Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51:1-17

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.

5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you.

14 Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.

Ash Wednesday commemorates the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, during which Christians remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and recall his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.  Ash Wednesday, in particular, is a time when the church is called to repentance and to acknowledge the fleeting nature of human life.  Common practices include the smearing of ashes on one’s forehead as a sign of penitence and mourning, and the initiation of 40 days of fasting (from meat, traditionally).

Lent is not intended as a time to remember sins of the past (unless they are unrepentant ones), or to dredge up things that have already been confessed to God.  However, it is a time to reflect on our still-marred state, repent of any ongoing sin that has not yet been purged from our lives, and give thanks for God’s mercy.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find it very hard to repent; to say that I am sorry and to press on, through the help of the Spirit, toward new life.  To make a u-turn away from self toward God.

This morning, as Sarah and I were getting the kids dressed for school, our son (2) began to throw a full on tantrum, because he didn’t want to get dressed. After trying to calm him and give him some space, the tantrum continued, and I gave him a warning that discipline would follow if he didn’t change his actions.  As the tantrum escalated to all new levels, I followed through on my warning and disciplined him.  After allowing this all to sink in, I sat with him, told him that I love him, and explained why he was disciplined.  I then asked for him to tell me he was sorry.  He looked at me, and said “No!”.

I put him in time out and told him that I would return in a few minutes after he had a chance to reconsider.  He then launched into a tantrum even worse than the first.  I returned to him a second time, explained that I love him and why he was in time out, and then asked him to apologize.  Once again, he refused and I returned him to time out for a third round.

When I returned to him the next time, I again explained that I love him, why he was being disciplined, and asked him to apologize.  This time, he nodded his head and said “sorry”.  To my great relief, he then hugged me, and we resumed our morning.

Now, I tell you this story, not because I think I am like God and that my son needed to repent.  I tell you this to illustrate just how hard it can be to own up to our mistakes, even to a Father who loves us beyond measure.

I love my son and I want only what is best for him.  I don’t like to discipline him, but I do it for his own good, so that he learns what is right and good; to set him on a path for a successful life lived as a testimony to God’s goodness and grace.  Likewise, God disciplines his children and calls us to repentance when we have strayed.  He calls us to remember who we are, created in his image, and teaches us to live in the light of his righteousness and love.

When I put on ashes this morning, when I fast during Lent, when I carry on conversation with God in prayer, I expect there to be painful moments.  I expect to be corrected.  I expect to feel ashamed for the sinfulness that still shows in me on occasion.  But I also expect that my Father in Heaven will continue to remind me: “I love you.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

As we reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, may we find mercy and love at the foot of his cross.  My sin put him there . . . Forgive me Father . . . His blood covers me.

Thanks be to God!

The Greatest Folly of Man

I have been praying for God to teach me one particular lesson over the last year or so, and he has obliged in more ways than I had truthfully hoped he would.  It seems that when I ask God to show me my weaknesses or to change something in me that doesn’t conform to Jesus, he is very eager to accept the challenge.  So when I asked him to convict me of my pridefulness and change me, I began to see immediate results, many of which have brought me to shame. 

Pride is one of those things that can be taken both positively and negatively. On the positive end being proud of one’s spouse or children, some great accomplishment, or you favorite sports team (Go Steelers!) can be a very good thing.  It expresses our joy and encouragement to those who have made us proud.

On the flip side lies pridefulness, which is the boisterous (even inwardly so) recognition of self and one’s own accomplishments or knowledge.  Pridefulness like many of humanity’s follies has a way of sneaking up on a person, of remaining hidden until exposed to light.  It lingers within that flickering thought that someone is beneath you, that wayward glance of contempt, or that moment of conceited speech.

I try to be careful in my approach to people.  I speak kindly, offer due respect, go out of my way to help.  But in the briefest moments I allow pridefulness to rear its ugly head.  The saddest part is that it usually happens around those who I am particularly close to, though certainly not always.

As I have been praying for the Lord to correct this flaw in me, he has shown me a number of times that I have allowed pridefulness to cultivate.  In the last 24 hours it has happened twice.  First was in a conversation with one of my closest friends, who I have known since we were children.  Even without intending it, in the briefest moment I allowed myself to feel superior in my knowledge of scripture, making a hurtful comment about someone’s naivete.  though it was not directed at my friend, I soon found that he shared the same opinion as this unnamed other I was speaking about in general.  And then it hit me what a prideful statement I had made.  Thankfully, when I apologized my friend was quick to forgive – much quicker than I am to forgive myself I’m afraid.

