Saturday, May 13, 2017

On just needing Gospel....

Anyone that knows me, knows I'm a fairly ecumenical guy. That's not in the sense of "I've got friends who worship differently than I do." That's in the sense of "I've done everything I can to enter into the traditions and communion of friends who are not from the congregations and traditions that I've been formed by." This week, I've had the opportunity to retreat at a Roman Catholic abbey that houses Trappist monks following the Rule of St. Benedict. The solitude and silence and prayer in the midst of a community was rich, restful, and the Lord began some new works in powerful ways while I was with them.

I left there and within 24 hours, I was worshipping at a Pentecostal gathering for Christians of many congregations to have serious conversation about race and gender and the Church's witness in these things in our cultural climate. This was rich, encouraging, and the Lord began some new works in powerful ways while I was with them.

But then I went elsewhere and was listening to an itinerant preacher/evangelist of an independent charismatic bent. His enthusiasm was evident. His ability to connect with his audience was a sight to behold. I talked to a few people who came from a ways away to hear him tonight. As for me? I couldn't get through it.  His preaching was disguised in the language of grace, but the demands he was making of our lives were immense. It was overwhelming. It was isolating. Many others around me were laughing, saying their amens, raising their hands, and shouting "come on!" As a priest in the Church, it was everything in me not to stand and seek to bring correction (but this was not an event I had the proper authority to do so, so I did not).

As a Christian, I found myself in need of hearing that ancient rhythm I've come to love--sin, grace, and faith. The pattern of Law and Gospel. The message that, yes, we are in fact living quite apart from the design and intentions of God, but that in Jesus, I find that the absolution and work I need has already been done. That the true self made in the Image of God has been restored. That God has created within me a wilderness through which his voice cries out repentance for me, and answers with a majestic grace. That whether in solitude and silence, or in the midst of Pentecost's re-enactment, God is lovingly present with me. And He has said it is finished. No ifs, ands, or buts. Hallelujah.

So, whether you dress it up in a black scapular or an electric guitar, every Christian really needs the same thing: the enactment of God's law, the announcement of God's absolution, and the triumph of God's grace through faith. If you're not getting that, I plead with you by the mercy of Christ, let's get you somewhere that you can hear that message. All of us preachers and pastors ultimately fail, but the Word of Christ is not bound by our failures and that grace will come through.

Friday, February 24, 2017

New Beginnings

Birth. Baptism. First day of school. Confirmation. First date. Commencement. First day on the job. Engagement. Marriage. These are the kinds of things we associate with new beginnings. They're milestones, celebrations-- marks of life flourishing. But the reality of the world we find ourselves in is that there is also divorce. Getting fired. Flunking out. Rejection. Loss of friendship, family, community. Death. And they have a way of discoloring, tainting and ruining the things that began.

And it creates another kind of death in us: a death in aspirations and energy--a death of hope. Sometimes even the death of identity. Being Pentecostal gave me a strong grasp of seasons....I heard many prophetic declarations about seasons and times in my growing up years. There was always excitement and anticipation for those moments. And usually within a day or a week, that was replaced with disappointment because sin, death, and the work of the devil had a way of working themselves into that brand new thing.

And there's no stopping that from happening, at least not on our terms. But the whole narrative of the Scriptures is thrust in this idea that the End will be a new beginning. "See, I make all things new!" is the declaration of Jesus to a creation broken and bound. "If anyone is in Christ-- New Creation" is the guarantee of the Spirit-inspired Apostles. So where's it at?

I'm not really delving into the complexities of Christian debates about being conformed to Christ, but I think a critical adjustment to my experience of this newness came when I started attending a church worshipping with the liturgy. Because every week, we confessed our sins together. Then the priest announced God's absolution...and that absolution closed with the phrase "newness of life." I knew how I was hearing that: a call to holiness, to being different than I was, and while I wouldn't argue with the presence of holiness of a sort resulting from God's work in us, I started to wake up to something else--because the promise of newness in the absolution seemlessly moved to the Comfortable Words: "Jesus said, 'Come to Me, all you weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." The promise of newness pointed to a call to rest with Jesus.

A few years later, a teaching assistant who corrected my assignments in seminary shared an insight about the days of creation that stayed with me: humanity is created on "day 6." What time was there to do any work? The crown of creation and God's declaration of "very good" comes as the last bit of work, and then God declares a day of rest--a day that humanity shared in, despite having done nothing. 

I say all that to our sin, and in our work, and in the tensions and challenges and calls we face, we need newness. And we need it often. Newness follows on the heels of confession (if the issue is sin) or an acknowledgement of inability to get it all done or right or perfect (whatever it may be). The Law of new beginnings shows me I'm not enough. The Gospel of new beginnings let's me say "You're right", and enter rest. Because after each rest, new work begins and new attempts are made, and at the end of the day, over every single effort, the word of Jesus stands true: It Is Finished.