Easter – Surprised by Hope

I recently finished reading N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, and for my Easter reflection today, I would like to treat you to his summation of the message of Easter. We are called to a great hope indeed, so much more than an immaterial life after death, so much more than the shedding of earthly “toils and snares,” weariness, and tears. We are called to a bodily resurrection in the new heavens and new earth, the foretaste and inauguration of which came in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is risen! The kingdom is here!

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

~ Colossians 3:1-11 (ESV)

“[A]t the start of Colossians 3, [Paul] focuses on what it actually means to share, here and now, in the resurrection of the Messiah. Paul insists that if you are already raised with Christ–then you have a responsibility to share in the present risen life of Jesus…

Part of the central achievement of the incarnation, which is then celebrated in the resurrection and ascension, is that heaven and earth are now joined together with an unbreakable bond and that we too are by rights citizens of both together. We can, if we choose, screen out the heavenly dimension and live as flatlanders, materialists. If we do that, we will be buying in to a system that will go bad, and will wither and die, because earth gets its vital life from heaven.

But if we focus our attention on the heavenly dimension, all sorts of positive and practical results will follow…. In each case what [Paul’s] talking about is actual current physical reality, shot through now with the life of heaven…. Heaven and earth, I repeat, are made for each other, and at certain points they intersect and interlock. Jesus is the ultimate such point. Christians are meant to be such points, derived from him.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God….

11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
    and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

~ Ephesians 5:1-2, 11-14 (ESV)

“In other words, it’s time to wake up! Living at the level of the nonheavenly world around you is like being asleep; worse, it’s like that for which sleep is a metaphor–being dead…. Come alive to the real world, the world where Jesus is Lord, the world into which your baptism brings you, the world you claim to belong to when you say in the creed that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.

The message of Easter, then, is neither that God once did a spectacular miracle but then decided not to do many others nor that there is a blissful life after death to look forward to. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it. And precisely because the resurrection was and is bodily, albeit with a transformed body, the power of Easter to transform and heal the present world must be put into effect both at the macro level , in applying the gospel to the major problems of the world…and to the intimate details of our daily lives. Christian holiness consists not of trying as hard as we can to be good but of learning to live in the new world created by Easter, the new world we publicly entered in our baptism…. Personal holiness and global holiness belong together. Those who wake up to one may well find themselves called to wake up to the other as well.”

~ Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N.T. Wright (pp. 250-253)

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

~ 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

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Lent VII – Passion and Glory

Holy Week begins tomorrow and, with it, the remembrance of Christ’s passion. What better motivation is there to abandon my rebellions and to embrace with whole-hearted devotion my God—what better motivation than this: to remember the sacrifice of the One who set aside unimaginable glory and honor to endure horrific suffering for my sake and the sake of the whole world—to love him because he has first loved me.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

~ Philippians 2:5-11

But as we know, the grievous road to the cross ultimately brought great glory and honor to God because Jesus conquered the grave by rising again, and the kingdom of God began to show through here on earth, as it is in heaven. Indeed, as Paul says, God has highly exalted Jesus for his humble obedience, and we are compelled to name him as not only our Lord, but the Lord of all things. This is not to say that Christ’s suffering merely pales because it served the greater good; on the contrary, it is to exalt his suffering because it came of true obedience and because it accomplished the healing of the world, which will become evident to all creatures in the end (I also wish to be clear here that there is much more to be said about Christ’s suffering than its end results). We, too, are encouraged to have the mind of Christ by taking on his humility, his obedient spirit, his self-sacrificial love—all to bring glory to God, which is our main purpose.

The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
    him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
    he awakens my ear
    to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious;
    I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
    and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
    from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

~ Isaiah 50:4-7 (ESV)

The Lord, our God, will not leave us helpless before the powers of darkness. He has already conquered them, and it is by his power, his Spirit, that we continue to proclaim and embody his kingdom until he returns.

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!

~ Psalm 118:21-29 (ESV)

Lent VI: Humility for Service

Dirck_van_Baburen_-_Christ_Washing_the_Apostles_Feet_-_WGA1090

~ Christ Washing the Apostles’ Feet, Dirck van Baburen (1616)

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

~ Mark 8:34-38

The Lord Jesus Christ traded his glory for humility, his satisfaction for suffering, his majesty for servanthood, his transcendence for earthiness. But he did not make himself low merely for the sake of so doing; he did so for our sake. He likewise calls each of us to deny oneself, to bear our own “cross”–in all that word’s polysemous proliferation. The context in Mark 8 suggests that one significant instance of denying ourselves is choosing Christ over worldly gain when the two are in conflict; the related instance of bearing our crosses is submitting to the consequences of the open proclamation of our allegiance to Christ and God’s kingdom in a culture which does not appreciate that. I don’t know about you, but I find this very difficult sometimes, not least because I am afraid of being that clanging symbol in 1 Corinthians 13.

