A Maundy Thursday Communion Meditation (2014)

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                      “Do This in Remembrance of Me”                         
   I Corinthians 11:23-26     
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I will often end a worship service by asking you to join me in “looking to the cross.”  This was the tradition of one of my predecessors in ministry at the First Christian Church of Amarillo, Dr. Newt Robinson.  I learned about it while doing some research for a Doctoral project on the patterns of worship among congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  By looking at old worship bulletins and talking to some longtime members of that church, I learned that Dr. Robinson routinely invited people at the end of worship to look to the cross before heading back into the world to witness and serve.   He understood that the cross was Christianity’s most identifiable symbol and so he pointed to it at the end of worship so that people would carry its meaning with them back into the world.  The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner explained, “He who understands the cross aright… understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.”  So, when you look to the cross, what do you see?  What does it mean?

The Roman authorities who watched Jesus Christ die on the cross on Good Friday afternoon saw a threat to the social order being eliminated.  They thought that it was all about preserving their power.  When the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem watched Jesus die on the cross they saw a blasphemer, someone who had called Himself the Son of God, getting his just due.  They thought that it was all about protecting their traditions.  And Jesus’ closest friends, those who had left everything three years earlier to follow him, saw the death of their highest hopes and deepest dreams in His death on the cross.   They thought that it was all about their personal prospects.  They all saw the same thing, and they each understood it in a different way, and that’s because events need explanation, and acts require interpretation.

Alan Kreider has a friend who spent some time serving at one of Mother Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta.  As he reflected later on his experience there, he noted, “It struck me that without a knowledge of Bengali (the language of the people with whom he worked), my actions were either incomprehensible to the people that I went to serve, or could only point to myself in a self-glorifying sort of way.” They didn’t know his motivations and he couldn’t explain his intentions.  He couldn’t tell them that he was there as part of his devotion to Jesus Christ, and that’s when he realized that an unexplained action allows people to draw all kinds of explanations.  Impressed by and grateful for his unexplained action, Alan’s friend said that the people he served in India would up thinking that he was such a great and generous human being, and that wasn’t the point at all. He was there because of Jesus Christ.  He was there for Jesus Christ.

Events need explanation; acts require interpretation, and the Lord’s Supper is where the meaning of the cross gets provided for us.  It was in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday that Jesus Christ gave us His interpretation of the events that would unfold on Good Friday, which is why every time we come to this Table we repeat them.

 23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Corinthians 11:23-27)

John Stott said that these words and the symbolic actions that go with them of breaking a loaf of bread and pouring a cup of wine “throw floods of light on Jesus’ own view of his death” (68).  He said that at the Last Supper Jesus Christ was “visibly dramatizing his death before it took place,” and was “giving his own authoritative explanation of its meaning and purpose.”   So, what does Jesus Christ want us to see and think about when we look at a cross?  Well, the Words of Institution that come to us from Jesus Christ in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday tell us at least three things (Stott 68-71).

  • First, they tell us that His death was central. In the Upper Room, in His closing hours, when it was time for Jesus to tell His disciples how He wanted them to remember Him, He took a piece of bread and broke it and talked about how His body was going to be given for them, and then he poured a cup of wine and talked about how his blood was going to be shed for them. Jesus didn’t ask them to remember His birth or His life, His miracles or His teachings. It all came down to His death. That’s what He wanted them to remember.
  • Second, the Words of Institution that come to us from the Upper Room tell us that the purpose of His death was to establish a New Covenant with us that is based on forgiveness.  It was during a Passover meal that Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper.  His sacrificial death in the context of one of the great sacrifices required by the Old Testament forever establishes its meaning for us: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36).
  • And third, the Words of Institution that Jesus Christ gave us on Maundy Thursday emphasize the necessity for each one of us to receive the benefits procured for us on the cross personally by faith. Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the spiritual tradition to which this church belongs, said that at the heart of the communion service is the experience when we take the bread of the Lord saying to us individually, “For you my body was wounded,” and when we take the cup, the Lord saying to us, “For you my life was taken” (273). You see, the Gospel is not just the message that Jesus Christ died for our sins in general. It is the message that Jesus Christ died for my sins in particular. And it is at the Lord’s Table where I eat the bread and drink the cup of remembrance that the meaning of what Christ did on the cross is brought home powerfully and personally to me.

Before the Passion began, Jesus shared Passover with His disciples, and it was in the course of that ritual meal with its unleavened bread and its cup of blessing that Jesus explained to His disciples what His death on the cross the next day was going to mean.   Maundy Thursday interprets Good Friday for us, and that’s why we’re here tonight.  DBS+

Sources

Campbell, Alexander. The Christian System. Gospel Advocate. 1970.
Kreider, Alan. “Tongue Screws and Testimony.”  Mission Dei. 16. 2008.
McGrath, Alister. What Was God Doing on the Cross? Zondervan. 1992.
Stott, John R.W.  The Cross of Christ. IVP. 1986.

