People of the Broken Heart

Psalm 51:17 puts it this way: “You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.”

For most of us a broken heart is a “sometimes thing.” At times our sins overwhelm us–the memory of them, the devastation resulting from them, the present consequence of them. At other times our miserable circumstances break us–no way out, no place to go, plodding endurance. Sometimes people break our hearts–the betrayal of a friend, the unfaithfulness of a spouse, the spurnned advances of a hoped for lover, the waywardness of a child. It is true also that our bodies break our hearts–the constant weakness and pain of a body that will not feel well and saddles us with a focus we would rather not have and keeps us from giving our attention to other things and people that matter to us. It makes us feel selfish, and we hate ourselves for it.

But the Psalmist is not referring to the broken heart as a “sometimes thing.” It is a condition of the soul at all times. Jesus put it this way: “blessed are those who mourn.” James, the brother of our Lord puts it this way: “your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy.” (Jas 4:8,9)

There is a certain intentionality to this brokenness. James exhorts “let there be sorrow.” As God calls creation into being in Genesis 1 with his “let there be light,” so our God through James says “let there be sorrow.” It’s not a Lent sorrow, once a year sorrow. It’s not a “I blew it sorrow” reserved for only the big sins. It is a constant state of the heart. There is a tenderness in the child of God which easily brings him or her to tears over an unrelenting spiritual condition that fights against “kingdom come.” It may sometimes recede and even at times appear to have evaporated. But it only hides. They say of Chuck Norris that he doesn’t sleep, he waits. So my sin. I always cry out “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me?” Yes, I am pointed toward Christ, the Christ who must be always saving because I am always a sinner.

It sometimes seem too much to ask of me to keep this great need continually alive in me. How humbling. How shaming. How distasteful. But how truthful. What I might now ignore will not be safely ignored. My flesh will roar back with a power of which I thought it had been stripped. It’s new found energy will convince me that I must never have been reborn, that I, such a one as I am now finding out myself to be, could have never tasted the “powers of the age to come” to begin with. I will find the power of sinning to be so enormous that Christ is made to seem a small Savior, a sentimental hoper but not a present deliverer.

That is, unless I carry around with ne the marks of the broken heart, never surprised by needing him. I have found that some do not want me to be this way. They want to feel from me an energy which, they believe, speaks of more hopeful times, of greater things. They do not want me to undersell myself. They mean well. And, truth be told, I can be a great burden to them. Needy people aren’t always easy on relationships and acquaintances.

One of the reasons I have done Celebrate Recovery all these years is that brothers and sisters doing recovery speak easily of the shushed truth that cannot be mentioned in polite company which always insists on light conversation and breezy times. It’s the truth that I once heard from a young lady working in a Burger King where I was having a cup of coffee. She noticed I was reading intently and came to look closer and saw that my book was the Bible. She looked at me and struggled to get words out. It became readily apparent that she was processing through some mental disability. She haltingly declared that she read her Bible, too. And immediately followed that up with the short quip I can never forget. “I don’t work right, you know.” Many years ago she had fallen and sustained brain damage. Now her simple words were, “I don’t work right.” She needed a Bible, just like me.

That’s it!!! Those are the words I long to say to everyone I meet. “I don’t work right.” I have been saved through Christ, but I must continue to be saved. Why? Because I still don’t work right. I am of the earth, earthy. I am of the corruptible, corruptible. There is a part of me which must be laid in the grave. I am most dangerous to others and myself when I forget it.

Lord, do the greatest miracle yet. Keep my mindful of the everyday need of my soul and how deep must mercy be that would be me come near to you.

A good reason to be “in” the church

Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, swerves up a metaphor that comes close to capturing why I “do church.”

Imagine a woman, whom we shall call Betsy, who has a heart the size of the Grand Canyon. She is gracious, loving, devoid of prejudice, and with an understanding and empathy wide enough to encompass everything and everybody. Because she is so loving, she has a very wide variety of friends and one night she decides to have a party and invite them all. She rents a hall to hold everyone. And her guests begin to arrive. Men, women, and children show up, of every description, ideology, background, temperament, taste, social standing, and religion. A curious mixture of persons fills the hall. Liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and feminists, Promise Keepers and new agers, priest and anti-clerics, union presidents and bankers, animal rights activists and persons involved in the seal hunt, meat eaters and militant vegetarians mingle with each other. Present is the president of the local pro-life association, but the president of the pro-choice is also there. Ian Paisley is there, as is the leader of the Irish Republican Army.

Given the mix, there is a fair amount of tension, but because Betsy is there, because she is in the center of the room, and because they respect who she is and what she stands for, everyone, for that night at least, is polite to one another and is enough and golfed in a certain spirit of tolerance, respect, decency, and charity to stretch them beyond how they would normally feel, think, and act.

As you can imagine, such a gathering would work only while Betsy was actually present. Should she have to excuse yourself and leave, which are persons get preoccupied in ways that would make them forget the real reason why they are there, you would soon enough get a combination of fireworks anticipation that would empty the room. This particular mix of persons to be brought together and kept together only around one person, Betsy. Everything depends upon her presence and upon those present having her wide empathy while they are in that presence, that is upon being in her spirit.

