Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Midweek Lenten Meditation on the "Dark Night" (not the Dark Kinght)

Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Job 1:9-11 

St. John of the Cross was one of the most stunning mystics of the Christian faith who wrote on the "dark night of the soul." He believed that this wasn’t due to unfortunate circumstances in life, but it was a state that mature Christians ought to seek. In that way, we learn to love God not because of what God gives us, but simply because of who God is

As he wrote,
The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.

In the end, the Christian life is not about “me, me, me.” It is about loving God. Through suffering (whether chosen or not), through pursuing the “dark night of the soul,” our love becomes purified.

The contemporary author, Philip Yancey, has written a similar reflection to St. John’s understanding of the dark night of the soul:
God wants us to choose to love him freely, even when that choice involves pain, because we are committed to him, not to our own good feelings and rewards. He wants us to cleave to him, as Job did, even when we have every reason to deny him hotly. That, I believe, is the central message of Job. Satan had taunted God with the accusation that humans are not truly free. Was Job being faithful simply because God had allowed him a prosperous life? Job's fiery trials proved the answer beyond doubt. Job clung to God's justice when he was the best example in history of God's apparent injustice. He did not seek the Giver because of his gifts; when all gifts were removed he still sought the Giver. 
 Are you in a dark night of the soul? Perhaps this is the the beginning of a prayer: "Gracious Lord, thank you for the ways you have used suffering in my life, always for the good."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reflection for First Sunday in Lent

Some of us suffering because we are burdened by past mistakes and we feel we can never do enough to satisfy God. We need to work harder and harder to make God love us. This striving causes innumerable hurts. But of course, that’s impossible because we will always fall short of our highest ideals. That’s where Paul’s words on faith and works gives us unmatched comfort.
21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Romans 3:21-30, italics mine.
 Father, prevent me from causing my own suffering by striving to make myself righteous in your eyes. You have already done that. Help me respond not with anxious striving, but gratitude.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Three Posts for Next Three Days of Lent

Thursday After Ash Wednesday

On the 40 days of Lent
So, why is Lent 40 days long when it takes place over 46 days?

The period of Lent is 40 days of fasting before the celebration of Easter. It mirrors the 40 days of Jesus in the wilderness before his ministry. According to Luke 4:1-11 (and you can read the parallel story in Matthew 4:1-11), Jesus went into the wilderness to prepare for his ministry in the world:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11 and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" 12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

Reflect on these three temptations that Jesus faced. What are struggling with? Lord, help us with the temptations we face.

Friday After Ash Wednesday
Psalm 51 (and other penitential psalms)
In the history of the Lent, the Christian community, or the Church, has read seven “penitential psalms.” (They are, by the way, Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.)

Read and pray these selected verses from Psalm 51 and see how these speak words from your heart:
1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.“10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
 Lord, hear our prayers of confession. Forgive, heal, and renew us.

Saturday After Ash Wednesday
Marjorie Thompson on the importance of God’s love and repentance
“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
 I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”
Jeremiah 31:3

As we continue in this journey or self-examination, I have found the insights of Marjorie Thompson invaluable. Her book, Soul Feast, in fact is a staple of our adult discipleship core curriculum. Here’s what she writes: “We need to know two basic truths if we wish to engage in self-examination as a healthy spiritual discipline.” What are these truths?
The first truth is the most basic affirmation of our faith: God loves us. This is not a general rule to which you, personally, may be an exception. It is not a conditional rule that applies only when you are good, pure, and lovable. God’s passionate and personal love for each and every human being expresses who God is. Unfailing love is the divine nature and the divine choice in relation to us. God loves us with an overwhelming love that none of our sins can erase.
            The second truth is our human weakness and brokenness in relation to God. We are creatures damaged by the disorientation of sin. Sin means being “off target,” like an arrow wrongly directed. Instead of being aimed toward God, we are aimed toward a distorted image of self. We are directed by self-centered desires, chained to unmet needs, compelled by illusions about who we are and what makes us acceptable or important.”            An important turning point in our spiritual life comes when we acknowledge both truths and admit that we can neither earn God’s love nor achieve our own security and perfection. We cannot ‘fix” ourselves or anyone else the way we want to. When we realize that grace lies at the center of lie, we start to see in a new way. Turning to face God instead of self is the beginning of the Good News, the beginning of personal and relational transformation. Scripture calls this turning “repentance.”
 It’s not worth going into these days of Lent without remembering these two truths.

God, thank you for loving us—now by your love draw us to a place of repentance and renewal.

On the “Ash” in Ash Wednesday

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Joel 2:12-13

Why is it called “Ash Wednesday”? And why is the beginning of Lent today, 46 days before Easter, when Lent is 40 days long? I’ll answer the first question today, the second tomorrow.

But even before that, let’s look at repentance and fasting.

When I looked back over my life as I was writing Say Yes to No, I realized that I couldn’t go forward simply by pressing on faster—instead I needed “to turn around” and slow down. To frame the book properly, I began with this insight from C. S. Lewis,
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
Progress is the result of “turning around” around fast, as long as we realize that “turning around” is the root meaning of repentance and that in Lent, we fast (give up certain pleasures or necessities like food or foods) in order to slow down and get on the right track. As a sign of repentance, the Bible speaks of using ashes. For example, in Matthew 11:20-21, Jesus calls two towns in Galilee to repent in sackcloth and ashes: 
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.  ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
So, Ash Wednesday—whether we literally use ashes or not—initiates a time of repenting of seeking to turn our life around in the places we are heading away from God so that we turn back to him.
Reflection: What might you need to repent from?

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Notes on an Upcoming Paper, "C. S. Lewis and Science"

At this weekend's Science and Religion Conference (February 3-4) at Bidwell Presbyterian Church, I'm presenting a paper on how C. S. Lewis interacted with science. Here are the notes toward that paper, and I'd love your feedback.

thesis: Clive Staples Lewis presented four arguments against scientism or “the Scientific Outlook” (his term), but he was not against “real science”:
  1. In the historical development of modern science, the scientist often became “the magician” who could bend reality to fit his will (his introduction to Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century).
  2. The myth of evolution, conflates evolution with  progress, by melding evolutionary theory with a preceding philosophy of progress. (“De Fulitate,” “Is Theology Poetry?”)
  3. Materialism is often combined with science as “scientific materialism,” but this is self-defeating because it obviates finding truth. (Miracles, chapter 3)
  4. Hemispheres by Sarah Sears, conference art work
  5. Christianity fits best with science rightly understood. (“Is Theology Poetry?”)
Assumption: I am taking C. S. Lewis as Christian intellectual and humanist scholar who attacked this form of putatively scientific philosophy as incompatible with reason and also with Christian belief. I seek to apply Lewis’s insights to the wider dialogue of science and theology.