Tag Archives: Joy

Our Pentecost Novena; Day 2

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Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
Day 2 – Saturday, May 16, 2015
The Proof of the Holy Spirit’s Presence is Joy
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Scripture – I Peter 1:8-9

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Thought

The late Bishop Otto Dibelius of Germany, several years before his death, looked over his church conference program and wrote the general secretary, “When I scan the topics you have announced, I wonder if your New Testament hasn’t revised Luke 2 to read, “Behold, I bring you good problems of great moment which shall engage you for the next 2,000 years.”

Leon Bloy writing in a letter dated November 3, 1889, said, “For the people who know the Bible and tradition and the complete history of humanity, joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Paul Tillich asked, “Is our lack of joy due to the fact that we are Christians, or to the fact that we are not sufficiently Christian?”

Prayer

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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“Three Things I do Every Morning”

Some “Grist” for Your New Year’s Resolution “Mill

TCalvinhree things I do every morning so I will be happy all day long.  The first is to affirm the reality of Jesus Christ and to thank Him for his Lordship.  The second is to call to mind the reality of Satan, who will seek throughout the day to make me a miserable contradiction of evident joy.   Third, I call to mind the gifts that are mine in Christ.  If I live each day faithful to my gifts, developing and improving them, I find that I am, indeed, a happy person.  If I am sloppy and careless in developing my gifts, I find a predictable negativity fixing itself into my life. 

Calvin Miller – The Taste of Joy – IVP – 1983 (17)

Calvin Miller was one of my companions on the journey.  I never actually met him.  I never even heard him speak.  But through his books he regularly broke open the living bread for me and spread a rich feast. This excerpt from his book on joy is dog-eared and well-marked in my copy.  Calvin said that some of his friends actually laughed out loud when he told them that he was writing a book on joy.  Apparently his spiritual temperament did not make him the most natural choice for the assignment in their minds. But write the book he did, and to my way of thinking, it was one of his best.

The “three things I do every morning” that Calvin identified have become part of my life since I stumbled across them some 30 years ago when I first read this book.  Two of the three things are spiritually sensible and theologically acceptable.  Who has any objection to “affirming the reality of Jesus Christ,” or “calling to mind the gifts that are ours in Christ”? This is the standard fare of Christian spirituality; familiar, even conventional terrain for our souls.  It’s the second thing that Calvin said that he acknowledged every morning that jerks most of us up short.  He said that every morning he “called to mind the reality of Satan” who he said he believed would “seek throughout the day to make him a miserable contradiction of evident joy.”

Now, we are theologically conditioned to dismiss talk of Satan as a primitive myth, and to immediately disregard anyone who would speak of Satan as being either sadly uninformed or willfully ignorant.  Talk of the Devil grates on our intellectual and spiritual sensibilities so much so that it’s hard for us to take seriously any wisdom that takes the Devil seriously.   Those who find it credible that there is an adversarial presence or power at work in the universe and in our lives are routinely dismissed from the grown-up table of serious theological conversation.

My introduction to the critical study of Scripture occurred when as a 17 year old college freshman at a conservative church related school my professor of Old Testament announced one day that he didn’t believe that there really was a Devil.   And from the reaction that his comment generated in that class, you would have thought that he had denied that Jesus Christ was his personal Lord and Savior.  What his comment forced me to do was to think theologically for the very first time in my life; to begin to connect the dots of the Biblical witness; to look for an underlying frame on which all of its stories, personalities and teachings might hang.  And so while many of my peers were agitating for his immediate termination because of his deficient diabology, I found myself instead in the college library reading just as much and just as widely as I possibly could so that I might be able to intelligently engage in the conversation of faith that he had initiated in such a carefully calculated way.  And I can tell you that it was by honestly entertaining the possibility that there might not be a Devil that I finally came to the conclusion that it just makes so much more sense to me to believe that there is.

