Who Will Teach Us How?

27 05 2018

The civilized, cultural Christianity of our grandparents taught us that it is not proper to be angry at God. He’s perfect, we’re sinners.  If bad stuff happens to us, we recognize that we deserved it and we thank the Lord it wasn’t worse.  Fortunately, biblical Christianity is not civilized.  Exhibit A, Psalm 88–

 

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?  Why do you hide your face from me?  Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.  Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.  They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together.  You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;  my companions have become darkness.

 

Holy Bible with cross

And yes, the psalm ends on that very happy and bright note!  This is not, necessarily, a healthy relationship between the psalmist and his God.  I take some comfort in this, while also realizing this is not the final word in Scripture.  In Psalm 88 we only get a snippet of a long, arduous conversation.

 

Since becoming a young adult, I have had a long discussion (really an argument) with God– the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And yes, I’ve argued with all three of them!  The angry question I throw at the Lord is this: “Why can’t I do it?!  Why can’t I be even partially consistent in my spiritual life?  Why can’t I overcome sin, bad attitudes, bad thoughts, bad actions, and a generally whiney demeanor?  You insist that I be holy but you don’t seem to help me and you don’t tell me HOW?!”

 

I have tried many, if not all, of the answers that Christians great and small have given to this angst filled question of mine:

 

  • I need to rely more on God’s grace and less on my effort
  • I need to try harder and exercise more will power– put into practice a better method, or read the right books, attend the right seminar, or change denominations.
  • I need to get over it!  I’m going to be a sinner until I die, just trust in God’s grace and move on.  (Thank you, Martin Luther!  Simul justus, et peccator, “simultaneously justified and a sinner”)
  • I need an “accountability partner” who will meet with me regularly to make sure I’m not continuing to do sinful acts (and I have to admit to him when I do sin).
  • I need to get to the root of my heart-wounds and sins and allow Jesus to heal them, and then I will have victory in my life.
  • I need to read my bible more, pray more, give to the poor, fast, and sell all my possessions.
  • I need a better interpretation of the Bible that helps me see that when Jesus told us to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”, he was speaking metaphorically.

Martin Luther

More could be added to this list.  And I’m not saying that everything in that list is worthless.  But, none of them have worked to help me actually overcome my bursts of anger, my bouts of selfishness, my slouching into depression, my succumbing to sin.

 

Why?!  Why is this the case?!  Why doesn’t the Bible, somewhere, spell out in painful detail the process to overcome sinful habits, and destructive attitudes?!  This seems, really, really important!!  Why are there no explicit “how to” portions in Scripture that walk me, step by step, into exactly what I need to do to stop sinning, and to stop letting anger or lust or bitterness or selfishness control my life!  Holiness for Dummies

 

I can’t overemphasize how big this is, and how much this has caused serious problems with my relationship with God.  The truth is, not being able to do what Jesus commanded, has caused the most serious challenges to my faith during my relatively short life.  And yes, I do label it a crisis of faith that I have experienced from time to time.

 

I also feel alone in this.  Again, this is huge!! Why aren’t more of my Christian friends frustrated by the gap between the clear teaching of Scripture and their actual behavior and internal attitudes? (“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  Really?  I go to bed angry plenty!) The most I hear from the pulpit is that we all struggle and we should help each other.  Really!?  That’s all I get?!   I don’t even get a Sunday school class with the title, “7 steps to holy living”?   And as far as I’m concerned (see my previous two posts) this is THE thing the church should be concerning itself with the most, above everything else–  teaching, instructing and demonstrating how to live as Jesus instructed.

 

Instead, my denomination is mostly concerned with church planting and getting unsaved people “saved.”  Yes, I am fully cognizant that I sound like a raving, insane heretic in challenging this.  I love the fact that my denomination wants to start new churches in order to reach those the church has ignored or forgotten about.  Of course that’s part of the Great Commission.  But what about the “teaching them to…” part of that same Great Commission?  Recently, in reading my denomination’s periodical,  I saw a lot of excitement about evangelism and church planting, and almost nothing about what we should do with these new Christians once they start coming to the church.  It is my perception (which I’m sure is flawed) that most local churches believe that if we can just get the “lost” to say yes to Jesus, the rest just takes care of itself.  If I’m wrong about this, then why is outreach and church planting so much more prominent than programs and processes that train believers in the ways and attitudes of Christlikeness?

