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Archive for April, 2011

N. T. Wright returns with another essay answering the question “Can We Believe in the Resurrection?”  The essay is a nice summary of 740-page book The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Alex Preston, an Evangelical-Anglican stock trader in London, writes how Christians balance the virtues of their faith with the avarice of the financial world. A very interesting piece, and Holy Trinity Brompton church plays an important role.

The blog Conciliar Anglican provides a defense of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  Many believe the 1979 revisions are partly to blame for the current divisions in the Anglican Communion in North America.

James Emery White, pastor and former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes that the nature of discipleship and learning is undergoing rapid changes in the “age of Google,” and that churches need to spend time teaching others how to evaluate information.

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First, join the conversation here with Jordan Hillebert and the gang regarding J. I. Packer’s iconoclasm — which rejects the use of all images (or thoughts!) that represent God.

Over at Religion and Ethics, N. T. Wright has a lengthy but accessible essay on Jesus’ subversion of Israel’s nationalist expectations. The piece is called “Jesus and the Perfect Storm” referring to the 1991 Nor’easter that killed fishermen from Gloucester.  The North Shore gets a shout-out from N. T. Wright!

The blog Theology Forum has a piece entitled “Moltmann, Calvin, and the Cross” which juxtaposes the atonement theories of Protestant reformer John Calvin and German theologian Jurgen Moltmann.

Ross Douthat, over at The New York Times, enters the fray over the Rob Bell “Is there a hell?” controversy with a mildly provocative question: “If Gandhi is in heaven, is Tony Soprano as well?

With the popularity of “Amish-lit” on the rise, Christianity Today answers the question “Why We Love Amish Romances.”

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John Pryor provides a testimony on the power of the Daily Office to eradicate personal narcissism in the post “What I learned for Lent.”

The Holy Week sermons from All Saints’ Anglican cathedral in Amesbury, MA are available.  See Fr. Michael Morse’s message for Maundy Thursday, then Fr. Kelly Madden’s homily for Good Friday, then Fr. Michael Morse’s sermon on Holy Saturday, finishing with Bishop Bill Murdoch’s Easter message.

Finally, be sure to read Adam D. Rick’s reflection on Good Friday in tandem with the light of Easter from yesterday.

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Growing up, the spiritual practices in my church community centered on the “quiet time,” those daily appointments with God where you were supposed to connect with Him and be fueled by His love.  Quiet times, of course, were more suited for the mystics of the church, those who naturally discerned the voice of God through stillness, prayer, or mental worship.  For those analytical types, such as myself, who needed tangible things to study and meditate upon, quiet times were often a bother.

But, thankfully, there was an abundance of devotional literature that would help you pray, study the Bible, and discern God’s call for your life.  Much of church life revolved around the sharing and recommending of different devotionals (“devos” for short) that helped develop the “personal relationship” you were supposed to have with Jesus.

The most influential devo in my teenage years was “Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God” by Henry Blackaby and Claude King.  As the title suggests, the workbook intended to give me an experience of God through which I would come to know and do His will.  This was extremely important to me, since I had come to faith through logic and good sense, and not the more visible mystical-based conversion where the experience of God is dramatic and life-changing.  Having never experienced God in ways similar to those in my church, I was desperate to feel the will and love of God in my life.

The workbook promises to provide the necessary tools to “hear when God is speaking to you;” “to clearly identify the activity of God in your life;” and “see a direction that He is taking in your life.”  None of the tools are particularly innovative — they include the old stand-bys of Bible study, mental praise and worship, and prayer — but there is a heavy emphasis on private, individual meditation and contemplation.

This privatized spirituality had a profound influence on Me, Myself, and I.  Here I emphasize the first person pronoun because that was what the devotional study privileged.  It was about MY relationship with God, the work of God in MY life, and what he was communicating to ME.  The devo was God-centered, but it was centered on  the experience of God for me and only me.

