Have you given up anything for Lent? Some of my friends have denied themselves the usual chocolate. Another has started an annual practice of giving up Facebook.
But if you had asked this of my wife some years ago, she would have given you a strange look. She came to faith and had her early Christian formation in a Baptist church. When she met me, she found the practices of the Methodist Church strange. I must admit that as someone who has been in Methodism since the womb, I still find it strange!
And one practice Debbie had never encountered before was Lent. The day she asked me what Lent was, I couldn’t believe I was hearing what she said. Surely everybody knew what Lent was? It’s been part of my background all my life! Indeed, except for when Easter Day occurs on the very latest day in the year that it can, my birthday always falls within Lent. Thankfully, I’m allowed to feast on my birthday – according to my rules, anyway!
Now the reading from Philippians seems a good one for Lent. Not that the earliest Christians practised it, but it is a passage that explores the importance of self-discipline. Now while Debbie’s home church was lower than low – calling baptism and Holy Communion ordinances, not sacraments – I’m sure they too would have endorsed the importance of self-discipline in the Christian life. And at Lent or any other time, that is a critical part of our discipleship. It’s also – as we shall see – an area where we can be a counter-cultural witness in our world today.
Implicit in Paul’s teaching here are various core Christian reasons which provide the foundations for living a life of self-discipline to the glory of God. It’s those beliefs I want to explore today.
We begin at the Cross. Christians always have to begin at the Cross, and Paul does so here.
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (Verse 18)
Paul sees that a root cause of self-indulgence is not taking the Cross seriously. The Cross is not merely the place where I am forgiven – so that I can keep living however I like and then return for the next batch of forgiveness. The Cross is the model for our discipleship. What Paul teaches here is consistent with Jesus telling aspiring disciples to deny themselves, take up the Cross and follow him.
Christianity, then, is less about what I can get and more about what I can give. So much of our conversation, even in the Church, is peppered with the assumptions of consumerism. Does this church suit me? Did the worship feed me? Does it have what I need? It’s very me-centred. But the Cross says we have to take a different approach. And disciplines of self-denial and self-discipline are those which call us back to the Cross. They are not preventing ourselves becoming fat, they are about tuning ourselves into the wavelength of the Cross.
So a week ago, when there was a news story reporting the development of a new low-fat chocolate bar, where the fat particles are replaced with water, air or gels, the Daily Telegraph was wrong to call it the ‘Chocolate bar that can be eaten during Lent’. The point of self-denial isn’t about losing weight, it’s about a sign that we will walk the way of the Cross. As one person put it,
Lent is supposed to be concerned with spiritual discipline and self-denial, not a handy way of losing a bit of weight. If the new low-fat chocolate tastes as good as an old-fashioned one but doesn’t pile on the pounds, then where’s the self-denial?
So we approach Lenten disciplines of self-denial not as some kind of belated New Year’s Resolution to get ourselves in shape; we embrace them as a sign that we accept the Cross will shape the way we live.
The second Christian building-block in Paul’s teaching is worship. Hear verse 19 again:
Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
‘Their god is their belly.’ Who do we worship when we are self-indulgent? Ourselves. This comment of Paul’s tests what we truly believe worship to be, because it’s a question of allegiance. Does my stomach deserve my ultimate allegiance? I need to feed it, but when it becomes my god, something has gone badly wrong.
This, then, is about how we understand worship. Much as I enjoy worship with a band, featuring a lot of contemporary songs, and other people love their hymns, how dangerous it is when we end up worshipping worship. And we forget what worship is. The main New Testament word translated ‘worship’ means ‘to move towards and kiss’. However, the ‘kiss’ envisaged is the ‘kiss of homage’, like that offered to a monarch, and even still kept in a symbolic and ceremonial way in our society when a new Prime Minister or bishop is appointed. They have to go to ‘the Palace’ to ‘kiss the hands’ of the sovereign.
