God and my Dog

Coach Sees the Light

A little over 14 years ago a friend gave me one of the greatest gifts that I have ever received; a west highland white terrier we called Coach. If you are a dog lover then you understand how a dog is not a pet but is a member of the family. If you are not a dog lover you should probably stop reading.

Coach and I were joined at the hip. Just thinking about him would make me smile. But then last weekend he became fatally ill and I had to take him to the vet and hold him in my lap while they put him to sleep. It is an understatement to say that it was a very dark day and a brokenhearted week that followed.

To assuage my grief I have tried to concentrate on the things that I loved about him and what he represented to my life. Being a creature of God, Coach reflected his Creator.

Coach loved passionately. There was nothing lukewarm about him. When I would be working in the back yard and go out through the fence, even for a matter of moments, Coach would meet me at the gate on my return. He would bark loudly while throwing his head back and forth as if to say, “Where in the world did you go? You have been gone for YEARS!”

Early in the mornings Coach would scratch on my side of the bed and then jump up and press in hard against me to give me a morning hug. His love knew no limits.

God loves us passionately and without limits as well. He loves us so much that He took on flesh and died on our behalf. As Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” What does God expect from us in return? Simply that we love Him back. I saw a sign out in front of a church that nailed it. “God wants full custody, not weekend visitation.”

Coach accepted me…..period. I could come home in a good mood and he would meet me at the door with tail wagging. I could come home in a bad mood and have the same greeting. If I had been away for several days still he was happy to see me and if I was sick he would stay by my side. Coach did not condemn me. The only time that I could tell that Coach would be upset with me was when I had been at another home and he could smell other dogs on me. He would sniff me and simply walk away.

That quality in Coach also reflected his Creator. We don’t have to get good enough for God to accept us. The Bible says, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” God accepts us when we are in a good mood or a bad mood or when we are in any mood. God accepts us when we are doing right and He even accepts us when we are doing wrong, as long as we come back to Him like the Prodigal Son. God does not condemn us. The only time that we will be able to tell that God is upset with us is if He smells other gods on us.

What really surprised me after Coach’s death was how empty our home became. We still have two other dogs but that has not prevented our home from feeling like a mausoleum. I had no idea what a presence he was and how greatly he filled our lives. We are having to adjust to a new normal without Coach.

It is the same with God. We probably take His presence for granted and do not realize how much He fills our lives, but the Scripture says that, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” If we try to live apart from Him our lives would be very empty. But gratefully we don’t have to get used to a new normal without God in our lives. We have His promise that nothing can separate us from His love and that He will never leave us or forsake us.

There is a beautiful poem by Wendy J. Francisco that says it so well.

I look up and I see God,

I look down and see my dog.

Simple spelling G O D,

same word backwards, D O G.

They would stay with me all day.

I’m the one who walks away.

But both of them just wait for me,

and dance at my return with glee.

Both love me no matter what –

divine God and canine mutt.

I take it hard each time I fail,

but God forgives, dog wags his tail.

God thought up and made the dog,

dog reflects a part of God.

I’ve seen love from both sides now,

it’s everywhere, amen, bow wow.

 

 

 

Made From Love For Love

Trinity and Love

Last year I followed the tradition of all wise rectors and I asked my assistant priest to preach on Trinity Sunday. But then Fr. Guill called and asked if I would supply for him so I ended up having to write a sermon on the Trinity nonetheless. Trust me it’s a daunting task. As our choirmaster put it in an email, “1+1+1 = 1, what’s so hard to understand about that?”

         So this year I purposed to dodge that bullet and once again asked my assistant priest to preach on Trinity Sunday. Perfect. But then Fr. Guill called and asked if I could supply for him and before looking at the calendar I agreed. He got me again! I’m beginning to feel like Elmer Fudd being out smarted by that Wascally Wabbit, Fr. Guill.

