Repentance Songs and Easter

As many Christians in the world celebrated Easter this week, I think of the long, self-reflective days of Lent drawing to their exciting fulfillment. In my church, Lent is a period of intentional reflection and repentant prayer, hemmed together with the hope of forgiveness and deliverance from those things we find in ourselves that we wish weren’t there. Moving toward Easter in that mindset has helped me reflect on the nature of repentance.

Repentance begins in the true and beautiful, humble self-knowledge required of the Christian. This self-knowledge is not hateful, but compassionate; not despairing, but realistic; not lax, but dynamic; not aloof, but developmental. It is Dante’s Purgatory, where the creatures sing as they work on unlearning their sin, and know their sin without self-hatred, but hope.

They sing because opening the palm that clenched sin so long is a relief. They sing because finally (finally!) they get to be free of being what they were. They’re grateful for the momentous and intense gift of forgiveness, and also for the chance to learn how to be holy, to be what they always wished they were.

I can clench my fist tightly around my sin, bury it deep in my palm, and make it as invisible as possible. And I do that because I wish they weren’t there—I wish I wasn’t proud or vain or slothful or timid. Through repentance, God unclenches my fist, and there it is; sin, lying exposed and ugly in my sweaty, tired palm.

To the Christian, it’s clear that repentance is beneficial, but we still anticipate its unpleasantness, like swallowing medicine, getting the oil changed, doing taxes. Actions which must be done, which we choose, and which we drag our feet toward and get through as quickly as possible. But, the sustained effort of Lent occasions its own joy. That unattractive side of my soul that I lie to myself about can’t hide from the ongoing spotlight continual prayers of repentance and reflection cast.

Self-deception covered it, and kept me sick.

Self-knowledge—that revelation God gives me of my own weakness, that surgical blade’s kind and painful prodding—exposes everything I can stand to see.

Without Easter, that self-knowledge would have to melt into the shoulder-shrugging aloofness the world gives to sin, or else mount into hopeless self-loathing. But, Easter will not leave me at self-knowledge. Easter brings a new life. In Dante’s Purgatory, the would-be saints attend the school of repentance with their eyes on heaven: they accomplish their tasks, unlearn their vices, and teach their hands and bodies the habits of virtue. And, of course, they sing.

While he doesn’t get the afterlife correct, Dante understands the Christian life well, especially the fundamental principle that one of the worst punishments for sinning is having to be a sinner. The best thing about repentance and renewal in Christ is getting to be forgiven and holy. The repentant Christian knows the song Dante gives to the would-be saints of purgatory: it is the joyful, still song of thankful relief from burdens of being what we were never made to be.

He Is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

Jesus spent three days in the grave, and today He is risen.

He is risen indeed!

The resurrection gives us hope, even in light of death. Jesus died and rose again, and after we die we will rise again with him. This is a great hope for anyone who lives in the face of death, be that many years ago, four years ago, or even today. Some people die on Easter, but Christ raises those who accept his sacrifice and follow him.

Spend Easter reflecting especially on Christ’s resurrection, though this should be a daily thought. Spend time with people who Christ loved enough to die for. What better recommendation can someone request than that a perfect man was willing to die for them?

Christ Abide. He is risen!

Editor’s note: We’ll be taking Monday off. Come back on Tuesday.

A Brief Good Friday Reflection

Today there is proof that a thing that is Good need not always be Pleasant.

We do not celebrate so much as remember, as much as we commemorate. We sit in the shadow of the Cross, witnessing the last breaths of the man who claims to be our Savior. We eagerly await Easter, and are grateful we know it will come. It can be difficult to dismiss the resurrection of Easter in order to more fully see the suffering of Christ and the devastation of the apostles. We are fortunate to live after the fact; watching Jesus suffer not knowing the outcome would be nigh unbearable. The lashes, the pain, the agony, the torment, and finally, his death. We take this time to remember Christ’s sacrifice, even more explicitly than we do year-round.

To lose a friend or a family member is to experience what can only be described as hell-on-earth. To lose someone you believed to be the messiah, someone you were sure would save everyone? Hell is entirely descriptive, here. A weekend of hell, those apostles must have experienced. So take some time today and this weekend to remember that hindsight can be a blessing.