Holiness 101

Now look, I’m sure there are local churches out there doing yeoman’s work in the area of spiritual formation, etc.  But that work does not get lifted up and shouted about by the denomination.  What is touted are those churches who change and become more “outward” focused, and experience numerical growth.  The emphasis is “success” as generally defined by the culture.   Our God is a big God and he uses all of this to advance his Kingdom.  So, I’m not trying to argue that such evangelistic efforts are a waste of time or unbiblical.  I’m saying they are out of proportion with the clear and unconfusing directives of the New Testament.  Jesus did not make it overly complicated when he said, “Make disciples:  baptize them into the reality of the Trinity, and instruct them how to do all that I have commanded.”   Why are most of our current efforts only implementing the first half of the Great Commission?

 

I promise, I’m not naïve, and I fully realize that churches which are primarily “inward” focused, and have a lot of bible studies, prayer services, and the like, are also not really training each other how to actually do what needs to be done to be holy.  I myself have failed in this way too.  I’ve taught Sunday school classes on prayer, and had some really great discussions that we all felt really good about.  But we never really got around to the business of prayer itself.  (I’ve also been part of a church that talked about prayer, but then turned the Sunday night service into a time of focused intercessory prayer.  We witnessed God move through that work.)

 

My point is that both “inward” and “outward” focused congregations are missing the boat on that second part of the Great Commission.  And I desperately need a community of believers right now who takes it seriously and will start to work to train themselves and others to do what Jesus said.  After all, what sort of spiritual life are we bringing new believers into if we don’t give them some help, instruction and training in how to overcome sinful habits and destructive attitudes?  Otherwise, church becomes a club, and not a training center for the Kingdom of God.

 

Time to set aside the rant and get practical.  What is the solution?  What am I supposed to be doing so I can overcome the desires of the flesh, and consistently walk in the Holy Spirit with Jesus at my side, and the Father’s love filling my life?  And I point out again that the New Testament does not outline for us the specific regimen that we need to put into practice.  Sure, Paul will say, “put to death what is earthly in you. . . . And put on . . .compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. . . .”  (Colossians 3: 5 & 12).  Apostle PaulYes, O Great Apostle, that is very good advice, and I love it!  But HOW?!!!!  What concrete steps must I take to actually put to death “impurity and evil desire”?  The Bible remains painfully quiet in this respect, and I can’t help but wonder why this is so.  And since I believe in the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures, I can only conclude that this omission was intentional.

 

Paul and Peter and John purposely were not inspired by God to give specific, 1, 2, 3, steps to holiness.  I’m sure this was in part because as time and culture changed, specific practices would not easily translate and the “old ways” would quickly become a legalistic religion.  But, there has to be more to it than that.  And I believe the answer is within the Great Commission itself.  Jesus commands his disciples to be about the business of “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  The word “teaching” really has little to do with Modern notions of education, where eager pupils sit in neat rows and give their rapt attention to the master lecturer at the front of the room.  This sort of teaching (as much as I enjoy it) is merely the passing on of info and data.  This is a million miles away from what Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words.

 

What did he mean by “teaching”?  Well, just read the Gospel of Matthew and you will see.  Yes, he often sat down and spoke to his “students” about the Kingdom. But he also demonstrated the Kingdom by casting out demons, healing the sick, and calling disciples to “follow” him (in other words, to imitate what they saw him doing and saying). Lastly, the Master sent his apprentices out two by two, into the surrounding villages to teach and do the exact same things Jesus had taught and showed them himself.  This is a proper education in the school of Jesus the Messiah!  And this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he uttered the words of the Great Commission– his disciples were to verbally instruct, show by demonstration, and finally send out the new recruits to actually do what they had heard and seen. (Also note that the disciples came back and reported to Jesus all they had done in his name.)  This is a system of apprenticeship, and this is far removed from how we do “discipleship” in the early decades of the 21st Century.

