Jack Levison on inspiration and life in the midst of despair and death

The poet and a pathetic Job know that inspiration survives among the cliffs of despair. It may be, in fact, that truth means the most in the heart of darkness rather than in spiritual spurts of mountaintop enthusiasm. It may be that praise means the most in the valley of the shadow of death, where grief stomps on our chest and makes it barely possible to breathe—and yet we breathe nonetheless.

Jack Levison, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life, 25.

wanting to hide (the Psalms)

I like the Psalms for a good number of reasons, one of the primary reasons being that they well express the gamut of human experience. And in the form of worship as well as sharing one’s heart before God. There are those times when I especially know I don’t have it all together. When I especially feel my brokenness and perhaps want to do little more than hide.

The Psalms teach us that we can and therefore should come to God with our brokenness, with all that we are. We express our true thoughts and feelings to God, not holding back, and in that context we become acclimated to a life lived in the context of both God’s presence and will as those who are his people.

Not everything in the Psalms is G-rated, in fact the Psalms as a whole definitely are not. Even PG, and I’ll add PG-13 is a stretch for some of it. One is allowed to express it all, as Eugene Peterson suggested with reference to his own rendering in the Message, with arms flailing, so to speak. That doesn’t mean that it’s all good. But it’s surely part of working through a process whether it’s of grieving and lamenting, to risk subjecting the Bible and our reading of it to modern categories. We do well to regularly read it, perhaps even to sing it, so that the rhythm and beauty, all of it somehow appropriately becomes more and more a part of who we are, at least in our expression to God. Of course the Psalms are considered the hymnbook of Israel and the church does well to add its “songs” to the other hymns and songs sung. Jesus knew the Psalms and surely regularly recited them. (An excellent book on the Psalms.)

A good example of what I’m trying to get at in this post is found in Psalm 55. I’ll quote a small part of it here, and I encourage you to read the rest. And to get into the habit of reading the Psalms, maybe daily, five a day so as to read through them each month.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
    and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
    far from the tempest and storm.”

From Psalm 55.

the wonderful carols of Christmas

What is more special about Christmas than the wonderful carols we sing? I don’t want to list them, which would be rather long. I wouldn’t want to leave any of them out. Of course what is most special about Christmas is its meaning: the celebration of the birth of God’s son, Jesus, our Savior, Christ the Lord. And yes, the Messiah, the one who comes and fulfills God’s promises to Israel for the world. I am guessing that the thought that comes to mind, or prevails, when I think of Christmas is both some of the beautiful Christmas imagery surrounding and pertaining to Christ’s birth, and without a doubt, those wonderful carols. And probably imagining beautiful singing of them, preferably in church. Different kinds of beauty in singing, but one preference is the blend of all the ordinary voices lifting up their hearts to God in song. And the heart of God coming down to them through the songs.

Yesterday in chapel Bill Crowder shared with us the thought that our celebration of Christ’s birth in song should be practice in anticipation of the great celebration of the Lamb to come (Revelation 4-5).  I was struck by his thought that the Lamb is the name or title most often given to Jesus in the Revelation (28 times). Yes, that will be a celebration and a half, in awe and reverence in song proclaiming the wonder and beauty of him who sits on the throne and of the Lamb. The idea that singing the Christmas carols can be a practice now in anticipation of that, I think is a wonderful thought. I was reminded too of Handel’s Messiah, which wonderfully transports us into much of this majestic terrain in its contours and beauty.

And so let’s not forget the carols. They are something of the centerpiece of our tradition of Advent, as we remember and celebrate the wonderful coming of that little baby Jesus, so many years ago.

the beauty of liturgy

There is nothing I like better than a well thought out liturgical time of worship. The Anglican tradition is one of the Christian traditions which has provided us with this through the wonderful Book of Common Prayer. I am glad to say I have not only at least a fairly recent edition of it, but also a version of Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 edition, set for worship (The First English Prayer Book: The first edition since the original publication in 1549). Liturgy could be described as a set form of worship through scripture reading, song and meditation, as well as instruction.

