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A Response to “Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman

A good friend forwarded me the article Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman. I thought his comments deserved a response from someone who has adopted the practice of Lent for the past several decades…though it was not a part of my original church tradition.

“When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.” Wow. Nothing like putting the reader on the defensive in the opening statement. As a career pastor, and instructor of church history at Phoenix Seminary, I find this personally offensive. Now, because I practice Ash Wednesday, I feel like I need to prove that I’m not poorly instructed, that I do have a theology, and that I am a part of my own history.

(Why does believer-to-believer dialogue have to take this kind of shape? Is this kind? Is it anything like accurate? Or are blogs without incendiary remarks like these simply too boring to read? A subject for another time…)

Or, Trueman goes on to say, maybe I’m just a worldly, superficial consumer. Or I’m just “trying to look cool”. Or I’m “carnal”. Or that I’ll just “appropriate anything that catches my fancy”. And, clearly, I am “eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires.” Why does he assume an embrace of Ash Wednesday can’t also be an embrace of the wider riches of a liturgical tradition? For me to adopt a rhythm that I believe helps shape my soul – whether it’s Ash Wednesday, attending Sunday School, or a daily Bible-reading regimen, does it have to be reduced to “an eclectic grab bag” of spirituality?

It seems that for Trueman, to be Presbyterian, you have to stay Presbyterian, and you dare not learn from anyone else’s practices.Trueman states that “Old School Presbyterianism is a rich enough tradition not to need to plunder…the Anglicans.” Plunder – that’s a pejorative word, is it not? We shouldn’t plunder because “an appropriate rich and reformed sacramentalism” renders Lent “irrrelevant”. So, we should just stick with Presbyterian Sundays, and not add a special Wednesday form of worship? Does Presbyterian worship render my quiet time irrelevant, too? In what way is it edifying to pit one act of worship against another? (I guess the Presbyterians are saying “once-saved-in-your-tradition, always-saved-in-your-tradition”…perseverance of the worship?)

What I can’t figure out is this: Countless contemporary Evangelicals long for a richer experience of worship because of the bankrupt nature of the drivel that passes for thoughtful worship today. I have to believe that Trueman wishes better for them as well. So, if they explore some of the practices of liturgical traditions, why jump on them like it’s a bad thing? The tradition I was saved in – dispensational fundamentalism – left me with a bare cupboard. Can I not explore the broader traditions in search for something more?

Some other allusions Trueman makes: Lent-followers say it should be normative for all Christians (I’ve never met such an animal – cite a quote here?); Christians developed the church calendar to control peoples’ lives (maybe some, but certainly not all, or even most – and give me examples, please); All traditions have unbiblical forms of worship (maybe some, but most are extrabiblical, not unbiblical – examples?); That practicing Lent in a congregations is an objectionable “imposition” (don’t we “impose” a host of practices on our people every Sunday, including bad music and bad sermons?!?).

The grand issue I take with in Trueman’s article is the notion that certain traditions of our faith are not mine to practice — that, if I’m a Protestant, I certainly shouldn’t do a Catholic or Orthodox thing. Or that, if I’m a Presbyterian, I shouldn’t do an Anglican or Baptist thing. I find that sort of parochial attitude somewhere between mystifying and pathetic. The Christian tradition is my tradition. It’s my family. And I refuse to play Hatfields-and-McCoys when it comes to my practices.

Okay … some points of wholehearted agreement:

“The reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything.” Agreed.This is why I’ve always believed that contemporary Christianity will inevitably seek out practices, both old and new, with more substance. So let them explore, and don’t call their character and theology into question for trying out and even adopting things along the way.

“If your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.” Agreed. This is what I eventually did. I spent years trying to usher contemporary churches, void of heritage, back into their greater, catholic (small-c) heritage. An admirable pursuit I still believe, but very tough sledding. Eventually, I embraced the classical Lutheran tradition (which now needs a dose of contemporary Evangelicalism’s energy and passion). I think Trueman is okay with me now, that I’m “all in” — but before then, I because I was prone to only borrow idea from other traditions, my character and theology would certainly have been impugned.   

“Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is” considered a good time to offer a generalized reprimand to one’s broader spiritual family, because some of us have been blessed by the appropriation of edifying elements from our worship heritage. This, while priggishly espousing one’s own styles as the plumb line or orthodoxy and depth? I fail to see how this is edifying.

– Bill Hartley

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2015 in Discipleship, Worship

 

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Aside

Paul’s memo to Titus: “Good works – make sure they’re being done!”

Grace or WorksAs an Evangelical who’s theology could be described as “Reformed” (by people who love describing, prescribing and labeling theologies … though I wouldn’t do it), I do have the tendency to see grace and works in dichotomy. I highlight grace, and grayscale good works.

