Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Shack

I read The Shack earlier this year and was impressed enough to buy a number of discounted paperbacks to give away. Yet I also made it clear that my endorsement was not in toto, and some readers have asked why. A few critics have also asked how I can endorse a book that distorts God (the Holy Spirit is consistently presented as female), and the ecclesiology in the book is abominable. So, I offer the following few thoughts....

Sometimes it is hard for us to comprehend how much God loves us. This is especially hard when we are faced with horrible things in this world. The age-old question is: Why is there evil if God is all-powerful and all-good?

This is an incredible book in the way it brings the reality of God’s presence into a tangible setting that we can understand. Yet, keep in mind that no book gets everything right (except the Bible). Someone has said a person is most often right in what he affirms and most often wrong in what he denies. The affirmations in this book are mostly right-on; the denials in this book are best skimmed over. And for all its power, one should read this remembering it is fiction (when “God” is talking, it’s really the author of the book). The author gets a lot of things right; the author gets some things wrong.

Still, the overall message of The Shack is powerful and we need good vehicles for understanding God’s presence and activity in our lives. So, please read it.... with all this in mind, but most of all with a heart that cries, “Lord, let me know you more fully.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I know that many of my readers are close personal friends; others are people far beyond any normal circle of relationships. But whether you are “close” or “far,” I pray for you a wonderful Christmas filled with the peace that only our Lord can give.

Part of The Office of Readings in this morning’s Liturgy is from a sermon by Saint Augustine. The following words by this long-ago Father of the Church are still powerfully true:

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 15, 2008


The Christmas season is a time when the consumerism that surrounds us tries to make new inroads into our souls through its tools of greed, covetousness and envy. This is a time for Christians to be especially vigilant. We are to trust God and remember that “things” do not give what they can appear to promise.

In the Taoist literature of ancient China is a story of a wise man who had many wonderful horses. There was one horse which was so strong, fast and beautiful that the man's neighbor was envious. But one day this horse escaped from the barn and ran away into the hills. The neighbor's envy changed to pity, but the wise man said, "Who knows if I should be pitied or if I should be envied because of this?"

The next day the horse returned to the wise man leading a herd of fifty equally beautiful wild horses with him. The neighbor was once again filled with envy and once again the wise man said, "Who knows if I should be pitied or if I should be envied because of this?" Shortly after he said this, his only son tried to ride one of the wild horses, fell off of it and broke his leg. The neighbor's envy once again changed to pity, but the wise man responded by saying, "Who knows if I should be pitied or if I should be envied because of this?"

The next day an officer of the emperor's army came to draft the man's son for a dangerous mission, but since the son's leg was broken, he could not be recruited for the assignment which meant almost certain death. The neighbor, whose own son was taken in the place of the injured young man, envied the wise man — and once again the wise man said, "Who knows if I should be pitied or if I should be envied because of this?"

The story goes on and on with similar twists that shift the neighbor's feelings from envy to pity and then back again. The wisdom of this man makes it clear that things are not always what they seem to be, and that what we desire is as likely to bring us pain and trouble as happiness and contentment. How many times do we see people destroyed by the very traits we admire and perhaps covet? How often do we encounter people who are too attractive or wealthy or talented for their own good because they have not learned discipline and humility?

God invites us to believe that none of the ways we exalt ourselves among ourselves matters. God invites you to believe that He loves you simply because He is God and you are you. And when we believe that, there is an effect: we begin to believe that our wholeness and our happiness is not dependent on what other people have. If you think that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, it is probably because you are not properly caring for the grass on your own side. Jesus promises to be with those who invite Him into their lives, and He then promises to let His life so blossom within us that we will not need to worry about what others have and what they are doing.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Like Tevya in The Fiddler on the Roof, my thought processes usually go “on the one hand.... on the other hand....”

Some of my past posts have juggled dynamics between: Truth and Humility, Head and Heart, God’s Will and My Will, Small and Big, Security and Trust, Time and Eternity, Struggle and Surrender....

The past few weeks have been an ongoing exercise of juxtapositions. We have decorated (mildly, as opposed to extravagantly) our home in the spirit of Advent going into Christmas. In the midst of this I received word from one of my long-time close friends that the area where he lives has erupted in violence with radical Muslims burning churches and homes as well as physically assaulting people (and with “Christians” retaliating in the same spirit of anger and ugliness). The death toll has not yet been determined. My friend has opened his home for scores of people, squeezing refugees into every available floor space for sleeping and feeding as many as a hundred per meal. Meanwhile, I still live in a society whose biggest concern seems to be the amount of discretionary consumer items that will be sold over “the holidays.” I wonder how many people give serious thought to the news headline from last week that national security experts say it is “likely” that terrorists will successfully accomplish either a nuclear or biological attack on the U.S. within five years.

We have local friends whose eighteen-year-old daughter became suddenly ill two weeks ago and died within a few days. We have other friends whose eighteen-year-old son suddenly felt ill and vomited blood; he is in the hospital as I write this. At the same time I am aware of young adults whose minds are consumed with everything from jobs and houses to video games and big-screen TVs — the “stuff” that fills their world apart from tragedy.

Some Christian friends send me reading material which is obsessed with threats implicit in the coming Obama presidency. Sometimes there is even a vitriolic spirit toward other Christians who do not explicitly denounce Obama. These materials come alongside the Christmas greetings for peace and love, most of which are quite clear about “keep[ing] “Christ” in Christmas.”

In the Old Testament, temporal good was a sign of God’s blessing on His faithful people even as curses were threatened to fall on people who lived contemptuously of God’s ways. Yet the ancient OT book of Job shows it is not that simple. In the New Testament Jesus said Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (Lu 12:15)and Christians are warned that all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2Tim 3:12).

I know we can’t fully avoid living as Americans in our consumer culture, but Christians can model compassionate awareness by not turning a blind eye to all the suffering around us and in the world beyond our own. Just because our society offers a multitude of distractions does not mean we must embrace them in a way that smothers us. Another response to so many complex issues is the principal of being expressly thankful for our many pleasantries, and staying surrendered and humble before our Lord in the face of what we see as both good and bad.

Christian Faith affirms that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28). Yet we need to remember that the “pleasant” is not always “good,” and the “good” is not always “pleasant.” Good finds its definition in God, and God says my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways (Isa 55:8).

How, then, are we to understand the complexity of things that whirl around and through our lives in a given day? On the one hand.... on the other hand.... But encompassing both hands is our God and our hearts must be fixed on Him.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Struggle and Surrender

What is the balance between struggle and surrender? I am thinking particularly of those contexts where either we desire something that does not come easily or we are seeking to escape difficult circumstances.

How does a person following Jesus respond when prayers for a job go unanswered — keep struggling to find one, or surrender to what the Lord may want to do in a period of abandonment? What does a Christian do when the health report is grim — exhaust every remote medical option or rest in the reality that everyone dies and know that Christ has defeated death?

If we are excessive with our struggle is it because we are too committed to self-will? If we too easily give up in surrender is it an indication of apathy and sloth?

Jacob wrestled with God, refusing to turn loose without a blessing. Jesus wrestled with His impending death in the garden, but then surrendered to the Father with not what I want but what you want (Mtt 27:39).

In his book The Struggle of Prayer, Donald Bloesch says, “God wishes us to strive with him before we submit because he wants to convince us. He desires to see how earnest we really are. He hides the full meaning of his will from us until we are ready to accept it. When we finally surrender, we triumph in that God triumphs.” This essentially says that, while we tend to seek “answers” so we can get on with the way we perceive life, God is always seeking intimate relationship with the people He has created and redeemed.

Yet this does not tell us where the “line” is because, I think, there is not one. The “line,” even if we are seeking such from God’s point of view, would be just another “answer” — a “spiritual formula” that would come between us and God instead of keeping us dependent on Him.

