Do What She Does

It is May, which, among other indications of spring, includes commencement exercises. At my daughter’s college commencement this past weekend, one speaker told of how he was taught basic dinner etiquette when an undergrad many decades ago. The faculty member he dined with told him to watch her and do what she did. Through this imitation he learned how to eat with fork and knife, and not just his spoon.

This lesson served him well soon afterward when he found himself the guest of a well-to-do family while traveling with a small group of fellow students. At dinner, a vast number of cutlery and dishes were on the table. None of the students were used to such finery and they quickly huddled to figure out how to not bring discredit upon themselves. The one who had recently learned how to use more than just a spoon knew what to do. He told the other to watch the hostess and do what she does. They did, and received praise for their fine manners at the end of the evening.

My mind took this image and ran, uncovering a true guide to life.

The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) craze inspired by In His Steps was at its height several years ago. While motivated by a desire to follow Christ, it failed to be a solid tool for most people because of two main problems. First, none of us are first-century itinerant Jewish rabbis. Our context is so different from Christ’s that trying to pattern our life so directly after his is difficult. Second, Jesus did and said a lot. We have four Gospels full of things he did and said, many of which we may not be able to do.

We can benefit from a simple, concrete example that is no less profound, but may seem more attainable. It is not easier to do completely, but it is less complicated to understand.

Do what Mary did.

Mary’s recorded words and actions in Scripture are few and attainable for all of us. In fact we can sum them up in two phrases. First, when the angel Gabriel came to her to announce what the Father intended to do through her, she replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Second, at the wedding in Cana, her one instruction to others, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)

In these two statements, we find the whole of the Christian life. Submit to God as a willing servant and guide others to do the same. May we watch Mary and imitate her life — quiet, faithful and devout — that we may receive her reward.

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Filed under Jesus, Mary, Obedience

Our Lives as Catechumens

Some churches offer a formal series of classes before confirmation, normally called “catechism.” It is designed to be an instruction in the faith so that those coming for confirmation are informed and equipped as they make the faith their own. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement in itself, and some particular churches do a better job than others. The problem arises when we think of catechism as a certification instead of as a process.

When one joins the military, a period of preparation follows. This basic training or “boot camp” is a catechism for the particular branch of service one is entering. A lot of learning and shaping takes place in those weeks. Just the physical training alone can make a significant impact. It would be ludicrous for a recruit upon completion of basic training to think they are “done.” No more PT for me! I can go on about my business as a Soldier and not worry about PT, rifle marksmanship, and all those other basic tasks. I have completed that.

Yet, often, we view catechism in that very way. I’m done. I can go back to whatever it was I did before my Thursday nights were spent at the church learning the creeds and the history of the church. To do that is not to be done with catechism; it is to change how we are being catechized.

We are all catechumens. Every day we are being informed and molded by our habits. As we were all told when we were growing up, “You are what you eat.” That is true in all aspects of our lives, not just physical nutrition. Jesus said that food does not make us unclean, but the Scriptures are clear that we need to mind what we take into our hearts and minds. Psalm 101:3 (KJV) reminds us, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.”

It is nearly impossible to keep everything from our eyes (or ears) that is not wholesome and edifying since we are bombarded by such intrusions every time we go out. But that does not mean we should slouch down and throw our hands up in surrender to the onslaught. We can control what we read, watch, and hear for at least part of each day. Are we being deliberate to make sure we continue to be catechized in the faith, instead of passively assenting to being molded by our culture? Are we seeking to continue to be informed and shaped by the Church?

Since we are all catechumens, the question is: what are we being catechized in and for? Are we passively assenting to be catechized into materialistic consumers? Or, are we consciously, deliberately, seeking to be catechized for Christ?

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Filed under Discipline, Growth, The Church

I Met a Saint Today

The first few verses of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews has long held a special place for me. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” is the opening phrase. What does it mean to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses?

I had a thought the other day as I was completing a “wellness assessment” for work. The survey asked if I had people I felt I could turn to in need, if I felt I had enough friends, that sort of thing. I realized that I do; I have a multitude I can turn to anytime I want.

The Church has long held there are three categories of the faithful: the church militant, the church expectant, and the church victorious. The church militant is us, the faithful still “fighting the good fight”. The church expectant are those who have died and are awaiting glorification. And the church victorious are those who have already been glorified.

