L is for Litany (an alphabet for penitents)

lit·a·ny [ˈlitnē]

NOUN
    1. a series of petitions for use in church services or processions, usually recited by the clergy and responded to in a recurring formula by the people.

    2. a tedious recital or repetitive series: “a litany of complaints” (Source- Oxford Living Dictionaries via Bing)

 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)

‘Tis the season for a tedious recital of complaints. Like Advent, the season before Christmas, Lent is a preparatory season—a season of waiting. We are nearing the midpoint and dreaming of the comforts we cast aside for our lenten journies. We want chocolate, we want sweets, we need coffee and a nice cut of meat. We want to binge watch Netflix and drink red wine and post cat memes on our friend’s timelines. We complain, “How long O Lord?” as we look forward to Resurrection (or just a return to normal life).

But we don’t just complain about our own discomfort. As we have used this Lenten season to shake our souls out of complacency  and followed Jesus on the way of the cross, we are becoming sensitized to the suffering of the world: children with absent fathers, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, a global church being martyred for their belief, people of color enduring violence, discrimination and incarceration from unjust systems, the elderly neighbor living alone, our friends gripped by grief, those suffering pain of chronic illness, the anxious and depressed, and the hurting and the dying. We should have compassion at all times, but our Lenten practice allows us to stretch our empathy and see the world beyond the comforts we use to distract our souls.

Christian worship often includes litanies. Liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or the Orthodoxy) incorporate itemized prayer lists into their Sunday liturgies, often with congregational responses: Lord have mercy. Have mercy on us. Spare us, Good Lord. O Lord, deliver us. We beseech you O Lord.  Less “high church” churches, still have a place for a pastoral prayer, or ‘prayers of the people,’ which do in essence what these formal litanies do.

The line items of a litany get us to pray specifically about the needs around us in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We pray for deliverance from personal sin and systemic evil. We pray for the poor, oppressed and marginalized, and for the success and wisdom of national leaders, we pray for the healing for the infirmed and the global church. We pray those who are serving Christ and that the world would long to know Him. We name every area of contemporary life in hopes of seeing God’s Kingdom break more fully into this present age.

I thought of posting a litany here, but there are tons of Lenten litanies online. For example, check out Christine Sine’s Morning Litany for Lent.  I will close this post by just saying don’t waste your seasonal discomfort and newfound empathy on personal complaints. Find some way to systematically pray for the needs of the world, preferably with a worshipping community. Keep on praying in the Spirit at all times with all kinds of prayers and requests. Certainly litanies can become dead rote, but with our hearts sensitized to the suffering of the world, it is a way to share both in the pain of others and in the Spirit’s life. Communal intercession reminds us that the Spiritual journey is not just a private affair. Always keep praying for all the Lord’s people. 

 

The Sour-Faced Evangelists of Lent?

It is Ash Wednesday. Today many us will attend a service to receive the imposition of ashes–a dark smudge across our foreheads. This is just the first thing imposed on us in Lent, a season of self-imposed discipline. We give up chocolate, meat, coffee, alcohol, smoking–or anything that makes us happy.  Jesus suffered in the wilderness and on his long, winding road to Calvary. The Church has deemed that appropriately, we should suffer too. We wander through today our faces marked with soot and scowls. Fasting makes us hangry. Our head throbs from caffeine withdrawal. We snap at others because all our go-to-coping mechanisms are declared off limits.

Is this what Lent is about? Here are excerpts for the top three Google hits answering the question, “What is Lent?”:

What is Lent? Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. (from UpperRoom.org -Lent 101)

Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. (from umc.org- “What is Lent and Why does it Last Forty Days?”)

Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline. ( from gotquestions.org – “What is the meaning of Lent?)

These definitions augment one another. Lent is a season of self-denial leading up Easter for the purpose of our growing close to God.  Lent is one of the two great preparatory seasons of the church. But whereas Advent is full of announcement of the in-breaking of the Kingdom, Lent reminds us that on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem  suffering and death await.

I am guided by the conviction that Christianity is Good News.  Christians are God’s Good News People.  We believe that this good news culminates at Calvary where Jesus set us free from sin, death and spiritual oppression. This isn’t just a season of self-imposed suffering, self denial and sour-faces. Here we mark Christ’s confrontation and ultimate victory over the Powers.

