What’s with the Ascension?

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This Sunday Christians of the Great Tradition commemorate the event in Jesus’ life that most American Christians subtly avoid: The Ascension. After all, the idea of the disciples standing around watching Jesus’ feet disappear into the clouds sounds pretty strange – we know heaven isn’t literally up. American Christians often seem a bit sheepish about the whole Ascension thing. However, the New Testament portrays the Ascension as an essential component of Jesus’ saving acts – even the completion of Jesus’ work. To cite a few examples:

  • In Peter’s Pentecost speech, the climax of what God has done in Jesus is not the resurrection, but Jesus being “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33). In support, Luke quotes the most cited psalm in the NT, Psalm 110, with its image of the messiah taking his seat at the right hand of God.
  • In the gospel of John, Jesus, tells Mary not to hold on to him because “I have not yet ascended,” and the message she is given for the disciples is, ‘I am ascending to the Father’ (John 20:17).
  • Luke divides his two books, not at the resurrection, but at the Ascension: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1-2)
  • In Philippians 2, Paul skips the resurrection and goes straight from Jesus’ ‘death on the cross’ to his being ‘exalted to the highest place’ (Phil 2:8-9). Jesus movement was from death to life to glory, but here Paul conflates the resurrection and ascension as one movement.

Why is the Ascension important? (From Ian Paul’s terrific blog Psephizo.com)

  1. Authority. Jesus is enthroned with the Father. Because of the Ascension, the lamb who was slain is seated with the one on the throne and shares his worship (Revelation 4). At the Ascension Jesus said, ‘all authority has been given to me’ (Matt 28:18). It is that authority that gave Stephen confidence in the face of death—his final vision is of Jesus ascended in Daniel 7 terms (Acts 7:55-56). 
  2. Union. In the incarnation, God entered human existence. In the Ascension, humanity is taken up into the presence of God. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15-16). Jesus joined humanity that humanity so can join him.
  3. Empowerment. The Ascension marked the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry; Jesus gives humans responsibility to continue His work, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is neither distant nor indifferent, he has delegated his earthly presence to his body, the Church.
  4. Trustworthiness. Jesus ascended in the clouds promising that he will return “in the same way” (Acts 1:11). (His return, btw, is never called the “second coming” in the NT because it is not paired with his “first coming” [the Incarnation], but rather with the Ascension.) As God has put all things under his feet, one day his authority de jury will be an authority de facto.

So, yeah, the embarrassing miracle matters. Besides, anyone who can believe God can be born from the womb of a virgin, and that a man with his blood drained from his lifeless corpse can walk bodily from the grave three days later, can believe that God can assume that risen Lord bodily into the clouds. So, it may sound strange, but get over it. The Ascension is worth believing in and celebrating, because a lot is riding on those disappearing feet.

Like your salvation.

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Please revise your prayerbook. Sincerely, the hipster church that wants your building

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The real question with prayer book revision is “how much will the latte’s in the narthex cost when the evangelical hipsters salivating over your nifty old building move in?”

The Living Church is producing an excellent series of well-reasoned articles on the move to revise the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. While there are many solid reasons to put the kibosh on prayer book revision, here is one I have not seen: It would be nice to keep some of our beautiful buildings for our own use.

If there is one thing we Episcopalians are good at it is building tasteful, lovely churches. Some of them even still have enough people in them to stay open. I fear prayer book revision will end that for several thousand of our 6500 remaining parishes and missions.

Consider the following: The median average Sunday attendance in an Episcopal Church is now 58 people per Sunday. To most Christians fifty-eight people doesn’t sound as much like a church as the neighborhood small group they are a part of. In 2015, the most recent year data is available for, we were down yet another 20,000 in total Sunday attendance to 579,000 per week.  An old priest once told me, “No matter how good a new prayer book is 100,000 Episcopalians leave every time we revise it.” Does anyone think we have another 100,000 of us to peel off?

For the benefit of non-Anglican readers, prayer book revision is the biggest of issues because our prayers express and shape our theology. We are together, not on a doctrinal statements (like Evangelicals) or behind a teaching magisterium (like Catholics), but on praying the same words. This makes prayer book revision Anglicanism’s third rail. Grabbing a third rail seems to most folk an ill-advised behavior. Anglicans, however, seem to love the feeling of power it brings.

