Category Archives: Reading

Lighthouse shining

“To Bless You by…”

Elise and I have been reading through Acts in the mornings of this Easter season. It’s been a while, but a passage from Acts 3 has really stuck with me (emphasis added):

Acts 3:17   “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. 23 And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ 24 And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 26 God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.

#blessed is a thing these days. Free champagne at my hair stylist #blessed. Found my coffee rewards punch card with only one to go #blessed. Got that promotion I was really hoping for #blessed. Or maybe we identify blessings apart from the material world. I feel true peace about this decision #blessed. I had an amazing quiet time I know Jesus loves me #blessed.

None of these #blessings is opposed to the Christian faith. How many of us, though, feel “blessed” to be turned away from our wickedness by somebody else?

Too often, we consider any external constraints to be encroachments on our freedom and, as Americans, on our happiness. Freedom, after all, is a fundamental American virtue.1 Freedom, one might surmise by listening to the way American speak, is to be equated with autonomy and control; the less control we have, the less happy we must be.

This is not the way of the Christian disciple. Politics and political philosophy aside, this is not the message of the Bible for those who are a part of God’s kingdom. “Wickedness” is not a term we want to use—lest it be pointed back at us, I suppose—but the very first of the Ten Commandments forbids us to have any god except for the Triune God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The “greatest” commandment2 Jesus gives is to love God with everything we have, but there is no Hebraic understanding of loving God apart from obeying God.

Each and every time that God turns us aside from loving false gods—from placing our faith on anyone other than Jesus Christ, from putting anyone or anything before God, from making our ultimate allegiance to anyone or anything besides God—we are to count ourselves blessed, no matter how unpleasant. We are not to begrudgingly return to our loving Creator—we are to count ourselves blessed or even, dare I say, happy.

Such a blessing may feel unpleasant when it arrives—how many times is #blessed appended to unpleasant narratives, do you suppose?—but St. Peter here offers a clear rebuke to us for understanding God’s correction as anything else. A ship may not feel like altering course based on what some land-lubber says, but shipwreck awaits one who disobeys. In the life of the Christian, such a course correction may come from prayer and silence before God, from the guidance and conviction of the Holy Spirit at the reading of the Scriptures, or through the godly counsel of other Christians.

When Christians are being  led thusly, when they are truly sitting at the feat of their Lord and learning to follow and obey him more fully every day, the natural outcome of the blessing of God’s correction is that those around them will also be blessed—until the whole world is covered in that blessing. That is, the blessing of turning aside from false worship, from idolatry, from wickedness. This is the covenantal promise to Abraham.

#blessed


  1. There are many asterisks, exceptions, and exclusion to this statement that I wish I could unpack!

  2. Matthew 22:36-38

I Reject the Premise

I’m reading a book for my thesis work that attempts to help its readers better understand Jesus’ Jewishness. One of the authors describes her journey to Israel and mentions that some have called the Holy Land “the fifth gospel”, and I started thinking about mine. I thought about how very much I agreed. There is something about being in the place.

We’re told it doesn’t matter. In church, we hear things like:

“You can worship God wherever you want. You don’t need a fancy building.”

“You can approach your ‘quiet time’ however you want. You shouldn’t let anybody tell you when, or where or how long, or what way to practice your spirituality. The important thing is that it’s yours.”

“You can pray however you want. You don’t need anybody else’s prayers.”

“You can sing new songs even if the old people don’t think they’re very good. The important thing is that they’re yours.”

And I thought about trying to defend my feelings about being in the land where Jesus walked and taught and live and died and rose and ascended. I tried to think about how it “works”—about how God “uses” a pilgrimage. But I can’t think that the premise behind this way of thinking is fairly recent (Englightenment?) and false on its face (though with a kernel of truth).

What is necessary shouldn’t be the question. I didn’t need to choose a romantic spot to propose. Elise and I didn’t need to marry in a church building. We didn’t need to use a common liturgy with roots in a historic liturgy. We would have been just as married. But those things were important. Nobody questions a couple who returns to the scene of their wedding to renew their wedding vows. Nobody questions the value in going to the same place. Must a vow renewal take place in the same place—or another place of significance? Of course not. But whether or not I can prove empirically that these things result in a longer, healthier marriage is beside the point.