 

God did not inspire specific, step-by-step instructions because he wanted his people to work on this together in community, and not in isolation.  If it was all spelled out in the New Testament, I could just stay at home and follow the steps without recourse to being part of a community of faith.  Evangelicals will not like what I say next:  This means the Bible alone is not sufficient for full salvation leading to a holy life.  We must rely on one another for the training necessary to grow in grace and to actually stop sinning and having unholy attitudes.  We will have to submit to the wisdom of those who have gone before us on this path, while also adapting their instruction to the particular terrain of our own time and culture.  Sola Scriptura only works if the Bible is intentionally made the Church’s Bible and the people who are the Church work together to help one another actually do what Jesus instructed.

 

Recently, I was reading about a church in North America whose practice in Spiritual Formation was this:  before coming to Communion congregants were strongly encouraged to meet with their priest for Confession (obviously, this was not a Protestant or Evangelical church).  When the priest noted a persistent sin or unholy attitude in a person’s life, he directed him or her to a nearby monastery where each member of his church was assigned to a monk who became a spiritual director. In every instance of spiritual direction, the monk would give specific practices and exercises for the church member to do.  More often than not, these exercises seemed unconnected to the particular sin the person was failing to overcome. But for those who stuck with the assigned regimen, significant progress was made in their efforts to defeat sin.

 

This makes me think of the original “Karate Kid” movie.  The Sensei, Mr. Miyagi began his instruction of his teenage student (who just wanted to learn Karate so he could beat up the bullies at school) by having him paint the fence and house, sand the deck, and wax the car.  Of course, Daniel, the teenager, gets fed up with feeling like Mr. Miyagi’s Karate Kidslave.  He turns in a huff to walk away from his instructor when Mr. Miyagi calls him back and has him demonstrate with his arms and hands, “sand the floor” and “wax on, wax off”, “paint the fence”, and “paint the house”.  All of these motions end up being very effective blocking techniques against incoming punches and kicks. The repetitive motions of seemingly unrelated work, were actually creating muscle memory of the most fundamental defensive moves in martial arts.

 

I have come to believe that something similar needs to be the starting point for those wanting to defeat persistent sins in their lives.  If a person has spent the last 20 years giving in to the sin of lust (or greed, or pride, or fill-in-the blank), it is worse than discouraging to simply tell that person to stop sinning by will power and to keep up his daily “devotions”.  You will teach that believer that he is either an abject failure in the Christian life, or that God’s grace is not sufficient. Ingrained habits cannot be undone by simply ratcheting up more will-power, or by speaking more spiritual platitudes like, “let go, and let God.”  Serious effort and training must be entered into for the long haul, setting aside the need for instantaneous results.  The “student” must trust her instructor that regular fasting will somehow help in the defeat of anger, greed and lust.

 

The bottom line:  I cannot just wake up one day and decide to stop yelling when I get angry.  I will fail, 100% guaranteed.  But I might actually be able to build into my daily routine, 20 minutes of silence and solitude in which I meditate on a single verse of Scripture.  And I have to be patient to allow that seed to bear fruit in its time– not mine or the world’s!  But more fundamentally, I need to be in a community that not only encourages this sort of training, but actually offers it and sees it as vital to the health and mission of the community.

 

Please church, I’m begging you, for my sake and yours.  Stop trying to impress the world with standards of success that it has set from its own, corrupted brokenness.  Instead, listen more carefully to Jesus and start putting time, people, money and resources towards actually carrying out both halves of the Great Commission.  If Evangelical churches cannot do this, they should not be upset when those who attend their churches go looking elsewhere– hopefully to other more ancient branches of Christianity, but maybe to other religions and spiritualties altogether! Our churches may be growing in number now, but what will they look like in 50 years if the people in them are not intentionally trained in the ways of Jesus?

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Pushing the “Easy” Button

3 03 2017

1st Sunday in Lent – Matthew 4:1-11

Let’s be honest, you and I live in a time and place that unleashes all of its resources for the sole purpose of persuading us to give in to our temptations.  But, it’s actually worse, we are told that the most healthy lifestyle choice we can make is to identify with our deepest temptations and to embrace them as the truest picture of who we really are.  We are told that the most unhealthy choice is to deny our temptations and wants.  In fact, if we publicly voice our opposition to these lifestyle choices, the social media powers will descend upon us like the very fury of hell (and here, I’m speaking literally).  Businesses have been destroyed, good paying positions taken away, friendships undone, reputations left in ashes from this demonic fury.

