Blessing of Candles and What We Like

I broke some liturgical rule Sunday. Candlemas, the service of blessing candles used in the sanctuary for the year ahead, is supposed to be February 2. Not Sunday, February 1. But we blessed the candles anyhow, plus the asperges rite. Probably a broken rule as well. I remember researching it last year and felt I could do the asperges with some precedent, but I don’t remember how or why.

This isn’t me. I just thought the water looked cool. I wear less modernist vestments, and no funny hat. For now.

I imagine some present didn’t “like” it. Maybe some didn’t like getting wet, or thought the candles and such were to pompous. I don’t know.

And it doesn’t matter. Truth be told, I’m not sure if I “liked” it. My human nature sees this and thinks “That’s a lot of work and effort. We could make this much simpler.” It did take planning and coordination to pull it off, time and energy I could have used for other things. In fact, this whole liturgical aparatus could be jettisoned. Now, most of the time I do enjoy it, and find it joyful. But sometimes it’s just a pain getting vested. I don’t like holding my hands together when I walk. Reverencing the crucifix on the altar gets tedious sometimes. My sinful, selfish nature does not often want to get so disciplined and deliberate. In general, I’m a guy who likes to kick my feet back and live informally.

We don’t worship liturgically because we like it, even if some do (including me, most of the time). It’s not about my likes or your likes. We do it because we behave as we believe, that God is present in Word and Sacrament, and He requires our honor, veneration and reverence.

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29 ESV).

It’s not about liking. It’s not about aesthetics (though we should always do things well). Our worship is not to satisfy our desires and expectations for experience, transcendence, awe, or emotion. It is to receive from God and to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

Growth in Sanctification, Morals, Lutheranism and Orthodoxy

Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol136vDo Christians grow in sanctification? Do we become more holy and what does that look like?

In E-Lutheranism this past Fall there were a number of Facebook debates, Pseudonymous bloggers, arguments and fights. I was aware of a few of them, though more raged in corners I don’t travel.

In the last few weeks, Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest, created a firestorm of his own at his blog (popular enough to land him a book deal or two), and the topic was strangely familiar. He wrote,

“I’m doing better.” Over the years I’m sure I’ve heard this many times in confession. I’ve also heard, “I’m not doing so well.” These are timely updates, personal measures and reports on the state of spiritual lives. And they are wrong.

You are not doing better. You are not doing worse.

In truth, we don’t know how we’re doing. Only God knows. But we have internalized a cultural narrative and made it the story of our soul. That narrative is the story of progress (or decline)….

Our Christian lives are not a moral project.

The moral improvement (or progress) of our lives is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not even on the same page. We imagine that if we manage to tell fewer lies, or lust fewer times, or fast a little more carefully, and swallow our angry words more completely, we are somehow the better for it and have “made progress.” But this is not so.

He elicited quite an objection. His Church is the Church of the Saints, after all. The Saints are living friends for the Orthodox. The Holy Ones, superior in sanctification, and he was saying “progress” is not the way of the Christian.

And in this post I found hope for Lutheranism and Orthodoxy at the same time.

The rest of his post was Law and Gospel in Orthodox lingo. And more so, his follow-up posts have been brilliant devotions on the theology of the cross, repentance (contrition and faith) and our life in Christ.

In one of the several follow-ups, he wrote the following in describing St. Mary of Egypt. She is a beloved Saint in the Orthodox tradition, known for her repentance and holiness. Or maybe just her repentance as Lutherans understand it. I post an excerpt here for you to consider. He’s a better writer than I am (and more practiced of late), so I’ll let him do the talking. Here’s what Fr. Stephen wrote:

But for all of that victory, [St. Mary of Egypt] still recognizes her weakness. When the Priest Zosimas questions her about her life she says: “You remind me, Zosimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.”

Should we think of her as making “moral progress?” Were that the case, she would have no fear of the “dangers” and “violent thoughts.” She would have laid them to rest. What we see is repentance. Her repentance is not of the moral sort, a mere sorrow for deeds that have been done. Her repentance is an effort of self-emptying that is greeted by a Divine-filling. She becomes a vessel of grace in the manner described by St. Paul:

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Co 4:6-7)

It is, of course, possible to describe the changes that occur in the state of repentance as “progress,” but this distorts the work that is taking place. In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way down is the way up.” The self-emptying of repentance is not the work of gradual improvement, a work of “getting better and better.” It is a work of becoming “lesser and lesser.” We are not saved by moral progress, transformed by our efforts. It is not self-improvement.

