We Need Lent

One of the more famous essays written by C.S. Lewis is titled, “On Reading Old Books”, although it was originally penned as introduction to a new translation of the work “On the Incarnation” by the patristic theologian Athanasius.  In this essay, as it’s title suggests, Lewis commends the reading of old books to his audience.  Among the reasons he gives for his commendation is that reading old books gives us a different perspective than our own.  It draws us outside of our own age and plunges into the strange world of the past.  He doesn’t claim that those in the past were necessarily smarter than we are and certainly weren’t infallible in their views.  He puts it this way:

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. ”

One of the characteristics of our present time is the flaunting or disregard of tradition.  The most fashionable academic approach to history, be it Church history, American history or the history of Western Civilization, is study as a means of criticizing or pointing out the errors of the past.  It is quite a modern conceit to imagine that by exposing the errors of the past that we are freeing ourselves from those errors.  More often we are only reinforcing our own errors, which may be quite different than those which we see in the past.  We harden ourselves in blindness to our own faults the more we sit in judgment on those who no longer live to defend themselves.  It certainly does not pay to be blind to the errors of those who came before us, much less to defend attitudes and actions that are indefensible.  But when we approach the past, not as a judge but as a student, we may find that there is much that we can learn there which would be much more difficult to learn from looking at our own time.

So what does this have to do with Lent?  The observance of Lent is an ancient Church tradition that began as a means of preparing candidates for baptism through the forty days preceding Easter Sunday for baptism and reception into the Church on Easter.  It is marked by solemnity, fasting, almsgiving, mortifying the flesh through self-denial and repentance for sin.  For contemporary believers in the stream of evangelical and charismatic American Christianity, it seems to be a strange world apart from upbeat praise and worship music, sermons of practical biblical application to relevant life issues such as marriage, finances, parenting and health and the ethos of acceptance, outreach and seeker sensitivity.  Which is exactly why we need it so much.  Can Lenten observance degenerate into a morbid sense of self-criticism, works righteousness and empty ritual?  Of course it can.  But for most believers within the stream of Christianity described above, a bit of solemnity, self-examination and quiet reflection might provide a welcome shock to the system.

In 2nd Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul describes the difference between godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world.  Godly sorrow, he states, “produces repentance leading to salvation” while the sorrow of the world produces death (2nd Corinthians 7:10).  Godly sorrow only results when correction is taken seriously.  It happens when we take an honest look at our faults and deeply consider what damage they have wrought.  It is difficult and can be quite painful.  In our affluence and addiction to pleasure, even the Christian pleasures of good feelings during worship and desire to appeal to outside of the Church as loving and reasonable, we tend to avoid pain at all costs.  It shows in our discomfort with grief and inability to lament evil in the world without degenerating our discussions into political talking points.  Lent involves a lot more silence than talking, and the talking that it does produce involves a lot more confession of sin than pointing out the faults of others.  In other words, it embodies exactly the opposite spirit than that of our contentious times.  I believe that what our time needs more than anything else is not a better set of arguments, not more positive self-affirmations or even better songs and sermons.  I believe that it needs a better people, a Church that is genuinely full of God’s Spirit.  But this cannot happen without serious reflection.  It cannot happen without laying down our weapons of self-justification, defensiveness and self-righteousness.  The ancient practice of Lenten preparation can help strip us of all of this and more.  It’s a lot easier to hear God when we stop our incessant talking.  It’s a lot easier to listen to others when we stop justifying ourselves at every turn.  It’s a lot easier to be filled with the Spirit when we empty ourselves of human pride.