The amazing thing is, as we say when we confess our faith, we have communion with the whole Church — the communion of saints. What does that mean? It means that because we share one head — Christ — we are one body. Death does not remove us from the Body of Christ.

That means I am surrounded by people I can turn to, both physically living and dead. And I feel like I am meeting new people all the time. I was just telling my wife yesterday that I “met” a new saint. In this case, it was Saint Vincent of Lérins. He was a fifth century monk and writer of whom not a lot is known, but he wrote a work call the Commonitorium, which has been frequently translated and preserved through the ages.

The quote that caught my eye and led me to this particular saint was this:

“Yet teach still the same truths which you have learned,
so that though you speak after a new fashion,
what you speak may not be new.”

Commonitorium, Chapter 22

Good advice, and another way to state Jude verse three, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Our duty is not to be innovators of the faith, but transmitters. I am glad there is a cloud of witnesses so that I don’t have to make things up, but I can largely see what the saints before me have believed and taught. If I can but faithfully echo what they have passed on, I will have been faithful in my duties as a minister of the Gospel.

So I continue to read, study, and pray as I enjoy my ever-widening circle of fellow members of the Body of Christ. I look forward to the day when we can worship God side-by-side in a the great multitude in Heaven. Maybe we’ll get to chat. Or maybe it won’t matter, because we’ll finally be face-to-face with God.

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Filed under Creeds, Saints, The Church

Longing for Singularity

As someone who makes a living as a “provider of religious services” in a “pluralistic environment,” I am tired. The cost of admission to work in this context seems too high. I am tired of freedom, though this has little to do with current social issues regarding homosexuality and transgenderism.

The problem starts with what seems like a good idea. We gather a bunch of pastors / priests / rabbis / imams / etc. to provide religious support to a diverse population made up of all sorts of different religious adherents. In order to serve them all, we provide for their religious preferences. That is where this starts to unravel. Religion is reduced to a preference. Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, manual or automatic, Seahawks or Packers. Those are preferences. Choosing any one of those has no lasting impact.

If the claims of any one religion are true, however, then logically, at least some of the others must be false. Furthermore, if the claims of a religion are true, then to choose any other religion has dire eternal consequences. This is error of the most serious sort. I could have wrongly learned, “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” and miss a point on a history exam or in Trivial Pursuit, but to get God wrong is a very grave error.

In our pluralistic environment where we are to “cooperate without compromise,” I find that we are forced to act as if religion is merely a preference. We can promote the overall program and general benefits of religious practice, but we cannot talk about truth and error. This applies not only in chaplaincy settings, but increasingly in our overall western culture. We are committing an error when we allow that which is most dear to us to be reduced to a preference, even though the Church teaches and we believe that it is worth dedicating our lives to and even giving our lives for.

I am not advocating that we cannot or should not be civil to those of different faiths. The sword has historically been a poor evangelistic tool. But we must have the conviction to stand on and for the truth. We must be willing to seek the truth. We must, if we are intent on living in the truth, be willing to step away from error, expose it, and move toward the truth.

This is not a popular stance, especially not in the area of religion. It is seen as elitist, bigoted, and even racist in some cases. However, to seek the truth is not to claim that I am right, but to seek to know and do what is right. It is not to lord it over others, but to live in humble subjection to the truth and encourage others to do the same.

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Filed under Humility, Religion

Familiarity and Novelty

I’ve been reading upcoming texts in the lectionary for Sundays in Lent, and Psalm 23 shows up a few times. It is a very familiar Psalm to many of us. As I read it in the translation we are using for service, though, I had to slow down and read what it actually said instead of what I had memorized in my head. The same happens with the Our Father (aka the Lord’s Prayer) which most people (myself included) instinctively say in the translation in the Book of Common Prayer.

The reason we trip up when using “modern” translations on these two sections of Scripture is because we know them well in the older forms. This obvious bit of information led me to a less obvious hypothesis: If we were immersed deeper in our Bibles, we would be less likely to change translations, and the market for new versions would decline.

220px-english_bible_translations

I’m sure the current glut of versions is being driven by more than just our biblical illiteracy. There is a lot of capitalism-driven profit seeking from publishers; they see a market niche and are trying to exploit it. But it is hard to exploit a niche that doesn’t exist.

Our lack of biblical literacy is certainly an issue. We would do well to internalize the words of Scripture. They certainly have a better chance of being recalled if they are embedded within our minds and hearts. We can’t be formed by that which we are not allowing ourselves to be shaped by.

