Revival

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Growing up in independent charismatic word/faith type circles there was one word I heard with regularity: revival. Revival has become something of a buzzword, a cliche, something someone says when anything supernatural seems to be on the horizon. As such it has become devoid of meaning. Let me explain.

There are churches that constantly teach on a coming final revival that is going to bring in the last end time harvest and usher in the return of Jesus. This belief drives missions, creates training centers, and inspires music and bands – Jesus Culture is one such band which sees itself as a vehicle by which a wave of young people will be converted and experience the supernatural and be the next generation of revivalists. The focus is on getting people to have supernatural encounters with God, signs and wonders, and then pass those on to others. One church I was a part of used to boast that there was a coming revival so great that the large building we were using would be the parking lot for an even greater building. Youth camps would revive us every summer and we believed we were part of the final move of God.

In American history religious fervor swept through America at different times in our history and revival hagiographers mark these out as clear patterns of revival to be followed and emulated. What often gets overlooked is that there came to be large areas in New York called the burned over district. These were areas that had experienced the fires of revival so often that people were inoculated to the gospel, leading revivalists to turn to measures designed to elicit enthusiasm from people. Emotional responses and feelings of the supernatural became the de facto pattern of revivalism and these patterns continue today in various expressions. Unfortunately out of this mess came the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as other heretical Christian groups.

Revival is not the answer that many Christians are searching for. Well, maybe it is but maybe how churches define revival needs to change. This may seem counterintuitive but bear with me. What is needed today is not revival in the sense of a large group of people getting together singing emotionally driven songs and experiencing supposed supernatural manifestations of laughter, animal noises, gold dust, and outrageous prophecies. The type of revival that is needed is the revival of perseverance, patience, and endurance in the Christian life. All too often we run to revival as a panacea for our problems hoping for a touch from God will make everything all right.

But what is needed isn’t a touch from God in that sense, what is needed is slow, steady, progressive maturity that comes only from the arduous process of honest self reflection and the practice of spiritual disciplines in the context of the shared life in the church.

But what is needed isn’t a touch from God in that sense, what is needed is slow, steady, progressive maturity that comes only from the arduous process of honest self reflection and the practice of spiritual disciplines in the context of the shared life in the church.

Churches tout numbers after successful revivalistic efforts as indicators of changed lives. Evangelists may claim decisions for Jesus that number in the millions, but the truthfulness of decisions for Jesus and changed lives will only and ultimately be seen at the end of all things. Only those who run the race, those who persevere, will receive their victor’s crown. I may be wrong here but in the New Testament salvation is emphasized as a future event not a present reality (even though it does speak of salvation that way as well). This is hard to hear and this means that it may be impossible to measure the success of a program or event.

What revivalists are chasing after, in my opinion, is not actual revival but the continual feeling of what they believe is an experience of the supernatural even if what they see as a a legitimate supernatural phenomenon has no explicit warrant in Scripture. I’m not saying there isn’t room for supernatural experiences, I’m no cessationist, however I do believe that if we pursue revival, in the limited shape it has come to take in charismatic circles,  then we do ourselves a great disservice because we have equated signs and wonders with the normal mature Christian life thus falling into the trap Paul warned the Corinthians not to fall into.

 

 

 

Photo from: http://www.god.tv/sites/all/themes/custom/phoenix/ministries/jesus-culture/gallery/image4[1].JPG

 

Take From Me and Give Me

 

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.”

With these words begins the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, which is prayed during the season of Lent. The prayer begins with the acknowledgement that Christ is the Lord over our lives. He is our Master; an unused and unpopular term perhaps but one that needs recovering. After all, St. Paul refers to himself as a slave of Jesus Christ, and if St. Paul is comfortable with that language then we should be as well. Christ is our Lord and we, out of love and gratitude, endeavor to obey his commandments.

The prayer then asks that the spirit of a specific list of hurtful things be taken from us. Before we can ask for these things to be taken, we first need to acknowledge their presence. Even if we protest that we may not struggle with them, usually they are hiding just below the surface in our hearts. Sloth, or laziness, can be present in either physical or spiritual forms when we do not take time for prayer, or when we neglect to fulfill our daily responsibilities at home and at work. Despair is an issue that many people face and experience in the form of depression. Lust for power can manifest itself in the highest echelons of power or in the office of a church secretary. Idle talk and gossip is a sin to which most of us are prone. It can be disguised as concern: “Pray for Bill, I heard from Sue that he struggles with lust.” Or it can be blatantly expressed openly as harassment on social media.

“But rather give the spirit of chastity, meekness of mind, patience, and love to thy servant.”

