“Heaping Burning Coals – Romans 12” – Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

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Romans 4 – Ashes and Oil

There’s an old saying, “The only thing that is certain is death and taxes.”  This is partly true.  There’s plenty of people that manage to skip out of taxes, one way or another.  Sometimes they’re caught.  Sometimes they manage to hide it.  But, nobody can hide from death.  It levels the playing field for everyone.  Poor, rich.  Old, young.  Beautiful, plain.  Weak, strong. Male, female.  It impacts everyone.  Nobody escapes its icy grip.  Perhaps the only thing that is certain is death.

Today’s Ash Wednesday.  The faithful will gather, have ashes smudged on their foreheads in the sign of the cross, and leave under the darkness of night.  Soot fills our noses.  Our mortality stares us straight in the eyes.  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”  These are the very words that will accompany us to the grave.  We are ash.  We are dust.  We are dead.

Our culture does its best to avoid aging and death.  Makeup commercials demonstrate the reversal of the aging process.  Clothes promise to keep us hip and cool (I just dated myself a bit).  Technology gives us access to power to control our lives, make them efficient, and keep us busy so that we can’t reflect that we are but dust.  We live such frenetic lives that we aren’t great at just being, reflecting, and facing who we really are.  Peter Pan never wants to grow up.  Toys-R-Us helps us put into liturgy our disgust at growing up and getting old.  And, the job market makes it readily clear that getting old means you are outdated and replaceable.

The Church has not been unaffected by this trend in our culture.  We are often escapist in our mentality, hoping to get to heaven so as to avoid any unpleasantness that we might experience here on earth.  We’re even uncomfortable talking about Jesus’ call to “come and die.”  How shocking it is to be confronted with our own death… our mortality… our dust-ness.  Yet, there is nothing we can possibly do about that.  We can curse and scream, avoid it, throw money at the problem, buy everything to make us happy and sedated, engage in risky behavior, bargaining with God by promising to be more religious or pious.  None of it works.  We are but bodies of death… and who can rescue me from that?

Romans 4 recalls a story about an old man and woman.  There isn’t anything particularly special about them.  They are average, run-of-the-mill kinds of folk.  Abe is a rancher, somewhat successful, though he travels a lot with his family.  About the time they get settled, they uproot and move to a new location.  Sarah is a beautiful, but old woman.  Never could have children.  She keeps up with the household tasks and responsibilities.  But, she has always felt a bit empty at not having children.  And, to be honest, she is kind of a difficult person to work for… just ask her maid.

Would you believe that God calls these normal folks… this couple that is just about to kick the bucket?  Would you believe that God tells them they’re going to be parents – of a great nation!?  Incredible!  People that could never have a child before are now going to conceive a nation that will be a blessing to ALL nations.  What’s all the more incredible is that Abraham trusted God.  He wasn’t focused on how he couldn’t have children, how he and his wife were both infertile and incapable of producing an heir.  He trusted God.  Abraham trusted that God’s call included a promise to bring it to completion… especially where Abraham and Sarah were incapable.

The smudge that will mark our foreheads this evening are ashes that mark us as dust, as mortal.  But, ashes are not the only thing that are placed on the forehead.  Oil is also mixed into the ashes.  Oil is a symbol for the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life.  In remembering we are but dust and as good as dead (just like Abraham and Sarah), we are also invited to receive the very Life of God which is able to take our ashes, our disappointments, our failures, and our inabilities and breath new life into the midst of them.  Though we are marked as dust, that does not have to be the final word.  But, it is not something that we can do… it is only God’s gift through the Spirit.

Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross

Gross divides the liturgical year into three cycles: Light, Life, and Love.  These were helpful divisions, although there is overlap in the seasons of the Church year.  But, it gives a general theme by which the seasons are organized.  The Cycle of Light is Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  The Cycle of Life is Lent and Easter, ending in Pentecost.  The Cycle of Love begins with Pentecost and goes through Christ is King Sunday (Ordinary Time).  The point of the liturgical year is to enter into God’s story.  Gross notes that we are not looking for God in our story but coming to understand our story in light of God’s Story.  Gross likens the church year to a dance.  As you learn the rhythms, you concentrate less on the steps and learn to enjoy it as a means of grace.  As with any dance, it is helpful to know that there is room for creativity and adaptation.  It is not a rigid form but serves as a helpful guide to following Christ through the year.  In addition, the Church year helps us to “mark time because it has marked us.”  There is something significant that happens in amnamnesis besides mental recollection.  We are being formed as people.  In fact, that is the heart of liturgy – the work of the people – which is offering our time as a sacrifice to God to transform us!

            Gross notes that there are 7 seasons in the Church year (as opposed to 8 seasons in Kimberlee Ireton’s work).  The main difference is not counting the time between Epiphany and Lent as a season.  7 seasons could be counted as the “fullness” of time, in some sense.  This would be double in meaning – the fullness of the life of Christ and the fullness of eschatological time.  Gross moves to a four-fold pattern for encountering God throughout the Church year: reverence, repentance, inviting God’s presence, and responding. 