Ivan Kramskoy's 1872 Christ in the Wilderness

So, it ought to be a fearful thing that the one we call Lord and Savior is seen here so obviously standing against the temptations thrown at him.  And not only resisting, but coming out very much the winner.  But it is all too easy to go with the flow and think:  Wouldn’t we all be a lot better off simply giving in to some of our temptations, or at most, maybe very, VERY quietly resisting them in the privacy of our prayer closets?  Anything more public may make us look like intolerant holy religious people who are always mean and judgmental!

 

But I suspect that most of you want to beat back your temptations, at least most days, and wouldn’t mind having some help and assistance.  So, let’s look at how Jesus handled it.

 

Now first, Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus has been tempted in every way that you and I have ever been tempted (but did not give in!!).  So, what we see in the Gospel in Satan’s three temptations, only shows us some of what Jesus had to resist– although, perhaps these three were the most difficult ones he had to overcome. We also know from the Gospels (Matthew 16:23) that Jesus was also tempted by Satan to avoid the Way of the Cross– and he used Peter’s mouth to do the tempting.  So, I think we can safely assume that the ‘ole Serpent rarely let up on his attacks on Jesus, especially during his ministry years leading up to his crucifixion.  I’m sure you have all felt there are many times when you’ve yelled to heaven, “Can I just have a break for a while from all these constant, never-ending temptations!!”  I’ve done that, multiple times.

 

Second, look at what Satan is wanting Jesus to do– hit the EASY button!!  “Hey, Jesus, you are the Son of God, the 2nd person of the Trinity– so use your ‘God’ power and make yourself some bread from rocks, or make yourself look like a super-hero by jumping down from the high-point of the temple and landing safely on the street with thousands of onlookers–they’ll call you Messiah and make you king!  OR… skip the whole cross-thing by bowing before me (I mean, really, it doesn’t really mean anything does it?!  It’s surely just an empty gesture) and I’ll give you what you really want– to be the loving King of the world that everyone will adore.”

Ary Scheffer's The Temptation of Christ

Ary Scheffer’s The Temptation of Christ

Jesus knew he was taking the very, very hard road to save the world, and the Great Liar was trying to get him to cheat and take the easy road to accomplish his mission.  NOTE:  Jesus uses Holy Scripture, God’s Word to crush every temptation.  And guess what?  You have access to that same mighty weapon.  But do you take daily advantage of it?  Do you really know it well enough to use it effectively?  A weapon’s no good to you if you don’t know it well and practice with it constantly.

 

Third, Jesus accomplishes the Great Reversal.  Do you recall another time that the Deceiver, Satan, made a famous temptation and succeeded?  Yup, in the Garden, with our original parents, Adam & Eve.  He convinced them to distrust God, to take matters into their own hands, to become like God.  He got them to believe that God was holding out on them by forbidding them to eat from just one tree in the Garden.  Satan sowed seeds of doubt, and they fell for it and the rest of world history records the sad, tragic consequences of their decision.  One of the details we often miss is the in-action of the man, Adam.  Genesis 3:6 makes clear that Adam was “with her”, Eve, and yet he said and did nothing to defend his wife from the lies and deceits of the Serpent.  He could have told the Serpent to “shut up”, or even crushed the serpent to keep it from 071714_0240_TheTablethe2.jpgtalking any more. But he failed, utterly.  Note that Jesus undoes this most horrible of failures, by standing up to and defeating Satan’s lies and temptations.  Now, if Jesus has undone Adam’s failures, he has surely undone all of yours as well.  Paul calls Jesus the second Adam– giving us the ultimate and perfect “do-over.”

 

If you choose to buck the system, and break the pre-programmed code of our current cultural Matrix, and resist temptation, sin and selfishness and fight the Big Fat Liar of hell, you must needs know the dirty little secret that the Enemy of your soul does NOT want you to know:  The same Jesus who handed Satan his lunch in the desert two-thousand years ago is in you, with you, surrounding you.  You are never, ever alone when facing temptations of all kinds.  The mighty Warrior-King who has put-down and crushed every single temptation you have faced, are facing or will face is in you–your heart, mind, soul and body.  And he’s itching for a big win!

