Archives For February 2009

Day 4

February 28, 2009 — Leave a comment

2 Corinthians 3:12-17.

I’m not sure that I would use the world “bold” to describe me. Words like “gentle”, “compassionate” and even “meek” probably fit better, especially when it comes to faith. I grew up in a faith tradition that placed a lot of emphasis on “sharing one’s testimony”. I was coached in how to have conversations with strangers that inevitably included the question, “If you died tonight, are you sure that you’d go to heaven?” I went door-to-door on organized youth trips, trying to get invited into a house in order to share my dutifully rehearsed testimony, hoping that I could then lead the hearer in the “Sinner’s Prayer” and could notch another soul on my belt. (Upon writing that last sentence I was made aware of the eerie similarities between Christian evangelism tactics and vampire legend. I wonder if my reflection was ever present in the mirrors of my victim’s houses?)

These kind of conversations never came easily. Whenever one balked, however, there was someone there to remind us that we should be “bold” in presenting the gospel to others. Bold. I soon began to grow weary of the energy that was sapped from being so bold. In later years I would abandon those tactics, convinced that the best way to bring someone to a real and lasting relationship with Christ is not through clever yarns, but through time invested in relationships. And so the pendulum swung.

I think, though, that it has swung too far. I am very motivated by relationships. I love to hear the heartbeat of a person and help them discover that it is God who crafted that rhythm. Yet I am aware of missing many opportunities to challenge people on their beliefs, preferring instead, as Wright says in his comments on this passage, “to clothe the gospel in smooth speech to flatter a sophisticated audience, making them feel proud to be so clever.” I have clung fast to that oft repeated saying, anecetdotally attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” I’ve just made up many excuses about why words aren’t necessary. But they are.

Consider Penn Jillette’s charge to the religious. Penn, of the infamous Penn & Teller comedy/illusionist duo, is an outspoken atheist. He says, however, that he has no respect for adherents to any religion who refuse to proselytize. He reasons that if one believes in an absolute path to heaven or hell, one’s love for fellow humans should compel a person to share that path at all costs. For a touching example of a Christian whose words and actions moved Penn, see this episode of his vlog from December 2008.

Paul was writing of a type of boldness that radiates from the aura of God’s glory that comes from knowing Christ. It is not a question of whether or not we are radiating glory. The question is what veils are we putting over our faces? For me, it is a veil of acceptance. I want to be “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), yet I have a tendency to overlook the last part of that verse, which provides the motivation “that by all means I might save some.” I veil glory with my reticence to speak of the source of glory, the Glory-giver.

Day 3

February 27, 2009 — Leave a comment

I’m only on Day 3 of the fast and I’m stunned at how difficult it has become. When I first thought about the idea of cutting back consumption to only the things I need, it seemed almost too easy. I had already cut back on spending to the point of subsistence, so what was really left? As April and I talked about what it would look like to cut back on things that consume our time, we were able to populate quite a list of little cuts here and there which would, if honored, yield extra time in which to commune with God through reading His Word and through prayer.

Those reductions have surely yielded extra time, it’s just that I’m finding it particularly difficult to use this new found time for the intended purpose. Instead I feel restless, bored. I begin to feel frustrated and think that maybe we have given up too much, too fast. Then I am ashamed (shocked?) at how self-centered and selfish those sentiments are. Somehow I entered into this season of Lent with the expectation that 40 Days of Nothing wouldn’t really be that hard (I thought we were low consumers anyway) and that the positive spiritual effects of self-denial would be immediate and outweigh any petty hardship. The struggle is much greater than that. I feel like I should have known. On paper such a fast looks extreme. Why shouldn’t it feel extreme?

My devotion today is on 2 Corinthians 3:7-11. Paul has been contrasting the law and the Spirit and here he contrasts the glory brought by the impartation of the law with the glory brought by the indwelling of the Spirit. He says, in effect, that if the law was given to show us how utterly incapable we are of keeping it, how deserving we are of death, and yet that law when given to Moses caused his face to radiate with glory, imagine how much more glorious is the Spirit who brings life (as opposed to death by the law) and places that life within us! So why are we all not going around with veils over our faces because of the radiance that must be pouring off of us?

N.T. Wright deals with this in his comments on the verses:

Outsiders often look at the church, full of muddle and sin and shame and half-heartedness and backbiting, and clergy who don’t know what they’re talking about and laity who go wandering off the point, and they say, “Well, if that’s all you’ve got to show for the wonderful message you talk about, you really are a muddled lot. How can you possibly be the body of Christ, the temple of the living God, as you say you are called to be?”

The answer comes again and again in 2 Corinthians. The glory of Christ is not revealed in spectacular show of success, in people who get everything right all the time. People like that, as we know, can sometimes be a pain in the neck. The church reveals the glory of Christ through suffering and shame as much through what the world counts as success.