That is an image of the Christian church around Jesus Christ. Outside of a focus on his person and what we are drawn to spontaneously live when we sense his presence, we have angry fireworks in constant dissipation, as the state of our families, communities, nations, and world gives ample testimony to. Nothing else, ultimately, holds us together. Hence the basis for Christian ecclesial unity, church, is a gathering around the person of Jesus Christ and a living in his spirit.

If Betsy is there, I’m there. I get more of Betsy if I am there than if I’m not there. The minute I try to give to the church attributes and characteristics that in and of themselves attract me, to that degree my zeal diminishes and my enthusiasms decline. It is Jesus who keeps me showing up. In and of myself I give others plenty of reason not to “do church.” Talk to some of them. They’ll tell you how that works. But they see past me to the Christ who is “in the house.” And that makes it work.

Edward Fudge makes a case for annihilationism vs conscious, eternal suffering in Hell

At the Lanier Theological Library site I came across Edward Fudge’s case for annihilationism as the best way to interpret biblical texts on Hell. It is a strong presentation-exegetical, historical, philosophical. All delivered in a strong Texas drawl that keeps it all rather folksy and plain talking.

Interestingly enough he asks no one to make up their mind based on this one lecture. The subject is too large and the issues too important to base all on an hour talk.

Am I Baptist enough?

I think I am. But there is evidence against that conclusion. Part of that evidence is that there is a strong side of me drawn to the Great Tradition. By this I mean that the church itself is a source of wisdom – not inspired, not infallible, not always or maybe even usually trustworthy. But, nevertheless, there is wisdom there. And it shouldn’t go to waste.

I have remained a Baptist for several reasons:

1. I believe that the Holy Spirit among the people of God using the Bible in hearts is the better way to determine what sticks as true. Pope, Council, Synod, or General Assembly are not the primary carriers of the tradition. It is the people. What the people will believe, do believe, is what gets passed on from generation to generation. If the people remained unconvinced, the Magisterium can kick and scream all it wants.

2. Holy Scripture alone – argued, debated, studied, and then argued and debated some more – is what will settle the conscience. Baptists have not tried to settle the issue of the final and once for all interpretation of Holy Scripture by throwing creeds at each other. That something is in this creed or that creed makes not a nickels worth of weight to a Baptist when it comes to final interpretation. They are worth something, but only something – not everything. I find that Baptists over and over again hold high The Book. Gotta love it.

3. The Baptist distrust of authority in all of its guises, whether it be the melding together of church and state or denominational hierarchy. Leadership in a Baptist church is done down in the trenches. If a leader can persuade the laypeople, then he or she is the leader. Charles Spurgeon once called the practice of ordination that made “reverends” out of otherwise normal people is an exercise in “laying idle hands on empty heads.” Of course, all leadership comes down to whether or not the laypeople are persuaded. It’s just that in some denominational structures the leadership gets its way a bit longer than it would in a democratic Baptist church. But no one ultimately gets away with blindfolded loyalty from the people. My formula for Baptist government is that we would rather argue over something now than argue over it later, as more hierarchical forms of government do. Baptists are “first generation” debaters. Presbyterians and kind will put it off for a while as their leadership structures grind away and finally get to the issue by which time most people have already voted with their feet and left. In this way, Baptists are more self-renewing.

4. Because Baptist do not baptize infants, church members are not gained by having people born into the church. They have to be converted. A regenerate church membership bound together by conscious covenant is at the root of Baptist life. And I buy it. Evangelism is a way of life in most Baptist circles. I think they do the best job of keeping that alive.

5. Because no chain of checks and balances lock down the expansion of the church. It is well known that the reason the Baptists are such a large part of Protestant life is that while the Episcopalians and Presbyterians settled for life on the east coast of American in its early days and could not produce either enough pastors for the frontier demands of the USA or the kind of pastors who could take the Gospel to the frontier. If it was up to most denominations, all resources would be spent on that which is rather than what could be. Baptists have demonstrated over time that they spend less time padding pews and more time pounding pulpits.

I could go on. But even in the midst of all this that I affirm, I am one of those Baptists who longs for a deeper rhythm of church life than what could pass most churches of my kind.

The Church Year with its seasons that balance the different compass points of church life and keeps the focus on Trinitarian worship and redemptive acts of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Lectionary which forces the church to do plenty of reading of Holy Scripture in its corporate worship. more than a Baptist church will generally do, interestingly enough, being people of the Book as we are.
The deeper possibilities of renewal that flow out of the Lord’s Supper.
The wisely shaped prayers that guard us from hasty and foolish prayers that worm their way into our congregational life and worship which make us say things we do not mean and pray as we ought not.
The ordered worship that keeps focus off platform performers and more on the seamless connectedness of Word, prayer and sacrament.
The mysticism of those who know that God can’t be put in a box and submit to all of our shibboleths and three easy step formulas for spiritual success.
The importance of place, aesthetically shaped to allure the body to give way to the spirit.

