House for Prayer? Thoughts on the Third Sunday in Lent

Jesus cleansing the temple. Chasing out the bad guys, the ones who had turned into a place to make a fast denarius or two. And from that little tidbit we build sermons around what we perceive to be the parallel misuses of the buildings used for worship today. You’ve heard them, I’ve heard them; I’ve preached them.

Today, however, I’d like us to focus a little more attention on the first portion of Jesus’s objection to what was happening in Jerusalem. We can lay aside the reality that there are difficulties in identifying each of our respective houses of worship with the “my house” character of the Jerusalem temple. The reality is that any temple or church structure dedicated to the worship of God will encounter the same troublesome tendencies at some time or other. Lots of things happened in that temple on a regular basis; even more activities arguably take place in our buildings today. We play there, we worship there, we exercise there, we study together, we laugh, we cry, we talk about football and politics, we fellowship, we celebrate, we encourage one another, entertain guests and performers, raise funds, etc., etc. But how much do we pray there? Really pray?

The posts in this year’s somewhat shorter Lenten series have been focused on the kingdom of God and how we should make it more of a centering concern for our calling as the people of God. Nowhere can the commitment we have to the kingdom be better seen in our congregations than in the way we think about the places in which we gather as the body of believers. The question is simple–how much of what we do “at church” has prayer at its core, or as a natural outgrowth of the activity?

“My house shall be called a house of prayer.” Did this mean that any other activity was forbidden? No. The temple was a busy place; it was the symbolic center of communal life, where the reason for being was found, where purpose for moving ahead through difficult times was instilled, where hope was renewed, where children were reminded of their special identity in God’s desires for the world and its redemption. Faith was formed in concert between home and temple, and faith was never perceived as some private
decision to believe what one wanted; it was “the faith” before it ever became any particular one’s faith. And prayers both confessed that faith and wove it into the fabric of the lives of its people.

Hence the anger with which Jesus confronted the money changers. Their activities clouded rather than cleared the vision of life and godliness that prayer was to engender where the people of God gathered. They hindered prayer. We are stimulated by and alerted to the real intents and purposes of God for us through the teaching of the scriptures; we commit ourselves to it through prayer. And our very identity as the people of God depends upon it.

What is it in our congregations that cannot continue without prayer? To put it another way, would anything in our regular way of doing things really be different if prayer were removed from it? Is it there at all? Maybe for some of our congregations we don’t need to repent of not praying for the kingdom as much as we need to repent of not really praying at all. Our faith formation and our faith transmission to another generation will not take place without it. And if something is crowding it out of our corporate life, perhaps a few overturned tables are in order. Repentance surely is.

Kingdoms and Politics

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Granted. This post backs up one short phrase from last week’s thoughts on praying for the kingdom to come over all the earth, and not just over our tiny corner thereof. Those who are tracking with me joined in repenting of having such a narrow view of God’s interests. Perhaps we also need to ask what it is we are praying for, and what it is that we too readily accept as substitutes. And at times we lobby harder for the substitutes than we do for the kingdom of God.

There are, of course, many ideas about just how the kingdom of God relates to the kingdoms of this world, some of which are nearer or farther from exhibiting laws and policies that are consistent with the rule of God. Good Christians have long disagreed about the level of involvement in secular government that is appropriate for believers. Do we dig in and make the best of a messy situation, hoping to influence policies in God-honoring ways, or is the very activity of governing so steeped in corruption that we must stay out of it entirely if we are to maintain any sort of integrity as citizens of God’s kingdom? I’ve held both views at different times–and sometimes simultaneously!

But this post is not about finding the right theory of engagement for Christians. It is about thinking wrongly about the prospects of bringing God’s rule through governmental actions and policies; and it is about our apparent belief that getting the right party to control the halls of Congress or the various state houses is where our hopes should lie and toward which our energies should be expended. It is all too common for self-identified Christians to join in political rants that have far more to do with maintaining the power of a chosen party than they do with what measures are good for our common life. Often it is done with very bitter spirits, with venom toward any who disagree, and with an edge of anger and self-preservation unbefitting those who are not their own because they’ve been bought with a great price.

