20160229

Take and Eat :: A Lenten Reflection

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,” said Jesus. 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:

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

Today’s Reading
Job 30 (Listen – 3:14)
1 Corinthians 16 (Listen – 2:54)

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20160226

Be Ye Perfect :: A Lenten Reflection

“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:
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.

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.”

Today’s Reading
Job 27 (Listen – 2:21)
1 Corinthians 13 (Listen – 2:23)

This Weekend’s Readings
Job 28 (Listen – 2:44) 1 Corinthians 14 (Listen – 5:40)
Job 29 (Listen – 2:26) 1 Corinthians 15 (Listen – 8:06)

20160225

Clutching Earthly Pursuits :: A Lenten Reflection

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 remarks, “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:
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. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

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.”

Today’s Reading
Job 25-26 (Listen – 1:52)
1 Corinthians 12 (Listen – 4:25)

20160224

Strength in Weakness :: A Lenten Reflection

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

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

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

Today’s Reading
Job 24 (Listen – 2:56)
1 Corinthians 11 (Listen – 4:20)

20160223b

Praying Beyond Confession :: A Lenten Reflection

“Believing Christians have something to say not only about their guilt, but also something equally important about their innocence and righteousness,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. In exploring the Psalms as a guideline for prayer the theologian, who we read yesterday, explains:

Most psalms presuppose complete certainty of the forgiveness of sins. That may surprise us. But even in the New Testament the same thing is true. Christian prayer is diminished and endangered when it revolves exclusively around the forgiveness of sins. There is such a thing as confidently leaving sin behind for the sake of Jesus Christ.

It is often particularly striking and objectionable to the Protestant Christian that in the Psalter the innocence of the pious is spoken of at least as often as is their guilt. Here seems to be evidence of a residue of the so-called Old Testament righteousness through works, with which the Christian can have nothing more to do. This point of view is completely superficial and knows nothing of the depth of the Word of God.

The reality of “leaving sin behind for the sake of Jesus Christ” brings striking balance to the prayers of the Psalms. In Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible Bonhoeffer shows that for each Psalm of confession there is another Psalm proclaiming righteousness.

Recalibrating our own prayer life to this balance of confession and celebration is not just a matter of changing our language—but all allowing Christ to heal and restore our hearts and minds. Bold trust in grace rebukes self-condemnation, rooting our identity in the rich soil of Christ’s work. Bonhoeffer concludes:

To have faith as a Christian means that, through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, the Christian has become entirely innocent and righteous in God’s eyes—that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And to pray as a Christian means to hold fast to this innocence and righteousness in which Christians share, and for which they appeal to God’s Word and give God thanks.

If in other respects we take God’s action toward us at all seriously, then we not only may, but plainly must, pray in all humility and certainty: “I was blameless before God, and I kept myself from guilt”; “If you test me, you will find no wickedness in me.” With such a prayer we stand in the center of the New Testament, in the community of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Reading
Job 23 (Listen – 1:43)
1 Corinthians 10 (Listen – 4:04)