Remember the sacrifice of Jesus. Consider the lashes, the agony, and recall the suffering. Never lose sight of Easter, however. Our lives are situated in the Resurrection, not the Cross. We are asked to pick up our crosses, but we see the result, we see the end. We see the risen Savior, even as we bear the lashes he endured, though we only bear lesser torments.

May we live in light of Easter, even as we reflect on Good Friday.

How to Fail All your New Year’s Resolutions

There has been a lot of talk lately about how silly New Year’s Resolutions are. Facebook is full of satirical posts pointing out our past failures. Demotivational posters line the internet’s walls, reminding us that we – despite everything 2013 might mean – will continue to be the same as we were in 2012. These have some truth. But, the presence of failure is only half the story. Those who resolve to change will fail, multiple times, before succeeding.

So, in the interest of realistically tackling our New Year’s Resolutions, here is a guide to successful failure:

1. Make Goals for 2014

First, don’t make your expected result part of this year; make it for next year. In other words, don’t say, “I’m never going to bite my nails in 2013.” Say, instead, “I’m never going to bite my nails in 2014.” Spend 2013 becoming the person who will never bite her nails (or what have you) in 2014.

2. Your Brain on Autopilot

So, how do you become that 2014 person? Well, learn a little about how habit formation happens in the brain. There’s lots of interesting articles out there. The long and short of it is that your brain likes autopilot. A lot. It likes autopilot so much that when you try to act differently, it will fight like a cat in a bathtub.

3. Your Will Power gets Tired

Your will power fatigues as you make tough decisions. Choose broccoli over a cookie at lunch and find yourself allowing a heaping dessert at dinner. It’s tough on the brain to make good decisions, especially ones that run counter to previously made decisions. That means making good decisions on January 1, January 2, and January 3 wore out your will power enough that that entire box of Krispy Kremes you swallowed on January 4 kind of makes sense.

4. Let Failures Pass By

It takes 66 days of doing something to really make it a part of your autopilot; accept that the days leading up to those 66 straight days will include failures. That’s the only way to change. Celebrate how long you go between failures. Gradually, watch the failures grow further and further apart. The failures don’t own you.

5. Listen to Mr. Wright

In my favorite talk on iTunes U, N.T. Wright speaks dynamically on spiritual development, habit formation, virtue, and Christianity that folks seeking to improve in any area would benefit from listening to. Find it here under “An Evening with N.T. Wright: Learning the Language of Life.”

Go litter 2013 with the failures necessary to make 2014 a success.

Image via Flickr.

“Happy New Year,” and Empty Phrases

[Editor’s note: in choosing an image for this post, it seemed appropriate to select perhaps the simplest and least innovative picture I could find. This may be to the author’s frustration, but hopefully you, the reader, will find the humor in it. Bah humbug, and all that.]

As with any type of major event or holiday, the World Wide Web exploded this Christmas and New Years Eve. Tweets were tweeted, photos were posted, and Facebook statuses were updated at a furious pace. Now I don’t generally mind people updated their virtual worlds, in fact I think people should be intentional about keeping their digital representations of themselves up-to-date. Yet during these major events, I am deeply irked by most of what was posted because, well, frankly, it’s garbage. It’s as if, with the holidays around and then a new year approaching, people threw out their thoughtfulness and sensibility, and replaced it with cliches and platitudes.

Let me first note that I understand the role of tradition, and I’m in no way saying one should not repeat the traditional “Happy New Year” or “Merry Christmas” year after year. Repeating traditional greetings is a fine thing to do and there are many traditions people should actively participate in. What I am saying is that we need to stop being so banal.

Seth Godin wrote a blog noting that in order to be a successful blogger one needs to post constantly, push through the doldrums of un-inspiration and just post. I agree with Seth mostly, but I would add this caveat: one should post with the intention of contributing something new, original, unique, etc. to the arena in which they are contributing. In the event that one cannot contribute something new, profitable, unique, etc. one has two options: either

a) Post merely the traditional greeting (i.e. “Happy New Year everyone”).

or

b) Remain silent.

Better to be thought a fool (or in this case a humbug) than to open your [digital] mouth and remove all doubt.