Place, time, rhythm, ritual, history—these are all intrinsic parts of being human. Why do we think there is value in ignoring them? Why is there so much pushback (mainly in Protestant churches and even more so in evangelical/conservantive/non-denominational/descendants-of-the-frontie- tradition churches) on many of these things? Why do we fear admitting that there can be value in kneeling (kneeling!) in a place where countless throngs have knelt before and prayed? I don’t think that’s magic, or superstition.  I don’t think it needs to undercut the “essence” of worship or prayer or spirituality, if there can be such a thing. I think the premise that there is some essence we can reduce all things Christian down to, and that that essence is all that “matters” is foolishness. I think it’s destructive.

Yes, I think that attitude is destroying churches, families, the entire discipleship process.

I also think the attitude of a certain Church that there are laundry lists of requirements for certain things to be “valid” is also destructive. But that’s an easier argument to take on. Another time.

Karen Marie Yust in Real Kids, Real Faith:

When adults act as if religious education is mainly a tool for children’s moral development, children quickly catch on to the irrelevance of religious culture for the grown-up world. They have no incentive for committing themselves to a particular spiritual identity in adolescence if faith is portrayed by adults as something one sheds with childhood.…If they discover that our own spiritual practices are given little explicit attention and power to shape our lives, they are likely to imitate our indifference to the religious culture.

Leonard Sweet in From Tablet to Table, emphasis added:

I have had people challenge me on bringing up my children without religious choices. “Don’t you think you’re being a bit imperialistic and colonialist, not letting your children choose what religion they want to follow?”

My answer is, yes, I am being a bit imperialistic and colonialist. But I’m that way about plenty of other things besides religion. I didn’t ask my child, “What language would you like to speak?” or “What economic level would you like to be a part of?” These things are circumstantial to our birth. They are stories we are born into. So if you’re born into my house, guess what? “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). A child doesn’t decide to have toes; she discovers that she has them; this is how a child of mine discovers that he or she is already part of the body of Christ.

Important words for Christian parents, and for churches thinking about how they incorporate children into congregational life (particularly worship and the sacraments).

The Support of the Past in the Present via the Liturgy

“Prayer open sour eyes, ears, our very pores, to the complete interdependence of ourselves with others and others with ourselves.…In liturgical worship, for example, we feel keenly our dependence on all the other worshippers gone before us, those who fashioned the rituals, the worship-forms, the set prayers. All those in the past support our personal prayers in the present. And our prayers in their turn feed back into the liturgy, imbuing it with a personal immediacy and quickening life.”

—Ann and Barry Unlanov, “Prayer and Personality: Prayer as Primary Speech” in The Study of Spiritualityed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold, p.  31. Emphasis added.

Well, yeah, except when all fancy ourselves liturgists and modify the liturgy every week (in the honest pursuit of good contextualization, no doubt). I don’t think Thomas Cranmer would have wanted the Edwardian Prayer Books to remain the canonical standard forever, but neither do I think it helpful for individual churches to construct their own liturgies—differing from one another and shifting weekly. We deprive ourselves of the past and rob our (biological and spiritual) progeny when we do so. And in truth, few of us have improved the words and prayers and actions and ministries of worship when we have done so.

I include myself this exhortation, because I, too, have considered “my” congregation as “my” own liturgical playground. Can we stop messing with the structure, form, and verbal content of our worship all the time?

I do not mean, of course, that we should cease to consider how to adapt what the Church does in the congregation’s God has given us. Nor should we cease to introduce or reintroduce practices that will enrich our common life. I am advocating for conservatism, in a pretty literal sense, though: conserving what has been received (though perhaps a few generations ago) so that it may be loving cared for, nurtured, preserved and presented to the next generation of worshipers.

Christ…died the last victim of the priestly religion, and in His death the priestly religion died and the priestly life was inaugurated. He was killed by the priests, by the “clergy,” but His sacrifice abolished them as it abolished “religion.” And it abolished religion because it destroyed that wall of separation between the “natural” and the “supernatural,” the “profane” and the “sacred,” the “this-worldly” and the “other-worldly”—which was the only justification and raison d’etre of religion.

—Alexander Schmemann,
For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, p. 93