         But to be honest it is as much of an honor as it is daunting to speak on this great Truth because this truth is the core of our faith. You were baptized in the Name of the Trinity, you spend your life worshipping the Holy Trinity and when you die the priest will say last rites over you with these words, “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you…” We are from cradle to grave Trinitarians. To paraphrase a passage of Scripture, it is in this Truth that we live and move and have our being. If we are wrong about this understanding of God then we are wrong about everything and so St. Athanasius is spot on when he said that we must keep this truth whole and undefiled or we will perish everlastingly. But the $64,000 question is how we go about keeping this Truth whole and undefiled when it is such a great mystery? How do we wrap our minds around 1+1+1 = 1?

         First we need to clarify some history. Cults and DaVinci Code type revisionists argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is an artificial doctrine that was imposed on the Church in the 4th century by Constantine and a council of Bishops. I once had a man sit in my office and argue that their actions introduced this heresy in the Church and it has been downhill ever since. That is of course until their cult leader or Dan Brown came along to make things right again.

         While it is true that a complete teaching of the Trinity evolved over several centuries in the life of the Church, but it is erroneous to state that it came about as a result of a conference or because some Grand Pubah said we should believe it. The truth is that the Church EXPERIENCED the Trinity way before she could articulate it.

Both Old and New Testaments are clear that there is only one God. Of that there can be no doubt. But at the very beginning we read in Genesis God saying, “let US make man in OUR own image.” The “us” does not refer to the angels because man is creature that is distinct from angels; and yet there is only one God. The very word for God in Hebrew, Elohim, is plural noun; but there is only one God. When God appears to Abraham at Mamre, He does so in the form of three angels; but there is only One God. The Father promises through the prophets to send the Son. And how does the Son come to us? The Son comes to us because the Spirit will overshadow a Virgin; but there is only one God. At Jesus’ baptism the Father speaks from heaven while the Spirit descends like a dove upon the Son; but there is only one God. Jesus says that He was before Abraham, therefore claiming to be God, and yet he speaks of doing the will of the Father and sending us the Spirit; but there is only one God. When Thomas touches Jesus wounds after Jesus is raised from the dead, Thomas worships Jesus and cries out “My Lord and my God”; but there is only one God. In the heavens the angels and archangels and all of the company of heaven cry out not “Holy” and not “Holy, Holy” but “Holy, Holy, Holy;” and yet there is only one God. Jesus has sent the Church into the world preaching and baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; but there is only one God.

So you see the Church experienced the Trinity way before she could even articulate the truth of it. Is it a problem that we still can’t quite wrap our minds around this truth? No. We can’t wrap our minds around an Infinite God any more than an ant can comprehend mankind, and yet we still love, worship and obey Him. The doctrine of the Trinity is indeed a mystery but it is a mystery not to try to solve, rather it is a mystery to celebrate.

One of the many reasons to celebrate it is because it answers the universal question, “Why am I here?” I have heard various Sunday Schools teaching and sermons that attempt to answer that question. One very popular theory is that God created us for fellowship. Here God had made this perfect world in six days and He had no one to share it with so He made man and woman and put them in the garden to enjoy it along with Him.

That sounds lovely but the doctrine of the Trinity points out how very wrong that theory is. From a time before there was time, that is to say from eternity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have been in perfect communion with one another. For eternity the Father has delighted in the Son who has delighted in the Sprit who has delighted in the Father. So the image of God getting tired of going out to dinner alone so He created us should be dismissed. He did not create us out of some need for fellowship.

Some offer another suggestion. I have heard a couple of sermons about how God has a plan for His world but He can’t get it done without us, so we have been created to serve Him. The idea is that God is the coach and we are the team and so there is no victory without both God and man.

At first glance that may make us feel pretty important but upon further investigation it becomes a scary thought. What kind of God would He be if He is depending on me to accomplish His will?

Because God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, He is perfect not only in His being but also in His ways. There is nothing God needs or lacks. As He almost sarcastically puts it in the Psalm 50, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills….If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” We don’t serve God because He has a need for our service. We serve God because we have a need to serve. God uses us, without a doubt, but there is a difference between God using us and God needing us. Jesus once told a crowd that they shouldn’t get too full of themselves in claiming to be God’s children, because God can make children out of stones. (Mt 3:9). No, God didn’t create us because He needed us.

So if God did not make us because He was lonely or because He needed us to serve Him, then why did He make us? Why am I here?

