A Little about Lent for the Modern Saint

Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter Sunday. While people will say that it dates back to the Bible or to the 1st century, to be honest, Lent was a season made up by the Church to focus on repentance and devotion through the spiritual disciplines of study, fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. The number of days, 40, is a Biblical number with echoes of Jesus’ fast in the desert after his baptism, which in turn echoes the 40-day fasts of Moses and Elijah, not to mention the 40 days of the Flood and the 40 years in the desert. Still, Lent must not be identified as the same as anyone of those things. So the simple and honest answer is that Lent is a Season invented by the Church over thousands of years. 

While not in the Bible, the origins of Lent are the easier to trace than Ash Wednesday. In the first centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection, new converts to Christianity would be trained for months in Christian doctrine and Christian practices. This process of instruction is called catechesis, and usually involved memorizing an early form of the Apostles’ Creed. The emphasis during these months of training would have been on learning more theology (the Creed), learning more Scripture (the Stories), and learning Christian practices, especially Fasting and Prayer. Often, this training occurred in the months leading up to Easter. Finally, the weekend of Easter, the whole church would fast and pray from Friday at noon to Sunday at Sunrise. Then on Resurrection Sunday, all the new believers who had completed the catechesis, would be baptized and inducted into the then secret, underground church as together they celebrated the death of Death and the Resurrection of the Body.

CathedralHow this transitioned into Lent is difficult to trace with any certainty or clarity. Somehow, over the next 500 years, these months of training transitioned from a time just for new converts to a time for the whole Church to grow in faith, knowledge, and character through fasting, prayer, study, and Alms-giving. The Council of Nicea in 325AD played a large role in establishing this 40 Day Fast. The specific number of days, the starting date and ending date, the date of Easter, and the specific fasts and Fast Days during Lent were all, for better or worse, decided by the Church to promote uniformity and unity.

None of this makes Lent emphatically bad or “unbiblical” or heretically religious. Instead, it means that over the centuries between Christ’s resurrection and now, millions of Christians have practiced a sort of Spring Training. Christians across the globe have found Lent to be a rhythmic way to insert ancient practices like Fasting, Simplicity, Giving to the Poor (Alms), Study, and Daily Prayer as practical ways to FOLLOW JESUS and prepare to FISH for people. Lent is not “about giving something up,” so much as it is about getting back to the basic Christian disciplines. Like Spiritual Three-A-Day Practices they keep us in shape or like Spiritual Spring Cleaning they expose the idols and bad habits that have crept back into our heart. 

So should we practice Lent? Well, we should fast and pray and give to the poor and study God’s Scripture, and so if you want to create extra time dedicated to these basic rhythms of Christian life by sacrificing luxuries, then yes. If you just want to lose weight ahead of Spring Break or just want to gripe about being out of touch with the world cause you gave up Facebook, then Lent will probably do more harm to your soul than good.

In the coming weeks, I’ll write more about Lent and more about Fasting and Prayer and Study and such. For right now, let me point out that Lent is about intentionally doing those things we’re talking about each week in The Way of Jesus – I am Called to… Sermon Series. I will not hammer Lent or Lenten disciplines over the next few weeks, because we’re already talking about and encouraging one another to practice such things when we proclaim, “I AM CALLED TO FOLLOW, FISH, LOVE, WORSHIP, MATURE, SERVE, GIVE, SEEK UNITY, PRAY, and DIE.” So perhaps this year, you want to cut out one bad habit that keeps you from following, fishing, loving, worshiping, maturing, serving, giving, forgiving, praying, or dying. Instead, take one a specific task, such as daily Bible reading or nightly prayers or giving to the food bank that leads you further down these Ways of Jesus.

Celebration of DisciplineLastly, if you’re dying for ways to practice Lent, I cannot recommend Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline highly enough. Instead of reading all those Facebook posts about “40 Things to Give Up for Lent” or the “Reverse Lent Challenge” or some other pop-Lent, spiritual cotton candy, go out and buy this book and dig into some Filet Mignon.

Spiritual Gift Assessments

In Creole dialect, they have a word, lagniappe (pronounced LAN-yap), which means something extra beyond what you paid for. It’s usually a little extra soup in the pot or a little extra grain in the bag, but it is always gratuitous, gracious, extra.

Consider this blog a little lagniappe regarding the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, also known as Spiritual Gifts, or the Gifts of the Body or Gifts for Ministry, or Charismata in Greek. On Sunday, February 15, 2015, I preached a sermon entitled “The Way of Jesus - I am Called to Serve," because all of Jesus' followers are called to serve his Church. 

