Lenten Reflections – Tony Keane

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. Some are written pre-COVID-19.

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Diadem of Thorns

The story of Job is one of the most frustrating and dissatisfying books, for many, in the Bible. It revolves around the age old question of human suffering, among other themes.

It opens in wondrous Jewish story telling style, with events taking place outside of the main protagonist’s realm of existence. In the heavenlies no less, with the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Eph 6:12) coming to mind, about powers and principalities in heavenly places.

Throughout the story, as it unfolds, Job protests his integrity and uprightness before his judgemental friends, while seeking a fair hearing from his Creator. Job’s pain, grief, loss and sorrow are palpable, being compounded by his so-called ‘Comforters’ attitude to his plight, even his wife doesn’t seem to help (Job 2:9)!

When Job does finally get his audience with his Maker, the whole conversation and outcome leaves me with a rather metallic taste in my mouth, of God, integrity and justice. Gloucester’s refrain, from Shakespeare’s King Lear, aptly echoes through my mind:

“As flies to wanton boys,

We are to the Gods.

They kill us for their sport.” (King Lear, Act 4 SC i)

Especially so, in relation to Job’s children.

But there is a quote from Job’s own lips, which calls out to me. It reminds me of the age-old adage about the Old and New Testaments, part of which states; ‘The New is in the Old concealed’ (Augustine of Hippo).

25 I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
26 And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
27 I myself will see him
with my own eyes – I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!

Job 19:25-27 (NIVUK)

‘How my heart yearns within me’. How indeed, and this spoken by a man, long before Abraham answered his son Isaac in Moriah, with the words:

‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

Genesis 22:8 (NIVUK)

In my mind’s eye I am at another time, in that mountainous region of Moriah. In a place they call ‘the skull’. At that moment they are killing the unblemished Passover lambs in Jerusalem. But before me, His arms outstretched and nailed to a rugged beam, is a human ‘lamb’. Yeshua, the incarnate word, God’s own Son. His royal diadem a crown of thorns. At the foot of His throne both wrath and mercy have met.

A drop of blood from His thorny crown falls upon my cheek and mingles on my lips. It tastes metallic, an iron-willed love with sorrow mixed.

John the Baptist’s voice carries on the wind and darkening sky:

‘Hineh, Seh HaElohim’ (behold, the lamb of God…)

 

Lenten Reflections – Helen Lane

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. Some are written pre-COVID-19. This one by Helen Lane has proved to be particulary prophetic in asking

This Lent, perhaps we are invited into a sort of wilderness, away from the distractions, incessant entertainment and our anesthetised existence …

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An invitation by God to the wilderness, to a desert place is one most of us feel reluctant to accept. But I am reminded that in the wilderness I am more able to hear the Father speaking core truths to me.

As a student, I grappled with what it meant to be a young woman. What was my role in God’s mission, in the church? I didn’t connect with typical notions of the good Christian woman and felt deeply angry and hurt by some Christians’ perceptions of womanhood. I wanted adventure, to be part of the battle. Part of me resented my femaleness; it seemed second best. It was in this wilderness time that God spoke to me very specifically one evening, affirming me as his daughter and stripping away the warped proclamations of identity I’d heard. I was being invited to throw off everything that hinders and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12).

Wilderness times and learning about identity seem to be frequent bed-fellows.

The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness and no doubt it was a time of laying themselves bare, raw emotions, despair and resentfulness, but there were also seemingly times of oasis and revelation and a reawakening from the numbness their slavery in Egypt had brought. In the desert they discovered their identity as God’s chosen people, his “treasured possession” and their calling to be a blessing to all nations.

Conversely, before Jesus was led into the wilderness, God the Father affirmed his identity as God’s “beloved Son”. It’s hard to imagine Jesus withstanding the Devil’s temptations of power and authority without being absolutely sure of his identity and relationship with the Father.

This Lent, perhaps we are invited into a sort of wilderness, away from the distractions, incessant entertainment and our anesthetised existence so that we can discover afresh our true identity as sons and daughters of the King and be released to participate with God in His mission.

