December 19, 2014

What Mr. Tumnus Can Teach Us About Advent

After stumbling into the snowy wood of Narnia through the doors of a magical wardrobe, the first person Lucy met in that mysterious new country was a faun named Mr. Tumnus. Her presence startled him as much as his did her, so much so that he dropped the brown-paper parcels he was carrying. Knowing nothing of this strange new land, Lucy observed that, "What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping." Lucy would soon learn, however, what all who love the story already know, that Narnia is under the spell of a cruel witch, who makes it always winter and never Christmas. These parcels, therefore, could not have been Christmas gifts as Lucy had assumed. She was mistaken. Or was she? Could it be that her assumption, no less than her very presence in Narnia, foreshadows the coming reality, a reality for which all Narnia waited with eager longing? Perhaps her presence and her perception of the faun's parcels are designed to reveal that winter would soon end and Christmas soon come?

That Tumnus is the one carrying these would-be Christmas presents is no small detail. For he carries in his arms that which portends the liberation of Narnia, yet he himself is in the employ of the one keeps Narnia in bondage to decay. He intends to hand the innocent Lucy over to the one who would destroy her, the false queen who will stop at nothing to keep her power and exploit the land and its people. As the story begins Tumnus is a coward and treacherous. And he knows it. And so the fact that this two-faced faun is carrying in his arms the packages which not only introduce the tension that carries the story but also the potential for its resolution is even more pronounced. He carries with him the sign of hope and freedom, even though he is himself part of the problem. 

He is part of the problem because he has not yet learned to wait. To be sure, he dreams of the day when the snow will melt and spring arrive, but in the meantime he has hedged his bets as he colludes with the Witch to save his hide. Like her, he has chosen to do what is necessary to preserve himself without regard to who might be hurt along the way. He is not waiting. He has capitulated.  

What then can Mr. Tumnus teach us of Advent? He teaches us first that waiting for the King born on Christmas morn is no passive thing. To the contrary, the waiting we do in the season of Advent is active resistance to the powers that rage against the Christ child, as we proclaim the gospel truth that there is another king, namely Jesus. For Tumnus, waiting for Aslan in holiness would have meant suffering, which is precisely what he feared. You only have to read his account to Lucy of what will happen if he releases her. His horns cut off; his beard plucked out; he will be turned to stone. You see, Mr. Tumnus understands that sometimes waiting means dying. 

Second, Tumnus reveals that no one is ever without hope, if, of course, they are willing to repent. In the end the faun chooses to release Lucy, to turn from evil in service to the Witch and face the grim reality that he will suffer for doing right. In this way Tumnus is being conformed to the image of the one who will soon suffer on the cold hard slab of a stone table. And because Tumnus is repentant, the Lion who overcomes even death, will soon breath on him and give him back the life that he gave up for Lucy's sake. He has learned the meaning of Advent. He has learned to wait. 