 

Will you say yes to Jesus so you can experience that victory?  That’s the only question you need to answer.

 

Items to remember– because there will be a test, every day of your life!!

 

  1. Jesus knows exactly what you are feeling and thinking when you are being tempted– he’s been there.  He is not shocked and surprised that certain things are a huge temptation to you.  He does not think less of you.  But he does offer hope!
  2. Satan plays dirty and will use your friends, (even Christian ones!051714_2225_ThingsAreNo1.jpg!) and family to tempt and discourage you.  Remember, he used Peter’s big mouth against Jesus.  You must always be on guard.
  3. Don’t hit the easy button and take the easy way out!  Man-up, Woman-up, and get your nose into Scripture often.  A true warrior sleeps with his sword, or bow & arrows, or fire-arm because he could be attacked at any time, day or night.  Do you see the Bible as that crucial in your life?
  4. Jesus has already undone your past failures.  Don’t live there for it is a life of defeat and misery.  Live only in the present, and recognize that the victorious Jesus is with you, right inside you.  Say yes to him, and no to evil and sin.   You can and you must– so many are depending on you!  Never stop fighting and never give up, because Jesus never gives up on you!




Repetition & Beauty

3 01 2016

For two relatively short years my family and I lived less than a mile from the shores of Lake Erie.   Naturally, we greatly enjoyed spending time on the beaches nearby. We loved the sand, shallow waters, and smooth, black slate rock– not to mention the frozen waves in winter which formed large mounds we could climb. During the warmer days of summer, one of the favorite activities for my wife and kids was to carefuseaglasslly comb the beach for “sea glass”. I realize it’s a bit of misnomer given the fact that we were on the shores of a lake, not a sea. Nevertheless, the finds that were made was akin to finding sparkling gems of great price. Often very small, coming in a multitude of colors with smooth rounded edges, the sea glass embodied an amazing icon of redemption.

 

Broken, useless glass, which was formerly a useful vessel of some sort, cast into merciless, cold waves.   A tragedy to be sure, but not the end of the story. Those same waves that initially appeared so menacing become an instrument of transformation for the jagged glass. Waves plus time plus rocks and sand eventually round off the sharp edges of the discarded glass. And at the last the waves wash the glass ashore, now a glittering jewel to be discovered and treasured.

 

Please forgive me if I have lead you astray to believe that I am making an analogy between the elements that create sea glass and our redemption and Jesus’ work on our behalf. I’m not intending to make an overly simplistic and cheesy sermon illustration. What the sea glass gave me was yet another glimpse into a world where our heavenly Father seems utterly obsessed with making all things new and glorious. He has made sure that our encounters like this are plethora.

 

The one point I want to make is much more pedestrian and dull than the grand scope of human salvation. The broken glass cannot become rounded and beautiful without the repetitive pounding of the waves.

 

We live in a time and place that seems to despise repetition of any kind (except commercials, of course!). We are hopelessly addicted to the “new”. New versions of our favorite books, comic-books and movies (note the endless string of re-makes and re-boots!). New news, new tweets, new tech (like the latest i-phone), new kitchen and bath, new relationships— on and on it goes in an endless parade. Now, let me be clear. I am the chief of sinners in the cult of “new”. If I had my way, I’d live in a new-construction home and drive a new car wearing my new favorite shirt.   But it’s worse: in this I’m also a terrible hypocrite! I want everything to be new, except in worship at church where I want all things old. And part of my love for the old worship is that it is relentlessly repetitive like those cold Lake Erie waves.   And being a creature of great forgetfulness and many sharp, broken edges, I cannot overstate my desperate need for the steady, reliable repetition that the waves of the old liturgies provide.

 

Such repetition is not fun, entertaining, tweet-worthy, or in any way “new”. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, and a much needed antidote for our “new” obsessed land.