Lenten Reflection – Paul Burke

This week coming up to Easter I am posting with permission some Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. Some were written pre COVID-19.

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As I write this, Storm Jorge has arrived, the fire is lit, ‘Agus anois an Aimsear’ plays in the background and I sit. The crackle of the fire is echoed outside by the rain on the pavement and the green tarpaulin that flaps and slaps the table it covers.

One could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but Spring has arrived. Since the solstice, and ever so slowly, the sun rises higher over the horizon and we emerge from the dark days of winter once more. The clay pots outside my door display nature’s capacity to begin again; snow drops hang like pearl earrings, a pale yellow crocus opens itself as if in worship, the first cherry blossoms are born on bare branches and much is yet to come.

It is in this changing of the seasons, the movement from darkness into light that I consider my own shadow, the ways in which I miss the mark, the ways in which I don’t reflect the light and love of the Divine. The hatred I sometimes feel towards those who make my life difficult. The anger that simmers just below the surface and then is misdirected at those I care most for. The empty places I seek comfort from the pain of living in a broken and often dark world.

In these moments I take comfort in a God of change, a God of renewal.

Forget the former things: do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

Jesus invites us to change when he says ‘repent and believe the good news’(Mark 1v15). The word repent refers to a changing of attitude or mind; to turn in a new direction and to go a different way.

Padraig O Tuama writes on repentance in his book In the Shelter.

To be open to the possibility of repentance is a sign of the goodness of humanity. To consider one self immune from the need for such changing of tune, of mind, of direction or idea is to alienate oneself from the argument of being human. Hello to the gift of being wrong. Hello to the gift of repentance. Hello to change.

Change is often like an unwanted visitor; I’d rather just be left alone. Change requires humility and humility is hard. Change is also slow.

But what if, as I lay to rest the attitudes and actions that are unreflective of the God of Love, something else was born? What if out of the darkness something life giving emerged? What if from beneath the dead and decaying leaves on the forest floor pushed primroses, snowdrops, bluebells, trilliums, anemones and erythroniums? A woodland in spring is a beautiful thing, a tapestry of colours and textures a long time in the making.

We have a God who since ancient times has been weaving threads of love, grace and beauty into the fabric of this world and into the fabric of our lives. Hello to the God of resurrection and hello to the God who is making all things new!

Peace Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

 

Lenten Reflection – Lorraine Neill

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. Some are written pre-COVID-19.

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Where are you?

“Adam? Eve? Where are you?”

I wonder what it felt like to hear God ask that?  Probably less like the excited anticipation of being discovered in a game of hide and seek and more like the dreaded anticipation of someone walking in on your thoughts.  They were hiding.  Hiding among the many trees that the Lord had made for them to enjoy.  Trees that were ‘pleasing to the eye and good for food’.  Hiding because even though they were given more than they needed and free to eat of any tree but one, they couldn’t resist the one.

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’

Knowledge here means to experience.  God wanted to protect us from experiencing evil, but then evil stood there and looked so good…
And so she ate.
And so he ate.
And so we ate.

And when they ate their eyes were opened.  They saw. They saw what they wished they hadn’t seen. And that seeing ‘brought loss and a darkness that none of us could hold’. They had unleashed evil into creation.  Hell was set loose.  And they couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.  And so they do what we all do, when we’ve done as we shouldn’t have done… we hide.  Hoping not to be found, and yet part of us knowing that being found is our only hope.

Even when we are found by God we still squirm trying to justify and defend ourselves “…he made me, she made me, it’s my enneagram number…!”

But eventually, like Adam and Eve, we are faced with our mistrust, faced with our desire to be our own God.  Reminded that He alone is the source of all life and we are his creations.  We are reminded that ‘we are dust and to dust we will return’. Fleming Rutledge writes

“in a mysterious way, the saying that we are dust points us to the good news, because it re-orients us to our proper relationship with the creator God, who formed us out of the earth.”

Where are you?  He asks us as we hide. How gracious of him to ask, how gracious of Him to come looking for us even after we’ve mistrusted and disobeyed him. How gracious of him to come looking for us when we thought we didn’t want to be found.  How kind.  How loving. How hopeful.

