...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Thu, 24 Apr 2014 04:01:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer no The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer) 2006-2009 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Memo to Tim Challies: The War Is Over Thu, 24 Apr 2014 04:01:35 +0000 800px-Zentralbibliothek_Zürich_-_Effigies_praecipuorum_illustrium_atque_praestantium_aliquot_theologorum_-_000008283_cropped

Tim Challies represents the mindset of far too many Protestant Christians who have little understanding of the Roman Catholic church and who continue to recycle old, tired, and often incorrect ideas about the church’s teachings and practices. Without any authority but his own opinion, Challies has decided to issue a public statement calling Pope Francis a false teacher. He includes the current Pope in a series examining such historic religious notables as Arius, Joseph Smith, Ellen G. White, Norman Vincent Peale, and Benny Hinn. Interesting group of names, huh?

At any rate, here is Tim Challies’ unequivocal judgment about the Pope:

For all we can commend about Pope Francis, the fact remains that he, as a son of the Roman Catholic Church and as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, remains committed to a false gospel that insists upon good works as a necessary condition for justification. He is the head of a false church that is opposed to the true gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The core doctrinal issues that divided Protestantism from Catholicism at the time of the Reformation remain today. The core doctrinal issues that compelled Rome to issue her anathemas against Protestantism are unchanged. Rome remains fully committed to a gospel that cannot and will not save a single soul, and officially damns those who believe anything else…

I am not going to take this post to try and “answer” Challies’ assertions about what Catholics believe. That would playing into the new calvinists’ game. For them, it seems, true religion is all about argument. It’s a matter of “contending for the faith” — and by that they mean insisting upon absolute purity when it comes to the dogmas of systematic theology. The leading teachers in the movement have theological “talking points” as refined and repeatable as any master politician and they will not get off message. In their view, Roman Catholicism equals “false gospel,” “false church,” “works salvation,” the Mass as a false sacrifice, Mariolatry, a false eschatology that includes purgatory, and so on. And of course, in criticizing the church and Pope Francis, Challies emphasizes one point above all: “But no false teaching is more scandalous than his denial of justification by grace through faith alone.”

If you want to read one well written response outlining how Challies fails to grasp Catholic teaching about justification, I suggest starting with Francis Beckwith’s post, “Tim Challies says Pope Francis is a false teacher, but misunderstands Catholic view of justification.” Beckwith gives good insight in his article, but I’m not convinced his approach is the best way to answer the Tim Challies of the world. Talking “at” each other in cyberspace and lobbing dogmatic theological statements back and forth doesn’t seem productive to me.

As my friend John Armstrong says:

When Catholics and Protestants engage in the polemics of theological polarities they quite often misrepresent one another. In the process they miss the deeper fruit of real ecumenism in doing confessing Christian theology. Non-theologians often do this more poorly because they adopt the views they have been taught by their favorite teachers and then treat them as the gold standard.

John, once a dyed-in-the-wool calvinistic separatist, is now at the forefront of encouraging people to participate in “missional-ecumenism,” which includes doing theology together, talking with one another, and studying side by side rather than lobbing theological grenades back and forth across no man’s land at each other. I encourage you to read John’s blog and follow some of the remarkable events he is setting up where people of Christian faith from different traditions listen to one another and talk about the faith. Here is his own testimony:

2241_49744396965_3932_nWhen the Holy Spirit revealed to me the truth of John 17:21 I felt I had no choice but to commit the rest of my days to humbly learning from other Christian traditions and teachers. Both my theology and practice necessitated a more humble epistemology and a deeper personal tone anchored in love. I did not jettison what I believed. I opened my mind and heart afresh to “seeing” truth in a far different way, a way that led me to listen more carefully and respectfully to the global catholic church. I realized that over the centuries the faith has been debated and understood and far too much of our history has been about pursuing truth without grace. But I am reminded that the Word was himself “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). If I was to faithfully follow Jesus my life should more nearly be one where grace and truth were both present in abundant measure.

This is also one of the traits I have always loved about Internet Monk. The blog itself is named for a Catholic: Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the greatest spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Michael Spencer regularly featured book reviews, interviews, “Liturgical Gangsta” discussions, and guest authors that fairly represented Catholicism. He didn’t spout talking points about Roman Catholicism, he talked with Roman Catholics. He never swam the Tiber and he maintained strong doctrinal and ecclesiastical positions as a Protestant, but he did come to peace in his thinking about Rome and it irked him when people would promote the shallow stereotypes Tim Challies sets forth in his article.

I’m happy to say we at IM today are committed to continuing that approach. We love it when Martha helps us understand Catholic church teachings and history. We rejoice with our brother Jeff Dunn, who says one of the best things in his life right now is his move into the Catholic church. Damaris, whose family likewise joined the Catholic church in recent years, is especially good with giving us perspective on Catholic moral teaching and spiritual formation. I consider Our Lady of Gethsemani my go-to place for silence, prayer, and contemplation (and bourbon fudge, of course). We direct readers to great Catholic bloggers like Ryan McLaughlin and encourage study at sites like Bibliaclerus, which are in our links and on our blogroll.

So, Mr. Challies, there are plenty of examples out there of better thinking and more beneficial approaches than you take in your article calling Pope Francis a false teacher.