Worship is not in the first place about the good feelings and the positive experiences. It is about declaring our allegiance to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord or Lords. When we deny ourselves as a spiritual discipline, we do so not to torment ourselves but to affirm that God’s will comes first in our lives. We are to indulge his will, not our appetites. We ‘do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’, and so our worship is seen by taking God’s word seriously and putting it into practice as a priority. When we do that, our god is not our belly. Instead, we give ourselves in devotion and worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we come to our third and final foundation, you could say this is a question of past, present and future. A past event – the Cross – shapes our behaviour now. Our present activity – of worship – needs to be rightly directed to God. So thirdly and finally, that leaves a future component – the kingdom of God.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Verses 20-21)
Jesus is coming, says Paul, and our minds are set on him rather than ‘earthly things’ (the worship point again). But Paul goes further: what Jesus will do when he comes also leads us to consider our behaviour now. When Paul says, ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’, he is making a reference to the Resurrection. Jesus’ own ‘body of humiliation’ was transformed into a ‘body of glory’ in the Resurrection. You will remember that the risen Jesus was identifiably the same man who had been crucified (once the disciples’ eyes had been opened), but his body was also somehow different (remember how he appeared in their midst in a locked room, and how he disappeared from sight after the meal at the end of the Emmaus Road journey).
So, says Paul, we are in for transformation, too. When Jesus comes again and renews heaven and earth, he will raise us up and renew our bodies, just as his was. This will be an expression of his reign in his kingdom, for he will do it ‘by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself’ (verse 21b).
If you’ve followed me thus far, one thing you will understand is that our bodies matter to God. They are important to him. The great future of God’s kingdom is a physical one. The idea often trumpeted that our body is just a shell and that the real person is the invisible soul simply doesn’t match the New Testament’s teaching. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. Yes, they are imperfect and they decay (what Paul calls here the ‘body of humiliation’) but God does not intend to discard them, he will renew them at the resurrection of the dead.
What does all this have to do with our Lent theme of self-denial? For one thing, it reminds us that self-denial is not about self-hatred. It is about self-discipline, and that’s a whole lot different. When we deny ourselves, we are not doing so in order to torture ourselves, like Filipino Christians being nailed to crosses as acts of devotion. It is more that we are training our body for better use in the service of God. It is why in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul uses the image of an athlete training to compete in the ancient Olympics. So too our self-denial is an act of training: we are getting ready for the Great Games themselves in the Kingdom of God.
In other words, self-denial is a positive action. It is about love for God and his ways. It is part of building for God’s kingdom.
In fact, it is something we practise in other areas of life. I remember one particular aspect of our marriage preparation. We sat in the lounge of the manse where the minister friend who was to marry us lived. I recall how awkward he felt about having to ask some of the standard questions to two people he knew. I was one of his circuit colleagues!
One question in particular stuck with me. he talked about the promises in the marriage service where the man and the woman say they will honour one another with their bodies. Now I guess many couples think that when they say, ‘With my body I thee worship’ or some modern equivalent, it is really a coy, veiled reference to sex. But our friend had a different take. He looked at me and said,
“Dave, how are you going to look after your body for Debbie’s sake?”
Well, as someone who has put on a stone in weight since marriage, it may well be I haven’t honoured that as well as I should have done!
But perhaps the point stands. And perhaps it helps us see that while we naturally accept we would deny ourselves for our loved ones, how much more we might do so for the love of our God?
In conclusion, I can’t tell anyone whether they should give up anything for Lent and if so, what. But I can invite us all to examine ourselves and ask, is my life being conformed to the Cross or are there areas where I need to deny myself in order to make that more true? I can invite us to look at who or what we worship, to see whether our priorities need correcting by self-denial. And I can put before us all the hope of resurrection to enquire whether we need to deny ourselves out of love for God and his ways, by building for his kingdom.
Today, some odds and ends. In between reading some Clay Shirky, here are some links I’ve found.
The official John Martyn website reports today that BBC4 will be repeating the one-hour Johnny Too Bad documentary, and by a half-hour solo acoustic performance from 1978. Dates and times for the documentary are Friday 20th March at 10:00 pm, Saturday 21st March at 1:20 am and Sunday 22nd March at 10:00 pm. The concert is being shown immediately after the Firday 20th documentary and immediately preceding the Saturday showing. It is not being broadcast on the Sunday.