I stand by my assessment that the prevalence of translations is, in part, a reflection of our lack of engagement with the Bible.

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Filed under Bible, Lectionary

God’s (un)Awesomeness

…he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:15-1(ESV)

Thus, Paul describes Jesus Christ — awesome in every sense of the word. King of kings and Lord of lords, dwelling in unapproachable light. We sense Isaiah’s vision of the temple in chapter 6 of his book. We see John standing before the throne of God in his Revelation. Mind-blowing, face-melting awesomeness.

This is awe-inducing and inspiring and is certainly a part of God’s revelation of himself to us. But it is not his only means of revelation. This past week, on February second, the church commemorated Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Jesus was 6 weeks old, still an infant. Cute and cuddly perhaps, but not shield-your-eyes amazing.

Yet Simeon and Anna recognized him and said some amazing things.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke 2:29-32 (ESV)

But part of the awesomeness of God (and particularly Jesus) is that he became unawesome.

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

Matthew 13:55-57a (ESV)

God became so “normal” that he was offensive by his claims. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully divine and fully man at the same time. Yet the divine didn’t show all that much, except during his healings and the transfiguration before Peter, James, and John. It is this normalcy that allows us intimacy with God. God thundering from fire and smoke on top of Mount Sinai is scary; the Israelites were terrified and refused to go up. But we can relate to a God we can pray to in our sweatpants on the couch on a snowy Sunday afternoon.

The phenomena is not unlike meeting a popular or powerful person only to discover that they are “down to earth” in real life. In my life I’ve had a few of those encounters. There was the commanding general who attended chapel and would often invite the two chaplains to join him and his wife for lunch after service.

I also remember a Rich Mullins concert where acquaintances had backstage passes for after the show. The passes didn’t do them much good, because Rich was out in the lobby talking to people and signing autographs. I later learned that he was known for not playing the part of pop music star very well.

Jesus also meets us where we are and is not put off by our ordinariness. Yes, he is the Word who is with God and is God. But he is also an itinerant rabbi who led a group of 12 men around the Judean countryside, fishing, boating, walking, and talking. He is with us in just the same sort of run of the mill circumstances today.

That’s pretty awesome.

You Did Not Have a Home by Rich Mullins

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Making the Cut

We’ve been purging a bit around our house lately, clearing out some stuff from our shelves that we no longer need. It’s a fairly common practice for us. We like to keep things down to manageable levels. The less we have, the less there is to clean, store, and move.

It’s a practice that needs to catch on. A new self-storage facility opened recently just down the street from us. According to statistics, we have enough self-storage space in the US for the entire population of the country to comfortably fit inside. (And this while the average size of an American home has tripled in the last 50 years.)¹

But how to decide what to keep and what to get rid of? That is always the question. For my wife and I, sentimentality does not play a very big role in our decisions. While we were in the midst of our latest round, I came across this prayer by the patron saint of Switzerland:

My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.

St. Nicholas of Fluë

That’s a pretty concise prayer, and one that gives us insight into how to decide what stays and what goes, whether we’re discussing our possessions or our pastimes. It’s very similar to the prayer of an earlier saint:

Let me neither rejoice nor grieve at anything, save what either leads to Thee or leads away from Thee.  Let me not desire to please anyone nor fear to displease anyone save only Thee.

Let all things transitory seem vile in my eyes, and all things eternal be dear to me. Let me tire of that joy which is without Thee and to desire nothing that is outside Thee. Let me find joy in the labor that is for Thee; and let all repose that is without Thee be tiresome to me.

St. Thomas Aquinas

These lines from what is reported to be Aquinas’ daily prayer echo the same sentiment. If it draws me to God, keep it. If it does not, get rid of it. This is useful, though it helps more for categories of stuff than individual items. It’s hard to know where a particular T-shirt falls in relation to these questions, but it’s easier to decide if a particular hobby or interest does. So, my hangers are all backwards in my closet again.²

Trying to cut stuff from our lives isn’t just about organization; it is ultimately about focus. The less we have to deal with, the more we can focus on what matters — loving God and loving others.


¹ Statistics from http://www.becomingminimalist.com/clutter-stats/

² The closet trick is to turn all of your hangers around backwards. When you wear an item, turn the hanger back around. After a few months, the hangers that are still backwards give you a pretty good indication of what you could get rid of.

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Filed under Priorities, Simplicity