Archive for February, 2009

Dilbert hits a homer.

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Today is the last day of Epiphany (Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday) and tomorrow is the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday). Most Christians see no problems with celebrating Christmas and Easter and the feasts that come with these two major celebrations, Epiphany and Pentecost. It’s the times of preparation for these two major feasts (Christmas and Easter) that are questioned, Advent and Lent (and especially Lent). And it’s understandable. It seems that the only reasons we hear for observing Lent are wrong reasons (e.g., we should give up meat to honor the animals who provide so much food for us gluttonous Americans; therefore we all ought to observe Lent by eating a piece of celery and saving a cow’s life — at least for 40 more days). And if it’s not something really dumb, the reason seems to center around atoning for our sins by acts of self-denial (in some way or another). No wonder people are suspicious of Lent.

Lent is the season set aside by the Church as a time of preparation for the feast of Easter. This season lasts 40 days (not counting Sundays). In the Scripture, the number forty is the number associated with trials. Lent is a time for self-examination. It is to be a time when we recall that our sins made the sufferings and death of Jesus necessary. Thus, it is a time when we as the people of God give special attention to repentance (confessing our sins and devoting ourselves to new obedience). There are, of course, right ways and wrong ways to do this, but the emphasis is a good one.

But someone says, “So why do we need Lent to examine ourselves and repent? Aren’t we supposed to do that year round?” Of course, we should repent of our sins and seek spiritual growth at all times, not just during this season. But I could ask the same question in regard to Christmas or Easter. Why have a special season to focus upon the incarnation or the resurrection? Shouldn’t we remember the incarnation and the resurrection every day? Sure we should. But Christmas and Easter give us the opportunity to focus upon these amazing realities and celebrate them. They call us to meditate upon the glory of God becoming man and breaking the power of sin and death — and thus, they help us to remember them every day. Lent does a similar thing. It gives us a stated season, a formal structure for all of us to examine ourselves and repent of our sins as individuals and as a church. Lent underscores for us the importance of dealing with our sins so that we don’t ignore them the rest of the year. And it gives us an occasion to do this together, in communion.

Lent, therefore, is a time for focusing upon our sins, a time for asking questions about our spiritual health: What are my besetting sins, and how can I work and pray for change? What idols have captured my imagination so that my love for the living God has grown cold? In what ways is my devotion to Christ and his church less than wholehearted? The Lenten season is like an annual physical. It’s an annual checkup on the well-being of our hearts and lives. (more…)

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The approach of Lent has provoked discussion among some friends about the appropriateness of it all. Should we do it? What’s the value? I’m throwing out some thoughts that are not fully formed or set so, feel free to challenge them, but it seems to me there is a wisdom in the ecclesiastical calendar that we see reflected in way God has ordained for time to pass each year: dressed in the garb of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall.

There are rhythms of life that are inescapable and absolutely essential. We would be worn to a nub if it was “always winter and never Christmas” — or if every day was a celebration or if there were no celebrations at all. If every day is the same, then life loses it’s mystery and glory.

Our lives follow the rhythm and pattern God has put into the seasonal cycle for most of the world. Winter is a necessary prelude to and preparation for the new life of Spring. Plowing and planting are essential if there is to be a Summer of growth and development into fruitful maturity. And without the growth of Summer there could never be the glorious finale of Fall with its harvests and in-gatherings.

We see this same general cycle in our lives. We are born “out of the darkness” of the womb and have a season of preparation and training. Seeds are planted in our youth and manhood which grow and bear fruit as we grow in maturity during our “Summer” years. Then, we reach the season of in-gathering. The labor of our lives begins to bring in the harvest (both joyful and disappointing) as we see the fruit of our labors and the results of our lives and examples mirrored and lived out in the lives of our children and their children. Finally, we come to the “wintertime” of our days. Our strength diminishes, the color is lost from our heads (either through baldness or grayness), our limbs lose their vigor and we prepare for the last night before the new dawn of eternal Spring. (more…)

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Creedal idolatry

This was recently posted on a theological discussion blog:

“[I]f we confess that the Westminster Standards contain THE system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture (and not just A system), then we must equate our understanding of the Gospel with the Standards.”

Did you hear it? “We must equate our understanding of the Gospel with the Standards.” Amazing. From a “Reformed” minister. From a minister who subscribes to the Westminster Confession. The same confession that teaches in its first chapter that “The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture.” But now, we are told that we must equate our understanding of the Scripture with our confessional standards.

What we’re seeing here is this: just as the Roman Church has ceased to be catholic, so the Reformed Church is ceasing to be reformed. I was taught that being “reformed” meant “always conforming to the teaching of God’s Word (being re-formed by the Scriptures themselves)” AND that this was an on-going, never-ending process. Like sanctification. Now, more and more, being “reformed” merely means holding the teachings of the Westminster (or the Belgic) Confession and catechisms and reading those teachings into the texts of the Bible (seeing nothing more or less in the texts than what the Confessions teach). After all, if we believe our confession contains THE system of doctrine taught in the Scripture, then we MUST equate our understanding of the Scripture with the teaching of the Standards.

This is too easy. I thought the Reformed faith required examining all things by the Word of God, wrestling with difficult texts and realizing that we couldn’t always explain or define the things God has revealed. I was told that being reformed meant being willing to drop even our most cherished beliefs and practices if they contradicted the teachings of Scripture, so that we could be “re-formed” by the Word of God. But, apparently, I’ve been wrong. Nowadays “reformed” merely means a commitment to see nothing more in the Bible than the teachings of the Westminster Confession.

