“Faith in the Storm,” A Lenten Reflection

We have noted before that the opposite of faith is not disbelief, it is fear.  Faith makes us certain, it gives us confident direction in our choices, and it defines our destination and the path that leads to it.  Fear introduces questioning, second guessing, worry about what might be.  It leaves us wondering and wandering, paralyzed with uncertainty, unable to move forward.  Just when we ought to be declaring, “Thus says the Lord God Almighty…” we hear the devil’s challenge whispered in our head, “Has God really said…?”

Faith in the words of Scripture, is like a man building his house on the rock. The storms come, as storms must come in a fallen world, yet the house stands firm, not because of the house, but because of its unshakable foundation.  Faith in the completed work of Jesus places eternity in our hearts so that even if we suffer loss or pain in the short term, we understand that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus.  When the scriptures speak of placing faith in God, it often resorts to spectacular imagery. Trusting God is being led to a rock higher than our own frailty or failure, it is a strong fortress into which we run for safety, it is dwelling under the wings of the most High God, it is being surrounded by the angel armies of heaven, or knowing that God is like the mountains that surround and protect us.

There are two commands that are repeatedly used throughout the scriptures that give us a worthwhile goal to seek after during this Lenten season, “Do not be afraid”, and “Stand fast” (or “Wait on the Lord”).  Often they are used together as in Exodus 14:13, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the LORD rescue you today.”  If we can allow the Spirit of God to work into our hearts, and minds, and spirits a true faith in the promises of God made present in the work of Jesus, we will have gained something that will see us through the rest of our lives until that day when we stand in the presence of God and see Him face to face.  Begin today with this confession from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything that I need.”

Go and Tell it On the Mountain

The Christmas story is simply the best story ever told and this for many reasons. 

First, it was written when the fullness of time had finally come round, and all the very best stories of humankind that had been told and retold throughout the ages found their fulfillment in it.  Then too, it was told in a language that all people could understand.  Its glorious message was proclaimed in the heavens by a star of unusual wonder that spoke through divine light to the small, still point in every person’s heart, deep calling unto deep.  The Christmas story came first to the descendants of Abraham who carried its essence in their hearts for hundreds of years, but its promises were for every person of good will, the nations who would find their true blessing through the seed of Abraham.

The first murmurings were heard in Paradise, its veiled glimmer of hope spoken in mercy to a fallen man and his wife as they passed the cherubim with the flaming sword.  It was repeated in the thunder on the cloud on Sinai and echoed in the ram’s horns of the priests and shouts of the people and the rumble of Jericho’s walls falling in upon themselves.  It was given a clear, jubilant voice in the psalms of David and gravely intoned in the halls of Solomon the wise.  It became a melancholy sigh in the breasts of the elders of Israel as they sat by the rivers of Babylon and thought on Jerusalem, their harps hanging still at their side.

The length and width and depth of the Christmas story were established in the highest courts of heaven, yet its working out was upon the earth as thrones and dominions and principalities were moved by the hand of God as characters in its plot.  Angels longed to look into it, and demons trembled at its telling.  Sometimes it was faint, as a small still voice might be upon the winds, other times strong and vibrant as the glory of the Lord bent near to touch the earth.  Yet it was always the same, the glorious promises of restoration, reconciliation, and deliverance. 

It was chanted into the whole world at its creation as the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.  Yet its universal message was somehow personal, it was as if each man’s, woman’s, and child’s name was somehow written into its telling.

And that brings me to the whole point of what I am trying to say.  If it remains only a story, even the best story which has ever been put into words by the inspiration of the divine Spirit, its words can all too soon fade away as the Christmas season turns, as the wonderment of light and evergreen and celebration gives way to the more pressing concerns of our lives.  It is just then that we must shake ourselves and remember that what gives this story an enduring meaning is the fact that it is true, and that somehow we were always meant to be a part of it. 

The Apostle John said it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled concerning the word of life….that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you may also have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”

-1 John 1:1, 3-4

Only when we wrestle with our doubts and expectations in this season, only when we search to find our own names written by God’s hand in His book of life wherein this story is fully told, only when we empty our hearts and turn them expectantly towards Bethlehem do we begin to grasp the magnificence of God’s promises to us in this season.  Emmanuel is come to us, and He bears gifts for us the like of which we have never imagined.  It is then, on that road to Bethlehem, bathed in a divine light that streams from the very presence of God that we must hear again the message the angels proclaim, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord…Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward me.”  We have no choice but to go with the shepherds to see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.