Why is prayer book revision such a bad idea? First, it is insider baseball. It takes even its staunchest advocates off of mission and distracts us with futzing over words. Second, rewriting prayers has the effect of rewriting our theology. That always leaves a significant group disgruntled and disenfranchised. This is why revision has historically resulted in schism and defections. If there has ever been a time in our collective life that we have needed to let things breathe, after the sea changes in our church over the last decade, now is that time. I am not trying to throw shade, but here is the painful truth: prayer book revision is how old men (and women) institutionalize their schisms…why do you think the ACNA’s Bob Duncan was so hot that the departing churches have their own prayer book before he retired!

And if you think the last decade in which we lost 24% of our attendance was bad, we have not yet begun to see the emptying of our parishes that will happen if a version of the prayerbook revision advocates (including some members of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) are telegraphing they want for our future. What sorts of changes are being discussed? Do you like the creed? (Get over it.) Confessing your sins? (Get over that too – sin is now institutional rather than personal.) God? (You get a new one of those as well: Parent, Child, and Spirit. The only member of the Holy Trinity with a gender is the Holy Spirit who goes from neuter to feminine.) All of these will redefine the faith of episcopalians in a way that departs from Scripture, Nicaea, and all other orthodox Christian bodies on the planet. The whole point of a prayer book is that it is the Bible reorganized for public worship. That will no longer be true if the reasons bandied about and the conclusions hinted at come to pass. If we make this collective slide from orthodoxy, many will simply and quietly back down the ladder and go play in another playground.

It takes three triennial General Conventions to pass a new prayer book. The clock is now ticking…

When the nine years of sand in the hour glass runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a heady new era of growth? Or is my old priest friend right, prayer book revision will be the mine that finishes sinking our Episcopal Church, a boat that has been taking on the waters of numerical decline for more than a decade.

If there is a silver lining it is that perhaps other churches will be blessed by our self-destructive inability to keep our hands off of the high voltage. That is where our hipster evangelical friends come in. While the suburban megachurch struggles alongside of us, there are hipster churches melding our sense of place with a robust proclamation of the Gospel, social action, and even a desire to meld historic liturgy with culturally relevant forms. Ancient words and symbols and cultural accessibility – It sounds like what our best churches in the last generation were doing.

One hundred thousand people only represents about 15 people per church. Unfortunately, the ones who disappear when orthodoxy becomes unfashionable tend to also be the ones who tithe, so the 17% estimated decline probably represents double that as a percentage of your budget.

Which is another way of saying, “Would you like that in tall, grande or venti?”

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Why the fuss over a missing body?

 

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Were you one of the myriads who avoid Facebook at Easter? Has the wonder at all of the different ways to meme “He is risen indeed” worn off? Do you wonder why all the fuss for a missing body anyway?

Maybe you grew up in a family that didn’t attend church. Or perhaps you grew up in a suburban evangelical church that seemed more about maintaining a cultural status quo and giving the faithful “hot topics,” than forming a robust and thoughtful faith. Growing up non-religious I didn’t know what to make of Easter either.

I heard the astounding claim that Jesus Christ came back from the dead. I assumed they meant the “not quite dead, not quite alive,” “came back” of movie zombies. Or perhaps a new-age, “his spirit is always with us.” Or maybe even a motivational, “he was knocked out but he pulled himself off the mat” to Rocky theme music. But no, they meant an actually dead person, a person who had been professionally executed and the blood drained from his lifeless corpse, was not only walking around but convinced a significant group of people to follow him around Palestine for 50 days after the government had signed off on the execution’s success and entombed and guarded him.

When I first heard this I thought, “Ridiculous! How can even Christians believe such a tale?”

Well, it turns out it is hard to stop people from believing, even in shocking things, when they have seen them for themselves. The eyewitnesses to Jesus resurrection couldn’t stop talking about seeing Jesus after his death, even when it got them killed. Eleven of twelve disciples would die for failing to say 3 simple words: “It. Never. Happened.” Even before folk could really tell you what Jesus’ resurrection meant they knew it was earth shattering; That it put what Jesus had done in an altogether different category from anything that had happened on the planet before or since.

People that were seen to be killed but are walking around and claiming that they laid down their life and, as God in the flesh, are free to pick it up (John 10:17-18), well, that creates a spectacle. The question is, what does the spectacle mean? The early followers of Jesus, upon reflection, realized the empty tomb meant three things:

First, it plausibly explained our human condition. Second, it was a concrete event that withstands scrutiny. Third, it tangibly improves the lives of its followers.

