Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Lenten Reading

In Christianity, Lent on March 31, 2009 at 3:46 pm

The Cross.  

“It . . . makes us no longer compatible with all passages and all openings,” writes Paul Claudel in A Poet Before the Cross.  Ah!  Our lives must change.  There are consequences of calling ourselves Christians.  Christ said to us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). 

Take up our crosses daily.  Why do you suppose, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this notion of bearing our crosses comes just before the glorious experience Peter, James, and John had with our Lord?  Witnesses to the Transfiguration!  God’s own voice from the cloud declaring, “This is my beloved Son; hear Him.”  This was a mountaintop spiritual experience—a time of joy and wonder!

Yet “it came to pass, on the next day, when they were come down from the hill” the lives of the disciples took a turn for the worse.  A man with a demon-possessed child approaches Christ and says, “I begged your disciples to cast it out but they could not” (Luke 9:37).  On the next day, when we return from a mountaintop experience, we find ourselves inadequate for the challenges of daily life.  On the next day, we are powerless to help those we want to assist; those we feel called to help.

But Claudel continues:  “Who knows [however] whether the Cross is not a bridge cut in advance to the exact measurement of that fissure we shall have to cross, just broad enough to pass from one bank to another?”  Now we see!  The Cross is not a burden. It is our salvation: a glorious bridge cut by our Savior to transverse the crevasse of sin between us and Him.  We were never adequate—not to save ourselves, not to help others, without Christ; without the Cross!

[The two quotations are a tiny part of Paul Claudel’s wonderful book, A Poet Before the Cross (Wallace Fowlie, translator. Published by Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1958).  The book is out of print.  Occasionally copies can be found by searching here.]


In Christianity on March 29, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Reverence ranks high among sources of Christian richness.  Why?  Because, without the grand re-calibration attained through reverential worship, our lives spin out of control.  Demands press us.  Aspirations drive us.  We invite the market-driven, real-time, multimedia culture to invade our sanctuaries—personal and communal.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Stop.  Breathe.  Be mindful.  One of the great blessings of right worship is silence.  Silence helps beget reverence. Silence provides space—space to prepare ourselves, space to repent, space to reflect.  Little wonder then that among the Psalms that call us to worship, the ninety-fifth counsels: “Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.”  

Kneel!  “What a quaint custom,” our culture thinks.  Yet is not kneeling a way of silencing our pride and admitting to our neighbor we are equally unworthy before God?  We are created with a body, not just to bear our souls, but to express our worship.  Kneeling acknowledges our submission before God; our reverential awe and godly fear.

Most of all, our Savior Jesus Christ—after Whom we are to model ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:1)—knew the value of reverence before the Father.  Hebrews 5:7 tells us, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”

On Posting Comments

In Blog Procedures on March 28, 2009 at 11:08 pm

I recently received a comment from a Christianity Richly reader that helped me realize I had not been considerate of readers’ time—and for that, I apologize.  If you are interested enough to write a comment, you should know in advance how comments are handled.

This is a moderated blog.  Comments that emphasize the joys we share, rather than points that divide us, will have a greater chance of being published. My posts will generally observe the same guidelines, although on fundamental issues like the right to life, or compassionate social responsibility to the living, some of us will inevitably disagree.

If you think posting a comment adds to the discussion from a Christian perspective that I have missed or ignored, then posting your thoughts is probably a good investment of your time. Assuming the tone and content is consistent with that standard, your post will likely clear moderation. If not, you may want to send an email to discuss whatever concerns you.

Not all comments are published, even if congruent with the focus of Christianity Richly. I want the blog to be useful and easy to read.  Comments that don’t observe normal conventions of grammar and spelling, or repeat something that has already been said, probably won’t be published simply because it is not fair for me to edit your work—which could inadvertently change the meaning of the point you intended to make.

Similarly, although I do respond to email (even critical ones), it is not possible to reply to every note.  If you disagree with something posted to Christianity Richly and are truly interested in discussing it, then send an email to the address at the bottom of the copyright notice, under Welcome.