And having seen, let us believe.  And having believed, let us handle, and touch, and receive all that this Word of Life offers.  Let us share it with our families, let us instruct our children in its telling with reverence.  And then, when the season draws to a close and we must turn from its glory, let us go on, not forgetting, but carrying the story with us as a word of hope to a world in desperate need of its message.  And so we will become yet another chapter of the story, proclaimed this year with everlasting hope and peace into this time and place in which we live.

Ordinary Times

The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a clue for understanding the Church’s liturgical year, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.[i] This verse reminds us that God created order and seasons with limits at the very heart of His creation, and that each of these seasons or times has a purpose that manifests and makes present the Kingdom in a particular way.  It may be the annual progression of the seasons of spring to summer to fall and to winter, or it may be seasons of distress or joy, feasting or fasting, remembering or putting into action.  Each and every one season has a purpose; each and every one is important.

In today’s English, the word ordinary makes us think of something that is not special or distinctive, and because of this we may be prone to think that Ordinary Times refer to those parts of the Church year that are not important.  But the fact that this time makes up the majority of the Church year (33 to 34 Sundays of our year) should tell us otherwise.  There are two periods of Ordinary Time, the shorter running from the celebration of Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and the second longer period from Pentecost Sunday to the First Sunday of Advent.  Because the celebration of Resurrection Sunday varies from year to year, the season after Epiphany varies between 4 and 9 Sundays, and the season after Pentecost varies between 23 and 28 Sundays.

So much for counting Sundays, why are these Sundays placed where they are and what purpose do they play in our congregational life?  To understand Ordinary Times, we must look first at what “bookends” each period.  The book ends in each case are the annual portrayal of the central mysteries of our faith, the incarnation of Jesus, His death, His resurrection and ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.  The season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany proclaim the truth that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…to redeem”[ii] and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.”[iii]  The Sundays of Ordinary Times after Epiphany are intended to convince us that God’s deliverance has broken into our world through His Son.  It is intended to lay to rest forever in our hearts the question of who Jesus is, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”[iv]  The answer proclaimed to us is a resounding “This is the Chosen Deliverer of God, hear Him, believe Him.”

The Sundays after Epiphany end with Ash Wednesday and the observance of Lent and our journey to the cross, the empty tomb, a mountain in Galilee, and an upper room in Jerusalem.  This is the annual retelling of the story of our redemption, of our adoption as God’s children, of the mystery of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us.  The season of Lent, Holy Week, Resurrection Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost echo the Apostle Paul’s words, “Now I would remind you…of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to …the twelve.”[v] 

In these days we celebrate the specific, historic, supernatural acts of God that have brought about the salvation and deliverance of creation.  By contrast, during the Ordinary Time from Pentecost to Advent we celebrate what God has done through the Holy Spirit, empowering us to live out the gospel message day to day in the context of our ordinary lives.  It is during this season that we recognize that Jesus continues to bring grace and deliverance to the world by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the church.  We might consider the church year from Advent to Pentecost as the proclamation of the good news of God’s love, grace, and deliverance; and the church year from Pentecost to Advent as the Acts of the Apostles, wherein God moves through the followers of His Son to bring in the kingdom in all its fullness.  This season is intended to remind us that our calling is to take the witness of who Jesus is and what He has done to the uttermost parts of our world.

We are not created to live on mountaintops where the view is spectacular, the light brilliant, and the air rarified.  We are called to make our dwelling in the valleys and plains where the rest of the world dwells and to work out salvation while seeking theirs.  The “mountain top” holy days provide vision, inspiration, and calling; it is in the ordinary times of the year that the leaven of the gospel is able to act.  Perhaps a quick illustration will help us understand the purpose and use of Ordinary Times.

The extraordinary acts of God to bring deliverance to our world are often likened to a seed that is sown.  Planting times were a time of celebration because the seasons had turned and the prospect of bringing forth new life from the earth was everywhere.  So too, the times of harvest were celebrations as the fruit of the fields were brought into the storehouse in abundance.  But in between planting and harvest, between seed time and fruitfulness, were weeks and weeks of watering, thinning, tending, weeding.  It was in this in-between time that the success and bounty of the seeds sown were actually brought about.  God has sown the precious seed of the gospel in our hearts, Ordinary Times allow us to care for it, nurture it, and see it come to maturity within our hearts achieving not just another cycle of time, but something that reaches into eternity.

