Mark Galli on Lent

Today I wish to direct your attention to an article by Mark Galli at Christianity Today:  “Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent“.

For the uninitiated:  Part of observing Lent is participating in some spiritual discipline that will move you forward in your relationship with God.  For most people, this involves giving up something like sweets, wine, or TV.  The idea here is to create space in your life that God is free to occupy.

Mark Galli offers a different take on this.  Trying to sustain this discipline over the course of the 40-day season of Lent is a very taxing affair.  You don’t really grow close to God as a result of this, instead you feel yourself missing whatever you have given up.  And even if you succeed, there is the potential for pride which undercuts whatever good you may have achieved.  (At least that is his experience.  Your mileage may vary.)

So the whole point of participating in a Lenten self-discipline is not to improve yourself spiritually, but rather to teach yourself that you CAN’T improve spiritually but for the power of Christ.

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.

…So for me Easter doesn’t become a day when I thank God that he has made me more disciplined, not like those non-liturgical folks who don’t even observe Lent. Instead, it becomes an occasion to celebrate the fact that my self-respect does not hinge on my self-discipline, and that my very lack of discipline is the paradoxical sign of the gospel. Indeed, while we were gluttons and prayerless, while we didn’t give a rip about the poor, Christ died for us. It’s not for the spiritually fit and healthy that he came, but for the unfit and unhealthy. We may be faithless in areas small and large, but he remains faithful through and through.

Another Look: Joyce Meyer: The Anti-Lent

As we begin the season of Lent, I think it best to circle around and take another look at something which runs perfectly contrary to what we will be observing in the coming weeks.

I can tell by the numbers that a lot of you are interested in what I had to say last year about Joyce Meyer and her brother’s death.  Her brother died under tragic circumstances brought on primarily by poor choices he had made in life.  Shortly after his death, Meyer spoke at a conference of prominent church leaders and used his life as a sermon illustration to draw a contrast between a wasted life and a life that God rewards.  Using the story of the paralytic by the pool in John 5, she noted the key difference between herself and him:  he just wanted to lay around and feel sorry for himself and blame others for his plight, while she did what she could to make a better life for herself.  Making the assumption that the paralytic in John 5 could have at least wiggled over to the edge of the pool but chose not to, she said that her brother “just wanted to lay by the pool another year, feel sorry for himself, blame somebody and remain crippled….I got tired of laying by the pool and I decided to wiggle.”  She went on to make the application that if you do what you can and try your best then God will bless you and do what you can’t.  The Christian Post gives a more detailed summary of Meyer’s message and presents it in a slightly more favorable light than I do.

Do your best and God will bless you.  Do what you can and God will do what you can’t.  Classic American style self-help preaching, and it runs completely and totally contrary to the spirit of the Lenten season.

If you had the opportunity to participate in an Ash Wednesday service this week, you probably received ashes on your forehead.  These are a reminder of your link with all the rest of humanity:  that you are dust and one day you will return to dust.  That everything you are and everything you do will eventually turn to dust.  That you can try to wiggle all you want but you will not get to anything remotely resembling life.

The ashes are also a sign of repentance.  Sackcloth and ashes appear throughout the Bible as a symbol of repentance.  During this season, we repent of doing things our own way.  We repent of trying to walk in our own strength.  We repent of trying to do what we can and doing our best and trusting God to meet us partway because even if God meets us partway we will never get there.

The paralytic in John 5 could not have wiggled his way into the pool, even if he wanted to.  He needed Jesus.  And Jesus came to him.  Jesus listened to his sad story, then told him to get up and walk, and he did.

Like the paralytic in John 5, we need Jesus also.  We lament our human condition, that we are dust and will return to dust.  In a few weeks we shall celebrate the cross and resurrection, by which Jesus has delivered us from our condition and enabled us to have life that lasts after we have turned to dust.

Welcome to Lent

Welcome to Lent.

Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (March 21).  Back up six weeks from Easter, then back up to the Wednesday before, and you have the season of Lent.  Forty days.  (If you are on your game, you know that this time period is actually forty-six days.  Back out the six Sundays, which are considered free days and not part of the Lenten season, and you get to forty days.)

Forty days.  Long before Rick Warren ever came on the scene, the Church has been doing this.  Why forty days?  This ties directly to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.  There is also a tie-in with the forty years that Israel spent in the desert while going from Egypt to the Promised Land, though this is not played up as strongly.

Today is Ash Wednesday.  If you attended an Ash Wednesday service today you probably received ashes on your forehead.  The ashes are a reminder of your mortality, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.  They are also a reminder of our sin (the blackness of the ashes matches the blackness of our sin) and a sign of repentance (sackcloth and ashes are associated with repentance throughout the Bible).  We grieve our sinful condition and look to the Cross, where Jesus’ death redeems us from our sin.