This Lenten season, I invite all of us to a time of embracing a bit more silence, of a lot more listening, both to God and to others and most of all a surrender of our own agendas and half-baked plans.  The best news is that after Lent comes Easter.  Resurrection power is the reward for those submit to God’s time of preparation and waiting.  Sorrow and weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

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A Hero for Our Times

I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past few days meditating over two different Scriptures.  The first is found in Matthew 5:37, “Let what you say simply be ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, anything more than this comes from evil.”  The next is found in Titus 3:1-2, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.”  Thinking deeply about these Scriptures provide a picture of a Christian life that cuts against the grain of much of the discourse in our culture, even in the Church.  What gets celebrated quite often today is exactly the opposite of the profile of the person described in these Scriptures.  Verbose, rebellious, argumentative, critical and rude gets one noticed.  Quiet, submissive, gentle and courteous gets one mocked.  Courtesy isn’t a topic that gets discussed all that often these days, particularly in the context of what it means to be a Christian disciple.  Submission is only brought up when we want to remind others of how that concept has been twisted to hold people down.  We live in a world where even Christians feel compelled to be fluent in snark, social media burns and outrage.  Meditating over these Scriptures has been an eye-opening experience for me.  It’s convicted me of how often I operate in spirit that can be described as anything other than submissive and polite.  As I thought over these verses, a worthy role model popped into my mind.  Someone who embodied these character traits in a way that brought both a smile to my face and tears to my eyes.  Someone who is truly a hero for our times.  Who is this hero?  None other than Paddington Bear.  Don’t laugh.  I’m deadly serious.  Okay, maybe there’s a bit of a wink and smirk in this – but not as much as one might think.

A few weeks ago our family took in “Paddington Bear 2” at the movie theater.  It was an easy choice for our family because of how much we all enjoyed the first movie.  The sequel was unquestionably better.  The character of Paddington Bear stands out like a sore thumb in our contentious age.  Unfailingly polite, his impact on his family, neighbors and even hardened criminals (I won’t go into detail there, it would spoil the plot) always brings the best out of others.  He changes the atmosphere everywhere he goes.  He is motivated by a genuine love for family, friends and neighbors and always wants to help.  In a rare feat in our entertainment culture, Paddington’s genuine goodness is presented without irony or subtext.  On the contrary, Paddington’s goodness is celebrated.  But Paddington isn’t weak.  He risks for others, does the right thing when it is difficult and can be fierce when it is required. His heroism is motivated completely by love.  As unlikely as it might seem, I can’t think of a single thing about the movie or the character of Paddington Bear that isn’t a tonic for the soul that hits squarely in the center of the target of what I think that I am called to be in my family and in my community.

Think about the world we live in.  Think about how much of the discourse that is exchanged in the strange online world of social media that we somehow think is normal is motivated by anything but love.  Think about how much of our emotional investment has been given over to flat, two-dimensional, communication in forums without facial expression, voice tone, body language or any of the myriad other characteristics that makes interaction truly human.  What do we need in our world desperately?  Speaking for myself, I can’t say that I need more quarreling, more snark, more criticism or speaking evil of others.  Courtesy, gentleness, straightforward and honest loving communication and connection hits much closer to the mark.  It would be a balm for our culture’s soul.  Maybe if we celebrate a character like Paddington as a hero for our times, our times might produce a lot more to be celebrated.  I want to be a lot more like Paddington.  Will you join me?

A Culture of Righteousness for All the World to See

Super Bowl Sunday is not just the day when the champion of the National Football League is decided.  It’s also the biggest day of the advertising year.  Many people enjoy the commercials every bit as much, if not more, than the game itself.  This year, as is true every year, many memorable commercials attracted attention.  Some were funny, others provocative, and others were just odd.  One that drew my attention was the Ram Truck commercial, featuring a lengthy recorded quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding servanthood and greatness.  There were other commercials that were “cause” related (T-mobile’s “equal pay” themed commercial and Kraft’s “family” commercial come to mind) beyond this one example.  What interested me most about these commercials is that the product itself (Trucks, Mobile Phones, Kraft foods) were not the focus of the ads.  Nothing about the ads touted the features, superiority or reasons for buying the products in question.  My first thought was, “what are these ads selling”?  But I immediately knew the answer to my question as soon as I asked it.  What were the ads selling?  Righteousness.