End Notes


[i] Ecclesiastes 3:1

[ii] Galatians 4:4-5

[iii] John 1:14

[iv] Matthew 11:3

[v] I Corinthians 15:1-5

A Parable for Today

Sometimes I hear God speak in parables to me, not in words but in the things that surround me.  Recently I had one of those moments as I was mowing my lawn.  You see, I have one of those “typical” Vermont lawns that are a mix of four varieties of actual grass (none of which match), at least that many kinds of broadleaf weeds, some well-established clover, the perennial dandelions, a smattering of Indian paintbrush, an occasional nettle, and other things that I don’t even recognize.  And this lawn could be a source of frustration to me if I was a perfectionist who was obsessed with fertilizing and reseeding it, digging out everything that I thought did not belong, setting its exact limits and layout, and never being satisfied until it was uniform and manicured, a lawn that met all of my expectations and preferences.  But I am no longer that person.  I look at the lawn and I have a certain satisfaction in its variety and content…it always grows and needs frequent mowing, it is mostly green, there are very few bare spots, and it seems to tolerate seasons of both rain and dryness without dying out.

And it was at that moment that I recognized that what was true of my lawn, was true of my community, my nation, my world, my church.  None of these venues will ever fully meet my expectations, I will never find a uniformity of belief, or opinion, or lifestyle.  And that diversity could continuously vex my soul, or it could simply be the reality that I have to live in by the grace of God and to the best of my abilities, trying, as the Apostle Paul said, to live at peace with every person so far as that possibility is present in me.  As Jesus taught in the gospel, I cannot seek to justify myself by asking the question “And just who is my neighbor?”  I have no other option than to love each and every neighbor as I love myself, regardless of whether I agree with them, like them, or even have anything in common with them.  They do not answer to me anyway, they belong to Jesus and He has already warned us that there are wheat and tares growing up side by side but that this does not bother God as much as it seems to bother me.  I have come to realize that I no longer wish to be fighting a constant war with a world that Jesus came to save.  There will come a day when all things are made clear and when the final sorting out takes place, but that task is given to Jesus, not me.  My part is simply to love my neighbor as myself; in doing that I find that I find that I also love and honor God with every part of my life and being.

Fairy Tales and Real Life

Have you ever read your children a fairy tale and come to the final words, “And they lived happily ever after”, and paused to consider the implications of such a bold statement?  Too often we are consumed with the everyday concerns of life that we fail to see that it is a whole story that we live out, divinely authored, and with a certain end in mind.  Now, I’m not implying that life is like a fairy tale, or am I?  Consider this tale for a moment.

Long ago two people, our ancestors far removed, by the name of Adam and Eve, inhabited a veritable Paradise on earth.  Not a bad place to start a fairy tale in the grand tradition of such stories.  In this Paradise they communed with God, were clothed in immortality, had divine knowledge infused into their nature, and were free from all pain and suffering.  Their only burden (if it could ever be considered as such) was to remain in obedience to one simple command of God.  Now into this happy realm came Satan, the enemy of mankind (and of God for that matter), the arch-fiend, followed by his two hideous offspring, Sin and Death.  In minds that had never known anything other than blessedness he sowed deceit and, by the twisting of God’s word, provided the occasion whereby our two ancestors fell from grace through disobedience.  Then the judgment of God came swiftly.  Paradise was lost.  The man and woman were exiled from the presence of God and the full effects of sin and death were laid upon their nature. The earth itself was cursed deeply because of their sin.  No longer would it remain a paradise, but it brought forth hedgerows of thorns and thistles to confound the man.  Thus burdened under the curse of death, our ancestors cried out to the God who had created them, “a boon, Lord, a boon!”  Now that may not have probably been what Adam said, but it’s in keeping with the poetic tradition of a good story, so hear me out.  In mercy, the Creator of the universe looked upon the man and woman whom He had created and loved, and gave a cryptic promise concerning a divinely-appointed deliverer who would one day overthrow their enemies and restore all things.