As far as I’m concerned the war is over. Of course, there is plenty to talk about, many areas of debate, and much work to be done to clarify the faith. But we are on the same side. So much has changed in the Roman Catholic church, especially since Vatican II, that it is ridiculous to rely upon old, tired formulas and stereotypes and to think we are accomplishing anything worthwhile by continuing to hide behind thick walls of separation. To do so is not only shoddy thinking, but it is also uncharitable to our brothers and sisters in Christ and unhealthy for our own spiritual well being. Ecumenical dialogue, theology, and mission has come a long way. I encourage you to put down your sword and shield and invite a few well-informed Catholic brothers and sisters to the table. Get to know them. Interview them. Have question and answer sessions with them. Review their books. Have them write posts for your blog. Don’t automatically label them, listen to them.

I like my friend John Armstrong’s description for what we need: “a deeper personal tone anchored in love” that “listen[s] more carefully and respectfully to the global catholic church.”

I also continue to take C.S. Lewis’s iconic illustration of the Great Hall and rooms from the preface of Mere Christianity as my fundamental perspective on questions like this. No one is suggesting that we have to give up our own rooms wherein we find fellowship and fuller agreement. I’m just saying we should also spend some time in the Great Hall together, recognizing and welcoming one another as fellow Christians. We may and indeed do differ significantly in our convictions and practices, but in the Great Hall can’t we find a place to mingle, unthreatened by each other and open to learning from each other? And when we do go to our own rooms, can’t we take Lewis’s reminder to heart?

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still In the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

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iMonk Classic: Icebergs, Onions and Why You’re Not As Simple As You Think Wed, 23 Apr 2014 04:01:01 +0000 iceberg2

From April 24, 2008.

“My theology is simply what I read in the Bible.”

Sure it is.

“What I believe and practice is simply what the Bible teaches and nothing else.”

Of course. What else could be simpler?

I’m sure several of you won’t be surprised at all to learn that I meet with a pastoral counselor on a regular basis. It’s one of the best things I do. We talk about all sorts of things, and we’ve developed a very beneficial dialog around many of the the issues that are part of a Jesus shaped spirituality.

Almost every time we meet, one of us will wind up saying that human beings are far more complex than anyone realizes. And that goes double for our view of ourselves. We’d like to think that we’re quite simple in our motivations and behavior. Our self-description is almost always biased toward “what you see is what you get,” even when we are well aware that such is not the case.

Working with a counselor constantly reminds me that there is far more to what I feel, perceive, think and do than I ever recall at any moment. It’s not unusual for me to leave my counselor’s office with fresh illumination regarding memories, events and various influences that have contributed to who I am. Insights into my family of origin, primary experiences as a child, uncritical acceptance of some proclamations of reality, even manipulation and brainwashing: all of these may appear on my radar after a session with Bob, made obvious by our conversation and God’s Spirit.

What’s stunning is that all of these things were no less part of me when I walked into the office, totally unaware of their existence and influence. Where were all these things before? With me and part of me, but unknown to me.

onion-layersThink about that. It’s just as true of you.

If I ever tell you that all I do is just read the Bible, then believe and do what it says, you have permission to laugh at me. Pay a small fee and you can smack me and say “What’s the matter with you?”

I’m an iceberg, an onion, a mystery. I’m complex and rarely insightful into myself. Thousands of experiences co-exist in me at the same time. I’m a library of presuppositions and passively accepted versions of the truth. When I write a post, preach a sermon, respond in a conversation or give advice to a student, I am anything but simple. I’m complex and only partially aware of that complexity.

This doesn’t mean I can’t understand the simple statements of the Bible or believe and act on them with integrity. It does mean that I need to stop talking about myself as if I am a blank slate, and begin accepting myself as a human being.

I am a person on a journey. That journey has been rich and diverse. It began before I was born. It’s gone on when I was aware and unaware of all that was happening to me. I’ve been shaped by God through a variety of influences, and in one way, there is a sacredness to how God has chosen to shape my life. At any moment that I present myself to God, I am accepted as the “iceberg” of known and unknown influences that make me ME.

I don’t need to fear my complexity. I don’t need to ignore it or misrepresent it. There’s no point in speaking as if my understanding of truth is unaffected by all that preceded this moment and what is going on at this moment.

The Holy Spirit works with us as the human beings that we are. “Search my thoughts O God” is an invitation for God to work with me and all that makes me a person at this moment.

Is this an endorsement of some postmodern skepticism toward propositions? Is it another emerging denial of truth?

No. It’s simply an observation that I don’t “just” read the Bible and do what it says without bringing along all my personal influences and multiple layers of my personal history and experience.

There’s a reason certain ideas appeal to me, others are uninteresting to me and some never will make sense to me.

There are reasons I’ve come to the “obvious” conclusions that I have.

There are reasons I perceive some truth and can’t see other truth.

There are reasons my understanding of being a Christian falls easily towards some things and is repelled and conflicted by others.

I am complex. I have a history. I have influences. I’m not a robot. I am a person.

Knowing God’s truth is always a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I’m beginning to appreciate that more and more as I come to understand all that’s made me the person I am today.

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Another Look: Easter Is a Season, Not a Day Tue, 22 Apr 2014 05:49:27 +0000 road+to+emmaus

First Published April 4, 2010.

Many of us in our Christian traditions learned to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on a day — Easter Sunday.

Easter is the great Lord’s Day, the climax of Holy Week, the high point of the Christian Year, marked by an explosion of color, wafting fragrance of lilies, majestic sounds of organ and baroque trumpets, bright new clothes, formal dinner with the family. A blissful Sabbath! Our little ones receive baskets of candies and toys, hunt for Easter eggs, strap on patent leather shoes, dress up like little ladies and gentlemen. We take their pictures out in the yard framed by the early blooms of spring. Women wear hats to church, white gloves. Even the men adorn themselves in pastels. This is the one Sunday we sing, “Christ the Lord is risen today! Alleluia!” The choir resounds with joyful praise. Everyone smiles. Such a happy day!

