Friday, February 20, 2015

Lent, the Two Trees, and St. Judas

The Cathedral Church of the Advent (the "Advent") is where I learned grace.  The Advent was God's instrument of grace for saving my marriage, my career, and even my life.  The Advent has faithfully called preacher after preacher who actually understand and proclaim the Gospel.  This proclamation is God's instrument of salvation.

Yesterday, one of the preachers whose Gospel explication meant so much to me, came back to preach at the Lenten series at the Advent.  As one of my law partners, Ed Ashton, said:  "Paul Walker never disappoints."  In ushering in the Lenten season, Paul referred back to a letter which he received from the priest who officiated him into the Episcopal church.  Paul recalled anxiously opening the letter to glean the wisdom of a man who had been in the ministry for 30 plus years.  He began it with: "Don't give up beer for Lent."  This may seem odd, at best, but it's actually deeply profound.  For, as Paul preached, giving up beer or chocolate or whatever is okay, but it isn't sufficient, not anywhere near sufficient.  It isn't our actions, our minor addictions, which need to be remedied--it's our hearts.  Our hearts which are the root of anger, lust, control, self-righteousness, judgmental attitudes, and all other manifestations of evil--that's what needs mending, and there's only one solution--the Gospel.

Before Paul came to town, I listened to one of his recent sermons on the Mockingpulpit entitled: "Let's Get it Started in Here," which dealt with the parable of the ten vestal virgins--those who went into the party with the bridegroom and those who didn't.  Paul ended his sermon in a way that left me floored by God's grace.  Paul said that Judas was at the party--the great eternal party with his friend and savior Jesus.  Now, I've know of only one other person who takes the position that Judas is in heaven--Garry Wills.  Quite frankly, although I love Wills' writing, I thought Garry was going too far when he called him: Saint Judas.  Now, I don't.  Now, I think that Paul and Garry are right--he is Saint Judas.

At the end of this sermon, Paul read the lyrics to a song: "The Judas Tree."  The song tells that, per the Apostles' Creed, Jesus descended into Hell after he was crucified.  The song says that Jesus cut Judas down from the tree on which he had hung himself and liberated Judas from Hell.  Could this be?  Could the person who committed the most grievous sin in the history of man be at the eternal banquet with God?  Like Garry and Paul, I think so.

Garry points out that, when Judas sold out Jesus, he likely had no idea that Jesus would be killed. The Jewish authorities had no authority to commit anyone to death--without the say of the Romans.  That's why he hung himself--he was so aggrieved that his selling out of Jesus had ramifications far beyond what he had imagined.  Judas thought his sin would have certain repercussions (which he was prepared to deal with), but he had no idea that his sin would result in the death of his friend.

What we learn from the Judas Tree is that the world is a deeply broken place.  The world can take our lesser sins and wreak devastating, never intended or imagined, consequences.  This is one tree that we should consider entering into Lent--into the season where we contemplate the human condition and then God's response.  The Judas Tree reflects that this world is not our home--it is not friendly towards us--it can be damn unfriendly--wars, rumors of wars, the plague, ebola, famine, hunger, murder, adultery, incest, crimes committed in the name of religion, etc.  The list of problems with the world is endless.

The second tree--the Cross--is the primary focus of Lent.  The Cross first diagnoses the condition of the human heart.  We are bloodthirsty.  We are bloodthirsty like ISIS.  As my current pastor said: "Jihad was committed against Jesus."  The religious fervor of man caused them to spill the blood of an innocent man, and we are no different.  We are all jihadists in our flawed religious hearts.

But, the Gospel doesn't end with the diagnosis of the world and the human heart--it flips to God's grace.  God's grace is borne out by these two trees.  God has triumphed over the world and over our hearts.  God raised His son from the dead.  God liberated Judas, and indeed all of us, from the Hell of this world and the eternal Hell.

As I enter into Lent, I have hope for God's salvation.  I've long said that, if God saved me, He could be saving anyone and everyone.  If there's hope for me and Judas, then there's hope for mankind--hope for liberation from the vagaries of this world and our inward-looking, twisted hearts.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sanctification--a few thoughts

1.  Sanctification is occurring if you see yourself as more and more sinful.  The only person who can see sanctification in you is someone else, and it has to be someone who's known you for a while.  Sanctification is about change.  I may not seem sanctified to those who meet me now.  But those who've known me for years remark about positive changes in me.  Yet, I see myself more and more as a sinner.  I am much more in touch with my motivations--most of which are selfish.  Becoming more and more acquainted with my selfish motivations does lead to change, over time, but ONLY if you feel forgiven for those sins.  This is where grace comes in.  Grace is the fuel of sanctification.

