Armed With Steele

Andrew Peterson (whose new book on creativity is out and amazing) has spoken about art as a blending together of honesty, beauty, and truth. If you put together honesty and truth without much thought for beauty, you get most of what passes for Christian music on the radio. If you have honesty and beauty, but no clear expression of the truth, you get something like Coldplay or Brian Fallon. When you get all three, you get someone like Rich Mullins. But when, Peterson says, when you have truth and beauty, but no honesty, the result is most hymns.

Now, on principle, I suppose I would’t disagree too much. But two of my favorite hymnists break that rule. Perhaps they are the Rich Mullins (Mullinses?) of hymnody: William Cowper (pronounced “cooper”) and Anne Steele.

 “Dear Refuge of my weary soul, 
On thee, when sorrows rise, 
On thee, when waves of trouble roll, 
My fainting hope relies. 
But O! when gloomy doubts prevail, 
I fear to call thee mine; 
The springs of comfort seem to fail, 
And all my hopes decline.”

That’s a hymn by Anne Steele. Sandra McCracken has popularized it, but Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace has really been at the forefront of bringing her poetry back into the conversation (let alone adding incredible music to her words). You can read about her life here. But the lines of her hymns have been such honey and moonlight for me because they combine honesty, beauty, and truth in a way that speaks to the wreck that I am.

How oft, alas, this wretched heart
Has wandered from the Lord,
How oft my roving thoughts depart,
Forgetful of his word!
Yet sovereign mercy calls, “Return!”
Dear Lord, and may I come?
My vile ingratitude I mourn;
O take the wanderer home.

That’s a Tuesday for me. My prayers are usually some inelegant, muttered version of “O take the wanderer home.” I wander often. My heart is a rover. And yet the unstoppable love that keeps me from going off the cliff calls me back. Even in my “vile ingratitude,” he calls me back because I am his.

She knows what it’s like to have a fainting hope and to breathe sorrows. She teaches me to ask of God, “Unveil thy beauties to my sight that I might love thee more.” I hope you can find her on Spotify or Pandora or wherever you get your earfood.

If you’re walking through this world, it’s nice to be armed with Steele.

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Of Banquets and Blowhards

You Are Cordially Invited…

I hate RSVPs. Invitations, as a concept, make me uncomfortable. On the one hand, I don’t like being singled out. I never have enjoyed eyes upon me. And then, there’s the inevitable sting of envy. “Oh, Mary Sue is having her thirtieth baby? Well, that’s great, why won’t she just share!” or “Oh, Bobby Ray is graduating from high school? Why didn’t he ask me if I wanted to graduate from high school, too?” They’re little reminders of what’s not in front of me and that bothers me.

But the worst part about invitations is the decision of whether or not to go. Will I miss out on something else by attending? Or will I miss out on attending because of something else? I might not know anybody at this shindig. I’ll have to buy a gift? Oh, it’s on a Saturday. Yeah, Saturday’s are the days when I don’t leave the premises. Sorry. That’s why, for a certain breed, cancellations are wonderful. Even if you absolutely love the person who invited you out for coffee, if they have to last minute cancel, it’s the temporal equivalent of finding $5 under the couch cushion.

Y/N?

I’ve been spending some time in St. Luke’s Gospel, in chapter fourteen, and I notice that a word keeps popping up. In twenty one verses, it shows up in various forms a total of seven times. My training (and also common sense) immediately tells me that word matters in the text. And it’s the Greek word kaleo ( καλέω ). It’s not quite the same as an RSVP because, in that case, you have the option to attend or not. Kaleo is a summons. There’s authority behind it that qualifies it as a summons. It’s deployment orders for a reservist. It’s an audience with the king. It’s a parent telling the child to come here now. It’s less a suggestion than it is a reality.

It’s translated as “invitation” in most English Bibles, but that’s because Jesus is telling stories about wedding feasts and dinner parties while at a dinner to which he was invited. But in those parables, God is the one behind the invitations. And so, they should be seen more as summons. And one’s response to such invitations isn’t a matter of preference, but of obedience.

