Laughing at life, or at death–a pre-Lenten Pastoral Backstory – February 23rd, 2017

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February 23rd, 2017

Woody Allen, Credit: Nicolas Guerin/Contour Getty

There’s an old joke: Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

Woody Allen

 

It’s the assumption of many, according to those in the know, that the rise of religious faith is mainly attributable to the way death holds humanity captive to fear. Only by devising elaborate cosmological schemes, which are, it is argued, transparent projections of our most fervent desires, could we mitigate the dissonance foisted upon us by our finitude. So the notion of life following our demise took shape within those cultural traditions that appealed to transcendent order to serve as that supremest of consolations.

Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

But in fact, the first thousand years of recorded religious history–among ancient religions both evaporated or significantly changed since their first advent–reveals no such consistent belief in anything we might associate with the afterlife. And even in the traditions that conceded to some possibility of an existence beyond the grave, it was reserved for only a select few. So the argument that humans have traded in religious ideas because we all needed something to assuage the fear of our “last enemy,” is oversimplified, and let’s face it, a somewhat backhanded way of dismissing any unsolicited impulse to consider a more expansive view of reality than what the materialist version can account for.

This Sunday we’ll conclude our series on the elements of our faith as summarized by the Apostles’ Creed with where the Creed concludes: I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, Amen!

We’ll recount Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees for whom the doctrine of resurrection had no purchase. But we’ll try to consider it as a notion that has more relevance than a consolation for us in death. For surely if it is true it has a wider application to the life we live before we die, than just the life we are promised afterwards.

How do you think the doctrine of resurrection is meant to shape your life on all the days before you die? We’re going to consider two deeply-seated inclinations in humanity that this doctrine confronts, and, Lord willing, transforms.

 

“The Incredulity of St Thomas,” Caravaggio

 

So the incomparable Leonard Cohen, who died late last year (and whom we’ve let loiter here before), wrote a song probably quoted as much as his even more famous “Hallelujah.” It’s called “Anthem” and its most famous line is the chorus:

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

The whole song goes like this:

We’re going to spend our Lent (which begins next Wednesday) together looking at the “crack” in everything–everything “under the sun” if only to wait for the shaft of Light to push through.

Some might find that a rather morbid use of time. Why not focus on the positive, the uplifting, the hope-giving? There’s surely no harm in holding fast to what is good (the Apostle Paul said as much). But I think you’d agree that the extent to which you grasp the glory of what is promised corresponds to the extent to which you comprehend the brokenness all round–the crack in everything.

If there’s any book in the bible that doesn’t just explore, but holds up defiantly to our faces, the crack in everything it’s the book of Ecclesiastes.

An “ecclesiastic” (for those who don’t remember that word in their SAT prep) is a member of an assembly–one gathered to hear. The Greek word, ecclesiastes, is therefore an assembly convened to hear from a speaker or preacher. The primary (but not exclusive) author of the book known as Qohelet (קֹהֶ֣לֶת), the Hebrew word for “preacher,” is translated into Greek as Ecclesiastes.

This preacher is the closest thing to a nihilist in all the bible (we bet he’d at least laugh along with Woody Allen’s wryest of wry wit), though as we’ll see, he is nothing of the sort–evidently if not adamantly committed to a belief in a transcendent order. It’s just that his take on that transcendent order is not as consoling or orienting as we find elsewhere in the bible among those who appeal to the God of Israel.

We will listen to the preacher not because we think he holds the final word on many things, but because he has for us a fit word. We have another Voice to consult, and in which to take refuge, but we cannot lightly dismiss the Preacher’s more darkened witness; his argument has a soundness to it and will serve to disabuse us of assumptions that simply don’t fit with reality.

 

But let’s back up a bit and return to a more fundamental question: why observe Lent at all? (Lent is latin for “forty” since it represents that 40 day season of inward preparation prior to Resurrection Sunday.)  And especially when our Reformer of particular focus this year had this to say about the fasting practices that came to constitute the original Lenten observance?

Then the superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven. And it is strange how men of acute judgment could fall into this gross delusion, which so many clear reasons refute: for Christ did not fast repeatedly (which he must have done had he meant to lay down a law for an anniversary fast), but once only, when preparing for the promulgation of the gospel. Nor does he fast after the manner of men, as he would have done had he meant to invite men to imitation; he rather gives an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him. . . . It was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ . . .

John Calvin wasn’t alone among Protestants in his disdain of what he considered to be an artificial if not distorting form of mortifying our sin. John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and David Martyn-Lloyd-Jones all had unqualified misgivings about participating in the traditional Lenten observance of strict fasting practices (HT: MereOrthodoxy).

So why reference Lent? Why dedicate a sermon series to a theme we think resonant with what Lent intends?

Because as part of the Christian calendar, just like Advent before us, particular seasons remind us that we are part of a larger Communion (remember?), and therefore we attend to certain themes that are worthy in their own right, but which also serve to bind us together in corporate solidarity. In saying we’re observing Lent, we prescribe no fastidious attention to what you do or do not eat (though we do not fault those who find in that regimen the cultivation of restraint that serves the body and the soul). But we do invite you in this season to let the united effort to collect ourselves corporately catalyze your attentiveness to some important ideas.

For you see, just as our bodies at times require a cleanse; and our homes amass dust and clutter that demand a periodic purge; and the city streets become magnets for the detritus of human presence; and governments invariably develop patterns and programs which over time either detract from its purpose, or divert its purpose simply to propping up the operation…There is no aspect of human experience that does not at times require a recalibration of purpose and effort which in theological language we might call reflection and repentance.

Lent is that time—that necessary time—of recalibration.

So how can you take to heart what Lent intends?

We’ve pointed you to them every year now, but the folks at the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts will soon be populating their annual Lenten devotional series (still under construction, but we’ve got a message out to them inquiring when they’ll go live).

For a more international take on Lenten observance, Bible.com has compiled a 46-day devotional series entitled “With One Voice.” Published by the International Christian Churches out of Hong Kong, you can sign up for the series there at the link, or if you have a smartphone, you can download the associated app. (HT: Jim Akovenko)

Finally, our sister church in Houston, City Church, is offering a Lenten devotional series you can have delivered to your email address. It’s written by several within their community, both on their staff and among their laity.

 

The partnership with For the Nations on behalf of refugees has begun in earnest among folks from CtK. The orientation for people interested in serving in the ESL aspect of FTN’s work is Friday from 10-11 over at the International Linguistics Center. You can get more information from our Ruling Elder and point person for refugee ministry, Mark Kull, by emailing him at the address provided in the link. Even if you haven’t voiced your interest previously, you can still attend the orientation to learn more.

Meanwhile, here’s a fascinating infographic on the movement of refugees over the last 200 years.

Two Centuries of US Immigration Vizualized

Watch 200 years of U.S. immigration history in one animated map. Migration flows are visualized as colored dots, each one representing 10,000 people.

 

Finally, it was a somewhat different kind of sermon last Sunday–an immersive experience in the world of the text, from which we derived a simple doctrine and application. We take great joy when a sermon connects with lived experience–even more so when it inspires further reflection. Like that which came from Rachel Kull over the weekend.

 

We’ll see you Sunday–and hope to see you also next Wednesday. On that note, we leave you with a lovely note all about Ash Wednesday.

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Patrick

Pastor of Christ the King Church (PCA)

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