December 16, 2014

Four Thoughts on the Four Virtues

Upon the recommendation of a very good friend, I began reading through Joseph Pieper's The Four Cardinal Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections of chapters dealing with each of the four virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I found the opening pages to be quite thought provoking and offer here four reflections that came to mind as I worked through the first chapter:
  1. We don't speak this way anymore. Until, I think, fairly recently, the language of virtue was part and parcel to (at least) Western civilization. Pieper's discussion begins with prudence, the first virtue, and he argues that contemporary minds are uncomfortable with the notion that prudence is preeminent among the virtues. It ranks the highest, and all others depend on it. Beyond that, I would suggest that, as a society, we not only resist the idea of a hierarchy of virtues, we have come to the point where we don't really see virtue as essential or even important. The cultivation of virtue is no longer a value common to Western civilization. Rather, we have elevated the pleasure of personal preference to the place of highest value. And when preference replaces virtue, the result is hedonism. 
  2. Right worship cultivates virtue. To become virtuous is to become good. But a person cannot live into the fullness of their potential to be good apart from a life of discipleship following Christ our Lord. And one of the ways - indeed, the primary way! - that Christ forms us into good people is through worship. To pray the liturgy is to develop habits of worship that cannot be attained anywhere else, habits that lead to consistent goodness, or (as it is called in our Wesleyan tradition) holiness, which brings me to the next point. 
  3. Virtue is essential to holiness. As Pieper's discussion unfolded, I couldn't help but conclude that virtue and holiness are intimately connected, though I'm not altogether settled on how to talk about the connection. For now, suffice it to say that holiness may be more than virtue, but it is not less. Pieper puts it this way: "All Ten Commandments of God pertain to...the realization of prudence...every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent." To be free from sin is to be both virtuous and holy. And I am inclined to say that the highest virtue is actually holiness. One benefit of including the cultivation of virtue in our talk of holiness is that it defines holiness in positive terms. All too often, we think of holiness negatively as avoiding sin. And it is that. But it is also the positive cultivation of consistently godly character, and godly character is nothing if not virtuous. Pieper calls it, "impulses and instincts for right acting."
  4. The Greeks and Romans went far with what they had. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as "the true myth." He deployed this term against those who suggested that the presence of parallel stories to scripture among pagan religions suggest that the Bible is simply one myth amongst many. Lewis rejected this line of thinking and argued instead that the presence of similar themes in pagan mythology and Christianity simply indicated that the pagans had picked up on some truth, even if they didn't get it all right. The presence of similar themes in varied traditions meant that there was some common reality or revelation that all observed. Christianity is the true myth that gets the story right. Likewise, I suggest, the Greco-Roman writers who saw the cultivation of virtue as an end of society were working in the right direction. Even if, apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit, they were unable to achieve what they were after, namely the fullest and best expression of human life, they got a long way in the cultivation of virtue, though they could not reach the pinnacle. The stunning thing about it is that the Greeks and Romans at least knew they should be virtuous, which is perhaps more than can be said of us. 

December 12, 2014

New Podcast: Body of Christ, Bread of Life @StMarkMobile #UMC



When we want to read about the birth of Jesus, we usually turn to Matthew and Luke. After all, that's where we find angels and shepherds, magi and the manger, Mary and Joseph, and, not least, baby Jesus himself. We don't usually turn to the Gospel of John. John doesn't have all the nativity stuff. Nevertheless, the opening chapter of John is telling a Christmas story, because it's telling the story of the Word of God made flesh in the person of Jesus. It's the story of the incarnation. And Christmas is about nothing, if it's not about the incarnation. John is not quite so interested in who was there when Jesus was born. He is more interested in the implications of God taking a body in Christ. And one of the reasons John is interested in what it means for God to take a body in Christ is because John understands that the body of Christ is the bread of life. And John wants to be sure the sheep are fed. 

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December 8, 2014

Christmas and Communion (or Incarnation and Eucharist)

Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)
My Advent series of sermons this year focuses on the significance of the Eucharist. In preparing for this series, I've spent some time looking at the Eucharistic writings of the Church Fathers. One theme that emerges with regularity is the connection between the Incarnation and the Sacrament. I included this illustrative quote from Justin Martyr in yesterday's sermon: 
We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him - the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation - is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).
While Justin doesn't go into detail about the nature of the sacramental transformation, he does draw an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Both are mysterious because both somehow convey the presence of God through physical means. The Incarnation is the basis for the meal. It is because Christ is a flesh and blood savior that he can offer his flesh and blood to us in the Eucharist. And because he continues presently embodied in heaven, he is able to continuously offer his body and blood to us at the Table. By offering his body and blood to us in the Communion meal, he surprisingly yet beautifully cultivates our communion with himself and our Father through the Spirit. So, without Christmas there is no Communion, neither with Christ nor the Father, and without Communion, we easily lose sight of the bodily nature of Christ's ministry to us and for us, which we desperately need since we ourselves are embodied creatures.

