the power of the resurrection

396467780000-Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 10.59.09 AMGrant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever.

We stood on the shore of Lake Geneva, gathered for the baptism service of two young members of our church family—a brother and sister. Our pastor spoke of their entering the water as Christ entered death. He reminded them that in submitting to baptism, they were announcing their identity; they were renouncing darkness and entering a new life of trusting in and following Christ. They would not do this through their own strength but through the power of Christ, through the power of his resurrection.

Power implies authority. Power implies the ability to make another person do whatever the person in power wants. Even when power is used benignly, it generally carries an unspoken threat. Power separates those with it from those without it. It diminishes those who are being controlled.

Power is too often seen as Might. Force. Control. Dominance.

I thought all this as I watched our pastor bless the water of the lake—the rather large lake! I thought of the story of Jesus calming the wind and the waves. He had authority and power over the storm, power that was so evident the disciples were terrified by it. “Who is this,” they asked each other, “that even the wind and waves obey him?”

The brother and sister, pastor, and youth pastor walked out into the lake. We followed into the shallows. They went further, till the water reached their waists. Together the pastors dipped first one of them and then the other backwards into the water. I saw their bodies resist the descent. I saw their mental effort to overcome this natural resistance, to release themselves into their pastors’ arms.

Years ago I watched the movie Schindler’s List. The overarching story of the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust has certainly stuck with me, but I can only picture a couple scenes from the film. In one of them Oskar Schindler is on a balcony with the German leader of a prison camp, a man who exults in his complete power to arbitrarily torture and kill the Jews in his camp. Schindler has a different view of power. “Power,” he says, “is when we have every justification to kill—and we don’t.”

Power, he continues, is when we instead extend mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus had power. He calmed raging waves and howling winds with the sound of his voice. He certainly could have controlled the mere men who stripped and beat his body and drove nails through his feet and wrists. Yet he submitted to them, to their assumptions of power.

Did Jesus’ body, like the bodies of our young church members, naturally resist their force? Did his knowledge that he had power—that he could have called down legions of angels, that he could have controlled the very iron of the nails—battle against his intention to submit?

I don’t know what went on inside Jesus’ soul, but I know what he did. I know the nails stayed in his wrists. I know his body remained on the cross. I know he allowed people to taunt him.

I know Jesus willingly died.

In retrospect we see the power of the resurrection fully and beautifully displayed in the crucifixion.

I can’t remember every detail of the scene with Schindler and the prison camp leader. I do remember the camp leader sitting in a chair looking out over hundreds of emaciated, broken Jews. I remember his pleasure in harming them.

In my memory his fists are clenched.

Jesus’ hands, though, were open.

Open in pain, fingers stretched wide with the suffering and brokenness of the world.

Open in pardon for those harming him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Open in compassion for his mother: “Woman, here is your son … Here is your mother.”

Open in acceptance of those rightfully accused: “Today you will join me in paradise.”

The hair and clothes of the two siblings dripped with water. We waded back to shore and gathered in a circle.

Our pastor prayed, “…you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” He held his hands out toward us. “The peace of the Lord be always with you.”

“And also with you,” we answered. I noticed many of us mirrored the pastor’s gesture, stretching our open hands, palms up, toward the center of the circle.

This, I thought, is the power of the resurrection: the power to live against our natural tendency to resist, to close our hands in fists. Only with resurrection power can we live open-handed toward God, palms bare, willing to reveal the emptiness of our hands. willing to hold our hands out to God, open to receive everything from Him, open to receive grace.

We joined hands then, and in the gentle pressure of my neighbors’ hands in mine, I realized this, too, is done in resurrection power. The power of the resurrection enables us to live with hands outstretched to others, ready to link fingers with the reaching hands of the suffering, the broken, the oppressed, and the widow, and willing, even, to grab hold of the clenched fists of the oppressors, the accusers, the guilty and the condemned.