First, our human condition: Unlike modernity’s belief in the goodness of humanity, the Christian faith acknowledges a further complexity – that we are enslaved, by an underlying driver of our behavior: sin and death. Sin and death chase us. It is why we fear death and are uncomfortable around the dying…why we deny our own mortality and try to hide the effects of aging. And sin and death rear their ugly heads in every relationship we have, individually, interpersonally, and internationally. Well-meaning broken people breaking people as we stumble toward the grave. The Christian faith explains our human experience.

Second, the empty tomb said that Jesus entered into sin and death and defeated them, and that because he did, we will someday be as he is: never to taste death again. All of this is based in the idea that one God/Man defeated death, indicated by the empty tomb. Paul wrote the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 about this. Unlike other faith systems, the Christian faith is based on an act in history, the resurrection. The empty tomb not only endures scrutiny, it invites it. In Matthew 28:6 the angel says to the women, “come, see the place where he lay.” Either Jesus exited a tomb and death is defeated. Or he did not and it is not. But give it a close look, because the empty tomb stands up to rigorous scrutiny.

And finally, Jesus Christ materially improves the lives of his followers. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway wrote, “the world breaks everyone…and those that will not break it kills.” Sin and death oppose us. They are trying to break us, and they are trying to kill us. Jesus breaking out of the tomb means, as Paul said, “that when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus Christ delivers life. Now and for all eternity. (Col. 3:3-4) That life changes you. If you doubt it, ask anyone I went to high school with.

The empty tomb and missing body are a big deal because they explain our experience, withstand our scrutiny, and deliver us life. 

I  do realize that, even if you can accept the three historic conclusions of the 2.2 billion Christians, we are a product of our culture, and Americans have trouble with religious claims to uniqueness. Since the 1960s we have heard another unhelpfully optimistic assertion that all religions are essentially the same. This is bizarre on its face if you think about it for more than a minute. Even atheists like Harvard religion professor, Stephen Prothero think so. In his book “God is not One,” Prothero points “many Buddhists believe in no God, and many Hindus believe in thousands of them. And those gods are of completely different character as well: Is God a warrior or a mild-mannered wanderer?” Not only that, the view of the struggle of life and the vision of what being fully alive in the various religions looks completely different too. We like to pretend that religions are benignly alike. But they aren’t. And you can’t just get rid of religion either. Religion is sociologically persistent. Humans are hardwired to religion and worship. The trick…is to make sure we worship the right object.

The empty tomb and the missing body are a big deal specifically because they answer the question of the object of our worship. They explain our struggle, give a solid basis that can be scrutinized, and materially change the lives of those who walk with the risen one. Which is why your Christian friends can’t help but post about it on social media.

Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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You may have wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday.

Here is the spoiler: Jesus went to the cross to be able to say three words: “It. Is. Finished.”

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well.

The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth was the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

I was a Young Life leader for 25 years. Young Life focusses on explaining Jesus to the high school kids who don’t go to church. Every semester YL leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room, as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe hundreds of thousands of high school kids are hanging on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. After the message kids sat in stunned silence. Except for one kid, a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran right up to my nose and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life and I have NEVER heard this. My dad was a youth pastor, my mom a Sunday school teacher, but I’ve never heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?

Without really thinking I said, “I don’t know. Maybe we are so busy telling you what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was (accidentally) a pretty good answer. But, Josh says, “I don’t know about that.” He turns and practically runs out the door saying, “I’m going Starbucks.” He rips open Rawleigh’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open for me to tell people what Jesus did for them!” The door slams and Josh is gone.

…For the first time Josh knew what Jesus did on the cross in detail. And for the first time, Josh knew that Jesus did it to satisfy a debt that only God could pay…Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do – Why he would go to the cross. In the Good Friday Gospel reading (John 18:1-19:42) Jesus told us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the salvation of humanity, the opening of relationship with God for you. Forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha, on a cross between two thieves. The universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said, “Kings shall shut their mouths.” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

Isaiah said, “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus said, “It is Finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It Is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” That as well is finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what?” That, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet, Satan stood up in hell clapping. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

And now, ever since that day, regardless of what you see, or hear, or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

 

When God Goes the Wrong Way

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The “triumphal entry” of King Jesus into Jerusalem was through the back gate. Ironically, at roughly the same time, the other key player in the drama, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, would have been arriving through the cities’ front gate on his way to the Roman palace just inside the city wall. Kings may outrank governors, but conquerors outrank the vanquished. So, while Pilate arrived in a caravan, with horses, trumpets, and armed retinue; on the back side of the city, the king of the Jews, arrived on a donkey. People bowed for both. For Jesus, though, they bowed in expectation rather than spear-point. Matthew 21:1-10 tells us, they shouted, “Hosanna!” and “spread their clothes and cut branches before him.”  These people were in.