What sweet relief! My own suffering through Lent, even my frustration at the willingness with which I entered into suffering pales in comparison to what Christ suffered, willingly, on the cross. Yet it serves as a small door through which I might enter into that suffering. It is not supposed to be easy, nor will the glory that radiates from those of us fasting during Lent look very much like the glory that the world expects. Praise be to God for His Son, Christ Jesus, the Suffering Servant, Savior to all! I think I’m finally starting to understand the bittersweet praise of Steve Fee,

How beautiful the blood flow
How merciful the love show
The King of glory poured out
Victorious are we now!

Day 2

February 26, 2009 — Leave a comment

Today Wright takes a look at 2 Corinthians 3:1-6. Paul is writing about credentials and whether or not he needs some sort of endorsement for his message to be validated as one from God. I’ve been thinking about this recently in my own life. Over the past five years there have been seasons where the idea of ordination comes to the forefront of my thoughts. I’ve completed seminary, I work in full-time ministry, shouldn’t I be ordained? This sets off a whole host of other related questions about motives for ordination, the pros and cons of being officially licensed by one ordaining body over another, and the long-term ministry implications of ordination.

In almost all the cases where ordination has become a preoccupation of mine the topic was brought up by either a student or a colleague. They seem to assume that by virtue of my job and of my education that I am already ordained. When I tell them that I’m not, I’m met with puzzled looks. Why wouldn’t I be? Shouldn’t I be? Does that mean I’m not their “pastor” (a word I’ve never used to refer to myself for the very reason of what it implies)? Am I somehow less qualified to serve in my current role? Is it because I haven’t been “allowed” to be ordained? These are some of the questions I get when the subject arises. For some it is more benign – it means that I’m not licensed to perform their wedding ceremony. But still, in many cases I seem to perceive a small crisis moment. For some reason I was ascribed a role that, in their eyes, necessarily included an official commendation from a larger church body. Not having such a commendation gives some people reason for pause. This makes me uneasy.

Wright points out that Paul dealt with these same issues of credibility. His response was to tell the Corinthians to look around – they are all the credentialing he needs. Further, Paul points to a deeper theological truth. As part of the new covenant in Jesus Christ God has moved beyond names and titles for His people (the law) and has, instead, given His Spirit as a seal on the hearts of those He has called. It is the work of living God within His people that shows their commendation, not a letter. The letter of the law is death, but the Spirit brings life.

What does this mean in terms of settling the issue of ordination in my own life? For me it helps to reset my motives. I do not think that ordination is, in and of itself, a bad or a good thing. It is, I think, a way to showcase a particular calling that God has already made evident. It is also a tool for accountability and support within the particular organizational structure of the ordaining body. I write this as one who comes from a church tradition that isn’t big on apostolic succession. As such I am implying that there is not a special measure of the Holy Spirit that is poured out upon the individual during the ordination ceremony. Even if there were, however, I think that Paul makes it clear that it is the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the person that acts as the person’s commendation, not the ceremony or paper that comes as a result. So I may yet seek ordination, but not because of what it will do for me. No, because of what God has already done for us.

Day 1 – Ash Wednesday

February 25, 2009 — Leave a comment

Today my family and I started “40 Days of Nothing”. In short, we are giving up unnecessary consumption of goods and time as we walk through Lent toward Easter (read more about the concept here). We seek to be reminded that Christ gave up his life for us. Some of what we’ve given up will not be missed, and other things will be grieved. I have already noticed that what Paul wrote in Romans 7:21-24 is going to be true for me during the duration of this fast. This is going to be difficult. I will be reading daily from N.T. Wright’s Reflecting the Glory during Lent and will use this space to share reflections on those writings and on this Lenten fast.

In today’s reflection upon 2 Corinthians 2:14-17, Wright offers up the following:

How are we to understand this? We cannot have a theology in which human beings, whether apostles or ordinary Christians, simply decide they are going to pin their flag on God’s map, and that they will attempt to do something, in their own strength, for God. What we have is a theology of vocation and enabling – a theology, in other words, of the Holy Spirit.

I admit that this is a perpetual struggle. Too many times I move forward with good things without stopping to discern whether or not they are the things that God would have me do. Often I find myself praying for the Lord to “bless my efforts”. What Paul (and Wright) is saying is that such a sentiment is the wrong one. It is not enough for us to “peddle” the message of God. Rather, we must embody that message. That requires a different mode altogether.

In my work with college students and on staff at a church I have the luxury of easily integrating what I believe into my everyday conversations. In many situations it is expected that I will, at some point or another, be talking about things of faith. While this seems freeing on the surface, I am finding that frequently it means that “faith” becomes my work, and it ceases to require faith. Conversations about Christ come not from the Holy Spirit, but from my own intellect. I enter into spaces, assess the spiritual climate, gauge receptiveness of the parties present, ready two or three theological points, and enter confidently into holy banter.

What would the ministry to which I’ve been called look like if I gave over my subconsciously systematic pattern of spiritualizing encounters and, instead, let the fragrance of Christ waft off of me? I have been too concerned about making sure that I was giving off the scent of life rather than the stench of death. That’s not the way it works, though. I don’t get to determine how the smell is received, only the source. Lately it has been me. Today it will be Christ.