Whether we are desiring work, health, or anything else, the only “answer” seems to have been given by our Lord: But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Mtt 6:33). And when “these things” do not come on our schedule (or, seemingly, not at all), we still come to the Father as our Lord did and say not what I want but what you want.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I have been wandering, both physically and mentally, over the past couple of weeks. I’m not sure whether it is just part of reality in this fallen world or whether it is a symptom of insufficient development in my own spiritual focus, but when my daily routines are disrupted I find it much more difficult to maintain “the keen edge.” Circumstantial distractions too easily turn into spiritual distractions.

The nature of the circumstances which distract us are, I think, immaterial — apart from issues connected in any way with mortal sin (we each have our individual foibles). And yet, “average” disruptions are part of our enemy’s arsenal to distract us so that we “wander” into sin. All we need to do to “wander” is take our eyes off Jesus so that we are not consciously, intentionally “following.” When Jesus said Take up your cross and follow me He knew that such a response from us requires commitment.

I have been following the social and ecclesiastical responses to the election along with the crucial attendant issues of human life and sexual morality. I take heart when bishops and pastors speak out in bold and uncompromising ways that testify to the authoritative teachings of the Church. I also wonder if the time is soon coming that public expressions of Christian morality will be illegal (since immorality is being given greater and greater legal sanction).

I have been acutely aware, too, of how much American Christianity has been seduced by comfort and pleasure. Are we ready to follow if the price is financial vulnerability or even physical pain? Most certainly we will not be ready to follow if we allow ourselves to “wander” very far.

Of you my heart has spoken, "Seek his face." It is your face, O Lord, that I seek.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Preach it, Aimee!

WOW -- Aimee (Milburn) Cooper tells it like it is in her recent post on abortion (http://www.historicalchristian.com/my_weblog/2008/11/sex-lies-and-abortion-a-feminist-tale.html) Check it out. (Thanks, Aimee!)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


One of my Psalms for last night (as the election results trickled in) was 125, with two of the stanzas saying:

Those who put their trust in the Lord
are like Mount Zion, that cannot be shaken,
that stands for ever.

For the scepter of the wicked shall not rest
over the land of the just
for fear that the hands of the just
should turn to evil.

I was not over-zealous for either candidate; both have positive and negative qualities — like all of us. I must confess to being a bit disillusioned with the political horizon and have little hope that any President can do much to affect true righteousness in a country that has gone too far and for too long into the abyss of self-indulgence. There is an entrenched bureaucracy in our government that is committed to an autonomy that snubs the laws of God.

Over and over in the OT God allowed his people to be subjected to evil rulers — both Israelite and from "the nations"— so that evil could best be seen for what it truly is, causing the people's hearts to turn again to the Lord.

Evil exacts its price, and God's people sometimes have to "pay" along with the wicked who surround them. We, in our humanity, certainly do not desire that.... but we who belong to Jesus do want to see the glory of God exalted, and if we have to live through being put down in order to be raised up then it's no less than Jesus Himself endured.

One Day all will be made right and we will not have a President — we will have a King who reigns forever. In fact, He already reigns— only some of us know it and others do not. Until He comes, we are to model what it means to know it so others might also see.

Obama and everyone in Congress are just a little blip in the ebb and flow of Something much bigger. My heart is with the latter.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Time and Eternity

(This is taken from a sermon I first gave in the early 1980s)

Time makes us uncomfortable. When we are conscious of it we are often frustrated with it. Time seems to go either too fast or too slow. It goes too fast when circumstances are good; it goes too slow when circumstances are unpleasant. We are perpetually surprised by time—“Can you believe it’s already Fall?!” Why is time such an awkward factor in our lives unless there is something in us which is not temporal? Socrates refused to delay his death for a few more hours; perhaps he knew that those few hours under the pressure of time would be worth little.

Did you ever notice that when we speak of “now” we seem to mean the timeless? There is no consciousness of duration. Awareness of duration—of a terminus—spoils “now.” Summer vacation is “now.” Students and teachers spend nine months longing for it, but once it’s here it seldom fulfills all the desires that were projected on it “back then.” For any pleasant time, there is the desire to enter totally into the experience—to possess it totally, but there is never enough time. The self-fulfilling climax is somehow always in the future, just eluding one’s grasp.

The future dream charms us because it gives an illusion of timelessness. That is part of the charm, also, of “the good ol’ days.” If you’ve ever stopped to consider, our most precious moments are timeless. As soon as the dimension of time comes to your mind, the magic of the moment disappears.

Maybe eternity can be illustrated in an analogy with a novel like David Copperfield, that covers many years. The book follows the boy David running away to his Aunt Betsy Trotwood, the youth David loving Dora, the mature David with Agnes. While one reads chapter after chapter— even as one’s own life passes day by day—David is what he is at a particular point in the book’s time. But then, when one shuts the book at the end, all the Davids—small boy, youth, mature man—are equally one. Who is the real David? All of them! The reader is then, in reference to the book’s time, in eternity, seeing it all in the Now, even as God in his eternal Now sees the whole of history that was, and is, and will be.

The Bible says that the longing for eternity is built into all of us. And if we all have an appetite for the Eternal Now, we are also caught in a world that frustrates our longing at every turn. So many of our society’s inventions are meant to “save time” —the assembly line, the jet, the computer. But what are we “saving time” for? People have never been more harried by time: our watches, buzzers, schedules, the start of the program, the end of the line at the amusement park....

And yet, why? Is not time our “natural environment?” We live in time as we live in the air we breathe. We love good fresh air, but we do not love “time.” We may love the existing moment because of what it offers, but time itself spoils our greatest moments. Nothing can quite come up to expectation because of it. It is strange that this seems to be true of humans alone. Animals, so far as we can tell, are unaware of time. They are untroubled. Time is their natural environment. Why do we sense it is not ours?

C.S. Lewis (whose reflections sparked many of my thoughts here) asked how it is that a person who is supposedly a product of a materialistic universe is not at home there. Do fish act uncomfortable when they are wet? If they did, would that not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? If we complain of time and can have such joy in the seemingly timeless moment, does that not suggest we are not purely temporal creatures? Surely it suggests that we were created for eternity. Because not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, to get used to it. We are always amazed at it—how fast it goes or how slowly it goes or how much of it is gone. Think about a simple life experience. When do we hear a musical air? Until the last note it is incomplete; as soon as that sounds, it is over.

Considering these things, there is compelling reason that Christian faith is consistent with our true desires and the nature of our world. God is indeed our Maker, and he has created us to live—truly live—forever. And in spite of the frustration and pain and death that has been our legacy and still surrounds us, God has chosen to be our Savior. The Son of God came into our world, lived here to do rightly what the first Adam failed to do, and then died as a sacrifice for our sins. But that is not the end of the story: He came back from the dead never to die again, and in doing that became the first of a whole line of people who can know that death does not have the last word. Through Jesus Christ our worst fear has been conquered and our greatest desire has been granted: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

This sounds incredible. It is so far removed from what we experience in this world. Can we dare trust in such a thing as the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting? Hans Urs von Balthasar offers this conclusion to his book on the Apostles’ Creed:

With that, the creed reaches its endless end. All the individual statements dissolve into one other, because they were all—even as historical facts—but an expression of the life everlasting in the symbolic language of finitude. Everything transient is only a symbol. It resembles from a distance, since it points back to something that is permanent and in process as an event. The human being was created as an “image and likeness” and even in faith sees but “in a mirror dimly”; once having arrived at God, however, I will “understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12); namely, by virtue of that love which has, from all eternity, conceived and known me. (Credo: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, Ignatius Press)

This is what I base my life upon—it is why I am a Christian. This is the hope I have for my own life, and those of my young grandchildren. This is the comfort for people who grieve death, whether it is already realized or the process of slow but inevitable deterioration. In the face of time and the death that comes with it in this present world, Christians believe what the Church has confessed for almost two thousand years, and the Church confesses what God has revealed through his Son: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Saint Teresa of Avila

Today is the feast day for Saint Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century woman who was so full of the Spirit of Jesus that she was an instrument that helped breathe Life into the Church of her day.

