A Protestant Equivalent to Lent (2018)

Lent is a season for self-denial and meditation, observed primarily in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

This year, Lent is from February 14 to March 29 and it ends Saturday after Good Friday. We’re now about half way through the season.

Those who observe Lent set apart the 40 days before Easter Sunday, but this does not include Sundays because they are days to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection year-around!

Many today who observe Lent might deprive themselves of something from a list they think important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.

This time of self-denial calls believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, charity, or special services of worship to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and miraculous resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. It was Billy Graham speaking on discipleship who once noted that Christ did not say we were to deny ourselves of “something;” he said we were to deny “ourselves.”

This kind of denial is saying no to the self that keeps wanting to rear its ugly head and resist our full surrender to the life Christ calls us to – a life that bows fully to his Lordship and the joyful service of others.

But Lent has an element that should be appealing to all serious Christians.

During Lent the self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of self-examination, repentance prayer, and meditation. Consider the call of Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2.

Meditation does not mean setting the mind loose to wander; it is “focused reflection” and it takes serious effort.

The three special times of the day for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before settling for sleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) special times of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.

Christian meditation can include four stages: (1) the careful and deliberate reading of a brief Scripture passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) a conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.

Disciplined pondering can be made a time for taking stock of the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on one’s relationships, praying for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to those things that matter most.

If these thoughts prompt you to increase your times of meditation and devotion leading up to Easter, I suggest you choose for pondering the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life and resurrection (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).

Meditation is indeed a Christian discipline and when it engages our souls it creates focus and insight, and often repentance and joy.

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Christmas Greetings, And a Personal Note

Christmas Greetings to my readers near and far! This is a season of both joy and hope — joy that Messiah has come and hope that through him the long term future is assured.

A shared note: This week Kathleen and I have celebrated our 70th Christmas together.  Seventy years ago, on December 20, 1947, we stood side by side under a homemade arch in a simple cottage on North Street in Niagara Falls, Ontario.  There, we exchanged marriage vows.

We were only 21, and unsophisticated by today’s standards, but the conservative religious backgrounds from which we both came, and the generally positive attitude toward marriage permeating society at the time gave us cultural as well as Christian standards to live by.

Those solemn promises we made under that arch before God and to each other — for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health — we believe made us husband and wife in the sight of both God and man.

We enter our 71st year together knowing that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ guided us faithfully through the past 70 years.  And we are confident that He will guide us in the uncharted days ahead.

On several occasions people who learn of the long span of our marriage have asked Kathleen, “What’s the secret?” Her one-word answer has always been the same: “Respect.”

That may at first sound too simple for anything so complex as the “total shared union” marriage turns out to be. The Bible calls it appropriately a “one flesh” union which must mean it involves a shared identity, family responsibilities, resources, sleeping quarters, opinions, successes, and on and on. In a sense, two become one. If respect is lacking, each of these areas of life can become a source of conflict.

We know that after a commitment to mutual respect is made, lots of details are left to be worked out as the relationship grows. Every marriage has its moments of stress, disagreement, disappointment, misunderstanding. The key to a strong, satisfying marriage is to retain respect as the umbrella under which adjustments are made, opinions reconciled, and misunderstandings corrected.

Mutual respect is a good cornerstone on which to build the day-to-day ins-and-outs of this shared life. In a strong marriage there’s much more than respect involved in the relationship, but there’s never less. Disrespect, whether occasional or constant, gradually chokes out love.

The Apostle Paul had it right when he summarized his simple instructions to what may have been a congregation of first generation Christians in the pagan city of Ephesus:  

…Each one of you (husbands) should love his wife as himself, and wives should respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:13 CEB). That requires respect shown in both directions for sure.

A blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year to all!!

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How Joseph Struggled over Mary’s Pregnancy and How God Comforted Him

Luke tells the Advent story from the perspective of Mary the Virgin (Luke 1:26 – 38). Matthew gives greater attention to the way Joseph got the information and how he dealt with it (Matthew 2:18 – 25).

