V is for Vulnerability (an alphabet for penitents)

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. -Matthew 26:55

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. -2 Cor 4:7

Very few things are as important to the spiritual life as vulnerability. The vulnerable are those capable of being wounded and are open to attack. As in other aspects of the spiritual journey, Jesus is our chief exemplar and enabler. When he rode into Jerusalem, Jesus, the True Human, was vulnerable to the Roman authorities and the religious establishment. He also revealed his heart.

Jesus came to town teary-eyed (see Luke 19:40-44). Then he flew off the handle at the exploitation of the poor in the temple court.  We already knew Jesus to be a man of sorrows equated with grief (Isaiah 53:3) but in the same week, he would brave rejection and hatred, knowing that the crowds’ welcome cries would turn to calls for his crucifixion. The scribes and religious leaders tried to trip him up in his words when they saw him in the temple courts. When they finally arrested him it was in a night garden, through the betrayal of his disciple and friend—someone he shared his life and heart with. Jesus was vulnerable because of the risks he took in coming to Jerusalem and he was emotionally honest.  Had he opted for self-protection and self-preservation instead, we wouldn’t have a savior and wouldn’t know what it means to be truly human.

Personally, I find vulnerability one of the most difficult aspects of the spiritual life. I tend to keep my emotions close to my chest (though I’m quick with a joke). I like security as much as the next guy and want to leave myself open to attack. I can recall moments where my vulnerability was trampled on. But I have learned the hard way that it through the cracks in my clay-jar life that the light of Christ shines in me. I’ve learned that hidden wounds fester and get infected, but opening up, though risky, allows for healing and deeper relationships with others.

We cannot expect to be transformed, renewed, resurrected unless our true self shows up; we have no depth in our relationships (and the with-God life is a relationship) unless we learn to share who we really are. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” Christ is the head of the new humanity. He shows us a new way to be human and enables us to be our vulnerable,  true-selves without shame.

R is for Righteousness (an alphabet for penitents)

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:20

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” -Romans 1:17

Righteousness has fallen on hard times. We live in an anything-goes-culture, more Kardashian than Christlike. We buy what we want to buy, we cut corners where we can, we sleep with whoever we want to. The “just say no” slogan of previous decades has given way to moral permissiveness. Conservative Christians who used to call themselves the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, are among the most vocal and committed supporters of Donald Trump, a serial adulterer who’s boasts about sexual assault and harassment are well known (along with other moral quagmires and questionable things).
Continue reading R is for Righteousness (an alphabet for penitents)

Q is for Questioning (an alphabet for penitents)

Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. -1 Cor. 8:2

“What is truth?” -John 18:38

Questions are the prerequisite to the spiritual life. If you want to grow in your understanding of God (or really anything), learn to ask good questions.

Small groups often pose questions to get people to begin to share their perspective and life together.  Good mentors learn to ask questions which help us clarify our vision of the world. Throughout the Bible, God even asks questions which invite self-reflection about where we are and how we got there (see, for example, Genesis 3:8 and God’s question, “Where are you?”). My scriptural study is most fruitful when I ask probing questioning of the text and try to chase down the answers.

We know the value of good questions, but we often view questioning with suspicion. Ask questions but don’t question the leadership. Ask questions but don’t question the central doctrines of the Christian faith. Ask questions but not too much, and some of your questions are off limits. In the Christian tribe I grew up with, I was taught to hold tenaciously to certain beliefs, and to not be so open-minded that my brains fall out. We formed our questions rhetorically in order to show that Jesus was the answer to what ailed us.  We were taught to regard scientific and skeptical questions as an attack on the Bible and the Christian worldview.  When people’s questions made us feel uncomfortable, we prayed that God would reveal to them the truth.

People avoid questions for two reasons. Either they feel assured in their knowledge of something or they are afraid of the answers. Those who are self-assured have stopped growing in either their field or faith: those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought. Those who are afraid of the questions don’t move past a surface and superficial understanding of the matter. What if asking a question is like pulling a string on your favorite sweater? If you follow where your question leads, will the whole garment unravel, leaving you tangled in doubts?  Is there a risk? Yes, an answer unearthed to a serious question may change everything.

I have not asked questions for both of these reasons. I can remember telling a Sunday  School teacher when I was twelve (the age Jesus was when his parents found him in the temple court asking questions), “Tell me what you were going to teach on today, and I will tell you all about it.”  An arrogant retort, but I didn’t leave such self-assured arrogance in adolescence. As an adult, and occasionally still, I offer up pat answers to tough questions, believing I know all there is to know about that (whatever ‘that’ is).