All advertising contains a moral element.  What is the implicit message of all advertising?  Buy fill-in-the-blank product or service and your life will be better.  You will be prettier, healthier, happier, thinner, stronger, smarter and the list goes on.  But the ads that aired on Super Bowl Sunday that are referenced above signal a shift in some ways.  The ad makers of these particular ads moved the emphasis from a product or service being the source of the betterment of life to these products or services being in alignment with what is considered right.  The claim now isn’t that this product or service will make you better.  It’s that the company in question is worthy of your dollars and support because they are on the right side of things.  Buy from us and you are on the right side as well.  It’s righteousness as a consumer product.  But why the shift?  Why did these ad makers (who generally are among the most savvy observers of what resonates with a moment in time in our culture) think that this kind of messaging would be effective?  I think it’s because our culture has shifted in the way it thinks about what it means to be righteous.

Righteousness in American culture today has less to do with actions than at any point in my lifetime.  Righteousness is about what side you are on.  It’s about what viewpoints you hold in the public sphere.  And it’s not just about what those viewpoints are – it’s that they are seen to be held in a public way.  One of the most clear indicators of this can be seen in the observation of social media behavior.  Much of the content on any social media feed consists of viewpoints.  It’s a shared link, it’s a comment about a current topic or a rant about the latest outrage in the political world.  People create, over time, a clear identity or image of who they are and what they think on whatever social media platform they frequent.  For some, it’s an image of “look at how great my life is” complete with the latest pictures of fun times on vacation, family or cool events.  For others, it’s an image of humor with the latest funny dog video or clever meme.  For many others it’s an image of the passionate crusader for justice or righter of wrongs through sharing of provocative articles or responding to the daily news cycle.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this kind of content sharing or creation.  But when I see an ad on Super Bowl Sunday that is explicitly selling righteousness as a consumer good it gives me pause.  What does that tell us about ourselves?

One of the many provocative themes in the teachings of Jesus can be found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  The first verse reads as follows:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (ESV)

The next few paragraphs of the chapter apply this to prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  I wonder if it could be applied just as easily to social media behavior.  Are we fostering an atmosphere not only in our culture, but in our churches and in our own lives, where we are substituting “correct opinions shared publicly” with hearts and lives that are surrendered to Christ in a way that is content to love and serve others even if no one else ever sees or notices?  Have we blurred the lines between who we are on a public social media platform and who we are at home with the people who know us the best, when we are alone or when we are with people who have no incentive or clear path to make our lives any better or easier?

There really isn’t a way to live your life in a completely private fashion.  Some of who we are will always be public for the world around us to see.  We all have a circle of relationships where we exert influence one way or another.  No person is an island.  But we are influenced by the culture around us as well and there is a spirit to the age we live in, just as there is in every time and every place.  I wonder if one of the most counter-cultural things that we can do is to take Matthew 6:1 seriously.  I wonder if spending less time making sure that everyone out there knows that we are on the “right side” and more time loving and serving those in our circle of influence would produce a righteousness, not that the whole world knows about, but that the whole world can see.  It’s easy to rail against the culture around us and take stands to try and change the world.  But more often than not, the culture around us is also telling us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the change that we might want in the world around us begins with change in the world within us and goes out from there.

The righteousness that Jesus offers isn’t something that we can buy or something that we can produce by cultivated image.  But thankfully, it is something that we can receive and hopefully shine so that others might glorify our Father who is in heaven.