Just so we’re clear, this is not going to be a critique of Blackaby and King’s book, nor is it going to be a stereotypically bitter rant about how the church’s teaching abused me when I was young.  If there is any blame to portion out for my youthful spiritual confusion, the finger should be pointed at me, for reasons we’ll soon see.  I am bringing up my early devotional experience now to provide a contrast to my devotional experience during this season of Lent, when, for the first time ever on my road to Canterbury, I participated in the Daily Office, that ancient practice of saying aloud prayers, collects, and scripture readings developed over time by the numerous poets of the church.

The contrast goes like this: Growing up in the decadent 90s, I was deeply affected by the dominant cultural vice of that era: narcissism.  My church culture was amazing (after all, here I am, after all these years, writing about Christian spirituality), but like most everyone during those days, it was affected by the narcissistic compulsion.  There are a myriad of examples I could provide to illustrate the spiritual attitudes present in my generation’s culture, but the simplest way to do it is by pointing to this little elementary school song:

I’m special to Jesus,
There’s noone else like me.
I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else,
I’m special, you see.
God has prepared a task
He wants me to do.
I’m special. I’m special to my Lord.
I’m special. I’m special to my Lord.

There’s nothing really wrong with this song; in fact, it’s really rather cute.  Especially when young children sing it aloud to their parents.  But when paired with thousands of devotionals and a church culture that emphasized a private spirituality focused on the individual experience of God, it was inevitable for a adolescent from the Trophy Kid generation to not become a spiritual narcissist. I became an entitled Christian, believing God had a special plan for me that would make me a spiritual Giant.  This attitude was complicated only by the fact that I never really heard his voice during my quiet times — a complication that proved to be fatal by the time I grew up.  After all, if I was special, and had a special call on my life, then why couldn’t I hear God whenever I tried to listen to Him?

In time, I learned that God’s absence from my life was likely intentional, to disabuse me of any pretensions or delusions of grandeur I may have had.  No, not may have, did have.  The final purgation of any remaining narcissism, I trust, occurred during this season of Lent as I participated in the morning prayers of the Daily Office.

Participating in the Daily Office on a regular basis is like getting hit over the head with the hammer of God’s holiness.  There is nothing about me in the Daily Office.  Well, that’s not true; the prayers and collects do speak about me, but as a hopeless incompetent who must confess that I have sinned against God and neighbor “in thought, word, and deed” every morning and evening before I can enter into the liturgy of worship or scripture reading.  Even after I confess, the office asks me to request the Lord to “open my lips” so my “mouth shall proclaim [His] praise.”  For someone who often believed worship had to flow from my heart, rather than through God’s help, this was a revelation.

The Office doesn’t think much of me.  In fact, it never refers to me, myself, or I.  It refers to us, ourselves, we — to all the saints who bend their knees in supplication to the Lord of the world and request his aid. It calls for obedience to the most high God, the creator of all things, the Lord of lords, the King of kings.  It forces me to remember that God is God and I am not.  Indeed, all glory belongs to “the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever” — a coda to our prayers the Office asks us to recite over and over again.  The office provides, I think, the greatest antidote to my generation’s me-centered spirituality and narcissism.

And so, in the past few days, when my feet were washed just before the stripping of the altar, as the cross was dressed in black on Good Friday, and as I listened to the deafening silence of God on Holy Saturday, the gravity of Easter and the Resurrection were especially impressed upon me in ways that superseded me, myself, and I.  I don’t need to concern myself so much with experiencing God, or the reasons for His absence.  I can just focus on worshipping the Lord, no matter my concerns.  I can just say, with the church and all the saints who have gone before me, what the Office asks us to say:

“Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed: O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.”

If you want to start participating in the Daily Office, click here to read an online Office provided by the Book of Common Prayer.  

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First, take some time listen to the All Saints’ Anglican church’s reading of the passion, along with a homily from Fr. Kelly Madden.

Then, take some time to read New Advent’s entry on Holy Saturday, which explains the history and meaning of Holy Saturday liturgy.

Anthony McRoy, on Christian History, debunks the myth that Easter was originally a pagan holiday, adopted by Christians in a syncretic process that attempted to compromise with pagan ideology and practices.

