Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Request for Prayer

I will be away for a week. I have been invited to be the Lenten Mission speaker at the parish of St. Jude in Blairstown, NJ. Starting with a night of Adoration, where my wife and I do the music, I then continue for the next four evenings with sermons based on the seven deadly sins.

After over 30 years of preaching ministry I should know what to do, but this is a new context for me. Evangelicals and Catholics often have "different sets of ears," meaning we do not say or hear things the same way. Part of the alienation is that the two groups can use a common word with enough difference of meaning that it creates frustration and even hostility.

My Heart for God ministry was birthed in a desire to encourage people to live with deep commitment to Jesus Christ. If the Spirit of God brings my name to you over the next week, pray that my presence with the people of St Jude will be something of a tangible presence of Jesus, and that we all will be more encouraged to follow the One who died for us so that we can live.

Monday, February 18, 2008

RE: Meatless Fridays and Legalism

One of the accusations I hear from Evangelicals about Catholics is “salvation by works.” Some former Catholics who come to personal faith in an Evangelical context say that was their understanding of Church teaching.

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is not salvation through works. Catholic theology bases salvation in grace alone that is activated by faith. But what does it mean to activate faith? Is merely “mouthing” faith evidence of a genuine faith? St James denounces this in his letter. James and Paul both make it clear that what one believes is made evident by what one does. Works cannot be separated from Christian life.

This is not to say that the outward things people of true faith do cannot be observed, codified and coached in others apart from faith. Regardless of the particular point of obedience, the real issue is attitude of heart — something one person can hardly see in another. Is a person who fasts during Lent exercising spiritual discipline for the purpose of drawing closer to God or is that person trying to “do something to impress God” (or others)? Merely looking at another, who can say? Or to push the context a bit, is a man who is faithful to his wife not only truly loving her but also honoring God, or is the man trying to justify himself by thinking how righteous he lives compared to someone else who is known for marital unfaithfulness? Not committing adultery can be one facet of a faithful, obedient heart — or it can be the prideful stubbornness of a miserable person attempting to establish righteousness through self-effort. I have known people who seem to exemplify each.

Not eating meat on Fridays is not an automatic sign of legalism. There is thoughtfulness and intent behind this practice. Early in the life of the Church, Friday was dedicated to the memory of the Passion of Our Lord. It is a way of recognizing that Christ suffered and died — spilled the blood of his human flesh — for our sins. Not eating flesh-meat on Fridays is meant to be a way to remember this in a tangible way. Mention is made of the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays in The Didache (a document from the end of the first century A.D.), as well as by St. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian in the third century. The teaching of the Church is clear beyond possibility of mistake on this matter.

Is eating meat on Friday, then, a real sin? Coming at it first from the other end, I would argue that fasting in this way can be a good discipline for all Christians, but the matter is heightened for Catholics. Here the issue is not so much merely eating meat or not (St Paul says quite a bit about eating and not eating in his letters, and the ultimate verdict is that this is a small sub-issue in the overall scheme of the kingdom of God). The issue for Catholic Christians is the implication of obedience to a Community of Faith to which they have pledged their belonging. The Church says not to eat meat on Fridays during Lent in order to reflect more on what it means that we are eternally lost apart from the blood of God’s Son being shed for our salvation. Ignoring or rationalizing what the Church tells us is a danger-sign of the anti-God attitude that I described in my last post: “I want what I want right now!” This is the very attitude toward God and his ways that is judged in the death of Christ.

Not eating meat is not meant to be an end in itself. It is not just something to (not) do in order to say to one’s self, “Now I’m being a good Christian.” (That attitude or understanding is what draws the charges of legalism.) Friday is the day the Son of God died for our salvation. A bit of inconvenience on our part as Christians is a good way to remember the great “inconvenience” it was for Jesus to die on the cross. When we turn our hearts to the greater meaning, all thoughts of legalism vanish.

Years ago the president of the Bible college I attended gave a sermon on the sacrament of eating. His point was that all of life is a sacrament (not Sacrament — my theology at the time did not go in that direction), and that food is an especially good illustration. The only way we can live, physically, is to eat; the only way to eat is for something to die for us. Even a vegetable gives its life when pulled, cooked and eaten. But with most of humanity having always delighted in a hunk of meat as the centerpiece of a meal, we are reminded that an animal’s blood was shed so that we can eat and live. This is precisely why the Church has taught us not only not to eat meat on Lenten Fridays, but also to reflect on the price of our salvation. The two are meant to go hand-in-hand, and when humbly embraced with that attitude it is not legalism.

Friday, February 15, 2008


We are in the first full week of Lent and, on this Friday, I am aware of the battle of flesh and spirit. In preparation for Lent I gave intentional thought to specific disciplines I would embrace, with many of them in the context of fasting from foods (I am doing some other things as well with daily prayer and “fasting from TV,” among others). I love to eat. I think of things that would taste good and prepare them for our evening meal, which is often ready shortly after my wife comes home from work. I enjoy a wide variety of foods, and it is easy for me to find myself planning food delights throughout the day, throughout the week.