Some take my desire for these things as perhaps indicating a “less than Baptist” mindset. See Roger Olson’s new posting on just this thing. As a sophisticated historical theologian and a Baptist, he expresses some ambivalence about Ash Wednesday and the practice of Lent. I think he sees in these a challenge to the “inwardness” and affectionate nature of heart worship that has historically characterized Baptist life. And they are challenges, left unmanaged and unwisely utilized, as if the having “done” our religion will soon replace the necessary spirit of the thing. He is right to be concerned. I cannot think he is right to be alarmed. But he has me in the cross hairs on this one. I do have to consider whether or not my trajectory seriously compromises the Baptist way that over time will lead to formalism and then to unbelief.


My Ash Wednesday Service

I am born and bred a Baptist. I think you know where I am going with this!! Ash Wednesday? Lent? Advent? Epiphany? Apostles Creed? Nicene Creed? I grew up never hearing of such things. It was Bible alone, baby. Really, not a bad thing. Make me choose, if I had to, and I would choose the way I grew up and the deep love affair it gave me with the Bible.

But the downside was that it kept me isolated from the wisdom of the church as it through the centuries and millenia lived out its faith. Prayers, celebrations, seasons, remembrances, preparations and the wonderful gift of the Church Year are all so helpful. And around each of these is gathered multitudinous volumes of spiritual insight and reflection. I was the poorer for not knowing of these resources. And it still grates me when well-meaning and sincere Evangelicals write over all these assists from fellow travelers in Christ the appellation  “Roman Catholic.”

The formula is “if the Roman Catholics do it, then we don’t.” And so a lot of Christians in my tradition do not observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. But there are few seasons I find so meaningful as the church across the globe together says to itself, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In one sense, we are re-evangelized. Mourning for sin takes on a new urgency as the church throws at me voluminous resources to urge me to deepen sorrow for sin and remember I am but dust and to dust I will return, to flee sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

In our 35 minute noon service yesterday, I called the people of God to not sleep but awaken and follow Christ into his affliction. We remembered the three episodes in Gethsemane when Christ asked the disciples to watch with him but each time found them asleep. Asleep at a time such as this? They had lost mastery of the body, and like Eve in the Garden, what pleased the body guided the soul rather the other way around. Lent is a time to go back to Gethsemane and stay awake. Lent is a time to return to the Garden and not take of the fruit. It is a new opportunity to bring this corruptible flesh under the reins of the Word and the Holy Spirit that we might be led to where Father wants us to go.

Then I quoted some of the last words of Adoniram Judson. “Few there be that die so hard.” He suffered greatly in his final days before death. Great pain. But the whole of his life was dying and dying hard. The depth to which God asked him to go stuns the mind. I think Judson is an example of how far a man can go in suffering before his loses his very humanity. He tested the limit, lived on the edge. For a time he went to a place where no one could follow him. Some would say he was mad for a period of two years. But God drove him into the wilderness, into the darkness where there are no earthly supports – none. Under such the human flesh breaks, unless God sustain a man. But at what a cost! How beastly the suffering.

We must say a new “no” to self.  Lent is tasting that word “no” in a new way, loving that word, finding in that word hope, seeing “all” in “no.”

As parishioners came forward I took the ashes from last years Palm Sunday palms and marked their foreheads with the words, “Dust thou art, o man, and to dust thou shalt return. Flee sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Who, in his right mind, would walk the martyrs path of that church aisle and say to me, “Mark me with the sign of death”? And yet they did, the crazy lot of them. They stood there like prisoners of Christ in single file, bound in the fetters of love to be marked for the slaughter. It was all I could do not to break down and simply weep at the sight. I marked them and then sent them out to die.

I do this because I believe in the resurrection.

For Lent-Daily Bible Readings and NT Wright comments on YouVersion

Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday, a 40 day journey in relearning saying no to self. Practice it. You’ll need it along the way. YouVersion has a 40 day reading plan developed by NT Wright along with daily comment for both iPhone and Android.

I am reminded of the ease of Bible access for us all when compared to Adoniram Judson’s labors in Bible translation, virtually the work of his life. In addition to all the evangelism and church planting, Judson knew that a church without a Bible would be stillborn. He was a “Bible first” man, like a19th century John Bunyan.

So maybe for Lent self-mortification can at least be denying yourself one brief moment as your attention moves from one thing to another to focus for a while on a biblical text and think about it. It will shape you up and stand you on your feet.

Oh my, Leonard Cohen does it again – “Come Healing”

Here is a song from Cohen’s new album Old Ideas. What can I say? The man gets to me. This shell that I build around me and live in often breaks open when I listen to a Cohen song. Makes me face my condition, unmet longings, unchecked desires, messiness of unfocused living.

He is a contemplative Buddhist priest now, not just or only a music star. Clearly, he explores our suffering and raises our eyes to look for answers. My eyes look up to Christ. Sometimes I wonder if Cohen has gone there himself. He certainly uses Christian metaphor to get across his stuff. His songs express the power of God’s common grace and remind me that as long as there is a Cohen around to rip open the wounds we all have, all are accountable to God on that day when the books are opened and cannot plead we were without knowledge.