Before I turned to the Office of Readings I had been mulling a question that had come to me: Why, as a recent "convert," do my blog entries not have more explicit reflections on the Catholic Church? This had been simmering in my mind as I turned to the selection from St. Teresa and found these words that perfectly matched my own thoughts, the essence of which is that the focus of our hearts is to be Jesus himself:

Blessed is the one who truly loves him and always keeps him near. Let us consider the glorious Saint Paul: it seems that no other name fell from his lips than that of Jesus, because the name of Jesus was fixed and embedded in his heart. Once I had come to understand this truth, I carefully considered the lives of some of the saints, the great contemplatives, and found that they took no other path: Francis, Anthony of Padua, Bernard, Catherine of Siena.

While I have found greater depths in my relationship with Jesus through the Catholic Church, I want the passion of my heart to be Jesus, and it seems I have good company along with Teresa and the venerable host she cites.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Integration (#4) — Taking Time

Time is a strange phenomenon. From the “natural” end, Einstein’s theories of relativity become part of a discussion that quickly goes beyond my abilities. Yet the bit I do grasp has drawn me into reflection on the “spiritual” implications (remembering that the “natural” and the “spiritual” are two facets of a whole, and the division is more of a testimony to our limitations than a description of reality.) I’ll go further with that in the next post, developing some of the implications in light of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

For a starter, we should keep in mind that God is not bound by time but exists outside of time, and our understanding of time is part of the whole created order that is beyond us. Yet even as those things are true, we do live in a consciousness of past, present and future.

This particular topic was refreshed in my mind recently when I read the currently popular novel by William P. Young, The Shack (Windblown Media, 2007). The main character, Mack, is having a conversation with Jesus, who asks whether humans were designed to live in the present or the past or the future. Mack correctly guesses the present, but then Jesus presses a second question and wants to know where Mack spends his own mind-imagination time: in the present, or in the past, or in the future. Mack truthfully confesses that he spends very little time in the present, but rather in the past or trying to figure out the future. And Mack is no different than most people.

Many people live in the past because they see it as being (through some white-washed hindsight) so good. I have known people who are always harkening back to some “glory” days of college, or when the kids were young, or even to high school. Other people live in the past because it was so bad. Abuse and tragedy can so damage a person that the pain takes over as an identity. For people of either motivation, glorified or horrified, the present is always overshadowed by the past.

Some people live in the future in an unhealthy way. They think their lives will be “fixed” and happiness will come “when I can get this” or “when I can move there (or at least away from ‘here’)" or "when I can do that.” This makes an idol of some idealistic circumstance (which usually never comes, and if it does, cannot deliver the projected promise). This also breeds chronic dissatisfaction with the present.

There is one way that a future look is good and biblical. I call it the eschatological perspective, which focuses on what God has promised His people so that we can live in the present in the hope of a reality that goes beyond temporal limitations. This means, however, truly believing that the Lord is with us now — Immanuel — God with us.

God has redeemed our past and secured our future so that we can be close to Him in the present — now. This point — made in the novel by Jesus as the conversation with Mack continues — is based on the implications of the word "today" throughout the letter to the Hebrews (e.g., 3:7,13,15; 4:7; 13:8). God dwells with us in the present — the eternal present — when we begin to comprehend the integration of time with eternity.

One contemporary musician whose compositions edify me has written the following lines (as if spoken by the Lord):

My joy is in the journey, not in the journey’s end.
If you seek tomorrow, well then you have missed the lesson.
Be present to the present and your eyes will open wide;
At that moment you will see me by your side, by your side.
(from: “I Am Beside You” on the album, Be Still, David Kauffman, Good for the Soul Music, San Antonio, TX, 2002)

There is an integration of past and future into the present so that we live in a consciousness of walking with Jesus in the now. God made us for an intimate relationship with Himself, and intimacy is always lived in the moment — the eternal present, which is one way to understand salvation.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Integration (#3) — Full Salvation

My hope is that this particular topic will become a book that can be published. I started to say its origins are in the conflict I went through as I wrestled to integrate my Evangelical soteriology (theology of salvation) with the new and foreign — at least to me — understanding of salvation expressed through Catholicism. Actually the origins are earlier than that, and go back to similar angst as I sought to rectify my Arminian background with Calvinistic emphases I faced throughout my educational journey.

The short version — and my simple point here — is that Beelzebub has hoodwinked Christians of varied traditions into embracing a limited understanding of salvation and then seeing any other expression as being “wrong.” It's as if we have settled for how little one can know or experience of salvation and still hope to be “saved.” No one knows where that line is but God alone, but surely it is not the right attitude. One who has a heart for God does not desire a "least common denominator salvation,” but rather to enter into as much of the fullness of what God has for His people as possible.

As I began to think more intentionally in this expanded way, I began to see different streams of Christian expression, with their varied emphases about salvation, as being facets of a whole that need to be integrated rather than polarizing sets of mutually exclusive teachings for which only one is right and the others mostly wrong.

The details will come into focus, I hope, in my intended book (but don’t look for it this year!). In the meantime, begin to think of Sovereign Choice / Personal Conversion / Sacramental Consecration — understand/feel/do — as elements of the whole that need to be integrated rather than competitive emphases at war with each other.

God is BIG. God’s salvation is big. The few strands of truth we each grasp need to be integrated into the Whole — a full salvation.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Integration (#2) — Small & Big

Many people live in their own small worlds. One word used to describe this is provincial. It is an attitude that thinks, “the whole world lives like I do — or at least it should.” In essence it is a self-centeredness that ultimately is rooted in the Fall (the first disobedience that opened the world to evil and the broken mess we all experience).

Self creates a very small world. Since “self” needs to feel secure, to be in control and to live in relative circumstantial comfort, it is typical of (fallen) human nature not to extend itself beyond its own comfort zone. Again, this is another way to understand the nature and extent of sin.

It is a gross understatement to say that God is BIG. Christian Faith believes that God is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.” The scope of that is beyond human comprehension, and because God is Creator He is, of course, far bigger and more complex than His creation. BIG!

The more we are cut off from God, the “smaller” we are. The further we go in the process of a salvation in which we are being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Col 3:10), the “bigger” we will become in wisdom and spirit — a magnanimity of soul.

A “small” person takes the one talent given by the Master and buries it in the quest for self-protection; the “big” person extends it, taking the risk but trusting that the One who gives will also share in the care and expansion. It’s the words of Jesus: Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (Jn 12:25). Jesus was not giving a “profound concept” just so people would say “what a deep thinker...” Jesus always speaks into the world we live in and calls us to apply it.

It is true that we start small. We have to begin where we are (and none of us are very big). But in the process (and I cannot get away from that word, for our life in God is a process), we are called to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph 3:19). And as if such an idea — actually it’s Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians — is too much, the Spirit moves Paul to repeat the phrase a few verses later as he tells how such a thing can happen (through the Church!): until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (4:13).

We are called to something big, and that means seeking to integrate what we know in our own small contexts into the ever-enlarging bigness of what it means to be a Christian: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ (Col 2:9,10). A growing personal faith is a faith that is always seeking to integrate the bigness of God and His ways into the smallness of our own little existence.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Integration (#1)

One of the ways to understand Christian life is in contrast to “religion” (which is popularly perceived as one compartmental aspect of a multi-faceted existence), out of which results the popular but erroneous idea of the “secular” and the “sacred.” The latter reinforces the prevalent idea of “personal faith” and thickens the wall that separates the implications of practiced Truth from the social order — which is an abstract way of saying that “faith” is more than a personal and inner (and often perceived irrational) commitment, but rather a recognition of an extended reality that embraces a total worldview. Christian Faith is a paradigm shift that turns the world up-side-down (which is the only way to understand the radical teachings such as those in the Sermon on the Mount).

This is one way to understand Paul’s words to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ (Eph 1:10). The Hebrews writer admits Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him (2:8). Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians helps bridge these two ideas: But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power (15:23–24).