abcI find in Scripture “an anti-God force, most often conceived personally, that exists and works in history, especially against the purposes and people of God.”  I find throughout human history and across human cultures a remarkably consistent awareness of the existence of supernatural principalities and powers and our struggle with them.  In fact, as Philip Jenkins has made abundantly clear in his recent writings about the emergence of “Southern-world Christianity,” they “overwhelmingly… teach a firm belief in the existence of evil and in the reality of the Devil,” so that right now we find ourselves in the middle of an “epochal cultural revolution” that is nothing short of a “new reformation.”  And in my very own experience as a Christian and a pastor, I find that the opposition that I face on a daily basis is purposeful.  It seems to know my name and have my address.  There’s nothing abstract or impersonal about the “push-back” that I experience in my life or my ministry.  It knows my vulnerabilities, and when they are most exposed.  It knows precisely where to attack me.

The Epistle to the Ephesians refers to “wiles” twice, once in reference to the trickery of other people (4:14) and the other with reference to the way that the Devil works against us (6:11).  The unusual word that gets translated from the Greek as “wiles” or “schemes” in both of these verses – “methodeia” – refers to something that is methodical.  And I can tell you that that’s sure how it feels to me.  In my experience the evil that I face is orderly, logical, deliberate, strategic, even “tailored” to my own particular “weaknesses and vulnerabilities.”  And so, in addition to the New Testament’s witness to a universe that is crowded and divided, it is evil’s intelligence and persistence that persuade me that it is more than just an impersonal force that we face; it’s a presence, and it feels like it “seeks to work me woe” as the Reformer Martin Luther put it in his hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” 

 There is something that pushes back; something adversarial; something antagonistic; something bigger than ourselves.  N.T. Wright has described it as a deep and dark force that operates at a “suprapersonal” level “pressing into the project of God.” 100 years ago the American preacher S.D. Gordon simply labeled it “the great outside hindrance,” and that makes good sense of what I know from revelation, reason, experience and tradition. Oh, believe me, I know just how ridiculous talk of the devil can be – how crude and cartoonish a figure the adversary cuts in the popular imagination – red suit, pointy tail, horns, pitchfork, stinking of sulfur. And yet…

devil

Kyriacos Markides, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Maine, conducted a series of interviews on spiritual reality with Father Maximos, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus. In the course of their conversations, Kyriacos heard Father Maximos refer to the church as the “arena of an ongoing battle.”  As he explained to Father Maximos, “I was under the impression that the Church is a harbor of peace and healing, not a battleground.”  And so Father Maximos explained to Kyriacos that, “The Church is available to us as a vehicle for our salvation… (and) such a pursuit implies a struggle against those forces that labor to block our ascent toward God.”  Life is hard, there’s going to be resistance, there’s going to be a struggle, there are going to be forces that work hard to block our growth in grace and faith, and the best strategy, it seems to me, is just to admit it from the get go.

In fact, isn’t this what Jesus Christ Himself told us to expect when He taught us to pray saying: “Deliver us from evil,” which could just as easily and legitimately could be translated “Deliver us from the evil one.”  The Scandinavian theologian Gustaf Aulen cited this as part of the evidence that Biblical Christianity has an inescapable “conflict motif.” He explained that “faith looks upon existence as a dramatic struggle and sees the inner meaning of existence emerging out of this struggle where the divine stands in conflict with hostile forces.”  Gustaf Aulen warned that any attempt to understand Christianity without paying sufficient attention to this fact is “doomed to failure.”  And so are our annual New Year’s Resolutions, or any well-intentioned strategy for personal growth and self-improvement.   If the very real resistance that we will face from the “great outside hindrance” isn’t factored in, our plans will be sabotaged before they even begin.

Announce growth, and immediately you will encounter opposition; that’s just the nature of things.  And so every morning of his life Calvin Miller of blessed memory called to mind three great facts of his existence: First of all, Jesus Christ was His Lord and Savior and Calvin was living his life in response to Christ’s claim on him; Second, there was an adversarial something or someone out there that was hard at work trying to keep Calvin from becoming the person that Jesus Christ created him to be and from doing the sorts of things that Jesus Christ needed Calvin to do; and Third, in this struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, Jesus Christ had put at Calvin’s personal disposal an array of gifts and graces that if taken up by faith could enable Calvin to stand, and thrive.

