20170317

Shattering Selfishness

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ.

―C.S. Lewis

Lenten Reflection: Shattering Selfishness
By Steven Dilla

At some point we become seduced into believing our life, dreams, and work are the most significant and complex things going in the world. Though we would never admit such things, it’s only a matter of time before this belief yields a near-overwhelming concern that God cannot handle things so complicated without our guidance.

Prayer becomes dominated by our efforts to grasp for control and our insatiable longing for success. With each circumstance beyond our control we resolve ourselves to refocus—not realizing this only deepens our commitment to ourselves. Søren Kierkegaard warns:

It is the Spirit who gives life. The life-giving Spirit is not a direct heightening of our natural powers—what blasphemy! How horrible to understand the Spirit in this way!

Christianity teaches that you must die. Your power must be dismantled. The life-giving Spirit—that is the invitation. Who would not willingly take hold of it? But die first—there’s the rub!

Each of us can go along, dedicating our lives to pursuing our dreams or fleeing our failures—both will catch up and crush us. The invitation of Christ is to abandon ourselves—to dispense with our successes and aspirations as well as our failures and shortcomings—for the transcendent love and grace of God. Kierkegaard concludes:

You must first die to every earthly hope, to every merely hu­man confidence. You must die to your selfishness, and to the world, because it is only through your selfishness that the world has power over you.

What, exactly, does it mean to die to yourself? It is more than not seeing your wish fulfilled or to be deprived of the one that is dearest to you. True, this is painful enough, and selfishness is wounded. But it does not follow that you are dying. No, but personally to shatter your own fulfilled desire, personally to deprive yourself of the dearly desired one who is now your own: this is what it means to wound selfishness at the root.

Christianity is not what we are all too eager to make it. Christianity waits before it applies its remedy. This is Christianity’s severity. It demands a great sacrifice, one which we often despair of making and can only later see why it was necessary to hold out and wait.

Prayer: A Reading

Then, speaking to all, he said, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross everyday and follow me.” — Luke 9:23

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 28 (Listen – 5:54)
John 7 (Listen – 5:53)

This Weekend’s Readings
Exodus 29 (Listen – 6:23) John 8 (Listen – 7:33)
Exodus 30 (Listen – 5:06) John 9 (Listen – 4:56)

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20170316

Take and Eat

Genuine faith is never satisfied with the religious way of doing things – Sabbath worship or an hour or a half-hour of each day.

― Søren Kierkegaard

Lenten Reflection: Take and Eat
By Steven Dilla

The image of Scripture as food is never more vivid than in the season Lent. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” says Jesus. We recall that the offer had been extended to Christ: quench your material longings by your own ability. Jesus’ reply? In the end, that wouldn’t satisfy my deepest longings.

But how are we satisfied by the word of God? The basic metaphor of Scripture as nourishment demonstrates Christ’s expectation that we would not simply intake his word, but digest it. It is through daily meditation that we carry the word of God with us—breaking down the whole into discrete parts which can be processed into our thinking and habits.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that this action—carrying and integrating the word of God—is what separates real faith from false religion:

Christianity is nothing else but faith right in the middle of actual life and weekdays. But we have reduced it to quiet hours, thereby indirectly admitting that we are not really being Christians. That we should have quiet times to think about God – this seems so elevated and beautiful, so solemn. It is so hypocritical, because in this way we exempt daily life from the authentic worship of God.

Yet this process activates our heart’s defense mechanisms. Kierkegaard confronts our refined ways of avoiding this tension:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.

Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Nourishment is incomplete until food is converted to energy—faith to action. Truly our lives are transformed through the food of God’s word; our potential for flourishing is unlocked through its nourishment. It is our desire to maintain control over our lives, Kierkegaard warns, that keeps us from living by every word from the mouth of God; “Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living. — Psalm 116:8

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 27 (Listen – 2:52)
John 6 (Listen – 8:27)

 

20170315

Be Ye Perfect

You must realize from the outset that the goal towards which he is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except yourself, can prevent him from taking you to that goal.

― C.S. Lewis

Lenten Reflection: Be Ye Perfect

By Steven Dilla

“Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas,” warns C.S. Lewis. “Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command.” Lewis, after examining how we cling to earthly pursuits, goes on to show how letting them go radically reorients the life of a Christian:

Many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not put it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted him to do, and we should be obliged if he would now leave us alone. As we say, “I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.” And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble.