One of our favorite memories together on our (I think) 23rd anniversary was finding an Episcopalian (American version of Anglican) church, making our way in late, and being led to the front row where a lady helped us work through the Book of Common Prayer in the order of the service. Rich in both scripture reading and liturgy, as well as in song, with the Eucharist at the end, and of course a sermon, it was one of the richest times of worship, Deb and I agree, that we’ve experienced.

Our present church values both the reading of scripture and liturgy. We have a professor who is rather steeped in this, and prays accordingly. So that this is modeled well for us.

Here is this morning’s liturgy, including a meditation.

The Anglican tradition is one of my favorite, in fact I might fancy myself as being an Anglican Anabaptist, or Anabaptist Anglican, but better yet, “simply Christian.” Would that we would simply call ourselves that, and agree to disagree on so many what I would call secondary issues. And learn to get along well even when the differences are more serious (in our perception, anyhow). The Anglican tradition is not only one steeped in beauty, but is a mediating one, yes, even between Catholic and Protestant. And thus pushes us toward the goal of Jesus’ high priestly prayer that on earth we in Jesus may all be one as he is one with the Father.

There should be both some spontaneity and freedom, along with liturgy, I think, in any given Christian service. A good number of churches from a number of traditions I think do this quite well.

Above all, liturgy mirrors the beauty of the same found in scripture. Of course good liturgy includes a lot of scripture. It is perhaps more than a bit ironic that churches which make the most of scripture in theory (“sola scriptura”) often seem to neglect it in practice with all too often limited reading. Sermons can be helpful, and in fact have an indispensable place, but God’s people need to hear scripture read. And we do well to learn to appreciate the beauty found in liturgy. So that we individually and together may be conformed more and more to the beauty of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

moving in all the gifts: prophecy

Prophecy is highlighted in 1 Corinthians 14 and is found throughout the New Testament.  It isn’t what some have defined or described it as, preaching, or something strictly in keeping with what is found in the Old Testament, though it has overlap with that. Prophecy involves words or impressions from which words come. All of God’s children in Jesus, I believe, can prophesy, if we are open to this gift and more than open, if we actively pursue it. It is a great need in the church and in our individual lives, though I am convinced that churches who deny this as a gift for today, still experience it to some extent. And it’s important for us as individuals as well.

Prophesying is meant for “strengthening, encouraging and comfort,” for the edifying of the church. It is part of the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit, that sons and daughters, men and women will prophesy. It is a gift in which we must learn to hear God. God is speaking; the question is, are we listening and hearing?

It is relatively easy to learn to hear God, I have read, but harder to interpret what is said, and harder still to apply it, to put it into practice. In all of this, we need the help of the Spirit. Of course this presupposes that the prophecy has been weighed by others, and hopefully confirming prophesies have been received by others. It must come in the spirit and content of scripture. It is judged by the inscripturated word of God, the Bible. If in fact some of it is not in line with that, we reject it. We’re to test every prophecy by scripture. At the same time we must be careful not to put out the Spirit’s fire by rejecting prophesying. We need to be open to receiving it ourselves, as well as from others.

One person of God has prophesied to me more than once. The words they said were spot on, completely in keeping with what prophecy is supposed to be, and something that I believe could have come only from God. This person did not know me that well (even if they would have, they still would not have been able to say what they said). Prophesying is meant to help us along the way, but it is also meant to direct our way at key points. It comes from the Spirit through Christ’s body, the church, a part of the ministry within the body. But a prophecy can also uncover the secrets of the heart of those who don’t believe so that they recognize God’s presence and worship him.

I’m sure there is much more to say on this, although I would caution discernment in what is said. We have to judge everything, again, by the word of God. Much of what passes for prophecy has seemed amiss to me. We need to be in the word regularly. And we need those who are seasoned or growing in this gift, to help others like myself, who lack experience in this. Together in Jesus in this for the world.

As in all my posts, the basis is scripture, the word of God. Two books which influence this post, and which I believe are based solidly on scripture are Jordan Seng’s book, Miracle Work: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries and Gordon Fee’s book, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul.