Because of the metaphors and images that dominate our culture, we quickly assume that change (for the good) is an improvement. But included within the progressive metaphor is an assumption of stability and a self-contained quality of goodness (improvement). Thus, if I buy a piece of property and make “improvements,” it is no longer the same. The streets and sewers that have been installed are now part of the property. In human terms, we presume that “progress” gained in the battle with the passions results in an improved self, a self that is less a prisoner to those same passions.

The human life is a dynamic relationship. We are not streets and sewers and electrical gridwork. What is “acquired” by grace in the work of repentance is a different dynamic, one in which our life is centered in the life of God. Repentance is never a one-time event – it is amode of existence.

The modern laboratory of experience that is the Recovery Movement (AA and the like), provides interesting contemporary examples of this same principle. No recovered alcoholic ever says that he is no longer an alcoholic. He will say that he is “a grateful recovering alcoholic.” For he knows that the life of repentance that is described in the 12 steps, is a life that, once ended, will quickly return him not to a new beginning, to a state of non-alcoholism. He quickly returns to where he stopped and will in a short time drink as though he had never known a day of sobriety. St. Mary of Egypt did well to fear all the “dangers” that she overcame. They have not disappeared.

Our “progress” is a road into the life of God – one that is better described as repentance, the word by which we were first invited to the journey.

Wir sind alle Bettler. We are beggars all. That is our faith, our repentance, and the expression of our sanctification. We repent. We become less.

Well, Here Goes Nothing

It’s been a long time. After months of not writing, then problems with hosting renewal, I gave up.

Now I’ve stopped giving up again. A few asked what happened and if I would blog again, and I thought about it then. But really? I had nothing to blog for a while and now I do.

So I wanted a fantastic, energetic, provocative, amazing post for my first one back. Or at least something. Then I got writer’s block again, so this must suffice.

For all five of you, thanks for sticking around. I’ll try not to disappoint you.

Incense and Divine Wrath

Last week at Higher Things incense was used during the last two Evening Prayer services. It was new for many of the kids there. For us, it smelled like Church usually does. The Higher Things staff had a nice description in their service booklet about why we use it. They emphasized the bodily nature of our faith and worship, along with the association of incense with Jesus, both at His birth and death, along with the anointing He received before His passion. They wrote, “When you smell incense, look for Jesus.” A pithy saying.

censing-in-church1Not long after I ran across the following article written by an Orthodox priest. It’s notable for two reasons: first, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon speaks quite openly about the wrath of God, which many Orthodox priests and believers shy away from these days. He writes,

Having determined that repentant prayer alone turns away the divine wrath, we should also consider two ritual gestures in which such prayer may be expressed: the offering of incense and the devout raising of the hands. Since Holy Scripture regards both these elevations as symbols of the soul’s ascent to God. It is no wonder we sometime find them joined in a unified ritual.

Perhaps Psalm 141 (Greek 140) best illustrates this perception. This psalm, still chanted at every Vespers service in the Orthodox Church, has been the evening prayer of God’s People since the time it accompanied the Evening Sacrifice in the Temple.

I cite the psalm’s relevant verse in the economy of the Hebrew text:

“Let my prayer be constant, incense before Your face; the raising of my hands, the evening sacrifice.”

The only finite verb here (tikkon, “to be steady,” or “constant,” or “established”) is unexpected, perhaps. At first glance, few things seem less constant, less “steady” than an incense cloud; it can be kept constant only by an ongoing renewal. Otherwise it dissipates.

The prayer must be continuous, then, in order to remain ever in God’s sight. What the psalmist apparently has in mind is the ongoing and permanent ascent of his prayer before the face of God. The incense fragrance, symbolic of prayer, rises up to Him along with the elevation of prayerful hands. Both the incense and the raised hands give expression to his devotion….

Numbers 16 tells a pertinent story: During one of Israel’s desert rebellions, at a time when the Lord in His wrath sent a plague on the people, Moses instructed Aaron,

“Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put on incense, and carry it quickly to the congregation and atone for them (Hebrew: kapher ‘alihem; Greek: exsilasthai peri avton); for wrath has gone forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:46; Hebrew/Greek 17:11).

