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.

Want to read Pilgrim’s Progress again? For the first time? Keep company with Challies and friends

Tim Challies often takes a classic Christian book and reads it through a chapter at a time and interacts with readers on his blog. A great idea. And Challies is the blog to do it on. Challies is a serious Bible believing Christian whose blog is in the top five of all Christian blogs. And that’s a big deal. He refers to the most reliable of Christian authors and resources.

He will be blogging through Pilgrim’s Progress starting March 8. See his announcement and description of the process here. You can read PP online here. But this is the original version and a bit hard to read. Challies has other suggestions.

Finding Jesus Everywhere in the Bible – Michael Williams, Andy Naselli, Oral Roberts

Yep. Everywhere.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.  (Luk 24:27)

All the Bible is a worship experience of Jesus. Jesus is not only its central character. He is its theme. Some divide up the Bible into Before Christ and After Christ. That works. But a better way to divide it is to reverse the word order: Christ Before and Christ After. Christ is always there. He is just there in different ways. And once you learn to see him everywhere, your Bible journey explodes into discovery and joy.

I am always on the lookout for biblical theology books that get this. Looks like this one does. I mean to read it. How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens: A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of Scripture. 

Andy Naselli offers a short description.

I like this overview by Oral Roberts of Jesus in all the books of the Bible. Stirring.

Is Neo-Puritanism evidencing trajectories of cult-like patterns?

This question is being explored by Roger Olson.

Here is my response to Olson’s valid concern about Neo-Puritan leadership tendencies that can be over-the-top. Neo-Puritanism is the label Scot McKnight prefers rather than Reformed. I agree. Reformed is actually a much broader category than Piper, Mohler, et al, represent. They are a subset of Reformed that has more in company with the Puritan impulse. That doesn’t make them defective. It just makes them a part of something larger that is more inclusive than their positions. By the way, I love the Puritans. Let me say that again. I love the Puritans. They were truly “heart Christians” and affectionate in what they called “experimental religion,” God as actually experienced in the soul and not merely as doctrine. I like the word “experimental” even though it suggests to our ears something that is not necessarily true, as in, “let’s just experiment with this.” In its context it had more to do with the heart as laboratory, the place where Christ is actually to be “done.” If it isn’t experimental religion, it is only the religion of the classroom. And in the classroom it is only head knowledge and not heart knowledge. ARE YOU AN EXPERIMENTAL CHRISTIAN?

It is the responsibility of the leadership to so exercise their influence that a right kind of restraint is exercised. There are a number of ways to do this. One, preach your theology but publicly be charitable toward those who see things another way that fits with conciliar and consensus Christian teaching. Two, support other good institutions and movements. You don’t always have to start your own; even if you can, that doesn’t mean you should. Even if what you started would be better, that doesn’t mean you should. Three, preach in venues where consensus Christianity has to be preached in order to be effective, like an Urbana or the Pastor’s conference regularly held in San Diego. Four, call off the dogs publicly when they rip and gouge. Five, regularly express your need for the broader body of Christ to do what needs to get done. No one denomination, no one theological position, no one movement is going to get it all done. Act as if this is true. Six, when the passions that you arouse become useful to the flesh, crucify your preaching style. Paul stayed away from certain communication strategies because they too exalted the flesh. Seven, refuse ubiquity. The mark of undue influence, for me, begins when a speaker feels he must answer every question, preach on every topic, solve every problem, address everything and all. Personally I feel a line is near being crossed in those “Ask Pastor……” your question. I remember when Edith Schaeffer did this when I was a younger man and the Schaeffers were at their pinnacle of influence. This reminded me too much of the yogi, of people seeking too much from a person. I began to move away and consciously depended less and less on the Schaeffers. I was uncomfortable with how much they thought they knew. You can feel when that line is being crossed, and the speaker has a responsibility to feel it, too. Eight, focus on calling the unsaved to Christ. This will keep your preaching from angularity and being of a party spirit that divides. Yes, there is still opportunity to develop your theology. But a theological movement without the salting of evangelism will most naturally tend toward a fractious thing. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut says.

Where did Bill Bright go?

I ran across a post on the Jesus Creed blog where the Four Spiritual Laws by Bill Bright was mentioned. It made me wonder. Bill Bright has now passed but my goodness what a legacy left behind in the Campus Crusade for Christ movement. And I never hear his name anymore. Strange. I would have thought I would.

It is hard to be in any larger church grouping and not find someone who was either saved in a Billy Graham Crusade or through Campus Crusade for Christ. CCC was at one point and maybe still is the largest and broadest missions movement in the world. It has more than 27,000 full-time staff and over 225,000 trained volunteer staff in 190 countries.

I have put Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America on my reading list. The reason I think of Bright is his effort to position CCC within the mainstream of the Evangelical movement, a movement I have been doing a lot of thinking about as of late. This book seems to make the specific dynamics of choices within the contemporary Evangelical movement visible and understandable.

When I was in college I chose to align with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship movement because of its calling to an intellectually viable world and life view that engaged academia. CCC just wasn’t interested in that. Nada. No way. Nothing. Their staff were Four Laws the whole way, 24/7, and their stewardship included how many each week they shared the Four Laws with.

Wherever CCC and IVCF were on the same campus, CCC was always larger and more culturally mainstream.The CCC kids were from the wider range of students, but certainly included healthy doses of the athletes, fraternity and sorority people, etc. IV kids were more counter culture and not as able to mainstream. This was pathetically true all across the country.

Part of my delight in student ministry was seeing IV movements I was connected with throw off this albatross and go mainstream, to move from the geeky and shy alone to the normal middle that could include either end of the bell curve. When the IV group I led as a staff member reached over 500 students at UNC-Chapel Hill, IV was then on a trajectory of ministry model that included a more inclusive version of student involvement.

Those who know me know I have a huge part of nerd in me. Not a science nerd. Not smart enough for that. Just a “carry a brief case when you are a college freshman” nerdiness. Though in my defense, we didn’t have backpacks in those days and I had to take the bus back and forth to college from my home. I needed something to carry those books in. Ok? So back off!!! Though I must admit I still have that brief case. I do. And am tempted to use it still. But I am not an introvert. I am an incurable extrovert who can’t stop connecting with people. If I’m not connecting, I’m lost.

IV was not a place to be that kind of person. But I saw it change, though it still has its geek tendencies.

Anyway, IV is one of those groups that has influence beyond its numbers. And CCC has influence in proportion to its numbers, as in huge.  When you link Billy Graham style evangelism and CCC style evangelism, you have landed on the fifty yard line of Evangelicalism, for better or for worse.