Thomas Kelly on some true worshipers needed to help others become the same

Thomas Kelly notes that for a group to experience the Shekinah of God there needs to be some individuals who are already “gathered deep in the spirit of worship….In them, and from them, begins the work of worship. The spiritual devotion of a few persons…is needed to kindle the rest, to help those others who enter the service with tangled, harried, distraught thoughts to be melted and quieted and released and made pliant, ready for the work of God and His Real Presence.”

Thomas Kelly, The Eternal Promise, 82-83, quoted by Richard J. Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, 51.

attention on Christ

We who follow Jesus can get quite caught up in godly and gifted persons in the church. We can even get caught up at times in God’s work in our own lives in such a way that we may think ourselves as special in a way that we’re not. There is always such a tension here, because in a sense we in Jesus are all gifts from God through Jesus by the Spirit, and we can and do take delight in God’s people. But we also know that all is a gift from God, that everything is of grace in and through Christ, that all the glory (and here, etc.) certainly goes to him. That strictly speaking, in and of ourselves we are always beggars, always in need of Christ. At the same time, being clothed with Christ in baptism, we are one with him, and becoming more and more like him, as well as gifted by the Spirit for good works for Christ’s body- the church and for the world.

The older I get the more I know that it is not about me, or because of me. It is about Christ; he is the theme: the way and the truth and the life. By faith we are taken up into him, and we enjoy that. But we’re like little children finding our way in all the Father’s gifts and gifting. It is a God-breathed existence, full of God’s love.

And so if our attention is ever turned in on ourselves as if we are the source of anything, then we’re off track, and we will (hopefully) figure that out soon enough. We do live in God’s love, a love from which we both love God and others in and through Christ.

idols in the land

We read in scripture that in Israel in days of old there were idols in the land. An idol is anything we put above God. The irony is that when we worship the one true God in Jesus and have no other gods before us, we can love and enjoy what he has created, the creature, uninhibited by the slavery and sin which comes from being obsessed with this or that, or something else. Idolatry usually takes the form of more than one god in God’s place. Or maybe one could say a multidimensional rival god.

Sin at its heart may be unbelief, but whatever else it may be, it is surely idolatrous. We are turning to our own way, doing what is right in our own eyes, with little or no regard for the Lord, or the fear of him. I agree with John Calvin when he said that there can be many idols in our heart. He read that from the prophet Ezekiel. We are not loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The best opposite of idolatry would surely be worship of the one true God revealed in Jesus. Paul in Romans 1 contrasts the worship of the creature with the worship of the Creator.

Sex, power and money (not necessarily in that order) seem to be at least among the most prominent idols in the land where I live. That fits well with the Apostle John’s description of the world, referring to the world system: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Usually what is deadly for us is not blatant, but subtle. We deceive ourselves into thinking that it is well with us, when in reality we continue to struggle with some form of idolatry. We in Jesus do sin and we are weak in ourselves. I’m not saying we have to sin at every, or even any turn; we don’t (see for example 1 John 1:5-2:2). But we so easily get caught up in this or that, instead of thanking God for his good gifts, and enjoying them for what they are. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” So very true.

All is of grace and we are weak in ourselves. And so we need to make much of  being “in Christ,” everything depending on him. Not just our standing or position before God, but our practice as well. We need to develop a keen conscience and sensitivity about this, by God’s Spirit attuned to his word. And we do well by faith to take up the words our Lord taught us to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one,
for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Jesus’ teaching on murder, anger and reconciliation

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

In this section in “the Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus is dealing with murder, and how those of the kingdom of God come in him are to live in the here and now in light of that new reality. It sounds like Jesus is saying something like, “Forget the murder. Let’s get to the heart of it. Your anger. And then let’s deal with that in relationship to your brother and sister in faith (of Israel in the context, of the faith community) and with relationship to your adversary.

Jesus first deals with the danger of anger itself. If we cut down our brother or sister in our anger, we can be in danger of serious judgment. We need to pay attention to what we actually say, and we need to be concerned about the heart with which we say it.