During Lent, the emphasis on self-denial may have the propensity to turn us inward, as we leave off participating in certain activities that are often good but that may sometimes leach our time and energy away from the pursuit of God and godliness. May I humbly suggest, however, that self-denial is not primarily about me (or you)? While such devotional self-reflection is often helpful, self-denial in the Christian sense is bigger than that. Jesus calls us to self-denial for his sake and for the gospel’s sake, which is ultimately for the good of others and the world. Paul expands on this by describing how he humbles himself by taking on the weaknesses or limitations of each group of people he serves, in order that some in each group may thereby receive the gospel and be saved.

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew… To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law)… 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)… 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.

~ 1 Corinthians 9:19-22

Later in the same chapter, Paul describes disciplining his body to maintain self-control, but once again, this is not for the sake of that control, but for the sake of others: “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27).

Acknowledging our own sin and setting aside things we desire are wise and worthy practices, but they are best when they turn us away from ourselves by increasing our desire for God and increasing our passion for spreading his kingdom–for preaching the gospel, for loving the lost, for serving the needy, for stewarding the world’s resources, for working as a redemptive force in the surrounding culture. In other words, if we take pride in our self-denial, it is nothing but false humility. True humility will lead us to serve others and to proclaim only the one who has humbled himself for us.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
    and his mercy is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
    and all your saints shall bless you!
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
    and tell of your power,
to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
    and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

~ Psalm 145: 8-13

 

Lent V: Rejoice, O Jerusalem

Today is Laetare Sunday–rejoice, be refreshed, take nourishment–the weight of Lent is lifted briefly in a foretaste of the joy of Easter.

“Judah mourns,
    and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
    and the cry of Jerusalem goes up…”

20 We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
    and the iniquity of our fathers,
    for we have sinned against you.
21 Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
    do not dishonor your glorious throne;
    remember and do not break your covenant with us.
22 Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain?
    Or can the heavens give showers?
Are you not he, O Lord our God?
    We set our hope on you,
    for you do all these things.

~ Jeremiah 14:2, 20-22

The whole of Jeremiah 14 is a lament, God’s lament about the wickedness of his people and Jeremiah’s lament on behalf of the Israelites. When read devotionally, this chapter is a solemn call to confession, a reminder that every one of us must acknowledge our own sinfulness, the generational burdens we may be bearing, the offenses we have carried out against others and against God. But it ends on those beautiful, crucial words: “Are you not he, O Lord our God?/ We set our hope on you….”

In the historical context, Jeremiah is hoping in the Lord for an end to drought and its effects of famine and disease, as well as protection from the enemies who are striking the Israelites down in their weakness. But God is our hope for more than our immediate needs–although he cares for those as well–he is our hope for freedom from sin and its dreadful effects on us and the world.

…the present Jerusalem, … she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

~ Galatians 4:25b-26, 5:1

If you have read many posts on my blog yet, you know that one theme I cannot help but return to is the hope we have in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; the kingdom is here, freedom is ours, we are the ambassadors of Christ, who is God with Us. The Incarnation and Resurrection are the foretaste of the unveiling of the Holy Jerusalem, when God will be in the midst of us. This is the great hope and confidence of Easter, to which we look forward today.

Storm in Rockies

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, Albert Bierstadt (1866)
God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

~ Psalm 46:1-7

Discernment and “The Benedict Option”

Hearts & Minds Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

I recently posted a link to Christianity Today Online’s forum of responses to Dreher’s March cover article in Christianity Today, which put forward “strategic withdrawal” from culture as the way forward for American Christianity. The above link is another thoughtful response, this time with respect to Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, on which his article is presumably based. (The author of the review, Byron Borger, is also the owner of a lovely bookstore called Hearts & Minds, from which I order all of my theology/faith/culture-oriented books, and it is largely due to their columns and newsletters that I hear of many of these books in the first place.) The review is long, so I will briefly sum it up here. I do encourage you to read the whole thing, regardless of your interest in Dreher’s book, because it is really a great reflection on the church’s role in the world, and it includes many great recommendations for other books about the various topics touched on in the review.