It is not enough for us to ask the Lord to remove hurtful and sinful behaviors from our hearts, we need to replace them with something of the divine. If we do not then we will fall back into the same destructive patterns of acting, thinking, and being that we are asking to be delivered from in the first place. It is not a coincidence that St. Ephrem’s prayer mimics St. Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.

Chastity is the antidote for the desires of the flesh. It helps us to tame our physical desires that are wrongly ordered and to bring them in line with what God intended for them. Meekness of mind, or humility, is the antidote to pride and entering into the spiritual struggle of fasting and prayer, or attending services, can lead one to pride. C.S. Lewis helpfully said, “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil.” Patience is needed because we should not expect to be transformed overnight. Becoming more and more like Christ is something that occurs over a lifetime, not in a sudden fit of religious ecstasy. There are no shortcuts to Christlikeness. Lastly, love is the most important of all. Love for God and love for our neighbors is what will help us as we ask and strive for: charity, humility, and patience.

“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

The prayer closes with another acknowledgement of Christ as our Lord and as our King. He rules over us seated at the right hand of the Father, and he makes intercession for us as our sympathetic high priest, as the author of Hebrews wrote.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew our Lord Jesus says, Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” It is easier to point out something that we think is wrong in another person rather than address the shortcomings, sins, and personal weaknesses that we are prone to fall into ourselves. If we can spend our time focusing on others then we never have to take a hard look inward at what God is trying to heal in us.

This Lenten season may the words of this prayer echo in our minds and in our hearts as we move towards the remembrance of our Lord’s sacrifice and participate in his call to repentance, as his kingdom, that is not of this world, has come near.

 

 

C.S. Lewis quote from: http://www.timesandseasons.org/The_Great_Sin_condensed.pdf

Prayer of St. Ephrem from: http://www.antiochian.org/saint_ephraim

Matthew 7:3-5 from: http://www.esvbible.org/Matthew%207/

Photo: http://popcornmonstret.blogspot.com/2009/12/gratis-bild-ljus-i-morkret-candle.html

 

 

 

 

 

Death

 

It seems that lately there has been a lot of death. On the surface, that comment is a ridiculous observation as death is all around us. This is the first time though that I have been aware of, or sensed, death’s immediacy in my own world.

Last month a congregant died suddenly and unexpectedly. One moment he was shoveling show out of his driveway and the next he was dead. This was a shock to me personally as he was a fixture at the church that I currently serve. He and his wife were faithful attenders of not only all the services and special events, but of all of the courses I taught over a period of two and a half years. They were, and remain, favorites of mine and they were, and she still is, full of love for others and desirous to learn more about God’s word. The night before he died we had a party at the church celebrating him and the students who had gone through the one and two year courses I teach. It makes me happy to know that his last evening on earth was spent with a group of friends, at a church he loved so well, celebrating not only what he had learned but what God had done in his and his wife’s life.

A few nights ago, on a terrible wintery evening, a young priest-scholar was killed on his way home from church. He was a brilliant scholar working on his PhD and had recently begun pastoring a parish in Connecticut. I did not know him well but I was present at his ordination into the Holy Diaconate and had some interaction with him there and at an annual conference at Princeton he helped coordinate. The reason why I mention this is that his death touches the life of a good friend of mine, a parish priest here in Pennsylvania who knew him very well and was close with him. However, that is his own story to write which you can read here. I mention this because the nearness of this death to my friend makes it near to me because of that friendship.

Since these events have occurred I have been thinking a lot about death, not in a morbid way but on my own mortality. It finally felt real… that growing awareness of the one day where I will face that experience and I realized that I am afraid of death. I am afraid of dying and I don’t want to be afraid. Maybe what I am afraid of is not death itself but those last moments leading up to it. Will I fight for every last futile breathe or will I accept it in peace?

Death is an enemy. The Paschal refrain, “Christ is risen from the dead trampling death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life” echoes in my mind. Maybe therein lies the secret to not being afraid of death. Christ is risen. If I can hold onto that truth, that Jesus through his death and resurrection has caused death, to steal from C.S. Lewis, to begin to work in reverse. And like Aslan rising from the stone table due to the deeper magic unknown to the forces of evil so too I will rise on the last day, the first new day, in a body animated by the very life of God. And not only for me this hope is for those who are also afraid of death. If you, dear friend, are reading this, take comfort in the fact that those in Christ will share in this unspeakable joy and eternal life in God’s new world. This hope destroys the fear of death and as St. Paul wrote in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

Death is not a friend to be welcomed but a wicked enemy. It causes such a disconnect in us because we know that there is something inherently unfair in it, something very wrong. It is a robber, a thief, and a murderer. As I learn to deal with the impending deaths of family, friends, and acquaintances I pray that hope in Christ that I cling to will give me strength to not only bear their deaths, and as a pastor help those struggling with death, but to approach my own with faith in the loving merciful God who has promised us that death is not the last word. Christ has the last word and like he called to Lazarus he will call out to us, “Rise.”