Here at the beginning of a New Year, in your annual resolutionary exercise, I offer you the wisdom and example of my soul’s good friend, Calvin Miller, to help you tomorrow morning when you wake up in earnest pursuit of all the positive changes that you intend today, and find that the change you want is going to be harder and take so much longer than you ever imagined.  The promise is that you are not alone in this struggle. DBS+

…You belong to God, my dear children.  You have already won a victory…
because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the Spirit who lives in the world.

 

– I John 4:4

light

 

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“Christmas is for the Dying”

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Recently I was reading a blog about which Christmas Carol has the best theology (http://blog.livingstonesreno.com).  The author had previously named the three most “theologically misleading” Christmas Carols, in his opinion, to be (1) “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – what he described as “the Diet Coke of Christmas carols – bad taste, zero substance,” (2) “We Three Kings”  –  asking, “Why do you say “Guide us to thy [your] perfect light,” as if the star possesses the perfect light, instead of “Guide us to the perfect light?” which would be Jesus?” and (3) “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – explaining, “I’m not urging you to read like a legal treatise, I’m just asking that you stay within the boundaries of truth… Jesus does bring us goodness and light, but most people denied this during his life on earth…He was executed for claiming to be the light of the world… (and) Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted by the world until the day he returns.  Then there will be peace, and every king will bow to him, and there will be nothing but goodness and light,” but not until then.  “Away in a Manger” got “honorable mention” in this category – as the blogger explained, “we can’t downplay Christ’s humanity, even with something as harmless as making it seem like he didn’t cry as a baby.”

The author then came up with 16 contenders for the title of what he called “the most theologically rich” Christmas Carol of them all:

Joy to the World
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Silent Night
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
O Come All Ye Faithful
Go Tell It On the Mountain
God Rest Ye  Merry Gentleman
Angels We Have Heard on High
What Child is This?
Mary Did You Know?
O Holy Night                                                                                                                                       
 
Angels from the Realms of Glory
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel

When he was done examining the theology of each of these Christmas Carols, the author of this blog moved four into the “Finals”

O Holy Night –

It’s uncontested redemption line Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth” is chillingly profound.”                                                                                                                                          

Mary Did You Know?  –

This upstart Christmas carol written in 1984 demonstrates theological solidity with its theme of rhetorically asking Mary if she was aware of the magnitude of Jesus’ birth, with the intensity of the song’s Christology building and building throughout.”                                                                                                                        

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  

A Christmas Carol of “Solid Christology, featuring the highlight “Hail the incarnate deity.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel –

An onslaught of Christological foreshadowings from the Old Testament.”

And then he narrowed it to just two – “O Holy Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – for a theological showdown before naming “O Holy Night” as his grand champion.  Personally, I would have gone with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  I am struck by the theological depth of this Christmas Carol every time we sing it.

Hark the herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored. Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

As someone was overheard to remark after singing this carol, “There’s a lot of important stuff in there!”  But the theological “thickness” of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was powerfully brought to my attention recently as I prepared for our December “Faiths in Conversation” program with our Jewish and Muslim friends.  The topic was “Death and Dying,” not so much about what we believe happens to us when we die, our specific convictions about the afterlife, but rather about what are the traditions and practices of our particular communities of faith when someone dies?  Of course, that’s a rather artificial distinction since our funeral traditions and burial practices are rooted in our convictions and beliefs, and so in order to talk about our funerals Christians I had to begin by talking about what we believe as Christians that Jesus Christ has done about death, and that brought “Hark! The Herald Angels” immediately to my mind and heart –

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Several years ago there was a death in author Madeleine L’Engle’s family at Christmastime.   She wrote about in in her book The Irrational Season (Crossroad 1979).  The funeral for Madeleine’s loved one was on the morning of Christmas Eve, and when the service was over the family gathered in the front room of Madeleine’s home emotionally and physically spent, and the question that was hanging in the air finally got posed out loud: “What about Christmas?”  They were torn. “Is it proper (even possible) to grieve and rejoice simultaneously?”  they wondered.  And finally Madeleine spoke up – “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all, yes. If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all; yes!”  (24)

I hope that you will take a look at what I said last Monday night at the Interfaith Conversation about what we who are Christians do when someone we love dies.  I’ve posted it in the “Sermons” section of the church webpage in the “Worship” area (“Faiths in Conversation”).  It was a conscious attempt to explain what Madeleine meant when she said that Christmas must be celebrated in the shadow of the family funeral “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all… If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all!”