Women for Faith & Family provides a summary of Holy Saturday rituals and discusses the origins of Easter symbols.

Randy Sly, over at Catholic Online, encourages the church to “stand in the silence” in the interval between Christ’s death and resurrection. An excellent piece.

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“Hallowed be Thy name.” ~Matthew 6:9

When Israel plunged into idolatry, as many have observed, they were suffering from a more fundamental ailment, namely the darkening of their minds. The Lord Jesus, therefore, instructs his people that our first petition in prayer, before we even ask for daily bread, is to request that God might mold our minds for praiseworthy thoughts. Soaring away from the filth which daily bombards us, we are to present our hearts to our Father, requesting that he would sanctify himself in them.

There is no rational reason why the children of Israel, who daily felt the warmth of God’s compassion, would offer themselves to demonic, tribal deities. It was rather due to that irrational impulse of sin, which veils true wisdom, that God’s people could fling his promises aside. “They did not say where is the LORD,” writes Jeremiah, the one “who brought us up from the land of Egypt”(Jeremiah 2:6). Instead, all the clans of Jacob, in arising for their morning work, or trading with each other in the market place, simply forgot that God alone was their physician, the only one who could mend all their injuries. It was fitting then that the Lord, who “had concern for his holy name”(Ezekiel 36:21), would chastise his people, expelling them in the chains of exile, in order that they might learn that all their security rests in his protection.

Let us learn a lesson from this. When the Lord sees fit to discipline us, impressing his judgment upon our hearts, we are to accept his reproof with patience, knowing that we will arise with new power if we receive his chastisement humbly. Our Father in heaven, in his compassion, cleanses us with his fire so that we might become pure in heart. Because of this, we are to ask that God would displace all our ill thoughts, moving our minds to find their true repose in hallowing his name. Let us daily, then, descend into that sacred bath of the Holy Spirit, requesting that God would wash us of all our contamination, wrapping us in the new clothes of Christ.

Historically speaking, it is acknowledged by all that this prayer, especially the petition for God to be hallowed, resembles Jewish prayers of the first century. Jesus clearly then is borrowing a formula which would have been well known to his countrymen. Matthew’s gospel continually aims to reveal Jesus as the one who fulfills all Jewish hopes. It is fitting, therefore, that Matthew would record this prayer, being that it shows that our Savior, in concern for his people, did not reject their traditions wholesale. He rather embraces all that is praiseworthy in their piety, renewing their practices into a more perfect display of worship. This reveals Christ’s special compassion. The Lord, in calling us to himself, does not ask that we dispense all aspects of our identity. We are only to fling away anything that diminishes his place in our hearts. Our Father is a good potter, delicate in his care, who has molded us to be as we are. Though we might wish, at times, that we had someone else’s life, we are to remain content with our own gifts and characteristics, believing that the Lord, who has formed us in the womb, will advance his kingdom through us, if indeed we cling to him with faith.

 Yet God’s servants, in requesting that he be hallowed, are to realize that we can cause great scandal when we sin. The Lord chided his ancient people because, in running to idols, they caused his name to become profaned amongst the Gentiles. Likewise, when Christians submit to sin, they grant every opportunity for God’s named to be mocked. There is nothing nobler for us, when we are mocked for Christ, than to have the testimony of a clear conscience. Yet there is nothing more deplorable for us, when we are insulted, than to know we deserve the shame. For this reason, we must make it our constant effort to present our thoughts to God as empty cups, requesting that he would fill them with everything worthy of his approval.

 It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to make it our first petition that God’s name might be hallowed. Seeing that Satan daily makes war with us, we are to expect that our souls will be taken into idolatrous captivity unless we continually request heavenly intervention. For, our Father, though dwelling at a heavenly distance, reaches for us through his Holy Spirit, elevating us from every miry bog of idolatry, teaching us that God alone is worthy to be consecrated in us. We must ask him, therefore, for that secret power which enables us to honor his name, despite all the temptations and seductions to the opposite.

