Yet Another Lenten Reflection

O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done marvelous things, things planned long ago. You have made the city a heap of rubble, the fortified town a ruin, the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more; it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will honor you; cities of ruthless nations will revere you. You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall and like the heat of the desert. You silence the uproar of foreigners; as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is stilled. On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

—Isaiah 25: 1-9 (NIV)

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

—1 Corinthians 15: 54-57 (NIV)

Lent is a season where we Christians stop and reflect on our own mortality and all that this represents in terms of our attempts to live faithful lives. Yet we don’t live our lives in a vacuum. We live in a broken and hurting world, marred by our sin and the very real presence of Evil. For example, I have a friend whom I believe is dying from cancer. We have a parishioner who is dying from ALS. In my own life, I am dealing with a child who apparently sees nothing wrong with being associated with the filth of pornography and virulent racism. I wonder where this willingness to tolerate these evils comes from and lament the failure of the church universal to capture the hearts and minds of our young people. As Jesus warned, if the house swept clean is not filled with the right stuff, it becomes filled with something even worse than before it was cleaned (Luke 11:24-26). Then, of course, there is the ever present reality of death that separates us from our loved ones and leaves the survivors grief-stricken and forever changed, and not always for the better.

Yet there is hope.

This morning as I read Isaiah, I found it to be a wonderful passage. Christ has indeed abolished death and as we await our final redemption, for the time when Christ’s work is fully completed, we are given his promise to be with us and to be our refuge. As I struggle with the above (and other) issues in my life—my gluttony, my selfishness, my sloth, my apparent lack of bearing any fruit for the Kingdom, the carnage that I have left behind in my life, and my own mortality (I’m no spring chicken anymore)—I am reminded not to lose hope. The God who promises to “swallow up death,” who offered himself for us all on the cross, and then who abolished death by his mighty resurrection, is surely able to sustain us in our earthly troubles in the interim. To be sure, I lose sight of this way too often. But that does not change the reality of this great and wonderful Truth. God offers us the opportunity to choose life in Christ each day so that we might live abundantly and obtain the grace to meet the worst challenges that life has to offer. And so in the midst of brokenness and suffering, we Christians have this great Hope, this great Promise from the God who loves us and gave himself for us.

Will I be smart enough to choose correctly? What about you? In this season of Lent my prayer for you and me is that we are courageous enough, trusting enough, and blessed with the grace of faith that is sufficient for us to answer yes!

Faith and Discipline—Reflections on Albert Edward Day, Part 3

The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship.

We have talked much about salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe “turning it all over to Jesus.” Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling for God is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.” People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperation, is a heartbreaking spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not lift his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not a vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ [emphasis added]. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.

—From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day

As you might have guessed, the demands of seminary have kept me from writing weekly. For lots of reasons, I’m going to work really hard at not letting that happen again. Suffice it to say here that I find it truly ironic that that which is supposed to be formational can actually be just the opposite when we let it take first place in our lives. But that’s another topic for another day.

When I last wrote, I reflected on Day’s belief in the importance of living a disciplined life of faith. This week I end this series by reflecting on his rather startling idea of God being a “defeated Savior.” If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, how can he be defeated, at least in the sense Day means? Two words: free will. God is not some puppeteer nor are we his marionettes. If that were the case, we could never have any kind of real relationship with God and that would contradict God’s very nature. No, God can and does work in us fully but only if we allow him to do so. It is the terrible freedom we broken, sinful humans enjoy and it is for our ultimate good. Having free will means that we can truly enter a relationship with God on our own. It also means that we are free to be tested and learn about the legitimacy of our faith and relationship with God in the test. My own recent life illustrates this quite nicely. I have failed to use the grace of discipline to keep God at the center of my life. I have sunk into a morass of self-indulgence manifested primarily in gluttonous and slothful behavior that has turned my spirit into a vast desert wasteland. In elevating things of this world above God—an act of free will on my part—I have denied God access to my life and in the process have starved myself. I am at the point where I have lost all desire to pursue the priesthood and even maintain an active presence in the Church. If I never take another class at seminary it won’t be too soon—well, at least until Fall. 🙂 God is not present and I can tell it, both inwardly as I suffer a terrible emptiness and loneliness, and outwardly in the absence of purposeful living. This has happened because I have failed to keep God first in my life and pursue the needed discipline to ensure that he remains there. And what has been God’s response to my self-indulgencefest? He’s let me.

Is this the end of the story? I doubt it. If it were, there would scarcely be any Good News here. I’d be just another pitiful person who is trying to stumble through life on his own with little or no help or hope. But I don’t think the “Hound of heaven” gives up on us that easily. Just because I haven’t let God in, doesn’t mean he stops trying! The very fact that I am writing about this is a good sign that perhaps I am on the verge of turning this mess around—with God’s help. Perhaps he has been here all along, knocking insistently at my heart and asking me to invite him back in (Rev. 3:20). But let’s be clear about it. I have to turn it around; God won’t do it for me because that would be quite an unloving thing for him to do. What God will do, in part, is help me learn from this and grow in my relationship with him—if I am willing to listen. And if I do listen and emerge from this, I dare say I’ll have a stronger relationship with God than I had before. If I once again put God first and partake of the grace of discipline to open myself to his presence, I fully expect him to resume working in and through me. Until that time, however, I must admit that I’ve just not let him do so and as a result, I have not born much corresponding fruit.

So count me as one who is a fan of free will and who dares to believe in a “defeated” omnipotent God. I’m glad God loves us and respects us enough to give us this freedom.

What about you? Do you enjoy your freedom or has it been a curse (or perhaps both)? Has it been your experience that God only works in and through you fully when you allow him to do so? Do you agree with Day’s notion of a “defeated Savior”? Tell us your stories that we might learn from each other.