Neither the anger of people, not the policies of a government can achieve the righteousness of God. We look to the wrong places for the solutions to greed, corruption, theft, abuse, violence, and basic unrest and distrust if we think a party can accomplish it if only given its way. His will; His ways. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we focused our minds on the ways of our Lord, and then learned to make his ways more consistently our ways we would have the audience the gospel deserves. We might do well to repent of not making it so in our lives.

It Must Be So: Thoughts on the Second Sunday in Lent

“Get away from me, Satan!”

The gospel lesson for today is Mark 8:31-39, wherein Jesus announces his death and resurrection to his disciples. Peter’s response is not at all surprising: “No way!” To which, of course, Jesus replies with the words above. Matthew’s version of this account includes the stark contrast between the words to Peter after his recognition of the true identity of Jesus and the words after the same Peter’s objection to the very means by which his Lord would become his saviour.

The temptation to want a Christ without the messiness of the crucifixion is ever with us. We want a champion with whom to identify, one who captures the imagination with his incredibly insightful answers for all occasions, who confronts the powers that be, bringing them down to size and exposing their duplicity. We want to be on the winning side when the final buzzer sounds. We like the idea of siding with the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the victims. After all, somehow the world unfolds in such a way that we all tend to think that we have drawn the short straw in one way or another. Things are unjust; someone needs to answer for that, and we find it difficult to rest until we at least know who it is. The idea of a triumphal Christ, one who will bring justice in his arm, set the world to rights (in deference to N. T. Wright), and make the evil doers pay sits well with us. We might even be willing to put up with an inconvenience or two in order to remain on his side. It will all be worth it someday.

But somehow the very cross that makes the promised victory possible doesn’t seem quite so popular among some of his would-be followers. We want Jesus to win the day, but we want him to get on with it on our terms. We want him to fill our hopes, our expectations, our dreams of a utopian world, and we really don’t see the need to be talking about crosses along the way. Such is the implication, sometimes clear and sometimes subtle, when we want our side to win without cost. Jesus already paid it all, right? Let’s not speak of it any longer. And if we must, let us speak of it strictly as history.

The horrific persecution being visited upon our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world might give us pause to reconsider the words of Jesus in a different, more challenging light. Crucifixion was the way of God’s victory over sin. Resurrection completes the accomplishment. And those who come after him are encouraged to take up their cross. Middle East believers in the early twenty-first century are not the first or only ones to know fully how literal that directive from Jesus can sometimes be. And while their sacrifice, along with that of all who have gone before them in similar fashion, does not atone for sin, it does give witness to the way of God’s ultimate victory. Cross, then resurrection.

To demand or desire another way, to insist upon a more palatable way of using the name of Jesus will continue to draw the response that must have stung in Peter’s mind: get out of my way, Satan. Perhaps it’s because we really don’t grasp the depth of our sin problem that we think we can have this champion Jesus without his cross. It’s our problem, and it’s the world’s problem, and it is ours as much as it is the world’s. Whenever we prefer another Lord or kingdom, no matter how good and just it might seem, over the one that comes by way of crucifixion, we are in great peril. And we should repent.

On Earth–All of It: A Lenten Post

And when you pray, pray like this: “. . .Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

How many times have we prayed those words, with varying degrees of sincerity? Those who worship in congregations given to greater use of forms for prayer have said them more frequently than those in supposedly “free” church congregations. But we all know them. This midweek Lenten post focuses on repentance in prayer. Not repenting as a part of our prayer, which is surely to be done, and not repenting for not praying more than we do, but for praying unfaithfully. What is meant by that?

As I have listened to countless calls for prayer requests, the response is almost always the same, no matter where one goes, especially but not exclusively in the evangelical world. Someone’s illness, someone’s surgery, perhaps a bereavement, and maybe even a need for employment or housing for someone known to us. And there is the rub–someone known to us. How often are our prayers limited to requests to God to procure for ourselves or for someone close to us the blessings of health, comfort, and security? To the extent that these good gifts do indeed come down from the Father of Lights, and to the extent they exhibit the kingdom in our midst, we should so pray. But we cannot stop there.