The Exousia of Mealtime: A New Way of Understanding Breakfast

 

Breakfast. Sustenance. Food is life.

 

Scrambled eggs, oatmeal, Nutrigrain bars, Crunchwraps. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, or so the diet and nutritional experts say.

 

But.

 

What if…

 

I were to tell you something so profound it could change the way we look at, eat, and even experience breakfast?

 

Experience it in a way unlike all other ways. As part of God’s breakfast that shows us how to eat our breakfast the way breakfast should be eaten or, dare I say it, as an experience beyond mere chewing and swallowing.

 

There’s a song that hints at the breakfast we limit ourselves to experiencing as performed by the group Newsboys. The lyrics go something like this,

 

“When all the toast has burned and all the milk has turned and Cap’n Crunch is saying farewell, when the big one finds you may this song remind you that they don’t serve breakfast in hell.”

 

Really?

 

They don’t serve breakfast in hell? We have confirmation of this? Someone knows this? Without a doubt? And the Newsboys decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?

 

These lyrics perfectly describe the shortcomings of what we talk about when we talk about breakfast. Why does the toast have to be burned? Why can’t we drink milk that never goes bad? Where does the milk come from anyway and how do we even know its milk we’re putting on our Cap’n Crunch? And why is Cap’n Crunch saying farewell?

 

Does Quaker Oats Company shape our view of the Divine more than the experiences and stories of those who went before us who had a truer experience of breakfast?

 

We hunger for more. Delicious. Nutritious. Transcendent.

 

Something more fulfilling then the transient experience of the Newsboy’s song. It was a good song in 1996 but can it sustain us anymore?

 

No.

 

We need better breakfast songs. Songs that share our soul cravings. Songs best summed up in a word from an ancient language devoid of any biblical context.

 

Εχουσια. Exousia. An ancient Koine Greek word that can change everything,

 

Our breakfast hopes. Dreams. Desires. For God. For full stomachs.

 

Exousia.

Seeing God

 

In his letter to the Philippians (3:8) St. Paul wrote, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” I quoted this passage three weeks ago in a sermon I preached at my church’s Wednesday evening service not knowing how those words would come back to me when my house almost burned down.

Tuesday evening, while I was out, my house caught fire. My landlord/roommate called me right after he heard and I jumped into my girlfriend’s car and she drove me home. When I arrived there the fire was out and the investigators were walking around trying to determine what caused it. I know that the verse is speaking of losing all for the sake of Christ, and my house fire was not an act of persecution or something I chose to lay aside, but I have, pretty much, lost almost everything I own.

The day after the fire I was scheduled to preach the sermon at my church’s Wednesday evening service and I spoke about the story of Jesus and the blind man in John chapter nine. In the story Jesus not only restores the man’s physical eyes but also restores his spiritual eyes leading the man to fall to his knees and worship. Often times it is very hard to see God when incredibly terrible things happen and we need our eyes to be healed in order to see God.

Whether it is bad news from the doctor or experiencing loss, if we look we will be able to see something of God in it. For me I see God in the outpouring of support from my friends and church community. I see God in the fact that until the insurance company decides what’s what I have several different places I can live. I also see God in the fact that I have lost entertainment devices. It is all too easy to play Skyrim or watch Netflix on my Xbox 360 than to pray. It is sometimes far too easy to choose to watch a Blu-Ray than to read the Gospels. Now I have no such distractions. This latter point was reinforced in my mind when one of the few things I was able to salvage from my room was my prayer rope.

This does not mean that I’m sailing above it all unaffected by what happened, far from it, but when the sadness comes and when it starts to build I have something in the middle of the sorrow that I can hold on to. It may seem like nothing but to me it’s as clear as a light shining in a darkened room. Also, if you think of it, please remember my roommate and I in your prayers (especially him as the house is his).

Walking in the Spirit

 

Lately I have been reading through St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ book The Life in Christ as part of my daily devotional reading. Its an amazing book and it is divided into sections that make it easy to use as a devotional much like The Imitation of Christ. However, I like this book much better than Thomas a Kempis’ influential classic. In the reading today St. Nicholas was expounding on baptism as a door or an entryway that Christ himself did for us in order to cleanse us from sin and to seal us with the Holy Spirit.