The whole city was stirred.” They were all in.

At least they were on Sunday.

By Friday, though, they were all out.

By Friday, the crowds had abandoned Jesus. The 72 had abandoned him. Even his twelve closest friends abandoned him. By the time they nailed Jesus to a cross on skull hill, none remain save his mother and John, a teenager too young to matter.

Why did the crowd…so passionate on Sunday, jump ship so quickly?

Their disillusionment seems to have begun when Jesus entered the temple the next morning. It would have been a pregnant moment: the crowd anticipating Jesus, their long awaited political deliverer, to turn to the right, toward the Antonia fortress, built by Rome on the temple wall to stare down into the Jewish temple – Big Brother making sure Israel remembered who’s boss. Jesus would show them!

Except that Jesus entered the temple and, where everyone expected him to turn right and shake his fist at the conquering pagans, Jesus wheeled left and began overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Moneychangers had a nice little business converting secular money into special temple money to buy animals for the sacrifices. At a profit, of course.

This act must have been befuddling. “Jesus, we might be getting a C in following God, but at least we are trying. How could you go after us? The Romans are the problem here.”

Palm Sunday exposes an inconvenient truth: No matter how excited we are about God today, we are only days away from turning our back on all that is good and true. It is human nature to turn from God when things don’t make sense.

We can go from “I’m all in” to “I’m so out of here” on a dime. 

I do not want to minimize your pain. It is all too real. When the wheels come off, the crash is brutal. Circumstances appear purposeless. God seems to work slowly. Or worse, God seems to give evil and injustice the nod. It was true on that first Palm Sunday, and it’s true for us – Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose.

We can’t imagine our deliverer turning (what seems to us) the wrong way.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we want.

But he is the savior we need.

The savior we desperately need.

When you are tempted to think Jesus doesn’t get it, remember this:

Jesus knew temptation: He was in the desert forty days…tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13).

Jesus knew poverty: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)

Jesus knew weariness: Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.” (John 4:6)

Jesus knew sorrow: “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38)

Jesus knew loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)

Jesus knew frustration: He overturned their tables saying.…’how dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (John 2:15-16)

Jesus knew disappointment: “O Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Jesus knew ridicule: “Again and again they struck him…and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they mocked him.” (Mark 15:19)

Jesus knew rejection: “many of his disciples…no longer followed him.” (John 6:66)

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is a not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” He gets it.

In that day when the world least makes sense, the pain seems unbearable, when confusion reigns; do not lose hope. God will redeem even this. On your worst day, I believe the Lord is grabbing your face, gazing into your wounded eyes and saying:

“I promise you my child; the magnificence that will one day be yours will so overwhelmingly repurpose and overcome the suffering and pain you are experiencing right now, that it will turn even this tragedy to indescribable joy and unsurpassed splendor.”

So, friend, don’t give up. Don’t pack up your palms and go home. Stay the course. Hang onto your Hosanna when you expect God to go right and he jukes left.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose. But he will never, ever, ever…be anything other than the savior you and I need.

 

 

Big Fat Liars: Politicians and the ‘gators in our souls

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I asked the oldest people I know. None remembers a time like this. A time when everyone else is a liar. Deception surrounds us. We once had news. Then biased news. Now we have fake news. Or as Mark Twain, quoting Benjamin Disraeli said, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damnable lies, and statistics.” Except there is no evidence Disraeli ever said that. Our favorite quote about lies might be a lie.

Former comedian and Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, titled a book: “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” One reviewer in a favorable Washington newspaper review said, “His tendency to mix fact with fiction left me wondering what was true and what wasn’t.” We lie even when writing books about others lies!

Deception is an equal opportunity malignancy. Wikileaks tells us Donald lied about conspiring with Russia against Hillary. And that Hillary lied about conspiring against Bernie. But if everyone is lying, can we trust Wikileaks?

