Baptism & its Rivals

When I was a kid I knew someone who liked to give away watches. The watches came from the then notorious Canal Street in NYC and they were fake Tag Heurs. The real Tag watches are expensive and run up to thousands of dollars. The fake Tag watches were still watches, they looked like Tag watches, they still told the time and gave the date but they weren’t made by Tag. So the quality was not high and after some time they would scuff and break down. And this type of counterfeiting was, and is, still big business because its cheaper to look like you’re wearing a luxury brand item than to actually wear a luxury brand item. Rival watches to counter the genuine article. This came into my mind this week particularly after the rioting in DC. 

Let’s come right out and say it, this act was wrong, this act was heinous, and violent rioting is inexcusable. This right wing version of something that’s been happening all year across various US cities by the left cannot and should not be excused nor should those who organized it and participated be spared from the consequences of their actions, not even the president. I feel like as a nation the lack of person to person communication and the lockdowns and protests against the lockdowns have exacerbated problems that would have taken years to come to the surface normally. The ongoing dehumanization of each other spurred on by the various media outlets and political factions have weighed heavy on my heart this year, and I confess to you brothers and sisters that has made me a bit fearful of what’s to come and how we should as a church should function. Today will serve as the intro into a new series called “The Church Is/Is Not” and hopefully we can navigate some of these issues together. 

II. John’s Disciples

In the reading from Acts we get a story of St. Paul in Ephesus and his encounter with the disciples of St. John the Baptizer. Now he has been dead for a long time at this point so it is interesting to see that his followers had spread as far as Ephesus, but its not surprising given John’s mission in preparing for the coming of Christ was preaching repentance and baptizing those who sought it. Jews from the Diaspora would have been in the area at times so it makes sense he had some followers who may have left Judea before the ministry and death/resurrection of Christ. St. Paul comes across them and asks them directly “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” They looked at each other quizzically, and were like, “Uhhhh what’s the Holy Spirit?” He finds out they were baptized by John linking John’s baptism with John’s own words about his mission to testify to Jesus. Now what happened? They got baptized again, because there’s a difference between the baptism of John and Jesus and when St. Paul lays his hands on them, something we still do to this day, they received the Holy Spirit. This is evidenced by their speaking in tongues, languages, they did not know. When we read the NT we see this a few times and you may have family members who think this is an experience that all Christians should have. But speaking in tongues is speaking in languages, its not a personal private prayer language God gives us (sorry to my Pentecostal friends). So why this experience? Because it links these Jewish believers to the experience of the Apostles in the Upper Room and those they have laid hands on. It’s to show it’s the same Holy Spirit that unites them.

Now I am going to stretch this story a bit to make a point that ties in with what I said in my introduction. Let’s do a thought experiment: What if the followers of John said to St. Paul, “Thanks but no thanks. We don’t believe that.” What if they refused his message thinking their previous experience was enough? What if, when confronted by the truth they chose to serve something else? What if their baptism into John, although good kept them from converting to Christ? And keep in mind John’s mission and message was holy and divinely inspired but it pointed to someone else, someone who’s shoes John was not worthy of tying. It was a good message, it was something they could live by but it wasn’t complete. There was something else just beyond that they didn’t even know about. 

III. Right and Left

A. The Right

Over the past few years we have seen the increase of virulent conspiracy theories, intolerance,  and paranoia. This is present on both the left and on the right. The right wing has been baptized into InfoWars, until media companies dumped them, and now has seen the rise and fall of white nationalism as well as the rise of QAnon. QAnon is a group that believes that a ring of Satan worship child molesters is trying to take over the world and the only person fighting them is the President. I have seen this type of thing put out there by extreme right-wing pastors, inculcating this into their church culture. Add to that the rhetoric of stolen elections and calling on people to rise up and you have the perfect storm as reflected in what happened this week at the Capitol building.

B. The Left

The left has fallen sway, baptized into to what’s been called critical theory which Lindsay writes, ”Begins with their conclusion—their own assumptions about power dynamics in society, how those are problematic, and the need for their disruption or dismantling—and then seeks to find ways to read them into various aspects of society.” So you see this reflected in race: all white people are racists (redefining what racism actually is to fit their conclusions). So everything is about power and oppression and trying to”fix” it all by trying to reinterpret everything though things like postcolonial studies, queer theory, gender studies, race theory, and sexuality studies. Add to this the awful murder of George Floyd and other African-Americans over the years created the perfect storm as non violent protests became hijacked by agitators spilling out into violence as reflected by the rioting in cities across the US this year. This shows up as well in churches on the left, all of the things I have mentioned have been applied to Christian theology to such an extent that once that’s done all that’s left is a neutered Jesus who maybe came to earth, if he’s even divine at all, to teaches how to be inclusive. Both have been baptized into deeply different ideologies and both are wrong.