2.  You can't approach sanctification "head on."  You can't view the law as a good way to live.  If you do, those who tend towards self-righteousness (like me) will compare themselves to others and feel better about themselves.  For those who tend towards self-judgment (like Debbie), they will compare themselves to others and despair.  However, as you know more and more about the love of God for His created beings, change actually occurs.  As you come to understand God's boundless love and grace for you, you begin to exhibit love and grace towards others.  Grace is intoxicating--it can't be held in, held back, or squashed.  True 100% grace is infectious.

3.  Gerhard Forde--"True antinomianism is watering the law down so that we can keep it."

4.  Jesus didn't water down the law.  He said: "Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."

5.  The best way, at least for me, to interpret Jesus' view of the law is as a Second Use--it brings us to our knees so that we cry out to God for His grace.

6.  St. Paul's words about what a Christian looks like are 'descriptive,' not 'prescriptive.'  In other words, over time, others will say that you are becoming more like Jesus.  Occasionally, you will discover that you are more like Jesus--but it will be like a thunderbolt out of the blue, not a reasoned analysis of your qualities.  Reasoned analyses of one's qualities leads to self-righteousness or despair, neither of which is desired by God, neither of which is more holy, neither of which is more sanctified.

7.  At the risk of appearing to "toot my own horn," I'm going to share a couple of thunderbolts.

8.  The first thunderbolt occurred about 12 years ago.  A friend, although not a close friend, came to me with a sexual issue.  He wanted help with the issue.  He thought I might could help for this reason:  "Ellis, you used to be the most lustful person that I knew.  Now you're not.  What happened?"
My reply was the message of grace that I had heard from Paul Zahl.  I gave some of my Zahl cassette tapes to my friend.   A month later he came back and said:  "Are you sure this is right?  I've never heard anything like this."  I said: "When I first heard it, I hadn't either, but I think it's simply the 'old, old story of Jesus and His love which has been squelched by the Church."  Another month went by.  He came back again: "Ellis, this is life-changing.  I'm beginning to experience freedom from my issue."  His story is even more remarkable than this.  While I can't tell it without possibly revealing his identity, the message of grace changed him as radically as it changed me.

9.  Other thunderbolts have happened over the years.  Two recent ones:  I took my mother-in-law to lunch.  I know this doesn't sound like sanctification, but if you'd known me before, you would say: "Wow," at least that's what Debbie said.  So, yes, I was an a.....e before.  A second one was an email from a new friend--someone that I've only interacted with briefly.  Yet, he could tell that I loved him and cared about his issues.  So, he poured out to me his trials and triumphs.  Sometimes, indeed most times, listening is the best we can do for one another.  Well, listening and speaking grace.

10. Finally, here's my favorite quote on sanctification.  Sanctification isn't about trying to follow the law, but rather knowing that our transgressions are covered by the blood of the Perfect One, the All-Compassionate One, the God who's property is ALWAYS to have mercy:

It is instructive, in this connection, to remember that God’s appointed place for the tables of the law was within the ark of the testimony.  With them were “the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded”  (types, the one of Christ our wilderness bread, the other of resurrection, and both speaking of grace), while they were covered from sight by the golden mercy-seat upon which was sprinkled the blood of atonement.  The eye of God could see His broken law only through the blood that completely vindicated His justice and propitiated His wrath (Heb. 9: 4, 5).
It was reserved to modern nomolators to wrench these holy and just but deathful tables from underneath the mercy-seat and the atoning blood, and erect them in Christian churches as the rule of Christian life.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Gracious Providence in Provision and Grieving

We can't grieve until we realize that we've lost something.  I'm very fortunate--I've only lost two people in my life that were close family.  One was my father, and the other was my children's godmother--Butch Smith.  Oddly, it took me 12 years to truly grieve for my father, and 2 years to truly grieve for Butch.  I was struck by grief in two peculiar ways which leads me to believe that it was brought about by the HS.