But, my lectionary readings have me in the book of Titus this week – during my Lenten journey, as I attempt to be a proactive DOER of Lent, rather than a reactive NOT-DOER. Here are some selections from Titus (see if you can spot the theme):

1:15-16  “The defiled … profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”

2:7  “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works.”

2:14  “[Jesus] gave himself for us … to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

3:1  “Remind them … to be ready for every good work.”

3:8  “I want you to insist … that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.”

3:14  “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”

Why have I never heard of Titus spoken of as “that good works book”?

It’s a pithy Christian cliche, but still very true, and still quite ignored by us Cretans in practice: It’s not just what we’ve been saved from (sin, death and hell) but what we’ve been saved for (holiness, righteousness and good works). Grace doesn’t just extend mercy … it teaches, it empowers, it mobilizes a life full of doing.

Fruitful TreeAnd Paul urges Titus to good works, lest he be “unfruitful.” If a tree is known by it’s fruits (as the scriptures clearly say is the case), and good works are our fruit … well, would people realize we’ve been saved by the grace of God by the things that we do? Or are our testimonies bound strictly to what we know?

Lenten realization: Stopping my sin is not bearing good fruit. It’s just stopping the bad fruit. If I’m going to have a fruitful Lent, I’ve got to do more than just not sin.

The late singer-songwriter Keith Green (a uniquely fruitful man in his day) once said, “If Christians spent more time doing the dos, we wouldn’t have time to do the don’ts!”

Intellectual point taken. Now … what to do?

Stopping My Sin Is Not “Bearing Good Fruit”

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2014 in Lent

 

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The Poor … Where Are They?

I can’t shake the fact that there’s a hole in my gospel … and that I need to seek out the poor.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Luke 4:18-19, John 20:21).

So, my Lenten journey has me wrestling with a long-standing conviction: It’s not that I should care about the poor if I happen to bump into them. It’s that I am anointed by God to target my proclamation and emancipation to the poor and oppressed. It’s not up to them to find me … it’s up to me to obey the Lord, and get His ministry done. 

But, I’m going to be honest here (and VERY open to follow-up comments). I know the poor are out there. But I don’t see them in my circles. Where are they, and where do I go to find them?

I live in Arizona. Releases from the U.S. Census Bureau have shown that Arizona has the 6th worst poverty rate in the nation.  The percentage of people living below the poverty level in 2011 was around 20%, representing over 1.2 million Arizona residents.

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20%? It doesn’t seem like that to me. But that’s because I don’t live in an among the poor. The reality is that poverty in Arizona is primarily found in the American Indian or Hispanic communities.  The poverty rate on some native American reservations is as high as 47%. Nearly to 30% of the Hispanic population of Arizona lives in poverty … and that’s 30% of Arizona’s 6.4 million residents … 1,920,000 hispanics living in poverty.

ImageI guess I could try really hard to find some easier-to-deal-with, culturally accessible poor people who are more like me. But I think that would be pathetic. I’m kidding myself to think that I can “fill the hole in my gospel” by remaining in my antiseptic, white, middle-class ghetto. If I’m to bless the poor, I’ve got to get out of my world, and venture into others.

I’m blessed that the Christ did this for me. I was the poor, blind, oppressed captive, and it was all my fault – the cause and affect of my sin. But Christ left the comforts of His community to enter mine. And it didn’t go well for Him, physically speaking. He has told us, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me,they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). I think that means …

You’re anointed to go. I send you like the Father sent me. They persecuted me…they’ll persecute you.

Who’s in? (They didn’t tell me about this at the Seeker Sensitive church … ) I’m not at all sure how I might do this, but it’s my Lent. Hmmm.

 
 

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Our Need for a Full Gospel (Not a Holey One)

ImageAt our Ash Wednesday service earlier this week, our Vicar challenged us to “fill the hole in our gospel” this Lenten season.

Now, he made it clear that THE gospel has no holes. THE gospel, found in the life of Jesus and the pages of the New* Testament, is perfect, complete and wonderful.

But OUR gospel … the one that we practice … is often incomplete. Insight into these holes was given by the Old Testament passage Micah 6:6-8:

 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

In other words, shall I be over-the-top in my religious expression? The bigger the personal religious sacrifice, the greater the pleasure of God, right?

 “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
  but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do, love and walk. These aren’t “don’ts” these are “dos”. What good works the Lord requires of us are not activities of denying ourselves, but of blessing others.