New Years Day I sat gathered around a large dining room table filled with my immediate and extended family. Given that I’m the wordy one of the family, one of my relatives looked at me before we began feasting on homemade things and, raising her Cadillac margarita-filled glass said “Andrew, would you give us a cheer for the New Year?” I screwed up my face in contemplation and said, “You know I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, how to give a New Year cheer without being cliche and–” I was immediately cut off by my jokester cousin who said “Aww to heck with it, Happy New Year everybody!” and with a resounding laugh, my family toasted to the New Year. Spontaneous simplicity infused itself into our conversation and we avoided sounding cliche. Unlike a conversation, a Facebook status or a Twitter post is a premeditated piece of writing and as such it reflects upon us in a very different way than a passing comment or remark. Be cognizant of what you are posting, to whom you are posting, and how what you post reflects upon your image.

People are constantly making resolutions for the New Year so add this one to the top of your list: don’t be cliche. Avoid cliches at all cost, even if it means saying nothing. Now go back and purge your Facebook of its yawn-inducing bromides, clear your Twitter feed of its platitudes and go post some authentic, original, unique content.

Wish List

Plunged through the Great Smokey Mountains and bursting into the winter of North Carolina, the windshield of my dear, scuffed Mitsubishi suddenly framed the gleam of a shooting star. Slow and white, it highlighted the sky. I, a city girl unused to seeing stars of any sort, scrambled for a wish to lob into the air. My mind groped around dusty compartments where it had stored old hopes. Deep in one corner was a wadded up wish for romance; in another I’d stowed a long-discarded dream of a doctorate.

Filtering through everything in that moment while the particle of the heavens sliced apart the darkness around earth, I figured out that the old hopes no longer fit who I am. Like with high school clothes in my parent’s garage, I outgrew the old wishes I’d tucked away.

I’ve taken two steps. With one foot, I’ve stepped from one circle of wishers to another. Next time I see a shooting star, I’ll wish for some standard things, like an understanding of what God wants me to do with my life and an end to violence and atrocities in the world. With the other foot, I’ve stepped out into the new terrain of individual, unpredictable wishes. No one else has this wish list.

Next time I see a shooting star, I’ll wish I knew enough about cars to tell if the mechanic is trying to cheat me. Or I’ll wish my dishes washed themselves. Or that allergies were as easy to treat in reality as they are on TV. Or I’ll wish grammar wasn’t used as a weapon to make people feel bad about themselves. Or, I may wish long-whiskered kittens never became stand-offish cats.

I’m not superstitious. The shooting star doesn’t grant me any wishes, I know; it’s a gem of matter gloriously and beautifully igniting in Earth’s atmosphere, but it isn’t magic. Still, it did give me a moment of pause, a sudden re-evaluation of my desires. Far more than talking to burning space chunks, prayer probably ought to create that space for self-knowledge, an arena in which your desires can become clear and apparent. I guess I’m hesitant about telling God the random hopes that grow in quirks from my personality, since He has the capacity to make them real. Telling the stars that I wish kittens stayed kittens seems less presumptuous than telling God. But, I wonder what re-evaluation I’d foster by striking up such a conversation in prayer. I guess I’ll find out.

Merry Christmas

We here at Evangelical Outpost are going to take a bit of a Christmas break. We’ve spent some time this week looking at the Incarnation, as well as reviewing the Hobbit, so check those out if you missed them.

In the mean time, we’re going to rest, spend time with our families, and celebrate the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Provided, of course, that the world doesn’t end today.

Merry Christmas!

An Incarnation Poem

I wrote yesterday about the doctrine of the Incarnation, so don’t miss that. A few weeks ago, Mackenzie also wrote about the Incarnation, taking his cues St. Cyril of Alexandria. Today, I point you to a poem written by one of my favorite hip-hop artists, Odd Thomas.

Take a listen:

You can find more from Odd Thomas, and the rest of the Humble Beast Crew, at their website. All of their music is free, so be sure to check it out.

Here are the words for the poem above:

What good is the Christmas story if its void of God and and His glory,
Whats the worth of the words “peace on earth” if its not rooted in the complete truth of Christ’s birth.

For what benefit is it for us to discuss the joy of the season unless,
We fix our hearts and minds on the principle reason that Christ has atoned for us.