IV. Rival Baptisms

I use the word baptism here on purpose. For us as Christians we have been baptized into Christ and have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have received this gift setting us apart from the world. Baptism is our actual participation in death and resurrection of Jesus Christ where God’s grace is given and our sins well and truly are cleansed. St. Paul calls this “putting on Christ.” But we have rival baptisms that pull at us, trying to lead us away. And these baptisms are our participation in something other than Christ and his church.

1. Nationalism

We have a myth that America is a Christian country. I don’t remember a pastor or priest flying over it and dowsing it with water or turning rain into holy water as it fell. American had devout Christians as part of its founding, this is true but the foundations of our government is based on the political philosophy borne from the movement called the “Enlightenment” (which is itself a bogus concept). And many of our founders do mention God but many were essentially Deists not Christians. I mention this because one rival baptism that tempts is the baptism into nationalism and extreme patriotism. This was on display this week as commentators and politicians used the words normally utilized by the church when they said the Capitol building is a sacred space, the work there being hallowed work, even using words like sacred in connection with voting rights. Now the Capitol is important and the work Congress does is important, however it is no sacred and it is not hallowed, and it is not holy. Nor is the work done in there sacred or holy. This is a hard pill to swallow because we’ve wrapped up the church, the font, and the table with American flags. Not only nationalism ,but the political process tempts us away as a rival baptism because in the extreme it offers both sides methods to transform human relationships through force of law. Thats tempting for anyone but I see it as a rival baptism that primarily influences the political right. 

2. Wokery

A rival baptism that infuences the political left is the woke movement. This has long and deep ties that would take too long to deal with in a short sermon but essentially what was politically correct has morphed into the what we call being woke. And we see this played out not only in culture and government but also in businesses, particularly large technology companies. Remember what I said about critical theory a few minutes ago? Being woke is putting those theories into practice by trying to deconstruct everything to fit a preconceived idea about power relationship based on Marxism, which is a reprehensible system. This can be done through the academy and schools (which is happening), through violent agitation, and through selectively interpreting the complex variables that make up human behavior and relationships into being all about power dynamics. 

V. The Turn

All of these rival baptisms are so tempting because they give non-religious and religious people a way of framing the world. A way of telling them what is wrong with the world. A way of telling them what is wrong with humanity. A way of telling them what exactly needs to be done and then a way of getting them to work for getting those aims accomplished. That is very tempting especially since we have fallen prey to the idea that truth is subjective. These rivals turn good Christians away from what truly matters, these rival baptisms provide a poor substitute, these rival baptisms over promise and always under deliver. And the sad thing is both sides have something important to show: patriotism, loving ones country, can be a good thing and a positive way one can participate in society. And some of the observations of the woke aren’t all wrong. Structural racism has existed in our past and still exists to some degree even though we’ve become more aware of it and have attempted to repair the damage its caused. There are folk on the margins who have been overlooked and discriminated against, but to embrace both of those worldview to the extreme we’ve seen on display baptizes into something that scripture utterly forbids: idolatry.

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His entrance into the waters sanctified all waters for those who would follow him. We follow Christ not nationalism, and certainly not wokery. We resist the lure and temptations of those baptisms because all they can offer us is ongoing struggle and ultimately violence. As Christians we cannot embrace them and we cannot tolerate them because Christ calls us to live sanctified and holy, set apart from the world. As our sins are washed in the waters we are then to turn all of our allegiances, our country, our identity, our desires, our sexuality, our material goods, everything over to Christ because it is only in Christ that true and abundant and eternal life is found. Rival baptisms provide us with alternate visions of the world. The problem is those alternate visions purport themselves to be the true vision. But the true vision of the world is not found in worldviews based on secularism. The true vision of the world is born in and through and from the Christian faith. It is the vision of the world is viewed through the lens of Christ that we are offered what the world is supposed to be for the world should be and what the world will ultimately become. The hard part for us as Christians is that were waiting for the world to become what it supposed to. There is a sense were we are supposed to work for the good of the world but we also temper that with the realization that the world is not going to become everything it’s supposed to be everything that God intends for it to be until the return of our Lord. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

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. 

Lent, Clint Eastwood, and a Prayer

 

The church calendar currently finds itself during the season of Lent. Lent is traditionally a season of fasting specific foods as laid out by the church as well as intensified prayer, self-examination, and repentance as we draw nearer to Easter and the joyful celebration of Jesus’ glorious bodily resurrection. During this season I have read a bunch of blog posts and articles on Lent from Protestant, non-denominational and denominational, and Orthodox and Roman Catholic circles and would like to offer a few comments of my own (though not to any one particular person or article).

The Orthodox and Roman Catholic blogs I read have been focusing on, obviously, what they are supposed to focus on, but I have noticed a thread in some of their writings and sermons. There is a general, and valid, denouncement of self-guided Lenten practices specifically among Protestants. However, I think it is important to note something: PROTESTANTS ARE OBSERVING LENT! This is a big deal especially considering that one of the key figures of the Reformation started his protest during Lent by letting his people eat sausages when they were supposed to be fasting meat. Lest one think though that the Orthodox and Roman Catholics are being sticks in the mud about this I’d also note that, from what I have read, there is a general appreciation of Protestants returning to the observation of some of the traditional practices of the church.