And now the story jumps far into the future, to the fullness of time, an appropriate place to pick back up.  This promised deliverer was born of a virgin in a Bethlehem stable, grew to maturity in Nazareth, was despised and rejected in Jerusalem, was put to death at the hand of godless men, and was sealed in a tomb.  Wrapped by the chains of death, having borne upon His body the sins of all mankind, having had the just curse and judgment of God exacted upon His person, He descends into Hell, the realm of Satan himself.  Now we get to the good part!  There the divine promise, the seed of hope for mankind, begins to blossom forth.  The head of the serpent is crushed beneath the Deliverer’s feet, the chains of death are broken and cast aside, and Hell is turned inside out as the conquering Deliverer leads captivity captive in triumph through the heavens, the keys of Hell and Death firmly grasped in His hand.  Heaven’s gates swing open full wide once more to mankind, and the proclamation that we are no longer slaves to the baser elements which once held sway over us, but that we are now sons and daughters of God once more is heralded through the kingdom.  A new race from every tribe and nation and tongue is born with their Deliverer-King as its head.

Now that’s a pretty good storyline.  I can’t remember reading one more glorious or exciting.  But what makes this story different from all so many other fairy tales that have the same elements of romance, happiness, heroism, virtue and triumph is this: it is absolutely true.  And this very story is that story of life in which each of us moves and has a part to fulfill.  It would do us some good (eternal good) if we allowed ourselves to be reminded of that truth during this season of Resurrection and see again the panorama of human history, and our own lifetime, from God’s perspective.

And if that’s not enough reason to be uplifted in body and spirit, I’ll let you in on another marvelous thing.  I peeked at the end of the book, and guess what?  All of God’s people live happily FOREVER after–all by the grace of God.  In this season of Resurrection let all glory and power and honor be given to His Name, both now and forever, world without end.  Amen.

The IF and BUT of Resurrection Sunday

“…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…”  I Corinthians 15:14

Webster’s dictionary defines vain as “having no real value, marked by futility or ineffectualness, foolish.”  That which is vain has an appearance that would make it desirable to our eyes, but it has no substance or worth behind its facade; it is a costume-jewelry diamond.  That which is vain has an appearance of strength and security, but has no foundation or underlying reinforcement; it is a house built upon sand.  That which is vain has an appearance of direction and purpose, but it is always bound up in the experiential and has no real basis outside itself; it is a pipe-dream, a grand and glorious promise that can never deliver.  That which is vain has an appearance of power and effect, but it lacks the integrity and harmony to accomplish anything; it is a broken tooth, or a limb out of joint.  And the Apostle Paul states emphatically that our religion, our doctrine, our faith, our liturgy, and our heritage is vanity if Jesus Christ be not raised.  Consider what this means.

If Christ be not raised, mankind remains dead in their sins, destined to be forever separated from their Creator.  If Christ be not raised, then our only destiny is death, and after death a certain awful judgment.  If Christ be not raised, then the soul of mankind remains chained in captivity forever, and the gates of heaven shall never be opened to them.  If Christ be not raised, then all the souls of the righteous dead have no hope of the promise of God being fulfilled for them.  If Christ be not raised, then we are not just lost, but deceived, and our religion and life is void of purpose.  It is a charade.  If Christ be not raised, then we are squandering what little life we have upon this earth pursuing the wind.  If Christ be not raised, then this world and all contained within it are shrouded even now in darkness, and will always bear the curse of sin as its lot.  If Christ be not raised, then all creation is subjected to Satan’s dominion and his unholy lordship mocks the Name of God.

That is, if Christ be not raised.  But Resurrection Sunday shouts hallelujah, He is raised; and because He is, our sins are forgiven, we have fellowship as sons and daughters of God, we have eternal life, heaven’s gates are opened wide to us, we are joined in the glorious communion of saints before God’s throne, our religion is alive and able to touch mankind’s heart, our lives have purpose which goes beyond this age, light has come in the world and people have seen it, and the serpent’s head has been crushed and his mocking accusations silenced forever.

For a time our world had been shrouded in darkness, and for a season Satan had his dominion. But the winds have changed, the fullness of time has come, and this season now belongs to us.  It is a season of light and life, a season of joy and grace, a season of healing and deliverance, a season of power and the breaking in of the kingdom of God.

