Saturday, June 28, 2008


Pay your sacrifice of thanksgiving to God
and render him your votive offerings.

Mark this, you who never think of God,
lest I seize you and you cannot escape;
a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me
and I will show God’ salvation to the upright
(from Psalm 50).

These verses from the psalm in today’s Office of Readings awakened some thoughts that often orbit my mind. Sometimes I am so aware of God’s mercies that almost everything around me becomes a reason for thanksgiving.

We have been viewing DVDs of some old Masterpiece Theater series. (It started when Dwight Longenecker gave his commentaries on Brideshead RevisitedStanding on my Head, blog archive from February ‘08.) In the past few months we have watched The Jewel in the Crown, Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy, and now we are in the midst of the Foyle’s War series. I have also recently finished re-reading a history of the opening and settlement of Kentucky and Ohio. In all of these there is a common element of the brutality unleashed among people caught up in social conflict, religious differences, and nationalism. The horrors suffered by people trapped in the worst of such times and places is beyond comprehension as I sit in my leather recliner, watching and reading in the security of a comfortable home.

Thus the thankfulness. As I prayed the psalm this morning, thanking my Lord that the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places (Psa 16:6), I also found some of those orbiting questions: Why do I deserve to escape violent social chaos like that which hit India in the partitioning of Pakistan? Why can I live my life with no fear of blanket bombing as London experienced? Why do I live in a place where I can go out into the country for a walk without escalating the percentage of my being killed by a marauding gang?

The truth is, of course, I do not deserve it (and in the world we live, the relative security I have could end with one dirty bomb exploded in the U.S. by terrorists). But for now, every gift of relative security I’ve been given is also a responsibility. How am I giving back to my Lord as He has given to me?

One way — explicitly revealed by God through the psalmist — is thanksgiving. As I live in a society that has been shaped by the “right” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” I face an ongoing battle with a spirit of entitlement that suggests I do deserve the best life has to offer and am thus invited to go for it. To embrace that spirit is to turn from the kind of thankful heart that God desires in His people.

While never think of God, as the psalmist warns, is not a likely accusation for me — given the grace already worked into my life — I do know it is possible for the keen edge of my spirit to be blunted by all the allurements around me, telling me that “more” or “bigger” or “better” will make me happier.

I am learning that a thankful heart gives true joy, and seeking and trusting the Lord leads to a thankful heart.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


One of the books that shaped my early life as a Christian was Elisabeth Elliot’s The Shadow of the Almighty: the Life and Testament of Jim Elliot. Using his journals, she weaves a biography that is a chronicle of spiritual formation.

In one of his journal entries Jim wrote: “The soul does not seem to mind what it is occupied with, but only cares that it be kept occupied. It is passive as to choice. I choose, my soul responds, with ringing laughter, emotion, or pure worship. It is a tool, not a craftsman, and must be controlled. It is as amoral as a bed, but beds can become places of illegitimate activity. Son of God, purger of the inner parts, Discerner of my sitting down, my risings, wilt Thou hallow this soul of mine? The choice is mine, you say? Ah, yes, the choice is mine.”

Last week I spent a day as an invited guest in a context that was once a major characterization of my life. I had allowed an avocation to grow into a relative obsession. It wasn’t something inherently “wrong,” but it became such a part of my identity that it was as much or more evident in my life as my professed commitment to Jesus.

As I reflected on that day I realized there is an earthy part of me that so wanted to be able to live in a “both/and” world instead of the “either/or” called for by Jesus. It was ironic that the Gospel reading for that day last week was from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says we cannot serve both God and mammon, and that where our heart is, our treasure is there, too.

For all the Lord has done and is doing in me, I still struggle with the sensual pull that is inherent in life in this world — for life to be pleasant with food, housing, clothing, climate, absence of irritations, the temporal pleasure of eroticism.... The carnal mind always desires an indulgence, whether it is a brief look, a prolonged fantasy, “one exception,” or a wholesale abandonment. And the truth is, the look and the fantasy and the “exception” all lead, if left unchecked, to the abandonment.

“The soul does not seem to mind what it is occupied with, but only cares that it be kept occupied.... Son of God, purger of the inner parts, Discerner of my sitting down, my risings, wilt Thou hallow this soul of mine? The choice is mine, you say? Ah, yes, the choice is mine.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Test of Truth

As I said last time, I grew up in a small sub-set of Christian tradition that passionately believed in absolute truth. This was good in the sense that I was grounded in the sureties of certain core dogmas, with the authority of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Christ’s death for sin and a literal resurrection being among those most fervently embraced.

Yet there were other “truths” presented as absolute, and they were on a far different level: it is a sin for women to cut their hair; it is a sin to wear gold or jewels; it is a sin to drink alcoholic beverages. You get the idea. The “list” was extended beyond interpretations of particular Bible verses — “avoiding the appearance of evil” was a carte blanche for all kinds of rules: no movies or television; no pants on women; no card games.... Again, you get the idea.