 

How We Talk to Ourselves about the Church

There’s a narrative about the history and even the present day circumstance of the Church.  The history narrative goes something like this; in the beginning the Church was birthed in power at Pentecost, the disciples all lived together in love and unity, miracles abounded, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were common everyday occurrences and despite persecution, the Church grew, flourished and spread like wildfire.  But somewhere along the way, (oftentimes this part of the story centers around when Constantine made Christianity a tolerated religion within the Roman Empire and later gave it favored status), the Church became compromised with earthly power, grew corrupt, formalized, hierarchical and lacked the power of the Holy Spirit.  It replaced the work of the Spirit with rules, liturgical rites and official positions.  Depending on who’s telling the story, things remained bad (with occasional flickers of hope) until either Martin Luther popped up with the real gospel of grace through faith, the Wesleyan revival reintroduced social justice back into the church or the Holy Spirit dramatically reappeared at Asuza Street.  There are other ways the story is told, but the same basic arc is there every time.  The original glory of the Church, the “fall” into sin, darkness and corruption and the recovery of the true gospel leading us into our present state.  The bad guys in the narrative are sometimes particular people or institutions (Constantine, the Roman Catholic Church, or particular Popes or denominational leaders, depending on when and where the story is being told), sometimes it’s ideas or social realities that are the villains (patriarchy, colonialism, empire, racism, capitalism, anti-Semitism) that to use a phrase popularized by Martin Luther, led to the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.  But always there’s the thought that if we can just recover the original state of the Church, before it was tamed, institutionalized, corrupted and co-opted, we will see revival and restoration.  This same language is often used when describing the current landscape of the Church.  There’s always a “them” and “us”.  It’s either those darn liberals who’ve compromised the gospel with the world and stripped the gospel of it’s power or those pharisaical conservatives who value doctrine above people and turn non-believers off with their meanness.  The way we talk about the Church, either in history or in the present, always divides the world into the good guys and the bad guys, those who get it and those who don’t.  What if this is fundamentally wrong?

Let us start by taking a different look at history.  The story of the early Church is truly amazing.  Within a generation of the birth of the Church at Pentecost, the gospel had truly spread throughout much of the world.  From Jerusalem, by the end of the first century there is credible evidence of the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire, reaching even to present day Spain and Great Britain.  Churches existed in North Africa, the Persian Empire (including present day Iran/Iraq and parts of Afghanistan) and even South India.  Within a few centuries, the Church was in Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, Mongolia and the western parts of present day China.  But it’s evident in even reading the New Testament that things weren’t always perfect.  Within a few chapters in Acts, we find a married couple dropping dead in the presence of the apostles after trying to lie about money.  Soon afterwards there is great controversy over the distribution of food to widows and how to deal with Gentiles and Jews in the same body.  If you read the letters of Paul, it’s obvious that he was dealing with problems of immorality, division, false leadership, money and gender issues within decades of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  In the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation, there are harsh messages given to churches in particular locations for unfaithfulness, complacency and false teaching.  It seems that from the very beginning, the Church struggled with very human problems.  On the other hand, during times where the Church was supposedly corrupt, powerless and compromised, there are always stories of God’s amazing work.  In “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by the Venerable Bede, a work that covers much of the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries of the Church in England, miracle stories abound as various tribes and groups are evangelized by a variety of leaders.  Historical literature of the Church in Western and Eastern Europe during this and later time periods also contain many of the same types of stories.  Later stories of revivals under figures like Martin Luther, John Wesley and the leaders at Asuza Street also contain stories of great victories and agonizingly human failures.  Perhaps the reality of the history of the Church is much more complicated than a simple broad narrative can contain.  When we talk about the Church, maybe we should understand that the Church has always been amazing and human, victorious and corrupt, compromised and overcoming.  The Church has always been diverse, multi-ethnic, global, structured and free.  It’s always been amazing and it’s always been a mess.