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Jesus’ Wife

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A faded fragment of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” which caused an uproar when unveiled by a Harvard Divinity School historian in 2012, has been tested by scientists who conclude in a journal published on Thursday that the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery. Skepticism about the tiny scrap of papyrus has been fierce because it contained a phrase never before seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” Too convenient for some, it also contained the words “she will be able to be my disciple,” a clause that inflamed the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests. The papyrus fragment has now been analyzed by professors of electrical engineering, chemistry and biology at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reported that it resembles other ancient papyri from the fourth to the eighth centuries. [http://www.nytimes.com]

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Every year a story like this one seems to hit the news right before Easter. Somebody somewhere has found some fragment or relic or artifact or inscription that calls into question the traditional claims of historic Christianity. Some report it as if it has the power to topple the Faith even as some of the faithful overreact and launch campaigns against the “godless” media and their “satanic” conspiracies. I deliberately take another approach.

You see, my faith is not some fragile thing that needs to be coddled and protected. If the fragment from a papyrus that was written hundreds of years after the Christ event that references His “wife” can knock you for a spiritual loop, then maybe just maybe it’s your faith and not the news story that needs to be examined more closely. An unexamined faith is not worth having. So, first let me quickly address the specific “Easter controversy” de jure – the “Jesus’ wife fragment” – and then let me address the bigger issue of the credibility of Christianity’s claims.

Dr. Darrell Bock over at Dallas Theological Seminary has been one of my “go-to guys” when these sorts of stories show up in the media like clockwork around Easter (Another one is Dr. Ben Witherington III up at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky – see his book: What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History–Why We Can Trust the Bible - Harper One – 2007). What I really like about Darrell is that he doesn’t light his hair on fire and run around the room acting as if the whole edifice of Christianity was in danger of crumbling because somebody somewhere is challenging it with some “new find” and a controversial theory about what it is and what it means. Instead, Darrell takes a thoughtful stance and always makes a much more measured response. On the question of this new fragment about Jesus’ wife, Darrell wrote –

This would be the first text – out of hundreds of texts that we have about Jesus – that would indicate that he was married, if it’s even saying that. So to suggest that one text overturns multiple texts, and multiple centuries, of what has been said about Jesus and what’s been articulated about him, I think is not a very wise place to go, just simply from a historical point of view. …It’s a small, extremely fringe, light text with no context, and so to think about doing something about a tradition simply on the basis of, of that kind of a text, it’s making a change on the basis of an asterisk. [http://www.npr.org]

Earlier, in the days of another group of “discoveries” that were certain to doom historic Christianity once and for all, the “Da Vinci Code,” Darrell responded with an entire book, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nelson – 2004). The second chapter of this book was entitled “Was Jesus Married?” In it Darrell began with five observations that remain relevant for this latest announcement about “Jesus’ wife.”

(1) There is no evidence anywhere that explicitly indicates that Jesus was married.
(2) One of the few things on which the vast majority of liberal and conservative scholars agree is that Jesus was single. …It is such an unusual situation in the study of Jesus for scholars of all persuasions to agree – when it happens, one should note it. The agreed-upon point is quite likely valid.
(3) On the other hand, we have no explicit text declaring that Jesus was single.
(4) On several occasions, it would have been easy for the writers of the New Testament to say that Jesus was married if that was the case.
(5) Even if Jesus had been married, it would not have had the devastating effect on Jesus’ claim of divinity that the conspiracy view alleges. …Jesus did many things that underscored His genuine humanity. He ate, thirsted, slept, tired, lived and died. His everyday life was that of a normal human existence. …One of the most basic beliefs of Christian faith is that Jesus was 100 percent human. So, if He had been married and fathered children, His marital relationship and His parenthood would not theoretically undercut His divinity but would have been reflections of His complete humanity. Had Jesus been married, there was no need to cover it up. The whole rationale for covering up any supposed relationship has no basis in theology. Had Jesus married, theoretically He still could have been and done all He did. (32-34)

I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming!
But isn’t it refreshing?

Instead of battening down the hatches and immediately launching fierce counterattacks on the intelligence and sincerity of those who would dare to challenge the claims made by historic Christianity, Darrell takes them seriously and answers their objections with reason, evidence and care. And that’s the general point that needs to be made.

I was at a recent prayer breakfast where the speaker talked about his experience of going to Yale University. Raised in a churchgoing family, he described himself as a “cultural” Christian. He never really questioned his faith, and his faith was never really challenged. It was just part of the scenery of his life. And then he went to Yale and he said that at every turn the unexamined faith of his family, the untested faith of his childhood and early adolescence was openly ridiculed. His history professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. And then his psychology professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. And then his anthropology professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. And then, even his religion professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. “Nobody believes in the Virgin Birth anymore,” he was told. “Nobody believes that Christ worked miracles.”Nobody believes that Jesus Christ died for our sins.” “Nobody believes in His bodily resurrection.” That’s what he was told over and over again, and because he had never seriously thought about his faith, because he had never been given any good reasons for believing (I Peter 3:15), because he had never considered the evidence for or the logic of what Christianity teaches, he simply didn’t have the resources he needed to be able to counter the assertions that were being made by the new authorities in his life, his college professors. He couldn’t slow the intellectual force that was steamrolling his faith, let alone be able to push back against it. And so by the end of his freshman year he had simply knuckled under and stated thinking of himself as a kind of church alumnae. A Christian was something he used to be. Christianity was something he used to do. And the amazing thing was just how easily this capitulation had taken place. He had surrendered his soul without so much as a whimper, let alone a fight.