 

What I’m currently trying to figure out is how it is that the same churches who constantly labor to produce new and exciting elements in their worship services give me the feeling that it’s the same-ole, same-ole. While the “boring”, repetitive liturgies of the old days seem always fresh and rejuvenating to me. A mystery and a paradox to be sure, but there are explanations that I will not go into here. (But I will confess that I’m not sure how many more liturgically un-rooted and disjointed worship services I can endure– heaven help me!!)

 

Despite my digression, the point is that as disciples of Jesus repetition is indispensible and unavoidable if we are to be made nemarthamchurchstainedglasswindoww. The repeating of prayers, Scriptures and Sacrament will be irreplaceable elements in our redemption and renewal if we willing submit ourselves to them. Just like the broken glass in the waves of the sea.

O you afflicted one, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay your stones with colorful gems, And lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of crystal, And all your walls of precious stones. (Isaiah 54:11-12)





The Point of It All

21 04 2012

Quoting C.S. Lewis IS a most unyielding addiction! I cannot resist this lengthy quote since it deals with the heart, the living-center, of the purpose of the incarnation AND the Church. God did not create us for an eternity sub-human existence, torment or oblivion. We were made for a never-ending existence filled with the very life of the Trinity with us becoming ever more and more like God– especially Christ. As the Beloved Apostle declares it: “We are God’s children now [because of the work of THE Son of God], and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him….” (1 John 3:2).

Let these words challenge you and your church. Are you living a mere religious life, or a surrendered and transformed one? Is your church doing lots of stuff and programs that seem Godly, but failing to make disciples that, in a substantive way, look like Christ? Or is your church careful to align all its doings and programs with the goal of making little Christs? These questions must be wrestled with and answered honestly: What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be the Church?

And now, here’s C.S. Lewis saying it much better than I can (from Mere Christianity, Book IV, chp. 8, “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?”):

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self–all your wishes and precautions–to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way–centered on money or pleasure or ambition–and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When he said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder–in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

May I come back to what I said before? This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects–education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects–military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden–that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

(One thing to note is that the inner being of the purpose of Christ and the Church is to glorify the Father, but the way that is manifested is to do the work the Father is most interested in: the rescue, redemption, and metamorphosis of those created in His image; and secondly, the redemption of the whole created order which we have allowed to come under the dominion of the Evil One. I think Lewis does not here discuss the overriding purpose to glorify God because he takes it as a given.)





Cursed by God?

16 04 2012

On Good Friday and Easter I stated that the “curses” God seems to put on Adam and Eve after they eat the forbidden fruit are NOT a case of a powerful Judge throwing a temper-tantrum and handing out convictions and sentences to the law-breakers standing before His lofty bench.  Rather, the Creator of life and light is merely declaring the facts, of the new fractured reality, which was ushered in by our First Parents when they failed to trust the God who was the source of their life, their everything.  God does not curse anyone, He simply explains (however painfully) the natural consequences of my choices, and yours too.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has stated that quoting C.S. Lewis is a dangerous enterprise, for once one starts, it is neigh on impossible to know when to stop.  Well, here is a paragraph from Lewis on the Trinity and what it means to be united or separated from God (taken from Mere Christianity, Book IV, chp. 4 “Good Infection”):

And now, what does it [the theology of the Trinity] all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world.  The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us:  or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.  There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.  Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection.  If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water.  If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.  They are not a sort of prizes which God could, if He The Resurrectionchose, just hand out to anyone.  They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality.  If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry.  Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever?  Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?





Ancient – Present Prayer

17 07 2011

“Remember God more often than you breathe”, says St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389). Prayer is more essential to us, more an integral part of ourselves, than the rhythm of our breathing or the beating of our heart. Without prayer there is no life. Prayer is our nature. As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to speak and to think. The human animal is best defined, not as a logical or tool-making animal or an animal that laughs, but rather as an animal that prays, a eucharistic animal, capable of offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and intercession.

I hope the preceding and subsequent quotes from Kallistos Ware on prayer stir your heart and soul as much as they have stirred mine. These comments come from his introduction to a little prayer book that is a translation of Greek liturgical manuscripts from the late 700’s (which means the prayers are much older than that, as they would have been in use several centuries before being written down).