Joseph was engaged to marry Mary. Engagement in first century Israel was like a first phase of marriage, and much more binding than it is today.

When a man and woman were pledged to marry, their engagement was sealed by a public ceremony. Matthew gives us a sense of the firmness of the relationship between engagement and marriage: First he writes that Mary “was pledged to be married to Joseph (v.18). But in the next verse, though nothing has changed, he refers to Joseph as Mary’s husband (v.19).

Moreover, to break an engagement required the signing of divorce papers. And if the male should die during the engagement his pledged bride was regarded in society as a widow.

Then at the appointed time (sometimes after time allotted for the groom to build a house) the marriage itself would be celebrated with a flourish and the husband would take his bride into his home where the marriage would be consummated.

Imagine Joseph’s shock when word reached him that during their engagement Mary was found to be pregnant. Questions must have raced through his mind. There are indications that he struggled with the question: How shall I cancel my sacred pledge? 

To characterize Joseph, Matthew uses only one descriptive word: He was a “righteous” man. That meant he was a serious practicing Jew; a respecter of God’s law; a religious man set on doing God’s will. Society would not likely have looked down upon him if he had divorced Mary in a very public and humiliating way.

But his righteous character had a compassionate counterbalance. Though profoundly disappointed, his love for Mary was protective. He decided he would divorce her quietly so as to cause her as little humiliation as possible.

At that point, an angel appeared to him in a dream to help him through his quandary.

The angel addressed him as Joseph, son of David — David being Israel’s most honored King from whose line the Messiah was expected to come to Israel. 

The angel said, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus (meaning Jehovah the helper) because he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew adds the following words from the prophecies of Isaiah made 700 years earlier: A virgin shall conceive and the son she bears will be called Immanuel — God with us (Isaiah 7:14).

Jehovah the helper? God with us? Joseph would need those words. There were to be hard days ahead as he took Mary into his house to live out the pregnancy. Though the community would not understand, he was resolute both as a righteous man and Mary’s protector.

His name shall be Jesus! That’s what the angel announced. He will be Immanuel — God with us!  That’s what the prophet Isaiah prophesied!

Advent brings home to us afresh those words. In the birth of Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit and the obedience of Joseph and Mary God came into the human family. In the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is with his people to this day. And to this day he has the power to save us from our sins.

Jesus! God with us! Savior! Oh blessed Christmas!

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When Mary Meets an Angel — What Then?

The Annunciation by John William Waterhouse, 1914. Public Domain.

In Saint Luke’s compelling story of the Virgin Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, the chief actor is God himself. (Luke 1: 26.)

It is He who sends his angel to Mary with a specific message. And, even though myriads of angels appear elsewhere in the Scriptures, only two — Gabriel, and Michael (Jude 9) — are named. This suggests Gabriel’s great elevation.

Mary lived in a little town called Nazareth in Galilee. She was committed to be married to a man named Joseph who was a descendant of Israel’s ancient King David.

In those biblical times marriage could be solemnized at an early age. One historian suggests that Mary might have been as young as 14.

If the Eternal God would send an elevated angel with an understandable message for a fourteen-year-old, the message must have been really important. So it turned out to be.

As Gabriel appeared to Mary he greeted her, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (CEB)

Rejoice indeed. But that was not her first impulse. Gabriel’s words troubled her greatly. She puzzled over them; what could they mean?

The angel addressed her fear, “Don’t be afraid.”  He then gave Mary his message — a message never delivered before and never to be heard again: “You are going to be the mother of a son, and you will call him Jesus” — the Messiah.

Gabriel went on: “Your son will be great and will be known as the Son of the Most High.” The Most High? That’s the Almighty God. That’s the Sovereign over all creation. The angel continued, “the Lord God will give him the throne of his forefather, David, and he will be king over the people of Jacob forever. His reign shall never end.” (JBP)

Mary asked the obvious question: “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1: 34).

Gabriel, answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will overshadow you. Your child will therefore be called holy — the Son of God.” (JBP)

These words sound like the echo of Genesis 1:2 at the moment the Creator called all creation into being: “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said….“ (Genesis 1:2). This birth was going to be unique — a miraculous act of God.