Welcome to Lent.

Andrew’s Story: It’s Our Story Too

A couple of weeks ago the blogosphere was all abuzz with Andrew’s story, the story of a former member of a nationally prominent megachurch who became a victim of church discipline gone monumentally awry.  (You know this church, you know where it is, and you know who the pastor is.  If not, you can easily find out by reading what others have written on this story.  Bashing this church and/or its pastor is a full-contact sport in some parts of the Christian blogosphere, and I have no desire to get into that here.)

By now the 24-hour news cycle of the Christian blogosphere has left this story well behind.  And I probably should too.  But I just can’t seem to let it go. So I will post a few of my own thoughts on this affair.

First, a brief summation of what others around the web have written about Andrew’s story:

–Matthew Paul Turner first broke the story over at his blog, in two installments:  Part 1 Part 2

In a follow-up post, Matthew Paul Turner speaks to the broader issue of abusive spiritual environments.

Chaplain Mike over at recounts Andrew’s story and suggests that the historical practice of confession and absolution, specifically as practiced in the Lutheran tradition, is a much better way of doing church discipline.

In a follow-up post, Chaplain Mike suggests that relational wisdom is lacking in many Christian communities, and that greater relational wisdom on the part of Andrew’s community could have kept this thing from ever rising to the level of a church discipline issue.

Blogger Wenachee the Hatchet, a former member of the church in question, sheds light on discipline and pastoral accountability issues that have long been of concern, and suggests that the Andrew situation is a storm that has been brewing for a long time.

Finally, the church in question has issued a response.

Now to share some of my own thoughts and move toward wrapping this up.

First:  You may disagree with how the leadership of this church has handled the Andrew situation, or even with their overall approach to church discipline and pastoral accountability, if the things Wenachee the Hatchet has to say are any indication of the true state of affairs there.  But it is very important to remember that there are good Christians who go to this church, who have worked very hard to build the community of this church and who have poured a lot of themselves into it.  No doubt this is a very trying time for them.  And if the negative publicity resulting from the Andrew situation leads to the downfall of this church and/or its pastor, they will be affected very strongly.  They need to be in our prayers during this time.

But here is the main reason why I can’t let this story go:  Andrew’s story is my story too.  And it’s your story too.  The details may be different–you probably didn’t act inappropriately with a woman other than your fiancee (or maybe you did, I don’t know).  You may still be a well-accepted and valued member of your church.  The bottom line is still the same:  We all need mercy.  We all need forgiveness.  In short, we all need Christ.  And when we sin–and you will, if you haven’t already–we need places and times where we can confess our sin, individually and corporately, and receive the forgiveness that comes from Christ by virtue of the cross.

In short, we all need the Gospel.  We need to experience it in word and deed.  We need to be told regularly–whether it be through word, ritual, art, music, celebration, or any other means–that we are forgiven, that we are part of the family of God.  And this isn’t something that we can just hear once or twice and then move on to the biblical parenting/money management seminars.  We need to keep coming back to this, over and over again.

Paul Wallace: Intelligent Design Is Dead

Paul Wallace is a well-known science and religion teacher who has written extensively on issues of science and faith.  He currently teaches physics at Agnes Scott College in Decatur.  Today I would like to direct your attention to an article of his over at The Huffington Post in which he argues that Intelligent Design is dead.

Intelligent Design has been with us for centuries, ever since the days of Thomas Aquinas.  Basically it grows out of the argument that the universe is so complex that it could not have evolved on its own by random chance; its evolution has to have been guided intentionally by an intelligent being–namely, God.  As a present-day scientific movement, Intelligent Design gained traction in the 80s and early 90s as an alternative to young-earth creationism and a middle ground between evolution and the more radical forms of creationism.

Wallace makes his case not by laying out any scientific arguments against ID, but rather by taking us all the way down to basic principles.  He takes us back to Kepler, who in the middle of working out his theories on planetary motion that would turn the astronomy of his day on its head, discovered a star that had never before been seen in the night sky.  Based upon his knowledge of astronomy–and the general level of astronomical knowledge that was available at the time–he had no way of explaining how that star had suddenly appeared.  He was tempted to claim that this was an act of “special creation”–that God had created this star in a unique, immediate act of divine intervention.  But he did not.  In his own words:  “Before we come to [special] creation, which puts an end to all discussion, I think we should try everything else.”

Why did Kepler reject the possibility of special creation?  Not because he believed that God did not exist or that the universe was a closed system in which God could in no way intervene at any time, for any reason.  Rather, he believed that God created the universe as an ordered system that runs according to comprehensible principles, and that He created us with the capacity to discover those principles if we are willing to try.  He believed that there must be an explanation out there somewhere, even if he or the science of his day did not have it.