            Advent is the season of waiting and “enlarging.”  It deals with both first and last things – “looking back and leaning forward.”  I really appreciated both of these concepts, especially in considering the story of Mary as a model for this season.  Anticipation, waiting, and enlarging.  We long for Christ’s coming, for God to right all things, and for God’s presence with us.  Christmas focuses on incarnation.  It is a season of celebration where we consider the mystery of “eternity in the womb.”  God becomes everything that we are so that we might become everything God is by nature.  God is with us in every way.  We wait expectantly for God to be birthed in us.  Epiphany looks toward the magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle at Cana.  It is about the manifestation of God’s life in our midst.  It is the journey from baptism to transfiguration.  This can be a significant time for discipleship, especially in regard to baptism.

            The next Cycle moves us to Lent where we are confronted with our “mortality and moral culpability.”  We are confronted with death, beginning with Ash Wednesday.  Lent leads us to sojourn and journey, both as individuals and communities, through the wilderness.  This culminates in the Triduum.  During these three holy days, we journey through the Pascha with Christ – our Paschal Lamb.  We walk the way of sorrow and pain with Christ.  We see the Light extinguished.  We begin by remembering the new commandment to “love one another.”  We live this out by serving one another, by washing each other’s feet.  We eat the Last Supper with Jesus and hear his gut-wrenched prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We see his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.  Saturday, we feel the heaviness of silence.  Gross emphasizes the “spiritual” dimension about Lent, but it should be noted that this time must also be embodied. 

            Easter focuses on resurrection of the body and a transformed heart.  It is resurrection of the whole person.  Thus, we celebrate the victory of God over all.  It is the “euchatastrophe” – the good God brings from what is catastrophic.  Easter is a season of 50 days, which is seven weeks of seven days.  This seven seven’s points toward fullness of time and the fifty days point toward the salvation of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.  The emphasis on Ascension Day was also helpful, as it helps us remember the completion of Christ’s work.  In other words, Christ has given us every good gift through which we might draw close to God and have victory over sin and death.  This comes to fullest light in Pentecost – the Spirit’s empowerment of God’s people, the Church.  Pentecost also marks the beginning of Ordinary Time and the Cycle of Love.  God’s love embodied in us to God’s world.  Thus, our focus is discipleship.  Three didactics are helpful to consider: world and church, neighbor and self, and work and rest.  We wrestle with the tension between each of these poles.  Gross suggests “receiving the day and releasing the day” as helpful spiritual disciplines to guide us during this season.  We receive God’s mercies each morning and release each day, both our successes and failures, to God’s care.

            Overall, I thought this book was a fantastic guide through the Church year.  Although no guide can be entirely comprehensive, Gross’ work does a fantastic job of providing a solid foundation for understanding and entering into the Church year.  I look forward to using this as a personal and ministerial resource through each Church year.

The Circle of the Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year by Kimberlee Ireton

Ireton notes that the Church year is split into halves – the story of Christ and the story of the Church.  But, the Church year really is about the story of God.  It begins with the long anticipation of God’s coming, moving through the Incarnation.  Through Lent and Holy Week we journey with Christ toward the cross and his resurrection on Easter day (but which is celebrated for several weeks leading up to Pentecost).  Pentecost is the story of the Holy Spirit empowering the Church to live like Christ.  Finally, the Church year concludes with Ordinary Time (the daily grind of faithful living) that culminates in Christ is King Sunday in which we look toward Christ’s second coming.  It is a cycle of preparation and celebration, fasting and feasting.  Ireton concludes, “The church year has seasons of darkness, of light, of sorrow, of rejoicing, of just getting through.”[1]

            Time is sacred because God is present in it all.  The Church year calls us to remembrance and reflection and re-enactment of this reality.  The Church year orients us to God’s way in this world and invites us into participation with God’s redemptive, salvific work.  It “helps us embrace the church’s telling of time instead of our culture’s.”[2]  As Ireton notes, the “secular” calendar is centered upon consumerism.  It is designed to make us consumers.  I would go further and say that it is (at least in the American culture) centered on nationalism, militarism, individualism, and consumerism.  There is a vested interest (generally a concern for power) for the world to shape us into its own image rather than the image of our Creator.  The Church calendar allows our whole lives to be oriented around God’s story and thus transformed by that story.

            The Church year is communal.  This goes against our rampant individualism.  We are the gathered community living out the story of God together.  And, we are also re-presenting the faith that has been handed down to us from the apostles.  We recognize that we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that has but one faith, one baptism and one Lord.  There is a unity that is embodied in journeying together through the story of God in our world.  This is a faith that is not novel, yet encounters the Living God anew.  And, it does so by helping us to tell the whole story.

            Advent initiates the Church year.  It is a time of anticipation and waiting.  I was unfamiliar with the first two Sunday themes being “wait” and “prepare.”  In my experience, we have generally made the themes: hope, joy, love, and peace.  Then, the overarching theme was about waiting.  Henri Nouwen’s “active waiting” is an important concept.  I think of it as “hopeful anticipation” in which we are living in the now-and-not-yet kingdom.  To that end, we wait with anticipation while living into God’s future.  The fasting and feasting aspect of Christmas is important in this regard.  The fasting prepares us for Christmas and the Incarnation.  Our culture is impatient.  Following Advent can bring us back to a sense of waiting and the building anticipation of the Incarnation.  An Advent tree can be a helpful symbol that is then replaced by the Chrismon tree – barren death to evergreen life. 