I believe that the answer comes as we look to the relationship of the Blessed Trinity. God, as the Scriptures tell us, is love. And He did not have to wait until He created something to start to love. Because there has always been Father, Son and Spirit, there has always been love. Creation is the natural expression of His love. Therefore we can say that we were created out of love for love. That is why we are here.

How do we test this theory? What did Jesus say was the summation of all of the law and all of the prophets? We are to love God and love our neighbor. What was the New Commandment that Jesus gave us? It is that we are to love one another. Or listen to this from Jesus, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love…I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:9-12). Why are you here? You were created out of love for love.

Another reason to celebrate the mystery is that it gives us insights into ourselves. Since we have been created in the image of a Triune God, it should not surprise us that there is an interrelationship in us of mind and body and spirit. We are to cultivate all three because when we ignore any one of them we suffer.

If the spirit leaves the body it dies. If the body gets ill it affects the spirit. For example have you ever tried to be spiritual when you have the flu? If we ignore the spirit our minds become darkened. It is no coincidence that as our culture has moved further and further away from God that we descend into a national debate about transgendered bathrooms. Even five years ago who would have predicted that Bruce Jenner would be honored as “woman of the year” in spite of the fact that he hasn’t even had the surgery? Ignoring our spirits has darkened our minds and it is why we are falling apart as a nation. It is why the Millennials, who have abandoned the Church by the droves, are so enamored with socialism. They now look to the government instead of God to give them their daily bread. When we ignore our spirits are minds are darkened.

But armed with this insight of the interrelationship of body, mind and spirit we can see the importance of caring for all three. We can be whole and balanced people, a reflection of the Blessed Trinity. That is how we become salt and light to the world.

Celebrating the Trinity gives us insight into why friendship and community and family are so important. God Himself exists in community and so like it or not, as much as we might want to be John Wayne and ride off into the sunset, we need one another. That is not neurotic or codependent, it is just the way we were created. Friendship is a part of this. Family is part of this. The Church is a part of this. We may think that we are deeply spiritual when we are off by ourselves praying or meditating but the test of our spirituality comes when we interact with one another. Being a Christian means being baptized into Christ’s Body and being sent into God’s world, not going off to a cave to get holy.

In the end, even more important than understanding the theology of the Trinity is to actually know the Trinity. To know God the Father, as He is revealed to us in God the Son and to walk in the power of God the Holy Spirit. That is the point. And like all relationships, our relationship with the Blessed Trinity requires commitment and time. As we spend time in the Scriptures and in prayer and in worship, as we receive our Lord through the sacraments, our relationship with the Blessed Trinity grows and deepens. It is not an overnight thing rather it is a lifelong pursuit. In this Eucharist the Triune God invites us to come to Him now and pursue that relationship. Here this from God’s Word. “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life”. So may we humble ourselves and come to Him, and may God be forever blessed, who has He revealed Himself to us; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Vision for Unity

Unity

Lessons – Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 47; Revelation 22:12-20; St. John 17:20-26

 

“That they may be completely one, as we are one…so that the world may know that you haven sent me and has loved them even as you have loved me.”

 

A young priest arrives at this first cure and on the desk are three sealed envelopes. Just as he wonders to himself what they are the phone rings. It is his predecessor who had just retired. The old wise priest said, “ I left you three envelopes. When things get difficult in the parish, and you feel that the parish’s unity is being challenged, open an envelope”. At first things went wonderfully but after the honeymoon wore off, division and backbiting set in and much of the anger was focused on the young priest. So he opened the first envelope. It said, “Go ahead and blame me for the problems. I am retired and gone and it will take the focus off of you.” The young priest followed the advice and the division ended and unity was restored. But before long the rancor returned with even more division and so the priest opened the second envelope. It said, “Blame the diocese. It is large and wealthy and makes an easy target. A common enemy will get you all pulling in the same direction.” This tactic worked even better than the first and it seemed like peace had finally set in for good. But to his dismay the infighting returned. Once more unity was shattered and so when he could take it no longer he opened the third envelope. Its advice was simple. It said, “Prepare three envelopes.”