And then it’s over.

In the non-liturgical churches I have served as a pastor, the time after Easter was one of the few lulls in the year. For families, it formed the season between spring break and May, which where I live has become one of the busiest months of the year, with spring sports in full swing, summer sports like Little League beginning, end of school and church year programs, graduations, weddings, holidays like Mother’s Day, college students returning home, outdoor projects getting into full swing, and of course, here in Indianapolis we have all “the month of May” – activities leading up to the Indy 500 race. After the Easter event, and before the month of May, we had a period of relative quiet.

As an evangelical (and an American), it seems to me that I was always taught to think in terms of events. Events can be strategized, planned, advertised and marketed, organized, staffed, set up, prayed for, executed, cleaned up after, reviewed and evaluated, and followed up. It is a typically business-like approach. A well-run event can make a big splash, leave a lasting impression, and play a crucial role in forming a group of people into a community.

However, as I have more seriously considered the practice of the liturgical year, I have been challenged to think more in terms of seasons than simply in terms of events. Seasons force us to face the “dailyness” of life rather than simply its special points.

It is like the difference between a wedding and a marriage. Or the birth of a baby and learning to care for an infant.

We love Christmas, but it is in Advent that we learn to long and pray day by day for Christ to come. And it is in Christmastide (the days following Christmas) that we take time to gaze with wonder into the face of the incarnate baby Jesus, to do as Mary did, “treasuring all these things in her heart.”

And so it is with Easter. Easter is a season, not just a day. On the Christian calendar, the period that begins on Easter Sunday is called “The Great Fifty Days,” “Pascha,” or “Eastertide.”

Writing in The Complete Library of Christian Worship V, Marjorie Proctor-Smith says,

Celebrating Easter for fifty days is a Christian practice almost as ancient as the annual observance of Easter. …The term Pentecost was first used by Christians to refer to this seven-week period as a unit: “the Pentecost,” or the fifty days. It was only later that the term was applied to the fiftieth day, at which time then the fifty days was called the Easter season.

The importance of this period for the ancient church is reflected in the language used by early writers wen speaking of it, and the practices which their comments reveal. Tertullian refers to the period, which he called the Pentecost, as a laetissimum spatium, a “most joyous space” in which it is especially fitting that baptisms take place. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, write an annual “Festal Letter” to the church in which he announced the date of Easter, which “extends its beams, with unobscured grace, to all the seven weeks of holy Pentecost.” In every letter Athanasius emphasizes the centrality of the Easter observance for Christians, speaking of the fifty days especially as a time of joy and fulfillment: “But let us now keep the feast, my beloved, not as introducing a day of suffering but of joy in Christ, in whom we are fed every day.” It was, quite simply, a “Great Sunday” which lasted for seven weeks, a week of Sundays, wherein the church celebrated on a large scale the resurrection of Christ. “All of Pentecost,” writes Basil of Caesarea, “reminds us of the resurrection which we await in the other world.”

Seeing Easter as a season rather than a day might help us grasp more fully the meaning and implications of Christ’s resurrection.

  • What a wonderful season in which to study the post-resurrection appearances! The ascension! The promise of the Spirit! The new covenant!
  • To lavishly decorate our sanctuaries and celebrate Christ’s resurrection with exuberance for seven Sundays rather than just one!
  • To have “Emmaus Road” Bible studies that show how all the Scriptures point to Jesus and his finished work.
  • To celebrate the Lord’s Supper more often with a specific focus on Christ’s promise that we will share it new with him in the coming kingdom.
  • To teach sound eschatology that grounds people in the Christian hope and the coming of the new creation.
  • To explore the “Great Commission” the risen Christ gave to us and to practice “going and telling” the Good News of our risen Savior in various ways throughout our communities.
  • To regularly celebrate baptisms and hear testimonies of those who have experienced new life in Christ.
  • To hold special meetings for prayer as the disciples did, asking for God to fill us anew with his Holy Spirit that we might become more fully and joyously engaged in his mission in the world.

Many Christians assume that Easter is commemorated on just one day. It is an event. After it is over, we move on to something else.

But this cannot be. We are Easter people! The first Sunday of Easter is the beginning, not the climax of the season.

As the disciples grew in their understanding and love for the risen Christ over the great fifty days when he arose, appeared to them, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit upon them, may we too experience Easter throughout the entire season to come!

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Monday Monkery – Day after Easter Sunday Edition Mon, 21 Apr 2014 04:01:15 +0000 Bad Easter 1Pastor Dan, who does our weekly iMonk Saturday Ramblings, got Holy Saturday off this past weekend so that he could focus on all the special services he was participating in. I remember those marathon occasions from when I was a pastor and I’ll be very surprised if Dan’s not sleeping in today. And tomorrow. But never fear, he will return renewed and refreshed this coming Saturday to resume rambling.

To feed our readers’ appetite for links and laughter in the meantime, today we’ll engage in a bit of Monday Monkery — post-Easter Sunday style.

We hope you all had a blessed Easter weekend, without any of the terror you can see in the eyes of the children to the right. We’ll show another of these delightful family memory pix in today’s post, but if you want to see a whole set of them in all their glory, check out 17 Nightmare-Inducing Easter Photos You Can’t Unsee. [You can find several "scary Easter sites" like this around the web. They send a chill, huh?]