So lift your eyes to the heavens and hear the words of the angel proclaim, “He is not here, He has risen!”  Hear those worlds of life and know that all the promises of God have become “Yes” and “Amen” in Jesus Christ.  And then go forth in joy, knowing that the season of darkness has passed away with the rising Son, and that the salvation of our God has today been made manifest in our hearts!  Christ is risen, truly He is risen!  We are a Resurrection people and Hallelujah is our song.

Ember Days

“…For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the whole armor of God…”  Ephesians 6:12-13

I think that one of the greatest failures of true religion is the lack of discernment regarding that which is evil.  Christians confine their spiritual vision to the earth, and too often miss the spiritual struggle that is even now working itself out in the heavenly places around us.  We tend to discount the new pagans, attributing far too little power to their rites and beliefs.  But Paul makes it clear in our opening scripture that there is a vast host of dark spiritual forces arrayed against the people of God, and it is to the heavens, as well as on the earth, that we must press the battle under the Lordship of Jesus Christ:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds…”  II Corinthians 10:3-5.

Throughout the ages the Church has sought to place such mighty weapons in the hands of her saints that they might strive mightily against the gates of hell and prevail.  One such weapon was the seasons of fasting  known to the Church as the Ember days.

The Origins of the Ember Days

One tradition holds that the name “ember” comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means the completing of a circuit, the coming round of a recurring time or season.  In modern terms we might liken it to the keeping of an anniversary date in which something of significance is remembered and celebrated each year.  The scripture tells us that all of creation speaks to us of the nature of God, that His word and order is proclaimed throughout the heavens, that the recurring passage of time reveals knowledge of His ways to us (read Psalm 19:1-6 for instance).  It’s unfortunate that the Christian Church has forgotten such lessons in which the heavenly plan and will of God are made manifest in time and place.  It is a lesson that the pagans have not forgotten, for in their “earth religion” they seek to tap into the cycle of creation which is by heritage the rightful property of the Christian Church.

Consider, for example, the great significance attached by the new age pagans to the keeping of the Vernal Equinox (March 21), the Summer Solstice (June 21), the Autumnal Equinox (September 23) and the Winter Solstice (December 22).   Equinox comes from the Latin meaning days on which daylight and night are equal, and Solstice comes from a word meaning when the “sun stands” at its greatest extreme.  The summer solstice is the longest daylight period, the winter solstice the shortest daylight period.   Such celebrations were historically tied to the three great harvests of wheat, grapes and olives by the ancient Romans.  But the Church was quick to note that these times were also periods in which demonic evil and wickedness seemed to flourish and peak in a cyclical regularity.  This is not surprising; for if, in the times of abundance,  man’s heart does not rise to his Creator in thanksgiving, it falls to prideful sins of ingratitude and idolatry.  Said another way, where grace is not at work in restoration, sin is at work in degradation.  Because heathen practices and rituals were so active in these times, the Church instituted its own seasons which were intended to stir up the saints to spiritual activity.   Such spiritual legislation is not forbidden by the scriptures and is part of the spiritual liberty which we possess as heirs with Christ.

Thus were born the so-called Ember days of Christianity.  Another tradition holds the origin of their name to have been derived from a corruption of the Latin “Quatuor Tempora”, the quarter tense or the four times.  Regardless of the origin of their names, the Ember Days were established from the start as days of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and increased almsgiving that by the weapons of righteousness the deeds of darkness might be exposed and overcome.   The Church also saw the added benefit in the observance of cyclic fasting in all the seasons of the year.  It continued to remind the saints of their need for repeated purification under the hand of God.  Then too it reminded each man that earthly life was not the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and the balancing of the days of feasting and celebration against the days of fasting and penitence brought a Godly harmony to daily life.  As Paul states in Philippians 4:11-13:

“…in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

The lessons which the ember days sought to teach were that men ought to thank God for the gifts of nature in each of its seasons; that men were to make right and moderate use of the abundance of God’s bounty; and that from this use they were to remember and assist those in true need of Christian charity.

