20160209

The Community of Lent

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. — Romans 12.1
Lent is the opportunity for Christian communities to integrate personal faith with corporate works. The experience of fasting with a community brings the great commandment to life:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
The structure of this commandment is fascinating: a corporate belief—the Lord our God—followed by individual disciplines—you shall. Paul echoes this framework in Romans 12: in light of what we have experienced of God’s mercy, each of you live in this way. In Recovering Biblical Worship, N.T. Wright explains:
Heirs of the Reformation are so drilled in justification by faith that we easily forget that when Paul comes to worship and obedience he delights in declaring that what we do in Christ, on the basis of God’s mercy, is pleasing to God. This is not taking away one jot or tittle from justification by faith; here in Romans itself it is that to which justification by faith leads you.
Members of the Church flourish when the fruit of faith is born in and through their community. Timothy Keller writes, “Most of the ethical principles or rules in the Bible are not simply codes of behavior for individuals to follow; they are descriptions of a new community that bears the spiritual fruit of love and holiness.” Dr. Keller continues:
Far more of the Biblical ethical prescriptions is addressed to us as a community than as individuals. The Ten Commandments were given to Israel at Mount Sinai to form them into an alternate society that would be a light to the nations. The call of Romans 12:1-2 to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” is usually interpreted as a call to individual consecration, but it is actually a demand that we commit ourselves to a corporate body and not live as autonomous individuals any longer.

All of Romans 12, in fact, should be read as a description of this new society. In the same way, Jesus’ call for his followers to be a “city on a hill” means we must read the entire Sermon on the Mount as a description of this new community, not simply as ethical guidelines for individual believers.
Because we have been justified by faith we have the joy of entering into a season of reflection by God’s mercy. Together we fast. Together we engage. Together we serve.

Today’s Reading
Job 8 (Listen – 2:08)
Romans 12 (Listen – 2:58)

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20160208

The Mindfulness of Lent

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. — Romans 11.6
“What would happen,” asks Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer, “if everyone were equally respected and encouraged to be mindful?” Langer’s work explores the ways mindfulness could enhance our health, success, and overall quality of life.

Living in a broken world demands a certain level of mindlessness as a compensatory mechanism. On the grand scale, the realities of unfettered consumerism, poverty, and genocide are difficult to face each morning—not thinking about them is easier.

A recent web documentary series chronicles three Norwegian teens’ journey to the workers who  manufacture their discount clothing. “What kind of life is this?” one of the young women asks through tears after a day in a Cambodian sweat shop. “When you start to interview a person you realize she is worth just as much as you.”

In the same way we are necessarily mindless to the brokenness of the world, we do our best to suppress the regrets of our personal sin. We have awareness we have distanced God and hurt others—but who can bear to dwell on such things?
Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. — C.S. Lewis
Dr. Langer teaches that the transition from mindlessness to mindfulness begins when we realize that “at some point the behavior that made sense now doesn’t.” It is an epiphany—new realities have bearing on past events.

Awareness of sin is a dreadful experience—and without Christ it makes sense to suffer under the weight of our brokenness. In light of the gospel, this suffering no longer makes sense. The apostle Paul, who regretted his violent past, said Christ’s resurrection reoriented his life: “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”

The Christian season of Lent is an invitation into this kind of mindfulness. Typically thought of as a season to be sorrowful over sins, Lent cannot be observed outside the reality of the gospel. It is not the work of fasting that refreshes our souls, but the renewal of our hope in Christ’s work to restore the brokenness of our life and world.

Kierkegaard’s words are the tuning pitch for why observing Lent and celebrating Easter are so powerful in the lives of believers: “You rest in the forgiveness of sins when the thought of God does not remind you of the sin, but that it is forgiven; when the past is not a memory of how much you trespassed, but of how much you have been forgiven.”

Today’s Reading
Job 7 (Listen – 2:23)
Romans 11 (Listen – 5:23)

20160205

The Glory of Fasting :: Weekend Reading List

Faith, like generosity, grows when a person transfers their focus outside of themselves. By prioritizing those around us we experience growth—the same happens when the object of our faith becomes our heart’s joy and priority. When generosity and faith combine a person experiences the glory of the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great. — John Chrysostom

The season of Lent, which begins next Wednesday, is marked by fasting. “In Scripture, we see that fasting is a sign of sorrow over sin, a sign of repentance, and an aid to prayer,” observes Kevin P. Emmert. Yet if these were the only reasons to fast it would not have made sense for Jesus to fast 40 days before beginning his ministry—Christ had no sins for which to be sorrowful or repentant and lived his life in direct communion with the Father.

In his article—titled as a call to action—A Lent That’s Not For Your Spiritual Improvement, Emmert writes,

The truth is Christ didn’t forego privileges and battle for humanity for only 40 days. The scene of Jesus in the wilderness is a synecdoche for his entire early life—and ultimately his incarnation… Christ made himself nothing by becoming a servant. He did not use his divinity to his own advantage, as Paul put it, but largely to walk a life-long path of self-sacrifice.