Christmas is more than just a story of a baby born in a manger,
More than a poor fiancé engaged to a humble virgin teenager.

More than the magi more than gold, frankincense and myrrh,
More than a narrative of the nativity scene there was so much more that occurred.

It’s the coming of Messiah, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises.
The prophecy of the suffering servant and all of His accomplishments.

The second person of the Trinity commissioned to abandon his position,
And literally set aside the independent exercise of his attributes in full submission.

The word manifested in the flesh, the the fullness of God expressed,
The self-emptying Jesus poured out at the fathers request.

The condescending of a Holy God made in the likeness of men,
A child born to be the savior that would save the world from their sins.

The offspring of the virgins womb, The Christ, Gods own Son,
Fully God yet fully man the only theanthropic one.

The image of the invisible God, the radiance of the father’s fame,
Holy but retain his humanness to empathize with our pain.

Fulfillment of Father’s will to come into the world and die in place of sinful men,
And received the full fury of the judgment of God upon Himself instead.

He was unjustly crushed chastised cursed and shamed,
Mocked and adorned with a crown of thorns disgraced but still faced the grave.

Pierced Feet, Pierced hands, blood stain Son of Man,
Resurrected to bring forgiveness and free passage into the promise land.

This is what we celebrate “Christ the new born King!”,
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail incarnate Deity.

The End of the Great Depression

“What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? It was already done long ago, before our time… I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile—like chasing the wind! What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, 12-15

The world of Ecclesiastes is old, stale, and hopeless. Solomon, husband of many wives, victor of many battles, possessor of great wealth, wonders if any of it is worth it. If the wise die in the same way as the foolish, if the rich suffer the same fate as the poor, if the good man fares the same as the evil man, why even make an effort? Even his last words carry the same sense of melancholy and hopelessness. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Fear God and obey him, because it is your duty: it will not help you in life, it may not help you in death, you will still die the same as an evil man… but it is your duty nonetheless.

And that was the end of the matter. There was nothing more to said, nothing more to be heard, because even the words of the wise were vain and meaningless.

And then something happened that had never happened before. A new star appeared in the heavens and a company of angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem, because God had been wrapped in swaddling clothes and was lying in a manger. A living child had been born into a world of skeletons. Here, finally, was something new, something that that was not vanity and a chasing after the wind.

God was a child. He had friends, he played games with them, he skinned his knees, he was hungry and thirsty and tired. And then God grew up and was a man. He was sarcastic and biting towards some people and utterly kind and gentle towards others. He was enraged at the misuse of the temple and driven to tears by the death of a friend. He had friends and ate and drank and slept under the stars when he could have had an angelic canopy.

And as we think about these things we must remember one simple truth: God does not do meaningless things.

And this does not just apply to his “kingdom work.” The ultimate proof of this is his very first miracle in John 2, unplanned and spontaneous. This is evident from his response to Mary: “What does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Such a response indicates that the forthcoming miracle has nothing to do with “his hour,” his primary purpose. But he does it anyway. He has the jars filled with water and by the time the first cup reached the master of the feast, it is no longer water but the finest wine that had yet been served.

God does not do meaningless things. There were any number of ways to make his disciples believe in him, if that was his only goal. There were many ways to demonstrate his power, his authority, his deity. He could have made the water disappear: he could have turned it into grape juice (as some Christians fervently wish he had). But instead he chose to turn it into wine, and not  just any wine; he turned it into the finest wine of the feast, wine so good that it made all the other wine pale in comparison. We must acknowledge this amazing truth: that God did something not just to further his mission, not just to make his disciples believe in him, but to help people celebrate a wedding with the best wine of the feast, the ultimate example of extravagance.

God does not do meaningless things. And that means that the world of Ecclesiastes is gone forever.

Because of Christmas, everything is no longer vanity and meaningless: instead, everything assumes a colossal importance. Even “neutral” things like eating or sleeping become full of meaning when we consider that God himself has done these things as well. When we eat, even a snack, we are reminded that God has done the same. When we sleep, we are reminded that God did too. When we attend a wedding, we remember that in doing so we walk in the footsteps of Christ.

Life is full of meaning: I might even say full to bursting. Serving God is no longer a mere duty; it is instead a privilege, an honor, a gift, as we walk this new world and think of Christ taking his first steps in Bethlehem.