Seasonal Disciplines Like Fasting Are Ancient

The practice of seasonal Church fasting is ancient.  The Roman Archbishop Callistus in A.D. 222 wrote in his first epistle:

“Fasting, which you have learned to hold three times in the year among us, we decree now to take place as more suitable in four seasons; so that even as the year revolves through four seasons, we too may keep a solemn fast quarterly in the four seasons of the year.  And as we are replenished with corn, and wine and oil for the nourishment of our bodies, so let us be replenished with fasting for the nourishment of our souls…”

Leo the Great in his Sermon 19 delivered around A.D. 450 declared:

“This profitable observance [i.e. self restraint and abstinence] is especially laid down for the fasts of the Church, which, in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s teaching, are so distributed over the whole year that the law of abstinence may be kept before us at all times.  Accordingly we keep the spring fast in Lent, the summer fast at Whitsuntide, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this which is the tenth month, knowing that there is nothing unconnected with the Divine commands, and that all the elements serve the Word of God to our instruction.  For when the prophet says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork; day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge..’ what is there then by which the Truth does not speak to us?”

He continues later on to infer an apostolic origin for this practice.

“Let us therefore fast on Wednesday, and Friday, and on Saturday keep vigil with the most blessed apostle Peter….[performing] our supplications and fastings and alms which the Lord Jesus Christ presents…”

The observance of Ember Days is therefore fixed and at the same time variable.  They are fixed in the sense of occurring always on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and variable since they occur in the week after Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday (Pentecost), September 14 (historically the exaltation of the cross), and December 13 (the remembrance day of St. Lucia).  Thus the Latin verse was phrased to help the faithful remember their timing “Post crux, post lux, post ignes, post cineres”, or in a rough translation, “after the cross, after the light, after the fire, after the ashes.”

The seasons of God’s creation are ours by inheritance.  Let us reclaim them from the pagans so that their line may go out through all the earth for the glory of God; and let us not despise the Godly disciplines whereby the saints in ages past have wrestled to keep themselves undefiled in the world and persevering in the promises of God’s covenant.

True Religion

True religion is a funny sort of thing in this world of ours.  It starts as a genuine ache deep down inside the soul, a gnawing sort of restlessness that doesn’t give a person a moment’s rest.  Some might say that it’s the sense of primeval guilt of sin that haunts a soul at these times; others declare it to be the very first workings of God’s mercy and grace calling to the human heart.  But, whether we ascribe the ache to the emptiness of sin or to the whispered promises of grace, we must see that it is the Spirit of God at work, calling ever so persistently, drawing ever so surely.  As St. Augustine wrote in the first chapter of his Confessions:

Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise You.  He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that You thwart the proud.  But still, since he is a part of Your creation, he is drawn to praise You.  The thought of You stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises You, because You made us for Yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

Such is the beginning of true religion.  It is of divine origin, coming down from the heavens to reside in a vessel that distinctly bears the imprint and likeness of its Maker.  It is true balm to the soul, and instantly the ache subsides as the power of the Gospel soaks deep within.  Why is it that so many people never allow the full healing to take hold of their souls?  I only ask that because I look around at the Church at large and I see many things that make up its religion, and at times it somehow seems too complex, too rigid and unyielding, too man-made and contrived, not anything like what I know true religion to consist of.

True religion and true love are alike.  Everyone loves to some extent; you can’t help loving if you’re at all human.  But true love, that’s a different story.  It’s hard to explain just exactly what it is, but you know it when it enters your heart.  And once it grips that place within you that is the seat where a person loves and can be loved, you are never the same.  The entire world takes on a new perspective; the mere presence of your beloved brings light and joy to your circumstance.  No strain, no complexity, no facades or barriers, such is true love; such also must be true religion.

When I am confronted with my religion, and find myself needing to define or defend it, words often fail.  Oh, I could conjure up some theological tome, or recite some catechetical answer that fits the question at hand, but that seems so shallow and trite somehow.  Not that it isn’t true.  But truth is often not enough to restore the glow of life to a sin-deadened heart.  Somehow truth cannot be the whole of true religion any more than fond affection or momentary exhilaration can be the whole of true love.  There is so much more to our religion, yet I find it hard to communicate the innermost thoughts that flood my heart as I contemplate the love of God.  I feel like the blind man on whose eyes Jesus put spittle and clay, and when I wash in the pool, my eyes are opened, and I see as I have never seen before.  And immediately people ask me how it has been done.  Some say that my new vision is impossible, others cannot accept it and instead explain it away in terms of some psychological phenomena.