December 4, 2014

New Podcast: His Presence, Our Salvation #Advent #UMC @StMarkMobile


Advent is about Christ's coming. And his coming is about the promise of his presence with us. But Christ is not present with us in exactly the same way as he was to his first followers. None of us have ever had an experience like that of the disciples, who were granted to look upon and touch the risen Christ. This raises the question: How is Christ present with his Church now? How is he with us in between his first and second comings? The Church's answer has long been quite simple, even if it remains deeply mysterious. He is present in the bread and the wine.

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December 2, 2014

3 Reasons for Reading Backwards with Richard Hays (@Baylor_Press)

After attending part of the review panel for Richard Hays' new short book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor, 2014), I knew I had to get a copy and read it. So I did, and took the long plane ride from California as an opportunity to dig in to this treasure trove of accessible and robust biblical scholarship on the Gospels. Hays is currently the Dean of Duke Divinity School and is well known for his work on the interplay between Old and New Testaments. This book is the published version of Hays' Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, and it takes up that interplay as it relates to the canonical Gospels.

The central thesis of the book is that the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament, and the Old Testament teaches us to read the Gospels. In particular, the Gospels are to be read figurally, that is with a view to the many ways Old Testament texts may signify or pre-figure the Gospel narratives about Jesus. Hays puts it this way: "we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and - at the same time - we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT" (4, italics original). This is not simply to say we note the citation when a Gospel passage quotes or evokes an Old Testament passage. It means that the Gospel writers intend their readers to soak into the original context of Old Testament passage and to interpret what they say about Jesus in light of that context. So, when Jesus says things like, "I am with you," or, "My words will not pass away," he should be read with a view to the rich texture that those words have in the OT when they are predicated of God. Or when Jesus walks on water, it's not just a neat miracle to illustrate his power over nature. It should be read with the understanding that in the Old Testament only the God of Israel "treads on the waves of the sea" (Job 9:8). And the narrative implication is that Jesus embodies the presence of that very God. These examples don't begin to capture the many and varied ways the Gospel writers see the Old Testament pre-figuring Jesus. You'll have to read the book. In the mean time, here are three reasons to do just that. 

1. Refreshingly Orthodox

A significant number of New Testament scholars insist that stories about Jesus' divinity were invented by the later Church and read back onto the life of Jesus. Hays cites one of the more popularly known proponents of that view, Bart Ehrman, who says, "The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our gospels, only in John" (Jesus Interrupted, 249). In contrast, Hays shows that each of the Gospels were written to narrate how Jesus of Nazareth embodies the God of Israel. To be sure, the different gospels tell the story to emphasize different aspects of what that embodiment looks like, and the diversity of their portrayals should not be minimized. Nevertheless, when the Gospels are read figurally in light of the Old Testament, they unanimously insist that Jesus bears in his body the unique presence of the creator God. Hays makes his case with elegance and beauty, which is the main reason it is so robust and persuasive. When you come to the creeds after you read this book, their words will carry far richer meaning than you ever might have imagined.

2. Great resource for preaching

This reason for reading is directed more toward the preachers out there. Use this book as a resource for preaching the Gospels. If you are working with a passage in the Gospels, look it up in the index to see what Hays says about it. It will add a multiple layers of depth to your comprehension and preaching of the text. It will point you to features of the text that you had not previously observed. And it will equip you to lead your congregation into a deeper understanding of the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospels. It will make you a better preacher. 

3. Perfect for Advent

I'll finish by saying that this book is an excellent read for the season of Advent, which has just begun. As we draw near to Christmas and our celebration of the Incarnation of God in Christ, what better book to read than one focused on deep clarity with regard to the way the Gospel writers portray the Incarnation? I was very glad to read this book when I did since I was reflecting on scripture and sermons for the season. It has impacted my experience of Advent both in terms of formation and as a resource for preaching. For this I am grateful.

Seldom do I say that I cannot recommend a book highly enough, but that is exactly what I will say about Reading Backwards. 

