Thinking toward Lent

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, on February 10th this year.

winter sunrise feb 2011 001

Christians who observe Lent in preparation for Easter take on disciplines in order to become better, well, disciples.  When the joyful celebration of the Resurrection comes, we want to more perfectly walk in newness of life with the one who died and rose for us.

But Lenten disciplines sometimes emerge from a process resembling last minute Christmas shopping.  “Oh no, tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday and I didn’t come up with a discipline for Lent.  I think I’ll just _______________.”

I’m posting this now, with ten days to spare, as a friendly reminder and encouragement to pray and give thought to your Lenten discipline(s).  I am considering three:

  1. Say or do something uncomfortable each day.  I’ve known for a long time that I’m a people pleaser.  So I want to say or do things that I know to be right and true in God’s eyes, even if I fear that this will make people think less of me.  I’ve asked my wife to hold me accountable at the end of each day by asking me about what scary thing I said or did.  I want to find myself walking more confidently and automatically as a disciple of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit rather than emotion, accepting the discomforts of this old life so as to follow Christ into the joys of the new one.

Guiding Scripture: I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death… Philippians 3:10 NLT

2. Fill my head with thoughts that refute Satan’s accusations.  Small wonder I’m a people pleaser.  My head is full of perfectionist thoughts, which allow Satan (which means the Accuser) to have at me 24/7.  I’m constantly thinking about how I have to be good enough and do stuff just right so I’m not a Very Bad Person.  That is clearly Satan shouting over the reasonable voice of conscience to say, “You must save yourself!”  Which is exactly the kind of religion that one who acknowledges Christ as Savior must reject.  So I will be seeking Bible verses to recollect when I need to refute the Accuser, mainly passages celebrating justification, redemption and salvation by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  I need to protect my brain and let the Holy Spirit wield my thoughts.

Guiding Scripture: And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God… Ephesians 6:17 KJV

3. Reading for an hour each day.  I’ve let myself become too much the internet surfer and skimmer.  I have a stack of books I’ve been meaning to read, several of them gifts from people I know to be godly and wise.  Some days it might have to be smaller chunks of time that add up to an hour, but the time for reading and opening up to fresh insight is certainly there if I’m disciplined.

Guiding Scripture: Blessed is the one who listens to me (Wisdom), watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. (Proverbs 8:34 ESV)

How about you?  Any ideas?  Please share them in a comment as a possible encouragement to others.

And if you are new to this, Western Christians (pretty much all who don’t identify as Orthodox with a big O) keep their disciplines Monday thru Saturday for 40 days; Sundays are a Feast of the risen Christ and you get to take a break and celebrate.


Indict Geraldo?

Well, maybe there’s a statute of limitations so Geraldo Rivera is free and clear on his 1972 ambush interview at New York’s Willowbrook institution, where people we would now define as living with special needs were warehoused in appalling conditions.

At about 3:15 of the video, Rivera says that he and his camera crew showed up at Willowbrook “unannounced and unexpected by the school administration.”

Ambushes and “stings” used to be seen as harsh but important exercises of freedom of the press, necessary checks on the power of the state and special interests.

Now comes the news that a Grand Jury in Houston will let the District Attorney bring legal action against those who stung a powerful, state entangled interest group.  The DA is going after videographers who exposed Planned Parenthood’s flippant money making on body parts from aborted people harvested for “research.”  David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt could face up to 2o years in prison for “tampering with a governmental record,”  apparently based upon fake or altered drivers’ licenses they used to gain entrance and interview the abortionists and profiteers.

It’s as if the Willowbrook Institution were shielded from reforming its treatment of people with special needs by having Geraldo Rivera indicted for trespassing.

Evil like this is not new.  In the time when God allowed Babylon to conquer corrupt Jerusalem, the Prophet Habakkuk announced,

So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:4 ESV)

The institutions become more corrupt as they grow in power.  And a state and it’s funded interest groups are at a zenith of power and nadir of corruption when they assert their authority over life and death, punishing all who question their pretension to divinity.