While I would never be so Pollyannaish as to believe that the Church can exist without any problems, I do believe that Christians in general have accepted a standard for unity that is far below the standard given to us by the Head of the Church. While He is praying for our unity we cavalierly accept division. John Johnson once told me that he came from a church that not only would fight at the drop of a hat but they will even drop the hat. I do not believe that we have to accept that as the status quo.

Clearly from this Gospel lesson, Jesus wants His Church to be unified. The context of this prayer is this is the night before His death. So this beautiful prayer, often called the High Priestly prayer, is what is on the heart of our Savior as He prepares to die.

As we take a closer look at this prayer we can receive instruction about what it is that He seeks for us. I want to give credit where it is due. The bullet points for this sermon comes from an insightful bible scholar named Bruce Milne and his commentary on the Gospel of John.

The first point that we need to understand about the kind of unity for which Jesus prays is that is a supernatural unity. Not only is it supernatural in its application but it is supernatural in its origin. In fact the unity for which Jesus prays is a reflection of the unity of the Blessed Trinity. “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” Thus He is praying for a unity that only the Trinity can bring about.

That may at first sound discouraging. “Oh great, our divisions are so deep that it will take a miracle from heaven to bring about unity.” But we can look at it another way. It is good news that the Lord does not put the impetus for unity on us because whenever we try to do it in our own power we mess up royally. I have seen it from the World Council of Churches to diocesan committees, when we try to create unity it inevitably comes down to how much truth we have to jettison from the ship in order to find agreement. But that is not unity, that is compromise. When God brings about unity, rather than abandoning the truth, we unite under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. This requires not compromise but submission to His Lordship.

Is unity just a biblical pipe dream? I don’t believe so. I believe God’s work for unity is all around us but we will only see it if we have hearts that hunger to see God at work. Let me give you three examples and let me add that none of them are without their problems, but they are God’s work nonetheless.

First is the charismatic movement. In the first half of the 20th Century, Pentecostalism was on the rise, but it existed mostly among the poor and less educated. By and large it was outside the mainline denominations. For Pentecostals, mainline denominations were the enemy and the worst of the worst was the Roman Catholic Church. But then in the late 1960’s Father Dennis Bennet spoke in tongues and Pentecostalism came to the Episcopal Church. I’m not sure how it was initiated in the other denominations but this movement ran rapidly across denominational lines. Before anyone realized it had even entered the Roman Catholic Church! To the shock of Pentecostals, rosary praying Catholics were loving Jesus, speaking in tongues, and still praying the rosary. No one saw that coming!

I attended a conference in Kansas City in the 1980’s to observe this phenomenon and it was remarkable. During the day we separated into our denominations but at night we would gather together for worship in a football stadium. The most moving event for me was a healing service. On the platform were leaders from every denomination and non-denomination and then out came the preacher for the night. He was in vestments because for him the healing service was a sacrament. His name was Fr. Francis McNutt, a Roman Catholic priest. He preached and ministered the sacrament of unction and that night every stripe of Protestant joined their prayers with Roman Catholics and a unity that only God could have created was in evidence.

The charismatic movement has had its share of difficulties but God has used it to cross man-made barriers and that has to be a good thing. Until that time no one could have imagined Pentecostal Protestants receiving the laying on of hands by a Roman priest. Only God could have pulled this off.

A second example is Promise Keepers. Like the charismatic movement it is not without its problems but I have witnessed the hand of God in that movement. I attended a meeting in Atlanta with over 60,000 men from every denomination that you can imagine. Let me tell you, to be a part of 60,000 men singing the great hymns of the church was worth the drive alone.

On the first night I heard the singularly most boring gospel sermon I had ever heard. It was dry and very poorly presented. In fact it was so bad that I was embarrassed for the preacher. Then I watched about a quarter of those 60,000 men come forward to confess Jesus as Lord. It was definitely not the preaching, and since it was only the first meeting in a 3 day event, there was not enough time for psychological manipulation. God was in that place creating a unity that only God could create and the fruit of it was made manifest. I’m not sure what is going on with Promise Keepers today, but God used it and perhaps has moved on from there. Remember Jesus told us that the Spirit is like the wind moving when and where He wills.