I went to a small Bible college that seriously embraced (and enforced) this “holiness” ethos. The rules were presented as seriously as dogma (and got far more attention). Somehow the Lord brought me to see that there was a big difference between the rules of a social sub-set and the basic beliefs of Christian Faith. One of my early mentors was the writings of Francis Schaeffer, who was in the early stages of his Evangelical popularity. One thing Schaeffer warned against was the destructive effect of relative propositions when presented as absolutes.

I began to think more about Christianity and ecclesiology. It was obvious that not all Christians throughout time had believed and practiced the Faith the exact way my little sectarian facet did at that time. A seed was planted in my mind, even at such a “small” institution as my college, to subject ideas to the test of truth: if it’s not true throughout time and space, it is not absolutely true and needs to be offered — if valuable at all — with the caveat of relative value.

A few years later found me, at the ripe age of 23, beginning to pastor my first church. I wanted to be passionate for Truth, but I also wanted to be sure what I was proclaiming was indeed true. That intensity stayed with me for more than thirty years while, in retrospect, my understanding of Truth (and authority) “morphed” over that time.

One of the things that drew me to Catholicism was the Church’s identity as “catholic” — universal. There is so much in Christianity-at-large that claims to be “true,” but it is not universal. There are polarities of exclusiveness and near absence of boundaries. Dogma is disputed as well as issues of personal morals and social ethics. Where is one to find “the truth” in all of this?

The standard Evangelical answer is “Scripture,” and that is what I believed for decades. Yet look at the battles among those who claim Scripture as sole authority. Scripture is not the authority; a particular group’s interpretation of Scripture is, at best, the authority. Who can offer an authoritative interpretation of Scripture? Who can authoritatively say exactly what Scripture is (why “these” writings and not “those”)? The Protestant answer is “a fallible collection of infallible documents.” This basis for Scripture is hardy different than that of faith in the Koran or the Book of Mormon.

I trust Scripture today no less than ever in my life, but rather more. I do so because I believe there is a Church that speaks authoritatively — in concert with Scripture — so that there is good reason to believe in Truth. Both the Church and the Scriptures were born out of Apostolic Rule, those who were able to say: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us.... (1Jn 1:1ff).

I still believe today the substance of what I preached as an Evangelical pastor for more than thirty years. I also have to say that now I believe even more, and that is my desire: to be “more Christian,” increasingly changed from glory into glory. That means having a Faith big enough to grow into.... “further up and further in,” as C. S. Lewis put it in his closing Narnia tale, The Last Battle.

Truth transcends the little portion of time and space that we occupy at any given moment. Truth is so big it is universal. Truth needs a universal Church to embody it.... a catholic Church.... The Catholic Church.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Truth and Humility

I’ve continued to think about the things that have shaped my life in ministry over the past three decades. I was nurtured initially in a community of faith that believed it was the most faithful expression of Christianity on earth. Truth was taken seriously, and personal commitment meant taking truth seriously (“truth” being the package of understanding taught by that particular group).

Much of that “truth” was, indeed, orthodox Christian dogma. I am grateful to this day that my early nurture in the Faith was based on this and that it was given the stature of such great importance. Unfortunately, the “truth” went beyond that. (More on that next time).

Somehow God’s grace worked in my life (in the midst of a mind-set that attempted to categorize everything neatly into a manageable package) to see there is a neurotic side to a person’s need to be right in everything. It is a way of attempting to live with security on the basis of one’s own (or one’s own small community’s) boundaries while claiming they are God’s. One practical result of this is a haughty judgmental spirit toward others who are different. “Truth” becomes a weapon with which to bludgeon those whose differences are significant enough to threaten one’s “secure” little world.

I was reminded of this in today’s Office of Readings in The Liturgy of the Hours. Saint Gregory the Great wrote these words (from Moral Reflections on Job) — “The teaching of the arrogant has this characteristic: they do not know how to introduce their teaching humbly and they cannot convey correctly to others the things they understand correctly themselves. With their words they betray what they teach; they give the impression that they live on lofty heights from which they look down disdainfully on those whom they are teaching; they regard the latter as inferiors, to whom they do not deign to listen as they talk; indeed they scarcely deign to talk to them at all—they simply lay down the law.... [On the other hand] true doctrine tries both to teach by words and to demonstrate by living example—humility, which is the mother and mistress of virtues. Its goal is to express humility among the disciples of truth more by deeds than by words.”

One way I tried to apply this to my life throughout my more than three decades of preaching was to “preach to myself and let others listen.” Before I can give God’s truth to another, I need to allow the searching light of God’s Spirit to explore the nooks and crannies of my own life. Only then am I free to speak the Word to others.

What if everyone professing to follow Jesus would do this?!

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