Theologians call this tension “the already and the not yet.” Christians live in that tension now. We live in a world that does not know — cannot comprehend — the integration of all life that Jesus has already accomplished by His death and resurrection, and yet we are called both to believe it and to be involved in the ongoing process (until Jesus returns) of extending that “new reality” into this unperceiving world. That is what Christian Faith is: believing the new paradigm that Jesus has already accomplished. That is what Christian Faith does: practicing the new ways of living which were set it motion by Jesus.

The implication is that those who do not practice do not believe, but it’s not that simple because believing is itself a process, and the “more” one believes the “more” one can practice. Legalism comes into play when the “practice” gets ahead of the “believing,” and yet believing sometimes comes as a result of first practicing — so we have to leave it to God.... especially in not being too quick to judge others.

This idea of integration is one way to think about the whole process and all its facets. It is huge — as big as life. Theology itself is an attempt to bring integration to Christian Faith. I have a few atypical (I think) thoughts about some of the ramifications. I’ll be posting them over the next several days.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pressing On (and on and on)

When Christians are on their way to learning the lesson of pressing on — that this dying world really doesn’t have anything of lasting value to offer — another temptation can start its discouraging work. Recognizing the goal set before us of knowing Jesus intimately and being like Him, it is easy to become impatient with ourselves. We can fuss and fret over every little thing in our lives that does not measure up to what we think is Christian perfection so that the joy of life is not there. Some Christians feel guilty if they enjoy the Creation gifts God has given us for our pleasure. It is possible for us to be less patient with ourselves than God Himself is.

I have loved the title of one of Eugene Peterson’s books since the day I first heard it (I think the title actually surpasses the book!): A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. It seems hard to live out of the perspective that a major facet of the Christian life is “direction.” Some people try to force salvation into a static state, a “line” that one either has crossed or has not. Salvation is much more dynamic. The issue is not so much where a person “is” as the direction a person is going — toward intimacy and likeness with Jesus or away from Him.

Perhaps this is one way that “looking back” can be good. It is helpful to do a personal reflection and, being still and honest before the Lord, consider what our lives were like at different intervals in the past. Am I spending more time with Jesus now than earlier in my life? Do I have a deepening understanding of His truth as revealed in the Scriptures and through the Church? Am I growing in patience and servanthood? Do my spending habits show increasing commitment to kingdom values? For a Christian who is growing and moving in a godly direction, looking back can be a way to get a perspective that gives encouragement: I am not the person I was just a few years ago...

This, then, is coupled with looking ahead towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (quoting again Phlp 3:14). And with this we need to find a peace in the journey, knowing that the Christian life is, indeed, “a long obedience in the same direction.” How long? I think it will be eternal. Yes, when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is (1Jn 3:2). There is a “stage” of salvation called glorification (Rom 8:30). Yet our ultimate calling is to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph 4:13), and that is immense since in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9).

One way to understand salvation as eternal life is to remember that “eternal life” is God’s kind of life. For us to enter into God’s life demands eternity, and for all of eternity we will be continuing that “long obedience in the same direction” — only in heaven we will not have the impediment of sin. C. S. Lewis characterized it at the end of his Narnian tales as “further up and further in.”

The life we are living now is one that will last forever. For the Christian, eternal life has already begun because we are partakers of the Spirit. And so we keep pressing on (and on and on).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pressing On....

One way St. Paul expresses his own heart for God is through some of his words to the Philippians: I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14). In the previous verses he essentially says he is not looking back, something Jesus warned his followers not to do (Luke 9:62).

Sometimes even looking around becomes a trap for looking back. The real problem with “looking back” is an attitude that often motivates it, which in essence “un-does” our repentance. If repentance is “turning around” from a path that leads to destruction, then for a Christian — whose life is rooted in repentance — to “look back” is to open one’s self to the mind-set of the Hebrews in the desert who wanted to go back to Egypt or to align one’s self with Lot’s wife. When we allow our hearts to “look around” as if this present world has the things that satisfy or give security, we are flirting with a distraction that can lead to disobedience — a disobedience which displaces the preeminence meant for God.

What we find in Paul is the model of one who understood that the way not to look back is to keep looking ahead. Paul’s conversion so altered his life that not only did he turn away from the things in which he previously sought meaning and purpose, but he turned in such a way that the one love of his life was the Savior and Lord who had rescued him from a dying world. And so he tells the Philippians (a few verses earlier): I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (3:8).

We live in a world that beckons us to a mesmerizing look at all the many things it says is valuable. Advertisers pay big bucks for both research into the human psyche and commercial space to seduce us. Something in our broken nature entices us to look back and play the “what if” game, as if we could go back and re-program our lives. Paul is not looking back. He is looking ahead. He is pressing on, and his message — especially in this Year of Saint Paul — is for us to follow him as he follows Christ.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

God’s Will — My Will

One way God expresses His will through the Scriptures is His purpose for the humanity He created to be like Him. When that likeness was thwarted in the Fall, God’s will did not change. God sent His Son, both in the likeness of human flesh and as the exact imprint of God’s very being (Heb 1:3, NRSV). As the Church Fathers said, “He became like us so we could become like Him.” God’s will is that we be like Jesus — conformed to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29)..

Several of my readings over the weekend have prompted me to reflect on this. What is my will? I know that God, through His grace, has implanted in me a desire to know Him, to obey Him and to be more and more like Him. I also know that I get distracted from this, what should be a priority, focus. My will gets expressed in other ways. I desire a normally long and pleasant life shared with my wife, children and grandchildren. I desire success and recognition in my vocation. I desire personal security and a bit of leisure time and discretionary income to do “fun” things (which gives some definition to my former word, “pleasant.”).

How do these things interface? A life marked with some pleasure is not necessarily totally out of bounds for a person whose ultimate desire is to know and be like Jesus — but it cannot have priority, and I often fear that pampered American Christians (of whom I am one) have little idea of what is truly at stake.

One of the readings for today is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He says, For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me... (1:21,22a). For Paul, “fruitful labor” meant every moment of every day given in service to Jesus. Nothing in his letters suggests that he embraced his own will for personal pleasure, but rather the opposite: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.... (as he introduces that great hymn of the self-emptying of Jesus (Phlp 2:5ff).

I was struck with this as I read the story of Saint Catherine Chong Ch’or-yom, a Korean martyr who suffered years of persecution before giving her life in 1846 at thirty years of age. One of my readings was also from Ezekiel, and I sat dumbfounded as I reflected on the implications of the following event in his life:

The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded (24:15–18).

This was all in the context of a further excerpt in the Office of Readings (Saturday, 24th Week of Ordinary Time) from Saint Augustine’s sermon “On Pastors.” It takes us to my opening point of God’s will and His desire for us to be like Jesus:

Scripture says: God chastises every son whom he acknowledges. But the bad shepherd says: “Perhaps I will be exempt.” If he is exempt from the suffering of his chastisements, then he is not numbered among God’s sons. You will say, “Does God indeed punish every son?” Yes, every one, just as he chastised his only Son. His only Son, born of the substance of the Father, equal to the Father in the form of God, the Word through whom all things were made, he could not be chastised. For this reason he was clothed with flesh so that he might know chastisement. God punished his only Son who is without sin; does he then leave unpunished an adopted son who is with sin? The Apostle says that we have been called to adoption with the only Son, and also that we might be his inheritance...

It has been observed that God’s first desire for us — at least from our perspective, although from His perspective the two must be the same — is not so much our happiness as our holiness. God’s will is that we be like Jesus, and he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness (Heb 12:10).

God’s will — my will.... Father, make me holy. Jesus, make me like you.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Motives and Faithfulness

In the process of today’s Morning Prayer I read the customary Office of Readings (24th week of Ordinary Time)which gives an excerpt from a sermon “On Pastors” by Saint Augustine (from which I’ll close with a few paragraphs).

