Don’t Just Give Up, Take Up: A Lenten Reflection #UMC

A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2015 at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama.
The invitation to observe a holy Lent is an invitation to sacrifice and self-denial. It is an invitation to give something up. This has been the common practice of Christians around the world century after century. Many of us have in recent days asked the question: What will I give up for Lent this year? And many have selected something and resolved to fast from it, to do without it for these forty days. For some it may be a particular sort of food or drink. For others it may have to do with the way they use their time. But whatever it is, the common theme is sacrifice. We give it up. As we enter this Lenten season, however, I want to suggest that giving something up is not enough. We must take something up as well. To put it succinctly: Don’t just give up, take up. 
The Means and the End
Here’s what I mean. When we give something up for Lent, we are committing ourselves to the spiritual discipline of fasting. But the purpose of fasting is not simply the act of giving up. The purpose of giving one thing up is to make room for something else. So, we might choose to fast from a meal in order to use that time for extra prayer. We might give up some luxury in order to give more resources to missions or to ministry with the poor perhaps. In each case, we deny ourselves in one way in order to grow in another way. The discipline of giving something up is a means that leads to a different end. We give up so that we can take up.
The Danger of Lent
But therein lies the danger. All too often we perilously allow the means to become the end. We give up chocolate or soft drinks or something and focus so much on the giving up that we neglect to take up. We neglect to devote our energy and resources and attention to growing in grace and faith and holiness. When that happens we have allowed the means to become the end, and we miss the point, and we miss the benefit of the Lenten sacrifice. Don’t just give up, take up. 
What do we take up?
This, of course, invites the question: what should we take up? We should not be surprised that one answer to our question can be found in the liturgy. The law of prayer is the law of faith, after all. When we receive the ashes on our forehead, we hear the minister call upon us to “repent and believe the gospel.” What do we take up during Lent? We first take up repentance. Whatever you elect to fast from during these forty days, take time to allow the Spirit of God to convict you of indwelling sin, and repent. Turn from it. Forsake it. Give it up! Sacrifice whatever you want during this season, but be sure, whatever you do, take up repentance. 
And take up faith. Not only are we exhorted to repent, the liturgy instructs us to believe the gospel. How well we would do to take the extra time we have from giving something up and use that time to meditate on and give thanks to God for the beauty of the gospel, the good news that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, that he was raised for us, that he lives and intercedes for us, and works within us by his Holy Spirit to make us new, and to make us holy. 
And take up holiness. By all means, take up holiness. Allow this season of giving up and clearing out to function as a means to the end of making room for holiness in your life. Let me be clear. I do not mean some sort of legalistic checking off of items on a list. I mean being set apart for what Christ wants to do in you and through you. I mean having a heart overflowing with love for God and for neighbor. Allow God to do what he wants to do, namely to fill you with his Spirit so that you consistently embody his character, with all its extravagance, with all its magnificence, with all its beauty, with all its joy. 
Finally, take up the cross. If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about that. We receive on our bodies a smudge of ash in the shape of the cross as a declaration that we are followers of the crucified Christ, the one who denied himself and took up his cross. And he calls to us and says, “If any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So don’t just give up, take up. And remember, as you take upon your body the sign of the cross, that all of life is to be lived in the shape of that cross. In this way, Ash Wednesday informs the whole year and our whole lives. This is what it means to be people of the cross. It is to carry the cross on our bodies as a continual declaration that we are a people set apart for Christ and his kingdom. 
So, during this Lenten season, give something up. But don’t just give something up. Take something up. Take up repentance. Take up faith. Take up holy love. And take up the cross. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Do We Need the Creed? In Dialogue with @umjeremy #UMC

Should churches stop using the historic Creeds in weekly worship? Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so and attempts to make the case with an essay that summarizes a longer sermon preached by Dr. Raymond E. Balcomb, a former pastor of First Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. The post is a follow-up to another creed-critical post from about a year ago that came in response a tweet in which I quoted Tom Noble on the importance of the Creeds for the people called Methodist. You can read my response to Jeremy’s earlier post here. This is an important discussion, and I’m grateful to Jeremy for facilitating continued reflection on the topic. In the end, I’m unpersuaded by Balcomb’s rationale for leaving the Creeds out of Sunday worship. Here are a few reasons why. 
Not intended for public worship?

Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb’s assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church’s liturgy. 

Too many questions?

Balcomb is also worried that the “Creed raises far more questions than it answers.” Rather than being a problem, this struck me as a good reason to say the Creeds. If they cause us to ask important questions about and wrestle with the historic articulations and meaning of our common faith, that seems to me quite healthy and favorable. I’m reminded of the chapter entitled “If you don’t get it, you’ve got it,” in Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells (chap. 5). Balcomb suggests that the creedal mixing of history and faith is confusing. Galli argues alternatively that the mystery of liturgical language is a reminder that the God we worship is, at some level, incomprehensible. The language of resurrection, ascension, of Christ’s coming again requires us to reckon with a God that we cannot control. Galli also suggests that our natural desire for worship that is completely understandable reflects a desire for a god that we can control. If we leave worship with no sense of mystery instead thinking we have all the answers, then we have not really worshiped the transcendent God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The great Creeds of the Church contribute well to that sense of mystery and create opportunity for pastors to engage the Church in discussion about the meaning of their ancient formulations. Balcomb criticizes the inadequacy of the Creed as a summary of faith. Perhaps we should see the Creed as a starting point that when taken seriously facilitates our ongoing wrestling with a God that is far beyond our understanding but who, nevertheless, makes himself known. 

Creed or Scripture?

Balcomb’s worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law,” in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, “One of the wonderful features of the Apostles’ Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures” (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church’s liturgy has historically used “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law” alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.

Behavior over Belief?

The last element of Balcomb’s essay that I want to interact with is the false dichotomy he creates between belief and behavior by repeatedly insisting that behavior is more important that belief. He is critiquing the view that right belief leads to right behavior. I agree with Balcomb’s critique if he means that professing the apostolic faith does not ensure right behavior, but his claim that behavior is more important than belief is unhelpful for two reasons.
First, he misconstrues the language of faith. For example, he says, “It is easier to believe in Jesus than it is to emulate him.” Well, if by “believe” you mean something akin to mental assent, then sure. But it would be more accurate to put it like this: It’s easier to say you believe Jesus than it is to emulate him. The biblical language of faith involves the idea of transformation. Authentic faith comes together with faithful living. 
Second, Balcomb’s insistence that behavior is more important that belief doesn’t really capture the complexity of the relationship between belief and behavior. It is true that belief affects behavior, but it is also true that behavior affects belief. This is one of the reasons that the Creed is important, not because it is a belief this is supposed to result in a certain kind of behavior, but because it is a behavior that should result in a certain kind of belief. James K. A. Smith has recognized and argued that liturgies have formative power. They shape us. They make us into certain kinds of people. The repetitive nature of liturgical practice actually deepens and transforms our faith. Professing the faith of the Creed is not merely a mental exercise; it is a bodily practice in which our mouths, tongues, lungs, vocal cords, and other muscles learn to run in particular grooves. This habit forming practice shapes the way we believe in God. So, it’s no reason to be rid of the Creed because we think it is merely a matter of faith that lacks the power to produce right practice. The Creed is a practice that has the potential to produce and instill the right kind of faith – faith in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 
Do we need the Creed?
Is the Creed really unhelpful in the end? Or does it provide a formative opportunity to grow in grace, faith, and as disciples of Jesus. Balcomb’s argument contains far too many flaws to serve as an adequate basis for overturning centuries of practice by removing creedal professions from public worship. The Creeds have long brought the apostolic faith to life in the experience of believers in powerfully formative ways. Let’s not rob our people of the opportunity to be confessionally united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages. 

Why Pray?