Deception has become so entrenched in our culture it is now a recognized field of academic inquiry. Buller and Burgoon, Interpersonal Deception Theory researchers, identify three motives for deceiving: “avoiding punishment, maintaining relationships, and preserving face.”[1] Or more simply, we lie because we are convinced it will benefit us.

I have noticed in myself a visceral outrage at the lies of those I disagree with politically. But in my saner moments I recall that, “Avoiding consequences, maintaining relationships, and saving face” aren’t just other’s motives. My groups have those motives as well. Our institutions don’t exist on their own. They have the life we give them. Like Frankenstein’s monster, our groups reflect the mess that is their creators. When 9 out of 10 Americans admit to deceiving our partners in romantic relationships, I am either a member of a very small sliver of humanity, or of the vast majority…one in which that tenth American lied.[2] My brain tells me the latter is far more likely than the former.

All human interaction assumes a basic truthfulness with one another…a basic truthfulness we seem to lack.

My wife, in affirmation of this sad truth, says a clean conscience is usually the result of a bad memory. So I decided recently to track my attempts at “deception”: Lies, half-truths and misperceptions. The day was not done before I felt as if I were trying to keep a herd of alligators in a room without walls. As soon as I wrestled one to keep him in, three broke out.

It is easy to point fingers and judge, but each of us knows the urge to “avoid consequences, protect relationships, and save face.”

What is one to do?

Well we could just stop lying. But even if we were to stop whatever grand deception we are contemplating, the drive to avoid consequences, protect relationships, and save face remains. The ‘gators are in there. And they want out.

A better solution is to acknowledge our deceptive hearts. After all, it has been said that a secret is that thing we can’t admit to myself but that most people already know about us. The nature of self-deception is that we are the last to see it.

How does one become aware of self-deception? I ask my spouse and closest friends…my children also. They are more than willing to help me out. I also ask myself, “What do I fear being exposed?” Those reveal our ‘gators. They are in there. I will call them what they are: sin.

Sin always has a cost. “The wages of sin is death.” And it isn’t just me who pays the price sin requires. Everyone we love does along with us. Deception is in us to the depths of our being. It starts with denial and moves quickly to, “Its none of your business.” But it is. As John Donne pointed out, “No man is an island,” and the person we are trying hardest to fake out is ourselves.

If the first step is terrifying – ruthlessly acknowledging our gators, the second is tricky: Not fixing the problem. Guilt wants to round up our deception and drive it out. We go from seeing ourselves as brilliant, to seeing ourselves as broken in one honest instance. And we want to do something about it. But as the prayer of confession in the old prayer book says; “there is no health in us.” Like the thieves on the cross, we cannot save ourselves. Which is actually good news: “The wages of sin” may be “death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:23)

Freedom is in Christ, the savior and alligator wrangler of our souls. Alligator wrestling is foolish work. Look to Jesus…to his Cross. Allow Jesus to be the one to drive the reptiles from our souls, then walk in newness of life with him.

Deception is a social creature. It never travels alone. You and I are up to our armpits in alligators. We need help. I find that help in words St. Peter spoke 2000 years ago, “Repent therefore, and turn back…

     …that your sins may be blotted out…

          …that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord,

               …and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, Jesus.[3]

Sermon link to the painfully personal preached version of the premise.

[1] Buller, D.B., Burgoon, J.K., Buslig, A., Roiger, J. “Testing Interpersonal Deception Theory: The Language of Interpersonal Deception.” Communication Theory 6.3 (1996): 203-242.

[2] Cole, T. (2001). Lying to the one you love: The use of deceptions in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships18(1), 107-129.

[3] Acts 3:19-20

Envelopegate and Ash Wednesday

 

 

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You have seen the video – the awkward moment when producer Jordan Horowitz, Oscar in hand, finds out his film has in fact not won. How must it feel to read another’s name as he graciously handed over the coveted statue? In a moment, every producer’s greatest triumph instantly rendered tragedy.