Lutherans reading this may wonder at a few of Fr. Patrick’s phrases and assertions, but consider incense and divine wrath and what we read above: incense and Jesus are connected. It’s not so much prayer done by us, nor burned incense that turns away the wrath of God, but Jesus does, with whom we also associate the burning of incense and the prayers of the Faithful One.

Jesus, divine wrath, incense and peace with God. It’s a good combination.

Parched for Belonging

The following first appeared in Grace Lutheran’s July newsletter


601px-Volkswagen_LogoWe are a people who want to belong, to have a identity among others, to be a member of a set, a group. Maybe a secret group, maybe not. We show our allegiance and membership with our Official Team Wear ™. With orange shirts on certain days, or with red license plate frames. Wearing the right color or team logos on your clothes and cars make you members of a club.

And of course there are more than these associations. Watch motorcyclists do the low hand wave to each other when they pass. It doesn’t matter if they’re Harley or Honda riders, they still have the same wave, the little signal of acknowledgment. “You are a member of my tribe,” it says. People who drive Volkswagens do the same, flashing a V sign to one another. To be honest, I don’t know if people who drive Jettas or Passats do it—but drive a ‘70 Ghia or a 64’ Beetle and you’ll see it. This tribe, this society of car drivers, of people “in the know” is compelling to humans. We long for this kind of belonging, for identity. We all want to have a place, and for others to know it.

Of course, in today’s compartmentalized, isolated society, flashing a V sign is the best kind of tribe or club to be in. No expectations, no meetings no commitments. You can be a member of this secret society without having to do more than make car payments and change your oil—things you are doing anyway. It’s a fleeting, transitory connection with a stranger, a self-chosen, self-determined, self-defined “belonging” to something that only amounts to a drop of water for the one who is parched for belonging.

This marks the greatest departure of belonging to the Church, to the Body of Christ. When you were baptized, you were inducted into the most exclusive society ever imagined, with the strongest ties, with the most ancient of founding, with the deepest connection between its members, known and unknown. It is a Society that is a Body, that connects members not based on temporary joys and delights (My other car is a….) but on the eternal identity of us in Creation and Redemption. A baptism is more than initiation. It is death and rebirth, being made a member of the mystical Body of Christ, as our funeral liturgy calls it.

It is the most secret of societies, for we cannot see the Spirit with eyes of flesh. It is the most open of societies, accepting everyone regardless of Team and language, race, and past associations. It it the most exclusive of tribes, as it demands greatest place and bears no competition. The Christ is Lord of all and trumps every other association, interest, tribe or club which claims ownership of even a part of us. It is the most free of all associations, as your belonging is held by the Creator of all, and is not based on your keeping the rules. You can sell your bike or car or switch loyalties to a Texas team (God forbid), and still belong to Jesus.

So why isn’t it enough? Why do we who call upon Him seek belonging with teams and vehicles and clothing and everywhere else the world calls to us: “Join us! Be like us!” Why do those rebels and teenagers who reject “labels” and “cliques” and those scenes join together with other rebels and outsiders and dress and talk and hang with them? Why is Christ and His Church not enough?

Christ and His Church demand change. It welcomes us as we are, but rightly says that who we are is not who we will be. God has larger plans for you. God is making you like His Christ. God is giving you even a share in divinity! This is a painful process as we repent all those cracks and thorns and worms that keep us from being sons and daughters of the King. Jesus eats with sinners and welcomes them. But sinners repent in the presence of Christ and “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11). Our flesh fights against this. It is hard. And we know not where it ends. Christ and His Kingdom and His righteous to be sure. But what does it look like for me? What Christ is changing in us and where we are headed is seen with faith, and not with our eyes.

Who you are is not who you will be. This is true regardless of faith, regardless of religion. We are all moving targets, all going through change. I no longer flash a V sign at Beetles. Even team loyalties can change over time. Who you are is not who you will be. But this becomes a promise and a hope and a fervent joy for us who belong to Christ. Who you are now is not who you will be. God is at work in you giving you His divine life. He is making you into more than who you are already. He is taking you and refining you, making you more purely you. This is His work in His Church. Through His Word and Sacraments, you belong to the most precious, coveted society there is: the Society of Heaven. The People of God. The Children of the Father. Sons and Daughters of the King of Kings.

