Archive for March, 2018

David saw beautiful Bathsheba and couldn’t resist.

The lectionary for this 5th Sunday of Lent includes the psalm that poured out of David after the prophet Nathan made him own up to two Whopper Burger sins: murder and adultery.

Psalm 51 begins with David’s unflinching confession of guilt:

    Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
    according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

    For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
    Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
    so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.

The great spiritual writer and pastor Eugene H. Peterson says this in his book Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality For Everyday Christians:

    In the Christian life our primary task isn’t to avoid sin, which is impossible anyway, but to recognize sin. The fact is that we’re sinners. But there’s an enormous amount of self-deception in sin. When this is combined with devil-deception, the task of recognition is compounded.

    We don’t want to face sin because we don’t want to lose our god-illusions; we’re afraid that if we’re not the gods of our lives and actions we’re nothing. … We think that if our sin is taken away, we’ll be less. What happens is we become more.

I see our craving for power over ourselves and others — or our fear of letting go of power — as the driving force of our “self-deceptions” and “devil-deceptions.” The fear that, as Peterson suggests, we’ll be less — nothings, nobodies.

We fear we will be — or perceived to be — (to use a word we hear a lot these days) losers!

We love us some winning, right? And winning requires power.

What could be better for a manly man than winning a hot babe like Bathsheba?

Peterson notes:

    “The subtlety of sin is that it doesn’t feel like sin when we’re doing it, it feels godlike, it feels religious, it feels fulfilling and satisfying — a reply of the episode in Eden when the tempter said, ‘You shall not die … ye shall be as gods” (Gen. 3:4-5, KJV).

    “David didn’t feel like a sinner when he sent for Bathsheba; he felt like a lover — and what can be better than that? David didn’t feel like a sinner when he sent for Uriah; he felt like a king — and what can be better than that?”

It was good to be King David: He got hot Bathsheba into his bed after all.

It’s like the hilarious Mel Brooks says repeatedly in “The History of the World: Part 1”: “It’s good to be King!”

It’s good because power is intoxicating. Having the power to summon a beautiful woman like Bathsheba over to the palace, and having the power to have her husband offed, didn’t feel like sin to David. The power of it all just felt good.

Power makes us feel like winners. Vulnerability feels a little scary, if not a lot scary.

For sure, moral consequences for David’s Double Whopper Sins dogged him the rest of his long life. (The heavy price David paid for his sexual sin seems to be lost on those who compare David’s sinful ways to a certain unrepentant American leader’s wrongs.)

But Psalm 51 was a big part of his recovery from his wrongs. It started with his recognizing and owning up to his. In his being honest-to-God to himself and to God, he found his true humanity.

David didn’t feel like a sinner when he took Bathsheba to be his. He just felt like a powerful lover. (Bathsheba holding king David’s letter by Willem Drost, 1654, Louvre Museum)

And here’s the kicker: as whopping big as they were, his sins were outdone by God’s grace.

Peterson notes that it’s always a mistake to concentrate attention on our sins; it’s God’s work on our sins that matters.

“Our sins aren’t that interesting; it’s God’s work that’s interesting. … After it (sin) has been recognized and confessed, the less said about it the better,” he writes.

This connects with what the great prophet Jeremiah said in one of my own favorite pastoral scriptures:

    The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24)

Here is the whole of Psalm 51 (NRSV):

51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

51:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

51:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

51:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

51:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

51:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

51:8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

51:9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

51:11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

51:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

51:13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

51:14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

51:15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

51:16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

51:17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

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Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son,” which I had the deeply spiritual pleasure of seeing in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Dutch master’s painting is every bit as powerful as its reputation.

A dear Baptist friend who is a retired minister and former boss of mine had a long and fruitful career as a hospital chaplain.

Early in that career he spent almost a full year of his life living with hardcore drug addicts in a hospital’s lockdown rehab facility.

It was quite a sacrifice for a man who was a young husband and father at the time. But he wanted to learn about the dynamics of addiction and addictive behavior in an up-close and personal way.

My friend told the story of a young addict whose life was about as messed up as one young life can possibly get. One day when my pastor friend was introducing himself to a group of addicts, he mentioned that he was an ordained Baptist preacher. The messed-up young addict thought he saw an opportunity to shock the socks off the Baptist preacher.

“I’m a devil worshiper!” the kid said gleefully.

My friend didn’t miss a beat. “Wow!” he said, feigning envy. “A devil worshiper. That’s really interesting!