The second situation occured early this morning.  I passed someone that I vaguely know, who has (in my opinion) used the name of Jesus a bit freely and superficially in some of our past classes.  Yet who am I to judge that.  As I passed this person, those thoughts popped into my head for just a moment and then just as quickly they were gone.  Just a few moments later, though, a song popped into my head and I started singing it.  It only took a moment for the realization to hit me that God was pointing out my pridefulness.  Can you guess the song?

“Blessed be the name, blessed be the name, blessed be the name of the Lord…”

Yeah….that one felt like a punch to the gut.

At any rate, I’m not sure why i felt the need to blog about it.  Maybe this is a warning to others about how pridefulness can sneak up unnoticed.  Perhaps it is a form of confession.  All I know is that I recognize more each day just how much I need the grace and love of Jesus.

I am so thankful that he gives both abundantly…

Of Gratitude for the Grace of God

In light of the Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to share some selections from St. Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.

Great is the difference between a visitation from above, and a false liberty of mind and great confidence in one’s self.

God does well in giving the grace of comfort, but man does ill in not returning all to God with thanksgiving.

And therefore the gifts of grace cannot flow in us, because we are ungrateful to the author of them, nor do we return all to the original fountain.

For grace always attends him who is duly thankful, and from the proud shall be taken what is wont to be given to the humble.

I gladly accept that grace whereby I am ever made more humble and timid, more ready to renounce myself.

He who is made learned by the gift of grace, and taught by the stroke of its withdrawal, does not dare to attribute any good to himself, but rather will acknowledge himself poor and naked.

“Give unto God that which is of God,” and ascribe to yourself what is your own: that is, give thanks to God for his grace, but to yourself give the blame, and note that your punishment is deserved for your fault.

Put yourself always in the lowest place, and the highest shall be given to you, for the highest cannot stand without the lowest.

Those who are settled and grounded in God can in no way be proud.

And those who ascribe all unto God, whatsoever good they have received, do not seek glory of each other, but wish for the glory which comes from God alone, and desire that God be praised above all things in themselves and in all the saints; and they are always tending to this very thing.

Be therefore thankful for the least, and you will be worthy to receive the greater.

Let the smallest be to you as the greatest, and that which is of less account as a special gift.

If you regard the dignity of the giver, no gift will seem small or very cheap.

For that is not small which is given by the Most High God.

He who desires to keep the grace of God, let him be thankful for the grace given, and patient when it is taken away.

Let him pray that it may return; let him be cautious and humble, lest he lose it.

Amen

Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

I stumbled across a piece of paper in my Bible today. It had some notes scribbled on it, and appeared to be scrap, so I was planning to toss it in the trash. Just to make sure there was nothing important on it I unfolded it, only to find a copy of John Wesley’s covenant prayer. As I read the words, they impacted me profoundly. Tonight I prayed this prayer, covenanting alongside brother Wesley. I would like to share these words with you now. May you be blessed as I have been blessed.

Wesley’s Covenant Prayer
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen

The Fallacy of Jewish Works-Righteousness

Following some recent discussions with my brother over at Shema, I have begun to study more about the prevailing view of 1st century Jewish culture and adherence to Torah. As part of this research, I recently read an article by N.T. Wright on Communion and Koinonia (the full text of which can be found here.) Which, among other things, discusses the validity of the points espoused by the New Perspective on Paul.

Wright, following Sanders’ lead, said the following (the quote is a bit long, so please forgive me):

The main thrust of Sanders’s work, which I endorse, is that first century Judaism was not a system of Pelagian-style works-righteousness. First century Jews were not imagining that they had to earn ‘righteousness’, that is, basic membership in God’s people, membership in the covenant, through doing moral good deeds. They did not regard the Torah, the Jewish law, as a ladder of good works up which they had to climb, with salvation as the reward at the top. On the contrary. As any good Calvinist could have told Sanders, they regarded the Torah as a good, lovely, God-given thing, not a ladder of good works for eager merit-earners, but the way of life for the people already redeemed. God chose Israel; God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt by an act of sheer grace and power; and God then gave Israel the Torah, not to earn their status with God but to demonstrate it. Now it is true, of course, that the Mishnah and Talmud, the codified commentaries and elaborations on Torah-keeping which grew up over the half-millennium after Paul’s day, do indeed look like the kind of casuistical law-mongering which many people think of today when they hear the word ‘legalism’. But Sanders’s point here stands, despite many attempts to dislodge it. The main motive for keeping the law in Judaism was not to earn membership in the people of God, or justification or salvation, but to express one’s gratitude for it, to demonstrate one’s membership, and ultimately to become the sort of person God clearly intended you to become. In Lutheran terms, it was tertius usus legis. In Calvinist terms, this was why God gave the law in the first place.