In the Protestant blogs I have noticed two tendencies: enthusiastic adoption of Lent complete with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday or warnings that Lent is okay to observe as long as you don’t think it saves you or become legalistic about it. In this I can see some things that annoy more traditional Christian traditions, like the Orthodox, in that the prescribed practices of Lent devolve into fasting of things like Facebook or chocolate instead of the rigorous asceticism Lent traditionally demands. On the other hand I see Lent making more conservative Protestants, usually of the Calvinistic variety, nervous because they see these practices as capitulation to tradition and would rather fight the battles of 16th century Tridentine theology rather than take up a practice that reeks of papism.

Personally, I really like the rigor of Lent. I’m part of a non-denominational evangelical group with ties to the charismatic renewal movements of the 1970’s so the only Lenten practices I can observe are self determined (much to the chagrin of more traditional Christians). On the other hand, my taking on of a more ascetically rigorous observation of Lent looks to be works righteousness to those on the Protestant side because heck, we’re already righteous so we don’t have to worry about self-examination, repentance, or asking for God’s mercy because all we have to do is let go and let God. I feel like Clint Eastwood’s character from A Fistful of Dollars when he says, “The Rojos on one side and the Baxters on the other, and me right in the middle…”

So what is a person to do? I say go for it, observe Lent. Yes, even you YRR/TGC guy. I’ve been fortunate as I have friends in the Orthodox Church who have been good guides and have encouraged me to, as much as I can in my own context, press into pursuing a life of holiness and serious spiritual self examination and prayer. My prayer during Lent for myself and for you dear reader is simply this: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

(In my use of Protestant I am referring generally to evangelicals of various denominations and not Protestants from the Anglican/Episcopal/more traditional side of things)

True Rationality and The Recreation of the Divine Image

 

A quick update before we get into On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. I finally turned in my final assignments and my theology comprehensive exam and graduated from seminary two weeks ago with a Master of Divinity. Going to seminary was one of the best things I have ever done and I’m better for going even if I will be poorer financially as I pay off my loans. It was worth it. I made some good friends and appreciate the time I spent there. My parents flew over from South Africa and were there at my graduation ceremony which made it incredibly special. I’m grateful to God for his good gifts to me.

Back to St. Athanasius, and we turn to the next few chapters from On the Incarnation. In chapter 11 St. Athanasius notes that God made humanity in the image of Jesus Christ and that they would be able to know God the Father through the divine image of the Word of God (Jesus). This results in humanity living a blessed and happy life. Unfortunately this is short lived and he points out that our ancestors despised God’s grace and turned away from him. They made false gods and fabricated idols and honored beings who do not exist, going to far to even sacrifice animals and other humans to these idols and false gods. He ends chapter 11 by saying that even though humanity no longer recognized God he still left methods by which they could know of him.

In chapter 12, St. Athanasius says that God was not surprised by what his creation had done and anticipated their carelessness. If they could not recognize God through themselves in the divine image they were created in they could still “see” God through the works of creation. Not only that but God also sends the law and the prophets so even if they did not see God in creation they still had instruction from other humans about the true God. Expanding on this he makes two points:

  1. The greatness of the heavens testifies not just to God’s existence but also to God’s providential goodness.
  2. God sends holy ones to testify of himself and that humanity needs to turn away from the false gods and idols they have made for themselves.

Sadly, even though God had anticipated the carelessness of humanity and had performed actions to show his goodness, humanity “beaten by the pleasures of the moment and the illusions and deceits of the demons were not able to raise their gaze to the truth but sated themselves with even more evils and sins, so that they no longer appeared rational…”

What I find interesting in chapter 12 and 13 is that St. Athanasius does not just tie in rationality with the general ability humans have to think and reason. For him the height of irrationality is not someone who cannot think, but someone, who because of sin, has not recognized God through his creation or through his messengers and has persisted in sating themselves with evil. This is a far cry from how rationality is commonly understood in our own context. For modern peoples, rationality is marked by the ability to think through ideas and to form arguments, hypotheses, and conclusions. But for St. Athanasius the height of irrationality is the one who has rejected the true God.

He goes on in chapter 13 to note that since humanity was made in the image of Jesus Christ it would not be right for humanity to be destroyed. God’s response to all of this is the enfleshment of the Word of God (Jesus). So God the Word takes on humanity so that the divine image present in humanity could be recreated.

This is heavy stuff but it is basic for how Christianity views the world and the Incarnation of God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius provides, to this day, a better anthropology of humanity and the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation, and what the Incarnation means for the totality of our salvation, then anything thought up by modern theologians. The Incarnation matters more than just as a device by which God the Father sends Jesus into the world. It has a significant effect on the world and our relation to God.

(The icon used of the creation of Adam was found at http://wp.me/pYVj0-6H from a general image search)