Honoring tradition never involves worshiping it. We must build upon the holy tradition that God has given us in our creeds and confessions, but we must never make them our permanent homes. Pastor John Robinson (pastor of the “Pilgrim Fathers”) exhorted those of his congregation in Leyden who were departing for a new life in the New World, “There are still treasures in the Scriptures, the knowledge of which have remained hidden to us. All the misery of the Presbyterian churches is owing to their striving to consider the Reformation as completed, and to allow no further development of what has been begun by the labor of the Reformers. The Lutherans stop at Luther, many Calvinists at Calvin. This is not right. Certainly, these men in their time were burning and shining lights; nevertheless, they did not possess an insight into the whole of God’s truth and if able to arise from their graves, they would be the first to accept gratefully all new light. It is absurd to believe that during the brief period of the Reformation all error has been banished, just as it is absurd to believe that Christian understanding has completed its task.”

Reformation does not mean going back in time to regain an idyllic past nor is reformation a matter of “freezing time” in order to protect an old formulation and making sure no one corrupts it by seeking to change it. Reformation always means going forward trusting in the Lord Christ, guided by the Spirit as He teaches us the Word, and by His grace and power, walking in the light of that Word. If our understanding of reformation is not future-oriented; if it does not anticipate growing in a more clear understanding of the truths revealed in God’s Word; if it doesn’t include seeing the shortcomings and errors of the past and dropping them, then we have ceased to be “Reformed” in any true sense of the word.

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A new world

Rich Bledsoe has pointed to an amazing article by Matthew Parris which appeared in the Times online for December 27, 2008.

Mr. Parris, a professing atheist and native born African, admits to being forced to acknowledge something he has resisted for a long time: Christianity makes a real difference, not only in individuals, but in whole societies. This last December, Parris returned to Africa after 45 years absence and couldn’t ignore the influence of Christian missionaries:

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

He had noticed this during his childhood:

The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

And his return trip confirmed this. This time, however, he noted the difference between Christians and the typical African tribal beliefs. Parris observes, tribal belief “suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.”

The effects of African paganism are far-reaching:

Anxiety – fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things – strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

His conclusion is stunning:

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Money, power, political manipulation and coercion . . . . all are weak and impotent in comparison to the gospel. Darkness and death cannot stand when the light and life of the Triune God comes. Apart from Jesus, we are left to the “mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone, and the machete.”

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St. Valentine

st-valentineSt. Valentine was a martyr who was put to death for the faith in the the latter part of the 3rd century. There is some confusion about Valentine’s identity. There was a Valentine, who was a priest of Rome, and a Valentine, who was bishop of Ternia Both of whom are commemorated on February 14 (both are now generally assumed to be the same person).

Some say that Valentine was taken prisoner for assisting the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius II. Others say that he got in trouble for assisting in the marriage of young, Roman soldiers. The story is that Claudius forbade marriages among the members of his army without his consent because he believed that unmarried men made the best soldiers. Valentine took pity on the young soldiers who were in love and yet unable to get imperial permission to marry and began performing marriages for them, without the emperor’s permission. The emperor arrested him but he refused both to repent of his actions and to recant his faith. When he called upon the emperor to repent and believe in Jesus, Claudius became furious and condemned him to death.

Valentine was beaten with clubs and stoned and when he survived in spite of these actions, he was beheaded. His execution occurred on February 14, somewhere between the years 269-273. Valentine came to be commemorated as the patron of young lovers. In many parts of Europe, it was said that birds began to pair off for the nesting season in mid-February. This day, being close to the day of Valentine’s martyrdom, became known as St. Valentine’s day.

PRAYER: Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Valentine: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Birthday boys

Today is the birthday of two of the most influential men in the history of the world. One needs no introduction but in case you want to read about his accomplishments, here’s an article to check out.

The other individual usually gets overlooked (at least as far as his birthday is concerned), but he had a pretty big affect on the world as well.

It’s not often you have reason to lament the births of two men on the same day, but here we are.

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Ok, so we’re back to purchasing tickets out of purgatory again, eh?

The NY Times reports:

“In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin. . . . According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.”

Not that we needed this for evidence, but it is more and more clear that the Roman Church’s claim to being Catholic is false. (ok, something that’s been glaringly obvious for over 500 years is not exactly a news flash, but it needs saying all the same).

So, the real answer to the question, “Is the Pope a catholic?” is “Not until he repents and leaves this sectarian, divisive church which has its headquarters in a really nice old building in Rome.”

[and I’ve been corrected, this is not something “new” (i.e. something resurrected that had been buried) rather, indulgences were never done away with, they’ve been around all along, you just can’t sell them for money anymore, as did our friend pictured above. Now, you simply have to pray or do some other works to get them.]

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You heard what the Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor, right?

“Make me one with everything.”

[I know, I know, but I just couldn’t resist]

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St. Brigid

I missed the day traditionally set aside for the feast of St. Brigid of Kildare (February 1), but I didn’t want to miss saying something about this faithful lady who had such a great impact upon the Celtic church of the 5th century. Brigid was known for her hospitality and love of life. She loved to serve and meet the needs of God’s people and those who were suffering and she loved to do at her own table. Thus, when she thought of heaven and the heavenly life of Christian communion, she thought of it in the biblical imagery of the great feast. This poem, attributed to St. Brigid, illustrates her big-heartedness:

I would like to have the men of Heaven
in my own house;
with vats of good cheer
laid out for them.

I would like to have the three Marys,
their fame is so great.
I would like people
from every corner of Heaven.

I would like them to be cheerful
in their drinking.
I would like to have Jesus, too,
here amongst them.

I would like a great lake of beer
for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family
drinking it through all eternity.

When times are difficult we must double our efforts to show hospitality and mercy. Brigid’s example should be an inspiration to all of us.

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You really must watch this to believe it. A harmonica? at Carnegie Hall? Whoa.

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