And what can I say to communicate the fullness which courses through my souls on that day?  My words are all too inadequate; they are a poor testimony indeed to the great work which God has brought to pass.  And when words fail, when all the powers of the human soul fall short of divine reality, it is at times such as this that I must content myself with the answer of the man born blind, “Whether thus and such is so, I do not know.  One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  And in that declaration of faith, although in some minds it might pale in comparison to the great creeds or doctrines of our religion, I find that somehow I touch my true religion once more, and my soul seeks out the Man Who anointed my eyes, and I fall at His feet and worship Him.  And everything else seems insignificant in that moment, for my soul has found its rest at last.

The Depths of Christian Liberty

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.  I will take you as My people, and I will be your God.”  Exodus 6:6-7

In the Jewish Passover Haggadah, four cups of wine are shared in the course of the meal to recall the four great works of redemption that the Lord wrought on behalf of His people as expressed in Exodus 6:6-7.  The Jewish service is structured so that each generation reminds the next of the great salvation which is their heritage, lest it be forgotten and lost somehow.  Indeed we might venture to say that this salvation is what truly makes them the people of God.  It is not necessarily their ancestry, or their race, but rather the express choice of God and the outpouring of His liberty upon them in full measure that makes them His.  There is something instructive in these verses for us, the Church, as well.  They speak clearly to us of the depths of God’s liberty and our Christian freedom.

I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians…Who of us has not been burdened by the weight of a sin-bruised conscience, or been smeared with the defilement of a guilt whose filth we could in no wise wash away, or felt the intense shame of wrongdoing?  Sin is a terrible burden.  The shoulders of a man or woman were never meant to bear such weight, and they are stooped over and cruelly bent by its magnitude.  And when it seems we can bear no more, the words of Jesus ring out in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you shall find rest for your souls.”  In His forgiveness, the burdens are lifted from our shoulders and we straighten up with our created dignity again.

I will rescue you from their bondage…Forgiveness is a balm to the sin-weary soul, but it is not a curative that goes deep enough to the very root of the cancer that eats at our nature from within.  A man forgiven a debt may breathe free for one moment, but if he has no means of support, it is not long before he finds himself in debt again.  Furthermore, habits of vice are hard to quickly lay aside.  It is as if we entered a sodden pigpen, washed clean the sow within it, and left with the command for her to remain clean.  Neither the nature of the sow nor the environment she is in is conducive to fulfilling that command.  So it is with the corrupted human nature set in a perverse world.  It is to such a state as that that Jesus declares “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…and to set at liberty those that are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).  To his forgiveness is added deliverance, and the enemies of our soul are put to rout.

And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments…The law of sin and death is a hard taskmaster.  The man who stands accused by its statues must forfeit his life, for justice demands that the full penalty be paid.  Mercy would sweep away all indebtedness, but cannot do so without doing harm to the divine dictates of justice.  And our accuser ever rails against us, not with twisted lies about our life, but with the truth of our faithlessness recounted as if read from an open book.  In the face of such iniquity, who can stand?  “I see another law…bringing me into captivity to the law of sin…O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:23-24)  Where shall we look for our deliverance?  The answer resounds from the heavens, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 7:25 to 8:1).  To the washing of forgiveness and the wonder of deliverance is added redemption entered into by the outstretched arm of God shaking the very powers of the air, and with great and final judgment upon sin and death.  But it is not judgment without cost, for its justice claimed the innocent blood of the Lamb of God Himself.  The bloodguiltiness of our sin, both original and actual, was satisfied in His blood, and it is paid for by His death.  And in that redemption we are, as it were, legally free of any claim which the law could ever lay to our account.

I will take you as My people, and I will be your God…Forgiveness, deliverance, redemption; all that we need to live in relative freedom upon this earth is graciously given to us.  But wait!  Behold the further depth of God’s love.  “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom (Luke 12:32).  It is not enough that we are no longer slaves, but now we are made sons and daughters.  Such is the unsearchable depth of God’s freedom.  As forgiveness, deliverance, and redemption forms the body of His liberty, so adoption informs its heart and very soul.  By it we are made sons and daughters of God, heirs to the kingdom, and fellow heirs with Jesus.  Freedom in this life is given in full measure and in the life to come, eternal life.

Four cups of wine are laid before us by the hand of God and we are invited to drink our fill of forgiveness, deliverance, redemption, and adoption.  Just when we thought we knew all that there was about the love and liberty of God, we are reminded that they have dimensions that we have not yet experienced.  “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness, O God.” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  May we ever be reminded of the length and breadth and depth and height of the love of God, and, in that, glimpse the true extent of our Christian liberty in Him.