So we can take up our cross and follow Jesus because this isn’t just a death march. Jesus wins and on his way to be crucified, he exposes the lies that propped up the political and religious hegemony of his day. Jesus died for us so that we would die to ourselves and rise again with our life in him.  We participate in Lent because we know despite the hard road Jesus walked, the brokenness and violence he suffered, he would bring wholeness and shalom to all who trust in him.

Give up coffee. Give up meat. Give up pleasure and lay aside vice. But don’t do it with a sour face. Don’t do it with the shallow hope of becoming a better you. Do so in the strong confidence that Jesus suffered every shame, every pain, every hurt at Calvary because he had something better for you–abundant life, peace with God, reconciliation and justice for all. Fasting is an appropriate response both to prepare and to mark the sacred moment of what Jesus may be doing in you. He didn’t avoid pain, we shouldn’t either. But in the midst of sorrow we have joy because our salvation awaits.

Jesus is on the road, his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. Whatever holds you in bondage Christ has come to set you free. This is good news.

a-23e

Blessings All Mine and Ten Thousand Beside: a book review

When American Christians start talking about ‘Blessing,’ I get nervous. It isn’t that I don’t believe in God’s blessings, but the contemporary chatter on blessing   amounts to little more than good advice about how to obtain the good life (defined along the lines of “American Dream”).  ‘Blessing’ means  for us, a good job, a good marriage and a meaningful life.  Among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, ‘blessing’ means that you ‘get your miracle’ or experience a manifestation of the Spirit’s presence (i.e. ecstatic utterance or holy laughter).   Certainly all of these could be God’s blessing, but us American Christians often end up speaking about God’s blessing in an entirely self-referential and self-centered way.

Thankfully Gerrit Dawson’s new book, The Blessing Life: A Journey into Unexpected Joyprovides a larger vision of what God’s blessing is. In three parts, he presents a pastoral and biblical theology of God’s blessing. Part one explores  God’s blessing for us, part two describes how we bless God and part three describes how we bless others by reflecting God’s blessing to us.

Dawson does not define God’s blessing as everything going well for us. God’s healing is certainly a blessing, but some people long for healing, pray fervently for it and die in pain. Some faithful Christians experience turmoil and tragedy, grief and loss. Dawson  says the essence of blessing is God himself ‘who came to us full of grace in Jesus Christ'(10).   The ‘blessing life’ is a life lived in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are blessed when we live aware of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Suffering can be a blessing in the life of a Christian because God is sovereign and uses the struggles we face to help us grow. Thus we can experience the blessing life even when our circumstances don’t feel much like a blessing.

The idea of  ‘blessing God’ is found in the Psalms (cf. Psalm 96, Psalm 103. It is exemplified in Mary’s Magnifcat. The idea of blessing God is found through out scripture. Throughout part two of the book, Dawson picks up on this language of ‘blessing God’ and gives a theological account of worship. Dawson exhorts us

say something, write something, play something, bang something, shout something, dance something, draw something, give something, add up something, design something–whatever you can do to give glory to the God of all, do it. Of all the creatures in the universe, you alone uniquely give this blessing to God. He waits and longs for your blessing. His throne is richer and more glorious because of our praise (79).

According to Dawson, blessing God can be as simple as recounting and giving thanks to God for the ways he has blessed you. It may mean creative service to God (as the above paragraph illustrates) or it may mean reflecting on the truths about God found in scripture or in a beloved hymn.

While the first two sections, describe the orientation of the Blessing life (receiving blessing from God and returning blessing to Him), the final section describes the activity of the blessing life. Those who have been blessed by God, live lives which overflow in blessing to others.  Like Abraham of old, we are blessed to be a blessing.  We bless others with our words and in our giving.  We bless others when we participate in his mission to welcome the Kingdom of God into our world. We do not just bless others to receive a reward from them (which would just be a utilitarian, self-serving version of blessing), but we bless others even when they curse us, hurt us, hate us and seek to destroy us.  This is the sort of blessing that reflects the blessing we received in Christ who gave his life for our salvation.