Ware is speaking as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but I find his comments “spot on” and applicable to believers across most denominations. Also, he reminds us why the prayers of the early church ought to be a regular part of our praying.

This next comment describes how the Incarnation should guide and shape our prayer life:

Orthodoxy recognises no sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, every aspect of our daily life and work is blessed by the Church and so brought within the realm of divine grace. As Christians we are necessarily materialists; ours is an incarnate faith, earthy, rooted in this world. Thus our Orthodox service books contain prayers for sowing, threshing, and wine-making, for diseased sheep or cattle, for blessing cars, tractors, and fishing nets, for insomnia, for children starting to learn the alphabet or students taking their examinations. In the older editions there are even rites for cursing caterpillars and removing dead rats from the bottom of a well. Jesus Christ at his human birth took upon himself our whole nature — body, soul and spirit — and so he is rightly involved in everything we do. We meet him everywhere.

Ware points out four themes that forcefully emerge from praying with the ancient prayers of the church: Mystery, the Trinity, Community, and Mission.

  1. The [ancient] prayers are marked by a strong sense of God’s holiness and mystery, by a spirit of reverence and wonder. We approach the living God “in fear and trembling”, “in love and awe”. . . . [The one who prays] feels the nearness as well as the otherness of God. Transcendent, ineffable, he is also at the core of everything, closer to us than our own heart, “everywhere present and filling all things”, as we say to the Holy Spirit in an invocation at the start of each service.
  2. [The ancient prayers are] deeply Trinitarian. “Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice”, says the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky. The threefold invocation, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, with which each prayer concludes, is not an optional extra but sums up the very essence of our prayer. We do not simply address God, but explicitly or implicitly we always pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. To pray is to be taken up into a network of relationships, an interpersonal dialogue, that exists within God himself. As we pray we hear the Father say not to Christ only but also to ourselves, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11); and by the power of the Spirit we respond in union with Christ, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6), becoming sons in the Son. So through prayer we are assumed into the perichoresis, the mutual love or “round dance” of the Trinity. God as Trinity is the source and end-point of all our prayer.
  3. All prayer is communal – prayer of the total family, of the entire Church invisible as well as visible. Prayer is our entry to the communion of saints. [The Lord’s prayer and all the ancient prayers use “our” and “we”, never “mine” and “me”.] … The Christian is the one who says not “I” but “we”. Prayer is “heaven on earth”. . . . This does not diminish the love that we feel for Christ our Saviour, “the one mediator between God and humans” (1 Timothy 2:5), but renders him all the closer to us.
  4. In prayer we do not think only in vertical terms about the Church in glory and the communion of saints, but we also think horizontally about our involvement with the rest of humankind. . . . [Portions of these ancient prayers] form an all-important reminder that the Church is by its very nature missionary, outward-looking, existing not for itself but for the sake of the world.

    This last comment speaks to the purpose and goal of prayer. Read the last sentence at least 3 times—and let it really sink in.

    “Pray without ceasing”, says St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17); and the Russian Orthodox Fr. Georges Florovsky writes: “A Christian has to feel himself personally in the presence of God. The goal of prayer is precisely to be with God always.” I hope that the prayers in this book, designed for the different hours of the day, will help us in small but significant ways to do exactly that: to be with God always, to make our prayer, not just an intermittent activity, but a dimension present continually in all that we undertake– not simply something that we do from time to time, but something that we are the whole time. For this is what the world around us needs: not that we should say prayers occasionally, but that we should be at each moment a living flame of payer.

      (From Kallistos Ware’s forward in Praying with the Orthodox Tradition)





Building Strong Spiritual Muscles for the Fight

18 05 2011

I can’t resist another lengthy quote from the book The Illumined Heart. There is so much here: on sin, sinful desires, how to deal with them, spiritual warfare, spiritual discipline, the character of God the Father, the Cross & Resurrection, holiness, and a proper understanding of the relationship between the spirit and the body.
Please note that when Mathewes-Green talks about “Anna” she is referring to a character she has created for the book that represents a Christian from the 5th century, living in the Middle East.