In other words, according to Wallace:  “The universe has been designed, therefore it must be comprehensible.”

Intelligent Design (the contemporary scientific movement, that is) turns this completely and totally on its head.  One of the key concepts of ID is that of “irreducible complexity”–that is, that certain biological structures (the human eye, the bacterial flagellum, for example) are so complex that they could not possibly have evolved, whether by chance or otherwise.  Ergo, they must have been specially designed.

Wallace takes us to the work of Michael Behe back in the mid-90s, when ID was in its heyday.  Confronted with the problem of the bacterial flagellum (a whip-like rotor that helps some single-cell organisms to move around), Behe claimed that this device could not possibly have evolved by any of the standard mechanisms of evolution.

The key point here is that when confronted with something that the science of his day could not explain, Behe claimed special creation.  This is the complete opposite of Kepler’s approach of trying to find the answer–or wait for the science of a later age to find the answer–before claiming special creation and ending the discussion.

In other words, according to Wallace:  “The universe is incomprehensible, therefore it must have been designed.”

Wallace goes on to note how contrary ID’s basic approach, as exemplified by the work of Behe, is to the spirit of Kepler–who, we must note, was just as open about his Christian commitment as any of the present-day proponents of ID.  He argues that ID’s approach of inserting God into places where science doesn’t have the answers and ending the discussion there is inappropriate for a person of faith.

Looking upon the new star in September 1604, could Kepler have envisioned stellar evolution, mass-transfer binary stars, and explosive carbon fusion? No, and so he remained silent. His humility, his belief in the richness of creation, and his expansive faith allowed him to admit ignorance while leaving the door of causal science wide open.

ID denies its proponents that freedom. Having opted to close the door on science, they steal from themselves the opportunity to see nature more deeply. In so doing they dig in their heels, refusing to be drawn, Kepler-style, closer to the creator God they all believe in. This is the great irony of ID.

It is inappropriate for us to accept any approach that seeks to stifle scientific curiosity and perseverance by accepting God as a convenient answer when the answer is not readily at hand.  The proponents of ID have accepted that path, but Kepler refused it.  The irony here is that both believed they were honoring God.

Learning more about the universe and how it works can only increase our reverence for its Creator.  This journey will be hard; at many times it will challenge our most deeply cherished presuppositions and “certainties”.  Ignorance is no crime here.  It is perfectly OK to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that, without going on to say “God must have done it.”  You may never find the answer, but to keep trying is a way of honoring God.

As Wallace reminds us:

Kepler reminds us that religious people do not need to shrink from science and its naturalistic methods, because they more than others have a rich tradition in which to locate these things, a context that allows them to take science seriously but not too seriously, and a strong bulwark against the lull of materialism.



PETA: Don’t Eat Wings This Super Bowl

Okay, we all know that the good people over at PETA have WAY too much time on their hands.  Which is why they are regular veterans of the “People with WAY too much time on their hands” department here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion.

Well, they’re at it again.  Seems they know that the Super Bowl (NFL:  I dare you to come and sue me) is coming up and that a lot of you will be having Super Bowl parties, and that a lot of you will be eating chicken wings at those parties.  And they don’t want you to.  Why?  Because they’re PETA and they reserve the right to be offended at such things, dammit!!!!!

From PETA’s website:

It’s estimated that some 600 million chickens are killed for the wings consumed just during the Super Bowl. Yikes! And that’s after the abuse they all suffered through on factory farms.

Not only is this wing-eating obsession cruel, it also shows a lack of imagination. After all, there are so many mouth-watering alternatives to the old same-old same-old. For vegan game-day treats that will satisfy the most ravenous sports fan, check out these recipes for fab finger foods that won’t cost birds their limbs.

The “mouth-watering alternatives” mentioned above include vegan burgers, meatless hot dogs, and fake BBQ riblets.  Wow.  My stomach juices are making death threats already.

Now Playing at Life in Mordor: Andrew’s Story

Last week the blogosphere was all abuzz with the story of Andrew, a former member of a nationally prominent megachurch who became an unfortunate victim of church discipline gone monumentally awry.  I recounted the story and my thoughts on it over at Life in Mordor, the blog of Mike F. where I get to be a regular guest contributor.  Go ahead and take a look.

The big idea here:  Church discipline is woefully lacking in many parts of evangelicalism.  But you don’t try to compensate for a lack of church discipline on the broader evangelical landscape by going completely and totally off the rails in your own church.  It is very unfortunate for Andrew–and for the church in question–that this thing went down the way it did.

I have more to say about this; look for more in the near future.