One thing St. Nicholas mentions that struck me was a connection I had never made before in regards to walking in the Spirit. In Galatians 5:16 St. Paul writes, “But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh (NET) and in Romans 8:14 he writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God (NET).” I grew up in an independent charismatic tradition that believed “walking or living in/by the Spirit” meant empowered by the Spirit in the sense of not only being given the spiritual resources to crucify the flesh but also demonstrations of power and supernatural experiences. A premium was placed on the experiences and power to the detriment of the hard work of crucifying the flesh. This is incredibly interesting to me as the Pentecostal tradition that spawned independent charismatic churches taught that one had to experience entire sanctification before one could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in other tongues. In the reading this morning he made a link between “walking in the Spirit” and the holy Mysteries (Baptism and the Eucharist) which is a link foreign to my charismatic upbringing.

According to St. Cabasilas, when we partake of the Mysteries the life of God fills us and this dims everything else in us that is of the flesh and replaces the “beauty” of the world with his brightness. He then writes that this divine life overcomes the desires of the flesh enabling or accomplishing walking in the Spirit. This is a marked difference from one having spiritual experiences, feeling God’s tangible presence or “flowing in the gifts.” If he is right, and I think he probably is, then walking in the Spirit is a sacramentally powered gift of God’s grace which necessitates our continual coming to the table to receive it over and over again until the parousia. It is worth noting that there is no initial act of total sanctification one needs to receive before one can experience the illumining and empowering work of the Holy Spirit in the thought of St. Cabasilas because the Spirit is given and is sealed in Baptism. Granted most charismatics would reject that idea as well but since they do not have a robust understanding of eucharistic illumination the work of the Spirit will continue to be focused on the externals of what they believe life in the Spirit should look like in the hope that this external experience will somehow enable perpetual death to self.

Pablum as Profundity (or Negative Thoughts on Positivity)

 

You may have seen them on social media -Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest- they are fairly ubiquitous. You may have a few friends or acquaintances that post them every day, or you may post them yourself: inspirational quotes over a picture of a field, sunshine, or stylized background. Usually you are invited to share the quote with everyone and sometimes they sound pretty good, but sometimes not so much.

This week I’ve been waging a one man campaign against the profusion of positivity quotes. On Facebook I have been posting faux inspirational quotes sourced from actual words and writings of select people and watching the reactions they garner (you can see them here: https://www.facebook.com/michaelalandsman/media_set?set=a.10152491981653169.1073741840.548908168&type=3). Sometimes they were shared with no comment and sometimes they started conversations. I even used three hashtags to indicate that the quotes were meant to be taken satirically. At first I started with absurd quotes from movies like Mystery Men or Big Trouble in Little China but soon moved on. I discovered in the tweets and resources of televangelists and Christian “life coaches” a world far more inane and unintentionally funny than I thought possible, so I started posting their quotes. Then I started thinking about the whole thing.

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A good friend of mine recently said in a sermon that life is not moon beams and sparkle ponies. I mention this because most of these motivational quotes exist in the world of moon beams and sparkle ponies. They are words of wisdom from a world where everything is expected to work in our favor and to our advantage. We desperately want to live in a world where our poor finances, familial crises, or poor health are magically relieved. These spin meisters take the scriptures and use them to create a world of moon beams and sparkle ponies and we buy their books, we ingest their sermons and life courses, fill their wallets, and eat their pablum. And thats exactly what it is: pablum masquerading as profundity.

These purveyors of pablum will make cursory comments about life’s difficulties, but the paths they offer ultimately lead to disappointment. They teach people to go around the long, slow march towards Christlikeness while trying to get out of the situations that God is using to make them more like Jesus in the first place. Telling someone “When you see what’s invisible God will do the impossible” or “A broke man is not a man without a nickel but a man without a dream” acknowledges difficulties but sidesteps completely any words or counsel on how to actually see the invisible or find a dream. And the sad thing is the scriptures do offer us help, they do offer us direction and comfort, but when God’s word becomes mixed with trite feel-goodisms the scriptures are robbed of their power.

The way Jesus offers us is infinitely better than anything we can possibly imagine, but we don’t get the fullness of it right now in the present. We get a foretaste, and believe me its the best thing you’ll ever taste, but it is only a hint of the glories to come. That foretaste, that hint of the world to come, is what motivated and empowered the early Christians to endure terrible times and that should be what motivates and empowers us. St. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The context of that glory is the resurrection and the redemption of all things not finding a dream or seeing the invisible. As we anticipate that day lets not hit that share button before a few moments of reflection. Half-truths sound great, and may contain a modicum of good advice, but ultimately do not satisfy because pablum never does.