The Thrill Of Hope

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The people of Rohan are trapped.  Surrounded by impenetrable rock on all sides save one, their only path of escape blocked by a blood-thirsty hoard of orcs.  The women and children in vain flee deeper into the mountain, gaining but a short reprieve from their inevitable doom.  The fighting men have twice retreated already, and now they have no choice but to make one final stand, to face the terror at the door with what courage they have left.  There is no hope of victory, no hope of living to see another sunset.  There is only the meager comfort of dying a hero and dispatching as many infernal beasts as possible before the end.  But even this comfort, such as it is, is robbed by the knowledge that no matter how valiant the fight or how many monsters are slain, thousands more will yet pour into the caverns at their backs when they lie dead, there to murder the innocent loved ones they will have failed to defend.

A single beam of dawn breaks over the stone window to the east.  Aragorn, in sudden remembrance of a dim promise, turns to the king and says, “Ride out with me.”

This scene, or something very much like it, is what I think of when I hear the words “A thrill of hope.”  Just at the moment when things seem the most hopeless, and then hope comes unexpected, the sudden rush of adrenaline and wonderment (an interesting mixture of the physiological and the mental) is aptly described as a thrill.  A thrill that brings you to tears.

One fascinating layer of the Christmas story is that this thrill is almost entirely retrospective.  We can only guess at what the Shepherds, Wise Men, Mary and Joseph knew or felt at the birth of Jesus, but we can safely assume that the World had no idea that the tide of history had turned that night in a tiny, dirty stable.  Rohan is saved, the enemy is defeated.  Now we need to go tell everybody.

In this respect, the great commission is a mandate to bring this thrill of hope to all the nations.  Not that the gospel is all about getting a chill up your spine.  The birth of the Son of God is an objective reality that accomplishes something real in a world that is really mired in sin and error and pining after fellowship with a Creator it has rejected.  If Gandalf’s promised return is nothing more than a comforting narrative Aragorn tells himself to give meaning to his suffering, then his thrill of hope will be decidedly short-lived (and so, incidentally, will he).  But his hope, rooted in faith, is in something objective.  Gandalf’s staff and the spears of the Rohirrim are very real, as the orcs are soon to discover.

At the same time, objective realities ought to affect us.  If Aragorn doesn’t have any particularly strong feelings about the hope of immanent salvation, but stoically suggests that it might be preferable to live than not, we would suspect that he either does not grasp the true nature of his peril or else he does not truly believe that salvation is coming.  And of course we are prone to both errors.  It is no accident that Paul’s magnificent presentation of the gospel in Romans begins with the wrath of God revealed against all unrighteousness.  Unless we know deeply our wretched state, we cannot feel the great thrill of our hope.  The people of Rohan had no idea that their very existence as a people was being threatened, after all, until a herald came to shake them out of their ignorance and complacency, and to point to the hidden rot within their own kingdom (and subsequently, to cast that rot out and make the heart of their kingdom, its king, new again).

Yesterday, December 2nd, was the beginning of Advent.  This is not the season when Christians dutifully meditate upon the many 50%-Off blowouts at Sears and Amazon, faithfully trusting in God to lead them to make just the right purchases to please their family around the tree.  Nor is it (I only grudgingly admit) the season when we finally get to listen to Christmas music every day without getting strange looks from the fellow in the car next to you (though it is that).  This is the season when Christians get to run around excitedly asking everyone they meet, “Have you heard?  He’s come at last!  He’s come to make all things new!  The tide has turned!”

Evangelism tends to focus on Easter, and even more on Good Friday.  “You’re a sinner, right?  Well Jesus took care of that, and here’s how.”  But Christmas, it seems to me, is an equally evangelistic celebration.  Jesus is the reason for the season, but what is the reason for Jesus?  The reason is that for a very, very long time the world lay pining in sin and error, darkness and despair.  And just then, a beam of dawn breaks.  A light unexpected.  God eternal comes, a helpless babe.

To know this and understand it is to feel the thrill of hope.  And if you truly feel that thrill, if you know the hope that brings you to tears of unbearable joy, how can you not share it with those who still wallow in hopelessness?  How can you not to turn to everyone you meet and plead, “Ride out with me”?