A Prayer for the Feast Day of George Herbert, Anglican Priest Extraordinaire

Our God and King, who called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

George Herbert: Love III

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it deserves.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I must serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The Temple

How would you like to have this man as your priest? Savor the grace that exudes from this poem (remember Love is God in Christ). O, that I could even come close to being in the ballpark for my people.

A Prayer from William Barclay

O God, Our Father, we know our own weaknesses,

Our minds are darkened, and by ourselves we cannot find and know the truth.

Our wills are weak, and by ourselves we cannot resist temptation, or bring to its completion that which we resolved to do.

Our hearts are fickle, and by ourselves we cannot give to you the loyalty which is your due.

Our steps are faltering, and by ourselves we cannot walk in your straight way.

So this day we ask you,
To enlighten us,
To strengthen us,
To guide us, that we may know you, and love you, and follow you all the days of our life.

Give to your Church your blessing and your protection.

Guide her in her thinking, that she may be saved from heresies which destroy the faith.

Strengthen her in her witness, that she may bring no discredit on the name she bears.

Inspire her in her fellowship, that those who enter her may find within her your friendship and the friendship of their fellow men. Amen.

—William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year

C.S. Lewis Muses on Theology

This is worth your read, especially if you are one who considers yourself to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” Excerpted from The Joyful Christian.

Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you… They all say “the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion.” I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means “the science of God,” and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?

In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real, to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America [from England].

Now Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you or I are likely to get on our own way are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

You Want ME to be Holy? I Don’t Even Know What That Means!

Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Lent, February 23, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119.33-40; 1 Corinthians 3.10-23; Matthew 5.38-48.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week we took a hard but realistic look at the human condition, where we saw that all people are confronted with two basic choices: life or death. We saw that because humans have desperately sick hearts, choosing life is impossible because our heart-sickness makes us want to love ourselves more than God or neighbor. But we also saw that because we are Christians and believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has chosen life over death for us, we are to live as resurrection people who have real hope. As Paul reminds us, we who are in Jesus, that is, we who have a living and real relationship with Jesus, share in a death like his so that we may also share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.4-5). That is the essence of the gospel. But it begs the question: What are we saved for? In today’s lessons, we are given an answer and that is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our OT lesson, God commands his people Israel to be holy because God himself is holy. But here’s the problem. Nowhere in Scripture is holiness explicitly defined so that we must apparently work out for ourselves (aided by the indirect guidance of Scripture) what that might look like in our lives. Some of us, when we hear God’s call to us to be holy, break out into a cold sweat. We’re not sure we want to be known as holy rollers who make others around us feel uncomfortable. We envision having to walk around with our eyes constantly raised to heaven (which makes things like driving pretty hard to do) and never being allowed to have any fun at all because, well, that is just not what holy people do. And most of us are pretty sure that even if we wanted to be holy, we don’t have the stuff in us to be holy as we saw last week when we discussed our innate heart-sickness.

But as all of our texts indicate in their own way, this is not at all what holiness is about. As God’s called-out people in Jesus, we are to imitate our Creator in the way we conduct our daily lives, especially in how we conduct ourselves in our relationship with others, be it friend or foe. This is what Jesus meant earlier in the Sermon on the Mount when he called his followers to be light and salt to the world. Being light and salt means that we are not to follow the world and act as it does because the world’s systems and values are corrupted by human sin and brokenness, as well as by the evil our sin let into God’s good creation. If we understand this, holiness isn’t so much something we define as much as it is how consistently we live in ways that reflect God’s character and love for all his human creatures, good and evil alike.

So if this is true, that being God’s holy people means we are to reflect God’s character and love out into his world, I want to ask you a question. How many of you, when you harvest your crop, leave some of the harvest for the poor? After all, according to our OT text this is part of being holy to the Lord. My point in asking this question is more than just trying to be facetious. Commands like these remind us that while God is outside human history, God always works within the context of human history so that when we read about behavior that is apparently anachronistic, we must always look to see if there is an underlying principle behind it.