Please think twice if your email only includes proof-texts.  I don’t say this to denigrate anyone’s scholarship or discourage discussion.  But if you’ve read much of Christianity Richly, you’ll know I believe interpretative authority is necessary. Certainly it is right and proper for any Christian to begin an assertion with, “The Bible says.” But given the real differences in soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology among those who believe in sola scriptura—the Bible alone—what then? If we both say our positions are grounded in scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit guidance, but end up in opposite positions, we’ve settled nothing. Reasoned discussion of your point, and of the significance of texts cited, will enable us to speak to (rather than at) each other. Know that I will begin from the position that the Bible is our textbook, but the Church is our teacher—and was intended to be so by Our Lord, Who founded it.

“God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33, ESV).  I look forward to our discussions, pursued on that basis.  “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

Lenten Tweets

In Christianity, Lent on March 28, 2009 at 4:35 pm

A selection of Lenten Tweets posted to Twitter:

  1. “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, even use words.” (St. Francis). High standard. What does my life say without words?
  2. “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.” (T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday.” Suggested by A. Esolen, Magnificat)
  3. Finished reading Richard John Neuhaus’ short book, As I Lay Dying. Worth pondering our end, during Lent.
  4. The rhythm of the Church Year (Advent, Lent, etc.) is a gracious aid to spiritual growth.
  5. If the Church has nothing to say, then golf or NY Times are better uses of Sun a.m. On the other hand . . .
  6. May our Lenten resolves be as solid a stone Cathedral floor. Too often we are “carpet Christians.”
  7. The world is often written in minor keys. In eternity we shall enjoy the majors.

Lex Orandi Lex Credendi

In Catholic, Christianity on March 26, 2009 at 9:50 pm

In launching Christianity Richly I would be negligent—in gratitude, as well as in identifying vital influences—without mentioning my pastor, Father Jay Scott Newman of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Greenville, SC.  Fr. Newman’s impact on my formation as an evangelical Catholic can hardly be overstated.  The power of his preaching, the light of his example, and the reverence and transcendence of worship at St. Mary’s have had profound effects.

It is that last point, reverence and transcendence in worship, to which this post’s title refers.  George Weigel, theologian and biographer of Pope John Paul II, writes, “The people of St. Mary’s Greenville have learned experientially an ancient theological maxim that you should know: lex orandi lex credendi—what we pray is what we believe.  Sloppy worship leads inevitably to sloppy theology” (Letters to a Young Catholic).

Weigel’s chapter on St. Mary’s describes the significance of right worship far better than I might.  I leave you in his good hands, should you choose to read Letters to a Young Catholic.  The point is that right worship is an immense part of living Christianity richly!  In terms of influences used by the Holy Spirit in my conversion to Catholic Christianity, nothing, except the clear need for teaching and interpretative authority, rivaled the impact of my first visit to St. Mary’s.  The veil between earth and Heaven became nearly transparent.  The glory and majesty of God was reverenced and worshipped. It was impossible to go away unchanged—and it remains so.

In Whatever Way We Understand

In Christianity on March 26, 2009 at 1:03 pm

To say “in whatever way we understand creation” raises questions among Christians of firm faith, especially evangelical and fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ.  The Bible speaks of the days of creation. We think of days as 24-hour periods. To say “in whatever way” sounds like hedging one’s bets, or even questioning the truthfulness of scripture.

In his commentary on Genesis, the late and very much missed Presbyterian theologian, pastor, and author James Montgomery Boice, includes survey of five competing views of man’s origins:  evolution, theistic evolution, the gap theory, six-day creationism, and progressive creationism.  For those interested in a concise summary of the pros and cons of each position, chapters 5-9 of Volume 1 of Dr. Boice’s commentary may be helpful.

That said, isn’t the core issue this: “What is your view—what is my view—of God?” Do we agree God’s creative intent was neither subject to, nor could be thwarted by, chance? Do we agree that, in His omnipotence, God could have as easily spoken creation into existence in seven nanoseconds, as in seven days, or seven eras?

If so, then perhaps we also agree that Christians are called to genuine conversion, by God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), which is to be accompanied by lives of virtue and service (Ephesians 2:10). If unending debate over interpretations of creation keep us from that, we’ve missed the point of God’s revelation.

Origins of Christianity Richly

In Catholic, Christianity on March 20, 2009 at 11:30 pm

It now feels foolish to have waited so long before launching Christianity Richly. The idea was born in 1991, when my son and I were staying in Freiburg, Germany, across the square from the Freiburger Münster (the Cathedral begun in 1120 A.D.).  While there, I started making notes for a book called Simple Things.  