What then about the famous Pauline phrase, ‘works of law’? Here is the second insight of the ‘new perspective’ comes into play, which I shall argue is the key one for discussion we need in today’s Anglican communion in discussions of koinonia, tolerance, and boundaries. James Dunn has argued strongly, following the line of thought which I myself pioneered but taking it a stage further, that ‘the works of the law’ which Paul declares do not justify are not in general moral principles, a ‘law’ in that sense, but ‘the works of the law’ which marked out Jews from their paganm neighbours. They are, in other words, circumsion, the food laws, and the sabbaths – the three things which every Jew on the ancient world, and many pagans in the ancient world too, knew were the boundary-markers between Jews and pagans. The point in keeping these was to say, “We are Jews, not pagans outside the Torah. We are God’s people; he has made his covenant with us; we are called to be the light of the world, and by keeping God’s law we will keep ourselves separate from the world and show the world who God really is’.

The third insight which I myself bring to, and take from the New Perspective has to do with Paul’s critique of Israel. Paul’s critique of Israel is not that Israel is guilty of the kind of legalism of which Augustine criticised Pelagius, or Luther criticised Erasmus. Certainly Paul is not accusing Israel of the half-hearted moralistic Pelagianism of which, it used to be said, the average Englishman was guilty of most of the time, doing a few good deeds now and then and hoping God would notice and give him a pat on the back at the end of the day. (There aren’t so many people like that around today, as you may have noticed.) Rather, Paul is criticising Israel, his own former self included, for saying that God was exclusively Israel’s God. Israel, he says, is ignorant of God’s righteousness, and is seeking to establish her own, a ‘righteousness’ which would be for Jews and Jews only; whereas, in Jesus’ Jewish Messiah, and by the cross and resurrection, God has thrown open covenant membership, ‘righteousness’, to all who believe (Romans 10. 1-4)

This opens us up to some important insight into Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and effectively squashes what we have for so long believed and taught about Jews. In fact, it goes to show that perhaps the view we have toted for so long about Jewish legalistic works-righteousnes is born more out of the anti-semitism of the second century than sound Biblical exegesis.

If this is the case, and there is strong evidence to support it, then the practice of Law that we have for so long forsaken as the anathema of salvation by faith may in fact have been God’s intended purpose for the early Church, and by inheritance, ours as well.

This is definitely some food for thought for those, like myself, who have struggled so vigorously with the seeming conflict between faith and works throughout the Pauline epistles. What an amazing thought that Paul may not have contradicted himself at all, but that we may have merely been blind to truth.

Thoughts?

Words – Power to Heal / Power to Hurt

I have been struck this week by how easily words, even those spoken with no malice intended, can easily destroy relationships and break down emotional wellness.

I made an agreement many months ago to spend part of my summer working for a certain company. I waited anxiously for months to begin, and finally did so just two short weeks ago. Because of the nature of this business, and because I trusted (and still do) those who run it, I did not worry when I didn’t receive some of the paperwork that is needed for me to officially become an emplyee. In fact, I began working with no official offer, no promise of wages, and only a naive faith that all would be well.

Unfortunately, after two weeks and many reminders the paperwork never came, and the work hours did not meet my expectations. I decided to leave before I was in too deep, and before too many resources had been wasted on my training. I approached the manner in a professional, Christian way. I received a professional, Christian request to stay.

During this time, I have also been in constant prayer over how I spend my time this summer in preparation for the coming school year. I have been feeling that I should spend my time in other things. This coupled with the above led me to decline the offer to stay.

Unfortunately, I apparently conveyed a tone of mistrust and accusation in one of my emails, and in the process offended and hurt those with whom I was working. I had not intended to do this, but the impersonal nature of email lends itself naturally to misinterpretation of intent and meaning. What to me had been a simple paragraph had meant something altogether different once it had been received.

I have since sent a follow-up, apologizing for this miscommunication. I hope that forgiveness is in their heatrs (and I believe it is), but this instance sticks in my head as an example of miscommunications within the Body of Christ.

It is so incredibly easy to lose control of our tongues (both verbally and in print) and cause deep hurt to others. We, as Christians, must be especially careful of our words as we are a witness to others. Otherwise we will become like those spoken of in Romans 3: “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”

One way to accomplish this might be to more carefully practice the Discipline of Simplicity, as it pertains to our speech. Let our “Yes” be yes and our “No” be no.

Another solution might be to spend more effort evaluating what we say before we say it. Silence can be a great thing, but a kind word can heal open wounds. As the Proverbs say:

Proverbs 12:25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up