It’s no different today.  One doesn’t have to look to hard to find stories of amazing victory and miraculous love in the Church.  Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to look any harder to find stories of abuse, unfaithfulness, power-grabbing and deception.  But the way we tell these stories to ourselves and each other, just like the way we talk about history, is incredibly important.  When we oversimplify these narratives and easily divide the story into good guys and bad guys, we do ourselves a disservice.  There genuinely are heroes and villains in Church history and even today.  But more often than not, the line between the heroes and villains, like Solzhenitsyen reminds us, runs within us, not out there somewhere.  Those who prefer to tell the narrative in simple ways more often than not do so for self-serving reasons.  They do so to point the finger and identify the villains “out there” or to identify themselves as the true heroes and reformers in the story (or both).  But why do we talk about history in the first place?  Is it not to learn?  Is it not to allow the voices of the past to inform us so that we can learn from their examples (both the good an the bad)?  When we celebrate the victories of the Church or agonize over it’s failures, is it not to allow God to change us to be more like Jesus?

How we talk to ourselves about the Church matters.  The Church is a lot like each of us.  A glorious, flawed mess that has within it the capacity to reflect the glory of God like no other.  Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other when we talk about the Church.  Let’s walk away from the simplistic narratives and take a hard look within.  Let’s not use the past as a cudgel to bludgeon those who differ from us.  But let’s spend time thinking about what God might want to say to us.  God’s task for the Church isn’t to recover some imagined past when everything was perfect, but to allow Him to fill us today and serve our generation faithfully.  Anything else beyond that is merely self-serving and virtue signaling.

Resources for Praying the Psalms

This is going to be a fairly short post.  It’s mainly a set of links for ways to get started in praying the Psalms.  It’s a mishmash of books, websites and studies.  Here you go.

The Daily Prayer site (Morning, Evening and Night Prayer) at the Church of England’s website – I use this regularly.

https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/join-us-in-daily-prayer

The Psalter at the Book of Common Prayer online

https://www.bcponline.org/Psalter/the_psalter.html

The Daily Office from The Mission of St Clare

http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html

“Praying with the Church” by Scot McKnight

“The Divine Hours” by Phyllis Tickle

“Reflections on the Psalms” by C.S. Lewis

“In Constant Prayer” by Robert Benson

“Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The best way to get started in my opinion is to pick a resource and go with it.  Over time this you will discover what works best for you.  The key to praying the Psalms is simply consistency.  Let the language seep deep into you being and the words themselves will began to change the way you pray and think.   Enjoy the adventure of Praying the Psalms.

 

 

 

 

How Praying the Psalms Has Changed Me

This morning as I prayed, I prayed Psalm 2 and Psalm 110.  Both Psalms emphasize the kingship of God’s anointed Son.  As I prayed, my eyes opened to the reality of the majesty of Jesus Christ in a way that I believe will be just what I need today.  This experience has become a common occurrence for me.  It describes something of the shift I have seen in my daily walk with God since I began praying the Psalms.  In this post, I would like to highlight three ways that shift has happened.

Praying the Psalms has increased the variety of my prayer life.  It has expanded my spiritual vocabulary in a way that has allowed me to escape the routine, the default and the trite in my prayers.  Doesn’t that seem a bit ironic?  The disciplined practiced of reading aloud words that I didn’t think of or write has not led to rote, monotonous recitation.  It has done exactly the opposite.  This is the parable of liturgy.  It allows us to cash in the treasures of centuries of the experiences of God’s people.  It frees us from the limitations of our own thoughts, our own words and our own experiences.  Praying the Psalms has added new categories to my time with God.  Depending on the day, it has brought celebration, lament, remembrance, desperation and awe into my time in God’s presence in ways that I could never generate out of my own mental resources.  The best way I know how to describe it is that I have become more well-rounded in my prayer life.

