: listen to him.” It’s the same voice that speaks to us today. Wherever we might be, in our condition of darkness, we need to seek for the Light. We need to seek for the Light who was alluded to in the Transfiguration Story. We also need to “listen” to the One who occupies or ought to occupy the most central place in our lives. We also need to tell others about this, not just through words but also through the more concrete manifestations of those beliefs. It has to be proclaimed today and in the days ahead.

My dear friends in Christ, by Wednesday, we will be entering another season in our liturgical year; the season of Lent, 40 days of reflection and waiting for the Resurrection of the Lord. That penitential season of Lent should be a good time to challenge us to really think about our actions and intentions toward others.

As we end today the liturgical season of Epiphany with the Transfiguration Story, let us be inspired by it to attempt to transform ourselves into better persons. May there be no more doubt about the primacy of Jesus in our lives. God said: “This is my Beloved. Listen to him.” May we listen to that voice and open our minds and our hearts to his transforming presence.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

God is good. All the time.

“God is good. All the time.” When you hear the phrase “God is good.” the response is “All the time”. And when you say it, you should say it like you really mean it and believe that God is good and that He is truly such, all the time.

This greeting is widely practiced in most evangelical congregations, including those from “born-again” congregations and from Afro-American or Black churches. It has been said that, generally, Episcopalians are not accustomed to this kind of greeting. One Episcopalian once noted that when she was in a group of Baptists, the Pastor addressed her and said, “God is good” and kind of waited for a reply and she, not really knowing what to say, reluctantly said: “He is indeed. Alleluia”, using the Easter greeting she’s more familiar with.

Okay. So we’re not used to it but I think, maybe there’s a reason why “All the time” does not resonate well with other Christians, let alone the average Episcopalian. I honestly believe that while most Christians could attest in unison that, indeed, “God is good”, there are others who could be skeptical about the “all the time” part of it. It’s as though they’ll agree and say: “Yes, I know, God is good. And I agree, but I also honestly don’t think that God is good all the time.”

“God is good. All the time! Really?"
I think residents of The Land Down Under would not likely have responded “All the Time” as they recall the disaster that hit Queensland in January last year. That hesitancy would have been most certainly paralleled by residents of Christchurch in New Zealand, as they view the aftermath of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake last year that caused buildings to topple down on buses.  Residents of some parts of Japan watched with horror as the raging tsunami caused by the strongest earthquake that hit Japan in 100 years, wrought havoc and engulfed towns.

“God is good. All the time! Perhaps”
And then there are work issues. Just when you begin to “tighten up your belt” news about the lay-off that the company was trying to delay for sometime finally happens. Just when you really need those extra hours to help pay for daycare, they’ve been cutback as well. Who knows if the company you work for going to be around in a year or so. Will that new CEO, who doesn’t even know you or what you are capable of doing, fire you as he plans to please his stockholders?

“God is good. All the time! Hopefully.”           
And then there’s your family. The people you love. You see your parents getting much older; perhaps becoming less stable and word comes around she has another fall. Or perhaps, you begin to see your child struggling in this or that and finally, you’re told he has this rare learning ability. Or perhaps your marital life becomes more and more unbearable and you end up fighting who gets what or who.

You get the picture? You see, sometimes the setbacks and disparities in life challenge faith. We wonder if God caused these evils and whether, as some preachers would suggest, they are really God’s punishment. But then again, why would a good God do it in the first place? Why would a good and loving God answer other people’s prayers and not heed yours? Or worse yet, does He ever exist?

If ever these words begin to sound scary as you find affinity in one or more of the examples I have illustrated, don’t worry. You’re not alone in this. In fact there are really quite a lot of Christians out there who might need some serious conversation about this faith-based anxiety.

And here’s where I find our Old Testament Reading from Isaiah very helpful and timely. So let’s do some unpacking. The people of Israel, especially the Judeans, in the late sixth century BCE, were in a similar predicament as those I’ve included in our illustrations of disasters and calamities. They were a people in agony, their great city of Jerusalem conquered and in ruins, under Babylonian control. They could have easily lamented as they searched for answers to the whereabouts of their God in the midst of this catastrophe. The prophet Isaiah was writing to them at a time when they felt like their strength was sapped and they had no hope.

“God is good. All the time! There were those who responded “LO” (meaning ‘No’) but they actually had another way of making that lament. The prophet Isaiah quotes them saying, “My way is hidden from the LORD; and my right is disregarded by my God.” In other words “God doesn’t really care about us!” “How can he?” Look at all this bad and difficult stuff that is happening all around us.” “He’s not really in charge of things!”

Does it sound familiar? Of course, it does. Their lament and ours appear to be both premised by the claim that God must be partisan; to use a term that connotes some selective preference. He must be good, indeed, but not all the time! Otherwise, why would God answer pleas and supplications of others and not yours? Why would some continue to live almost a hundred years while a three year old gets his life snuffed just like that?

Seems like a justifiable line of argument, isn’t it? And at times, we feel the same. We say, ‘It’s not fair’. But then again, maybe we are the ones who don’t see the big picture. I suspect that only when we find ourselves in one of those terrible and challenging situations and don’t get what we want that we all end up blaming God for what we believe as his ‘partisan’ tendency. And when we begin to remember only the bad ones, then we, in a sense, have ‘selective memory’. In a way, we have become ‘partial amnesiacs’, remembering only what we want to.

This is best seen when things are really doing well. We rarely invoke God to offer thanksgiving for the manifold blessings we enjoy. But as soon as things go awry, we ‘remember’ God and plead our case before His Heavenly Throne. This latter stance is best seen on our hesitancy of blurting the phrase “All the time” to the greeting “God is good”. He was for some time but not now, we claim.

The prophet Isaiah wanted nothing to do with the selective memory or ‘partial amnesia’ of a disheartened Israel. Isaiah was not going to condone such a questioning community in their failure to see the very source of the created order. Hence, the prophet asks them, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? He, (meaning, YHWH, God) sits enthroned above the circle of the earth. And its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

And he confronts them again and say, “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:27-31)

God created everything and is above everything and rules everything. In other words, God’s goodness knows no bounds and we need to look beyond the stuff of the world and the stuff of your life” and see the one who is behind it all and also the one above it all.

Our selective memory or ‘partial amnesia’ is not beyond repair. We can still fix it and one way of finding a resolve for this predicament is to constantly remind ourselves that we are not in charge of the present, God is!  We are not in charge of the future, either. God is! God is in charge! God is the Lord! But there’s even more. Not only is God in charge, but God also loves us with a perfect love; one on which we can totally rely.

He even gave us some very reassuring words. Listen to Isaiah once again: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

God wants us to soar on wings like eagles. And the way it happens is through a paradigm shift in our mindset. When we commence entrusting our life to God instead of our self, our mindset is changed. Everything in our life is dwarfed in comparison to the largeness and authority of the Lord. He is bigger than any problem we might face. Remember Isaiah as he says; “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth”.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, as we learn to trust God, we begin to see things from His perspective. He draws us upward in faith; so that we begin to get a bird’s eye view of things, or better yet, a God’s eye view.

Yes, we will still have to face problems and great challenges, all of us will; until the day we die, but we will not face them alone. The Lord will face them with us. And that can make all the difference. That is the strength we need to move on in our life and faith journeys.

So after all, with the greeting "God is good", there’s wisdom in responding "All the time". God never abandons His creation in spite of their having erred, again and again. The truth is that this loving and compassionate God does not give up on us. 

“God is good. All the time!