Here’s a note to help you sync your calendars. You might want to plan for all the upcoming years when Easter falls on April 20, which also happens to be known as Weed Day or 420, celebrated around the world by pot smokers. So Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog has performed an invaluable service by writing: Here’s how many times Easter will fall on 4/20 in the next 1,000 years. As for me, I have set aside each April 20 to pray, “Remember not the sins of my youth.” These days, I’m inhaling incense at the Easter Vigil.

Zoderer eggHere’s my favorite of the master Easter eggs I missed this year — a true work of art. It pays homage to the metal sculptures of Swiss artist Beat Zoderer by layering multicolored chocolate strips around an 875-gram Brazilian dark chocolate egg. Hermé has made 15 of the eggs, which retail for $290. This is but one example of a number of artistic masterpieces created by France’s top top pâtissiers and chocolatiers. You can see them in all their glory at: The delicate and utterly mouth-watering art of world’s master Easter egg makers.

From highbrow eggs to megachurch madness: Matthew Paul Turner’s article, Can’t Fill the House On Easter? Try Handing Out Gadgets, discusses how “so many churches are going to such great creative and promotional lengths to capture our attention, setting attendance goals, adding services to their schedules, hoping that, if we’re one of the millions of Americans looking for a church to attend on Easter Sunday, we will choose their church as opposed to another church. Because for many churches, in addition to Easter being about Jesus, it’s also about getting you inside their doors.” Pop culture themes seem to be, well, popular, as churches “brand” their special seasons. One example is ACF Church in Eagle River, Alaska, who are basing their Easter services around The Walking Dead, the wildly popular zombie show. Well sure, why not?

Bad Easter 2Maybe they should just invite this guy. Or not.

“And while we’re at it [this bit of background information from Ted Olsen at CT], the Easter Bunny comes from these pagan rites of spring as well, but more from pagan Germany than pagan Britain. Eighteenth-century German settlers brought “Oschter Haws” (never knew he had a name, did you?) to America, where Pennsylvania Dutch settlers prepared nests for him in the garden or barn. On Easter Eve, the rabbit laid his colored eggs in the nests in payment. In Germany, old Oschter lays red eggs on Maundy Thursday. If anyone knows why children in an agrarian society would believe a rabbit lays eggs, please tell us or a historian near you. We’re all dying to know.”

Now this is one Easter tradition I know my boys and I would have enjoyed when they were growing up. On the Greek island of Chios rival parishes mark the evening before Orthodox Easter by firing thousands of rockets at each other’s churches, trying to ring the other congregation’s church bell. No kidding, this is a blast to watch! According the BBC, they spend months making the rockets by hand. Then comes the celebration, known as “rouketopolemos”, when parishioners from Aghios Markos and Panagia Ereithiani fire the handmade fireworks at the other’s church bell towers. The winning village is the one which scores the most direct hits on the other’s church. You can watch a brief BBC News report of the battle here, or this extended YouTube video. Megachurches ain’t got nothin’.

And oh that Luther, always finding new ways for Christians to have fun. According to Lizette Larson-Miller, a Loyola Marymount University theology professor who specializes in the history of religious practices, “Some believe Martin Luther was the first to suggest that the men in the household hide eggs in their gardens–representing the garden of Christ’s tomb–for their wives and children to find.” Wait — the wives got to hunt eggs too?

Finally, Pastor Dan can rest easy knowing the plastic eggs his church will drop by helicopter for their annual Easter egg hunt won’t break on impact. Apparently, creating “indestructible” Easter eggs for helicopter drops is a growing and competitive market. Only in America.

But that’s not the only problem with helicopter drops. Better plan for that crowd, Dan, or you might have to issue an apology like the city of Dunedin, Florida did last year…


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Thomas Merton: Living in the Freedom of Easter Sun, 20 Apr 2014 04:01:12 +0000  13864128563_39045d9a35_z

These words from Trappist monk Thomas Merton about Easter could not have been said better by any Lutheran or Protestant. He reminds us that Easter is not just about Jesus rising from the dead, defeating death. It is about our death and resurrection as well. In particular, Merton has us meditate on Paul’s teaching that we have died to the Law and are now free to live as saved persons in newness of life by the Spirit.

I encourage you to read the entire chapter in Thomas Merton’s book on the liturgical year: Seasons of Celebration.

Have a blessed Easter!

13861655103_50a90e9630_zLent has summoned us to change our hearts, to effect in ourselves the Christian metanoia. But at the same time Lent has reminded us perhaps all too clearly of our own powerlessness to change our lives in any way. Lent in the liturgical year plays the role of the Law, the pedagogue, who convinces us of sin and inflicts upon us the crushing evidence of our own nothingness. Hence it disquiets and sobers us, awakening in us perhaps some sense of that existential “dread” of the creature whose freedom suspends him over an abyss which may be an infinite meaninglessness, an unbounded despair. This is the fruit of that Law which judges our freedom together with its powerlessness to impose full meaning on our lives merely by conforming to a moral code. Is there nothing more than this?

But now the power of Easter has burst upon us with the resurrection of Christ. Now we find in ourselves a strength which is not our own, and which is freely given to us whenever we need it, raising us above the Law, giving us a new law which is hidden in Christ: the law of His merciful love for us. Now we no longer strive to be good because we have to, because it is a duty, but because our joy is to please Him who has given all His love to us! Now our life is full of meaning!

Easter is the hour of our own deliverance— from what? Precisely from Lent and from its hard Law which accuses and judges our infirmity. We are no longer under the Law. We are delivered from the harsh judgment! Here is all the greatness and all the unimaginable splendor of the Easter mystery— here is the “grace” of Easter which we fail to lay hands on because we are afraid to understand its full meaning. To understand Easter and live it, we must renounce our dread of newness and of freedom!