How different was Christianity in the beginning. Consider the ministry of the Apostle Paul in Thessalonica. Luke described it for us in Acts chapter 17 –

When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. (Acts 17:1-4)

To “reason” is to make a logical argument, it is to be able to answer questions and respond to objections. It’s a word that describes a thoughtful exchange. The word translated “explain” in Acts 17 literally describes the opening wide of a folding door. It is a gradual, step-by-step process. To “give evidence” or “proving” is to make the case for something by putting down beside each claim that is being made something that proves that it’s actually true. And the word for “proclaiming” means to call for a decision. It is to ask people to do something with what they are being told. And in Acts 17, when Paul had done this, Luke reports that some were “persuaded” (17:4). “Persuaded” – now, that may strike us as a peculiar way of talking about conversion. It just sounds so cerebral, so analytical, and yet, we find it again in Acts chapter 26, at the end of Paul’s logical and methodical presentation of the Gospel to King Agrippa. The King finally cried out: “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (26:28). And there’s that word – “persuade” – again! Clearly the appeal of the Gospel in the Apostolic Preaching as we hear it in the book of Acts was an appeal to the mind; it was a matter of intellectual persuasion.

You see, there are people who still believe in the Virgin Birth, and that Christ worked miracles, and that He died for our sins, and that He was raised on the third day. I’m one of them. And these are not convictions that I hold by suspending reason and ignoring the evidence. No, these are convictions that I hold because they are the best way for me to make sense of the evidence that we have. I don’t believe that faith can be compelled by the force of logical arguments, but I do believe that faith can be positioned as a credible choice for someone to make, as something having good and sufficient grounds. The caricature of a Christian as a backwards, ignorant, unreflective and repressed bumpkin only works so long as you don’t know Christian intellectuals like Darrell Bock.

C.S. Lewis used to say that he read in order to know that he was not alone. I fully endorse that idea, and then I take it a step further. I read so that I don’t have to be afraid. There are incredibly bright people of thoroughly examined faith who are effectively pushing back against the arguments and assaults that are constantly being made against the claims of historic Christianity. It might be time for you to get acquainted with them.   DBS+

 

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Some Thoughts about Noah, the Movie

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I saw the movie “Noah” last week.

Enough of you have seen it, and asked me about it, that I thought I should go and see “Noah” for myself. I prepared myself for the experience by not inviting that part of me that that has a high view of the authority and inspiration of Scripture along to see the movie with me. I don’t like people who talk during movies, and I was pretty sure that if that part of me was there watching “Noah,” that he would probably have something to say. I also left at home that part of me that has studied the Book of Genesis in both Christian College and Graduate Seminary. That guy knows a little something about the critical issues that attach themselves to an ancient story like that of Noah, questions about sources, genre, historicity, interpretation and meaning. And since I didn’t want there to be any arguments while I was at the theater, I decided to leave him at home too. Finally, I didn’t invite that little boy who first learned the story of Noah and the Ark in Sunday School sitting on the floor of the toddler room, singing “Arky, Arky” and playing with plastic animals and a big wooden boat along with me to see the film. I knew that it would probably confuse and maybe even upset him, and since I didn’t want to have to deal with any of that, I just didn’t tell him where I was going when I left the house that morning. And so, there I was last week sitting in the dark with maybe a dozen others staring at a big screen for a couple of hours.

And the verdict?

Well, I didn’t hate “Noah.” But then again, I didn’t really love “Noah” either. I really loved the “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and it had just about as much to do with what’s in the Bible as Noah did! But that’s not the point, at least, it’s not the point yet. Simply on the basis of movies that I like, I would put “Noah” somewhere in the middle. It’s no “Saving Private Ryan” or “An Accidental Tourist” (two of my favorite movies). But neither is it “Day of the Locust” or “Reds” (the only two movies that I’ve ever walked out on). I’m not a great fan of comic book hero movies (the Dark Knight Batman series being the great exception), and that’s the impression that “Noah” left me with. It’s a kind of action-figure wanna-be movie. There are certainly some visually stunning scenes in it, and some fine acting performances, including Russell Crowe in the lead as “Noah.” This is no “B” movie. But there were also some pretty bizarre directorial choices in the storytelling, and some completely mystifying details in the “Noah” movie plot that left me scratching my head.   Simply as a movie, I’d give “Noah” a C+, maybe even a B-, a 6 on a scale of 10. I don’t see any Academy Awards in its future, and I’m pretty sure that “Noah” is not going to become a classic “Biblical Epic” on the order of “The Ten Commandments” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” My great, great grandkids are not going to be sitting down around a television screen on Easter night 60 years from now to watch “Noah.”   But for what it is, “Noah” is fine, if you like action movies. But that’s not really the issue, is it?

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When I got home from seeing “Noah,” all those parts of me that I had left behind in order to see it on its own terms were there waiting for me, and they all wanted to talk. Because they all know the “Noah” story from the Bible at Church, they all wanted to know how it squared with its source. And what I told them was that “Noah” is not Scripture, and doesn’t pretend to be. The disclaimer that the movie “Noah” is only “inspired by the (Biblical) story of Noah” and the explanation that “artistic license has been taken” should be taken seriously by anyone going to see it. They aren’t kidding. The movie “Noah” is based on the Bible in the same way that Spam is based on ham, which is to say that through a whole lot of processing it gets turned into something altogether different from how it started out. The rest of that studio disclaimer that has been added to the movie states – “We believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis” – and I deeply appreciate this. They are telling you that they believe that what they’ve done in their movie to the Biblical story of Noah honors its core truth, and then they invite you to go and check out their claim by opening your Bible and reading the Noah story for yourself from the book of Genesis. If seeing this movie gets people to open their Bibles and read them, then I’m going to write the studio a great big thank-you note!