Our prayers will inevitably display the content of our hearts, our dreams, and our desires. They will also make manifest the limits of our vision. The dire straights in which Christians in the Middle East find themselves have begun to shock some people into recognizing that we have it “pretty good” here in the security of the west. And we pray that God will keep it that way, and go on our way, absorbed by the life that is ours in a relatively cozy culture, where we become oblivious to the dangers of that coziness. Meanwhile those whom our Lord declares his brothers and sisters, and who are therefore ours as well, suffer mightily. They are deprived of home, work, and of life itself in all too many cases.

When we pray for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, do we really ask for it to come to earth, or to our little corner thereof? Does the rule of other powers and authorities bother us if it is not visible to us where we live? Do we desire his rule of to be made manifest where it is most antithetical to what is currently the case? When you pray, when I pray, when our churches pray, let us look with a broader vision of God’s desire for all people, all nations, and especially for those of the household of faith. And let us repent for praying only for the protection of our comfort in a broken world. The next time someone asks for a prayer request, what aspect of “Thy kingdom come” will burn in our hearts so that we must share it with those present?

Lord, I repent of praying unfaithfully. I haven’t meant the whole world when I’ve asked for your rule to come to earth. Enlarge my heart, increase my vision, I pray.

Repentance: Thoughts for the First Sunday in Lent

The Gospel text for the First Sunday in Lent (Mark 1:9-15) doesn’t come from the Passion account of our Lord’s final week before the crucifixion. It comes from the beginning of his public ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Many of us are accustomed to reading this text as saying that there is further good news, that the gospel is something other than what Jesus announced here–the kingdom of God has come near. As a result, we are prone to thinking that the we must supply the missing information, which we do by telling people to confess their sins and ask Jesus to forgive them so that when the kingdom does come, or rather that we go to the kingdom (somewhere) when we die, we will be part of the throng, among the citizens. Well, yes, and no to that idea.

As Scot McKnight has explained quite clearly in The King Jesus Gospel, we haven’t always distinguished between the good news itself–the kingdom of God is coming–and the means by which we enter that kingdom and the nature of our participation therein. The good news, the gospel, is that God’s reign is at hand. And because it is, the only response we can make is enter that reign by way of repentance. Literally, this means a change of mind. I’m reminded of the preaching of Paul on the day of Pentecost, culminating in the declaration that this Jesus whom they had crucified God had been raised and made both Lord and Christ. When the listeners were struck to the core by this fact, they wanted to know how to respond: repent and be baptized.

Just what is it about which we are to change our minds? Our sins? Yes, of course. But that relates to the saving work of Christ; it’s how we enter the gate to the kingdom. But what about the reign of Christ? To refer to Jesus as “Lord and Christ,” terms which relate the reign of Christ differently to Jews and Greeks, is to announce something larger than the forgiveness of individual sins. It says that he is now the king, fulfilling what Jesus had begun announcing in the beginning of his ministry. So what? Glad you asked.

To say that Jesus is Lord, or that Jesus reigns as king, or that he is above all rule, power, and authority is to call every other ruler, power, or authority to task. He relativizes each and every one of them. And sooner or later we come to recognize that we have offered submission to lesser lords, lesser powers. And we must repent. We must learn anew to live in the kingdom not of this world, even while it rages around us, threatening to undo us.

Who are these other lords, powers, rulers, and authorities? There are many possible answers. They include governments, to be sure; and many a believer has refused to bow to them when allegiance to the true Lord would be compromised thereby. More frequently, however, are we all tempted and occasionally held hostage by other powers, forgetting or not learning in the first place, that Christ is above them. Economics; politics; public opinion; fear; doubt; disease; hardship; pain; mourning; entertainment; leisure. All of these are very much a part of the world we live in, and all threaten at times to climb beyond their appointed boundaries and ultimately convince us to serve them, offering our best energies, gifts, and resources to their service.

Could it be that our giving of allegiance to these inadequate rulers is what leads us to commit the “personal” sins we usually think of with calls for repentance? Do we make our decisions in life in deference to them instead of to the kingdom of God?