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Jesus hangs dying on a cross. Outcast. Alone. Derided by kin. Abandoned by friends.

Only a week before, he had entered Jerusalem triumphant, adored, expectant. Now is the time for the promises made to Israel long ago to be fulfilled! Now is the time for our tears to be wiped away! Now is the time for God to return in glory to Zion as he promised long ago! Now is the time for the nations to see and to know that Yahweh alone, the God of Israel, is the God of all the heavens and the earth! Now is the time… for his anointed servant to die? What is this? What of the triumphal entry? What of the promise? What of the hope? Cannot this man who preached the Kingdom of God with such boldness as to arouse an entire nation not bring himself down from that cross? Save yourself, you who claim to save others!

Jesus hangs dead on a cross.

It is not incidental in this time of utter despondency and despair that our lectionary brings us to Genesis chapter 22. Here, we are told that Abraham is called to sacrifice his son. Imagine Abraham. How long ago did he receive the promise from God that he would be given many descendants? How often did Abraham try in his own strength to bring about this promise which he clearly had from God? Could his servant inherit his blessing? No. Perhaps Ishmael, the son of the servant girl? No. Perhaps from Sarah? Yes. But she is barren, Lord! “Sarah, your wife, will have a son” (Genesis 18:10). And so it was. Isaac! “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:12)!  Now is the time for God to be proved faithful! Now is the time… for Isaac to die? What is this? What of his miraculous birth? What of all the time spent waiting in hope and despair? What of the promise? What of the hope? Imagine Abraham now, the despair of his heart.

As he ascends the mountain of offering, even Isaac—who carries the wood and the knife of his own demise without realizing!—senses there is a problem. “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” he asks in all innocence. Imagine Abraham! What to tell this boy, my son, my only son, whom I love?

“God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

And then, just then, as Abraham reaches for the knife, his son, his only son whom he loves, bound and beckoning, all hope extinguished, all promises broken, God arrives.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy!” And there in the thicket, a ram!

Abraham’s faith was in God, and in God alone. Abraham knew that his God was capable of bringing about what he promised. Abraham had indeed seen Isaac come to life from death, the barren womb of his aged wife. Even here, God was capable of fulfilling his promise, of bringing back Isaac from death again. But surely this can’t be how God fulfills his word, right? On the contrary, it is at the moment when the very promise of God itself seems utterly void and empty that we are called to trust in God Almighty, mighty to save! Even as Isaac lies bound. Even as Jesus hangs dead.

What mighty faith is this! We are called to sacrifice before our Lord and God even his very promises to us. Not because they aren’t true or because he is incapable of bringing them to pass, but because we cannot even begin to fathom how he will remain true to his word. All we know, especially on the utter despair and hopelessness of Good Friday and indeed perhaps at no better time, is that God is who he says he is, God is faithful to what he promises, God is mighty to bring about the hope he’s offered to us.

Jesus hangs dead on a cross. And God is faithful.

This is no mere theological abstraction. What good promise of God do you bank on? Do you expect that God will provide a means for you to carry out the vocation he has so graciously and passionately given to you? Do you expect that God will provide you with a companion on the way to comfort and uphold you as you fight the good fight of faith? Do you expect that God will give you a faithful community of love and service in which to render your praises to him? Do you expect that God will heal your illness and bind your wounds and grant you a full life of health and prosperity? What if these things should be taken from you? What if the goodness God himself offers you fails to materialize as you expected? Do you despair in God? Does your faith grow cold? Do you demand that he come down off that cross on pain of disbelief? Save yourself God, who claims to save others!

Or do you confess with Abraham, “God himself will provide”?

What mighty faith is this! Our hope is in the Lord alone, who brings about his promises even unto utter despair, betrayal, and death. Even here, on a bloody cross on the outskirts of Roman Jerusalem. Even now, when Jesus hangs dead on a cross. Even here, God himself will provide. Even now.

The tomb lies empty.

~Good Friday, 2011.

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