George Swinnock (1627-1673), an English Puritan preacher wrote -

Do not leave your Bible, as some do, at church, and hear nothing of it all week long. Bring it home and let it dwell with you. Do not let the Word be as a wayfaring man that tarries with you for a night, and is gone. Let it be an inhabitant, one that accompanies you to bed and board and with whom you converse continually as your familiar and intimate friend. Have you not found the Bible to be so bountiful a guest, to pay you so liberally for its board, that you always give it a hearty welcome and would not part with it for the whole world?

And that’s been the mission of my life and ministry for the past 40 years. I want people to open their Bibles and read because I believe that the written Word is a Means of Grace. I believe that God uses Scripture to speak directly to human hearts (Acts 2:37; Hebrews 4:12), and because the Noah story is part of Scripture, it has this capacity. So, after seeing the “Noah” movie, go home, open your Bible and read the Noah cycle of stories for yourself. You’ll find them in Genesis 5:28-10:32.

Now, the big mistake that we make with Biblical stories is to read them as a series of independent narratives, as if each one could stand completely on its own, unrelated to all of the others. Imagine two bowls of pearls sitting side by side. You reach into the first bowl and pull out a single pearl and hold it in your hand. It’s perfectly lovely, and completely unrelated to all of the other pearls in the bowl. But then you reach into the other bowl of pearls, select one that catches your eyes and pull it out of the bowl too, but as you do every other pearl in the bowl comes out with it because they are all part of the same string of pearls.

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We treat the stories in the Bible like that first bowl of pearls, like a collection of completely independent unrelated narratives, each one standing entirely on its own. This is what the movie “Noah” does. When its plot resolves in the closing scenes you are left with the impression that the story is over. But Biblically, it’s not. In fact, the story of Noah gets told in the collection of stories that form the Bible’s prelude. Together with the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the Tower of Babel, the story of Noah sets the table – defines the problem – that the rest of the Bible resolves with its story of redemption. Biblically, there is no resolution to the story of Noah. It just further muddies the waters. It just deepens the magnitude of the situation. It’s just another pearl in the string, an important one to be sure, but not the final one. And this is what the movie “Noah” ignores. Noah does not live happily ever after in a restored Eden-like climate of Shalom where everything and everybody coexists happily in a web of blessing and well-being. No, the story of Noah ends in the Bible with him getting drunk and naked (9:20-28). Even “righteous” Noah fails in the end, and God indicates that the healing of creation is going to have to come in a different way from commandment and condemnation (8:20-22).

The story that the “Noah” movie tells is an interesting one, but finally disappointing. The divine “do-over” of the Garden of Eden fails, even with the brightest and the best human specimen and his family in the starring roles. And this is why the Noah story that the Bible tells is so much better. It sets the stage for the real solution to the problem, the coming of a Savior. The story of Noah without the story of Jesus is just a tragedy. But the story of Noah as a preface to the story of Jesus is the Gospel, the good and glorious news that the damage we caused and could not repair, God in Jesus Christ has!

So, go ahead and see the “Noah” movie if you want. And if you do, then immediately go home and read the Biblical version of the story as well. And then, go to church and in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup of the Lord’s Table, hear and touch and taste and see the story of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. You see, the story of “Noah,” whoever tells it, is not the point, it’s just a door into the real story, the story we tell every Sunday morning.  DBS+

 

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To Lent, or not to Lent -

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That is the Question…
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There are lots of reasons why some Christians object to Lent and its observance. Over the past few weeks I have written about what I regard to be the most substantial reason why a Christian might faithfully choose not to keep a holy Lent. If we are not careful, Lent can easily become an exercise in self-justification and self-righteousness, a display of the heroic efforts that we make thinking that it will impress God and curry some favor or wrest some special blessing. The Apostle Paul described this as the way of the “boast” (Romans 3:27), and warned his readers in Rome that it simply cannot establish the kind of righteousness that God requires of us as human beings (Romans 10:3). The problem with Lent if we are not careful is that it can nurture the illusion that we can in fact make ourselves righteous, or worse, that we have to somehow make ourselves righteous.

A Christian writer who has chosen not to observe Lent as a matter of conviction and conscience explained that she has made this decision because she knows that her heart would whisper throughout its 40 days – “Look at what you’re doing… look at what you’ve given up… congratulations, you’ve inched your way just a little bit closer to the holy!” She wrote, “I would absolutely cave to pride and talk about it. To me, it’s simply flirting with the inevitable. It’s like telling my 6 year old not to touch the play dough on the counter that’s been left open and out. Ha!” (“A Vent about Lent” – http://theaquilareport.com).