The book is still unpublished, but the idea was to focus on one word at a time: “tent,” “face,” “power,” or “gospel,” for example.  The book’s goal was to show the richness of biblical truth underlying each word.  That idea later evolved to include word pictures and metaphors of scripture.  If we know a little about the food, customs, and agriculture of the Mediterranean, then when those metaphors are employed, our appreciation of the richness of God’s love is enhanced.  When the Psalmist writes, “You brought a vine out of Egypt . . . and planted it,” the image of God’s tender care is greatly magnified by having lived (as I did for a decade) among vineyards.  

What finally prompted launching Christianity Richly, however, was having become a Catholic Christian. Father Dwight Longenecker, a former Protestant, has written a fine book titled More Christianity. His book explains that the Church is not mere Christianity (as wonderful as C.S. Lewis’ book is). Nor is the Catholic Church characterized by additions to Christianity (as commonly supposed by many Christians still outside her walls). Rather, more Christianity is the fullness of what God intended in Christ—fully biblical and glorious in its richness and beauty.

Not every Christian is convinced of that, of course.  But taste and see.  Stay a while. Come back to visit, as time permits.

Beauty is a Pointer to Truth

In Christianity on March 16, 2009 at 8:20 pm

Simple computer code is described as “elegant.” A brilliant algorithm in physics that encapsulates many complex dynamics is sometimes termed a “simple solution.” In a similar way, Thomas Dubay’s The Evidential Power of Beauty suggests that beauty is a pointer to truth.

God created and He said, “It is good.” Even during the process of creation (in whatever way we understand that), Genesis 2:9 says the various trees God made were “delightful to look at,” before it mentions that functionally they were “good for food.”

Dubay: “There are many and diverse reasons why . . . men and women enter the Catholic Church, but never in my experience have they been looking for something that accommodates the spirit of the world, that compromises principles for the sake of pleasure and comfort. Invariably they are attracted to beauty of one type or another.”

Yes.  Christianity Richly.


In Catholic, Christianity, Liturgy on March 14, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Authority is the bedrock upon which my confidence in the Church rests.  But my pilgrimage was deeply affected by liturgy—or as I would have expressed it at the time, by a yearning for transcendence in worship; for Heaven and earth to meet. Reverent worship is powerfully evangelical.

In the town where I lived in California, I often drove past a church that had a sign out front:  The church for people who hate church.  But I don’t hate church!  I love church.  Church has always been a special place for me—from the summers when I marched into Baptist Vacation Bible School with the other children, singing “Holy Holy Holy,” right up to and including my last opportunity to participate in solemn liturgy.

The Extraordinary Behind the Ordinary
Others have written better and at more length about what follows.¹  But in the liturgy, in a very real sense, Heaven touches earth.  We are brought into contact with the extraordinary behind the ordinary; the Supernatural just the other side of the natural. The only testimony I can offer here is that of the woman’s at the well . . . “Come and see” (John 4:29).  If “come and see” is the test, then what has Catholic liturgy shown me?

One thing Catholic liturgy has taught me is that symbols and ceremony often say more than words. For example, I remember the funeral of former President Gerald Ford. Eight young military men slowly carried the casket bearing the body of the former President up the steps of the U.S. Capitol.  Ford’s 88 year old wife stood at the top of the steps, enduring the cold night air, on the arm of a Major General.  No words could have better said, “This is my husband, whom I so dearly loved.” “This is my fallen Commander-in-Chief.” “This is our declaration of love and honor for him.”

Liturgy is Not a Spectator Sport
Moreover, liturgy involves us.  We don’t simply sit and listen, standing occasionally to sing a hymn.  Some translate leitourgeo as the “the work of the people.”  Acts 13:2 captures this idea when it says, “They ministered (leitourgeo) to the Lord” (“ministered” is the KJV translation); others say, “While they were worshipping the Lord.”

Liturgy also incorporates the senses. Christ took on human flesh. Our bodies matter to God. Because they do, one consequence is that our bodies also can be used in worship. In Catholic worship all five senses are joyously engaged.