“This is the God who comes to man and woman when we can no longer come to him, when we can only run away and hide.”

God is always searching for us. God’s first response to this catastrophic event is to search for us in our fall, to invite us out of hiding and most astoundingly to clothe and protect us.

“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them…”

This Lent, as everyday, there is an invitation for us to remember that we are dust so that we may again fall on the knowledge that He made us, that He knows us better than we know ourselves, that He knows what we need and that He desires abundant life for us.

This Lent there is an invitation to hear him calling our name and asking “where are you?”  There is an invitation to come out of hiding and there is an invitation to be clothed by Him.

[Refs: The Undoing of Death by Fleming Rutledge and poem by David Whyte ‘No one told me’.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (28) Love of money

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Last question!!!  Your useful chapter about money talks about love gone wrong, love for things instead of people, and the using of people to get things. In short, the sin of greed and acquisitiveness.

I was once watching TV in New York and Reverend Ike came on the TV and said the following: “our Scripture for today is from St. Paul ‘the lack of money is the root of all evil’.  After dismembering Paul’s actual words he then went on to say ‘if money is causing you problems and temptations, then send it to me, and I will relieve you of that temptation’ and so on. I remember well a little pamphlet my old prof at GCTS, Gordon Fee wrote called ‘The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel’.  What do you see as the cure for that disease, the cure for misdirected love???

PATRICK: Gordon Fee commenting on I Timothy 6 asks that given the strength of the warnings about the spiritual dangers of money

“Why would any Christian want to get rich?”

Riches are a temptation and trap that ensnare those that desire them. If that sounds odd to us maybe it’s because we are shaped by a culture where the pursuit of wealth is seen as a good thing and accumulating riches equal ‘success’.

There is a nest of issues here around the heart, misdirected love, destructive desires, greed and dissatisfaction – always wanting more. The Bible’s unvarnished diagnosis of this is idolatry – seeking purpose, fulfilment and security in money and the power it brings rather than in God.

Regarding a ‘cure’ – I guess the first step is diagnosis of the problem. And that needs courage by pastors and teachers, perhaps particularly within American Christianity which exists within probably one of the most acquisitive cultures that has existed in human history. When did you last hear a sermon about greed I wonder? Yet, as is often said, Scripture has far more to say about money than pretty well any other ethical issue.

Imagine if the church’s ‘default’ attitude to wealth was caution and warnings about its potentially toxic effects. That would be a huge shift and bring us back closer to the attitudes of Christians of the early church.

A second step is de-idolizing money through rightly-directed love. It’s fascinating how Paul’s ‘answer’ to the problem in 1 Timothy is not a list of rules – he goes for the heart. He has confidence the power of the gospel to transform hearts, minds and behaviour. Love of money is a spiritual problem. The ‘treatment’ is to find our security in the love of God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17b). To be people of contentment, hope, generosity and other-directed love. An acid test of where our security and hope really lies is how generous we are with temporary resources with which we have been entrusted. 

THAT’S ALL FOLKS., THANKS FOR ALL YOUR Answers.   

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (27) Marriage and singleness

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: On p. 248 you stress that Christian marriage is not a private relationship in which you have all your love concentrated and all your love needs met.  As you say, Paul sees marriage as exhibit A of the larger relationship Christ has with his body, his bride, the church. “The primary location for love is not the nuclear family but the community of the church.” I agree, but this is not what most people mean by a family church (that usually means a church that nurtures nuclear family units, or worse still a church run by a singular nuclear family). Help us to better understand how in an individualistic age we get across that the church is the primary family.

PATRICK:  I say to students sometimes that there’s a ‘weirdness’ to Christianity that we need to feel otherwise we’ve probably domesticated the gospel. I mean by that that Christianity is profoundly ‘out of step’ with many assumed norms of Western culture – and marriage is one example. Conservatives tend to idealise a 1960s version of the nuclear family – a phrase that probably conjures up in our minds images of 2 parents and 2.5 children living in a detached home on a suburban street. Conservatives tend to want to ‘recover’ this lost ideal as a way of promoting social stability. Western liberalism tends to prize love, sex and the option of marriage all belonging to the private domain of the individual lovers, regardless of gender.