I appreciate what she’s saying here, in fact, I know firsthand just how seductive the spiritual disciplines can be, how they can leave you feeling so spiritually superior and smug. I think that this is why Jesus was so insistent in the Sermon on the Mount about how we must be so careful as His disciples not to pray, fast or give alms (the three basic spiritual disciplines in Scripture) in order to be seen by others. For, when you do this, “you already have your reward,” Jesus warned them (Matthew 6:1;5;16). And Lent clearly has this dangerous potential for us.

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I am always struck on Ash Wednesday when the ashes have been imposed on my forehead in the sign of the cross just how easily this act of public devotion, sincere and well-intentioned though it may be, can nevertheless become the very thing that Jesus warned us about. It’s hard for ashes on your forehead not to be seen by others. It’s hard not to feel just a smidgen of spiritual pride when you’ve got the sign of the cross prominently displayed for all to see just how spiritually serious and religiously observant we are. It seems to me to be the dictionary definition of “being seen of men.” And so, in recent years, while I have gone ahead and received the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the minute the service is over, I have immediately washed my face before anyone outside the community of faith can see me. This year as I did so the Scripture reading that I had just heard in the worship service echoed loudly in my head – “And when you fast… wash your face!” An important part of this post Ash Wednesday cleaning up ritual for me is that as I am deliberately removing the mark of penance from my face I am consciously asking that God will transfer it directly to my heart. That, after all, it seems to me, is where a genuine Lent must be observed, and is the only safeguard against Lent becoming what those who refuse to keep fear the most – a public display of works righteousness.

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The other serious objection, from my point of view, to the observance of Lent that must be addressed is the idea that repentance is a spiritual discipline that can be restricted to the 40 days of Lent, and maybe the four weeks of Advent, although I have only rarely seen or heard it seriously addressed as a pre-Christmas theme. There are just too many parties, parades and festivals in December for talk of penance to gain much traction. We are much more likely to gain 5 pounds than to actually do any fasting during Advent. And so, that leaves Lent, just 40 days for self-examination, sorrow for sin and growth in grace. I once heard a spiritual teacher describe Lent as the “tithe” of the Christian year, the percentage of days that we owe God each year which when “paid” then frees up the rest of our time to spend however we want, doing as we please.

Roland Barnes explained that the reason why he doesn’t observe Lent himself or promote its observance in the churches that he pastors is not because he is somehow opposed to seasons of prayer and fasting or a serious reflection on the life of Christ, especially His death, burial and resurrection, but rather because he is in favor of such things! His argument is that Biblically self-denial cannot be restricted to just 40 days each spring, but is rather intended to be the daily experience of the believer. “If something is sinful,” or not particularly conducive to our spiritual well-being and growth, he writes, then “we ought to be abstaining from it, fasting from it, every hour, of every day, of every week of the year.”

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This is, in fact, what St. Benedict taught. Known for his balanced approach to spirituality, St. Benedict nevertheless wrote that our lives “ought to be a continuous Lent” (The Rule, Chapter 49), and this sounds to me to be perfectly in keeping with our Lord’s repeated instruction to those who would be His disciples -

  • Matthew 10:38 – and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
  • Matthew 16:24 - Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
  • Mark 8:34 – Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
  • Luke 9:23 – Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
  • Luke 14:27 – And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

If Lent is played as an attempt to evade these daily demands of discipleship, then it must be resisted. But if Lent can be viewed as an annual intensive, the spiritual equivalent of the “two-a-days” that football players go through in August to get themselves physically conditioned for the long season of games that get played throughout the fall and into the winter, then I can see how it has its place and makes its contribution. And so, not ignoring the dangers inherent in the practice, I am nevertheless one of those Christians who chooses to observe Lent. I don’t insist that you join me, and I won’t think less of you should you choose not to. But I have always found the observance of a holy Lent to be of great benefit to me spiritually.

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Mary Lynn and I do deep water aerobics for exercise.   We try to get into the pool three times a week at the local “Y.” The quality of the instructors for these sessions ranges wildly, and when we have one that is especially subpar, I always try to remember what Chris Alexander, our very first instructor, always told us. “You can always get something out of it, in fact, you will only ever get out of it what you put into it.” And so, every time I am in the pool, I make an honest effort no matter how poor the instructor may be. We will suffer through weeks, and sometimes even months of less-than-ideal-instructors, doing our best to get something out of it, trying to make the proverbial silk purse out of the sow’s ear. And then, we’ll show up one evening and on the deck will be the retired Director of Water Aerobics at our “Y,” a wonderful teacher who is a stickler on form and progression. Every couple of months there she is to put an end to all of the bad habits that are beginning to form in our technique and to call us out on any lackadaisical drift that she may detect in the way that we are going at things because nobody is paying any attention to it. It’s exhausting, and wonderful.   An hour with her every couple of months gets us focused and motivated again, and I find that this is exactly what Lent does for me and my spiritual life. It’s the annual tune-up that gets my soul straightened-up and flying right, and because I need it, I always welcome the arrival of Lent. It’s exhausting, and wonderful.  DBS+

 

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The Ladders of Lent

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This coming Sunday we will begin our Lenten Forum on Prayer as a Means of Grace during the church school hour to be followed by a series of Lenten Prayer Experiences on Wednesday evenings.  On Sunday mornings we will be talking about Richard Foster’s three broad categories of Christian praying in his 1992 book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home – “Moving Inward: Seeking the Transformation We Need;” “Moving Upward: Seeking the Intimacy We Need;” and “Moving Outward: Seeking the Ministry We Need.” This is when and where we will introduce the spiritual movement of prayer and give some specific examples of the kinds of praying that “fits” in each category.  And then on the Wednesday evenings following the Sunday morning sessions, after a simple Soup Supper and a brief recap of the Sunday morning teaching, we are going to be providing participants with an actual experience of each of these three movements of prayer.  And so, next Wednesday evening (April 2), I have been preparing a prayer experience based on the first movement of prayer that Foster describes in his book – “Moving Inward: Seeking the Transformation We Need.”