That is the call for repentance on this First Sunday in Lent. I suspect it is one we must always be alert to hearing and heeding. But to declare “Jesus is Lord” is to continually keep all others in their place beneath him. The good news is that his kingdom has come near; his rule above all these can now be made real in our lives and in our world. It really is the good news, the gospel: God reigns over all.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Is it really what we do in life? Hold hands, dance around the flower and eventually fall into oblivion? It does happen to everyone equally, does it not? Qohelet, the mysterious author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, took such a view of things. No matter who we are, regardless of our fortunes in life, the fate of one is like the fate of the other, rich or poor, favored or despised, oppressor or oppressed, male or female. We know not what comes after us or what will become of our legacy, provided we are audacious enough to believe there will be such a thing. My brother recently pointed out to me that the vast majority of adults cannot come up with the names of their great grandparents. Sobering. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today many people will submit themselves to the imposition of ashes upon their foreheads, symbolizing their recognition of both mortality and the need for repentance. We are frail flesh; we are reminded of this when we recognize that our sin makes us ill-suited for eternal life. Throughout the next six weeks—the period of time we know as Lent—Christians will be encouraged to take the hard looks at self that we’d rather not take, reflect on things that we’d rather not think about, remind ourselves of things we’d prefer to forget, and generally to come to agree with our loving God that we don’t make very good candidates for sainthood when left to our own devices. Only after this reflection, can we be prepared to really receive the promise held in waiting on Easter morning.

Confessing, literally, means speaking together with someone in agreement. When we confess our faith, we are speaking with others what it is that we believe; when we confess our sins, we are speaking in agreement with God our failure to follow what we know to be the right way and our insistence upon an alternative in its place. Repentance means we change our minds and turn around to take a new direction. It’s what lies behind the tradition of fasting for Lent, whether through abstaining from food or some activity that we perceive as having ordered our lives in ways that are harmful to self and others. It’s not the giving up that becomes somehow meritorious, offering thereby the true spiritual benefit; it’s the new ordering of life, directed more consciously toward God that provides lasting benefit.

There are many Christians for whom liturgically set dates and times for such intensely personal activities as confession and repentance do not resonate. I understand that. As Paul said, some hold one day to be special, others hold another. To observe times and seasons is not a requirement he placed on any of his young churches or upon their converts, and I’m not so sure that we should, either.  On the other hand, there is value in the reminder that the calendar brings. We’re not generally prone to slowing down enough to give confession and repentance the time they require to do their work in us. We let them go until there is something entirely too daunting in front of us, something which might have been removed before taking on such proportion as to threaten to undo us.

We all fall down. Some with a misstep, some with a stumble, and some with a thud. Perhaps the most dangerous of them is the prideful deeming of confession to be something irrelevant to us. Being reminded that even at our best we fall short of God’s glory is something we all need. We will always stand in his righteousness, not our own, even while being molded more and more closely into his image. Whether one physically receives the ashes today or not, we should all consider ourselves as called to examine our lives, our thought patterns, our assumptions, and our hopes through the next six weeks leading up to the glorious resurrection promise. I don’t really want to. Which is why I must.

Making Sense of the Marriage Debate. Part One.

Yes, I know. It’s either totally foolish or terribly audacious to suggest that one blog post from a barely known pastor-theologian will do what many have begged for and few have actually provided. So let me begin by saying I am not claiming to have the final solutions to anything, least of all how we should handle the questions surrounding what is described as same-sex marriage. And I acknowledge that I approach the matter as a Christian committed to the integrity of the biblical narrative and to the definition of Christianity provided by the ancient creeds; these are, after all, summaries of the doctrines implied by that narrative.

One of the most difficult tasks in an emotionally laden controversy is to separate the questions and the positions the questions imply. That is what I propose to do in this post. It will say too much for some readers and too little for others; it will ask as many questions as it will answer, but it will hopefully do so in such a way as to generate less heat and more thought. If any readers find that those with different answers to some of the questions do have a point to consider, we will have moved forward. As a Christian I want to honor Christ in the way I engage others in hard conversations just as much as I want to honor him by speaking the mind of the Holy Spirit. The first of those is always under my control; the latter is something about which I can be mistaken, strive as I might and shall to hear his voice through the scriptures, through reason, and through history.

What Are We Talking About?

On the surface, this seems a silly question. We’ve already stated that we are speaking about same sex marriage. But that’s just the problem for many people in this debate. What is marriage? And, more importantly, how do we know what it is, and who gets to say what it is? What are the grounds for saying it is one thing and not another, or that it can or cannot be different things for different people? We cannot be deceived on this latter point. To say that the nature of marriage is such that it can be different things simultaneously is to make a claim to know the truth about marriage.

