Friday, November 2, 2012

Summing up

The normal Protestant objection to virtue, as we've seen, is that it's just hypocrisy, "putting it on" when you don't yet fully mean it. The standard answer is that this is the only way to acquire the deep-rooted characteristics of faith, hope, love, and all the rest. If we wait to start practicing these things until we "mean them" from the bottom of our hearts, we will wait a long time and probably mess up a lot of lives, including our own, in the process. But now we face the opposite problem: the charge that liturgy and other aspects of formal worship have become "just a habit," implying that because worship is a habit you don't really mean it. At one level, the two charges cancel one another out. If you're just putting it on, it isn't a habit; if it's a habit, you're not just putting it on! But there's a serious point underneath this second problem. 
Virtue, whether individual or corporate, is never something that can be taken for granted. Once the habit is formed, by many conscious choices and decisions, it has to be maintained in good running order. Here is the difference between "authenticity" and "spontaneity." Spontaneity objects to all habits: things ought just to happen! Authenticity, on the other hand, doesn't mind habits, so long as they don't become hollow. Fair enough. It would be good, frankly, to think that many of today's Christians were anywhere near the danger of forming habits of worship so strong that they could become "just a habit." That is perhaps a problem that is dying out. But if and when the danger is present, the warning is justified.  
When human beings worship God the creator, articulating their praise and adoration because of who he is and what he's done, they are, whether or not they realize it, summing up the praises and adoration of the whole creation.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] p. 224

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Learning the habits of a royal priesthood

It's interesting to study the scriptural account of the early church at worship in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the first Christians drawing on the Psalms and other scriptures to celebrate God's love and power and to be strengthened and sustained in mission.  
...In particular, of course, a church that is learning the habits of the royal priesthood will celebrate the sacraments -- those occasions when the life of heaven intersects mysteriously with the life of earth, not so that earth can control or manipulate heaven (that would be magic, not faith) but so that the story of heaven may become concrete, physical reality within the life of earth, catching up human beings within a world where all sorts of things make sense that don't otherwise, and all sorts of other things that might have appeared to make sense do so no longer.  
All of this life of worship is something to be learned. Communities can grow into liturgy and sacraments, and can take delight in discovering that these things can become, as it were, habits of the community's heart as well as of the individual's. Shared worship is part of what it means when we compare Christianity to team sport. It is together that we are God's people, not as isolated individuals. 
That being-togetherness does not, of course, mean uniformity. What counts is precisely the coming together of people who are quite unlike one another in everything except their commitment to the God we know in scripture and ultimately in Jesus.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] p. 223

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Good Christian Liturgy

Good Christian liturgy is friendship in action, love taking thought, the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared -- an ultimatley better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about. 
...Good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying Psalms together, so that they come to be "second nature" within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshipping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 222-223 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Learning to be a gardener

N.T. Wright comments on the fruit of the Spirit:
The "fruit of the Spirit" does not grow automatically. The nine varieties of fruit do not suddenly appear just because someone has believed in Jesus, has prayed for God's Spirit, and has then sat back and waited for "fruit" to arrive. Oh, there may well be strong and sudden initial signs that fruit is on the way. Many new Christians, particularly when a sudden conversion has meant a dramatic turning away from a lifestyle full of the "works of the flesh," report their own astonishment at the desire that springs up within them to love, to forgive, to be gentle, to be pure. Where, they ask, has all this come from? I didn't used to be like this. That is a wonderful thing a sure sign of the Spirit' working. 
But this doesn't mean it's all downhill from there. These are the blossoms; to get the fruit you have to learn to be a gardener. You have to discover how to tend and prune, how to irrigate the field, how to keep the birds and squirrels away. You have to watch for blight and mold, cut away ivy and other parasites that suck the life out of the tree, and make sure they young trunk can stand firm in strong winds. Only then will the fruit appear. 
And, in case anyone should think I am imposing an alien note on Paul's cheerful list of these wonderful characteristics... we note the final characteristic in the list: self-control. If the "fruit" were automatic, why would self-control be needed? Answer: it isn't, so it is: it isn't automatic, so it is needed. All the varieties of fruit Paul mentions here are comparatively easy to counterfeit, especially in young, healthy, happy people -- except for self-control. If that isn't there, it's always worth asking whether the appearance of the other sorts of fruit is just that, an appearance, rather than a real sign of the spirit's work.1 

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 195-196

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Perfected in Weakness

He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase
To added affliction He addeth His mercy
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace

When we have exhausted our store of endurance
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father's full giving is only begun

Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision
Our God ever yearns His resources to share
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing
The Father both thee and thy load will upbear

His love has no limit; His grace has no measure
His power has no boundary known unto men
For out of his infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth and giveth and giveth again

"He Giveth More Grace"

And He said unto me, 
     'My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.' 
     Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Paul of Tarsus 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Galatians 5:18

"If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law." Someone today catching just that snatch of conversation is very likely to hear it in terms of the strong implicit debate between those who think you should order your life by "rules" and those who think that what matters is "doing what comes naturally," living "spontaneously" or "authentically." And it isn't just our cultural climate that makes us assume that's the sort of conversation we're overhearing. For four hundred years the religious and theological climate has conditioned us to hear a religious version of the same point. Ever since the Reformation at least, a large number of Christians have assumed that the foundation of Paul's thinking goes like this: He spent the first part of his life trying to keep the rules of his religion, and then discovered not only that he couldn't but that rules weren't the point. God didn't want rule-keeping; he wanted "spontaneity." God had forgiven him all his rule-breaking, in and through Jesus Christ, and was now giving him his Spirit, who would produce the "fruit" without all that horrible moral striving.  
But is that what the conversation at the next table was really all about? 
In this way of interpreting... Paul's message, within this way of thinking, is, "You're free from all that! The Spirit will guide you from within, and you don't need to bother about all those rules that come at you from somewhere else, from tradition or philosophy or the Old Testament! Stop worrying about all that moralism; lighten up and be spontaneous. You don't have to try!1

Shortly thereafter, N.T. Wright describes what Paul really meant:
"If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Mosaic Law." This has nothing whatever to do with preferring spontaneity to rules. It has everything to do with the new covenant in which God is pouring out his Spirit upon those who are "in Christ" so that in them the life which the Law wanted to produce, but could not, will at last be fulfilled (see Romans 8:1-11). ...In other words, you do not have to become a Jew... to be a flourishing and fruitful member of God's people.2

1.  N.T Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 190-191
2.  Ibid.,  p. 193

Friday, October 26, 2012

Surreptitious Takeover

Another passage which sits tightly alongside Romans 12 is found near the start of the letter to the Philippians: 
This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you can figure out properly things that differ from one another, so that you may be blameless and innocent for the day of the Messiah, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus the Messiah to the glory and praise of God. (1:9-11) 
The part I have put in italics show how the same theme works out. Thinking of and praying for his beloved people in Philippi, Paul wants them, of course, to grow in love; but this love is not a matter of "undisciplined squads of emotion," but a thought-out habit of the heart -- the heart knowing why it approves what it approves and why it disapproves what it disapproves.  
...Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think. 
I cannot stress too strongly that this is a mistake. The more genuinely spiritual you are, according to Romans 12 and Philippians 1, the more clearly and accurately and carefully you will think, particularly about what the completed goal of your Christian journey will be and hence what steps you should be taking, what habits you should be acquiring, as part of the journey toward that goal, right now.1

1.  N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [Harper One: New York, NY; 2010] pp. 157-158