First, one of my dear friends at work, Walker Wells, told me that I had to read "The Road."  Given Walker's faith and intellect, I knew that it had to be good.  But, as always, I find it hard to take recommendations from anyone.  Then, I came down with a pretty significant bug and had to go home from work.  That afternoon, I finally read "The Road" in its entirety.  I couldn't put it down.  The picture of the father's love and provision--and the fact that they were "carrying the light" in a post-apocalypse world full of cannibals--brought me to tears over my father.  This was some dozen years after his death.  Clearly, Walker's suggestion was providential.

That's what my father did--he "carried the light."  He carried the light of grace.  He spent his last 15 years working as the chaplain at Partlow, the former state home for those who were mentally retarded.  (I'm sure that's not the PC word, but it was the word used at the time.)  My father loved those at Partlow.  I remember one in particular, Wayne, who came to our house frequently and was my father's unofficial assistant.  My father loved them, and me and my sister, without condition.  Yet, he had his issues.  In his last years, he was often hateful towards my mother.

I'm not besmirching my father's name by admitting this, but simply being honest which allows for grace.  Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast with Barnabas Piper, John Piper's son, and he was relating the story of when he found out that his baseball hero was a philanderer.  It knocked him right off Barnabas' pedestal.  This is where we go wrong as humans and Christians--we want to put people on the pedestal.  This is not grace.  Grace is seeing and acknowledging all aspects of a person and, yet, loving them.

As to Butch, she filled a role in Debbie's life for which I will ever be thankful.  For many years, I put work above my wife.  (That's why, as it's told in Genesis, God "cursed" work--to redirect our attention from work to God, our spouses and families.)  During those years, Butch was "there" for Debbie.  Debbie could not have had a better friend, indeed mother-figure, than Butch.  Butch also exhibited one-way love to me and my children.  It was nothing short of breath-taking to see such love.

And yet, Butch had her issues.  I think the parent-child relationship is perhaps the most difficult one to navigate.  Indeed, none of us can navigate it successfully.  Indeed, another person, one who is not a "blood parent" can provide one-way, unconditional love more so than the blood-kin.  It's something about the way that God set up the parent-child relationship.  It's not flawed, but it's sure peculiar.  This is what Butch did for Debbie.  But for Butch's support of Debbie, Debbie probably would have left me during those years that I was so selfish.

As with my father, my grieving for Butch struck out of the blue.  I was at lunch with a man that I'd met at a Christmas party.  We were both in the same industry and wanted to get together for lunch.  He reminded me at lunch that, not only was he a member at Trinity, but he was also on the Admin Board--meaning that he had to know Butch.  He did.  As he recalled his fond memories of Butch, tears of grief and thankfulness began welling up in my eyes--sitting at Bettola restaurant.

So, thank you to my father and to Butch for the one-way, unconditional love which you showered upon me and my family.  Praise be to God that you were both Saints and Sinners and, therefore, real and, therefore, persons that I could love instead of worship--for there is only One worthy of our worship.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Shout out to Jesus--for Breathing New Life into the Bible Belt

I was born a Pharisee. My natural inclination is to think that I'm better than others. This is how I justify myself. To compound the problem, I was raised in a church that taught that Christians are better than others. Oh sure, the pastor paid "lip service" to our being sinners, but there was always this idea that, once we "accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior," we would lead good, moral lives--become pillars of the community. This teaching just made me worse. Of course, based upon what most of my friends from that time tell me, I covered it up pretty well. But then, I got married. You can't hide it from your wife. The problem with thinking that you are better than others is that you have to keep proving it to yourself. You lie to yourself, over and over again. The anxiety of performance is a death sentence. I was headed to suicide. We were headed to divorce after about 10 years. 
BUT THEN GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY...I got invited to a Bible Study of Paul Zahl in January, 1998. Zahl said that we were inveterate sinners, full of libidinal urges, and that we had no "free will." He said that God met our inveterate sinfulness with boundless, confounding grace. I didn't get it at first, but as I fell on hard times in my life, I finally came to hear with new ears, to see with new eyes--I was a Pharisee. My efforts to be good (Deacon, SS teacher, generally moral person), were SIN. I was WITHOUT HOPE IN MYSELF. I HAD NO CONTROL WHATSOEVER OVER MY LIFE. BEING A SUCCESSFUL LAWYER WHO GAVE MONEY TO BAPTIST FOREIGN MISSIONS WAS NEVER GOING TO SET ME RIGHT WITH GOD.
As I write this, you must think I'm crazy--I certainly do. To think that Christianity was about being a good Southern Baptist (primarily giving to foreign missions) is so facile, so dishonoring to the God of the universe. I'm not alone in my view of Bible Belt pulpits. I have friends from the Florida panhandle who tell me that there's not a church there that they can attend.
BUT THEN GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY...put Tullian Tchividjian in the pulpit at Coral Ridge Pres. Tullian, like Zahl, has returned to that old, old religion that was so brilliantly described by St. Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Their message is impacting tens of thousands of people in the Bible Belt. There are preachers stretching from Texas to Alabama to Virginia to Kentucky to New York to Florida who have been influenced and blessed by Zahl and Tchividjian. 
Thank you Jesus for saving me. Thank you Jesus for breathing fresh life into the pulpits of the Bible Belt.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