As I reflected on Augustine’s words my mind expanded to the treasure I had discovered in The Liturgy of the Hours, and how this prayer book had been so instrumental in my spiritual renewal over the past near-decade. This, in turn, evoked a not so pleasant memory of accusations when I entered the Catholic Church, with a few people presuming to know my motives better than I — refusing to accept that the genesis of my Catholic journey was rooted in the TLOTH and even judging my life by saying they had not seen anything worthy of note in my most recent walk of faith. What does one say in response to that kind of judgment? It seems best not to respond at all, but to follow Jesus who when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (1Pet 2:23). With a few critics I did request the courtesy of Gamaliel’s advice (Acts 5:38b,39), which seems to be the best for which those subjected to spiritual misunderstanding can hope.

I have always sought to come to my faith with self-honesty (how else can we have any hope of confidence before God?). In my years of pastoral preaching I was as honest with the text as I knew to be, and I was always honest with its implications for me as I sought to bring application to my hearers. While I can look back and see definite development in my thinking — which does bring change that others looking on can find bewildering — I have a clear conscience that I have always sought, through grace, personal integrity.

This was what resonated so much with me this morning in the Augustine reading. It is also what brings me great consternation as I witness what passes for preaching and teaching in much of so-called contemporary Christianity. Sappy sermons promising “your best life now” with a focus on immediate and circumstantial happiness are far from what Augustine says — and far from the spirit of apostolic and biblical Christian Faith. Note Augustine’s words, and reflect whether this is the kind of spiritual nurture you are getting....

The negligent shepherd fails to say to the believer: My son, come to the service of God, stand fast in fear and in righteousness, and prepare your soul for temptation. A shepherd who does say this strengthens the one who is weak and makes him strong. Such a believer will not hope for the prosperity of this world. For if he has been taught to hope for worldly gain, he will be corrupted by prosperity. When adversity comes, he will be wounded or perhaps destroyed.

....what sort of shepherds are they who for fear of giving offense not only fail to prepare the sheep for the temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to this world. On the contrary, God foretold hardship upon hardship in this world until the end of time. And you want the Christian to be exempt from these troubles? Precisely because he is a Christian, he is destined to suffer more in this world.

.... Is this the way you build up the believer? Take note of what you are doing and where you are placing him. You have built him on sand. The rains will come, the river will overflow and rush in, the winds will blow, and the elements will dash against that house of yours. It will fall, and its ruin will be great.

Paul told the Thessalonians: Our preaching does not spring from error, or impure motives, or a desire to deceive. God has found us worthy to be ministers of his gospel, and so when we speak we strive to please God and not men.

May it ever be in the Church and among all those who claim the Name of Jesus.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Basic Reminder

Today the Church remembers Saint Robert Bellarmine. In the Office Readings for today there is an excerpt of his writings from On the Ascent of the Mind to God. The following is so basic that it seems we too easily get distracted from the simple focus so wonderfully expressed by this follower of Jesus from (to us) so long ago....

If you are wise, then, know that you have been created for the glory of God and your own eternal salvation. This is your goal; this is the center of your life; this is the treasure of your heart. If you reach this goal, you will find happiness. If you fail to reach it, you will find misery.

May you consider truly good whatever leads to your goal and truly evil whatever makes you fall away from it. Prosperity and adversity, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, honors and humiliations, life and death, in the mind of the wise man, are not to be sought for their own sake, nor avoided for their own sake. But if they contribute to the glory of God and your eternal happiness, then they are good and should be sought. If they detract from this, they are evil and must be avoided.

God grant us the grace to live daily in this wisdom.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Focus for Holiness

It can seem as if the focus of personal holiness is negative: don’t do this and don’t do that. And it is true that the Bible talks about a lot of things that are antithetical to holiness. One way to understand theology is not so much a full understanding of God (since the Eternal and Transcendent One is so far beyond our comprehension) as it is negative boundaries to protect our understanding of who God is not. One example is the Church saying that in Christ the human and divine natures were united “without separation or division and without mixture or confusion.” There is no way to explain fully how God became Man, so the Church gives a boundary to protect how not to explain the mystery.

Yet there is a great and practical result: Christians believe that God has chosen to come close and make Himself known through His Son. Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” So if God is holy, and if we want to know what holiness looks like, we need to look at Jesus.

This takes us to the heart of Christian Faith. Christianity is not moralism; Christianity is Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is having Jesus Christ reproduce His life in you. This means following Jesus in His death and resurrection. This means being transformed into the very character of Jesus — the nature of God — which is the essence of holiness.

So while it is right to be aware of things that are antithetical to holiness and seek to avoid them, one’s efforts are not a negative version of the Little Engine — programming ourselves to go around saying “I think I can’t.... I believe I won’t.” If we focus on the things we should not be doing we are only feeding a desire for them. We become the object of our focus.

This means, all the more, that Jesus is our focus. This is illustrated by people who have left a legacy of passion for Jesus. Whether it is Bernard of Clairvaux saying in the 12th Century, “Jesus, the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast,” or Keith Green crying out in the 20th, “O Lord, you’re beautiful; your face is all I see,” we need to know that God’s purpose is to present everyone perfect in Christ (Col 1:28) — and this is more than forensic forgiveness.

Years ago I heard a simple wedding meditation based on 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” To get a fuller force of the passage, try inserting your own name in place of the word “love” in those descriptive phrases. Then substitute the name “Jesus” where the text says “love” — “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy, does not boast; he is not proud. Jesus is not rude, is not self-seeking, and is not easily angered.... Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth....”

Yes, holiness is cautious with a world-spirit that hates God. Holiness is sensitive to anger and lust and greed and the other deadly sins. But more than anything else, holiness is about loving as God loves, and the way we do that is to be in love with Jesus — the focus for holiness. As the Spirit of Jesus reproduces His life in us — the fruit of the Spirit — we are being remade in holiness.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Still Thinking About Holiness

An Isaac Watts hymn asks: Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me on to God? The implied answer is a resounding NO.

Sometimes I think about the direction our own society is going. One telling example is road rage. This is a relatively recent term coined because of declining basic civility and expanding meanness on our public streets and highways. As I said last time, one way to understand sin is putting one’s self first — just the opposite of the Great Command to love God with all one’s being and one’s neighbor as one’s self. Road rage is simply acting out the attitude that no one else on the road is as important as I am, so other drivers are nothing but objects that stand in the way of my convenience. This is being expressed today with greater and greater vehemence.

There is a powerful spirit of the age at work here. It’s as if one can get behind the wheel of a car and become someone else; as if becoming a contemporary driver disengages an otherwise nice person’s character — even a committed Christian. I know, because I’ve become aware of how I can feel toward the driver in front of me who is going 5 mph below the speed limit in a no-passing zone.

Some of the biggest tests of holiness are in the small, simple activities of day-to-day life. A big — and revealing — question is: How do I respond when I do not get my way? It can be on the road, in a restaurant, in a church council meeting or an issue with my spouse.

Our self-will can really be nasty when we think we have “right” on our side, so that — to us — the issue is not only about “me” but about “justice.” The slow-poke on the road is not just holding me up, but causing inconvenience and frustration for all those cars behind me. So, the insidious voice inside me says I am justified to tailgate and give the evil-eye....

These have been some of my thoughts after reading the following by Theophan the Monk (d.1894):

Anger gives place to the devil as soon as it is regarded as something just and its satisfaction is felt to be lawful. Then the enemy immediately enters the soul and begins to suggest thoughts, each more irritating than the last. We start to be aflame with anger as though we were on fire. This is the fire of hell; but the poor person thinks that he or she is burning with zeal for righteousness, whereas there is never any righteousness in wrath. This is the form of illusion peculiar to wrath....
Is there anyone who, after extinguishing his anger and analyzing the whole business in good faith, does not find that there was something wrong at the basis of his irritation? But the enemy changes the wrong into a sense of self-righteousness and builds it up into such a mountain that it seems as though the whole world would go to pieces if our indignation is not satisfied.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. And Father, make me holy....

Friday, September 5, 2008

Issues of Personal Holiness

There is hardly a day that passes without me reflecting in some way on the implications of holiness. My personal faith journey started in a segment of Evangelical-Protestantism often called “the holiness movement,” with an emphasis on total commitment and be[ing] holy as the Lord your God is holy.