One of the examples of “Moving Inward” prayer that Foster specifically named in the first section of his book was what he called “Formation Prayer” – the kind of praying that changes us by bringing us into “a life of communion with the Father,” “by the power of the Spirit,” so that we are “increasingly conformed to the image of this kind of Formation Prayer” was St. Benedict’s “Ladder of Humility” from his Rule.  Because our very own Alexander Campbell was just so insistent that the only way that we would ever “come within the understanding distance” of God’s speaking voice in Scripture would be by the conscious cultivation of the kind of “humility of mind” that Mary of Bethany demonstrated as she “sat at the Master’s feet and listened to the words that fell from His lips” (Luke 10:38-42), we decided to take St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility as our starting point for our first Lenten Prayer Experience.  And that’s when the trouble began.

Ladders as a spiritual metaphor are as frequent as they are tricky.  Last week in my blog I wrote about the propensity towards to Pelagianism that Lent presents us each year with its exhortation to “do more” and “try harder” in our spiritual exercises so that we might be better prepared for the Church’s annual celebration of Easter and thereby derive increasing spiritual benefit from its recital of dying and rising, both Christ’s and our own. And St. Benedict’s ladder can certainly be read this way.  It has been used as a set of instructions for spiritual maturation. “To be like Jesus, you need to get on this ladder and start climbing. Come on – up you go!” As Michael Horton put it in his essay, the “Mysteries of God and Means of Grace” (www.monergism.com) –

We believe that the Christian life consists chiefly in finding out what needs to be done, and doing it. Inveterate Pelagians by birth, we do our best to climb the spiritual rungs into God’s hidden presence, but he has plainly warned us against this strategy.  For he has come near to us, through the Incarnate Word, the written, and especially, preached Word, and the visible Word (i.e. the Sacraments). …the Sacraments become for us not a means for attaining grace, but for receiving grace.  They are not rituals through which we proclaim our willing and running, but through which God proclaims His willing and running.

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In a really fine little book on Lutheran theology and spirituality, The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (Concordia 1999), I was introduced to the writings of Adolf Koeberle (1898-1990). A German Lutheran theologian, Koeberle launched a withering theological assault on ladder theology and ladder spirituality from the vantage point of the Gospel. He saw three ladders that we use as human beings to ascend to the heights of God: the ladder of moralism, the ladder of mysticism and the ladder of speculation.  Google Koerberle’s name and add the word “ladder” and you will find lots and lots of good material about what he had to say about these ladders of self-righteousness and self-justification, and among the best is what an American Lutheran Pastor, Bryan Wolfmueller, wrote about it in his blog “Three Broken Ladders” at his site “World Wide Wolfmueller” @ http://wolfmueller.wordpress.com -

The first ladder is moralism. Moralism is the ladder of the will. The moralist tries to get to heaven by works, efforts and the living of the good life. Human pride often thinks that it has climbed the ladder of moralism into heaven. Time after time the question, “Why will you be in heaven? Is answered by the ladder of moralism. “I’ve lived a good life, I’ve been a good person.” This is perhaps what most people think of religion, and even of the church, that the Christian life is trying to be good enough for God. Lord have mercy! Good enough for God! No, the ladder of moralism in not high enough to reach heaven. The top of that ladder will only reach the peak of pride or the clouds of despair. No, no one is saved by ascending the ladder of moralism.

The second ladder is mysticism. Mysticism is the ladder of emotions. The mystic thinks that heaven can be reached by an emotional experience. If we sing the song enough times, if we sit in profound silence, if we discipline our soul, we can feel God, experience God, somehow climb the ladder of the emotions into the bliss of heaven. But this ladder, like the ladder of moralism, is woefully short. Searching the depths of the human soul for the flower of divinity, it finds instead the horror and the depth of sin clinging not just to our flesh but to our very soul. Mysticism, if it is honest, finds that we are sinners, and that we cannot change that on our own. Mysticism, if it is not honest, becomes inflated with is idolatrous pride that thinks “God lives in me.” No, no one is saved by ascending the ladder of mysticism.

The third ladder is speculation, or rationalism. Speculation is the ladder of the mind. This ladder attempts to climb into heaven by obtaining perfect knowledge, as if salvation is a matter of knowing about God. But what do we know of God that He has not told us? So inquiry into the nature of God apart for His Word is like looking into deep darkness, and the ladder of the mind tumbles into this despair, often into the prideful despair of atheism and unbelief. No, no one is saved by ascending the ladder of speculation.