I’ve been reading Alan Kreider’s excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, and in it, he talks about the types of people that were attracted to Christianity and what that “invitation” to taste the wedding feast looked like in the first handful of centuries after Christ’s ascension. Jesus, in Luke 14, tells those who would host a dinner to invite the poor and the crippled and the sick (v12-14) because that’s what God does (v15-24) when he summons people to the kingdom. The proud and powerful make excuses and dodge the invite (in disobedience and indifference). They bluster and bloviate about why they can’t be there. And the underclasses, instead, get to go to the feast.

Kreider notes that much the same thing actually happened. He notes that Celsus, a great enemy of the faith in the 2nd century, complained about us because the gospel appealed to “wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels.” These were the scum of the earth that brainwashed children and “stupid women” with their doctrine. These were people, in early Greco-Roman culture, who were voiceless. They were the pavement of society. And yet, they were largely the ones that checked “yes, my lord” on the summons.

Just As I Am

They didn’t pretend to be something they were not. Unlike Cinderella, they weren’t magically dressed up in pretentious niceties so that they could appear like they belonged at the party. They come from the highways and byways so that God’s house may be filled. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk.14:11). And the humbled were exalted by being summoned. The expenses of those who were unable to repay were covered. And we can never pay God back for calling us to himself. Instead, we simply offer that same summons to others. And how they respond (exalting themselves or humbling themselves) is between them and the host of the banquet.

“A Tree That Looks at God All Day…”

We have a dozen trees on the property.

It makes us sound like farmers or ranchers to say “on the property,” as if we have a back 40 to clear and plow. Our house is cozy and built in 1954. We mostly own grass. But out of that grass, we have twelve beautiful trees.

I forget who said it, but God didn’t merely make “trees.” He made oaks and maples and aspens and hickories. His artwork is utterly specific. I can’t decide if birds got me into trees or if Tolkien did. It was probably a combination of both.

When I worked as a shelver at a library, I snatched a wonderful book out of a pile that was being phased out of circulation. It’s called The Trees of Missouri by Don Kurz with illustrations by Paul Nelson. The state commissioned it in 2003 and I’ve enjoyed it since around 2012. It’s been a helpful friend to me.

On the east (facing the street), we have three silver maples. Silver maples are my absolute favorite trees. The name is delicious, but it’s actually the shape of the leaf that does me in. I haven’t found another tree that can best it. Silver maples are one of the earliest trees in Missouri to flower. They like the edges of streams, like the little creek on our northern property line. Their “whirlybirds” clog up our gutter, but delight my son to no end. I grew up calling them helicopter seeds.

The elderly silver maple with the ivy shawl is named Gwendolyn. The little one next to her is Jack. And the large fella caddycorner to the silver lady is Sylvester.

And then we have three sugar maples in a line along the south of the house. They are unnamed and untapped. Literally, I have yet to tap them for maple syrup. I bought a syrup kit a few years back, but I’ve yet to be of the right mind when the temperature is just right. It needs to be cool enough in the winter, but above freezing so that the sap will flow well. One of these days…

And then we have the sycamores. There’s a supporting character in the back yard outside of the fence, but he’s mostly just there to drop branches right where I need to mow. Treebeard, however, is the massive sycamore in our backyard. He dominates the landscape. When we bought the house in 2015, I dutifully measured his trunk to determine his age. While I can’t recall the exact number, I know it was only a few years old when our town was founded. By that reckoning, he’s easily over 160 years old.

It startles me, having something so massive and ancient living behind us while we sleep. It’s probably 110-120 feet tall, dwarfing our little cottage. Come winter, the goldfinches will feast on the seeds that Treebeard offers. The Osage Native Americans used sycamore inner-bark to make tea for flu season. As innocent as that makes our Ent sound, I’m still uncomfortably in awe of that enormous organism. I don’t want to even think about how far his fingers extend beneath the gopher-pocked earth.

Huddling awkwardly in the sycamore’s shadow is an eastern red cedar. She’s balding a bit on one side, but the fruit is lovely. Cedar waxwings love them, but I’ve yet to have them visit. Red cedars from the forests in Virginia and Tennessee used to provide us with the nation’s pencils before the incense cedar became the more popular choice. If Treebeard is old, Juniper (that’s her unoriginal name) might be downright antediluvian. Well, not quite. But some eastern red cedars down in the Ozarks have been aged at over 1,000 years. I hope Juniper keeps the faith.