Not a Throwaway Post

I love my congregation. I’ve told people too numerous to count that serving as Senior Pastor here at Grace feels like God is treating me with kid gloves. Oh, we have our share of drama. Yes, we have conflicts. No, it’s not a perfect place. But it is a great match, a beautiful fit for me professionally and personally.
I’m also blessed to serve with my Associate Pastor, Chris Tiews. We make a good team, with our strengths playing off one another, and how we’re perceived strengthening one another. That’s all.

Who do the Worms Eat?

jar1A jar of dirt. A pickle jar filled with dirt from your back yard, sitting on your desk or mantle, reminding you of your origin as animated dust, as organic matter which has received the breath of God. As it stands, a good reminder. A speaker at a conference I attended recently made this the climax of his speech. Keep this jar of dirt in your study, he told us pastors.

A jar of dirt. A reminder that we will end up there as well, once the chemicals dissipate and the water enters the vault. With time and time again, back to dirt and dust we will go. It’s the call to repentance of Lent, from dirt to dirt. It’s the order of things after the Fall, after the primordial days of old. It’s all we knew.

And if that it were it, then the cry of the hedonist sounds loud: eat and drink! It would be worth the stress and worry and concern of hanging onto this life, if it were only dust and ashes punctuated by these brief days of light and joy. It would be worth the lust of gold and pleasures of the flesh. It would be worth stabbing your friend in the back with steely knives if it were all darkness at the end. Pass the bottle and stoics be damned. The worms will win in the end and I’ll at least die with a smile.

But there is one whom the worms did not receive. There is the one who defeated decay and death and worms and corruption. He is my Lord. He defeated the worms and nitrifying processes of aerobic bacteria. He defeated the power of the grave. For me, the worms do not win. The water and bacteria and destruction and thermodynamic heat death of the universe does not win. My Lord broke that system and I belong to Him.

This jar of dirt or flies has no bearing on the Christian. Yes, we should memento mori and dust to dust, but not to dwell. There is more. There is forever.

(Originally written for the Grace Lutheran Newsletter)


It was several months ago, maybe during the Summer, but I can’t really remember. I stood at the center of the altar, my hands in orans position, the ancient way of prayer, the ancient way of intercession. Pr. Tiews stood to my right, saying the prayers, speaking the intercessions for all people, for you, for the sick, for the world. I was in a meditative mood and I lifted my eyes slightly to look at the image of Jesus there on the cross. The sunlight was streaming in all the windows, reflecting off the brass or bronze of the crucifix.

As I gazed on the corpus hanging there, head cast down, nails piercing his hands and feet, I began to shake a little. I could only imagine the horrific pain of having to push up on pierced hands and feet to catch a breath, and then falling back down on those nails, lungs growing weak. I couldn’t consider the wood scraping against his back, raw and open from the flogging. I couldn’t image the depth of loneliness, the absent horror of being forsaken.

It is hard enough for us, when we feel betrayed and alone, when a room full of people turn on us, when it seems you are alone in this world and when the ones who love you are far away. But to be abandoned by all, and to have God and Father turn away as well? It gives me chest pains to consider it. We cannot imagine this, not really. Whether we were always believers or not, God is always present for us, in some capacity. It is unfathomable to us to imagine God completely gone, completely absent. We’ve never experienced it.

All these thoughts tumbled in my mind and I had an unsettling realization. I can’t do this, I thought. I could never do this. Not for the world. Not for my family. Not even for myself. I felt even more shaky with this realization, and more ashamed by the second. How can I stand before this image of what my Lord did for me and for all Creation and blanch and flee from the thought of being there myself?

The prayers continued, and yet at that moment I was in confrontation with more than just an image, more than just a picture. It was no longer a Sunday for me. It was me and the Crucified Christ and I admitted my own weakness and fear to Him.

Then the prayers ended and the Eucharist Liturgy continued with the preface and the propers, the Sanctus and then the Words. The Verba. And it settled in my soul again then: He did it for me. I am too weak. I am unable. And so Jesus went were I cannot, not even if I wanted to. He went to the cross and in my hands was His Body, crucified for me. And in my hands was the Cup of the New Covenant, His most precious blood shed for my blood, so thickened by sin and cowardice.

He walked the way to Cross and death and the infinity of loneliness away from the Creator for me. For you. For each of us, because none of us can. None of us could do it in the least. And He prevailed. He is the Living One. And His blood is in us. And His body is in us. And His Cross is mine. And His Cross is yours.