I appreciated the Feast of St. Stephen and the Feast of Holy Innocents.  Incarnation is about humble servanthood (St. Stephen).  And, we are reminded that much violence and pain are still in our world.  The Incarnation is God’s identification with that suffering, by which God walks with us (Feast of Holy Innocents).  The Christmas season concludes with Epiphany, or the “showing.”  It is a season of light, where darkness is scattered.  This is available to everyone (as indicated by the Magi).  It is God’s redemptive work for all of Creation. 

Ordinary time, which makes up the majority of the Church year, reminds us of the daily grind of life.  It is the counting of time (“ordinal”).  But, the manner in which we count is important.  It is not merely marking off days (kronos) but each day is filled with potential because of God’s presence (kairos).  God is at work, even in ordinary moments.  Green is the color of the season representing “growth.”  We don’t typically think of growth in the ordinary moments.  Ordinary time helps us remember that all of time is interwoven with God’s prevenient grace.

Lent is often associated with “self-flagellation.”  Ireton does a good job pointing out that Lent is about creating intentional space (through fasting and repentance) so that we might be filled with what God has for us.  Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we are confronted with our mortality and our need for God.  That is the beginning of the wilderness journey, where we walk with Israel and Jesus through the desert, learning what faithfulness is along the way.  Lent is also about charity – divulging ourselves of our excess so that we might share God’s good gifts with others.  Lent, going into the Triduum, is also a time of increasing darkness.  This culminates in Jesus’ death and entombment.  This season reminds us, we are called to die with Christ.

Easter is a celebration of seven Sundays which ends with Pentecost.  Easter is connected with Passover while Pentecost is connected to the giving of the commandments.  It is about both salvation from oppression and deliverance and empowerment to live in the world on God’s terms.  Easter and Pentecost are parallels to these Jewish holidays, for we both experience salvation from death and empowerment through the Spirit to embody Christ to the world.  Pentecost ends with Trinity Sunday, which reminds us that God is community and also that God’s salvific work is the work of the Triune God – Father, Spirit, and Son.  All of God is made available to us and we are joined to God as the Body of Christ.  Ireton digresses into a conversation about speaking in tongues.  Unfortunately, she does not take into account that the surrounding crowd (of many nationalities) could understand the gathered disciples in their own language.  It was not some special language.  It was prophetic (truth-telling) speech in the language of those gathered.  It was a reversal of the division at Babel.

Ireton’s treatment of Ordinary time is very sparse.  She focuses on mystery in mundane moments, but doesn’t go very deep with this insight.  It seems that the cultural liturgies of the Church, the rhythms and practices of daily obedience, would be helpful to focus on through Ordinary time.  We are not saved by those practices, but we are habituated into a way of life.  After all, most of our lives are spent in the ordinary moments.  And, it is in the ordinary moments that character is developed and established.  Although mountain-top experiences are wonderful, they are fleeting moments that then move us to walking in the valley.  Christ is King is the end of this season.  We anticipate Christ’s second coming and proclaim him as King.  Then, we begin the journey all over again.

           


[1]  Kimberlee Conway Ireton, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 12.

[2] Ibid, 13.

Tim Keel: Grace, and the hopeful honesty of Lent | Faith & Leadership

Tim Keel: Grace, and the hopeful honesty of Lent | Faith & Leadership.  Tim Keel is the pastor of Jacob’s Well in Kansas City.  This article is a great reflection on the ways that Lent “opens up space” in our lives so that we may more fully embrace God’s life.  I liked the use of creation language.  The creation of space, through seasons like Lent, connects the elements of creation and salvation.  God’s creation of space is a salvific act that gives, sustains, and blesses life.  Lent is a time where we are made aware of our sinfulness and brokenness.  Sometimes we have the idea that this is the purpose of Lent.  Far from it!  We are reminded of the Gospel, of our need for a savior.  Space is opened up.  In the midst of that space, room is created for deeper devotion and discipleship to Christ.

“The Desert and the Kingdom” by Dylon Brown

This is a recent blog post from a friend of mine.  He does an excellent job of pointing out the significance of Lent and how it can re-shape us to be more like Christ, if we let it.

Bel and the Dragon

The sun was beating down hard, and there was no shade, no protection from the 100 degree heat.  It was a hot Kansas City afternoon, and my wife Sam and I were stranded in the parking lot of the Kansas City Airport.  My car wasn’t broken down, I wasn’t lost…I had just lost my car.  Sam and I had just gotten back from a week-long trip to California to spend time with friends.  As we were getting on the parking lot bus a week earlier to leave, we had suddenly remembered that we needed to mark down where we had parked.  We got out our phones and texted ourselves the lot number as the bus pulled out, bringing us to our flight.  Well, there we were, a week later, and no car.  I had already been searching for over an hour.

I was beginning to suspect foul play.

Someone must…

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