Grant, O Lord, that all (we) who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection…

Amen

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Catechesis

I took this picture when I was at Westminster Abbey in January--this is etched on the outside of the entrance.

I took this picture when I was at Westminster Abbey in January–this is etched on the outside of the entrance.

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: To glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

When one of my Bible teachers at the small Christian school I attended as a child introduced me and my classmates to the Westminster shorter catechism, I knew none of its history. I remember, even then, being a little surprised. I thought of catechism as a “Catholic thing,” something from my father’s Italian, Bogota, New Jersey childhood, and it was unexpected at my fundamental, non-denominational school in the deep South in the late 70s.

But there it was.

I don’t remember how long we studied it, but that first question-and-answer set stuck with me. “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” I don’t know that I thought much about its meaning in childhood, but when I was an adult, and the phrases jumped into my head one day, I was shocked by the second part of the answer. My upbringing completely supported the idea that my supreme goal in life should be to glorify God…

But to enjoy Him?!

I didn’t have the first idea how to go about that, but still–memorized in youth–the phrase stayed and popped up again in surprising moments.

That’s what catechism and liturgy are supposed to do (well, one of the things); they’re supposed to stick. Even when they have become rote, they do not lose their power; they are just hidden, waiting for the time when you are ready to receive the meaning and the Lord’s work.

Several years ago, while working for the marketing department at a small college, I wrote a news release about one of the Bible professor’s recent publications, an article on the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter’s use of catechism to ground young people in the faith. I thought it was fascinating, and I remembered that article when I recently ran across an archived piece at Christianity Today by J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett titled “The Lost Art of Catechesis,” It gives a great history of catechesis and some wonderful arguments for using it more intentionally now.

So, if you are interested in exploring some catechisms for yourself, I’ve included some options below.

To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism

A Baptist Catechism

Westminster Shorter Catechism

New City Catechism (adapted by Tim Keller and Sam Shammas from the Reformation Catechisms

Confession from the foot of the Cross

NOTE: For those readers who’ve read the confessional living series I wrote earlier in the year, this may feel a bit repetitive. It’s an essay I wrote for a recent contest, and it summarizes and builds on that series. 

The electrical pole in the foreground reminded me of the Cross. I took this last week during our vacation in Michigan--what a great time!

The electrical pole in the foreground reminded me of the Cross. I took this last week during our vacation in Michigan–what a great time!

“Liturgical prayer” was an oxymoron in the churches in which I grew up. I’d barely even heard of the Book of Common Prayer, much less seen one, until I was 43.

That was when, by choice, I visited a church where the bulletin was more like a small book, and the congregation recited, all together, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer…

And the Confession of Sin.

When the kneelers were pulled out, almost simultaneously, my inner cynic stood up. I thought, “This will be rote, a mere formality.” But then I spoke the words: “…we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done …and left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; …not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

I spoke them not alone, but in chorus, for my own lack of love and for the lack we all share.

From that morning forward, this prayer of confession began changing me. I gained a fuller sense of sin; I understood corporate sin in a way I never had before; I began to ask more regularly for hidden sin to be revealed in myself and in the Church so we might “delight in (God’s) will and walk in (His) ways to the glory of (His) Name.”

A year into my journey with this prayer, I went to a party. I, like everyone else there, had been invited to the hostess’s house to buy jewelry made by women rescued from sex trafficking.

Finished with shopping, I joined a group of chatting women. I knew all of them, knew the churches they attended. These women would be considered core members of churches described as “solid, Bible-believing, sound.”

One woman mentioned a Bible study she’d recently led. “We studied James, and the most surprising part of it for me was the emphasis on confession,” she shared. “We don’t do much of that as churches now. I don’t do a lot of confessing personally. I mean, I do when I’ve said something sharp to one of my kids or my husband, but other than sins like that, I’m not sure what to confess.”

I’m not sure what to confess. We don’t do much confessing in our evangelical churches now.