A third example of supernatural unity I believe is seen in the Alpha movement. It started in a tiny Anglican church that was about to fold in Brompton, England in 1977. It was a course explaining the basics of the Christian faith and the first class was with the Vicar and 13 people around his kitchen table. I have not seen an Alpha paper in some time but the last time I did, they were estimating that some 6 million people have taken the course. Nearly 30,000 courses are taught in 143 countries every year. When I attended a leadership training meeting in Nashville there were denominations represented that I knew nothing about. God has used Alpha to unite Christ’s Body in a way no man could have planned, certainly not that Anglican vicar in 1977.

My point is that we don’t have to feel helpless about seeking unity. Yes only God can do it, but if we will open our hearts and pray for unity as Jesus prayed for it, then we will also open our eyes and see it all around us. As you well know, unity is not found in resolutions from Conventions. It is found by watching for what God is doing and then being a part of it. It will not be perfect because when man gets his hands on it it becomes tainted. But that is still not a reason not to seek it. It is our Lord’s will. The unity for which Jesus prays is supernatural.

Second the unity Jesus holds before us is a tangible unity. It is not just a sentiment. It is a unity that the world is supposed to be able to see. “That they may become completely one, so that the world will know that you have sent me.”

When I was in college we used to get all sentimental and sing a song about how we are one in the Spirit but we knew in our hearts that while Jesus loved everyone He loved our group the best and so we kept to ourselves. It has been my experience that this kind of thinking makes a group insular and spiritually unhealthy. It is as we reach out to other parts of Christ’s Body that we and they are benefited.

I had a very humbling experience with this tangible unity. Years ago a Church of Christ minister had befriended me and came to an occasional mid week Mass. When he heard about us getting a church together in Chattanooga he asked if he could accompany me to the first Mass. Since Jesus had sent the boys out by twos he wanted to be there for support. While we were driving to Chattanooga he told me that if any of his board found out that he had attended an Anglican mass that he would be fired as pastor. I felt guilty for naively putting him at risk but at the same time I was awed with his example of putting it on the line for the sake of unity. That is the kind of tangible unity for which Jesus prayed.

Lastly because unity is so tangible that it can be seen, it is therefore evangelistic. Again Jesus prays, “that the world may know that you have sent me and loved them even as you loved me”

I met a priest from India who was doing PhD work in Scotland. He told me that in that part of the world Christians have discovered that they are much more effective in terms of missions if they downplay their differences and focus on the Gospel that unties them. They are not so much Baptist Christians and Anglican Christians as much as they are simply Christians. I have known a number of missionaries and they tell me that this is not unique to India. It is generally true in the mission field that Christians cooperate to a much greater degree with each other than we do in the States. Why? Because the people they are evangelizing do not understand why Christians would be divided. The nuances that separate us are lost on the non-Christian. The difference between believer’s baptism and infant baptism may seem like an important point of contention in the U.S. but not to some tribal guy in Sri Lanka. If a guy declares that he will not be a Christian unless he can bring his whole family with him, the missionary is too focused upon the family’s salvation to get into a debate about dunking versus sprinkling. The missionary who does not believe in infant baptism will find someone who did and together they would baptize the entire family. It is this kind of cooperation that has resulted in missionaries being so successful around the world and it is why 1/3rd of the world’s population is now Christian.

Imagine what would happen if rather than seeing that as a practical necessity on the mission field, we in the Church consider the U.S. a mission field and seek the same kind of unity with one another in order to win the more?

It may seem ironic that I am preaching on unity when our own Communion continues to divide. But perhaps there is a different way to look at it. Perhaps what we are experiencing is not so much a division as a pruning so that we can experience true unity. We are not the only part of the Body of Christ that is experiencing this pruning. Maybe we are all going through this so that we can be unified with the other pruned parts of the Vine so that we avoid compromising truth for unity’s sake.

I have no idea what the future holds except that it will contain a united Church. How do I know that? I know that because Jesus prayed for it to be so. Can you ever imagine Jesus offering a prayer that the Father will not answer? We may pray amiss but He never does. So in one way or another, even if it is very different from what we see today, Jesus’ Church will be one. Let’s pray with Jesus that this unity will become a reality and then let’s make ourselves available the Father to use us toward that end and to even make us the means for answering Jesus’ prayer. Amen.