Borger discusses six main points about Dreher’s book:

  1. The book clearly reflects the influence of St. Benedict of Nursia, who formed spiritual communities in the period after the Roman Empire.
  2. The modern day call for a new kind of Benedict originates not with Dreher, but with Alasdair MacIntyre, in his After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology, and Dreher’s concerns with the breakdowns in modern society acknowledge that they go much further back than any recent legislative or cultural movements, although perhaps Dreher does not go back quite far enough.
  3. Dreher is well-read and references many great authors, which gives the book a strong foundation for its critique of “modern progressive impulses.”
  4. Dreher’s earlier book, Crunchy Cons, sought to critique conservatism from within, drawing on the likes of Wendell Berry to advocate for more local, more green, more other-oriented conservatism. The Benedict Option also quotes Berry, but Dreher is selective, emphasizing Berry’s views on materialism, family stability, traditional sexual ethics, and conservation, but drawing no attention to his critiques of nationalism, violence, etc.
  5. The book may not be adequately clear on how bad things are or how much Dreher thinks we need to retreat; Dreher has responded to published criticism by clarifying that “he does not counsel a full resistance or a complete withdrawal.”
  6. There is much you may be ambivalent about in the book–he probably overstates what we should be alarmed about and how alarmed we should be.
  7. There is much to wisely consider in the book–worship and the church, prayer and community, spiritual practices that cultivate the interior life, all of these are deeply important, formative, and may indeed be increasingly important as the civilization around us becomes increasingly disconnected from “Christian-inspired” principles.

Borger ends the review with a lovely apologia for a resurrection-oriented, culture-shaping role for the church, from which these few quotes are drawn:

There is little doubt that Dreher is right that many churches these days don’t really help us live into the sort of holiness to which we are called.

But the same Bible also holds out a vision of the renewal of all things. Everything.   The Bible tells us to go into the world; it just does. There is no escaping the missional call to serve our neighbors, the public sphere, working “in but not of” the society around us…

Work, family, politics, art, learning — it’s all gift, it’s all service, even in … a state of exile. Our church liturgy anticipates the final restoration of things…. As such, good liturgy … is hopeful. We hear good news each week and practice ways of embodying such hope, even in exile.  I think Rod [Dreher] should worry less about Supreme Court rulings and listen better, week after week, to that great liturgical refrain:  He Is Risen.  He is Risen Indeed.

Lent IV: Judgment and Compassion

Not long ago, my pastor preached a sermon on the insidiousness of hypocritical judgment. This sermon was in the context of the theme “Every believer a minister,” and the goal was to motivate us to greater compassion for others. In my devotional reading earlier this week, I read the same passage that drove that sermon, along with some comments in my devotional book that compel me in a similar direction.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

~ Romans 2:1-5

“…it is interesting to encounter Paul’s words, and have these thoughts, during Lent. For read in the season of Lent, my judgmental comments seem to be, among other things, one of those barriers between me and other people–and ultimately between me and true self-knowledge.

If I criticize you, I don’t have to acknowledge the ways that we are the same, the ways I, too, have done foolish sinful things. I push away knowledge of my own flaws and failings by setting myself above you and your flaws and failings. Lent is an invitation to stop.”

~ Lauren Winner, “Second Wednesday of Lent,” God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter

We have been attending our church for almost two years, and never before have I been as challenged in the matter of judging others as I have been here. This is not simply due to the preaching. It is in part due to the church’s efforts to be a multi-cultural church, crossing not only race lines but also socio-economic, educational/class, and political lines. As a result, there are many people in the church who are very different from me, and I have been surprised at my reactions to those differences, which I have needed to work through in order to learn to show love. It is also, I think, due to the crucible of parenthood, which has spanned about the same time frame and which brings me face to face with my own baseness. In any case, judgment is a favorite activity for most of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Let us stop, and find ways of showing compassion, even as we bear witness to the truth.

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice!
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
    the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
    and precious is their blood in his sight.

~ Psalm 72: 1-2, 12-14

Lent III – A Firm Foundation

One of the reasons I started this blog seven years ago was that I have long grappled with the legitimacy of the calling to be a classical musician within the kingdom of God. I also doubted the godliness of spending 6+ years working toward my PhD, when many of my classmates from college were either going into missions or beginning jobs that clearly served others. However, I have come to believe deeply in the importance of a Christian presence in the music world, and in the arts and culture more broadly, because of the present reality of God’s kingdom, launched in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and our role as livers of and workers in the “already” of that kingdom (anticipating the “not yet,” the decisive return of Jesus, the rending of the curtain between heaven and earth, and the remaking of all things). And it is clear to me that the legitimacy of my work as a musician, researcher, and teacher is assured when it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ–that is, when all my work is informed by who Christ is and by the reality of his new kingdom.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

~ 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (ESV)

This Lent, I find myself staring down some demons. I am not doing much music, much research, or any teaching, and I find myself feeling less myself, and far less valuable, because of it. The majority of my time is spent loving my two small children and keeping house, and while this is a temporary situation, I have trouble keeping that in perspective. But today I am encouraged by the grace of God, that all my work, both the visible work of my professional life and the invisible work of my personal life, is valuable not because it is my work but because it is founded on the Lord, Jesus Christ and set before me by him. And I am also chastened, reminded that if I do the work set before me merely because it is my duty, having a poor attitude and valuing it less than I should, that yes, I will remain a child of God, but that my work may in fact count for very little in the kingdom.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
~ Psalm 8:3-4