At other stages of my spiritual journey, I thought entertaining certain questions would shake the foundations of my faith. What is the relationship between science and faith? What if evolution is true? What insights can we gain from philosophy? From other faiths? Did Jesus really do that? Who did Jesus save us from? In what way does the cross effect our salvation? Dangerous questions,  but I learned to ask them. My faith did not implode, though it certainly changed. I am more confident today that Jesus is the answer to what ails the world. My faith grew through questioning, not avoiding the question.

Not every question deserves an answer. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” has merit, but he didn’t ask it honestly. It was a cynical retort he asked before leaving the room to see who he could pawn Jesus off on. On the other hand, Jesus never turned aside the honest questioner. It is in asking of good questions that we find ourselves on holy ground.


P is for Purgation (an alphabet for penitents)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

-Ephesians 4:22-24

Purgation is never far from Lenten spirituality. The discipline of fasting, and of chastened habits helps us to cast aside the things that hinder us and attend to the stuff that matters. The purgative way is integral to true spirituality. We will not grasp for God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The Christian Mystical tradition places purgation as an early stage of the spiritual life. The mystics name these stages: Purgation, Illumination, Union. There is a purgative stage of stripping off the old self—patterns of behavior, false beliefs, self-centeredness and petty idolatries. Then the ground is paved for deeper spiritual insight and experience (illumination). The illuminative stage likewise involves a letting go of self, but the primary energy is directed at training one’s attention on God. In the final stage, the soul is stripped of self and united with the Divine (union).

These stages roughly describe the shape of spiritual maturity. Purgation is for beginners, Illumination is the promise of those on the way, Union is our telos. However, the spiritual life, like other aspects of life does not always follow a straight ascent. Purgation-Illumination-Union is the cycle of Christian Spirituality: we let go, we attend, we commune.

If that is a little abstract, don’t worry about it. The point is that spiritual progress involves a purge of our old life as we make room for something new. The Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “put off their old self, which was corrupted by its deceitful desires.” For converts in the Ancient world, this meant letting go of religious ideas and the ubiquitous pagan idolatry and learning to locate their lives within YHWH’s story and the redemption Christ brings. It also meant for them, as for us, disciplining passions and desires—the drive for success, greed, covetousness, lust, pride—and seek to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

The mystics are right that purgation is felt most acutely by those who are beginners in the spiritual journey. It involves a radical reorienting of our thoughts, hopes, and actions. This is conversion. But the purgative way isn’t just the purview of beginners. Wherever you are in your spiritual life, there are things you need to purge: attachments to people, faulty understanding, false beliefs about yourself, harmful habits, past hurts, unforgiveness and bitterness, shame. We will not grasp God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

O is for Obedience (an alphabet for penitents)

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

-Matthew 7:13-14.

“To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

-1 Samuel 15:22

One of my favorite movies, The Joyluck Club has a scene where the little girl version of June (the main protagonist) refuses to keep up her piano lessons.  Her mother is livid and shouts, “There are only two kinds of daughters. Obedient and those who follow own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient kind!”[This quote is from memory and may not be exact.] As a father, I have quoted that line to my own daughters (to their general consternation and confusion and my amusement), but whatever we think of June’s mother and her parenting, she does note something profoundly true. There are two kinds of [people].

In the spiritual life, there are those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Jesus contrasted the wide way that leads to destruction and the narrow road that leads to life. In the Old Testament, the prophets warned that “to obey was better than sacrifice.” Many children of Israel (and Saul in 1 Samuel 15) thought that religion was a tool to garner personal prosperity (pray the right way, perform the right ritual and God would bless the land, the crops, and bring peace). This didn’t transform their lifestyles. They did what they wanted but expected blood on the altar would absolve them and bring blessing into their lives.

What kind of people are we? Obedient or those who follows our own minds? The question becomes poignant in Lent. This is after all the season of self-sacrifice. We keep our little fast and observe our little rule and expect that God will bless us. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” What good is our little rule if we aren’t being transformed into the image of Christ?

I have kept vegan during Lent and used the time to reflect on injustice in our food system and my own eating habits. I was asked recently about my reflections on this, but I don’t really have any. I know the first couple weeks were difficult and it got easier as Lent progressed. Now in the home stretch, I feel like it has been really good for me. I lost a bunch of weight and I feel good. It has its challenges and I will feast on Easter. I know that is possible that I can make this kind of liminal commitment with no lasting change in my life.