God "lays all His love" (ABBA) on us--the Incarnation and the Resurrection

We will never fully understand God, not even close.  We won't ever fully understand Jesus even though he walked amongst us for 33 years.  But what we can understand deeply and unequivocally are two basic truths about God, probably the two most important truths:  a)God is "with us;"  and b)God is "for us."  Two basic truths about God that are reflected by the two most important facts of Christ's life--his odd birth and his ignominious death.

First, as one of my sons said: "Dad, Jesus was born lowly so that all could come to Him."  This "lowly birth" meant that persons of any social status would not feel that Jesus was above them.  More importantly, the fact that God deigned to live amongst us--in this difficult sometimes seemingly God-forsaken world--reflects God's solitary with mankind.  God is not "above" our station in life.  God is not some distant puppet-master.  God is not dispassionate towards his creation.  No, God knows and experienced the troubles and travails, the pain and heartache of being human.  God is "with us" in a way that seems unimaginable, in a way that is unique in world religions.

Second, the Cross is a further reflection of God's solidarity with us (we all must die), but it also reflects that God is "for us."  Certainly God need not have died on the Cross.  From His divine standpoint, He could have been miraculously rescued.  From His human standpoint, it seems that Pilate would have let Him go if He had just responded to Pilate--if He had uttered a "single word" in His defense.  But no, He remained mute in the face of the religious persons who wanted Him dead and the bureaucrats who wanted to placate the religious persons and, thereby, maintain peace.

Christ went to the Cross to demonstrate the blood-lust, the inveterate sinfulness of mankind.  He went to the Cross to demonstrate that, even in light of our hopeless sinfulness, He forgives us.  "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  To me, these are the most comforting words ever spoken by a man.  Since they came from God, they give us hope--hope beyond compare--hope with no boundaries--hope of limitless duration.

Praise be to the God who is "with us" and "for us."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Candid Camera, "Signs," and Sanctification

A few years ago, a pastor was invested as the new rector at Christ Church Charlottesville.  Paul Zahl's sermon topic at the investiture--"Just Give Up."  During the sermon, PZ said that, if he had any advice to give to Paul Walker as the new rector, it would be to "give up."  You could hear nervous titters of laughter from the congregation.  If these words shocked me, someone who's listened to PZ for years, I can't imagine what the poor congregants were thinking.  'Just give up' doesn't sound like any Christian admonition or advice that I've heard before.

Yet, this is what Jesus was trying to convince the Pharisees to do.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it clear that we can't keep the Law.  He analogized hate to murder, lust to adultery, and said that we are called to be "perfect as our father in heaven is perfect."  Jesus did the same thing in His parables.  Not one of us would act like the Good Samaritan--becoming unclean to help an enemy, then providing over-abundantly for him.   Like the Rich Young Ruler, not one of us would sell everything and give it to the poor.  So, if Jesus is trying to convince us to give up, what implications does this have for our Christian life?  Can we finally law down our merit-badge list of things that Christians do?  If we lay that down, are we called to do anything?

This morning, Debbie and I were discussing that life is not random.  Last Sunday, our SS teacher was teaching about sovereignty, and I asked him if he had ever seen the movie 'Signs.'  Yes, he had and he said: "Ellis, the longer I live the more I realize that life is not random."  Not to spoil the movie, but God uses weakness, quirkiness, and even death for redemptive purposes.  Shymalan (acting in his own movie) says: "It's as if it was meant to be," when he's asked about a tragic event in the movie.

