A Vent About Venting About Lent

Photo credit: Robin

One of the websites I read, Reformation 21, posted a positive mini-review of a blogger who had posted an article titled “A Vent About Lent” on her own blog. That article prompted me out of the longsuffering I have been trying to maintain toward anti-tradition, anti-symbolism, and ultimately gnostic attitudes people bring into Christianity and Scripture. It is not surprising that the approach in that article is something like, “oh I’m such a bad idolatrous sinner I don’t need extra-biblical stuff to tempt me; I just need the gospel, Christ-alone, I’m free,” which takes a truth (one I hold dear, actually), and mixes it up in the application.

I remember many years ago when R. C. Sproul said that every time he hears people saying “I don’t need to know theology; all I need to know is Jesus,” he wants to stop them and ask “well who is Jesus?” And, as soon as you ask that question, you’ve embarked into theology. And theology is not just words and dry propositions. The study of God from the beginning has been symbol-laden, body-bound, complex and beautiful. If people think they can say, “I don’t need 2000 years of Church history and practice; all I need is Christianity,” I would ask them, “what is Christianity?” which, of course, opens the door to a discussion of not just belief, not just history, but practice as well. What of the Sacraments? Are there no mysteries there? Have we become so gnostic that like Donald Miller we can go hang out at a loading dock with some friends and hold an impromptu Lord’s Supper with hot chocolate and cookies? Like him, can we prefer—or even advocate—making a habit of avoiding church? Are we to be skeptical of church practices because “everyone is doing it?” Since when did the gospel become anti-community, anti-body-of-Christ, and instead about our own personal bonding experiences and seeking after spiritual moments? Is this what the priesthood of all believers and sola Scriptura has been reduced to?

It’s one thing if you want to point out ways people pridefully fail at the spiritual discipline of fasting. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18) Yes, that’s Jesus, saying “when you fast.” Twice.

It is quite another to scoff at people for holding to traditions which may actually have theological and spiritual significance. Traditions are not salvific, sure. No deed is. “The thief on the cross only needed to confess Christ, and he was promised paradise,” one might say. This is absolutely true, and God is merciful, yea and amen! But what of those of us who have more than a few minutes left to live? Shouldn’t we respond to the grace we’ve been given, dive into the richness of who God is and what he has done, and what he has promised to do both for and through his church? “Thanks for the ticket to salvation, Jesus, oh, and I guess thanks for the earthly life, too, but I’m good with a thief-on-the-cross faith.”

I’m afraid that the “all I need is the gospel” pose has become shallow and rootless, and apologies for the mixed metaphor, but this is exactly what is sinking the Evangelical ship. Read Confessions Of An Ex-Evangelical, Pro-SSM Millennial, and witness the shipwreck of someone raised in a faith unmoored from the historical church. All we need is the gospel? Yes, and no.

It is a truth that all we need as humans to maintain metabolism is roughly 2000-ish calories per day, a particular ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and certain vitamins and minerals. Yet can you imagine leaving it at that, and drinking a sterile, sallow, sludge for every meal? It shouldn’t shock us that some people seek such a spartan/puritanical goal, but we should all be prepared to fight back when they start arguing that we are wrong for finding joy and blessings in a diet variegated in taste and texture. It would be worse if the criticism was against us sharing these blessings with others at our immediate table and through the generations by writing down recipes we have found to be good, but even moreso, for receiving recipes from others through the ages? “Beef Burgundy? No thanks, I’m authentic. I’ll just randomly assemble groceries.”

The gospel is truth, yes, even a singular truth. The gospel should transform us, but not in a vacuum. If it is indeed possible to build up one’s relationship with Jesus by practicing spiritual disciplines, wouldn’t it behoove us to do so? How would one go about such a thing? One could start by looking to what others have already said and done, and why. (Hint: that’s tradition.) Acting as if it is best, not only for every generation, but for every person to start with this truth alone and build upon it with their own wherewithal is not just unwise, but cruel. The Church—Jesus’ Church—has built a roof, a dining hall, a library, a village, a city upon this truth over the ages. It’s not perfect, but it is shelter and community, and we can take refuge and comfort and strength in it as we delight in the wondrous truth of the gospel. It helps to keep us from having our faith, our grasp of the gospel, from being blown about by the sophistries of the age, whether naive or malicious.

But suppose we want to shed church history, church traditions, the patristic writers, and maybe even the Old Testament while we’re at it, and we just want Jesus. “Don’t give me anything else, just give me Jesus.”

Well, Jesus fasted, Jesus suffered, Jesus respected his Jewish heritage (“go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” Luke 5:14). Yes, indeed, he fulfilled the law. He also gave instruction, established a church made of people, instituted sacraments, said “pick up your cross and follow me,” which certainly sounds sacrificial rather than triumphant.

Through Paul, he told us, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25) Traditions and traditional spiritual disciplines are nothing if not the result of obedience to “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Again, they are not perfect, but they are not to be easily or flippantly dismissed. We live in a country where no one is forced to observe the traditions of anyone else, so if you don’t care for Lent, if you find in your conscience that it somehow hinders instead of spiritually disciplining you, then fine. But please do not use the examples of a few facebook postings, or oddly, the fact that “everyone is doing it,” as grounds to scoff at a church tradition from within the church.