Koberle summarizes the three ladders and their results: “Moralism, mysticism, speculation, these are the three ladders on which men continually seek to climb up to God, with a persistent purpose that it seems nothing can check; a storming of heaven that is just as pathetic in its unceasing efforts as it is in its final futility.” [The Quest for Holiness, 2]

Because of the Gospel, the only significant use of the ladder that I can make in my own theology and spirituality is the one that is implied by Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.

5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,  6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.  8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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It’s not about me ascending a ladder into God’s presence by my own best efforts. It’s about God descending to us in Jesus Christ to save us.  In Ephesians 4:8-10 Paul talked about us ascending with Christ back into glory, but only after He had descended to get to us.  I can talk about the ladder like St. Benedict did, as a metaphor of the long growth in grace that follows salvation, but we can only talk like this when it is absoutely clear that it is grace that got us up on that ladder in the first place, and that it is only by grace that we are climbing it at all.  As the old beloved hymn puts it: “’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Only when it’s well understood that the ladder we climb is the ladder that Jesus Christ first climbed down to get to us, and then uses to take us back up with Him, does it become a metaphor of the Gospel.   DBS+

 

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A Pelagian Lent?

   abc      “Lent is not an orgy of Pelagian self-improvement!”
          ~ A Fr. Blake of St. Mary in Brighton ~
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On Ash Wednesday this year the noon Bible Study that I teach each week just happened to be looking at Romans 10:6-8 -

The righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching…

This is clearly an echo of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 –

For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

In both places what we are being told is that the Word of God is not far away in some remote place inaccessible to us. In Deuteronomy God’s Word is the Law, and in Romans God’s Word is the Gospel. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that God only and always speaks just two words to us – Law or Gospel – and then he added that a true theologian knows the difference between the two!  The point of both of these texts is that we don’t have to go on some long arduous quest like Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings in order to get to the Word of God, either the Law or the Gospel.  In both cases, they are close by because God has spoken them to us.  As the theologian Carl F.H. Henry (a distant relative of our own Dr. Henry I have been told) put it, God’s revelation was a willing self-disclosure, an expression of His grace. God forfeited His own personal privacy in order that His creatures might know Him. We didn’t have to go looking for God in the darkness; God spoke to us out of the darkness.  We don’t have to pry God out of His hiding place in the heavens; God has shown up in our midst all on His own.  God has taken the initiative.  God has made the effort.  God has overcame the separation.  God has closed the gap. We are just the recipients of His gift, the beneficiaries of His actions.  This is something we really need to keep in mind during Lent.

Because Lent “talk” usually centers on what you are “giving up,” what has sometimes been described as “spiritual subtraction” – the sacrifices that you are prepared to make out of your devotion to God in this season of spiritual preparation for Easter, or on what you are “taking on,” what has been described as “spiritual addition” – the spiritual disciplines that you are exercising to expand your spiritual capacity to receive the fullness of the Easter blessings, it is real easy for Lent to slip into the old heresy of Pelagianism.

Pelagius was British monk who showed up in Rome in the late fourth and early fifth century, the era of St. Augustine, and was immediately distressed by the moral laxity and spiritual immaturity that he witnessed.  He taught a muscular version of Christianity that concluded that our basic problem as human beings is ignorance and a lack of will power.  If we would just be better taught and then get really motivated, we could become better people and thereby create a better world.  Jesus for Pelagius was a moral example of the kind of people we could become with a little bit of effort.  C. FitzSimons Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, described this as the “Roger Bannister doctrine of the Atonement.”

Before Roger Bannister no one was able to run a mile in four minutes.  Many even declared it physiologically impossible.  In breaking the four-minute barrier however, he broke the psychological impediment in the minds of athletes the world over and scores soon followed him in that accomplishment. …Jesus broke the mental and psychological barrier in the minds of people who felt that righteousness by the law was impossible to win.  (But) Jesus had now actually done it …The meaning of his life and work was, thus, reduced to an example for us to follow. (The Cruelty of Heresy 31-32)

Do you see how, if we are not careful, Lent can become a thoroughly Pelagian exercise?

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The annual invitation that we extend each year on Ash Wednesday to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” can be heard as a list of requirements that must be met before the grace of this season of the church year can be experienced by us, or as a description of the kinds of faithful responses that we can make to the grace that has already broken into our lives in Jesus Christ. Taken the first way, and what you have is Pelagianism – thinking that it will be by your own heroic efforts at following the example of Jesus Christ that you will work your way into spiritual maturity. Taken the second way, and what you have is the Gospel – a salvation by grace through faith and not by our works that nevertheless issues in good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).  Taken the first way and Lent is something that I would urge you to avoid like the plague.  It is a spiritual dead-end that can do some real damage to your soul.   But taken the second way, and Lent can be just what you need to get some focus in your spiritual life and to better position yourself in the current of God’s grace that is flowing into your life as a Christian through the channels of the means of grace that God has appointed and is actively utilizing to fuel your spiritual growth.

Mark Roberts, the theologian in residence down at Laity Lodge down in the Hill Country, provided this “Pastoral Word” in a resource that he produced a couple of years ago for people who were coming to the tradition of Lent for the very first time -

Let me note, at this point, that if you think of Lent as a season to earn God’s favor by your good intentions or good works, then you’ve got a theological problem. God’s grace has been fully given to us in Christ. We can’t earn it by doing extra things or by giving up certain other things in fasting. If you see Lent as a time to make yourself more worthy for celebrating Good Friday and Easter, then perhaps you shouldn’t keep the season until you’ve grown in your understanding of grace. If, on the contrary, you see Lent as a time to grow more deeply in God’s grace, then you’re approaching Lent from a proper perspective.