The discipleship process, then, is not defined by the Christian, but by the Scriptures, Church, and Paraclete. “The question,” Lewis says, “is not what we intend ourselves to be, but what he intended us to be when he made us.”

Likewise, if the Lenten season is reduced to what we want to gain or lose through fasting we miss the point entirely. Fasting is the process of winnowing the clutches of our flesh so that the glory of God might be fully realized in our appetites, attitudes, and actions. Lewis, imagining the words of Christ, writes:

That is why he warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. “Make no mistake,” he says, “If you let me, I will make you perfect. You have free will and, if you chose, you can push me away. But if you do not push me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until my father can say without reservation that he is well pleased with you, as he said he was well pleased with me.”

Prayer: The Request for Presence

Come to me speedily, O God. You are my helper and my deliverer;* Lord, do not tarry. — Psalm 70:5–6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 26 (Listen – 4:18)
John 5 (Listen – 5:42)

20170314

Clutching Earthly Pursuits

If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short, but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface.

― C.S. Lewis

Lenten Reflection: Clutching Earthly Pursuits
By Steven Dilla

There is no season of self-discipline in the church calendar. No period in which Christians are instructed to bear down and try to live better lives. And yet, tellingly, our hearts bend this way—to grasp for holiness with our own power.

C.S. Lewis observes, “We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.” This conflict—clutching earthly pursuits while attempting to spiritually self-regulate and manage sin—is exactly what makes us miserable. “This is what Christ warned us you could not do,” Lewis explains:

Something else—call it ‘morality’ or ‘decent behavior’, or ‘the good of society’—has claims on this self: claims which interfere with its own desires. Other things, which the self did not want to do, turn out to be what we call ‘right’: well, we shall have to do them. But we are hoping all the time that when all the demands have been met, the poor natural self will still have some chance, and some time, to get on with its own life and do what it likes.

As the season of Lent makes us conscious of this sinfulness, so the Church calendar as a whole reorients our attention to Christ’s presence. We are not left on our own. Christ redeems us from the wilderness of pride and brokenness. Lewis concludes:

Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

Prayer: The Refrain

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom;* your dominion endures throughout all ages.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 25 (Listen – 4:20)
John 4 (Listen – 6:37)

 

20170313

Strength in Weakness

Christ’s time of passion begins not with Holy Week but with the first day of his preaching. His renunciation of the empire as a kingdom of this world takes place not at Golgotha but at the very beginning.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Lenten Reflection: Strength in Weakness

By Steven Dilla

In this season of reflection we reorient our understanding of Christ’s life—his ongoing sacrifice, pouring himself out from the moment of birth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

Jesus could have been Lord of this world. As the Messiah the Jews had dreamed of, he could have freed Israel and led it to fame and honor. He is a remarkable man, who is offered dominion over the world even before the beginning of his ministry. And it is even more remarkable that he turns down this offer. He knows that for this dominion he would have to pay a price that is too high for him. It would come at the cost of obedience to God’s will.

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Luke 4:8). Jesus knows what that means. It means lowliness, abuse, persecution. It means remaining misunderstood. It means hate, death, the cross. And he chooses this way from the beginning. It is the way of obedience and the way of freedom, for it is the way of God. And therefore it is also the way of love for human beings.

It is only through the power of God’s Spirit that we are able to embrace the radically sacrificial lifestyle of Christ. Remarkably, no Christian is better than another at doing this—we all fail. We all must cry out for God’s strength. Bonhoeffer is a giant of faith, but he was not exempt from this cry; something we see in his Lenten Prayer:

I Cannot Do This Alone

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.

Help me to pray

And to concentrate my thoughts on you;

I cannot do this alone.

In me there is darkness,

But with you there is light;

I am lonely, but you do not leave me;

I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;

I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;

I do not understand your ways,

But you know the way for me….

Restore me to liberty,

And enable me to live now

That I may answer before you and before men.

Lord whatever this day may bring,

Your name be praised.

Amen

Prayer: The Cry of the Church

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 24 (Listen – 2:48)
John 3 (Listen – 4:41)