Debbie and I were discussing how, if we just acknowledge that life is non-random, we see God working everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.  Last week, our cleaning guy was coming, and Debbie told him not to clean our son's room since he left it in a mess.  Debbie and I were discussing how to deal with this--take his car, ground him.  Our intentions were actually good.  We wanted to prepare him to live by himself at college.  We hadn't decided what to do.  We had discussed this with our son before, but he didn't think that cleaning his room mattered.  That nite, we were watching 'Raising Hope' with him.  'Raising Hope' can be inappropriate at times, but the love that the characters have for one another, and the humor that they share with one another, is simply amazing.

In this episode, the father and grandparents of Hope, a 2 year old, were debating about whether to spank her to deal with the 'terrible 2s.'  The discussion turned to whether the grandparents had spanked their son, Hope's father.  They claimed that they did, but it turned out that they hadn't.  "No wonder he never learned to keep his room clean."  "No wonder he's still living at home with his parents."  Our son then understood why we wanted him to clean his room.  It came from an outside source.  It is so difficult for teenagers to hear or receive any advice from their parents.  Keeping your room clean obviously isn't that big of a deal, but lack of self-control can bleed over into other aspects of your life.

Obviously, this a mundane example, but God lives in every aspect of our lives, mundane or otherwise.

Debbie recalled a Candid Camera episode where the flowers on the table were rigged to move.  Rather than trying to figure out what was going on, or marveling at the moving flowers, the people got up and moved to another table.  Debbie recalls being saddened that the folks were ignoring the wonder in their lives.  Debbie then said: "How can we ignore the wonder of Jesus in our lives?"

Which brings me to sanctification.  Per Jesus, we are called to 'just give up,' and look for God's actions in our mundane lives--the entry of God's kingdom into this world.  It can't help but gladden our hearts.  It can't help but cause us to be thankful.  With thankful hearts, we can love our difficult families.  With thankful hearts, we can face difficulties such as sickness, job loss, and death.  With thankful hearts, we can even forgive ourselves, and then others.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Purpose of Life And Of God's Curses

The purpose of life is to reduce the "Kramer"--Paul Zahl ("PZ").  Kramer is PZ's parlance for generational sin.  I think it's a take on "karma."  In any event, for someone who is completely opposed (and rightfully so) to ever telling us to do anything, PZ actually says to do something in this life.  That thing is to act courageously in those instances where generational sin may be broken or reduced.

PZ goes further and acknowledges that generational sin can't be reduced without the intervention of God.  PZ says that God is graciously constructing a path for us which, even though it has many seemingly unrelated twists and turn, can eventually bring about changes in generational sin.  He then goes to the point of view that we all experience at death--has there been any meaning to my life?  Yes, if there has been a break or reduction in generational sin.

If God is loving, then the curse of generational sin is loving.  This is where I probably go one step beyond Zahl.  It is the generational sin which brings us to a point of impasse such that we cry out to God: "Uncle.  I give up."  This has happened profoundly in my relationship with Debbie.

I've written before that God's curses in the Garden were loving.  God cursed work so that men wouldn't make it their god.  God cursed childbirth so that women wouldn't make children their god.  It wasn't until this morning that I finally understood God's curse of women's desire and man's control or leadership.  This arose out of Debbie's comments about this verse.

"Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."  Gen. 3:16.

Women often have unrealistic desires and expectations towards their husbands.  In our present age, this leads to divorce.

Men attempt to control or rule over their wives.  When they can't, in our present age, this leads to divorce.

As I've written before, if you don't experience a profound change in your marriage, it won't last.  According to PZ, it's only through the work of God that this profound change can happen.

If, when a woman learns that her husband will never meet her expectations for provision and intimacy, she says: "I give up--over to you God," then the marriage may be saved.

If, when a husband realizes that he can never rule his wife, he says: "I give up--over to you God," then the marriage can be saved.

It's only through surrender to something outside us (as per Alcoholics Anonymous) that we have hope for change.

But, we're only open to change when we have exhausted every last ounce of energy, strength, and conviction in trying to obtain from our spouse what we need from God--unconditional love.

As a wife releases her husband from her expectation of intimacy, he will become more intimate.

As a husband releases his wife from his efforts at control, she will seek his guidance.

That's the way that God works.  He brings us to the end of ourselves, through curses which are passed down from generation to generation, only to then provide a way out.