DSC_2970Oakland is awesome at serving. It is one of our collective, corporate strengths, and I celebrate it weekly. Still, I want every one of our servants to serve in ways that give them life, that fill them with joy, and that fulfill real needs in the Church and community. I want you to crave opportunities to use your gifts to bless people. You are called to serve not as a warm body in a bureaucracy, but as a gifted member of God’s family.

When I am operating within my primary gifts of Knowledge, Teaching, and Preaching, it feels like someone plugged me into the wall. It feels like I’m finally doing what I was made to do – to show people how every aspect of life is informed and reformed by Jesus. 

Like I said on Sunday, the chief of all charismata is “eternal life through Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:23). The Holy Spirit applies Christ’s finished, saving work on the Cross to each of us. In plain English that means the Holy Spirit gives us credit for everything Christ has, including a perfect life and a perfect relationship with God the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit. As a tangible proof of this gift, the Holy Spirit gives individuals particular gifts. In that sermon, I spoke specifically about the gifts named in Romans 12:4-8, but there are plenty of other gifts named in the Bible, especially 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 and 12:28.

To give you an idea of what gifts are possible, and begin the process of serving with your gifts for your joy and the community’s benefit, I suggest a Spiritual Gift Assessment. There is no science to finding your gift, and a one-size-fits-all test is certainly not failproof, but Spiritual Gift Assessments provide great starting points for discovering your God-given gifts. They cause you to think about the things you do instinctively and joyfully. Our gifts often feel “natural” or like “the obvious right thing to do,” so we can take them for granted.

LIFEWAY SPIRITUAL GIFT ASSESSMENT (PDF)

For years, I have used this Spiritual Gift Assessment published by Lifeway. It is not perfect, but is a trustworthy tool to start discernment. It includes brief descriptions of each gift, and even suggestions for places to serve. It is a Self-Scored Survey in PDF format, so it is great for pencil-and-paper kind of folk.

SPIRITUALGIFTSTEST.COM ASSESSMENTS FOR YOUTH AND ADULTS

If you’re more of a “let the computer do the math” kind of person, then I recently discovered and tried out 2 other tests at SpiritualGiftsTest.com. As cheesy as the name sounds, they provide more than adequate descriptions of each gift, and the survey is full of refreshingly normal questions.

You are welcome to take and compare both tests. As you seek to find your gifts and seek to implement them in service, I’d love to chat personally. If you’d like some help, call the office to set up a chance to chat.

Week 5 Day 1 – Reading Luke 8:4-15 together

Hey Oakland. So I too am working my way through the Week 5 Reading Plan, and wanted to give you a snapshot of my Bible study time. The Bible Study time below took me about 30-45 minutes, including the writing and formatting. I use a basic inductive approach to Scripture - S.O.A.P. 

S.O.A.P
S
is for Scripture. O is for Observation. A is for Application. and P is for Prayer

The process basically works by writing the Scripture down first. If it is a very long passage, then I pick out the verse that stands out to me most. Next, I make observations about who, what, when, where like a detective. To get to real, helpful, practical Applications, I make a few baby steps to interpret what this means generally and then to ask if I live this way or believe it. To get to a good application, I'm basically asking, "How would I live if this were true?" Finally, I pray to God what I have learned and ask God to help me. 
I hope what follows helps you understand Luke 8, but also understand more about reading the Bible.
Peace,
Pastor Andrew

Now for Luke 8:4-15.

FieldMbereshi2Vs.5 – A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.”

  • 12 – “Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
  • Observation - The devil takes away the word from our hearts, like the bird takes it away from the path. The devil poses a real threat to us hearing and appropriating and applying the word of God to ourselves. It takes time for the word to be absorbed, and so the sooner the Devil can distract us or cause us to forget what we just heard, the better for him, and the worse for us. The devil tries to manipulate our memory, so we have to fight him.
  • Interpretation– We need to take time to let the word absorb into our hearts. We need to make sure it cannot be easily plucked off.
  • Question to Application – How long do I remember the words I hear on Sunday or read in the week? Are they on my mind and heart for a short time? How can I make sure they stay on my heart and mind?
  • Application – Take notes. I need to write down the words and the main points of the sermon to aid in my absorption of the seed of God. The Devil may take my short-term memory, but unless he also burns my journal, I have a hard copy of all that the Lord is sowing into my heart. So I will try, not as a rule and a requirement, but because I want to grow and know the Lover of My Heart better, I will take notes on sermons, Sunday school observations, and my prayers.

 

NotesByCandleliteVs. 6 – Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.