And then there’s Dr. Seuss. He’s our other evergreen. I’m not entirely sure what he is. Possibly a cypress. His top is slumped sideways like a dog that just heard a strange noise. I respect his privacy so I’ll most likely leave him unidentified. He guards the corner of our yard, keeping watch on the two streets that entrap us.

Three silver maples. Three sugar maples. A mysterious conifer. Two sycamores. An eastern red cedar. There’s also a lackluster silver maple up by the south curb. But we don’t talk about him.

Rounding out the dozen is our Rose of Sharon. She’s currently in bloom and it’s incredible. My mom was the first to identify her. I didn’t even know she was there until our first summer here. Hibiscus syriacus is, as her given name suggests, not a Missouri native. Possibly Syrian (more likely Chinese or Indian), she made her debut on American shores around 1600. They don’t often fight the local vegetation except in Castlewood State Park. Don Kurz actually makes a note that it aggressively spread out into that St. Louis park and made it a stronghold for Sharon. That’s her name, by the way. Again, we save our creativity for other things. She holds sway with her purple buds by our overgrown garden.

Sharon.

“Only God can make a tree.”

Rood Dreams

The killing tree.

Roman crucifixion was a brutal and barbaric punishment reserved for slaves and thugs. And it is that cross, that holy instrument of torture that was set aside for Christ, for my salvation.

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet.2:24).

Around 750 A.D., an anonymous poet wrote a piece called The Dream of the Rood. “Rood” is the Old English word for “cross.” It’s a remarkable telling of the crucifixion from the point of view of the rood.

The author highlights the shame and the glory of that killing tree. Jewels and blood adorn it. It was tragedy and triumph all together. Today is what the Lutherans and Anglican call “Holy Cross Day.”

It is the tree of glory on which almighty God suffered for the many sins of mankind and for the old deeds of Adam. There he tasted death, but still the Lord rose again with his might power, to the benefit of men” (lines 68-70, para.10).

Enjoy.

The Exorcist

I remember when I finally saw the classic horror film, The Exorcist. It’s reputation preceded it. I’d seen clips and references for years. But at some point in college, it was on TV and I committed.

I remember laughing a lot. Maybe it was too late at night and I was tired, but I definitely smirked more than the director intended. It just seemed- what’s the word? Campy? Outdated? Hammy? Pea soup and levitating beds.

I was underwhelmed and moved on. But if the themes of that movie is true (the reality of aggressive evil, the vulnerability of humanity, and victory of good), perhaps the shtick of that movie does more than just fail to hold up. There’s a trivialization that comes with it. If all it costs to see a portrayal of spiritual realities is a movie ticket, they’re just another commodity to be consumed or ignored at my convenience.

The ancient Christian Church had an approach to exorcism that I find fascinating and instructive (if we can curb our “chronological snobbery”). The brilliant 2nd century theologian Origen tells a story of what happened once when he was preaching on the call of Hannah (1 Sam.2). A demon-possessed person in the congregation stands up and starts screaming. Origen calmly lead the church in repeating Hannah’s phrase, “My heart exults in the Lord,” until the spirit left this person. As a result, many of the people who had been skeptics were converted. (See Origen, Homilies on Samuel, 1.10.)

What?

What do I make of that in 2019? Is it campy and outdated? Well, certainly, the 2nd century didn’t seem to see spiritual realities as commodities to be bought for the price of admission. Origen knew that this sort of thing just happened. And when the power of God squashed the enemy so visibly, a lot of people were moved to conversion. Origen called them the “traces of that Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove [that] are still preserved among Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsus, 1.46).

In 2nd century Gaul (modern France area), Irenaeus tells us that Christians “in Jesus’ name…drive out devils, so that those who have been thus cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church.” Tertullian knew this. When demons are exorcised through prayer, it “regularly makes Christians” (Apologies, 23.18). In the early 4th century, Lactantius, writing from the imperial capital of Trier, reported that when people struggling with demonic forces experience or taste the power of Christ, they discover that is more powerful than the evil that oppresses them. As a result, the church was able to “bring a great many people to God, in wonderful fashion” (Divine Institutes, 5.22.24).

