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

God’s Patience

When God’s Mercy Sounds Like Bad News

Sometimes God’s patience seems pointless–isn’t the world getting worse? shouldn’t he just come now and wipe the slate clean? are my apparently fruitless endeavors for the kingdom failures? aren’t atheistic, consumeristic, and secular agendas destroying the church (in the West)? But God’s patience is mercy, and we should act in that mercy, trusting him to be present in the making of history and being faithful in our work for him.

In light of the Resurrection, Paul encourages the church to “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). His command is not a bizarre non-sequitur but the practical application of everything that’s come before: Resurrection is coming, so don’t give up!

This is my comfort in my affliction,
that your promise gives me life.
~Psalm 119:50

An Invitation to “Unselfing”

Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again

What is Lent for?

Lent is an invitation to get us outside of ourselves, so that we might get over ourselves and redirect our lives more wholly to God and to our neighbors. Lent derails our governing inertias to jolt us into seeing things that have gone unnoticed or into feeling things that have begun to calcify into self-absorbed preoccupation.

We are invited to die to self, to make space for Christ’s work in our lives, to make room for the Spirit to confirm our beloved-ness as children of God. We are invited to journey with others in the body of Christ, to come face to face with our humanity and to learn from the Incarnation, to exercise our spiritual muscles. We are invited to reimagine–Christ’s sufferings, the brokenness of the world, God’s love for it–hope.

See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the “film of familiarity” and the “lethargy of custom”…. In this season of Lent, with its rhythms of Scripture and prayer, community and service, my prayer is that art … might enable our sight to be healed by God, as together we die with Christ, that we might live with Christ, for the sake of a more radiant, winsome witness in the world.

Lent II – Do Not Forget the Giver

Wedding at Cana by Louis Kahan

~ Wedding Feast at Cana, Louis Kahan

11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God…

17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.

19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

~ Deuteronomy 8:11-20

I have heard the phrase in v. 18, “It is [the Lord] who gives you power to get wealth,” used several times in justification of the pursuit of wealth, which may then enable work for the Lord. While that is not necessarily a poor conclusion to draw, it seems tangential to the larger point of this passage: our wealth–or our talents, abilities, possessions of various kinds, opportunities, etc.–are a gratuitous gift from God. They are unmerited and not guaranteed; and if they become ends in themselves, matters of pride, or idols, they will lead to spiritual deadness, not the resurrection life of abundance, fruitfulness, and joy.

I believe that the pursuit of cultural good, cultural renewal, is a calling for all Christians, part of the redemptive work set in motion with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this passage is a stark reminder that all such pursuits–be they business ventures or artistic ones–must not displace the one they ought to glorify. As at the Wedding Feast at Cana, where the miraculous best wine put Jesus’s glory on display publicly for the first time and became a metaphor for Jesus himself, our redemptive endeavors should point to the glory of the One who is redeeming the whole world; our remaking and reshaping work in the culture a metaphor for God’s remaking of all things.

Art for Lent

I have to share this beautiful gallery from Image Journal’s website. It combines images of artwork, poetry, essays, short stories, etc. in a gallery for Lent and Easter. I invite you to peruse this at your leisure.

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~ We Are One in Jesus Our Lord, Soichi Watanabe, 2008

Culture: Retreat or Renew?

Is It Time for Evangelicals to Withdraw from the Culture?

This series of articles on Christianity Today offers four responses to Rob Dreher’s article–The Benedict Option’s Vision for a Christian Village–in which Dreher calls for a tactical, circling-the-wagons approach to dealing with the evangelical church’s inability to be a powerful counterforce to both the decline of virtue and the over-enthusiasm for the market present in various segments of our culture today:

The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation….  If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

While there is much to be taken note of here–Christianity should be a way of life, and Christian community should be more than a social club, instead encouraging and growing us theologically and spiritually–these responses detail various reasons why retreat from culture, even for the good reasons of developing community and intentional spiritual practice, is perhaps not what we are called to:

The church is made who it is by being the church in the world. The church’s primary reason for being is to be in and among (but not of) the world (John 17:14–15)…. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are. The church does not have a mission. It is mission.

~ The Benedict Option’s False Dichotomy, David Fitch

Too often, our well-intended efforts to deepen Christian community leave us with people who look just like us, perpetuating divisions in the church over race, politics, and class. But the church of every tribe, tongue, and nation—and the church of every tax bracket, political party, and musical taste—requires more. Christians are called to overcome these barriers, for the sake of the church and the sake of the world.

~ The Benedict Option Falls Short of Real Pluralism, John Inazu

Robust theology will yield robust communities…. God’s story from Creation to Revelation is of a Covenant God empowering his beloved to persevere through hostility leveled specifically against them. The New Testament tells the beautiful story of persevering community, faith, and creativity in the context of cultural adversity…. [It] provides a model of persevering faith, creativity, and community. Anyone seeking a more dynamic, transformational, risk-taking church in America will humbly learn from both global and local leaders who are living its reality.

~ The Benedict Option’s Blind Spots, Karen Ellis

As counterintuitive as it sounds, evangelicals strengthen their local Christian communities by recovering a sense of responsibility for the larger communities in which we exist. It is the Great Commission that corrects the effects of secular individualism, actively confronting our consumerism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and classicism. It is the Great Commission that gives us a reason to exist beyond the solipsism of our own hearts.

~ The Benedict Option Isn’t an Evangelical Option, Hannah Anderson

Lent I – Repair the Breach

For Ash Wednesday:

olanamatthew6m-505x630

Olana – Matthew 6, Makoto Fujimura

Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

~ Isaiah 58:5-12 (ESV)

Oh God,

Let us be the hands and feet of Jesus. Let us be repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets. Let us risk all to feed, clothe, visit, harbor, save the least of these. Let us not take pride in our humility, nor offer up our good deeds to others for their praise. Let us be servants, workers in your kingdom. Now is the acceptable time! Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.

Amen.