  • 13 – Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.
  • Observations
    • Receive the word with joy – how we emotionally receive the word can be deceptive. We can really like it when it comes into our ears, but then it doesn’t take root; or we can really hate it when we hear it, but as we meditate on it, we come to understand and see it. This is a very scary thought, cause they even BELIEVE it. They buy what is being said, and agree with it, but when the time of testing comes they fall away, they wither. I wonder, what is the disconnect between reception and belief and rooting and surviving?
    • Have no root. – Roots, take time to develop. Hold trees in place when the winds come. Absorb water. Roots provide security and nourishment. To grow roots takes time in one place, and enough soil.
  • Interpretation – Roots search out more nourishment. Roots seek down deep if there is no nourishment at hand. Difference between receiving with joy and putting down roots, might be just that. One only gets what is given and takes it at surface value (pun intended), but the one that roots seeks it out, tries to understand it more. Looks for even more opportunity to grow and understand. The one that lasts seeks.
  • Question to application – Do I accept things uncritically? Do I hear, agree, and move on OR do I hear, agree, and then try to learn more, try to figure out why? Do I challenge the preacher or the book?
  • Application – Never stop seeking. I need to keep reading, learning, trying, thinking. Think through my notes from above and ask new questions as they come up. Andrew cannot make every single point in any sermon (no matter how long it is) so what did he miss? What implications did he leave off?

 

Vs. 7 – Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.

  • 14 – The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
  • Observations
    • There are thorns. Unproductive, sticky, painful things that tangle and choke. Thorns grow. Jesus says these thorns are “life’s worries, riches and pleasures.” That is a strange juxtaposition – worries || Riches and pleasures. Most of us assume the two are opposites, if we had enough riches and pleasures we’d have no worries, but Jesus says they are 2 sides of the same coin. Like Biggie Smalls, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” But the thinking above is the cause of the problem, we think if we have them we’ll have no worries, but they are false promises and false gods, whether we have them or not.
    • THEY DO NOT MATURE – The seed should mature, but there are real things that keep it from maturing. Worry keeps us from maturing. But not just worry, more specifically running hard after riches and pleasures distracts us from our main purpose, to grow and to reproduce, to mature.
  • Interpretation – see above.
  • Question to application – What distracts and chokes me? What things so surround and entangle me that I cannot even focus on my prayers or my faith? What things intrude on my sacred space and an enjoyment of the holy?
  • Application – I want to identify these Briars, so that I don’t get all tangled up in them like grapevines or kudzu. Briars and Grain can grow in the same place, so long as we can keep them from being all tangled together. I will pray God will remove the Briars, and I will try to focus my available attention and intentionality on MATURITY. Not enough to Be, must BE GROWING.

 

FieldMbereshi

Vs. 8 – Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.

  • 15 – But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering, produce a crop.
  • Observation
    • Hear the word, retain it – all heard the word, and last 3 “believed it.” Last 2 retained it. So first step is to HEAR, got to be in the way of the seed, got to be in the area where good seed is falling. LISTEN – let it go in. RETAIN IT – This is the part where we don’t let the devil steal it out of our hearts and minds quickly. Meditate on it. Remember it. Hold on to it. Search it out, and guard it. Dedicate available moisture to it and available resources to it to grow its roots, apply it in my life, and live like it is true.
    • Persevering – Strange that even the crop in the field has to persevere. No crop has it easy. All face struggles and opposition; all face heat, cold, rain, dry.
    • Produce – the whole goal of maturity is reproduction. To create a new seed crop and enough for the farmer to enjoy. The problem with the others was both that they did not grow and ultimately that they did not reproduce. REPRODUCTION is the Goal.
  • Interpretation – Hear, Retain, Persevere, Reproduce. – The formula for spiritual growth and the goal for every encounter with the word. I think this whole parable is both descriptive, meaning Jesus is describing what happens naturally when the word of God is read and preached, and proscriptive, meaning Jesus is telling us how to receive the word. How much control we have over the state of our own hearts is a mystery, and so we must try to hear, retain, persevere, and reproduce – but REMEMBER, all of our trying is PARTICIPATION with the farmer, so we must trust the farmer, trust the farmer’s goals, and pray to the farmer for good attention. Good farmers remove stones and plow hard soil. Good farmers weed briars. I participate by hearing, retaining, persevering, and reproducing, while God tills my heart.
  • Question to application – What I the goal of my spiritual Life? Maturity? Reproduction? Self-fulfillment? The grain exists for the farmer and to reproduce.
  • Application – I will listen well when I get a chance to hear/read the word of God. And I will retain it by taking notes and repeating it out loud to others and myself. I will persevere when the situation is not perfect by focusing on my goals, not on my worries. I will pray to the farmer.