Death exercises a twofold power in our lives: it holds us by sin, and it holds us by the Law. To die to death and live a new life in Christ we must die not only to sin but also to the Law.

Every Christian knows that he must die to sin. But the great truth that St Paul exhausted himself to preach in season and out is a truth that we Christians have barely grasped, a truth that has got away from us, that constantly eludes us and has continued to do so for twenty centuries. We cannot get it into our heads what it means to be no longer slaves of the Law. And the reason is that we do not have the courage to face this truth which contains in itself the crucial challenge of our Christian faith, the great reality that makes Christianity different from every other religion.

In all other religions men seek justification, salvation, escape from “the wheel of birth and death” by ritual acts, or by religious observances, or by ascetic and contemplative techniques. These are means devised by men to enable them to liberate and justify themselves. All the other religions impose upon man rigid and complicated laws, subject him more or less completely to prescribed exterior forms, or to what St Paul calls “elementary notions.”

But Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system. This is asserted with such categorical force by St Paul, that we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to “the Law” rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ; “Do you seek justification by the Law . . . you are fallen from grace . . . In fact, in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor its absence is of any avail. What counts is faith that expresses itself in love” (Gal. 5: 4,6).

. . . This gift, this mercy, this unbounded love of God for us has been lavished upon us as a result of Christ’s victory. To taste this love is to share in His victory. To realize our freedom, to exult in our liberation from death, from sin and from the Law, is to sing the Alleluia which truly glorifies God in this world and in the world to come.

This joy in God, this freedom which raises us in faith and in hope above the bitter struggle that is the lot of man caught between the flesh and the Law, this is the new canticle in which we join with the blessed angels and the saints in praising God.

God who is rich in mercy, was moved by the intense love with which he loved us, and when we were dead by reason of our transgressions, he made us live with the life of Christ . . . Together with Christ Jesus and in him he raised us up and enthroned us in the heavenly realm . . . It is by grace that you have been saved through faith; it is the gift of God, it is not the result of anything you did, so that no one has any grounds for boasting. (Eph. 2: 4– 9)

Let us not then darken the joy of Christ’s victory by remaining in captivity and in darkness, but let us declare His power, by living as free men who have been called by Him out of darkness into his admirable light.

- Seasons of Celebration
Merton, Thomas

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Why We Need Holy Saturday Sat, 19 Apr 2014 04:01:07 +0000 manteg16

The Dead Christ, Mantegna

Note: In honor of Holy Saturday, we will not have an edition of Saturday Ramblings today. We will have a “links” post early in the week to come.

* * *

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…

- 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

One of the richest books of theology I have read in recent years is Alan E. Lewis’s meditation on Holy Saturday called, Between Cross and Resurrection. I know I shall be returning to it again and again, so fulsome is the consideration of its subject, and so profoundly challenging it is to the shallow ways I contemplate the mystery of Christ’s sufferings and exaltation.

Lewis recognizes the slender amount of material that the Bible devotes to the time between Good Friday and Easter. He observes that John’s Gospel, in particular, anticipates the victory of the resurrection even while Jesus is yet on the cross, rendering his final words, “It is finished!” — a victory cry. However, Lewis also recognizes that John’s Upper Room Discourse (chapters 13-17), which comes before the story of the cross, anticipates the desolation the disciples would feel after Jesus’ death and before they saw him again. Generally speaking, in the chronological narratives of the Gospels it is primarily the later inclusion of chapter divisions that gives us a chance to pause between the accounts of Jesus’ death and his resurrection.

Nevertheless, in summarizing the gospel story, Paul explicitly includes Jesus’ burial followed by his resurrection on the “third day” (1Cor. 15 – see above). The Creeds, succinct as they are, also emphasize this detail as well as the intriguing fact of his “descent to hell.” In the Westminster Shorter Catechism we read of Jesus “being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.” Thus has the Church traditionally held that a faithful telling of the Jesus story must include the fact that he lay in the grave, dead, between the cross and resurrection. As Lewis says,

Here, we are told, we must stop and ponder, must absorb the brutal facts, let the realization sink slowly in that Christ’s life is finished and done, that he has drunk the cup of mortality to its last, most hellish drop.

The author notes that a failure to make a proper, sustained pause between Good Friday and Easter threatens our full appreciation of both Jesus’ death and and his resurrection. Moving too quickly from the cross to the empty tomb, we fail to grasp the depths of Jesus’ suffering; what it means that God suffered and died that day. Nor can we know the wonder, power, and hope of “He is risen!” unless we feel the full weight of God lying lifeless in the grave during an interval of utter despair when no such hope was even conceivable.

For this reason I will be attending Easter Vigil tonight. Having witnessed the stripping of the altar on Thursday, and having descended into darkness with the congregation in Good Friday’s Tenebrae service, on Saturday we gather in the chill of the evening air around a fire as the sun sets. The liturgy includes words like this: “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”

We then proceed together into a dark sanctuary following a new Paschal Candle. As the service goes on, we light more and more candles and the light grows. Wonderful texts from the Bible are read, reciting the great salvific acts of God. We renew our baptismal vows and celebrate with those coming to be baptized. Darkness turns to light. Buried with Christ in baptism, we rise to walk with him in newness of life.

This is the pinnacle of the Church Year. The light of Easter shines much brighter for me now that I explicitly acknowledge the darkness of Holy Saturday.