  • I kneel before God, smelling the incense representing the prayers of the saints (Revelation 8:3-4 and elsewhere).
  • I see a “visual Bible,” Christ and the communion of the saints in scenes represented in the windows and the statues around me (John 3:13-15 and Numbers 21:8, Hebrews 12:1-2 and more).
  • I hear God’s Word read and preached, accompanied by the organist, congregation, and choir praising God (Colossians 3:16 and many other places).
  • I touch others while offering them the “Peace of the Lord” (1 Peter 5:14).
  • And by God’s grace, I receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, during which the fifth sense is employed (taste, Psalm 34:9John 6:54-56 and elsewhere).

Liturgy Protects the Faith
In addition, liturgy protects us against each generation’s limitations.  Step back and remember the Catholic Church has endured for 2,000 years.  The Church has transcended illiteracy, language barriers, war, plague, poverty, the rise and fall of empires, and more.

Perhaps we think of our own times and imagine, “But we no longer face most of those limitations.” Really? May I differ? One of the limitations we face in our day is a dangerous overconfidence in our own understanding of the world, coupled with a limited sense of mystery. Liturgy rebalances our view of ourselves and the world.  Without that balance, we risk having a limited grasp of reality—the real (both “seen and unseen,” as The Nicene Creed says). Liturgy helps us focus on the unseen as something much more than just an abstract or intellectual exercise.

Finally, contemporary Christianity sometimes shows a lack of propriety. I would gently suggest that kneeling in Christian worship is more spiritually fruitful than watching a drummer in headphones sitting in a Plexiglas drum cage built to improve the sound mix for a “worship band.”  I can find similar-sounding music in most nightclubs. I can also listen to a speaker wearing a business suit (or a Hawaiian shirt) at a corporate offsite.

Where—except in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”²—will we find majesty, mystery, and transcendence? God be thanked, all are found in the Church’s liturgy!  Psalm 63:6 “My soul will be filled as if by rich food” (Jerusalem Bible translation).

Reverence, abundance, transcendence, majesty, and sovereignty in worship: the extraordinary behind the ordinary!

That is Christianity Richly.

¹ See particularly The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Joseph Ratzinger (subsequently Pope Benedict XVI) and the essays in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, edited by Alcuin Reed.

² From The Nicene Creed.


In Catholic, Christianity on March 12, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Elsewhere in Christianity Richly, I have written that my  journey into the Church involved many reasons:  certainly, history, unity, authorityliturgy, community, and sacramentality. First among these was—and remains—authority.

Authority rests upon the ongoing work for God the Holy Spirit, in and on behalf of the Church that Christ established (John 16:13).

The circumstances by which it became clear that teaching authority is essential began in a simple, everyday way. A friend with no strong religious convictions became a Baptist. Not long after entering one of the many different independent Baptist assemblies, the issue of alcohol came up.  This prompted sincere self-examination on my friend’s part. His desire to do right was absolute. Since Christians hold different positions, all he wanted to know was, “What is right?”

Well, what is right?  A good pastor, a seminary professor and man who loves Jesus Christ, was telling my friend, “You cannot drink wine and be a good Christian.” Yet my own former protestant pastor, an author of more than 40 books and a strongly biblical preacher, had more than once enjoyed a glass of wine with my wife and me.

Unquestionably, the word of God is certain. But interpretation is not. The vast diversity of protestant interpretations is evidence of this fact. Protestant denominations, all claiming the authority of scripture, differ on soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.  In other words, all of the following—how we are saved, along with how the Church is organized and governed, and what will happen at the end of time—are up for grabs.  These are not small matters. Where is one to turn?  To the Bible, yes.  But each voice proclaims, “On the authority of scripture, I declare.”  At that point, their interpretations go in different directions.

Is this not the situation Saint Paul described in 1 Corinthians 14:8?  If the bugle gives an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? What are we to do?  Go forward?  Go back? The context for these two verses addresses speaking in tongues.  But the overriding point is found in 1 Corinthians 14:33:  God is not “the God of disorder but of peace.”

We find much of 21st century Christianity facing circumstances similar to those  of the early Church described inActs 15:2—marked by “no small dissension and debate.” The solution? The same as in Acts 15: Go to the Apostles and successors they appointed.

Authority.  Certainty.  Christianity Richly!