I did not grow up in a church tradition that observed Lent. That, along with few Catholics in my area of the South in the 50s/60s, meant that not eating meat on Fridays was almost unheard of. Now I am finding out how hard it is to do such a simple (?) thing. My wife and I have a circle of friends who are not Catholic, and it hardly occurs to them not to eat meat on Friday. Our own family patterns complicate it; our adult daughter, who lives with us, hates fish. I know that is not the only alternative, but it is one way to have a nice meal (and I only eat one true meal a day during Lent).

That last parenthetical phrase is not so “parenthetical.” It is actually the motivation for this entry. In the course of a day, this body of mine (and its carnal mind) — which likes to get what it wants when it wants it — sends all kinds of signals that it does not like what is going on. One of the most insidious is the recurring thought: “What does it matter if you just have a little something? It’s not a real sin.”

But isn’t that the nature of sin? It’s not always the object of the desire, but rather the attitude. It is my will demanding that “I want what I want right now!” I remember a story from an itinerant preacher who was a significant man in my early Christian life (he started the community where I went to college in southern Florida). He said that one day he was in his non-air-conditioned truck on a sultry Florida day and he thought of how good an ice cream cone would be. He passed a Dairy Queen and his mind yelled “Dairy Queen! Dairy Queen!” As he thought about it, he wanted that ice cream cone almost more than anything. Then the Holy Spirit convicted his heart, saying “is this going to control you?” He said he told himself out loud. “Shut up, you aren’t getting one!”

The historic Christian term for that is mortification — putting to death the desires of the flesh to be less controlled by temporal desire and to be more sensitive to the Spirit. Our culture can hardly comprehend such a thing. It sounds crazy. “Why deny a simple, non-harmful pleasure?”

But our desires can be devastatingly harmful to the life of the Spirit in us. Just like an athlete undergoes strict discipline to be able to perform incredible physical moves, just like a musician does boring scales over and over and over to be able to make beautiful music, the Christian who would be spiritually fit — showing in his or her life something of the glory of Jesus — must be able to turn away from lesser things in order to grasp the greater.

Mortification is an essential part of spiritual discipline. I am teaching the Book of Revelation right now, and Jesus has messages for seven congregations. There are commendations for those who are able to choose right over wrong; there is rebuke and a call to repent for those who are giving in to the pressures of the world around them. How will someone professing to follow Christ have the strength to say “no” to grave temptation and mortal (though intensely desirable) sin if he or she is not able to say “no” through the small disciplines Christians are to embrace in their spiritual training? Not eating meat on Friday and other dietary denials may be more connected to being able to say “no” to greed, lust and sloth than we have ever imagined.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Identity: What defines us

Few people truly know the length of time and the degree to which I fought the "changes" in my understanding that slowly developed over the past several years. As a pastor I sought, and continued to preach, the traditional answers that I had been given and embraced since my earliest training. Even while some of the broadening/changing of my understanding was happening, I tried to understand it as "personally meaningful" instead of embracing it as convictional (which I knew would then have serious implications for my pastoral identity). There obviously came the time when I could not keep my changes "personal," but realized there was an enlargement of my understanding that was inescapably convictional.

Some have questioned what this means for my assessment of those who are still in my former context. In no way is my decision to change church affiliation meant to imply that I do not still consider the BIC an ecclesial community full of people who have incredible hearts given to Jesus -- as good or better than any I know. I would say that the heart of the matter for each person is simply living as fully unto God as we each are able with the amount of understanding we have. When we stand before the Lord, the question is NOT going to be: Did you get your theology exactly (or even mostly) right? There will be "believers" who never knew the name of Jesus (much less were part of the Catholic Church), who hungered and thirsted for righteousness and who, in hope, believed there is a God who is Mercy and Love, and so they gave Him their hearts on that basis alone. Yet Christian life truly is about both head and heart, and the two need to have compatibility so that a person is not a spiritual schizophrenic. I did what I had to do.

That being said, and all that I shared in The Journey Home interview, my passion is not about "being Catholic" or wanting to focus on the things that divide Christians. I have chosen to be Catholic because that most enables me to follow Jesus as fully as possible given my understanding of Christian Faith and the Church. I want the passion of my life to be following Jesus.

Tonight I am starting to teach an 8-week class on the Book of Revelation in our Diocesan Institute. One goal is to counter the sensationalism that so often accompanies this text of Scripture. But more than that, this book of the Bible reminds us of who Jesus is, because in all of this world or the next, nothing is more important than knowing Jesus Christ our Lord. When we come to the book of Revelation it reveals what God has done and what God is doing and what God is going to do through Jesus Christ. That's what the book of Revelation is all about. We need to remember who Jesus is. We need to keep before us each day what Jesus has done. We need to give ourselves again and again to the one who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. That's how this book of Revelation can encourage us. God wants us to be his people. He wants us to be his witnesses. And through Jesus Christ, God has done everything for us that needs to be done. Whatever else we might say about the book of Revelation, it calls us to be what we're all about. It shows us a picture of what is true —a true picture of Jesus Christ. The invitation is to know him in all his glory.

That's one way to understand what it means to have a "heart for God."

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