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

 

 

 

 

 

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)

Protestant Holy Tradition?

I was listening to a debate online the other day. One of the debaters was confronted by his opponent who said that he was not being faithful to the Biblical text, by relying on his tradition’s understanding of Scripture. The debater responded that he did not have a tradition and that he interprets the Bible according to what it plainly says. This is the standard response many Christians have when confronted by, or shown, contrary evidence to a position that they hold.

A friend of mine recently finished a distance online theological studies course. The course lasted two years and the scope of the study was focused on one particular book. I heartily approve of people who pursue deeper theological knowledge in order to deepen their own faith and to help others so I was glad when my friend finished the course. There is a slight danger though because when theology is shaped by one persons understanding of the Christian faith we should tread carefully. I encouraged this person to continue to study and to read books and material from outside her own tradition. Those who have gone before us provide the theological framework that we build upon, and this in turn shapes the traditions of our respective Christian groups. Now you may be thinking, “Not so fast! We’re Protestants and we only believe what the Bible says.” I’m glad you brought that up; let’s deal with it briefly.

If you are preparing a sermon do you use commentaries? As you prepare sermons or teaching lessons do you refer to extra material in order to understand the history and context of what you’re going to be teaching or preaching? Do you read Calvin, Luther, Owen, Henry, Hagin, Dake, Meyer, or Scofield to better understand the Scriptures? When you are doing that you are appealing to a specific tradition’s understanding of the text and underlying theology of the text. Congratulations! You are no longer just teaching what the Bible says you are appealing to an overarching tradition that you think best represents what you think Scripture actually says. Appealing to no tradition is just as much of a tradition as the tradition of a liturgical church and it has historical roots that can be traced to a specific point of origin. No one reads and interprets Scripture in a vacuum so to appeal to the plain literal reading of the Bible is to appeal to the tradition of the people who invented that framework.

This begs the question then is there a tradition that is better, or more accurate, then another? I would answer yes. For those of us who are Protestants we often do not realize our origins, nor do we always understand history, nor do we acknowledge the effect that history has had on the way we interpret the Bible (generally speaking). The longer I’m a Christian the more I think we should return to a tradition that is more informed by the church fathers then the narrow readings our modern traditions provide. For example, dispensationalism is only two hundred years old and it goes against a lot of what came before it. As such we can probably reject it as a system. I’m not saying there is no truth in dispensationalism, I’m saying that there may be a better tradition more grounded in history and the life of the church then a 19th century system that owes it origins to an English minister who saw things in the Bible and made connections that no one had ever made before. I’m not trying to trash dispensationalism nor am I saying they aren’t Christians but they do provide a clear example of my point: we all have traditions, we need to acknowledge them and be open to the realization that there just may be an ultimate one out there that shaped all of the others. Maybe we should seek it, and if we find it compare it with our own, the results may be surprising.