We wrap up with a quote from Lewis:

Lewis BookIn summary, the complex, multiple meaning of the story will only emerge as we hold in tension what the cross says on its own, what the resurrection says on its own, and what each of them says when interpreted in the light of the other. It would not be impossible to graph the entire history of church doctrine and life by plotting the interpretations which have failed to give due weight to one or the other of these essentials in the story by which and for which the Christian community lives. We might discover that the second day, which serves both to keep the first and the third days apart in their separate identities and to unite them in their indivisibility, offers a useful stance from which to make one more effort at a properly multivocal, stereophonic hearing of the gospel story.

- Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday
Alan E. Lewis

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Why the Change in the Crowd? Fri, 18 Apr 2014 11:41:51 +0000 Palm Sunday Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest!” Matthew 21:8-9

22″What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23″Why? Whatcrime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Matthew 27:22-23

(Originally posted May, 2008)

What a difference a week makes! In one week, the people have gone from shouting “Hosanna” to shouting “Crucify him!” Unfortunately, in almost every sermon I have heard on the topic, the pastor gets it wrong. (Not picking on any particular pastor here, I have heard this preached badly six or seven times.) The Pastor assumes that the crowd in Matthew 21 is the same as the crowd in Matthew 27. But this is not the case.

In Matthew 19 we find Jesus way north of Jerusalem, in Galilee, his home turf so to speak. This was where Jesus had grown up, based his ministry, and performed most of his miracles. Like most others he starts to make his way south to celebrate the passover in Jerusalem.

First he heads down to Judea, to the far side of the Jordan (possibly on the route that skirted Samaria.) He crosses back over the Jordan into Jericho, which we find him leaving in Matthew 20. He arrives at Bethpage and Bethany which he makes as his headquarters for Passover week (Matthew 21 & 26). Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims, and Jesus did what many others did who lived outside the immediate area, they slept in the towns surrounding Jerusalem, and then came into Jerusalem for the events of each day.

So when Jesus has his triumphal entry that we read about in Matthew 21, he is surrounded by his supporters from the north. They had also camped outside the city and were also coming in for the day.

In Jerusalem awaits the political elite, the leaders of the temple, who are quite happy with their lifestyle and the degree of autonomy that they have under Roman rule. Someone who might upset their applecart would need to be dealt with quickly.

So what does Jesus do? He drives the money changers and sellers from the temple, directly challenging the leadership of the temple. Then he heads back to Bethany for the night.

He comes back in the next morning, curses the fig tree on the way in, and then spends the day telling parables that insult the chief priests and pharisees. It is then that they decide to arrest him (Matthew 21:45-46). Note that the passage says that they were afraid to arrest him because of the crowd.

Christ continues to clash with the teachers of the law and the pharisees in Mattew 22 & 23. Jesus continues to teach in Matthew 24 & 25 and heads back to Bethany where we find him again in Mattew 26.

Meanwhilethe chief priests and elders meet to plot against Jesus.

3Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of

the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4and they plotted to arrest Jesus in

some sly way and kill him. 5″But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may

be a riot among the people.” Matthew 26: 3-5

Notice that the plot involved getting Jesus away from his followers. That is the ones who camped outside the city.

Jesus comes back into town to pray on the Mount of Olives at night. It is at the Garden of Gethsemene that he is arrested at night (Matthew 26:47). Jesus himself comments (verse 55) that he was in the temple all day, why didn’t they arrest him then? Why, because his supporters were all in the temple area during the day!

He is immediately taken before the sanhedrin for his first trial. Again, this was still in the middle of the night, and the sanhedrin had gathered for the express purpose of getting rid of Jesus.

Matthew 27 opens by saying that “early in the morning” he was taken before Pilate. It is when he is before Pilate that the crowd shouts “crucify him”.

This is not the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna”. The “Hosanna” crowd are still camped outside the city or making their way in. The “Crucify crowd” is made up of the priests, elders, and pharisees, and those that they have assembled, who wanted nothing to do with Jesus and just want him out of the way.

So why the change in the crowd? Two different crowds. The second crowd planted at a time when the first crowd could not be there.

So why does this matter?

What struck me about this story is that the chief priests, temple leaders, and pharisees represented what society would have considered to be among the most spiritual people in society. Yet these people were the ones that were most threatened by the new wave of the Spirit that had come in the form of Jesus Christ. It is a natural inclination to be suspicious of change, to be resistant to ideas that might threaten your place in society, and to be wary of a new religious movement.

Then I thought of us today in our churches. Are we suspicious, resistant, and wary of new things. Do we like things just the way they are? “If it ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.” Over the last couple of years I have heard a couple of astute church leaders suggest that if the congregation is quite happy with the status quo, then some faith stretching exercises are in order. What happens when a new Pastor comes into our church (I am speaking generically here) and suggests that significant change is necessary in order for the church to move beyond its plateaued state? Are we part of the crowd that shouts “Hosanna!”, or are we part of the crowd that shouts “Crucify him!”

That is not to say that resistance to change is necessarily wrong.  I do think however it is important for us to examine ourselves, and make sure we are responding with the right motivations.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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Holy Thursday at the Tea Party Thu, 17 Apr 2014 05:34:24 +0000 mad_hatter_teapartySometimes, I’ve got nothing.

Nothing to write about. No insightful words to impart. No interesting metaphors to spark the imagination. No provocative prose, no poetry to prime the pump. I’m sitting and trying to think, but everything is fuzzy, my mind full of inchoate thoughts, like bats fluttering around in an attic.

I get the sense that these are auspicious days, that we have important things to talk about, that if we don’t we might miss the moment and the parade will have passed us by. But I’m blank, bleary, and “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore” (Paul Simon).

