Pastoral Backstory – May 26th, 2016




May 26th, 2016

Socrates (d.399 BC)

Socrates (d.399 BC)

In our schooldays, we heard Socrates’ famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Only reflection, the fated philosopher intoned, can yield the insight that delivers us from those distortions of thought and corruptions of heart that darken the life that can be ours. It’s for understandable reasons that his 2500 year old axiom endures, and that we find its essence in a variety of religious traditions and philosophical systems.

The purity of heart that Jesus champions entails, like Socrates, meditation upon all our motivations, as well as an abiding commitment to mercy. That was the fruit of our reflections upon His beatitude last Sunday.

We appealed to Ignatius of Loyola as one helpful guide in the act of guarding our heart “with all diligence” (Prov 4:23). It was the Calvin College professor of philosophy, Jamie Smith, in his most recent book, You Are What You Love, who introduced me to Ignatius’ way.

Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius of Loyola

The “examen” Ignatius composed for those who came to him for spiritual direction prescribed an uncomplicated daily routine of reflection and repentance. As we outlined briefly near the end of the sermon, this inventory of the heart asks us

  • to consider in whom or in what circumstance we may have sensed God impressing something upon us;
  • to ruminate on both what was cause for gratitude and for what might be warrant for contrition and repentance
  • to anticipate how we might be called up to respond tomorrow, and in what ways we may need God’s help

You can hear a few thoughts on the examen, all from those within the Roman Catholic tradition, here:


I don’t think any of us would disagree that a sensitivity to what is most motivating us is vital to living in the Way of Jesus. But what both the “examen” and the above video leave out (or at least assume and therefore omit) is something, I believe, critical to the fruitfulness of the interior look. If our hearts are what the examination is out to bring consolation and correction to, then we ought not rely exclusively on what our hearts “tell” us even in the midst of self-reflection.

We believe the Spirit who indwells us is able to impress upon us–to “bear witness with our spirit” as Paul puts it in Romans 8–deep truths, both of consolation and conviction. Still, the Word God has given to us, and the church God has surrounded us with both act as “collaborators” in helping us to sift through what our personal reflections yield. So in case you didn’t hear my caveat at the end of inviting you to the examen (and yes, there is in fact an iOS and Android app for that), one enters into the task of self-examination to their peril without the Gospel accompanying them. We will inevitably find unsettling motivations lurking and entrenched. But no matter how dispiriting that discovery, the fact that we belong to the Father by virtue of faith in the Son (and confirmed by the Spirit) causes us to see the corruption still within as no cause for condemnation (Romans 8:31).

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There may come a time in the near future when we dedicate a sermon series to why we do all we do in the liturgy we follow each Sunday. For some one liturgical element that may present the greatest perplexity is that of our Confession of Sin. During that moment in the service we let a particular Scripture text or prayer invite us to consider our own heart, usually with specific reference to the overarching theme of that week’s service. Then we spend a few moments silently confessing our sins. For as our Westminster Confession sharply states, “Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly.” (WCF XV.5).

It might be rightly argued that the brevity of the process is simply too short to be of any consequence. Can we really hope to take adequate stock of the week past and identify all we now find regrettable?  Let alone enumerate that list of foibles and failures in the slight time afforded? The concern has genuine merit. But what if the Confession of Sin we undertake in the service is not the totality of the act of confession and repentance? What if what we do Sunday mornings, even in those few moments, is the fruit of prior reflection?

Kierkegaard gave shape to our thinking about purity of heart last week (as well as about taming the tongue in the last Backstory). Allow him to offer some direction in how to fulfill what the brief time of Confession of Sin ultimately intends:

Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855)

Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855)

So, then, repentance should not merely have its time, but even its time of preparation. Although it should be a silent daily concern, it should also be able to collect itself and be well prepared for the solemn occasion. One such an occasion is the office of Confession, the holy act for which preparation should be made in advance. As a man changes his raiment for a feast, so is a man changed in his heart who prepares himself for the holy act of confession. It is indeed like a changing of raiment to lay off manyness, in order rightly to center down upon one thing; to interrupt the busy course of activity, in order to put on the quiet of contemplation and be at one with oneself. And this being at one with oneself is the simple festival garment of the feast that is the condition of admittance.

He’s saying that no true confession may occur on a Sunday if there hasn’t been an antecedent time of collecting oneself to identify what must be confessed. Just as one must take time to dress for the occasion they’ll be attending, so the time of worship on Sunday entails a kind of preparation–a dressing up if you will (or perhaps better in the case of confession, removing what’s hiding something). Confession properly expressed assumes a reflection carefully undertaken. So while the time of confession passes quickly in service, the preparation for it allows those few moments of acknowledgement to impress deeply both the seriousness of our error and the glory of the gospel. The latter answers our confession with an unqualified forgiveness meant to humble us and increase our affections for what it holy.

(You can read Kierkegaard’s whole chapter on confession and repentance here.)