Obedience to the explicit teachings and exhortations in the New Testament were givens, but one does not try to obey such things as: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths (Eph 4:29) or you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice... (Col 3:8) or do not lust in your heart (Mtt 27ff) — and even more, to obey the commands to follow Jesus in His kind of loving service and suffering — without facing the basis issue of selfishness. I was taught that the issue with “SIN” was the middle letter; putting “I” on the throne of my heart is the essence of sin.

I was also taught that one of the serious competitors in the quest for personal holiness was “the world,” and the Apostle John’s warnings in his first letter were indelibly stamped on my mind. Interfaced with this was a warning/exhortation from St. Paul: Abstain from all appearance of evil (1Thes 5:22, K JV). This, I was told, means anything that looks questionable to the standard of godliness. The maxim was: “if it’s doubtful, it’s dirty.”

It should be obvious that such a mind-set is an easy prey for legalism. I certainly went through a morass of rules that were given with an authority equal to Scripture (a good way to undermine the authority of Scripture for anyone who truly thinks). Somehow, by the grace of God, I emerged on the other side of “gospel freedom” with a basic concern for personal holiness still intact (because another pitfall along the journey of grace is antinomianism — living as though God’s law means nothing).

I think I could write about facets of this subject for a year, but the catalyst for my thoughts today has been television. When I was a young Christian in the holiness movement setting, one of the rules of godliness was “No TV” (not to mention movies, which were only available at the theater — a totally ungodly place). So while Lassie and Andy Griffith and Beaver were providing wholesome entertainment with very good family values and moral lessons, my tradition was saying it was “sin” to let such things into our homes. Yet today, television (and movies) is a basic assumption in most Christian homes, and it is my assumption that most of those homes have either cable or dish service so that the full force of our contemporary culture is freely available (well, actually we pay hefty rates to bring all of that into our homes).

Our own home had “standard cable” until several months ago (when we dropped some things we considered non-essential to accommodate the loss of income when I resigned my pastorate). In the days when we had cable service I would often comment how we had 70+ channels and usually there was little worth watching, but it was easy to settle for M*A*S*H reruns or something else along with the commercials (that are always very cutting edge).

My wife and I were talking recently about the differences we feel without the “convenience” of so many channels. While we do still get major network programming, we do not waste as much time watching television. The big difference we sense, though, is in our own spiritual sensitivities. Sometimes the TV will be on after the news or my wife will flip through the channels trying to find something while she irons (for her, that’s what one does while ironing), and a program — or a series of commercials — is suddenly invading the sanctity of our home with images and dialogue that, to any conscientious Christian, are disgusting. Then we are reminded of how dull our spirits can become with a steady diet of “the world.”

St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things (4:8). I am grateful for my early grounding in a call to personal holiness.

Peter writes in his first letter: But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “be holy, because I am holy.” We each need to respond to the Lord according to His ongoing work in us, but if we are not concerned about personal holiness we are not spiritually healthy. May the Lord do His work of holiness in me... and in all of us who bear His name.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

More About Worship

There was a core issue of worship which finally set in motion my leaving the “successful” pastoral position I had (and the salary contract that went with it). It was an issue that even compelled my willingness to embrace a radical shift of identity (that some people in what has been our circle of close relationships still seem unable to handle — the prejudice of Evangelicals toward Catholics is quite real, with concern whether Catholics are “real” Christians, and if they are it is said that it’s in spite of the Church).

Anyway, as I began to read more extensively in the early Fathers it became apparent that there was a particular focus in Christian worship from the beginning. The clear practice of the early Church (in the NT, and then extending into the second, third, fourth, etc. centuries) testifies to Christian worship culminating in the Eucharist. Likewise, there is a particular understanding of the Bread and the Cup in the earliest writings. Jesus himself uses literalist language in John 6 that offended the sensibilities of his hearers. The Epistles give a practical testimony to the ultimate sacredness of the Eucharist when Paul tells the Corinthians that those who partake without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves (2Cor 11:29). This is hardly the kind of warning one would expect from God about a “symbol.” That the Church embraced this literalist understanding of Real Presence from the beginning is confirmed in a letter written by Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 35–107), whose life overlapped that of the Apostle John (so Ignatius, a respected leader in the Church, would not have been wrong in what follows):

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. .. . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins. . .” (Epistle to the Smyraens, VI, VII; in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: William D. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979], 89).
One generation later we have a description of Christian worship given by Justin Martyr:
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors [give assistance to] the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.
Yet I found myself, as an Evangelical pastor in the “free-church” tradition,” essentially trying to re-invent the wheel every week as I labored to construct a "meaningful worship service.” And no matter what I did, I knew it was out of bounds in my tradition (because no ecclesial community is free of the effect of a tradition of some kind) to have weekly Communion. And if, by chance, the congregation would have been willing to go there it still would not have been a Communion recognizing the Real Presence of Jesus in the Bread and Cup. So I was compelled by what I believe to be the truth of the Church — which is traceable to the very beginning — to embrace the Eucharist as the core of Christian worship.

As I began to express my questions and sentiments prior to my “big decision,” people would say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have Communion too often or it will lose its meaning.” I knew there was nothing to be gained by argument, yet became even more convinced that the meaning of Communion goes beyond the subjective sentiment of the person in the pew. I have also heard, repeatedly, the criticism directed by free-church Evangelicals toward Catholics (and even other liturgical Protestants): “Doing the same old thing is so boring....”

A bit over a year ago, with this fresh on my mind at the time, I made the following entry in my journal (which I’ve edited a bit for here):

This past Saturday found me again in worship and the Communion liturgy. It was one of those times when earth rises to heaven, and our earthly offerings of worship were explicitly connected to the imagery of John's Revelation (chapters 4&5). From the Trinitarian greeting and confession of sin, going into the Glory (always a high point for me), then seeing the drama of redemption acted out by the priest presenting the Bread and Cup, followed by the Holy, Holy and then Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world... have mercy on us.... This is worship — taking the very imagery God has given us, embracing it and then giving it back in a way that says, "This is reality.... this is where my hope lies.... this is the essence of Christian Faith."

I enter the sanctuary (and get there early enough not to be hurried) and consciously affirm my baptism — “I belong to you, my Lord” (and I tell myself each time not to let myself make it a mindless, mechanical gesture). I bow, remembering that the very physical presence of Jesus is in this place. I quiet my heart, inviting the Holy Spirit to work his life into me yet again. I sing when the procession begins, letting my voice give tangible expression to what I have prayed.

"But it's so repetitive," critics say. "It is so mechanical. It gets so boring just doing the same thing..."

The next day found my wife and me in the intimacy that we have shared together so consistently for over thirty years. I found myself telling her that it never gets "old." She is new and wonderful to me every time. This one woman that I have looked upon through her self-giving only becomes more beautiful, in spite of passing decades. Why doesn't she become boring to me? (That’s what the world accuses marriage of being, or at least it’s the justification for bailing out when “she doesn’t make me happy anymore”).

Surely this is part of the mystery of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and his Church. "Innovative worship" seems to be to be a sign of misplaced focus, as if "worship" was about keeping us entertained instead of entering, again and again, into the age-old delight of the Lover of our souls and finding our deepest joy and hope in the wonder of a redemption that is beyond anything we could have imagined on our own. Love is what keeps "repetitive" and "mechanical" from displacing beauty and wonder. And like little children who cannot get enough of a father's playful attention, we go into the mystery of Communion with the need to say to our heavenly Father, "Do it again, Daddy, do it again."

This is not boredom with the "same old thing." This is entering the Mystery that cannot be exhausted. And until He comes, we need to do it again and again.

When true Christian worship (and by this I mean the forms passed down through the Church) is “boring,” the problem is not with the form of worship. The real problem is found by looking in a mirror. And then we need to find a time and place to pray...

I have taken my eyes off your cross...
I have allowed my own desires and/or agenda to distract my heart....
My love has grown cold...
Show me your glory....

