Setting our minds on the Spirit

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (From Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary Epistle, Romans 8:1-11 NRSV)

So the wrong way to preach this is as a moral exhortation:  All of you, right now, get your minds off the flesh and back onto the Spirit!  That message actually surrenders the mind to the flesh.

WHAT?!?!?!?!?

Well, let’s start with the fact that we are all familiar with the New Testament idea of flesh as our self-centered, aggressive and pleasure seeking animal nature.  Paul captures this in a number of important verses, such as

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)

But in Romans, I think he’s warning us about a religious exercise of the flesh.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

When a sermon or other teaching shouts at us to STOP WALKING IN THE FLESH we instinctively (carnally) respond by trying harder to be good.  We try to do lots of pious stuff like going to all of the church programs we can and saying darn instead of, you know, d@#n, and switching from the metal station to the Christian station on the car radio, at least when the kids are with us.

That is, we try to save ourselves by keeping all the rules.

Which, the lesson from Romans warns us, is hopeless because keeping the law is a strategy under the weakening influence of the flesh.

The antidote is setting our mind on the Spirit, which first and foremost means to receive the Spirit’s perpetual witness: Jesus himself condemned sin in the flesh AND fulfilled the just requirement of the law by suffering death on the cross.

This is not to say that putting our mind on the Spirit is to reject the law and practice a touchy-feely Christian form of amorality.  Having our minds on the Spirit generates two primary actions for our practice of discipleship,

First, we are to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness.  As Jesus taught of the Spirit’s work,

And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged.  (John 16:8-11 NLT)

The second action is to read and/or hear Holy Scripture, which gives us the language by which the Spirit can guide us.  If we spend our day memorizing the Bible as a list of laws to be carried out, we inevitably walk according to the flesh, even if we dress the flesh up in religious ceremonies, jargon and habits.  Instead, our knowledge of the Bible allows the Spirit to teach and guide us in accord with God’s priorities and timing,

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26, ESV)

The Holy Spirit is not a mere feeling (thus Paul tells us to set our minds on the Spirit), but God present within us to help us understand the Scripture He’s breathed, all of which bears witness to His righteousness fulfilled for us in Jesus and now being completed in us as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Understanding that the work of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is primary and that our piety and power to do good are outward signs of God’s continued and continuous inner work in our lives is what allows us to enjoy the radical truth that launches the lesson from Romans,

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In the flesh we are our own false gods and justly condemned; in the Spirit we share the life of Christ who is the righteous one, the beloved at the Father’s right hand.

 

 

 

If anybody says anything…

…it’ll probably be this,

Hey, buddy, you got dirt on your head.  Yuck yuck yuck.

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To which I’ll reply, Yep.  Glad you can’t see into my heart and mind, too.  Pretty much a total mess except what Jesus is making with it.

Or maybe some people will just ask, So, what’s that thing on your head mean?

To which I’ll answer, Dust is what I am and all I’ll finally be on my own. But Jesus has marked me as HIS own, and so I’ll be much more.

Hopefully, that will invite more comments and questions.  But about Him, not me.

Can’t we just be friends?

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Remember when romantic rejection – somebody didn’t “like” you – felt like a fatal injury? I guess I’m getting old enough to look back and… OK, not laugh, but not cringe with as much gravity. “Can’t we just be friends?” is funny now; it used to be injurious to my soul.

Rejection. I prayed Psalm 71 this morning and the word came to mind.

For you are my hope, O LORD God, my confidence since I was young. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born; from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you. I have become a portent to many; but you are my refuge and my strength. (Verses 5-7)

The Psalms, according to Jesus himself, point to him. With that understanding, these verses are so painful; the eternal Son who dwelt in eternal glory spent his 33-ish years from conception to crucifixion on the bad end of rejection.  His fidelity to his divine nature and mission were things the world wanted to keep at arm’s length, to say the least.

The Prophets saw it coming,

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces3d render of red broken heart om white background
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (Isaiah 53:3 NRSV)

The Evangelists recorded the fulfillment,

 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  (John 1:10-11)

Wow, at least those we court try to let us down easy.  They offer a cool (in temperature, not social standing) friendship.  Jesus gave his heart and got the cross.

Makes today’s shenanigans seem a bit less urgent, I hope.

 

 

Maybe, just possibly, good news?

My thoughts this morning were on refreshment, renewal and other such happy life passages.  I was in the perky place because of my dog.  I’d shared the following on Facebook,

Our Black Lab is aging, but last night she had a shining moment of reclaimed youth.

Because it’s so cold, I stand in the garage and let her go out on a 25′ training leash (which never seemed to train her back in the day).

All of a sudden she growls, barks and just about drags me out the door and across the yard.

She’d spotted a deer in the shadows across the street and wanted to go after it. Needless to say, I didn’t let that happen in the subzero night. I restrained her with some effort and we just watched the deer bound away.

But I gave Lily a lot of praise and a treat back in the warm house.

I’m sure she had a great hunting tale to tell the cat.

We have these flashes of the good times now and then.  I was getting ready for Morning Prayer and the Biblical passage about “getting back to your first love” ran through my mind.  Last year, in the midst of some struggles and changes, I got back to my old habit of reading Morning and Evening Prayer (I’ll let the italics do the talking), using a schedule that offers the entire Book of Psalms every month.

It was a return to first love – the privilege and pleasure of time with God instead of capitulation to all of each day’s passing urgencies.  I began to linger in prayer instead of “getting it done.”  I was blessed to wander back into adoration, enjoying the reality and presence of God without any agenda of stuff to fix or fret over.

So what comes up as the New Testament reading this morning?