Once, Gabriel referred to the eternal God as “The Lord” and twice as “The Most High” and then, as “The Lord God,” ending his part of the conversation with the assurance that “… Nothing is impossible with God.” God was the authority behind Gabriel’s message.

But in this exchange the Virgin Mary was far from passive. Once she understood, she declared, “I am the Lord’s servant.” There was no long struggle; her heart was already obedient to the Lord and she responded quickly and with great freedom of spirit.

Luke tells us nothing about Mary’s heritage, or her physical appearance, or even her location. The issue was her willingness to be God’s servant in his great miracle.

She concluded with: “May it be to me as you (Gabriel) have said.” In effect: I’m ready for whatever the Lord wants.

The angelic messenger vanished: mission accomplished! In time, Mary was God’s agent to provide a Savior for the world. We honor her greatly for accepting with humility her part in the drama of the world’s redemption.

CEB, Contemporary English Bible; JBP, JB Phillips Paraphrase

 

 

Re-Post: Getting Ready for Easter

[The following piece was first posted March 5, 2012]

On Sunday, April 8 of this year, millions of Christians on all five continents will gather, not only in magnificent cathedrals and traditional churches, but also in worship centers, store front chapels, and even thatched huts.

Some will risk their lives to attend. They will be there to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they listen with intensity to resurrection Scriptures and sing with joy resurrection hymns.

But individual persons in these throngs will differ from one another in their grasp of resurrection truth and also in the intensity of their faith in Christ. What will make that difference? One possibility will be how well they have prepared heart and mind during the weeks prior to Easter Sunday.

The importance of preparation for Resurrection Sunday has been formalized in church practices since as far back as the fourth century A.D. when the forty days prior to Easter Sunday were set apart for that very purpose. During these forty days of Lent, special observances are encouraged – such as fasting, acts of self-denial, increase in the giving of alms, etc.

My idea is to live devotionally during those days with the Gospel accounts of the last days of our Lord’s life up to his crucifixion. To do this, my heart is drawn to the Gospel according to John. His account has 21 chapters; yet, as early as chapter 12, he introduces his readers to the events of one week — the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. So, chapters 12 to 19 – eight of its 21 chapters — are devoted to the events of that one single week. If a third of John’s gospel covers only one week of Jesus’ 33-year lifespan, that tells us they are very important.

Please note how Chapter 12 begins: Martha serves a dinner in Jesus’ honor. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, is at table. In an act of extravagant devotion, Mary breaks open a jar of the expensive perfume, nard, and pours the whole content on Jesus’ feet. The fragrance fills the house.

Judas is openly offended and complains that this ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But John, writing much later, tells the truth about Judas: he “… was a thief; as keeper of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:6).

What a wide range of concerns in that room! Just so in this Easter season: some will love the Lord with the warmth and sincerity of Mary; others may be present but kept from worship by blockages of greed, pride or sensuality. How appropriate to test our love by a verse of an old hymn:

More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee;
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea, more love, O Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee; more love to Thee.

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Re-post: A Protestant Equivalent to Lent

[The following was first posted March 28, 2011]

We’re about half way through Lent. This year, Lent is March 8 to April 23. It ends Saturday after Good Friday. It’s an ancient religious practice followed mainly by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Those who observe Lent include the 40 days before Easter Sunday. During that time, Sundays are not counted because they are intended to be days of celebration year-around – Christ is risen!

For the masses, Lenten practices are not usually severe. Observers deprive themselves of something important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.

These self-deprivations are supposed to call believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, financial giving, or service to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection on Easter.

The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. I believe it was Billy Graham speaking on discipleship who once noted that Christ did not say we were to deny ourselves of “something;” he said we were to deny “ourselves.” The denial of self is more than saying no to the Internet or coffee, meat or movies, and so forth, except perhaps in a symbolic way; it is saying no to “self” – the self that keeps wanting to rear its ugly head and resist our full surrender to the life Christ calls us to – a life that bows fully to his Lordship and the joyful service of others.