Christ’s whole life was lived on behalf of others, a continuous pursuit of others’ wellbeing. And Christ’s fast in the wilderness is a crucial example of that reality.

The ancient Jews expected the Messiah to grow in power and control—instead Jesus grew in wisdom and favor with God and man. They expected him to conquer and overthrow—instead he sacrificed and served. Emmert continues, “If we want to imitate his life and his fast to the degree we can, then we should consider fasting on behalf of others—that is, for their benefit and blessing.”

Perhaps this is why Jesus insisted that he desired “mercy, and not sacrifice.” Part of Christ’s fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures was calling his followers to embrace God’s vision of fasting given through the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Isaiah’s prophecy is one of total transformation—the salvation of marginalized and oppressed actuated by the people of God growing in faith. Fasting—sacrificing—in such a way that others benefit is the very way we ourselves grow. “The mercy of God is a proclamation made to the world, a proclamation which each Christian is called to experience at first hand,” writes the Pope. In a Lenten proclamation the pontiff continues:

In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy—counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer—we touch more directly our own sinfulness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need.

The glory of fasting is found in what it does for others. Maybe we fast from meat or coffee and donate the money we would have spent to organizations who feed the poor. Maybe we give up plastic for the benefit of the environment and those most harmed by its decay. Maybe we abstain from time-wasters like online video-streaming or non-essential iPhone apps to invest in relationships we don’t normally have margin for. Regardless of the steps we take by God’s grace, Emmert reflects,

Lent is not just about personal holiness. Nor is it about pursuing simplicity of life for its own sake. Lent also has a remarkable social dimension. As pastor and columnist Chuck B. Colson said, “Lent gives us the opportunity to move towards our neighbor in charity” because it “emphasizes simplicity for the sake of others.”

 

Today’s Reading
Job 4 (Listen – 2:06)
Romans 8 (Listen – 6:22)

This Weekend’s Readings
Job 5 (Listen – 2:29)  Romans 9 (Listen – 5:15)
Job 6 (Listen – 2:56)  Romans 10 (Listen – 3:21)

Weekend Reading List

20160204

Spiritual Warfare :: Throwback Thursday

By Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843)
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind. — Romans 7.22-23
A believer is to be known, not only by his peace and joy, but by his warfare and distress. His peace is peculiar: it flows from Christ; it is heavenly, it is holy peace. His warfare is as peculiar; it is deep-seated, agonizing, and ceases not till death.

Before a man comes to Christ, he hates the law of God, his whole soul rises up against it. The law is the breathing of God’s pure and holy mind. It is infinitely opposed to all impurity and sin. But natural men love sin, and therefore they hate the law, because it opposes them in all they love.

Unconverted men quarrel with the law of God because of its strictness. If it extended only to my outward actions, then I could bear with it; but it condemns my most secret thoughts and desires, which I cannot prevent.

When a man comes to Christ, this is all changed. He can say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man.” He can say with David, “O how I love thy law: it is my meditation all the day.” The law is no longer an enemy. In Christ you will find rest.

Yet, in the heart of the believer there remains the whole members and body of an old man, or old nature: there remains the fountain of every sin that has ever polluted the world. So in the heart the lusts often lie quiet till the hour of temptation, and they war against the soul.

There are two great combatants in the believer’s soul. There is Satan on the one side, with the flesh and all its lusts at his command; then, on the other side, there is the Holy Spirit, with the new creature all at his command.

Have you experienced this warfare? It is a clear mark of God’s children. Learn to be humbled by it, but not discouraged. You need the blood of Jesus as much as at the first. You never can stand before God in yourself. You must go again and again to be washed; even on your dying bed you must hide under Jehovah, our righteousness.

Take up the resolution of Edwards, “Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”

*Abridged from Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s sermon, A Believer Delights in the Law of God.

Today’s Reading
Job 3 (Listen – 2:32)
Romans 7 (Listen – 4:09)

20160203

Real Freedom

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. — Romans 6.17–18
The proposition of Christianity is not, live free or submit yourself to Christ. Instead, the gospel challenges its hearers to recognize the way things of this world enslave and disappoint—and to abandon those things for Christ.

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism,” David Foster Wallace said in his famous talk This is Water. “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

The influential author went on to explore that in comparison to the divine, “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” Paul’s suggestion that we become slaves to Christ isn’t a surrendering of freedom, it’s the beginning of freedom from the masters that destroy human flourishing. Foster Wallace continues:
If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
Paul calls the faithful to submit to Christ: “Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” In other words, the more you double down on your commitment to things which cannot fulfill, the more you get hurt—give yourself now to Christ, only he is sufficient to meet the deepest longings of your soul.

Foster Wallace concludes, “Freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”

Today’s Reading
Job 2 (Listen – 2:11)
Romans 6 (Listen – 3:28)