It seems to me that Christian marriage challenges both social conservatism and radical individualism. While it is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, it is not a a private relationship.

In Ephesians 5 the couple’s love is to exist within the wider network of relationships that is the church (ekklēsia appears multiple times in this text). They are first and foremost members of Christ’s body called, like any other disciples, to love brothers and sisters across deep divides around religious and ethnic background, gender and social status. This relativises marriage – it is not an end in itself. It is not the place the couple’s love rules supreme and which might perhaps ‘overflow’ to others. It’s the other way around – as disciples they learn to love within the community and take that Christian love into marriage.

As Hauerwas says,

‘Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se.’ 

This means that Christian marriages ‘belong’ within community – they are to be ‘porous’ (places of hospitality and welcome) not impermeable (the self-sufficient nuclear family).

This perspective gives space to recover a proper theology of celibacy and singleness as an equally (if not higher) calling than marriage – which is also a radical challenge to idolisation of the nuclear family.

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (26) Marriage and submission

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN:  I like the way in your discussion of Ephes. 5.21ff. you point out how Paul is busily renovating the traditional patriarchal orientation of the extended family in his day, not merely baptizing that structure and calling it good.  The exposition of ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ is helpful, and it shows the direction Paul is pointing the family in.  I have a doctoral student who has done a detailed study of Paul’s use of isotes in all its occurrences in Greek literature in that period, and it always means equality, not fairness.

In other words Paul in Colossians is even saying, masters treat your slaves as your equals, and serve them as they serve you. Now this is just as revolutionary as Ephes. 5.21.  Unless you see Paul the pastor as starting with the existing household codes and then modifying them in light of the Gospel in a more equitable direction, you’ve missed the thrust of passages like Col. 3-4 and Ephes. 5-6.  Would you agree?  Paul is not trying to change society directly, but indirectly by changing what happens in the Christian home and house church meetings— right?

PATRICK: Right. I used the title ‘Subversive Love’ to describe what’s going on. It isn’t as if Paul is confronting Greco-Roman culture head-on, I don’t think that’s his primary motive. He’s working out the good news of the gospel within fledging Christian communities in relation to different sets of relationships that commonly appear in the household codes. But he must have been well aware that the implications were revolutionary. The way Christians are to relate to one another necessarily undermines the patriarchal and hierarchical structures of existing household codes. The new communities were to be characterised by mutual submission (5:21) – a profoundly Christian concept. Love, humility, service of others, dying to the self – these are all Christ-like characteristics that all believers are called to.

So when it comes to husbands and wives, it is not as though husbands are somehow exempt from Christian submission! There’s a long history of interpretation that tries hard to separate 5:21 (all submit to one another) and 5:22 (wives submit to husbands). Some Bibles even insert a heading after verse 21 that breaks up the text – which, as you know, is one long sentence in Greek from verses 18-23. Yes, wives are told to submit to husbands (and children / slaves to obey parents / masters), not the other way around. But this is best read not as some Pauline mandate for a timeless ‘gender role’. The apostle is recognising cultural realities of the household codes but subverting them as he calls believers to follow the way of Jesus in whatever social role they happen to find themselves in.

The irony of so much discussion of this text is that it is not really focused on changing the behaviour wives at all – but it IS focused on challenging the behaviour and attitudes of husbands. They are told four times in nine verses to love their wives.

That husbands were to love wives self-sacrificially turns Greco-Roman ideas of status and patronage on their head. He is to treat his wife as he has been treated by his own head (Christ). The husbands ‘headship’ takes the form of loving and caring for his wife as his own body. It’s a subversion of cultural expectations – he nurtures her. He is to treat her as he, the man with all the power and privilege, has been treated.

Unless we get this sense of radical subversion I don’t think we’ve heard this text. And this is where many complementarian readings miss Paul’s gospel edge. They end up reinforcing the very Greco-Roman cultural norms that Paul is busy subverting.