Silent retreat or what’s my excuse?

I wish I could say that my absence from the blog world was due to an extended time of solitude and intimacy with God.

But the truth is I have a book with a publisher and that means deadlines and lots of work, on top of paycheck work and family duties.  So blogging is a casualty.

The book is tentatively scheduled for an August release but all of a sudden there’s a flurry of activity from the publisher.   It is a book of encouragement for family care givers.  My wife and I have a son with autism, so God inspired a bit of writing through that experience.  It has some of the Biblical reflection material I tend to blog here.

Blooming Idiot Title PageHere’s a screen shot of the title page in the publisher’s proofs.  (Title refers to me).  Will share more as it happens.  God willing, I’ll blog again here.  With Lent only weeks away, I guess that’s inevitable.

So, Lent… any particular spiritual exercises or disciplines on your agenda?  I’m thinking of saying one uncomfortable (for me) thing to someone each day.

Trying to Transform

I don’t want to bleed all over the blog and on you, the readers.  It is enough to say that my life is in a season of change that is both exhilarating and painful.

My time reading the Bible this morning was fruitful.  Only part way through my coffee, physically tired and mentally scattered, I realized that I was in a chapter with one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture.  Let me share it here whole, and then break it down in some thoughts on life changes:

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (Ephesians 4:28 ESV)

That might be one of the best expressions of transformation ever written.  Look at where the subject starts out, the ground he or she must cover, and the destination.  There are four points of personal transformation along this path.  Let me mark them, and then share how I’m going to try and navigate them.

Confession: The Thief

caught-with-hand-in-cookie-jarThe first part of change is honest self assessment.  That means naming what rules us and owning the label, no matter how unflattering; thief, gossip, porn-head, people-pleaser, braggart, verbal abuser, victim, coward, addict, enabler…

This is to drop all rationalizations and set aside all analysis of who and what’s “to blame.”  It is to say, “This is what I’ve become.” The Bible has plenty of “don’t be a THIS guy” warnings.  We have to look into those. 

Confession is a start but not a finish.  Some folks readily identify their “stuff” and then indulge in endless talking about it – almost to the point of revelry.  Others sink into despair, which ignores the God of love and mercy.  Transformation demands moving on from naming the label.

Repentance: No Longer Steal

By definition, a glutton’s change requires that he or she stop overeating.  There’s no transformation from that label without repentance – turning – from the expression of it in one’s life.

This is hard work in most cases.  It requires a degree of suffering, from discomfort on one extreme to agony on the other.  It means times of guilt and frustration when the label seems permanent and we keep acting it out, despite zeal for change.  Just when we think we’ve ripped the label off for good, certain people will stick it back on.

Ceasing the behavior that earns our damning label is essential, but does not complete the journey.  We can stop here and live in self-righteousness, or we can continue on this trek to transformation.

Sanctification: Doing Honest Work With His Own Hands

To sanctify is to make something holy, putting it in God’s possession.  What a beautiful image this verse presents, as the thief devotes the tools of his trade – his own, self-serving hands – to use that accords with God’s will.

Sanctification takes us beyond the point of ceasing the destructive behavior with which we were (rightly) labeled, and moves us on to holy (we’re never perfect, so holier?) living.

This is to let our points of weakness become entrances for the power of God, helping us do what we formerly resisted or showed ourselves incapable of carrying out,

…but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.  (2 Corinthians 12:9 NAB)

This reliance upon God makes possible the last leg of the journey.

Christlikeness:  So That He May Have Something to Share With Anyone in Need

We can’t force this ultimate transformation.  It is a gift from God.  But what a gift; the thief, a person defined by taking from others to gratify the self, is now empowered to live as Christ, setting aside all self regard in order to enrich the lives of others.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.  (2 Corinthians 8:9 NASB)

It is a real pot a the end of the rainbow kind of gift, and God can transform a person in any way, through any means and at any time of God’s own choosing.  There’s no method to make it happen – otherwise it wouldn’t be a gift.