 

Prayer:

            Jesus, my heart is a mystery greater than your love for me or the way your word works. I need a good and noble heart. I need soft soil. I need roots, and maturity so that I can reproduce. Help me to participate in your farming through practical steps including, taking notes and re-sowing areas of my life where your word has not taken root. Make me a reproducer, and I will participate by telling Bible stories to my children and my friends. Thank you Jesus for casting seed everywhere, even in the unlikely and originally hard soil of my heart. You are too generous. In Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus I pray to you, your Father, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

 

The Elephant Myth and The Road Map Myth

On Sunday, God reminded us that all disciples of Jesus are called to FISH - to make more and better disciples of ourselves, our children, our spouses, and our neighbors in every nation and tribe. We saw that this is fundamental to Following Jesus. Disciples Accompany. Disciples Imitate. Disciples Obey. Disciples Reproduce. 
During that sermon, I attempted to dismantle two very common myths that prevent people from sharing the gospel with other people. These two myths have become part and parcel to the American Civil Religion and the cornerstone of the hollow “tolerance” preached by agnostics, atheists, and universalists alike. The first myth is The Elephant Myth – All Religions are Basically the Same, and the second myth is The Road Map Myth – All Religions are different ways to the same place.

While these two statements claim to respect all religions, they actually supersede and condescend them. Neither of these myths is more intellectually rigorous or consistent than Christianity, nor do they effectively prohibit evangelism. Instead, they appear attractive and sophisticated, but are ultimately irrational, arrogant, and dismissive. Christian Disciple Making and Evangelism on the other hand seeks to understand the other, to find the common ground God has provided, and to articulate the Good News that human beings can be reconciled to God through Jesus, the rightful ruler of all human beings. Christianity allows each other religion the respect of particularity, meaning that we don't try to tell other faiths what they believe, what they worship, or where they're going (as these myths do). Instead, we hope to spread the Good News by painting a more accurate account of reality and a more beautiful hope of redemption than available via other faiths. 

Unfortunately, I was not particularly articulate on Sunday, January 18, 2015, when I preached The Way of Jesus – I am called to FISH. So if you were intrigued by the Christian response to these myths, I’m posting the following excerpts here. What follows are paragraphs from a paper I wrote after visiting 1st generation Christians in Africa and Asia. A complete PDF is available here.

Examining The Elephant Myth

All Religions are basically the same

            This is a common axiom for many adherents of different religions and no religion, as well as the synthetic faith promoted by “spiritual but not religious.” It often appeals to an anecdote about blind men and an elephant[1] to explain how different sources of faith can be simultaneously contradictory and true; and thus how proselytizing is unnecessary and destructive. Yet for all its sensible allegory, ultimately the aphorism reinforces the “arrogance”, exclusivity, and contradiction it hopes to harmonize, while encouraging intellectual ambivalence. It does so by claiming a more exhaustive understanding of each religion than its own adherents, an understanding that in reality contradicts and supersedes the respective axioms of each faith. Moreover it ultimately claims that the founders and followers of every other worldview are well-intentioned, blind persons, while those who can see the whole elephant have the gnosis that brings sight.

           Finally, while followers of this aphorism bemoan attempts by individuals to change others’ religious orientation, this is itself a proselytizing religion, which either pities adherents of other faiths for their ignorance, or liberates them with a super-religious epiphany. So while proponents lambast evangelizing Christians, they preach their own gospel and argue through their own apologetics. Thus, it fundamentally endorses the legitimacy of making disciples.

[1] For an initial survey of this widespread allegory, which began on the Indian subcontinent, see: Wikipedia contributors, "Blind men and an elephant," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Blind_men_and_an_elephant&oldid=587101260 (accessed January 13, 2014).

Examining The Road Map Myth

All Religions are unique paths to the same destination[1]

            This philosophy of religions looks at a 2D Road Map of the world, and then imagines heaven[2] as a single point in 3-space. Obviously, you need a distinct route from India to that 3rd heaven point and a distinct route from Puerto Rico.

            Once again, the philosophy attempts to validate every single religion, but to do so, it ignores their unique goals. While each faith aims at a telos, these are not only different, but several of them are mutually antagonistic. It is, for example, impossible to conflate the corporate, corporeal, Christian resurrection with individual, ethereal, Buddhist bodhi. Therefore, if each faith is allowed to identify its own telos, the ends become impossible to amalgamate. So while, the proverb feigns respect for all religions, it must ignore and supplant each religion’s particular message, hope, goal, and normative truth claims, with a more true, normative metanarrative. So while the message is announced to preclude evangelism, the announcement is in reality evangelism, and thus implicitly legitimates the process of making disciples from other faiths.