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

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Sing We Now of Christmas “Joy to the World”

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Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.

bI grew up in a strongly Seventh Day Adventist neighborhood in Southern California.   I went past one of their Hospitals, their Regional Denominational Offices and their National Radio and Television Ministry Studio every day on my way to school.  Their “Academy” – a church-related school – was as big as the elementary school that I attended. And some of the friends I played with everyday in the park across the street from where I lived were Adventists.  We were in and out of each other’s houses all the time.  And one of the things that I often saw when I was in their houses were paintings of what they thought that life after death was going to be like, and the images I saw cast a vision that was remarkably physical and this-worldly – like a nice day in a beautiful park.  They always left me confused.  When I died I expected to shed my body, leave this world, go to heaven and continue to exist there forever as a spirit – like an angel.   This wasn’t something that I was necessarily “taught” but rather it was something I “caught.”  “When you die you go to heaven,” that’s what everyone said, and then there was “The Littlest Angel” – that classic Christmas story that we saw every December in elementary school (it was the 1950’s and 60’s) and that made a very deep impression on me. 

C“The Littlest Angel” is the story of a little boy who died and went to heaven as the littlest angel and who then struggled to fit in until he was allowed to return to earth to retrieve his box of earthly treasures from under his bed which in turn were transfigured into the Star of Bethlehem to mark the birth of Jesus Christ.  It’s a memorable and moving story, and it only confirmed my general impression that the goal of life was to find release from my physical existence in this material world to live forever with God in a spiritual heaven.  It would take years for me to discover that my Adventist friends were much closer to the truth of the things that have been revealed to us than the impressions that culture had casually made on me over the years.  Now, more fully informed of what the Bible actually teaches, I believe that my final destiny is not the immortality of my soul in the eternity of heaven – a spiritual state, but the resurrection (not the resuscitation) of my body on a renewed earth.

Christopher J.H. Wright, the British Old Testament scholar who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Biblical theologians, in his 2008 book The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan), explains that what he believes in is “life after life after death”  (181).

dWhat is our final destination according to the Bible?  Most Christians tend to answer, “Why, heaven of course.” There is a question that is often used in evangelistic encounters which goes something like this: “If you were to die tonight, are you sure you will go to heaven?” I confess I have not been asked this question for a long time, but if I were, my answer now would be, “Yes – But I don’t expect to stay there!”  I suppose this might be rather shocking to any earnest evangelist.   Where else do I think I might be going later, or where would I want to go instead?  Of course I believe, as the apostle Paul did, that when I die I will go to be with Christ in heaven (Philippians 1:21-23).  For Paul, the thought of being with Christ made it a hard choice as to whether he wanted to die or go on living for the sake of the work he had to do.  But here’s the point: The heaven I will go to when I die is not my final destination… it is only the transit lounge for the new creation.  Heaven for those who have died in Christ is a place or state of rest, of waiting…  “Heaven when you die” is not where we will be forever.  It is where we will be safe until God brings about the transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament. (193-194)

“The transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament” — This is what the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” is talking about when it tells “earth (to) receive her King,” “and heaven and nature sing,” “while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,” that “sins and sorrows no longer grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” The salvation that Christ affects is directly proportionate to those things that need saving, and in Genesis chapter 3, the Fall affects not just us as individual human beings, but all of creation, and so what will eventually be redeemed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is not ejust us as individual human beings, but all of creation. “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  This is what that Bible is talking about when it describes the wolf and the lamb grazing together (Isaiah 65:25), the leopard lying down with the kid and the child playing over the viper’s den (Isaiah 11:6-9). God’s saving work in Jesus Christ restores the original shalom of creation – the harmony of everything and everyone fitted together once again in a web of mutual interdependence and well-being.  This is the picture that lies behind the Bible’s talk of the new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 66:21-24; Romans 8:18-25; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Revelation 21:1-22:5).