But Lent has an element that should be of interest, even appealing, to all serious Christians. The self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of prayer and meditation, by repentance and self examination. Meditation is biblical. Consider what God’s word says (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2).

There will be an upsurge of attendance at Protestant services on Easter Sunday. It is sort of traditional. Women especially used to appear in new Easter outfits, a custom tracing back to the celebration of new life in Christ. That practice from my observation no longer seems to be the big thing it once was.

But think of the spiritual impact there would be if hordes of Protestant worshipers were to prepare themselves for the day by several weeks of daily meditation. Will you take the challenge?

Meditation for Christians is not humming a sound or turning the mind loose. It is “focused thinking” and it takes serious effort. Whether practiced by sitting quietly in a chair, kneeling by a bed, sitting on a porch, or walking back and forth in seclusion, Christian meditation can be set in four stages: (1) the deliberate reading of a Scripture verse or passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.

The three special times of the day marked especially for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before falling asleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) a special time of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.

This sort of disciplined pondering can be a time for taking stock on the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on the condition of one’s relationships, asking for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to tune in on those things that matter most.

If these thoughts prompt you to increase your times of meditation and devotion leading up to Easter, I suggest you choose the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).

Take one verse at a time. Set your mind on it. If thoughts wander draw them back. If light breaks forth and you want to carry the verse through the day, write it on piece of paper and keep it near. Meditation is indeed a discipline but when it engages our souls it is even better than nourishment to our bodies.

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Advent: Do You Want to Experience it More Deeply?

AdventTo add depth to your faith and ardor to your devotion to the Lord this Advent season, spend extra time pondering the first sentence of John’s Gospel.

He writes, “In the beginning was the Word….” — on the face of it a perplexing line. Why didn’t he just write, “In the beginning was Jesus?” That’s who the fourth gospel is about, after all.

Or, John could have written: “In the beginning was the Messiah.” That term would be familiar to the Jews but not so familiar to others. He wanted both Jews and Gentiles to understand what he had to say.

Here’s the background:

When John wrote his Gospel, he was an old man living in Ephesus, where there were large populations of both Greeks and Jews.

To make his message attractive to the Greek mind while at the same time remaining true to Jewish thought, he had to find the right word to introduce Jesus to both.

Here’s why “Word” worked for his Greek readers:

More than five hundred years earlier, a Greek thinker named Heraclitus had lived in Ephesus. This man wrestled with the notion that all of existence was in flux. Nothing seemed to stand still.

To illustrate, he noted that one couldn’t step into the same river twice. If you step into the water, then step out of the water, then step back in, he reasoned, you are not stepping into the same river.

But if everything was in process of change all the time, Heraclitus pondered, why was all of existence not in chaos? He concluded that there was some unifying, ordering principle or influence over all. He called this the Logos – which meant “word” or “reason.” This idea had survived in Greek thought for more than 500 years.

Jewish thought had a similar idea. God’s “word” is presented in the scriptures over and over again as imbued with power. The story of Creation bears this out. In Genesis 1, eight times we read: “And God said” — and each time, His word brought an additional component of creation into being.

Jeremiah writes, “Is not my word like fire?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). From the Psalms we read, “By the word of God were the heavens made” (Psalm 33:6). William Barclay writes, “the phrase the ‘word of God’ became one of the commonest forms of Jewish expression.”

In the light of all this, John concluded, Logos (word), was the best expression to open the mind of the Greek reader to who Jesus was and why he came, and at the same time to be true to the Jewish understanding as John talked about Christ — the Messiah’s first coming.

By saying “in the beginning,” John adds a new and deeper understanding for both Greek and Jew. In this way, he asserts that Jesus always existed; he is eternal!

And, he further adds the staggering news that, indeed, “The Word was God.”

The sentence with which John begins his good news account can stir us deeply: Jesus, the Word, is eternal. He is God, and in him God came into our sphere as an infant. We discover who he is and we call him Jesus, our Lord.

That truth, if reflected on prayerfully again and again during Advent, will deepen faith and Christian joy.

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