But we are most likely to encounter God and be ready to receive the gift when we embark on transformations consistent with those revealed in Scripture, such as confession, repentance and sanctification.

An Exercise

What I’m doing, and would invite you to try out, is to take that verse about the thief and personalize it:

Let the (a label that you confess) no longer (behavior that earns the label), but rather let him/her (a behavior that honors God and replaces your old way of doing things) so that he/she may (a goal for how your transformed life can be a blessing to others).

Sound far-fetched?  Not really, because it is what God’s been doing in Christ for a very long time,

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)



C’mon Man

C’mon Man is a segment of ESPN football coverage in which sportscasters highlight bad plays or even bad acts off the field.  It’s saying to the individual or team, You know better.  You can do better.

My daily Bible readings of the last week have included chapters from the Letter to the Ephesians.  This book of the New Testament includes some striking language and images of the church, exhorting Christians with verbs like grow, stand, wrestle, and build.  C’mon Man came to mind, certainly in the sense that we can do better but also, with a bit of inflection, as a heavenly cheer for struggling mortals: Come on MAN!  (My apologies to those who prefer inclusive language.  Come on PEOPLE just doesn’t have the oomph.)

Anyway, back to Ephesians.  A couple of things struck me:

The church (a body of faithful people hearing God’s Word and ministering the Lord’s sacraments) has cosmic significance.

For all of our foibles and failures, Christians are God’s specific means for showing a corrupt creation that it is being made over through Christ.  Yes, that’s for sinful human beings, but there’s much more (emphasis added):

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (Ephesians 3:7-12 ESV)

The church doesn’t often feel that significant.  We can barely get our “active members” to show up sometimes; we don’t reach our neighbors with news of Christ; we tie ourselves in knots about things which in hindsight prove to be trivial.

But there we are, God’s declaration of a counterattack on all the cosmic forces that rebelled against Him and corrupted His creation.  The stuff at which the world scoffs, like prayer and preaching, have cosmic power.  So God cheers C’mon MAN!…wrestle…against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)

As much as it aggravates us, “organized religion” is God’s design for the saving work of Christ.

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)

There’s a conundrum here. On the one hand, this passage shows the emptiness of those who, claiming to be Christians, reject “organized religion.” The work of Christ given and designed by God has visible form, order and work.

On the other hand, the organized/institutional church often succumbs to the temptation to perpetuate itself by propping up or appeasing worldly order. This is as true of a conservative church seeking to “win back America” as it is of a progressive church claiming to be “on the right side of history.”

And so it is that the church winds up “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Corruption like that compromises our witness to others, but it does not invalidate the church as God’s own plan and design to carry out the mission of Christ until He returns to make all things new for eternity.

Ultimately, we (the church) must learn and relearn, preach and preach again, that the love of God in Jesus Christ is greater than our failures, and that the hope of the universe is Christ, represented by a bunch of mercy-marked mortals. That God is cheering Come on MAN! –that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (Ephesians 3:17-19 ESV)

Works in progress

This morning I read
My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments… (Proverbs 3:1 ESV)
and later heard some worthwhile teaching from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  (Matthew 7:24-25 ESV)
Along with the obvious and uncomfortable challenge to examine my life as to how I might be more obedient to Christ, there was some comfort.  A reading from Ephesians came up, reminding me that we are not completed, but under continuing construction by Christ:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV)
In that passage, Paul was writing about Christ’s work to build a unified church of Jews and Gentiles.  Peter applies it more broadly to the believer’s life in Christ, including childlike growth in understanding, obedience and fruitful work,
pajut construction
South Sudanese Christians building toward a better future.