Lord’s Day Quote

The cure for a crushed and bitter spirit is to see Christ Jesus the Lord and then to rejoice in him. Lurking and nourished sins are always a sign that our vision of Jesus is dim and that our joy in him has evaporated with the morning dew. By contrast, the believer who practices rejoicing in the Lord will increasingly discover balm in the midst of heartache, rest in the midst of exhausting tension, love in the midst of loneliness, and the presence of God in control of excruciating circumstances. Such a believer never gives up the Christian walk. Resolve always to rejoice in the Lord.

– D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians

May you see the glory of Jesus.

Midweek (Holy Week) Song

This is a song we sing at our church. I thought I would share it with the readers for Holy Week.

Death In His Grave—John Mark McMillan

Death In His Grave

Though the Earth cried out for blood
Satisfied her hunger was
Her billows calmed on raging seas
for the souls on men she craved

Sun and moon from balcony
Turned their head in disbelief
Their precious Love would taste the sting
disfigured and disdained

On Friday a thief
On Sunday a King
Laid down in grief
But awoke with keys
Of Hell on that day
The first born of the slain
The Man Jesus Christ
Laid death in his grave

So three days in darkness slept
The Morning Sun of righteousness
But rose to shame the throes of death
And over turn his rule

Now daughters and the sons of men
Would pay not their dues again
The debt of blood they owed was rent
When the day rolled a new

On Friday a thief
On Sunday a King
Laid down in grief
But awoke holding keys
To Hell on that day
The first born of the slain
The Man Jesus Christ
Laid death in his grave

On Friday a thief
On Sunday a King
Laid down in grief
But awoke with keys
Of Hell on that day
The first born of the slain
The Man Jesus Christ
Laid death in his grave

He has cheated
Hell and seated
Us above the fall
In desperate places
He paid our wages
One time once and for all

How Waking Up To The Gospel Changes Your Thinking

This is a note on my post below about human trafficking. It was so important, however, that I wanted to give it its own space.

Several years ago one of my best friends and her husband brought up the issue of human trafficking to inform our congregation. Our friends also told us about the missionary work of one of their family members in South East Asia. For a while our church was involved in a ministry dealing with girls coming out of sex slavery in our city. I heard these things but they did not penetrate my heart.

Fast forward to this past year, here and there I would read articles on the websites I mentioned below and little by little my heart was moved for these girls. That’s why I used the words “woken up to this issue.” It wasn’t that I didn’t have the information before, and it wasn’t that there weren’t people around me who were trying to do something about it. The fact is that it was not until I came out of my gospel amnesia that these things started penetrating my heart. It was not until I came out of my gospel slumber that I could get my eyes off myself and look at the world that Jesus wants to flood with his gospel.

I thought it was important to say a little something about this distinction between hearing something and being exposed to an issue, versus being moved in your spirit with a desire to act on a piece of information because of the Holy Spirit using the gospel to change your heart.

The Comfort Of Psalm 40

Last night I listened to a sermon from Don Carson on Philippians 4:4-20, it’s one I know I’ll have to listen to again. In it he quotes from Psalm 40, which I have heard him preach on before. Psalm 40, for me, has always been comforting, not just because it speaks about the Lord listening to our cries. Psalm 40 is comforting because I see that the Lord is not a God who turns up his nose at “bipolar” praise, if you will: One minute David is sinking and overwhelmed and the next he is exalting God with strength and passion. I love that our God allows his people a wide and long spectrum of emotions. I think we were created with a lot more complexity and “color” in personality, than modern psychology would have us believe.

I decided to type out the entirety of Psalm 40 (NIV) here, in the hope that it will speak strength and comfort to someone:

Psalm 40

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the Lord.

Blessed is the man
who makes the Lord his trust,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, O Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us
no one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tell of them
they would be too many to declare.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come–
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

I proclaim righteousness in the great
I do not seal my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I do not hide your righteousness in my
I speak of your faithfulness and
I do not conceal your love and your truth
from the great assembly.

Do not withhold your mercy from me,
O Lord;
may your love and your truth always
protect me.
For troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I
cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me.

Be pleased, O Lord, to save me;
O Lord, come quickly to help me.
May all who seek to take my life
be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
be turned back in disgrace.
May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”
be appalled at their own shame.
But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation always
“The Lord be exalted!”

Yet I am poor and needy;
may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
O my God, do not delay.



Monday Of Holy Week

I had originally planned on posting a passion hymn for each day during holy week, to encourage us to prepare our hearts for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. However, I was very excited to read that Justin Taylor and Andreas Köstenberger are working on a book tentatively titled Jesus’s Final Week: What Really Happened. Justin Taylor is posting the events on his blog. You can go here and read about what Jesus did on Monday before his death and resurrection.

Palm Sunday Quote

“The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’ And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
‘Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s cold!’

–John 12:12-15