(What follows is from chapter 7 of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book The Illumined Heart, entitle “Introduction to the Passions, and the Disciplines of the Body”)

…the attitude of the early church was that all material creation is very good. Yet along with our healthy responses to this world we have some blunted, broken ones that would have us treat it and other people in greedy, selfish ways. Those impulses are usually called “the sinful passions,” and training and restraining them is the primary spiritual exercise. When fully converted, the energy of fallen passions becomes power to do the will of God.

The word “passion” can trip us up, because (after the initial romance novel associations) we Western Christians think of passion as a good thing–as a motive for courageous action and dedication to a cause. Our use here, however, has a different meaning, and the key is to recognize the same root word behind “passion” and “passive.” Anna would see these recurring sinful impulses–for example, a tendency to blow up when her children have her rattled– as not an action, but a passion, a submission to forces that lead her away from God. Passions mean loss of self-direction and self-control, a slipping beneath the undertow of mindless impulse.

….

We take responsibility for such failures, but sly forces nudge us toward them as well. As St. Peter says, our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Anna believes that such demonic powers truly exist, and that they are ever watching and hoping for opportunities to confuse and capture her. Anna knows she is born with a fallen disposition to sin, and bears full responsibility for her deeds; passions may not be chosen, but actions are. However, in the devil she has a fearsome enemy as well, working diligently to destroy her.

It is Satan that God’s wrath is directed against, Anna believes, not us. While our sins rightly deserve condemnation, God desires our salvation, and his judgment is a blessing, the diagnosis that precedes healing.

The early church understood the Cross primarily as the way God defeated Satan, rather than the way Jesus paid his wrathful Father the debt for our sins. Those ideas did not take precedence till very much later in the West. In the early church God was most often a seeking, saving Father, not an infuriated judge or a demanding creditor. One prayer from the Vespers service captures the balance: “Unto Thee, the awful Judge who yet lovest mankind, have Thy servants bowed their heads . . .entreating Thy mercy and looking confidently for Thy salvation.” He is truly the awful Judge, yet because his love is sure we can expect salvation with confidence.

…God’s most constant characteristic is his overwhelming, forgiving love, seen so naturally in human fatherhood, as in the story of the prodigal son. As long as this analogy of fatherhood underlies other images it sweetens them; no one automatically associates a judge or a creditor with generous, tender affection. Emphasis on those alternate analogies, however, gradually increased in the Western church in the last thousand years, and our relationship with God came to seem one mostly concerned with legal or financial debt, rather than longsuffering love between parent and wandering child.

The interior of Anna’s church is painted with many scenes of biblical events, a picture Bible for a time when many are still illiterate. The image depicting the Resurrection doesn’t show the garden tomb, but a scene out of the 1Peter. Jesus stands on the broken gates of hell, which are crossed over a black pit. At the bottom Satan lies bound in his own chains. Jesus is reaching out to each side, grasping Adam and Eve by their wrists, and pulling them up from their tombs, while the righteous of all generations stand assembled behind him. On Pascha (Easter) Anna’s congregation sings joyfully over and over, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

This battle between Christ and the evil one forms the backdrop of every believer’s journey to theosis [holiness, or union with God]. Thus, Anna has two enemies to wrestle with: her own sinful passions, and the evil one who is ever alert to exploit them. As St. Paul warned, this war is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces that wish us destruction.

Fighting this war will require disciplines that involve our whole selves, both physical and mental aspects. Body and mind don’t, in reality, split as neatly as modern Western people think they do; things that affect the one pretty obviously affect the other, and they are united in ways we cannot comprehend. By the same token, disciplines of the body can strengthen the mind, and disciplines of the mind. . .can increase bodily fortitude.

Anna and [her husband] are part of a worshipping community that has inherited wisdom about how to discipline the body for spiritual growth. As fitting St. Paul’s analogy of the athlete, these consist of exercises. A weightlifter may spend diligent hours pumping iron, but not because he’s preparing in case he someday runs across a group of people gathered in dismay around a barbell. The muscles he strengthens each day, however, will come in handy if he is suddenly called on to lift a car off a little girl. In the same way, bodily self-discipline gained through exercises in one test area builds strength to combat temptation in all areas.

The most basic exercise is fasting.