Imagine yourself on stage at Hollywood’s pinnacle event, having finished your acceptance speech to your peers, and finding inside the envelope that another would go home with your win. Hold onto that agony and imagine how much greater the sorrow to discover one day that what our culture has sold us as a win, won’t, in fact, be inside the envelope. What a blow it would be not to receive the prize. Since one day each one of us will stand on the precipice of eternity, it is fitting to consider what the world tells us “wins”…

  • Possessions: You’ve seen the bumper sticker. “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
  • The prettiest wife or power husband. Eventually father time catches up with us all. No amount of power can add to our days when a bad diagnosis comes. As Jack Kinard joked, “I used to be who’s who. Now I’m who’s he?”
  • Progeny (our kids). We work so hard to raise them…But living through our children is a recipe for their harm, often leaving them, in the words of Derek Zoolander, “disappointing younger versions of ourselves.”

I won’t offer argument against trusting in the world’s system, merely listing them exposes their inability to give the ultimate “win.” But if possessions, beauty, power, popularity or progeny don’t get the trophy, what will? After all, we don’t want to get to the final banquet and find we are holding the card for another’s celebration.

Ash Wednesday is that day each year set aside to think about our own mortality: our own funeral. We don’t much like to think about it, but we all know that one day our bodies will be admiring the lawn from the underside – that a day is coming when the ashes on our foreheads won’t have been made from burning last year’s Palm Sunday branches after the Shrove Tuesday supper. Contemplating the final banquet of our lives is uncomfortable, but it is holy work.

Thinking about our end ought to come easy to those of us who set goals-it is the ultimate long-range planning. It makes sense to make sure we are headed the right direction. How frustrating that Jesus critiques our attempts at living right on the journey. Jesus warns us that even our religiosity: our praying, our fasting and our giving is often done to be seen by others, heard by others, and praised by others.[1] How sad that Jesus needs to warn us, “when you give, don’t sound a trumpet.” He is pointing out how easily our charity becomes charade. Then he warns, “when you pray, don’t pray to be seen by others.” How easily our prayer becomes self-promotion. He presses, “when you fast, don’t look all spiritual.” How effortlessly our fasting becomes flaunting. He cautions us not to hoard because of how quickly we trade his lasting treasure for tomorrow’s trash. Jesus holds up the mirror and pulls down the mask on our self-absorption.

It would be easy if “evil” was somewhere out there. But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy pieces of his own heart?”[2]

Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis is exactly what Lent is: a chance to destroy those pieces in our own heart which oppose God. To root out in us that which wants to be God. To pluck up in our hearts that which continually thinks we can save ourselves.

Ash Wednesday is remembering that our need for a savior is not just a theory. It is an objective reality. I am not as good as I want to believe. Lent is 40 days of turning from…the bible calls that “repentance.”

But Lent is also 40 days of looking toward. Toward, not just to our final deliverance, but our deliverance here and now. A deliverance that only comes when we recognize our need…recognize, as the prayer book says, “that we do not come to this thy table O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” (BCP, 337) Thomas Merton said, “The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.”[3] But staring at our inability is the ultimate act of hope when it drives us into the arms of the one who is able.

The season of Lent that begins today is 40 days of anticipating the great acts of God on our behalf on that old rugged cross that first Easter. As a church family, we will use our Lent being shaped by a rhythm of prayer. Often we think of prayer as a 911 call, “only use in case of emergency.” But God wants us to trust, rely and depend on him moment by moment. That is why we will pray four brief times per day. We will flip the script from fitting God in around the edges of our lives, to fitting ours in around his. Remember, though, Jesus’ warning, that if we at all begin to get good at this, we will start doing it to be seen by others, heard by others, and praised by others. We are just that easily thrown back into our idolatry of the self. We won’t get it right. But we will give God more of us than he has right now. And it will be fantastic.

A disciple named Clement wrote to the church in Corinth some 50ish years after Paul wrote his letters, words of wisdom appropriate for us: “let us give up vain and fruitless cares, and …attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world… Let us yield obedience to His excellent and glorious will; and imploring His mercy and loving-kindness…forsake all fruitless labors, and strife, and envy, which leads to death, (and) let us turn and have recourse to His compassions.”[4]

It is the compassion of God, friends, rather than the efforts of the self, that gives us the gift of the winning envelope. And if there be any name in our envelope on that final day other than the name of the author and perfector of our faith, then we have surely lost. Not just at that final day, but each and every day.

And so, as we allow our mortality to reveal our deep sinfulness, let it remind us to open the envelope and see: “In the category of savior of the world: The winner is…The Lord Jesus Christ!”

[1] Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

[2] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 168.

[3] Merton, Thomas, The Sign of Jonas, p. 27.

[4] Clement, First Letter to Corinth, chapts 7, 8, 9

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