As a minister on a college campus put it to her students: “If your Lenten disciplines don’t lead you closer to Christ, ditch them… He understands.”   DBS+

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Is Lent Supposed to be Convenient?

 

Convenient Lent?

The First Sunday of Lent this year began by springing forward an hour.  You lost an hour of sleep if you got up and went to church last Sunday morning because of the annual daylight saving time change, and that deprivation “fits” the spirit of the Lenten season quite nicely.

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St. Nilus of Stolbensk Lake (1505-1554) was a Russian Saint, one of the most beloved.  At the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, I saw an entire wall of craved St. Nilus figures.  All of them showed him with pegs under his armpits, and when I asked about those pegs I was told that St. Nilus was renowned for his spiritual discipline, for the way that he “buffeted his body and made it his slave” in his obedience to and devotion of Christ (I Corinthians 9:24-27).  Those pegs were an expression of that discipline -

To his exploits of strict fasting and stillness [ie. hesychia] he added another—he never lay down to sleep, but permitted himself only a light nap, leaning on a prop set into the wall of the cell.

Now, I wouldn’t insult the example of St. Nilus’ spiritual sleeping habits, strange as they may sound to our ears that are so much more accustomed to being told that Jesus came to make us healthy, wealthy, and happy, by comparing the loss of an hour of sleep last Saturday night to his lifetime of sleeping while standing, propped up with pegs under his arms! There is simply no comparison. But the intersection of daylight saving time with the first Sunday of Lent this year and the choice that it forced on us between getting up and coming to church for worship or staying in bed and “sleeping off’ the time change has made me think about spiritual discipline in general, and the season of Lent in particular.

I saw several news reports last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, about ministers and ministries that set up shop on crowded train station platforms and on busy downtown street corners with their placards announcing “ashes to go.” And there they stood ready to smudge the forehead of anyone who was too busy to go to church that day to receive the sign of their mortality and to indicate their willingness to enter into a season of deliberate spiritual reflection and penitence. In church, before the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, there is always this “Invitation to a Holy Lent –

 I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (The Book of Common Prayer, 265)

 And I wondered if “ashes to go” and the church’s traditional invitation to a holy Lent could be reconciled. Isn’t a “convenient” imposition of ashes that doesn’t demand anything of us, not even the miniscule effort that it would take to show up at church on Ash Wednesday for a short service in order to have the experience, a gesture that is in itself a contradiction of its essential meaning? Where’s the self-denial in a hurried pass by smudging? How much self-examination and repentance can there be in a spur-of-the moment, oh-by-the-way signing of the cross with ashes as you are running to catch your metro connection? I’m not suggesting that just because someone has taken the time to go to church for an Ash Wednesday service that it automatically means that they are serious about it or that it is inevitably going to be a spiritually significant experience for them. What I am saying is that when there has been some prior thought given to the act and some actual effort made to participate in it, that it exponentially increases the probability that something meaningful will actually take place.

Paul told the Corinthians (II.5:14) that the love of Christ “controlled” him (New American Standard), or “constrained” him (Geneva), or “presseth” him (Douay-Rheims), or “compelled” him (New King James), or “driveth” him (Wycliffe), or “urged” and “impelled” him (Amplified). However you translate the word, it means that Christ interferes. He gets in the way. He makes demands and expects a response. To be a Christian is going to cost us something. And Lent is the season when the payment comes due, or at least, it is when the claim gets made. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” (99).

Robert Raines 1961 book New Life in the Church (Harper & Row) is one of the seven or eight popular books that has had an enduring impact on my spiritual life. In his chapter on how “Conversion Endures in Discipline,” he wrote -

 We of the liberal Protestant tradition have accommodated ourselves to the cultural climate of the free and easy. We have capitulated to our secular environment, so that there is no longer any marked difference in behavior or outlook upon life between the average church member and his unchurched neighbor. Millions of church members have the forms of godliness but not the spirit or the power. Why? We are no longer a disciplined people. We like to make excuses for our impotence and lack of discipline. We say: “We Protestants are free. We’re not like the Roman Catholics. Nobody can tell us what to do! We accept no external authority or imposed discipline.”  And all of this is fine and healthy, so long as we then impose upon ourselves an internal discipline and authority. Unfortunately, the people who most often scorn and belittle Roman Catholics for the strict performance of their religious obligations are usually the least disciplined in their own religious habits. Or we say: “We mustn’t be over pious or pharisaical in our religious habits.”

… And having recognized that pharisaism is a very real temptation for any person who takes their Christianity seriously, let us face the fact that this is not the problem for most contemporary church members. Our present danger is that of laxity, self-indulgence, and the rejection of all authority and discipline. And the plain truth is, only the disciplined change the world. (56-57)

 Somewhere between the stark example of St. Nilus sleeping each night suspended on pegs and a gaggle of well-intentioned clerics giddily slapping ashes on the foreheads of commuters rushing past them on their way to work on Ash Wednesday, true spirituality resides, and this Lent I’m going in search of its address. DBS+

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