In this case there is. The intent of the command is that we always look out for the poor and needy, which in our day typically manifests itself in our how we spend our time, our money, and/or how we support various agencies charged with caring for the poor, especially the Church. And here we see an example of what it means to be holy. The poor exist in large part because of unjust economic systems that are driven by human greed and exploitation, and the world tends to ignore the poor. But God does not ignore them or their needs as shown in this command, and so we who are his holy people reflect God’s holiness and care for the poor when we care for them on God’s behalf. This is part of what it means to be a wise steward of God’s good creation and what it means to be Jesus’ light to the world. So instead of seeing holiness in some otherworldly person who withdraws from the world, we see it reflected in those who serve at Faith Mission, for example, and who do not judge those who are recipients of our holy work.

And we can apply this to all the other commands found in our OT lesson. We are to be just because God is just (but the unhealed world is not). We are not to defraud or steal from our neighbor as the unhealed world so often does because God does not steal from us or defraud us or put stumbling blocks in our path to trip us up. In following these commands, we not only imitate our holy God, we also do our part to maintain peace and harmony within our community. In the OT times, Israel was the community. In NT times (and later), a reconstituted Israel who followed Christ and comprised Jesus’ body, the Church, was the community in view. We are called as individuals to be holy, but we are called to be holy together as God’s people in Jesus.

This brings us to Jesus’ teaching on the so-called “Holiness Code” at which we have just looked. But before we look at what Jesus has to say, I hope it is blatantly apparent to you that being holy is much, much more than simply following a bunch of arbitrary rules. It is a way of life that is a daily and practical outworking of a changed heart in God’s people. Being holy brings real joy and wholeness, which gets at the root meaning for being perfect as Jesus uses it here. It also helps answer another question the Bible does not answer for us directly: What it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. Since God loves all his creatures and wants the best for them, God calls us to mirror his love for all in how we treat (or don’t treat) others. Put another way, God calls us to love others just like he loves us.

We see this reflected in Jesus’ teachings in this morning’s gospel lesson, part of the Sermon on the Mount. Here, as in our OT lesson, Jesus is not giving us yet another set of rules we have to follow. Instead, Jesus is giving us some examples of what God’s holiness looks like when it is embraced and faithfully lived out by Jesus’ followers and he is encouraging us to use these examples as the basis on which to think through what being holy might look like in our life.

The so-called principle of lex talionis (the law of retribution) was designed to prevent conflict and retaliation from escalating as is all too common when humans fight. Here in these teachings, Jesus is not telling us to be a doormat, a common misunderstanding that many Christians still have. Rather, Jesus is encouraging us to find ways that will diffuse the conflict entirely, not just contain it. So, for example, turning the other cheek instead of slapping back demonstrates that divine power is often manifested in (and mistaken to be) weakness. Think of Jesus on the cross as the ultimate example of God’s power demonstrated. Notice carefully how turning the other cheek deprives the other party of any motivation for continuing the behavior.

And because God loves the good and bad alike, so we too are to reflect that love by forgiving our enemies and praying for them. In doing so, notice how the potential for conflict is utterly diffused. Here again we see our Lord telling us to love others as we love ourselves. After all, who among us does not desire forgiveness instead of retribution and this helps us understand why we have that rather inconvenient clause in the Lord’s Prayer to, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” How can we expect to receive God’s forgiveness, which is part of his holy love, if we refuse to reflect it out to others? I could go on but I hope you have the point. Reflecting God’s holiness is the way we love others as ourselves that transcends our individual personalities and idiosyncrasies.