Is worship boring to you? Do you know what is wrong? Look in the mirror.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Remembering John the Baptizer

Today is the memorial for the “Beheading of John the Baptist.” (In my late teens I heard Leonard Ravenhill call him “John the Baptizer,” saying the Baptists had had him long enough, and that has stuck with me all these years — thus my title.)

The Office of Readings for today is taken from a homily by Venerable Bede in which he says of John: “His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth.” How many who claim to follow Jesus remain silent about truth while the world around them proclaims lies that take us further and further into calamity? Bede continues — “Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth? Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”

Then, in masterful homiletical style, Bede draws a series of contrasts that exhort all of us to faithfulness:

He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life and deserved to be called a bright and shining lamp by that Light itself, which is Christ. John was baptized in his own blood, though he had been privileged to baptize the Redeemer of the world, to hear the voice of the Father above him, and to see the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him. But to endure temporal agonies for the sake of the truth was not a heavy burden for such men as John; rather it was easily borne and even desirable, for he knew eternal joy would be his reward.

The selection from Bede ends with a quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us. May we all hunger and thirst for such faith!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Some Thoughts About Worship

Thinking about worship has been a particular focus of mine for almost forty years. For thirty-three of those years I had a pastoral role in shaping worship from week to week. As I look back — it is said that hindsight is 20/20 — I see so many assumptions that were taken for granted.

What are the parameters for Christian worship? By this I specifically mean corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day, the latter of which is already based on something I consider to be foundational (i.e., a Thursday night gathering for believers, to cite a model that has been popular in recent years, is not the same).

Some would argue — or at least presumptively practice — that Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman are all that’s needed: worship.... in spirit and in truth (Jn 4). It should be obvious, though, that those words need a lot of interpretation. Does “spirit” mean that form is totally relative? Does “truth,” on the other hand, mean that form in worship is part of an authoritative tradition that was established from the beginning? (Of course, this brings up the issue of authority, which would take this post to a far deeper and more involved level; those who truly are interested on basic issues with authority could start with a recent triple post on another (and very thought-provoking) blog: http://ecumenicity.blogspot.com).

I recently read something that both exalted a “spirit” of worship and denounced any forms of “empty rituals” (again, there are basic presumptions with the adjective, “empty”). This caused me to reflect on what is often the catalyst for the energy so routinely connected to “great” / “moving” / “thrilling” worship — music. Increasingly over the past several decades, that which is called “great worship” is usually connected with music that is performance-based, more and more professionally oriented, and quite often emotionally manipulative.

I am not saying good music in worship is wrong — far from it, but I do think it is important to warn against what can be “good” taking an undue place of preeminence. I know how “moving” (and dominant) music is in our culture. I have heard too many people talk about “why my church has such worship: the worship band is incredible — they even have commercial CDs.”

I wonder how Paul and the other apostles managed to spread the Christian Faith over Europe and much of Asia without an electric praise band! What made the gospel compelling without a few crooners hovering over a microphone and gyrating to Jesus?

To those two questions I would offer two substantive things: First, a quality of life — modeled after Jesus and enabled by the Holy Spirit — that caused those early Christians to be willing to suffer and die to be able to love others like the One who had died and risen. Second, worship that was anchored in what Jesus gave His Church: His very presence in the Bread and Cup.

Some things in worship truly are relative to culture and even the abilities of a given congregation. They can be good and helpful. But those things should never overshadow what has been the essence of Christian worship from the beginning; there is meaning to “spirit” and “truth,” and it is found in The Great Tradition (which is another subject worth extensive reflection).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering Saint Bernard

Today is the memorial for Saint Bernard. My earliest association of his name was with the hymn, Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee. As one reflects on the words of this love-poem to Jesus, the strong faith and commitment of this medieval saint is beyond question. The fact that almost all Protestant traditions use this hymn is testimony to its broad and enduring value (but I know of no hymnal that includes all fifteen verses!).

Bernard’s father Tecelin was a knight and vassal of the Duke of Burgundy. Bernard was educated at Chatillon, where he was distinguished by his studious and meditative habits. He entered the monastery of Citeaux (the first Cistercian institution) in 1113. He was well known in Rome, and founded 163 monasteries throughout Europe. Bernard was a man of exceptional piety and spiritual vitality. Martin Luther, 400 years later, called him, “the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.”

The thing that would unsettle some about Bernard — if they knew the details — was his devotion to Mary. He not only wrote passionate lyrics to the Lord Jesus, some of his hymns to Mary express a level of devotion that, to an Evangelical Protestant ear, seem mutually exclusive to commitment to Jesus. Yet to many Catholics the two are natural and even inseparable because Mary is always pointing to her Son.

My own appreciation for Bernard is in his hymns to Jesus. One has been a long-time particular favorite of mine. The following words are a wonderful aid to prayer:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee Thou art good,
To them that find Thee all in all.

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Wherever our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blessed when our faith can hold Thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed over the world Thy holy light

Monday, August 18, 2008

Thoughts About Church

I have been reading several books by an Orthodox Church apologist. He is as adamant that Orthodoxy is the only, true, right Church as any Fundamentalist I’ve ever come across claiming the exclusivity of “King James only.” I will grant the Orthodox writer has far better arguments than the Fundamentalist. Yet this champion of Orthodoxy dismisses John Paul II’s language of “both lungs” (East and West) of the Church. Again, his unequivocal position is that Orthodoxy is right and anything else is heresy.

This, of course, has had me thinking about the nature of the Church. I know the Catholic Church sees herself as being the Church called into being by Christ, but — neophyte that I am — it seems Catholicism is far more charitable to Orthodoxy than Orthodoxy is to Catholicism. As I assess both claims I find that each has strong and weak points in respect to the other. The historical arguments with details of Councils and the philosophical nuances attendant to each position is enough to make one’s head swim.

I come from years of ministry in an ecclesial community with roots in Anabaptism. I was initially attracted to the Anabaptists years ago because I saw Jesus in the lives of the evangelical Anabaptists of the 16th Century. When almost all the other Christian groups were persecuting those who were not like themselves, the Anabaptists would not retaliate. They would suffer for Jesus, but they would not revile in His name.

Before I make the point of this particular entry, I want to preface my “ruminations” with a couple of caveats. First, I believe there is Truth which has been committed to Christ’s Church, and all who belong to Christ are to seek and submit to that Truth. Second, I also believe that any individual believer’s perception of perfect Truth is limited by a variety of qualifiers in a broken (fallen) world — which means, practically, that no one’s salvation is dependant on living in response to a perfect understanding of theology (I don’t think we’ll be given a Theology 101 exam to get into heaven). Salvation is by grace, available on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection for all who hunger and thirst for God. Attitude is far more crucial than understanding. Because of God's grace that extends through Christ "far as the curse is found," heart trumps mind.

So, here is the focus of my recent thoughts: The apologetic material I’ve read in the area of ecclesiology is mostly consumed with history, biblical exegesis and philosophy. Hardly anywhere have I found a cogent discussion of the place for “fruit” — e.g., Jesus’s words about false prophets (by their fruit you will know them) and His characterization of His followers (All people will know you are my disciples if you love one another). The question I’ve been pondering is: In what “streams” of Christian tradition are the fruits of the Spirit most evident? What communities of faith have best modeled the love of our Lord? Doesn’t this have a major factor in how we understand the identity of the Church?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Hymn-Prayer: Spirit of God Descend

This George Croly hymn has been one of my favorite prayers since discovering it in my late teen years:

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
and make me love Thee as I ought to love.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies;
but take the dimness of my soul away.

Hast Thou not bid us love Thee, God and King?
All, all Thine own: soul, heart, and strength, and mind.
I see Thy cross, there teach my heart to cling;
O let me seek Thee, and O let me find.

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
to check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
one holy passion filling all my frame;
the baptism of the heaven-descended Dove,
my heart an altar and Thy love the flame.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Brief Picture of Reality

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which always triggers in my mind the phrase “a brief picture of reality.”