As the Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema explained it in his book on The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans 1979) –

…To leave the (doctrine of the) new earth out of consideration when we think of the final state of believers is greatly to impoverish biblical teaching about the life to come… (and it is to fail to) grasp the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program.  In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth.  Because of man’s fall into sin,
a curse was pronounced over this creation.  God has now sent His Son into this world to redeem creation from the results of sin.  The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals… The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise lost has become Paradise Regained.  We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall. (274-275).

When we sing of Christmas using Isaac Watts’ theologically lofty text and George Frederick Handel’s majestic tune, “Joy to the World,” we are singing about the full scope of God’s saving action from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the Consummation, from the Fall in Adam to the Restoration of all things in Christ.  There are very few Christmas carols, let alone hymns in general, with a more cosmic vision of the redemption that God in Christ accomplishes for us and our world, and it deserves to be sung not just at Christmastime, but all year round.  DBS+

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“Surrounded”

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and  let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

hallWhen I was a kid Halloween was always my favorite holiday.  In those days it was all about the candy, the costume and the removal of the curfew for a night.  There was nothing quite like prowling the neighborhood with my friends after 9 pm, all of us dressed up like the Beatles, or the Dodgers, or some Hippies, on the perennial quest for the full sized Hershey chocolate bar.  Now that I am an adult, and a minister, I find that Halloween is still one of my favorite days of the year, but for very different reasons.  Now it’s all about the communion of the saints, and I’ve been around long enough – beginning my sixth decade here on earth – to have as many friends and relatives, people I know and love, in the church triumphant as I do in the church militant.  Gary Thomas in his 1994 book Seeking the Face of God wrote about how he tries to consciously “live in the communion of the saints.”

When a contemporary saint dies, I live with that person’s death for weeks… I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me… Wise shoppers clip coupons.  Wise Christians clip obituaries. (153-154)

Being raised in a church that recited the creed, I was introduced to the idea of the communion of the saints when I was quite young.  It’s just another way of talking about the church, but in a way that is so much bigger than what we experience on Sunday mornings.  It’s the church in Revelation 5 – everyone, everywhere and always who has ever confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and who has known Him personally as their Lord and Savior. As a hymn we sang in our Service of Remembrance in worship last Sunday puts it –

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

It’s the oldest and truest meaning of the way that some contemporary churches that operate with satellite worship centers describe themselves: “one church in two locations.” 

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At the tail end of the inaugural vision of heaven that John was granted while he was exiled on the island of Patmos, after seeing the throne of God, and the 24 elders, and the four living creatures, and the Lamb looking as though it had been slain, and the myriads and myriads of angels — after all of that, John finally saw “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (5:13). The communion of the saints is in that number!  It’s the church in heaven “triumphant,” and it’s the church on earth “militant.”

 

Another Biblical way to think and talk about the communion of the saints can be found in Hebrews 12:1-2.  The word picture here is that of a contest on an athletic field in a stadium filled with cheering spectators. The church C“militant” is comprised of those Christians who are still alive, in the competition, on the field.  And the church “triumphant” is comprised of those Christians who are in the stands, in the nearer presence of God, cheering on those of us who are still in the contest.  When the author of the book of Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” many interpreters have taken it as a reference to this understanding of the communion of the saints.  The power of this connection should be obvious, those who have faithfully run the race before us, now urging us on who are in the race ourselves. As John Colwell wrote –

Such a depiction prompts the notion of a continuing conscious presence of those who have gone before: they are observers of us as much as examples to us; in some sense… they remain involved with us… Albeit figuratively, the “saints” on earth are bound together with the saints in the heavens as one people, a single congregation, a continuous communion. And though all this is admittedly highly figurative, it surely is significant of something, of a division apparent to us that is less apparent to God.  [http://www.christianitytoday.com]

The most powerful expression of this faith perspective with which I am familiar is the old story that was confirmed by Coach Bobby Bowden to have actually happened.