This video is doing the rounds of certain Christian blogs at present. N T Wright would be apoplectic in its denial of the physical and material in the afterlife. OK, don’t take it too seriously, but this is part of the problem with much populist Christian understanding of life after death:
This one is popular, too. American comedian Louis CK interviewed by Conan O’Brien on the theme, ‘Everything’s amazing, nobody’s happy’. I watched this just after reading some more of Clay Shirky‘s book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ where he says that social change happens not once new technology is invented, but once is becomes ubiquitous. Louis talks more about how easily jaded we become with new tech:
(Via Collide Magazine and others.)
At least these are YouTube videos you can watch in the UK. From next Monday, UK viewers won’t be able to see premium music videos on the site.
David Wayne has a very pointed ‘failed Gospel tract‘.
American pastor Mark Batterson on his rules for writing.
And that will have to do for today. I’m sure you’ll find something of interest somewhere in the abvoe.
Our hairdresser is a family friend. We go together to her house for haircuts. Earlier this year, we were at Gemma’s and we noticed some fabulous new photos of her daughter.
‘Where did you get those done?’
She replied that she had used a new photographer in town. We had a 20″ x 16″ portrait of the children in the dining room, but it was two years old. At the age of our small children, that’s a long time in which they had changed.
So we booked a session with Melanie, who was wonderful, and Debbie asked that one of the shots be a new 20″ x 16″ as a birthday present for her. Mark was impeccable during the shoot, and Rebekah started out well before switching into full drama queen mode.
A little while later, Melanie gave us a CD of the best shots, and we spent an evening narrowing down our choices. Eventually, we placed the order and last week I collected them. They are fabulous. The new big portrait is up. Mark’s cheeky smile radiates across the room, and in Rebekah’s case you can see glimpses of the beautiful young woman she will become. It’s stunning.
So the first purpose of this post is an unsolicited plug for Melanie’s work. I’m not posting copies of the photos here for two reasons: firstly, I would be breaching her copyright, and secondly I don’t in any case put photos of our children in the most public parts of the web. I only use parts of my Facebook profile and Flickr that friends can see.
But the extended purpose of this post is to meditate on change and continuity. It’s there in the different photos of our children, separated by two years. It’s even more obvious when you go to the church social and the ice-breaker game is stuck on the walls: ‘Guess which church member this is as a baby.’
This struck me even more on Friday night, when Debbie and I sat down to watch Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. The main guest was one of my musical heroes from the 1970s, Stevie Wonder. His run of albums from ‘Music Of My Mind’ to ‘Hotter Than July’ (excepting ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’!) has to be one of the most sustained streaks of brilliance in popular music. I don’t care for much of his music since – indeed if ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ could be permanently deleted from the world’s memory, I’d be happy.
But I love his Seventies music as much today in my forties as in my teens. ‘Living For The City’ still has to be one of the great social justice songs. So am I behaving as an overgrown teenager when I put his music on, or am I still genuinely appreciating his music, despite the fact that I have grown – and hopefully matured?
One thing I did was ponder the roots of my musical taste. My love of some black music clearly comes from growing up in multi-racial north London. My best friend’s brother introduced me to Otis Redding and Stax.
But my taste is – well, the polite word is ‘eclectic’. Singer-songwriters feature prominently. Some of that comes from being a child in church during the Sixties when folk and protest music was acceptable in the mainline denominations. It was more respectable than that pop racket. Also, I’m quite an introspective person, so the Seventies singer-songwriters were an obvious touchstone for me – Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and so on.
And I’ve always had a thing about lyrics. I’m keen on meaning, so those people who say that lyrics don’t matter have little sympathy from me. Not only that, I tried writing songs with my best friend. Given that he was and is a musician and I never have been, the words were my department. Don’t worry, none of them has ever been released. You are safe. But it gave me a deeper appreciation of lyrics.