“How’s it working out for you?”

So here’s your Lenten thought for the day:

    So what would your response be to someone so hostile to God and faith?

Like any good pastor providing good pastoral care and counsel, my friend was smart enough not to get on any Christian high-horse.

He didn’t get defensive about Christianity.

He didn’t freak out and evoke Jesus by shouting, “Get behind me, Satan!”

He didn’t get into a spitting match trying to get the young man’s mind right by telling him what he needed to do and not do in order to straighten out his life.

The pastor was smart enough to make him stop and think real hard about the destructive path he was on. That was the one way to make him start thinking about a more constructive path.

So again? What would your first reaction have been — and how effective might your response have been in helping one so lost?

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“There are no ordinary people.”

From C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory:

    There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

    Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

    But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

    This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play.

    But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

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The beautiful lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin through the wind and the rain.

One of my (many and very many) favorite quotes from Jesus is in the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s from his sermonette at the end of Matthew 6 where he said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they neither toil nor spin.”

If you’ve ever seen a beautiful field of lilies in a gusty wind, you may appreciate that word-picture more than most people.

Scroll down to read the aforementioned sermonette from Jesus in Matt. 6:25-34. It’s often referred to as Jesus’s prescription for anxiety and worry.

And no matter how strong our faith and trust in God to make everything all right in the end, we all suffer from worry and anxiety — usually about things that don’t amount to diddly squat.

Think about the last time you tangled yourself up in anxiety and worry so bad as to deprive you of sleep. Chances are, the thing you were so worried about in the next hour, the next day or year or decade never transpired.

I won’t go into private particulars, but this happened to me just this week. I went to bed one night dreading a situation with a Belizean bureaucrat I had to deal with the next morning. I tossed and turned all night because bureaucrats in this particular department can be, shall we say, big, intimidating ass-hats.

And that’s just the women.

I was praying the Serenity Prayer up until the moment my name was called to sit down with one of the department intimidators who was sure to get this foreigner’s blood pressure up, as they had in a couple of past experiences.

As it turned out, the bureaucrat I was assigned to meet with for 10 minutes of business was a young woman who is exactly the kind of woman Belize is famous for.

Which is to say she was as nice and kind and polite and hospitable — complete with one of those famously beautiful, wide Belizean smiles — as she could be.

People who visit fall in love with Belize largely because of the calming, peaceful, welcoming influence of people like the young lady I dealt with.

As I was leaving, I was smacking myself on the head for losing sleep with anxiety instead of staying grounded in the here and now, in the present, where God lives and reigns and wants us to dwell with Her in her in the warmth of her arms.

A most fitting bloom for Easter Sunday.

Think about it. Haven’t many, if not most, of the things you’ve worried about turned out to be nothing to worry about?

And on the flip side, haven’t most of the things that threw a big, damaging wrench into your good life been the things you never saw coming?

And by the way, can worry about anything add a single hour to your life span?

Consider the lilies of the field — and this sermonette from Matthew 6 — for your Lenten reflection of the day:

    25 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

    26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

    27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

    28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

    30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

    31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

    33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

    34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

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It (salvation) is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.”

It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. …

It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.

— From John Wesley’s sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation”

John Wesley: A larger than life religious leader who stood about 5 feet tall.

He had been ordained as a Church of England priest more than 10 years when, suddenly, he melted into a state of quietly exciting perfection.

Sitting in a Sunday evening service in England, after a depressingly disastrous mission across the Atlantic in Georgia, John Wesley listened intently to a preacher reading from the preface to Luther’s Commentary on Romans.

Ever been seated on a plane next to a moralist Christian who insists on “saving” you hellfire or babbles ad nauseam about how God came into his life and saved him and you feel like jumping out of the jet? Before Aldersgate, Wesley was that kind of moralistic priest.

The lifelong, zealous Christian Wesley famously wrote in his journal about his life-changing conversion on May 24, 1738 as follows:

    “About a quarter before nine, while [a Moravian preacher] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

UP TO THAT POINT in his life, Wesley was the kind of obnoxious, moralistic Christian who makes you want to jump out of the jet if you’re stuck next to him on a long flight.

After that night at Aldersgate, the 35-year-old priest dropped his moralistic belief that we can get right with God through moral achievement. He dropped his inclination to blow people down with his zealous proselytizing.

The re-born Wesley was all in with the merciful, invitational God of unmerited grace, not the God of rigid, biblical law.