These are rich meditations on the Blessing life. I appreciated Dawson’s focus on Jesus as our blessing. This is fundamentally different from a focus on blessing which simply extols the benefits of the Christian life. Yes there are benefits: God provides, people get healed, miracles happen. But the heart of the Christian life, is a relationship with the Triune God through Jesus Christ. This is the real blessing of the Christian life! I also appreciated the sensitivity in which Dawson deals with difficulties. This book is chock-full of stories of God’s blessing, but he also recounts stories of difficult episodes and profound grief at the death of loved ones.  Dawson is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The community he serves lost everything in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Thus he is cognizant of life’s struggles and does not present a Pollyanna-ish version of the Blessed life. God’s blessing comes to us in the midst of a world scarred by human Sin. Dawson does a good job of naming the tension and presenting the biblical vision in a compelling manner.

I think this is one of the those books that would probably good for anyone to read.  The first part of the book is a re-presenting of the gospel–all that God in Christ has done on our behalf.  Interested non-Christians and Christians alike will benefit from Dawson’s account. The anecdotes and stories throughout the book make its message easy to grab on to, and Dawson gives a good deal of space to discussing relevant scriptures. There is a companion volume, A Guide to the Blessing Life, which has 40 days of scriptures and prayers to accompany your reading of this book (I have not read this). This means that it is possible to use this book in small groups or devotional use. I give the book five stars–★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Prayer for Week 3 of Lent

The Sun is shining and

Spring in infancy erupts everywhere.

The brown grass has turned green

and begun its seasonal sprawl

into my garden beds.

The  dry withered clump

of  chives

parts

as green fingers poke

through the earth.

But death hangs in the air

Frost will descend with

    the long shadow
      of night.

 

Some tender shoots will

shrivel and break

and we wait

for the life to come.

 

 

Jesus we celebrate your light

and see signs of new life in us.

Even as we remember your

face set like a flint towards

Jerusalem.

You were alive and Life itself

but you walked towards

arrest, mocking, beating and

death on a cross.

May the Lenten seeds

You have planted

grow Easter flowers.

May you guard the tender new life

you have given us.

And Lord give us strength

for the cold dark days ahead.

Well. . .You’re Gonna Suffer: a book review

It is true. Life doesn’t always go your way. Bad things happen. People lose their jobs, get sick, die. Christians who decide to live their life for God and follow His ways, sometimes find themselves at odds with the wider culture. In the West this might lead to some social ridicule. In the majority world, taking a stand for Christ means overt persecution.  And didn’t Jesus tell us it would be this way? “In this world you will have trouble . . .(John 16:33).”

Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond

In Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian SufferingPaul Grimmond does not propose a remedy to suffering. Instead he offers, more of an inoculation ‘to help us arm ourselves with the truth so that we’re equipped to suffer well when the time comes. (17)’ As a campus minister at the University of New South Wales (Sydney) he has walked alongside numerous students who have struggled physically, emotionally and spiritually for their declaration of faith. In this book, he offers a practical guide which  helps readers latch onto what the Bible says about suffering, instead of what our culture says.

What the Bible has to say on this topic is the major theme of this book. Early in this book (chapter 2), Grimmond rehearses the competing narratives of our age, and how they shape our understanding of suffering. When we look to what the Bible says about suffering, it presents a whole different set of assumptions and answers to questions that our culture is not even asking. Like Job’s encounter with God, we can’t expect to find out the ‘why’ behind our suffering; yet like him ‘our answer’ will come in the form of a fresh encounter with God.

Grimmond reviews a number of Biblical texts on suffering and what we can expect. He even exhorts us to suffer more for our faith than we are (most of our suffering comes from our fallenness and the brokenness of our world rather than our courageous faith).  Ultimately, he wants us to trust God through our suffering and to continue to serve and seek him as we suffer.

There is a lot of good stuff here and I think Grimmond makes some astute theological points in simple, accessible terms. Grimmond is a campus minister and I can see this sort of book used in that context, getting young adults to shore up their faith for life’s struggles. There is too much ‘easy faith’ peddled these days, and what Grimmond offers is different. On the other hand, what Grimmond addresses in this short book is the full catalogue of Christian suffering: disease, grief, sickness, death, chronic pain, natural disaster, persecution, etc.  This book offers a good general overview of suffering (or struggles, striving, etc.), but this may not be the resource I commend for Christians facing particular struggles. But as an examination of the broad theme, this book has good things to say.