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:1-5 ESV)

Some of us find it easy – too easy – to spot and agonize over our failure to obey the Lord’s teaching.  Others seem impervious to such insight and are the infuriating types who seem to skip toward hell as happy wanderers (LANGUAGE WARNING for this video clip…)

But whether our capacity for honest self-examination is hyper or hypo, we are not the story.  More important is focus on the one who is doing the heavy work,

…believe that God can do far more and don’t turn your attention to whether the ones to whom He grants His favors are good or bad… There is no reason for us to meddle in this matter, but with humility and simplicity of heart we should serve and praise Him for His works and marvels.  (Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle V.1.8)

This includes patience with ourselves.  Just as obedience to Christ means to forgive those who trespass against us and to bless those who curse us, it means to accept and practice the patience by which he is bringing us to see God face to face.


The best revenge

One of the most uncomfortable verses in the entire Bible is the end of Psalm 137.  It’s often omitted from public reading or recitation in prayer:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!  (Book of Common Prayer 1979 USA)

The Psalm is a lament by God’s Chosen People.  After years of neglecting their covenant with God and ignoring the warnings of His Prophets – in particular Jeremiah – they were left without God’s protection and conquered by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC.

JewsInExileThe Babylonians marched the leaders and the most skilled people of the city off to serve in Babylon.  Psalm 137, in less than ten verses, evokes the bitterness of that experience; the longing for home, the captors’ mockery of the exiles, the passion to preserve identity, and, in that horrific final verse,  desire for justice veering off into revenge.

We all feel it at some point – probably more than one point – in our lives.  We are hurt and our perception, right or wrong, is that what was done to us was so bad that the only satisfaction we can imagine is equal or greater suffering falling on the one(s) who afflicted us.

Psalm 137 puts us in touch with the whole reality of “exile.”  We are living in the fallen world, separated from our heavenly home, and our emotions and even our prayers suffer that separation.  In the Kingdom of Heaven Christ intercedes for sinners; on earth we wish them agony.

The verse’s honesty is so raw that we recoil from it.  As I said above, it’s often edited out of the readings for church services.  There are attempts to spiritualize it, as the great Saint Benedict did in the Prologue of his Rule, where “little ones” symbolize nascent evil thoughts and “dashing them against the rock” is to refute them with the teaching of Christ.

We deny it with secular platitudes like living well is the best revenge.  We won’t hurt anybody and we’re certainly above any ugly thoughts.  We’ll just get on with our lives.  But this ignores the power of our Babylonian captors – the forces of the exilic realm in which we live – to define living well.  We start to sing their tunes and forget the music of our true homeland.  We intone denial of our bitterness while playing out our hurt over and over in discordant emotions and behaviors we cease to control.

Tonight I read A romance on the Psalm By the Waters of Babylon (137) by St. John of the Cross.  I wondered what this mystical poet, who suffered kidnapping and nine months of squalid imprisonment by his rivals, might do with the last verse of the Psalm.

He offers the Psalm in first person, and ends it

O Daughter of Babylon,

miserable and wretched!

Blessed is he in whom I have trusted,

for he will punish you as you have me;

and he will gather his little ones

and me, who wept because of you,

at the rock who is Christ,

for whom I abandoned you.

(Kavanaugh/Rodriguez translation)

Angel announcing the fall of Babylon (Revelation 14:8).  England, 13th cent.

The “revenge” is that Babylon – any realm or situation run by the world, the flesh and the devil – doesn’t get to keep us.  As “Babylon’s” lifetime of distractions and deceptions separated us from the perfect peace that Christ gives us, so Christ will separate us from Babylon’s outwardly gloating yet inwardly miserable “power.”

As Babylon sought to enmesh us in a wretched “life” that is simply prolonged dying, we are dashed on the rock that is Christ, our old life put to death so that we can rise up and walk with Christ into life eternal.

We, the little ones that Babylon delighted to abuse, need not imagine – let alone inflict – any disaster on that sad, decaying realm.  It is its own catastrophe.

Living well – whatever that means – is not the best revenge.  Living is.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)