November 8, 2014

New Podcast: Generous God, Generous People @StMarkMobile #UMC



There are many words to describe God. One of those words is “generous”. And what an excellent word to describe the big-hearted and overflowing extravagance of God’s grace. We can be exceedingly grateful that God relates to us with a generous grace. But if God treats us with such generous grace, shouldn’t our lives be conduits of that grace to others? Shouldn’t we embody that kind of godly generosity? Doesn’t God desire that his people be generous as he is generous? Because he is generous? And as we grow in godly generosity, aren’t we then growing in grace? And if generosity is about grace, isn’t it also about joy? What if growing in generosity produces joy? And not just any joy. Deep joy. 

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November 6, 2014

Keep Up the Good Work: Criminal Mercy in South Florida

The governing authorities are the servants of God to uphold what is good and right. But sometimes the servants get wrong. Bad wrong. Crazy bad wrong. When that happens the servants need to be reminded who they serve and what their role is. Such is the case in Ft. Lauderdale where three people have been arrested for feeding homeless people. Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently, one of the arresting officers instructed the culprit to "drop that plate right now." Yes, drop the plate and move away slowly...with your hands up! You have the right to remain silent.

How many passages of scripture flood to mind after the reading of this headline:
"I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink...just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me. And these will go away into eternal punishment." -Jesus, Matthew 25:42,45-46
"In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak." -Paul, Acts 20:35
"When you give a banquet, invite the poor." -Jesus, Luke 14:13
"They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which is actually what I was eager to do." -Paul, Galatians 2:10
"Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom...But you have dishonored the poor." -James 2:6
"If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your own community...do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be." -Deuteronomy 15:7-8
I could go on. There are many, many others, not to mention the texts that curse those who oppress the poor. That's right, curse. The imperative to care for the poor is a chorus that rings throughout scripture. It cannot be missed by anyone reading with their eyes open. What is astounding is that this sort of tomfoolery must actually be named for what it is. Any clear-minded person should see the savagery in criminalizing ministries of mercy with the impoverished. Talk about having it backwards. 

In this case, Mr. Abbot and the pastors who have been arrested are the ones who have it right. And they should take comfort in the promise of Jesus, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:10). Well done, fellas, keep up the good work.

Photo credit: Associated Press

November 5, 2014

A Prayer for Those Who Govern

The government in the U.S. is in the midst of a significant transformation after yesterday's election. And it's a good time for the people of God to remember their responsibility to hold those who govern in prayer regardless of policy or party affiliation. So, I offer this prayer, which is a slightly revised version of one I said to open the Mobile City Council meeting last week, the light editing intended to extend it beyond the local level to all levels of government. 
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose kingdom is everlasting, whose power infinite, and who rules over all that is. You have established the governing authorities to uphold what is good and right and true. Have mercy upon this this land, and so rule in the hearts of your servants who govern it, that they, knowing whose ministers they are, may above all things seek your honor and glory. Look upon them with favor and replenish them with grace by your Holy Spirit, that they may be always motivated to do your will and walk in your way. Fill them with wisdom and courage; grant them wholeness and holiness. And grant that we, the people of this land, remembering whose authority they bear, may faithfully and obediently honor them. Grant that all under their authority grow in your grace and holy love, and attain everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who reigns over heaven and earth. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 
Those familiar with the common prayer tradition should be able to do the source critical work quite easily, even if it is said with a Wesleyan accent.

October 24, 2014

New Podcast: Fully Focused on the Finish #ChristianPerfection #UMC


When I read the letters of Paul, I often wonder whether he was a fan of athletic games - foot racing, at least. On several occasions Paul draws on the language of the races to illumine the nature of the Christian life. For instance, "Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it" (1 Cor 9:24). Similarly in Philippians 3 Paul describes the Christian life in terms of straining forward towards the goal to win the prize. It's hard not to imagine an Olympic runner putting all of his energy into crossing the finish line to win the gold. For Paul, the gospel worthy life is fully focused on the finish, and that means knowing what the finish line is, namely resurrection union with Christ, and it means leaving the past in the past - all of it. On top of that, Paul's racing imagery helps us get a better sense of what we mean when we talk about Christian perfection. Take a listen to find out what Paul means when he counts himself among the "perfect" in Philippians 3:15. If you receive this post as an email, click here to listen on the podcast page. Previous sermons can be found here