And this is where it is critical for us to have a real and healthy atonement theology because many of us are prone to dislike and even hate ourselves for who we are or what we have done or continue to do (or not do). And because we are unable to forgive ourselves, it is very hard for us to see how God could possibly forgive us, let alone love us. That is why we must always preach and believe in Christ crucified as Paul did because it is only in the cross that we can truly see God’s suffering love for us along with his unmerited forgiveness. When, in the power of the Spirit, we really and truly accept God’s gift offered to us in Jesus, we are really in a position to love others because we know ourselves to be loved by God. Anything less than the cross is bound to fall short as the carnage of failed human self-help programs sadly attests.

But, you protest, Jesus’ teachings are impossible for us to keep. If this is what it means to be holy, we are hopelessly lost. And besides that, people like you irritate us no end and we don’t want to love and forgive you. This is precisely where we must realize that today’s teachings are not solely about us. They are also about Jesus because Jesus faithfully and obediently lived out his teachings. When he was slapped and reviled, he turned the other cheek. When he was forced to bear the worst of Roman equipment, the crossbeam of the cross that would be used to execute him (which is what the extra mile was all about in Jesus’ day), Jesus bore it to his place of execution and then prayed for his enemies as he hung on the cross. This is why Jesus as well as Paul and the other NT writers urge us to follow Jesus’ example as well as theirs. When we imitate Jesus by taking up our cross and following him in the power of the Spirit (and it is critical for us to remember that we can only do this with the help of the Spirit), it not only changes our behavior but it forms our character. In other words, being holy is a Spirit-led and lifelong process in which our heart-sickness is gradually healed. That’s what it means to be sanctified and imitating our Lord Jesus is the chief way to become holy. It’s admittedly not sexy or spectacular in most cases, but it is the God-given way to attain holiness.

But why would we want to be holy people? The short and simple answer is that we are resurrection people and our ultimate hope is living as citizens in God’s new creation that has already started with Jesus’ resurrection and that will be fully implemented upon Jesus’ return. And like every form of citizenship, we have to learn how to be good citizens. Since we will get to live in God’s direct presence in the new creation, and since we will be required to fully reflect God’s holiness as we assume our rightful place as kings and priests in God’s new creation, we had better learn how to do that right here and now.

Paul alludes to this in our epistle lesson this morning. The specific context he is talking about is building up the Church, but there is a broader application to Paul’s teaching. First, Paul reminds us that the Church organized as God’s people in Jesus is precisely where the Spirit dwells and God’s holiness is seen. Consequently we are all called in various ways to build on the foundation that Jesus established. Why? Because on the Last Day, our work will be tested to see if there is any value to it for the new creation. If our work is good, it will survive the testing (fire) and we will be rewarded. If not, it will be shown as worthless but we will survive, apparently Paul’s way of expressing his view of Christian assurance of our victory over sin, evil, and death won for us in the death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, because God’s future has already burst upon us in Jesus’ resurrection, our work matters both now and in the age to come.

But there are also promises that accompany the warnings. At the very end of our passage Paul makes the astonishing and breathtaking promise that because we are Jesus’ people and because Jesus belongs to God, all things are ours, both in this life and the next, because all things belong to God. Paul has already alluded to the coming new age and here alludes to the promise that those who are in Christ are destined to rule in the new creation as his wise stewards, just the way God originally intended for his human creatures when he created us (cf. Genesis 1.26-27; 1 Corinthians 6.2). But we can’t be wise rulers with sick hearts and that is why imitating Jesus here and now is so important. As we have seen, in doing so, our hearts are healed by the Spirit who dwells in us and we are prepared to live holy lives in the new creation. If we understand this, we will certainly understand the various parables of Jesus with the stories about rewards and punishment (e.g., the parables of the 10 Pounds, Luke 19.11-19). Jesus was not embarrassed to talk about rewards and neither should we be as long as we remember that the promise of new creation is an act of sheer grace on God’s part toward us, that rulers in God’s kingdom are always humble servants in the manner of their Lord, and that there is only One who deserves praise and exaltation—Jesus because he is the very embodiment of God.