We turn to Jesus’ beatitude on peacemaking this Sunday (how fortuitously fitting on a weekend we remember those who made immeasurable sacrifices to recover peace).

In the mid 16th century England was at war with neighboring Scotland, one in a string of conflicts stemming from the latter’s efforts to gain its independence (think Braveheart…roughly). The conflagration would not end until the turn of the 17th century when not only was a peace achieved, but a new union was forged between them.

But while the battles raged, Thomas Cranmer, the brain-trust behind the Book of Common Prayer, penned the following intercession (HT: Alan Jacobs):

Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer

Most merciful God, the Granter of all peace and quietness, the Giver of all good gifts, the Defender of all nations, who hast willed all men to be accounted as our neighbours, and commanded us to love them as ourself, and not to hate our enemies, but rather to wish them, yea and also to do them good if we can: bow down thy holy and merciful eyes upon us, and look upon the small portion of earth which professeth thy holy name, and thy Son Jesu Christ. Give to all us desire of peace, unity, and quietness, and a speedy wearisomeness of all war, hostility, and enmity to all them that be our enemies; that we and they may, in one heart and charitable agreement, praise thy most holy name, and reform our lives to thy godly commandments. And especially have an eye to this small isle of Britain. And that which was begun by thy great and infinite mercy and love, to the unity and concord of both the nations, that the Scottish men and we might for ever live hereafter, in one love and amity, knit into one nation, by the most happy and godly marriage of the King’s Majesty our sovereign Lord, and the young Scottish Queen: whereunto promises and agreements hath been heretofore most firmly made by human order: Grant, O Lord, that the same might go forward, and that our sons’ sons, and all our posterity hereafter, may feel the benefit and commodity of thy great gift of unity, granted in our days. Confound all those that worketh against it: let not their counsel prevail: diminish their strength: lay thy sword of punishment upon them that interrupteth this godly peace; or rather convert their hearts to the better way, and make them embrace that unity and peace which shall be most for thy glory, and the profit of both the realms. Put away from us all war and hostility, and if we be driven thereto, hold thy holy and strong power and defence over us: be our garrison, our shield, and buckler. And seeing we seek but a perpetual amity and concord, and performance of quietness promised in thy name, pursue the same with us, and send thy holy angels to be our aiders, that either none at all, or else so little loss and effusion of Christian blood as can, be made thereby. Look not, O Lord, upon our sins, or the sins of our enemies, what they deserve; but have regard to thy most plenteous and abundant mercy, which passeth all thy works, being so infinite and marvellous. Do this, O Lord, for thy Son’s sake, Jesus Christ.

You hear in this prayer that concern for enemy Jesus championed. You cannot miss the centrality of the gospel as both a basis for pursuing an abiding peace, and a hope that it might in fact be found. Despite the jingoistic machinations of kings and kingdoms, there abided a sense that peace born of truth and mutual respect for dignity must prevail. Cranmer evokes that often obscured but never eradicated notion that Jesus would have us live in peace.

Such is our abiding mandate.

You might even call it our “family business.” We will this Sunday.

The Battle of Flooded, 9 September, 1513

The Battle of Flodden, 9 September, 1513


Chinese churches "decapitated" of their crosses (NY Times)

Chinese churches “decapitated” of their crosses (NY Times)

Have you ever been dismissed or slighted for grounding your view in your faith in Jesus? Has it ever been your experience to have felt a criticism or a condemnation for what you believe? I wonder if I might call upon you to help me write next Sunday’s (June 5th) sermon? It’s the last of the beatitudes (and the pivot to the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount): Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. . . .

There may be quite a few of you in our midst who either have experienced some form of persecution for your faith, or have a family member, friend, or colleague who has. I know you may know of famous stories involving persecution. But I’m mostly looking for personal stories. If you have a story of a time when you felt “reviled” for what you believed, or when someone spoke “evil falsely against you on [Jesus’s] account,” could we ask you to share that with us?

In a sermon about persecution, the tendency to showcase instances in far-flung places or those we’ve now enshrined in the collective memory of the church tends to make us think of the subject in fairly unreal terms. But hearing one another’s stories–even those minor but memorable instances of someone casting aspersions for what we believe–will help us all reckon with Jesus’ dual promise that persecution awaits those who follow Him, and that for such there is a greater reward. So email us if you have something to share.

Oh, and soon if you can. June 5th cometh.

(follow the easter egg)

good things (can) come to those who click

All this heavy (but necessary) talk of repentance, peacemaking, and persecution–perhaps you need a little permission to laugh out loud. Our neighbor in Grand Prairie hereby grants it:

The unexamined life may not be worth living. Neither is the one you can’t laugh at from time to time.

Author: Patrick

Pastor of Christ the King Church (PCA)

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  1. David wanted to know what was sooo funny. He hasn’t seen movie.

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    • I asked Horace if he’d like to have a mask like that, he just laughed! I’m tempted to get him one, lol!

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