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  (Revelation 2:4-5)

Now, being who and what I am, I read that with a momentary thought of Wow!  Cool!  but then got down to stressing and straining over what me, myself and I needed to do.  What was it I had abandoned and needed to rediscover?  How could I please God again after falling so far from… from…?

A gentle but terribly subversive awareness intruded.  What if that passage coming up just after I’d been thinking about it (rather, having thoughts about it just before it came up) was an affirmation from God?  What if it was good news via the Holy Spirit from the One who sent his Son into the world to save it?  What if (No!  Stop!  Perish the thought!  Vanity of vanities!) it was God expressing pleasure in me for having accepted His invitation to spend more conscious time with Him?

I realized that my self accusing thoughts were most likely The Accuser’s (that’s what the title Satan – in Hebrew The Satan – means) blather and lies, urging me to seek the good in me, myself and I rather than in the free gift of God.

That 30-day Psalm cycle came to the rescue, as a verse I took with me to bed came back into my mind:

I sought the LORD and he answered me and delivered me from all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. Psalm 34:4-5

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Look upon Him indeed.

Be delivered.

Be radiant.

Be refreshed and renewed.

And don’t be ashamed.

Unresolved

I’m not alone in questioning the utility of New Year’s Resolutions.  Here’s a good piece by a rising Evangelical star.  

I had some blessed quiet time to read this weekend and found this among piles of jewels from perceptive, expressive souls,

A life is seen now not as the story of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but as a story of God’s mercy. (John Welch, O. Carm., in The Carmelite Way)

20170101_112849New Year’s Resolutions shift the focus back onto the clashing power and paucity of me, myself and I.  And magical thinking is lurking there in the idea that the flip of a calendar page releases glittering pixie dust to change our hardened habits.

The Christian proclamation, in almost all of its fragmented expressions claiming the title church, always comes back to the centrality of what God has done, is doing and will do.

I fight that with the best of resolution makers, wanting to take up my lance and attack windmills in hopes of – validating?  requalifying for?  earning? maybe even replacing? – God’s favor poured over and into my life.

Lately I’ve had some living reminders to drop the lance, the projection of my own wishes and fantasies, and take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I have an active and elaborate prayer life, but I’ve noticed my wife progressing and changing with a simple recollection of Psalm 51:11, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

I think the power there is in the Hebrew verb for create, which in that verse is the same as in Genesis 1:1, a verb reserved for actions of which only God is capable.  Resolve what we might, there is change that only God can accomplish.

20170101_103502Lately I’ve been assisting (not leading – they lead themselves quite well) a Dinka (South Sudanese) congregation here.  Their Deacon came to the house yesterday to help me learn some of their hymns.  He was gloriously patient – it must have been like teaching a child new words but he stuck with it and now I can throw my heart, mind and voice into verses like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty in Dinka.  (And like Hebrew having a verb for creation reserved to God, Dinka expresses God’s might via a combination of singular and plural nouns something like “power greater than any other powers”).

I had to get out of my own way to learn from Deacon John, gracious as he was.  My head was filled with thoughts of “performing well,” getting praise for my ability to learn and providing paternalistic proof of my cross cultural munificence, etc.

So I prayed to God, extolling him as the Lord of language, the one who spoke all into existence, confounded vanity at Babel and sent power to preach Good News at Pentecost.  I prayed to get out of the way so I could learn the words and tunes to the extent that they brought Him glory and blessed His people.

The Dinka liturgy is about 2 hours from now.  I’m practicing and all that, but it’s less about my nervous and ego saturated resolve to sing in a new language then about loving God and neighbor in worship.  And before and after worship.

Which I won’t resolve to do because it’s beyond my doing.

What a dump.

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation,
that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a
mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Amen.”
 
The Collect for this 4th Sunday of Advent made me pause and realize what a broken down place I offer to the Lord.
 
I don’t mean my physical self, aging and decrepit as that is, because “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.”
 
No, I mean that inner nature, which is under renewal but has such a lot of maintenance needed. Structural stuff, not just a new coat of paint.
 
I’m grateful he’s OK with being born in animal pens and such.

Magnifying Lass

Repeat the Magnificat, making our own the sentiments expressed in it.  Always recite this canticle with special attention and meditate on it.  The Church prescribes it for us every day in the Liturgy of the Hours, at Vespers.  Since we recite it all too routinely, we know it only superficially.  (Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Priest and Martyr at Dachau.)

My soul doth magnify the Lord.  That’s how I grew up saying it from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

To magnify is to enlarge, to make greater.  So most translations render Mary’s words something like My soul glorifies the Lord (NIV) or, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

I found myself rolling with Titus Brandsma’s encouragement to meditate on Mary’s song of praise, and it was the old word magnify that caught my attention.

Mary’s role as a soul that would uniquely magnify God – that is, enlarge God’s greatness – is fraught with irony:

  • The omnipresent Lord spends nine months in the confinement of Mary’s womb.
  • The Word who was in the beginning, creating all things, shares the gestational dependence and fragility of a creature.
  • The one who is the source of all things is nourished through Mary’s body.
  • The all-knowing, all-seeing Christ is carried about in the body of one who must treasure things in her heart and ponder because her understanding is not immediate.

The Lord’s greatness is magnified in the smallness provided by Mary’s being.  The greatness that is magnified is Emmanuel – God with us in Christ Jesus.  All of the “omnis” – omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence – are tempered by the magnificent love that chooses to share our mortal smallness in order to make us eternally great in God’s kingdom.

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Detail of an icon of Our Lady of Walsingham

What is to magnify but to take that which is small, even that which is invisible, and reveal its astounding complexity and vitality?

Think of a moth’s wings through a magnifying glass or a cell through a microscope or any of the building blocks of creation made visible by our technology.

Mary’s soul is God’s chosen instrument to magnify what Dante called the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Hail Mary, full of grace.  The Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.