Why is this? Scripture lists many sins specifically, and American evangelical Christianity clearly has its finger on sexual and violent sins. Beyond this, books abound today reminding us of a wide range of ills caused by our common and individual sins. Pastor-writer Jerry Bridges pulled the rug on “respectable” sins such as gossip, selfishness, pride, and anger; Ron Sider exposed the sin of materialism in a world where devastating poverty and injustice abound, with organizations like World Vision and the IJM making that poverty and injustice very visible; and activists like Shane Claiborne, Dr. John Perkins, and Eugene Cho decry the American church’s historic and current lack of involvement in racial and social injustice.

Yet this kind of specific-sin confession, though necessary, is not enough, and often, at least for myself, I’ve found specific-sin confession alone leads to attempts at self-justification and to pride. If it’s an item on a list, then I can “work” on it till it’s crossed off, and if I whittle that list down, I’m getting “better.” This viewpoint naturally leads to a superficial view of sin. Did I make it through my day without raising my voice? Then anger’s off the list! Yes!

This is not the case when I confess my sinfulness rather than simply the sins I see, when I acknowledge that I live in violation of the greatest commandment—loving God with my entirety and my neighbor as myself. In this kind of confession I am reminded I am incapable of that kind of love, and I see God as Other, as Holy, as Good.

As my understanding of this grows, I realize anew that only at the foot of the cross is my great need met. I put down roots in the bloodstained earth, and regular, genuine confession of my sinfulness helps me stay there. Washed by the flow from above and drawing from the infinite depths beneath, my heart is softened for the Spirit’s work of conviction, for the revelation of specific sins, even those hidden from myself.

At the foot of the cross, distinctions of all kinds fade away, and I pray not as the Pharisee did in Luke 18 but as the tax collector, for I see myself on even ground, made equal with all humanity by the most-important, common sin of a lack of love for God and neighbor. This leads to my understanding the confessions of the Old Testament prophets, who often repented in the first person plural: “We have sinned; we have acted unjustly; we have not loved You.” The Holy Spirit enables me to acknowledge my complicity in sins of national and global injustice, to see how my own materialism, selfishness, and silence contribute to them.

So confession leads to a deeper understanding of our sinfulness, but its greater purpose is to lead us beyond that as well. The cross is where mercy and grace triumph over our sin, where the same Holy Spirit who convicts also compels us to share the abundant love we’ve received. The Confession of Sin ends with these words: “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

I long for “(God’s) will and ways” for the churches in my area: I pray for greater racial reconciliation and harmony; less materialism; more significant roles for women in the church; deep, life-impacting passions for all kinds of injustice…

Yet efforts for these are shortsighted, selfish, and temporary unless they begin at the foot of the cross.

Authentic confession takes and keeps us there.

Living confessionally

I have been praying the Confession (from the Book of Common Prayer) in church now for a little over a year. More recently, it has become a daily prayer.

The same words, over and over.

I understand that liturgy, through its sheer repetition, can become meaningless. The most wonderful prayers, though filled beginning to end with Truth, can be rote when they are said without thought.

But my experience with this prayer in particular has been quite the opposite: it gains new meaning nearly every time I pray it. Because of this, I have been thinking a great deal about confession, not just the actual prayer but the idea of living “confessionally,” individually and as the Church, the body of Christ. I’ve not given much brainpower to this idea before now, and as I’ve thought about it, it’s grown in its significance for me. I’m planning to write a short series on it. I hope this is not simply a one-way presentation but that it prompts discussion. I feel I still have a great deal to learn about confession (as I do about so very many things), and I would love to learn WITH you.

Today’s post is simply the prayer itself and the prayer/benediction that always follows it.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;

That we may delight in your will,

And walk in your ways,

To the glory of your Name.

Amen

Almighty God, have mercy on us,

Forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Strengthen us in all goodness,

And by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.

Amen.