I recently began reading Justin Martyr’s first and second apologies from the early 2nd century. He points out four specific sins that he thought he could trace directly to demonic oppression and enslavement: sexual compulsions, the magic arts, the desire to increase wealth/property, and hateful violence. But when Christians prayed for grace, Christ freed those who were enslaved. The pattern seems to hold. When evil was exorcised and the person was freed, they were able to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ alone.

Exorcism took on an almost formal role in discipleship later on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before a catechumen (a person who had been learning the faith) was baptized, the exorcist would come alongside this baby believer as the last step before getting triply dunked. And yes, churches had exorcists. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian- these fathers all just assumed that any Christian could exorcise demons. By the middle third century (like most things), exorcism had become a specialized skill set in the Church.

On the day of baptism, the bishop himself would come and exorcise the baptismal candidate. This was important for Christians to know who they were renouncing, not just to whom they were pledging allegiance. The Apostolic Tradition (an Egyptian 3rd century book of church order) tells us that the weeks preceding baptism were this constant process of fighting through enslavement to sin and confessing sins in which Christ dominated the “stranger” in the Christian’s life (the Enemy) and the Christian went through a “detox” from the dominant culture (Apostolic Tradition, 20.4).

All that to say, I think we could benefit from seeing the Christian life as something of an exorcism. I’m not saying we fill up our SuperSoakers with holy water and run riot through the streets. But as our struggle is against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12), we need to withhold all opportunities from the devil (Eph. 4:27). I’m suggesting that Christian sanctification could be seen as a gradual and lifelong form of exorcism.

The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and resist the devil (James 4:7), the more we draw closer to God in obedience and faith. As we detoxify our souls from the surrounding world (Rom.12:1-2), the Spirit is transforming us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This need not be as visibly dramatic as it was in the early church (and still is in many parts of the Global South). But the daily grind of fighting your sin and mocking the devil is just as dramatic and awful.

It’s part of the greatest story ever told. I bought that ticket. And Christ will see me through past the end credits.

Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.

Life Support and Ligaments

“Which cannot be without thee.”

That’s a beautiful phrase that appears in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Today is the ninth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. When Thomas Cranmer was trying to decide how best to disciple an entire nation in which Roman Catholicism had been formative for almost a millennium, he went over the ancient sacramentaries (service books for how to have church services in the West) and pulled the prayers that shone forth the gospel clearest.

These prayers in the BCP are called collects (emphasis placed on the first syllable). Each collect has roughly the same structure. There’s an address (“Almighty and Everlasting Father”; “Lord from whom all good things do come”, etc.). A lot of times the address or invocation is a direct reference to God and the reason for the prayer. Next is the main body of the prayer- the petition. This is based on the readings for the given Sunday and are always first person plural because we pray as one holy, catholic, apostolic church. And then the prayer is concluded with a type of doxology, usually invoking the Trinity.

Thomas Cranmer composed a few prayers of his own (most notably, the Ash Wednesday collect and those used in Advent), but for today, I’m struck by the absolute dependence on God that Cranmer was trying to get the English church to see. It’s an older prayer (from the Gelasian Sacramentary) (traditionally dated to the 5th century). It goes as follows:

“Grant to us Lord we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, which cannot be without thee, may by thee be able to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This (like perhaps every prayer) is more than a tall order. It’s an impossible task. Grant that we might have the spirit to think and do always that which is rightful? Always? Can’t do it. My selfishness will trip me up. The world will allure me. Satan will buffet.

But it is “by thee” that was ask this. It is by his power that we are able to live according to his will. Sine te esse, “which cannot be (i.e., exist)” without thee. That’s dependence, is it not?

Lord, we cannot be without thee. I cannot be without thee. There’s no me if it weren’t for you. And there’s no obedience and rightfulness without your grace. Grant it to your Church this morning, Lord. Remind us of your grace.