Certainly, Wesley was still was burning with holy zeal. But it was zeal no longer tainted by a moral superiority complex. It was about gratitude for mercy — and a certain kind of Holiness he defined for the ages.

FROM THE MOMENT we come kicking and screaming into the world until the time we surrender to “new life” in Christ in conversion, God’s grace is present in our life. So said Wesley in his elaborate take on grace and salvation by faith and Holiness, which he detailed in his great sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.”

The following outline is adapted from that sermon.

1. Prevenient (preceding) grace
This grace, Wesley taught, enables us to know the difference in good and evil and choose the good. Her preferred “prevenient grace” over the common “natural conscience” description.

Until we convert and surrender all, God is always wooing us, always actively seeking us, wanting us to know His/Her love to the fullest.

It’s the offer of God’s free gift of extravagant grace; it’s in no way based on our merit, for not one of us deserves God’s gracious forgiveness.

But it’s a gift we can take or reject; it’s our decision to make in our free will.

    “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God —- not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

2. Justifying grace
Justification is simply a pardon of our sins, like a judge’s pardon of our crimes. Justifying grace aligns us to righteousness.

Through justification, the image of God in which we were created is — which has been distorted by sin — is renewed within us.

    “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

    “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

3. Conversion.
Conversion is doing a 180, turning one’s life around, reorienting, as Wesley did when he heard the words of Luther and actively listened to those stirring words about the Epistle to the Romans.

Conversion is commonly known as being born again, of making an entirely new beginning, receiving new life in Christ.

It may be sudden and dramatic as it was for Paul at Damascus or Wesley that night, or it might be, as it certainly was for me over a period of a few years, a gradual process.

4. Sanctifying Grace (Holiness)
Despite his dramatic turn at Aldersgate, Wesley didn’t believe for a minute that salvation is a static, one-time event. Wesley said pointedly in “The Scripture Way of Salvation” that soon after we are justified and born again, “temptations return, and sin revives, showing it was but stunned, not dead.”

Some Christians rationalize their adulterous affairs or stealing or cheating in business by believing God forgives those sins because they were “saved” when they received Christ into their hearts in an altar call or in baptism.

I’ve known many of those Christians. They ascent to the old bumper-sticker theology:


Wesley believed salvation can be sinned away in a heartbeat because of those temptations enticing us at every turn.

This is where God’s grace as sanctification, or Holiness comes into play.

Sanctification is the ongoing experience of God’s gracious presence transforming us into whom God intends us to be.

As I’ve noted many times, salvation is about transformation — and transformation requires spiritual practices and disciplines that lead to growth and maturity in Christ. Otherwise, it amounts to so much of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated as “cheap grace:

    “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession . . .

    “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Wesley believed that through God’s sanctifying grace — coupled with our discipleship and spiritual discipline — we grow and mature in our ability to live as Jesus lived.

As we pray, study the Scriptures, fast, worship, and share in fellowship with other Christians, we deepen our knowledge of and love for God.

We do all the good for God and for others that we can do — and NOT because good deeds save us. Only faith can save us.

Once we’ve been saved, we naturally, very much desire to respond to God’s grace by doing all the good deeds we can do. And anyway, as James famously said in his epistle, “faith without works is dead.”

(Luther, who in spite of his greatness had some whacko notions he never let go of, was so obsessed with salvation by faith alone that he wanted to remove the epistle of James from the Bible entirely!)

WESLEY BELIEVED WE’RE IN OUR DISCIPLESHIP, with God’s help, in the path of sanctification toward perfection, which he simply defined at one point as spiritual maturity. Perfection is a matter of being in a continual process of being made perfect in our love of God and each other.

    I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern that is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    — Romans 12:1-2

*If you want to read “The Scripture Way of Salvation” — one of Wesley’s most significant sermons — for yourself, go here.

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I think it’s always good to get back to the basics of everything in life — the basics of Christian salvation included.

I happen to believe that John Wesley’s blunt take on salvation hits the basic mark. He wrote:

“By salvation I mean, not barely (according to the vulgar notion) deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health . . . the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.” (From Wesley’s “Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.”)

In the next Lenten post or two, I’ll explore John Wesley’s brilliant take on personal salvation with all its moving parts like preceding grace, justification, sanctification and perfection in this life.

One of the problems I had with Rick Warren’s huge bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life was its total emphasis on how to be spared the eternal punishment of hellfire. It was basically a primer on how to get to heaven.