When Lou Little coached at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1924 to 1929 he had a defensive tackle who probably weighed two hundred pounds, which was very big back in those days. Little worked with the boy every day, but the young man just did not get any better. But the boy was persistent, worked hard, and had a great attitude. In fact, the boy never missed a practice in his four seasons on the team. Three or four days before the boy’s final game at Georgetown, Little received a telegram that informed him the boy’s father had died. Little had seen the boy walking with his father. “Son, I am sorry,” Little told him. “But your father passed away. Go home and take care of your family. We’ll try to win this game for you.”   That Saturday, Little walked into his team’s locker room and was surprised to see the boy standing there. “Coach, you have to start me,” the boy said. “Son, you have never been a starter,” Little told him. “This is the championship game. I cannot take that kind of risk today.” “Coach, I have to do this for my father,” the boy pleaded. “Just put me in for the first play and then you can take me out of the game.” Little was overcome with sympathy. How could he not grant the boy his wish? So he put the boy in the starting lineup, and the boy ran down the field to cover the game’s opening kickoff. He tackled the player returning the kick so hard he nearly knocked him into the first row of seats. The boy jumped up and ran to the sideline just like he promised his coach he would do, but Little motioned to him to stay in the game.  During the rest of the afternoon, the boy played like he was possessed. He led Georgetown’s team in tackles and delivered big hit after big hit. Georgetown won the game and claimed a conference championship. Little pulled the boy aside during the team’s celebration in its locker room. “Son, what in the world got into you today?” Little asked him. “You’ve never played like that before. You’ve never shown that much desire in four years.” “Coach, you know my father died,” the boy said. “You know my father was blind. Today was the first time he could see me play.” [http://sports.espn.go.com]

I am comforted and strengthened by the thought that those who have loved and supported me when they were alive, in some sense, continue to love and support me now that their faith has become sight.  When my hands droop, my knees wobble and I am at risk of losing heart (Hebrews 12:12), it helps to hear a cheer from somewhere in the great beyond assuring me that I am not alone and that I can finish the course.  And so, in the shadow of that great cloud of witnesses, I press on, running with endurance the course that is set before me, looking to Jesus, and rediscovering the joy of it all (Hebrews 12:1-2).   DBS+

 

 

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Lent with St. Benedict

Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict

Chapter 49 – “On the Keeping of Lent “

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During these days, therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service, as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink. Thus everyone of his own will may offer God “with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6) something above the measure required of him. From his body, that is he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting; and with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter.

There are two references to the word “joy” in St. Benedict’s description of the disciplines of Lent. It’s my guess that the word “joy” never comes to mind when we think about Lent, and that’s because we are so much more accustomed to thinking of repentance as a sad and painful duty. It’s “sorrow for sin, a feeling of guilt, a sense of grief and horror at the wounds we have inflicted on others and ourselves” (Ware 45). Repentance is certainly not something that we would want to sing about, and any song about repentance that we can imagine singing is probably not one that we would ever want to dance to!

But, as the Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware likes to say, “the beginning of repentance is a vision of beauty and not of ugliness; an awareness of God’s glory, and not of our own squalor” (47). After quoting from the book that every Orthodox Christian monk, nun and priest reads during Lent – St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent that “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair”- Bishop Ware explained that “To repent is to look, not downward at our own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become” (45). And I don’t know about you, but talk like that makes me want to dance, and so we danced our way into Lent this year at the church I serve. In our Ash Wednesday service we learned the traditional Shaker Hymn “Tis’ the Gift to be Simple” (#568 in the Chalice Hymnal), and then we danced it according to some instructions that I found online –

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 http://www.sacredcircles.com

Lent is not usually thought of as a season for dancing. Christmas is. Easter is. Lent is not. We think of Lent as a sad time, a season for bewailing and confessing our sins. But St. Benedict puts us on an entirely different Lenten trajectory with his counsel that we should each, of our own will, offer God “with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6) something above the measure” of what is usually required of us so that “with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter.” How do we miss this? Why are our Lents so devoid of joy?