But if Lent is about more than our little sacrifices but learning to walk in obedience to Jesus, there is lasting fruit. I have tried to make space for prayer and Bible reading, to walk humbly with God and act where he tells me. I have tried to learn graciousness and act kindly. Jesus modeled obedience for us, in life and in death. The call on his life is the call to us as well.

How about you? How are you learning obedience in this season? What are the things God is calling you to do?

J is for Journey (an alphabet for penitents)

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. –Phillipians 3:12

Journey is seen, in Scripture, most poignantly in the Exodus, but it comes to describe the very nature of the spiritual life. In Lent, we describe our ‘lenten journey’ and trace Jesus’ circuitous and difficult road to Calvary. Early Christians were called ‘followers of the Way,'(cf. Acts 22:4) indicating that we are a people on the move. We are pilgrims on a journey; we are brothers on the road. We are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.

Israel left Egpyt bound for the Promised Land. The end of their wilderness wanderings took them to Canaan. Israel crossed over the Jordon River and entered the land. African American spirituals pick up on this Exodus/journey motif (historically speaking the coded language of abolition):

Come and go to that land
Come and go to that land
Come and go to that land

Where I’m bound
Where I’m bound

There are two aspects of journey which I think are instructive for us. First, our current actions—the things we do and the steps we take—are determined by our destination. We do what we do because we are going where we are going. Even in the relative ease of modern air travel, we begin our journey by resetting our watches to the time zone we are heading toward. We look out the window and watch the landscape change beneath us. We count down the hours and watch the airplane’s journey on the little screen on the seat in front of us. In the same way, followers of the Way are always looking for signs of God’s inbreaking Kingdom. Are we there yet? We press on, eager to hold of that for which Christ took hold of us. Second, we also know we have not yet arrived. Are we there yet? Nope. Things aren’t as they should be. We aren’t where we want to be. We aren’t in the land of Promise yet. We haven’t arrived at our goal. 

These two aspects of our journey are in tension. Our destination determines our current action, but we haven’t arrived. This is the already/not yet tension of God’s Kingdom. We acknowledge that both the things out there and our own interior life are not where they need to be. But we don’t settle for where we are either. We haven’t arrived but we are on the move. Holding these two aspects in tension helps us to hold on to our idealism and be gracious with ourselves (and others) for not being there yet.

image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saar_Pass_Malana_Kullu_Himachal_Pradesh_-3.jpg

The Wright Way for Spiritual Fruit: a book review

Chris Wright is one of my favorite authors. He is a missiologist, biblical ethicist, international ministries director for Langham Partnership, co-worker and friend to the late John Stott, and an Old Testament scholar (I sometimes refer to him as O.T. Wright). In Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Wright examines each of the nine fruits of the Spirit referenced by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 and encourages us to pursue the Spirit’s transformation in each of these areas.

4498This book began as a nine day Bible study series, and companion series of videos produced for Langham Partnership for Lent, 2013: 9-A-Day: Becoming Like Jesus. Wright, along with Jonathan Lamb and Langham leadership, was inspired to create this series from John Stott’s example. Every morning Stott prayed this prayer:

Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may  live in your presence and please you more and more

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (quoted in Wright’s introduction, 13).

The chapters of this book examine each of the nine fruits, in turn. Wright explores each theme of each fruit is (1) evidence of God’s character, (2) exemplified in Christ, and (3) and how the presence of each demonstrates the work of the Spirit in our lives. The chapters end with questions for reflection or discussion. There is also a web link to Wright’s talk on the fruit. [ The link provided at the end of the chapter was broken but the original videos that inspired this book can be found at http://9aday.org.uk/the-9-fruits (referenced in the book’s preface) or linked from the book page on the publisher website]. Wright’s introduction and conclusion place the fruit within the frame of Paul’s message to Galatia.

The fruit of the Spirit ought to characterize the lives of followers of Jesus. Reading through this study in Lent, if you pardon the pun, has been fruitful for me. There isn’t always actionable applications in the text, but Wright encourages us to look at the example of Jesus and to pay attention to where we have seen these fruit in the lives of others.  Wright spends most of each chapters describing what each of these fruit/virtues is. The assumption is that while there are things we ought to do, ultimately the growth of the fruit is the Spirit’s work.

This can be read individually or as a group. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.