I’m like the disciples on Thursday evening.

There I am, in the upper room — right there mind you — but I haven’t a clue about what’s going on.

Jesus is washing our feet (what?) and Peter is complaining (of course!).

We recline around the table and though the tension is palpable, no one can seem to put a finger on it.

Between bites Jesus is saying something about going away.

There are whispered conversations between him and individual disciples.

Every now and then I suspect covert signals are being passed, but I’m apparently outside the loop.

John leans over and whispers to the Master.

Judas leaves the room.

I keep hearing mysterious words and combinations of words, like body and bread, paracletes and orphans, branches and vines, wine and blood, joy and tribulation, judgment and the ruler of this world — what in the world is Jesus talking about?

To see him is to see the Father?

To be hated by the world is to be loved by the Father?

For Jesus to go away is better than to have him with us?

I’m in over my head and feel as clueless as Alice at a tea party.

Alice_in_Wonderland_by_Arthur_Rackham_-_08_-_A_Mad_Tea-PartyThe Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

I suppose it will all make sense eventually.

I suppose I’ll find words to articulate this fog.

Maybe tomorrow, on Friday, things will be clearer.

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Church: Not Where We “Find God” Wed, 16 Apr 2014 04:01:29 +0000

BrightAbyssGeoffrey Hill:

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love?
What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?

- from “Lachrimae Amantis”

Religiously secure. A brilliant phrase, and not simply because it suggests the radical lack of security, the disruption of ordinary life that a turn toward Christ entails, but also this: for some people, and probably for all people for some of the time, religion, church, the whole essential but secondary edifice that has grown out of primary spiritual experience — all this is the last place in the world where they are going to find God, who is calling for them in the everyday voices of other people, other sufferings and celebrations, or simply in the cellular soul of what is…

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
- Christian Wiman

* * *

One great misconception about the Church is that is to be the place where people go to “find God.” It is natural to think this way in a consumer society, where it seems you can always go somewhere to find what you’re looking for. The Church is the place to go to find God.

Except — everything in the Bible protests against that notion. For God is Creator of the world, the Giver and Sustainer of life. In him we live and move and have our being, and he is not far from any of us. The idea that there are particular places where we go to access God, specific places where God “lives,” waiting for us to come and find him, is the essence of idolatry not genuine faith.

For spiritual seekers, churches and faith communities function (or should function) more like signposts, pointing their neighbors to the God who made them, who knows them, who is at work already in their lives, and who loves the ordinariness of their daily worlds every bit as much as he delights to hear praises in the sanctuary.

For people of faith, who have found a home in the Church, this means learning to view our gatherings as only a small part of the story. For God is with us, close to us, speaking and working as much when we scatter into our communities to work and play as he is when we come together. We do not “leave the world” to “come into God’s presence.” I am not denying that there is something special about how God meets his people in worship, especially in the Word and Sacraments, but I am protesting the common assumption that our services are somehow more “sacred” than our daily lives.

Unfortunately, local churches try to make hay on this bad theology all the time. In fact, they go further than calling people to “the Church” to find God. They then identify what is happening in their particular congregations and church programs with God’s presence and activity. That in turn unleashes the tendency to compare and compete with other churches, and the message easily becomes: God is here in a way that he is not in other congregations. Come here = find God. Go there = be disappointed (and risk your soul!)

All of which guarantees that Christian Wiman’s words will be verified. Church is the last place in the world where many people are going to find God.

Before you jump all over me (or Wiman) for promoting a kind of spirituality without religion and encouraging people to abandon the Church for a fuzzy, undefined “personal faith,” please know that Wiman dismisses that notion as a “modern muddle of gauzy ontologies and piecemeal belief.” He commends definite beliefs and practices as necessary, steady spots from which we may glimpse the truth, give some form to the mysteries of life and faith, and withstand the sufferings that threaten to uproot us. I agree, but religious practices, such as involvement in a church, are meant to enrich our lives, not take over our lives.

My big point is simply this: we don’t really find God anywhere but in life itself. Real life. Daily life. Not just “church life.”

If any church tries to tell you God is present in some special way among them and you need to go there to find him, smile politely but shake the dust off your feet. Hard.

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Randy Thompson: The Church as a Hospice for the Dying Tue, 15 Apr 2014 04:01:56 +0000 Extreme Unction (detail), Poussin

Extreme Unction (detail), Poussin

The Church as a Hospice for the Dying
by Rev. Randy Thompson
Forest Haven, Bradford, NH

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I recently read an interesting article over at Christianity Today’s Parse blog on why the popular metaphor of the Church as a hospital for the sick is wrong headed, despite the popularity of that concept and its antiquity. The article was thought provoking, but for me at least, the thoughts it provoked had nothing to do with the article’s point. I’m inclined to agree with the author about the church not being like a hospital for the sick, but for reasons completely unrelated to his argument.

It seems to me that it’s better to think of the Church as a hospice, rather than as a hospital. The purpose of a hospital is to help people get better. Too often, that’s exactly what many churches strive to do. They provide self-help treatments, complete with psychological anesthetics to numb the pain, dressed up in Biblical language. I’m normally dubious about people whose job description is “The Bible Answer Man,” but Hank Hanegraaf recently coined a wonderful word that captures what I’m talking about, “Osteenification,” which is a state of ecclesiastical affairs where God is stumbling all over Himself so we, His creatures, can grab all the gusto we can. In other words,  faith boils down to thinking happy thoughts, which, in turn, unleash the power of the universe, or, at least, make you rich and happy.  An old trite song sums it up pretty well:

So let the sunshine in face it with a grin,
smilers never lose and frowners never win

My point is, the aim here is to help people get better–better at living the good life as this world defines it, to become better people as this world defines it.  This is the modern version of the church-as-hospital.