The serious side of me also went for prog rock – notably Genesis and Yes. (Genesis went down the pan when they became a pop band.) My love of the serious and the complex kept my loyalty to this kind of music in the punk wars. The late Alan Freeman once held a vote on his Saturday afternoon Radio 1 show. Punk yes or no? No won 51% to 49%. I was in the 51.
You can still trace a lot of these influences in music I enjoy thirty years later. Boo Hewerdine, John Hiatt and Aimee Mann are all currently trapped in my car CD player, strongly representing the singer-songwriter camp. I recently bought Stomu Yamashta‘s Complete Go Sessions on eBay on the prog front. And Stevie Wonder on the TV probably has me digging out some of those classic albums.
At the same time, however, there are aspects of my teenage record buying habits that I wouldn’t want people to know about. There are some singles I was glad disappeared when I finally and reluctantly said goodbye to vinyl. I’m too embarrassed to name them here, so I’ll just leave you to guess. Some of them should only have been bought by teenage girls, that’s all I’m saying. It’s change and continuity again.
All this is an extended introduction to say that holding together continuity and change is an important spiritual and theological issue. I’m not even referring to the management of change in a congregation, although there is plenty that could be said about that. At this point, I’m confining myself to the personal aspects.
The Reformation enshrined this when it said that people were simul justus et peccator, both justified and yet still sinners. Justification brings redemption and leads to sanctification, that is, change, yet we are still what we always were: sinners.
Or to put it another way: our past and our present go a long way to explaining us, and hope draws us on into God’s New Creation.
And in that respect, Tom Wright’s great sign of the New Creation to come is the Resurrection of Jesus, itself am expression of continuity and change in the nature of Christ’s resurrection body. There was continuity: once the disciples had got past their considerable intellectual barriers to resurrection happening in the middle of history, Jesus was recognisable. He was ‘known by the scars’, to take Michael Card‘s old phrase. But there was also change: whatever miracles Jesus did before the crucifixion, he never suddenly appeared in the middle of a locked room, as is recorded twice in John 20. In the Resurrection, Jesus is endowed with the ‘spiritual body’ of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15, and which my MPhil mentor Richard Bauckham used to say means, ‘a body animated by the Holy Spirit’.
So it isn’t necessarily a mark of immaturity if certain things remain from my youth. They may be part of an acceptable continuity that will travel with and in me throughout life in this age and the age to come.
Indeed, if the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is correct that we have the same personality type for life, then that is an expression of this. You’ll see from the description I gave about the roots of some of my musical taste that a fair bit has to do with personality. No personality type is perfect: all have weaknesses. However, this is not necessarily about moral failure or weakness. God made humans to be interdependent, and in the Church God made us to be the Body of Christ, with complementary gifts.
But other things will fall away and be replaced or renewed. And that’s OK, too. That’s where the issues of holiness come in. So for example years ago I read an article in Third Way magazine about one of my musical heroes, Van Morrison. The author (Martin Wroe?) acknowledged that Morrison was not so much a practitioner of faith as a student of religions. He also acknowledged the commonly known fact about Morrison’s personality, namely that he is a notorious curmudgeon. Rock’s Mister Grumpy, indeed. However, he expressed a hope that there would be a place for him in the kingdom of God.
If there is, then it will be by the grace of God, just as it is for all of us. However, the question will arise for him, as it does for everyone, of change. How will he and we be made ‘fit for heaven’ (or the New Creation)? Transformation begins in this life by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, but is it complete at death?
The classical Catholic answer to this has been in terms of Purgatory. Tom Wright makes a good response to this in ‘Surprised By Hope‘. He describes it as a medieval metaphor and myth, without biblical support, having more to do with Aquinas and Dante. He quotes the current Pope, who appeals to 1 Corinthians 3, where the Lord himself is the fire in judgment who purifies us. Purgatory is unnecessary. God will see to it that we are fit for heaven and the New Creation.
And when he does, in that favourite verse of babysitters, ‘We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.’ By the grace of God, he will make us worthy of his presence. And there will be a degree of recognition due to continuity, although exactly what that is becomes another difficult question. Suffice to say it must be about more than physical likeness.
Who knows, maybe even some of my music collection will survive!