            Still there are countless Christians that subscribe to this philosophy, on the basis that Christianity describes the one true telos for all humanity, namely recreation and resurrection through Jesus the Christ. All other religions “worship Jesus by another name,” and so upon death, they will recognize in substance what they previously recognized in shadow, and if not, then they will still enter the New Creation through Jesus of Nazareth.[3] Still, this Christo-centric universalism acknowledges Christ as the most substantial, fundamental, and articulate revelation ever given to humanity. All other revelations are somehow equivocal or inarticulate. Thus the faith lived and taught by Jesus of Nazareth is normative for all human beings, beneficial for their lives, profitable for their relationships, and expedient for their conscious contact with the “Most High God.” So, though this Christo-centric universalism is oft cited as a reason not to “make disciples of all nations,” in actuality, the theology implicitly defines the loving action towards others as a sharing of this revelation, an invitation to follow, and an equipping for inviting others to live into this deepest, thickest, animating, resurrecting reality.[4] A failure to do so is to withhold a life-enhancing, life-giving, even life-saving revelation from those in need of such.   Thus, an “all roads lead to Christ” mentality compels disciple making.[5]

[1] While offering some sympathetic resonance to the above ideology, this is actually a distinct thought.

[2] Heaven is here a conflation of all the different goals/salvations of different religions. As such it includes, but is not limited to, nirvana, moksha, Bodhi, jannah, resurrection and tian.

[3] Some portion of Christians throughout the centuries since Christ have held this belief, though it has always remained a peripheral view, more dependent on theological frameworks and speculation than on particular pericopes of Scripture. Personally, I believe this philosophy is neither a persuasive nor a faithful construal of Jesus’ teachings specifically and the Bible’s teachings generally. It appears to know more about salvation and redemption than the “author and perfecter of our faith.”

[4] Christianity can still be normative even if universalism is true, and if normative, then making disciples of Jesus becomes a necessary act of love, while failing to do so might be akin to a doctor refusing to treat a minor infected wound, because, “Well, everyone has to die of something, you’ll just get there first.”

[5] For a more centrally orthodox Christian understanding, this compulsion is even stronger, because the stakes are much greater. A failure to warn and prepare others for the coming judgment is to prepare them for damnation, which is an inherently unloving and even damnable offense (cf. Ezek 33).

BLOG: A lil’ extra about following

Over the last few Sundays, we’ve talked a lot about what it means to Follow Jesus. That Jesus calls us, “Come, follow me.” We’ve also been reading the Bible together via a Bible Reading Plan distributed weekly in the bulletin and attached online to the sermons. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve ever tried to read the Bible on our own and with our children. To make sure you don’t feel abandoned, I’ll occasionally post mediations taken from some authors much smarter than me to help you think through the stories.

Last week, we read John 1:29-42. After meditating on the same passage, the Blackabys write:

“There comes a time for each of us when merely talking about the Christian pilgrimage is not sufficient. We must actually set out on the journey! We can spend many hours debating and discussing issues related to the Christian life, but this means little if we never actually step out and follow Christ!

For generations, the coming of the Messiah had been pondered and predicted by the nation of Israel. Perhaps no topic garnered more discussion among Jews than the nature and work of the Messiah. Andrew had listened to John the Baptist and had heard of the coming Messiah. Now, suddenly, he was face to face with the One he had yearned to see! Andrew’s mind was filled with questions he longed to ask. Instead of entering into a theological dialogue with Andrew, however, Jesus turned and began to walk. Andrew’s questions would not be answered by discussion alone, but by walking with Him.

            Christianity is not a set of teachings to understand. It is a Person to follow. As he walked with Jesus, Andrew watched Jesus heal the sick, teach God’s wisdom, and demonstrate God’s power. Andrew not only learned about God; he actually experienced Him!

Moments will come when you stand at a crossroads with your Lord. You will have a hundred questions for Him. Rather than answering the questions one by one, Jesus may say, “Put on your shoes, step out onto the road, and follow Me.” As you walk daily with Him, Jesus will answer your questions, and you will discover far more than you even knew to ask.”

From “January 24: Come and See” in Henry T. Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, Experiencing God Day-by-day: the Devotional and Journal (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 1997), 24.

Keep reading my friends, and remember, Daniel-Son didn’t learn Karate in a day.