Praying the Psalms has made me more honest in God’s presence.  For many of us, we tend to labor under the delusion that there are just things that we can’t say to God.  Right now, I am walking through a time of job transition and that brings a specific set of feelings and thoughts with it.  There are moments and days that I feel alternatively, uncertain, hopeful, angry, fearful, excited or confused.  The Psalms contain language that express all of these things and more.  As I pray the Psalms I express all of these things to God in ways that I didn’t before.  I’ve asked God where He is in the middle of hard times, why things are taking so long to resolve and why things have happened in the first place.  I’ve also confessed my faults, my lack of faith and wrestled with my own tendency to make the same mistakes over and over.  And I’ve thanked God for His blessings, praised Him for the many ways that He has helped me in the past and expressed trust that He will take care of me today and into the future.  The Psalms make sure that I don’t avoid the tough questions or wrestle with confusing experiences.  They help me not to hide from His presence.

Praying the Psalms pull me out of myself.  It shows me that my struggles are not unique.  For centuries God’s people have fought the same battles that I am fighting today.  And as a result, I know that I am not alone.  It helps me to realize that others are finding themselves in the same struggle that I am experiencing.  The more I engage these experiences in prayer, with the people of God from times past, the more likely I have found myself to reach out to others for help and support.  God did not intend us to walk out this life in Christ alone.  He wants us to live it out in the community of others who are walking down the same road.  The Psalms were written to be both individual and communal prayers.  It is impossible to engage these prayers as an individual and not feel the tug toward community.

I have written these past few posts about praying the Psalms to encourage each of you to step into this ancient practice.  My hope is that as you do, you will experience some of the same life-changing shifts that I have.  In the final post in this series (which will be forthcoming a bit later this week), I will offer a resources on how to get started.

 

Praying with the Psalms – How to Pray the Psalms

It is one thing to be convinced that it is necessary and good to pray with the Psalms.  But the next question is simple.  How do I pray the Psalms?  Let me offer a few thoughts that can help make the experience of praying the Psalms rich and effective.

The first thought is deceptively simple, but of vital importance.  The first step to praying the Psalms is to read them OUT LOUD in a prayerful attitude.  The practice of reading to ourselves silently, with the entire experience happening using only the sense of sight and entirely in our conscious mind, is a modern innovation.  All written literature, for much of human history, was created to be read out loud in the context of a community.  The Psalms are no different.  In ancient Israel, in worship in the synagogue and in the use of the Psalter in the Daily Prayer Offices of most Christian traditions the experience of the Psalms are meant to be the experience of words spoken and heard.  If you want to pray the Psalms, pray them out loud and hear the rhythm and cadence of the words themselves not just in your mind, but in your senses and with your feelings.  This allows the possibility of the next thought to become a reality.

The second thought is to imaginatively enter into the world of the Psalmist as you pray.  Put yourself in the shoes of the Psalmist and seek to pray along with what that Psalmist was thinking and feeling when they penned their song.  It is certainly helpful to do a bit of research on what the background of the particular Psalm was historically and theologically, but it is not strictly necessary to effectively pray the Psalm. All it really takes is the use of your imagination to look at the words themselves and think what it might have been like to be that Psalmist.  The words themselves provide all of the context necessary to do that.  If it is a Psalm of lament or of celebration or contemplation, it’s fairly easy to pick up.  Just enter into that spirit as you pray.  It will enrich your experience and open your heart and soul to receive from the Holy Spirit God’s comfort, correction and counsel as you pray.

The final thought I have to share is to read Christologically.  This simply means to read and pray through the lens of the reality of Jesus Christ.  While it is true that these Psalms were written hundreds of years before the coming of Christ into the life of the world, for the Christian believer, all of Scripture is meant to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus.  This doesn’t mean that you need to try and shoehorn some New Testament meaning into the Hebrew scriptures or torture the text to say something that it clearly doesn’t say.  But it does mean that as we pray the Psalms, we pray with the foremost thought that it is Jesus Christ himself who is the answer to our prayers.  It means that as we experience the same doubts, fears, questions and anxieties as the Psalmists experienced we are asking for the presence of our Savior to touch us right where we are.

In the next post, I will share a bit of my own experiences of praying the Psalms and how this practice has changed the way that I worship, think and live.