So this week, think carefully about these things, about what holiness looks like in the context of your life and as a member of St. Augustine’s, and then get to work (or continue to work). If need be, ask God to help you desire the things God desires and to transform you into a holy person who reflects God’s love and glory in his world by helping you develop holy habits. As you do, remember that living a holy life will necessarily entail suffering because it means to live contrary to the ways and values of the world. But in our suffering we will find our glory, the glory of the One who loves us from all eternity and died for us, and who calls us to be his holy people. That, folks, really is Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ten Years Since The Meeting

It was 10 years ago today that this happened.

It was Sunday, February 22, 2004. I was riding my stationary bike and as I often did when I exercised at that time, I was musing about my divorce, my move to Columbus, and the deleterious effect both had on my kids. To say that I suffered chronic and acute guilt is understatement. Despite my prayers to be healed and the burden of guilt lifted from me, I continued to be afflicted by a crushing guilt. Simply put, it was killing me and I think it would have eventually done so had not the Lord intervened that day.

That particular Sunday I was feeling especially guilty. I was convinced that I had abandoned my children and was an utter failure as a father. So as I exercised, I started praying and asking forgiveness for being such a wretched man. All of a sudden I was enveloped in what I can only describe as a white mist which was quite bright. As I prayed through my tears I saw two arms with pierced wrists emerge from the mist for me to observe and in my mind I heard these words. “It’s OK Kevin. It’s OK. Look at my wrists. I have taken care of your sins.” By now I realized I was in the presence of Jesus and started to protest, asking him how he could possibly forgive someone like me. But he put his hand to my mouth and told me to stop. It was all right and I was his beloved. A huge wave of peace swept over me, God’s peace that passes all understanding, and I could feel myself starting to lose my balance. And then as if he knew his presence was beginning to overwhelm me, he was gone—and so was my guilt. It’s been 10 years since that happened and while I have felt guilt over other things, I have never once felt guilt for the things that were once killing me. It was truly a transformative experience.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Today is George Washington’s birthday. To our great detriment, Americans are forgetting about our first president. This is sad, in part, because without him, there would not likely be the USA that we know today. Do yourself a favor and learn about this extraordinary man with whom God blessed this country.

To the world’s amazement, Washington had prevailed over the more numerous, better supplied, and fully trained British army, mainly because he was more flexible than his opponents. He learned that it was more important to keep his army intact and to win an occasional victory to rally public support than it was to hold American cities or defeat the British army in an open field. Over the last 200 years revolutionary leaders in every part of the world have employed this insight, but never with a result as startling as Washington’s victory over the British.

On December 23, 1783, Washington presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned his commission. Like Cincinnatus, the hero of Classical antiquity whose conduct he most admired, Washington had the wisdom to give up power when he could have been easily become dictator. He left Annapolis and went home to Mount Vernon with the fixed intention of never again serving in public life. This one act, without precedent in modern history, made him an international hero.

In the years after the Revolutionary War, Washington devoted most of his time to rebuilding Mount Vernon, which had suffered in his absence. He experimented with new crops and fertilizers and bred some of the finest mules in the nation. He also served as president of the Potomac Company, which worked to improve the navigation of the river in order to make it easier for upstream farmers to get their produce to market.

Read it all or pick up this book and really get to know the Father of our Country.

CT: Fall Off the Bible-in-a-Year Wagon?

37292“[I]f it [a Bible reading plan] becomes a chore that deters you from Scripture, use a devotional, study one book in depth, or just randomly open to a chapter. Give your time to God and let him bless you through his Word.”

Still, some see reading plans as a way to not only better understand the overarching message of Scripture but also connect with the historic church. Joel Scandrett, professor of historical theology at Trinity School for Ministry, said daily reading is a fundamental discipline dating to the early church. “The deep grasp of Scripture that this discipline provides is essential to Christian discipleship, and one-year Bible reading plans are a great way to achieve that,” he said.

Read it all.