From the Forward to Winfield Bevins’ Our Common Prayer (paper, Kindle), this is Ashley Null:

Constant prayer, then, is the key to the Christian life. Of course, that is the whole point of the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). We do not pray to God day and night because he is an unjust judge that needs to be prompted. We pray to him day and night because we need to be prompted. We struggle so much with injustice – the wrongs that others do to us, and the wrongs that we do to others. We pray to God day and night so that his love might renew a right spirit in us. We pray to God day and night for him to work in us so that we can forgive others their wrongs and give ourselves away in godly service. In short, we pray day and night, not to move the heart of God to want to do our will, but for God to continually move our hearts to want to do his will (16).

That about sums it up.  

3 Ways Christ is Present in the Eucharist (@KreeftQuotes)

How is Christ present in the sacrament of Holy Communion? Here’s Peter Kreeft in his book Catholic Christianity (paper, Kindle), which is an exposition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the chapter on the Eucharist, he writes:

Here the three meanings of “present” come together: Christ in the Eucharist is (a) present, not absent, but really here; (b) present, not past, but happening now; and (c) presented as a gift (a “present”), really given, offered, not withheld (326).

I’m happy to affirm and deeply grateful for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, though I’m hesitant to attempt to parse that out too far (e.g. transubstantiation, consubstantiation). Somehow Christ mysteriously ministers his presence to his people in the bread and wine. This three-pronged comment from Kreeft is quite helpful, though, as we reflect on the character of Christ’s presence. In the consecrated elements, Christ is really present right now to give himself to his people in love and with joy. 

The Liturgy and the Gospel (@OfficialSeedbed)

The team at Seedbed.com was kind enough to publish an essay in which I recount three key reasons I am increasingly drawn to liturgical worship. Here’s an excerpt:
I’ve often thought of my life as having been lived on the edge of the liturgy. I suspect that perspective will resonate with many in the Wesleyan and Methodist tradition. We observe Advent and Lent. The colors on the pulpit and the communion table change with the season. We usually celebrate All Saints Sunday, and sometimes our pastors even preach the lectionary. Elements of liturgical worship are sprinkled throughout our worship life. Many suspect there is more going on, that there is a deeper coherence to the liturgical form of worship, even if we are unsure of what holds it together. We stick close to the side, hesitant to jump out into the middle of the stream, cautious lest we are carried off by a current that we cannot control and do not fully understand. We are unsure of where it will take us. Nevertheless, and despite our caution, some are captured by the inescapable inclination that we stand on the edge of something great, simultaneously terrible and beautiful, and we begin to take small steps forward into deeper water in order that we might drink more fully of the riches of the mystery before us. I offer here a few reflections on the early stages of my own journey from the edge of the liturgical stream into deeper waters. Perhaps these reflections will encourage those who read to join this exploration of the beauty and mystery of the liturgy.
You can read the rest of the post at the Seedbed blog. Here I’d like to point to a couple of resources and add a comment or two as a follow-up to that piece.
The article mentions Bryan Chapell’s book, Christ-Centered Worship, and I want to emphasize how extremely influential this book has been in my understanding of the liturgy. Chapell sets side-by-side the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant traditions and, without overlooking the differences, shows how the form and structure of the liturgy in these various traditions is shaped by the gospel. This was eye-opening for me. I’ve long understood that the gospel should fill the content of Christian worship; it never occurred to me that the very form and order of worship should be governed by the gospel also, though having now encountered this idea, I can’t imagine a better way. It seems so obvious, so clear, so excellent. How could anyone who loves the good news not desire that the gospel set the pattern and form of the Church’s worship?
Another key book that was recommended to me is Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy. If you have little or no experience with liturgical worship, then this is the book to read first. Galli’s style is accessible and engaging. You don’t have to hold a theology degree to get what he has to say. He will not only introduce you to the most basic structure of the liturgy, he will also help you begin to appreciate its beauty, relevance, mystery, and majesty.
I’ll finish by saying that it is precisely that which I take to be central to my evangelical identity that drives me toward liturgical worship. The liturgy is all about Christ and him crucified. It goes to work in us by faith to draw us to Christ and to renew us in his image. It is saturated with scripture and, above all, aims ultimately to exalt the holiness, the majesty, and the glory of God. 
What is your experience with liturgical worship? Are there any books or other resources you’ve found particularly helpful?