I’m not saying Warren’s book and the followup The Purpose Driven Church have no merit whatsoever. There is a lot of good stuff in both books.

Yet I’m sure that Wesley — whose teachings on Christian faith and tradition will be remembered long after Rick Warren and his books are forgotten — would have had issues of his own with Warren.

Wesley strongly believed, as do I, that salvation has a social as well as individual dimension, that it’s not just about me and my ticket to heaven.

Wesley’s sermons and teachings strongly emphasized holiness, and he quite famously asserted that “there is no holiness but social holiness!”

The great Catholic Dorothy Day, who is up for sainthood, immersed herself in John Wesley’s sermons and teachings on social holiness not long after she left communism for Catholicism.

This goes back to that part of his definition of salvation being “the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.

This is what drove him to fight so fiercely against the social injustice of slavery.

This is what drove Wesley to resist the social and political systems that sucked the life out of the poor and powerless in the bleak society of his time.

A society that looks a lot like our own in America these days.

I daresay Wesley would be involved in some of America’s current resistance movements which are dismissed as so much liberalism or socialism or “snowflake-ism.” He was constantly accused of being a heretic and worse. (And that’s not to say he wouldn’t be disgusted by some of the resistance tactics and the movements’ beliefs.)

The British “snowflake” was walking the dangerous back alleys of London in a snow storm, seeking out the poor and homeless, not long before he died in a life that covered almost the entire 18th century.

John and brother Charles Wesley well understood that Jesus came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

I’ll have more to say about Wesley’s wonderful take on personal salvation, with all its moving parts involving grace, justification, sanctification, perfection and more, in the next Lenten post or two.

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My beloved Stephanie Garcia, big sister of my beloved “Miss Belize,” brought up an English grade from 54 to 74 in six weeks at St. Ignatius High School.

TO THOSE WHO have donated this school year to finance Stephanie Garcia’s first year of high school, I can tell you that she continues to excel.

For those blog newcomers not familiar with Stephanie’s educational needs, I started a GoFundMe fund for her last year, explaining her background and needs in detail.

Stephanie and her high-school principal Miss Yvette pictured together at mass at the Catholic high school.

I’ll share more about her story below.*

* * *

STEPH IS WELL INTO the second semester now at St. Ignatius High School, having finished the first semester in January with at least a 3.3 grade point average.

I say at least that, because school administrators still weren’t able to correct a 65 on her report card in a “life skills” lab. The lab students learn to write formal letters and resumes, and update school newsletters and fliers about life skills and such as that on a computer. (I know, the irony of a computer glitch in a computer lab.)

Stephanie finished her most challenging subject, English A, with a 74. That’s an impressive grade considering that she started the last six weeks with a big fat failing 54.

I’ve always said that Stephanie, the 15-year-old sister of my 4-year-old adoptive daughter Paulita (Miss Belize) McKay, is doggedly determined to get her high school diploma.

An overwhelming number of Belizeans, even the brightest kids, leave school at age 13 or 14 because they don’t have the money for a high school education.

Mind you . . . there is no free public schooling in Belize whatsoever. There are costs for everything from school uniforms to pencils, pens, books and extracurricular activities galore.

And certainly no free milk, much less lunch.

* * *

WHAT MAKES STEPH’S STORY so inspiring, I think, is that her mom spent seven years working housekeeping jobs at resorts on San Pedro island during Stephanie’s and her brother Felix’s formative years.

Felix, Stephanie, my daughter Paulita McKay and mom Lourdes at their home on Christmas morn.

Steph and Felix were raised in their early years here in San Ignacio by their grandmother, who had a handful of years of education, spoke only Spanish, and thought school was a waste of time. When I first started tutoring the two kids five years ago, they could barely read English and struggled even with the formal Spanish taught in schools here.

While Felix has come a long way, I doubt seriously he’ll qualify for high school. But then, I thought the same about Stephanie less than two years ago before the lights in her mind finally starting shining bright. So I’m not giving up on the boy either.

I’m certain, though, that college is in Stephanie’s future.

For now, donations are welcome year-round for her high school fund — and much appreciated.
* Here is the GoFundMe link.

Please know, however, that I have a Pay Pal account, which I have found most contributors prefer to GoFundMe which takes a significant fee out of every dollar donated.

* For more information about Stephanie or how to make a donation, feel free to email me at revpaulmckay@gmail.com.

Steph and a classmate in their traditional mestizo dresses at Culture Day last year at St. Ignatius High School

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