I often think of things the world around us presents as “reality.” We live in a WYSIWYG world — What You See Is What You Get. People are obsessed with circumstantial pleasure, convinced that is the way to happiness, and the big threats in life — the weakness of poverty and physical limitations and what is assumed to be the finality of death — are thought to be the most horrific things possible.

On what basis dare anyone believe anything different? Christian Faith says the reason is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But yet again, how can a “modern mind” dare believe this is true? The Transfiguration offers a single picture of the bigger truth.

When Jesus was on earth, what people saw when they looked upon the Incarnate Son of Man was.... a man. Sometimes they saw Him do some amazing things, but He was still a man who dressed like them, ate like them, walked the roads and paths like them.... a man who the Scriptures and the Church confess to be fully human.

Yet Christian Faith came to recognize, as John wrote, we have seen his glory. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. This theme recurs again and again in the NT. The glory that covered Adam and Eve at the beginning, the glory that came down on Mt. Sinai and caused Moses’ face to shine, the glory that inhabited the Tabernacle and the Temple, and the glory promised by the Isaiah and Ezekiel came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

Still, those looking at Him during those earthly years would have asked (if explicitly told this was the glory of God): Where? How? In a WYSIWYG world, Jesus was — even though engaging, puzzling, commanding, divisive and exasperating — just another man.

But one day — one time on one particular day — three of the disciples had their WYSIWYG world expanded. Peter, James and John saw His glory as he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. This “brief picture of reality” helped lay a foundation for understanding the greater reality to follow in the crucifixion and resurrection. Peter gave this clear witness and exhortation in his second letter:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Those who know the Gospels well remember that when Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the mountain, the next incident was the lack of faith in the other disciples to heal a boy. Those who lived in the presence of the Glory every day were unable to act on that reality.

Do we not too frequently live on that level? How often have we heard the question (or asked it ourselves): If Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, why isn’t there an obvious and overwhelming glory? It is a question sparked by a WYSIWYG world.

Jesus let three of His disciples see His glory once during those ministry days. It was enough to pave the way for a Faith that would change the world. We can believe today because there is a credible eyewitness record that has been established as an Apostolic Rule of Faith. Peter and John both wrote that they saw.... and they testified that these things are true.... and then they lived — in such a contrasting way to who they previously were — so that people looking at them took notice that they had been with Jesus.

The Transfiguration calls us — warmly and powerfully invites us — to “see” the glory of God in a way that goes beyond the WYSIWYG existence of the world-spirit.

The glories of this world do not last. The threats of this world do not have the last word. There is a glory promised to all who follow Jesus.... a glory that was fully realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who follow Jesus will know the power of the resurrection — the glory of the Son which is the inheritance of all who belong to Him — but not apart from, first, the cross with the accompanying darkness of not having everything yet fully visible. Christians live in the hope of glory, knowing that Jesus is the way. On this Transfiguration Day we remember this glimpse — a brief picture of reality.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Morning Prayer

We (my wife, daughter and I) have been praying this prayer from St Francis Xavier. It is a great thing to add to the start of one's day:

I adore you, God the Father, who created me;
I adore you, God the Son, who redeemed me;
I adore you, O Holy Spirit, who have so often sanctified me and are still sanctifying me.
I consecrate to you my whole day for the pure love of you and for your greater glory.
I do not know what is to happen to me today, whether troublesome things or pleasant ones, or whether I shall be happy or sad, in consolation or in grief. It will all be as you please. I abandon myself to your providence, and I submit to all your wishes.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Life's Quandaries

I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005 and had radical surgery. Since then my PSA has been monitored, but only this past year with a "super-sensitive test" that has shown rising numbers. Rising levels can almost only mean some presence of prostate cancer somewhere. There is no guarantee of where, and with the values low there is no test/scan that could give any definitive answers. The doctor does think the numbers are low enough to suggest a 90% chance everything is still contained in the original area, and IF SO he is 90% sure he can eradicate (with radiation) anything that is there with minimal damage/side effects.

IF the cancer has been growing — and is aggressive enough — it is possible it has already metastasized elsewhere in other small cells. Again — we cannot know, but only take the next step AND TRUST THE LORD. I said three years ago, and mean it even more today, if I truly trust Jesus for my eternity then I can trust Him for my time, and the way I know I'm doing that is to give Him all my time every day to the best of my ability. That is my part... and to continue to trust Him with the rest.

Friday morning’s Office of Readings (16th week of Ordinary Time, LOTH, vol II, p536) had the following as part of a selection from Augustine’s Confessions:

Behold, Lord, I cast upon you my concern that I may live and I shall meditate on the wonders of your law. You know my ignorance and my weakness; teach me and heal me. Your only Son, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, redeemed me with his blood. Let not arrogant men speak evil of me. For I meditate on my ransom, and I eat it and drink it and try to share it with others; though poor I want to be filled with it in the company of those who eat and are filled; and they shall praise the Lord who seek him.

This takes me to one verse in one of Saint Bernard’s hymns:

We taste Thee, O Thou living bread, and long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the fountain head, and thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

Again, the only thing I can do is surrender and entrust everything to the One who loved me enough to die for me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


My wife and I were at a conference in Kansas City last weekend. One morning I was struck with a line from the Invitatory in the Daily Office (in a special sense, because I pray the psalm so often):

Today, listen to the voice of the Lord.

I thought back over the years of all the days I have lived presumptuously, desiring/intending to live “for the Lord,” but essentially responding to life out of the cognitive parameters I thought were right (because they were “biblical” and “orthodox”) rather than seeking to respond to the existential life of the Spirit within those parameters.

And now, even as I am aware of new mercies in my life through a fresh seeking of God’s heart, I am also aware of how easy it is to ease into old patterns — maybe with new boundaries — yet living presumptuously and with a static mentality instead of the dynamic of now.

Today, listen to the voice of the Lord.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Another Prayer-Hymn

I am between trips, having gone to SC and Alabama this past weekend, and will be leaving for Kansas City tomorrow for the coming weekend. The former was for family; the latter is to attend a conference at which I'll present a paper.

I'm still thinking of hymns that have molded and sustained me over the years. The one below (by Charles Wesley) was something like the "school anthem" at the Bible College I attended. I knew it even before then, and it has been one of the prayers of my heart since my late teen years.


I want a principle within of jealous godly fear,
A sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near.
Help me the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wand’ring of my will and quench the kindling fire.

From Thee that I no more may stray, no more Thy goodness grieve.
Grant me the filial awe I pray, the tender conscience give.
Quick as the apple of an eye, O God, my conscience make.
Awake my soul when sin is nigh, and keep it still awake.

Almighty God of truth and love, to me Thy power impart.
The burden from my soul remove, the hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain my reawakened soul,
And drive me to the Blood again, which makes the wounded whole.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Great Hymn

I've been "feeding" on one of my favorite hymns:

Jesus, Thy Boundless Love To Me
Words: Paul Gerhardt (translated from German to English by John Wesley)

Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
O knit my thankful heart with Thee
And reign without a rival there.
Thine, wholly Thine, alone I am.
Be Thou alone my constant flame.

O, grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell but Thy pure love alone!
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
Strange fires far from my heart remove;
My every act, word, thought, be love.

O Love, how cheering is Thy ray!
All pain before Thy presence flies;
Care, anguish, sorrow, melt away
Wherever Thy healing beams arise.
O Jesus, nothing may I see,
Nothing desire or seek, but Thee!

O that I, as a little child,
May follow Thee, and never rest
Till sweetly Thou hast breathed Thy mild
And lowly mind into my breast!
Nor ever may we parted be,
Till I become as one with Thee.

Still let Thy love point out my way;
How wondrous things Thy love hath wrought!
Still lead me, lest I go astray;
Direct my word, inspire my thought;
And if I fall, soon may I hear
Thy voice, and know that Love is near.

In suffering be Thy love my peace,
In weakness be Thy love my power;
And when the storms of life shall cease,
Jesus, in that important hour,
In death as life be Thou my guide,
And save me, who for me hast died.

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