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.

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