Jesus next goes on to worship. If we are going to worship with others, and I think taking Holy Communion or gathering around the Lord’s Table would fit well into that category, and we remember that someone holds something against us, we must go and be reconciled to them. I believe this involves matters in which we have clearly sinned against someone, or in which we have been clearly perceived to have done wrong against them, even if that’s a misperception. We are to make that right, or clear up the misunderstanding. We are to be reconciled to them. Of course one can forgive, with a reconciliation which is not full in this life. If the one we forgive has a problem so that we can’t trust them, then we won’t be able to resume the relationship we had with them in the past. Or it may make no sense to do so, except on a level removed from what once was, say in the case of divorce.  When reconciliation comes, it should be thought that we will both be better in the relationship, at least wiser, even if the relationship is no closer than before. Of course we are to be growing in our love for God and for each other. All of this is in the context of not murdering our brother and sister in our heart, as John says later in his first letter, the murder/anger problem Jesus is dealing with. We can’t say we love God while we hate one of God’s children in our heart. Hate, anger, and murder as far as the heart is concerned, are not far apart.

And then Jesus turns to our adversary, and specifically one suing to take us to court. Jesus says to deal with that quickly, to settle matters with them to avoid being taken to court. That is also related to the murder/anger issue. We must not be angry even against our adversaries, Jesus is saying, I take it. We must avoid anger showing up in hard words we can volley at and against others. This is the way of Jesus for us, if we are to be something other than ruined salt, and a hidden light to this world.

And so we want to follow the words of Jesus, if we’re to be followers of Jesus, together in Jesus for the world.

sacred cows

I use them term not in a perjorative sense, as to ridicule those who actually do have sacred cows such as in the Hindu tradtion. This is simply a figure of speech, which with all due respect to our fellow human beings who are Hindu, or some other tradition which may do the same, is simply a way of signifying the worship of anything less than God. Of course I refer to God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I do think of the calf Aaron and the people of Israel made for worship when Moses was up on the mountain. Which Moses promptly destroyed when he came down.

What keeps us from obeying and following Christ? One major factor:  sacred cows. We all can have them. They’re all over the land.

We know we’ve hit a nerve concerning a sacred cow when another follower in Jesus won’t interact with us, or won’t discuss a certain issue, because it is their sacred cow that is at stake. Or when something can’t be challenged. It is right, period. End of story. No room for questions, or discussion.

I find this part of the problem this political season in the United States. I don’t know so much how it plays out among politicians, though American politics is a lot about strategy which in the best case scenario is a part of wisdom in helping others see and be persuaded by their position. Too often though it seems to mean digging in one’s heels and seeing one’s view as nonnegotiable, because it is right on a level which equals the Bible.

In theology we can do the same. I hold to a Christian pacifist view, and am persuaded by it. However I don’t do well if I refuse to take seriously a Christian just war position, or other positions which have been held, as well. Especially when the majority have held such views. Of course majority doesn’t mean it’s right, but it should give one pause enough to know that good people will have differences, and to hear out just how such differences are held.

When we spot a sacred cow, it must come down. But that doesn’t mean what good we held to when we had that idol needs to be given up. There likely is something of truth somewhere to be found in all such traditions. We then do well to find it, hold on to it, and let the rest go, certainly the sacred cow itself.

And we do well to live well with our differences when that’s done. Because even though those particular sacred cows may be gone, what is left may put us in different positions. For example my brother in Christ may enter the military with good conscience, while I would not do so with good conscience. And yet we can love each other and accept each other fully as brothers in Christ, because our faith is intact and our worship full and free, as to what we are doing. And we both do so with the utmost humility that somehow our brother may be right in some way, even while we hold to the understanding we have.

Could I make an idol out of Christian pacifism, or my understanding of that? Of course I could. So that those who don’t follow it are in my view doing something less than following God. This is tricky, because I still will want to persuade my just war Christian friends, even as they would like to persuade me. We have to acknowledge that Christians have followed Christ with good conscience on both sides, and in a sense, let it go at that. Same is true with whatever political stand one takes.

But the main point of this post is that we need to ask ourselves just what sacred cow we are holding on to. What idol, what thing which we think is indispensable for being right, good, the best. And let it go, realizing that there is only one who is good, and that he will help us put first things first, worship him, doing so together in Jesus for the world.

This is a kind of open ended post, dealing with a most challenging subject. This is always true on this blog, but I especially invite response here, to help us think through this better.