This is a philosophical issue, something for which our culture has little time or training. And because we have not been taught how to think or reason well, we have fallen prey to a philosophy that says things only become something when we name them, and that the naming is arbitrary, performed as an act of power by those who have the upper hand. In other words, there is no true identity to anything, no essence to the things and even (or especially) the values or ideals by which we measure human actions and purposes. Beauty, truth, justice, goodness are just ideas we have created. They don’t actually exist. When it comes to something like marriage, or families, or pets, or humans themselves the same is true. There are no definitions until we supply them; in fact, they can’t exist until we make up words to apply to them.

If this is the case, there can be no debate. If we say marriage is anything we want it to be, and there is no question of whether it is true or not, then if we want two people of the same gender to have the same status as two of different genders, then so be it. Who could argue?

 

Nominalism, which is the position just described, can be adequately understood as name-only-ism; our values and our descriptions, our definitions of terms, our understandings of concepts, etc., have no grounding other than in the words we use to name them. There is no real or true answer, description, or standard against which to measure or assess what we call things. And the question before us then is a question of whether there is anything that can be true or false about what we decide what marriage–or anything else–is.

The Christian concept of revelation challenges nominalism. It tells us that all things exist in, through, and because of God; they have their meaning in God. And the concept further suggests that there are ways in which God communicates the nature of the things that have been created. While some people would limit revelation to the words of the Bible as God’s “special” revelation, even the Bible itself suggests that the nature of the world and our reflection on it gives us some insight into the true nature of things. It is my strong inclination to believe that reason, properly employed and honestly pursued, will not undo the picture of things which the Bible paints–provided that it, too, is honestly and properly understood. I say this because it is one thing to claim that there is ultimate truth, grounded in God; it seems a position Christians are bound to adopt. But it is quite another thing to say that we fully and finally comprehend that ultimate truth; that is something we should not say. That is, we cannot allow ourselves to deny the possibility of our being mistaken as individual persons or even as a corporate church. But our susceptibility to error does not invalidate the idea that there really is truth. All of this may seem a to be a tangent from what I first proposed to write about. But God’s revelation, if such there be, must be the starting point for Christian reflection on the nature of the world and the things in it, most importantly regarding the nature of human life.

When we seek God’s perspective on human nature from the Bible, we learn a few things very quickly from the first two chapters of Genesis. Let’s list them for simplicity and in order to refer to them at later points:

1. We are created in the image of God.
2. We are created male and female.
3. Man and woman are united by leaving parents and, at least in potential, creating offspring.

What we learn in these few simple statements from the opening chapters of the Bible is corroborated in many ways through human history and anthropology. All cultures have some way of recognizing and protecting the relationship between the parents and potential parents of the next generation; it is essential to the survival of the culture into the future, the protection and continuation of what they have made into a future beyond their own lifetime. In all cultures, a man has left father and mother in order to be united with his wife and create a family of their own.

With respect to the second statement, human psychology and physiology concur. There is difference within the bearing of the image of God. Male and female bodies are different; the brain chemistry is different, as science has repeatedly demonstrated. Yet these differences between male and female are complimentary; and both male and female characteristics have their origin in God. Some conclusions follow from this. As designed, humans are to be God’s image-bearers, that is, the icons of God. And since this image is born jointly by male and female, it is through their difference and in their combination that children born to them are to see God represented to them. It is how they learn of God. This is an idea primitively stated in Adam’s having a helper (better: compliment) suitable for him; it is one more sophisicatedly stated by research that demonstrates that children of two-parent (male-female) households thrive better than those in other situations. It is the reason all cultures, with or without the Bible, with or without the research, have protected in some significant ways the relationship between man and woman. It’s in our nature as created to do so.

Things have diverged from this creation pattern in many ways. That’s why we have controversies. But as we consider the challenges and brokenness of our lives in this world, we cannot do so without some strong sense of the place from which we have fallen. It is for that reason that I have begun this series of posts in this vein. What to do about our fallenness, what Christians do and should say to the culture at large, and how they should think of the matter of same-sex unions in their own company will be considered in subsequent additions to the blog. Thanks for listening.