In 1983 Calvin Miller wrote a book he called The Taste of Joy (IVP). He admitted that he was probably the least likely candidate he knew to write a book on joy. He even suggested that those who knew him best were probably laughing out loud at the thought of him expounding on the topic of joy. He explained that he began his own walk with Christ “surrounded by the easy and ‘churchy’ slogans of joy” (10), but admitted that they, and therefore he, routinely confused joy with happiness and so he quickly became “a peaceless and ulcerated disciple” (10). He said that he would go to church looking for happiness. But “the pursuit of loud singing and forced smiling can be shattered easily” he observed. “It is a kind of pep-rally-and-bonfire answer to emptiness” (13).

“I have sat in worship services singing that my heart was full of joy,” Calvin confessed, “when I was not sure that I was ever going to be able to handle life as it had been given to me. Even as I sang, I looked about to wonder if we were not all trying to smile and sing ourselves into a condition we said we had” (12). And, “if we were prone to sing too softly of this elusive joy, a boisterous Christian urged us to ‘really smile and turn around and shake hands’ with the happy people behind us.” Calvin concluded, “Such odd combinations of positive-thinking group dynamics only widened the chasm in our lives. We dared not stop singing or we would have wept” (13).

Calvin Miller’s great discovery was that happiness and joy are two very different things. “Happiness is a buoyant emotion that results from the momentary plateaus of well-bring that characterize our lives,” Calvin explained. “But joy is bedrock stuff… a confidence that operates irrespective of our moods. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel” (10). He gradually began to see that “Christ was always there,” but “happiness was not” Happiness, “like a fickle friend, flitted in and out of my moody and unpredictable spasms of religiosity” Calvin explained (10). When his circumstances were “warm and comfortable,” his life “secure,” Calvin said that he was happy (12). “But joy was not a momentary occurrence subject to change,” Calvin observed, “It rises above mood and circumstances and transcends our fickle moments of elation” (12).

It was this discovery that led Calvin to the more important one, namely that joy cannot be pursued. It cannot be a goal that you select and then pursue like the desire to bowl a 300 game. That’s to go about it all wrong. Instead, Calvin wrote – “To discover God is merely to open the heart and to admit that He, for whom we have searched, is overwhelmingly about us – indeed, invading our very being with joy. He engulfs us as pure love because we have quit pushing and have become willing to wait for His coming” (13).

And so, and this is where Calvin Miller starts to sound a lot like St. Benedict to me – “We do not become joyous and say, ‘Let’s pray,’ but rather after prayer we may find ourselves in touch with a deeper joy. Rarely does joy result in reading God’s Word, but reading the Bible can nourish our joy, which is the result of spiritual discipline” (16). Calvin called this the “discipline principle,” and he said that it’s as true in the arts or sports as it is in our spiritual lives. “The concert artist finds delight in her talent only if she has been thoroughly disciplined in practice. Then following her third curtain call, a great glow fills her life. In the excitement of victory the quarterback is scooped up to ride on the shoulders of his team-mates. Yet his spontaneous enthusiasm comes only from the discipline which preceded it. The football team did not go to the game trying to be happy and rehearsing how they would tear down the goalposts” (16).

“As ridiculous as this sounds for the football team,” Calvin concluded, “this is precisely how a great many Christians are living. We are in search of an emotional high… we go to church seeking feeling,” unaware that joy comes as the consequence of spiritual discipline, of “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), not in the sense of saving ourselves by our own efforts, but rather, in the sense of gradually coming to terms with the gift that we have been given in Jesus Christ through the cultivation of the holy habits of prayer, Bible reading, service, giving and church attendance. In other words, the Lenten disciplines!

In addition to dancing, in our Ash Wednesday service a few weeks ago we also prayed Psalm 51 together. And as we did, the eighth verse jumped out at me with particular force – “Make me to hear joy and gladness, let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice.” The rejoicing of bones broken by God is the joy of the Lenten disciplines. If you aren’t willing to let them be broken, then you won’t ever know the rejoicing that Lent entails.  DBS+

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