I would recommend this for youth and young adult Christians who are learning to deal with the ‘real world.’ Older Christians may also benefit from this book and be reminded of particular Biblical themes which speak to their situation. I give this book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Matthias Media for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this honest review.

“Job” for the Jobless

Thank you to anyone who read the title of this post and clicked on the link because you thought it meant I found a job. No such luck for me, but I hope I’m doing more in this post than just making bad puns. I did not mean ‘a job’ in the sense of gainful employment, but Job (proper name) as in the Old Testament righteous dude that suffered lots and had lousy friends (no offense).

It might be presumptuous to compare my suffering to Job. I have food in my belly and roof over my head. I have had to defer student loans and haven’t been able to replace broken computers, ipods, or buy new clothes and copious amounts of books (never fear, I’ve got my hands on a few), but this sort of suffering amounts to ‘first world pains.’ What Job had to suffer was the loss of wealth, health, the death of family members, and festering sores. All in all, I think I’ve gotten the better deal.

But the comparison was given to me about a week ago when I attended my wife’s graduation from Regent College (the same seminary I graduated from). While there I saw many old friends happy to see me and eager to hear what I’m up to. Invariably I would flash them a sheepish grin and say, “Actually I’m still looking for work.” Which of course makes people feel bad so they’d tilt their head to the right and say “Don’t worry, I’m sure something will come up.” After a few moments I would saunter off to go and be awkward with someone else. It was really fun.

While at the graduation, my wife and I sought out one of our professors, Phil Long, for a photo and to express our appreciation for his teaching. Predictably, when he saw me, he asked what I was doing now. I tried to hide my shame when I said I was still looking for work. He gave me a thoughtful look, and said that he doesn’t know why some people he’s known have struggled to find work when there seems to be no reason for it and encouraged me to continue to trust God through this season.

I nodded my appreciation and confessed the ways I have failed to trust God, and rehearsed several flaws which I think have made me unemployable. Phil said these words to me, “I wouldn’t look for a reason in yourself. Take a page out of Job and trust that this too will reveal God’s glory.”

And so I have spent the past week thinking through and reading Job and trying to explore what wisdom and understanding he has to offer me. I have also delved into one of my favorite short commentaries, Gustavo Gutierrez’s On Job. Several little insights have revealed themselves to me and I’ve been chewing on them. In no particular order, here are some things I’m thinking about(this isn’t a formal study, just my little notes):

  • The Satan thinks that Job only serves God because of what God gives him; Job’s friends think God is punishing Job for something he did. They are both wrong.
  • When you go through hard times, you are tempted to either doubt God or doubt yourself (which is an indirect way of doubting God’s goodness/grace). Job is relentless in his trust of God and is never self defeatist. He feels abandoned and alone, and is miserably comforted but he still presses into God and longs to make his case to him.
  • God doesn’t answer any of Job’s questions but confounds Job with the big picture of who he is.
  • Job’s suffering increases his identification with the poor and he’s sees with greater clarity the ways that the wicked prosper and fail to ‘get what’s coming with him.’ Job was good and righteous from the beginning but his suffering also increased his capacity for compassion.
  • Job learns to trust God and his ways, though he cannot fathom him. His comfort comes not in restoration but in meeting God in the whirlwind.
  • Job got a whirlwind because he needed it! Elijah doesn’t meet God in the whirlwind but in quietness. I might not know how God will show up, but he knows the best way to make an impression.

So these are my random thoughts on Job. Admittedly even though the reason for Job’s suffering is never given (Satan’s wager is the occasion but doesn’t give the reason), I tend to read of Job’s righteousness and still think I suffer because I’m not that good. And I didn’t suffer as much as he did. Crazy self-defeatist attitude!

I speak without understanding
marvels that are beyond my grasp!

I once knew you by hearsay
now my eyes have seen you;
therefore I repudiate and repent
of dust and ashes.
[42:3,5-6]