I think a more Gospel-based view is that the Church is a hospice–a place where people go to die.

If you stop and think about it for a minute, this makes sense. The people who are most serious about church should be serious about death, too. They’re there in church every week because they know they’re going to die, and they wonder, “Then what?”  It’s that “then what?” question that keeps them in place every Sunday. As that wonderful man, Samuel Johnson, put it, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

But the Church is like a hospice for another, better reason. There is only one reason why you are admitted to hospice care: you’re going to die, and nothing can be done about it. If you will, the price of admission is death. So it is with the rite of admission into the Body of Christ. In baptism, we die to self. We recognize that our sin-sickness is terminal. We arrive at the baptismal font as though at death’s door, which is exactly what baptism is supposed to be.

This isn’t all gloom and doom, of course, for the One with whom we die in baptism is the One who was raised from the dead.  As Paul said to the Romans, and to us too, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). We like the resurrection part, but we tend to want to avoid the death part of what Paul describes here. But, we need to take seriously that the door to resurrection is death, and the way to Easter is Good Friday.

But wait, as any good infomercial advises, there’s more. The whole point of being in a hospice is to die. You’re not there because you’re going to get better; your life is over, and you’re waiting for the end. Isn’t that the whole Christian life in a nutshell? Isn’t this life lived between the “now” and the “not yet”? The whole point of being part of a church is to die a bit more every Sunday. “I am crucified with Christ,” Paul tells us (Galatians 2:20). If we “have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).  For Christ’s sake, Paul says,  “I suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8b, 10).  And why do we die every Sunday? Because the more we die, the more Christ lives in us. The more we die, the more we experience the life on the other side of death, the resurrection life of Jesus. Good Friday is where we’re given the eyes to see the glory of Easter, which, for now, is our window to God’s eternity.

The Church as hospice makes good, Gospel sense. And, there are very practical implications in this metaphor as well. When people tell the pastor that they are leaving the church because their “needs” aren’t being met, all the pastor has to do is remind them of what the Church is, and point out that their “needs” are indeed being met: They’re being given an opportunity to die to their “needs” in order to experience more of the resurrection life of Christ. So, the church really is meeting their needs; they just don’t know it.

Also, commitment and membership are understood differently in a church which sees itself as a hospice.  Most churches survive because a small minority of hyperactive members keep the church’s ministries and committees going. The rest of the membership has too much to live for to get involved. You get a clear glimpse of this when you watch church families heading off to their kids’ sporting events  Sunday mornings rather than to church. If there’s a conflict between sports and Church, guess which one wins in most cases? But, when the Church is a hospice, things are different.  In Samuel Johnson’s words,

He that considers how soon he must close his life will find nothing of so much importance as to close it well; and will, therefore, look with indifference upon whatever is useless to that purpose.

In a hospice, the dying make time and have time to think about the Big God Questions. Youth sports and weekend ski vacations seem trivial and irrelevant in comparison. When you’re dying, you see things differently, and more deeply. In a church of dying people, they “look with indifference” at  trivia. They don’t go wandering off into Vanity Fair. They tend to stay put, which is another way of talking about “abiding” in Christ (See John 15:1-11).

And, then there’s the matter of spirituality. People who have many things to live for and be distracted by find that all these things have nibbled away at their life, and what’s left is a puzzle with pieces missing. What happened to my life? Where did it go? What did it mean? People in hospice care live moment by moment, for that’s all they have.  There are few distractions for the dying. But, as any spiritual guide will tell you, the only place where you can really encounter God and where you can deeply, personally know Him, is in the present moment–right here, right now.

The dying have a capacity to appreciate the present moment, and value it. Since they don’t know how many more moments they may have, they enjoy and enter into each one as best they can.  Each moment is a gift, each one a grace from God. Often, hospice patients, living fully in the present moment, unsure of how many more moments they have, are more alive than the rest of us, who live like we’re immortal. Christians who are the most “dead” are like this. When you meet them, you vicariously enter into a Presence that is both beyond them and greater than them, a Living Presence that is not somewhere in the unknown future nor a memory of past glories but which meets you now.

Finally, dying people treat other people differently than the so-called living people do.  When you spend time with the dying, it’s as though no one else on the planet exists except you. The dying have an astounding capacity to listen and pay attention to their guests. Although they may not be able to offer conventional hospitality, they offer a deeper hospitality, a hospitality of the heart. They’re not interested in talking about world issues or politics or religious theories. They’re interested in you; their focus is you. Often, meeting them is to come away with a deeper understanding of what Jesus meant by the “meek,” when he said,  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).  It is the meek who are uninterested in power, influence and control over others. It is the meek who make room for others in their hearts, who do not see other people as obstacles to be overcome, as ciphers to be manipulated, or as bores to be ignored.

This hospice metaphor gives new meaning to the phrase “dying church.” It may well be that there are as many dying churches as there are because they never were dead enough to begin with. It may be that many “exciting” and growing churches look alive, but their life may well be only the twitches and convulsions of a sickness unto death. In pop culture, when someone or something is supposed to be dead but isn’t, you have what’s called “The Undead.”  Zombies, in other words. To refuse to take dying with Christ seriously is to end up Undead. And, instead of being neighbors and salt and light to the world, we end up like the walking dead, seeking converts among people who are doing their best to avoid us.

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