The New Testament reading from the Ash Wednesday service, James 2:1-9, also brought clarity to this truth. Here are some excerpts:

Image“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place”, while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there”, or, “Sit down at my feet”, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man … If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

Virtually all of my friends are rich. Most everyone who attends my church is rich. In the example James uses above, at least the sinful man is speaking with the poor person! We have sterilized our church environments so thoroughly that the poor feel unwelcome, and we feel no pang of guilt that this is true. God has chosen the poor … but we have not.

We do have a “hole in our gospel.” We do pretty well parsing our theological words and proclaiming our creeds. But James goes on to tell us that our beliefs, without accompanying works, are dead beliefs (Js. 2:17,26), and that real religion involves not only personal holiness, but an active life of serving the helpless and afflicted (Js. 1:27).

In short … I don’t need to stop eating sugar, as much as I need to start loving my poor neighbor. Not a Lent of not-doing, but of doing. I need do the full gospel, not a holey one. I believe that’s the Lent the Lord would have of me.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2014 in Lent

 

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A Lent of Doing, Not of Not-Doing

Image“I gave it up for Lent.”

Often, we enter into the Lenten season with a list of things we won’t be doing – eating meat, drinking coffee, facebooking. But I have been encouraged by two different sources to fill this year’s Lent with motion forward instead of motion against. Today I’ll share the first such influence, the second tomorrow.

The first comes from a bishop in the Anglican Church. In His fresh-off-the-press Lenten devotional, he begins with a familiar Lenten text: “Blessed are those whose strength is in You, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5).

I’m reminded by this text that my source of spiritual strength always, but not inevitably, comes from God. Whatever I can muster up in my own flesh and mind is not enough to get me anywhere. To the degree that I tap into the Lord’s strength, I have the possibility of spiritual progress.

It seems obvious. We get tired, so we sleep to renew our strength. We get weak, so we eat to renew our strength. These rhythms are engrained into our lives, and need no explanation, no convincing. We just do them, because … well, if we don’t, we’ll be at first miserable, and eventually die. Spiritually speaking, it is clear from our text, and from personal experience, that not everyone finds their strength in God. Rather, many (I would say most) live their lives in their own strength.

And I do, too, on all-too-many occasions. Why in the world would I do that?!?!?

ImageThe couplet of our verse today indicates the motion-forward that remedies our weak, under-charged existence. Our strength is in God – our hearts are set on pilgrimage. We are empowered as we move toward the goal. We are strong in that we are seeking. Much like bodily exercise, the counter-intuitive reality is that we develop our muscles as we exert our muscles. No pain, no gain.

The Lenten season calls for spiritual fortitude. We don’t get this by not sinning. We get this in our active pursuit of God. So, this year, I am going to celebrate and practice a Lent of doing, not of not-doing. I’m going to set my heart on a pilgrimage to the very face of the Lord … believing that, as I’m heading there, I’ll find renewed strength to live a holy life.

What will that pilgrimage be? We’ll pick this up tomorrow…

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in Lent

 

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If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?

It was over a decade of being a Christian before anyone told me about Lent – the longstanding tradition of cordoning off the 40 weekdays prior to Easter Sunday as a time of focused mortification of our sin.

Imposition cartoonTo this day, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent have become important to my spiritual rhythms. From the imposition of the ashes to “Black Saturday”, this season more than any of the others seems genuine, honest, and practical … where some serious spiritual work gets done.

Still, every year, there’s an old reflex within me that comes from my early days as a believer. A voice from my Christian past whispers to me, “Isn’t this stupid? Why wallow in your sin? It’s been paid for and forgiven … why focus on it? Is this just an old Medieval ploy by the church to try to make me feel guilty, so it can manipulate me?” 

(I know I’m not alone in harboring some of these thoughts. We celebrated Ash Wednesday at the independent Evangelical church where I recently served as pastor. The first time we imposed ashes caused at least one member of our congregation to leave. For her, it was just too morbid, too negative, too … “Catholic”.)

guilty dogsYes, there are some unhealthy Lenten practices out there, spawned by unhealthy Lenten theologies. Some turn Lent into a self-help season, or a weight-loss program. Others attempt to overcome sinful habits by their own power, which is futile. Some, believing God is mad at them for their sin, use the season to beat themselves up, thereby beating God to the punch. Still others act like angry dog owners, grabbing their spiritual lives by the scruff of the neck, and sticking their noses in the doo-doo of their sin, believing that, if we really see and smell how awful our lives are, surely we’ll stop making such messes in the future.

But, as David says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3).  I don’t need a church calendar season to promote my sin-awareness (though some litanies help me take stock of some areas that have gone unattended, which is helpful).

Ps 103-12

So … should I go to the Ash Wednesday service tonight? Is there a way to enter into this classical family tradition in a healthy way? If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?

Yes, I’m going. And I’m entering into Lent. More on why as our journey continues…

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Posted by on March 5, 2014 in Lent

 

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