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I confess that until recently I had never heard of the ancient Christian custom of chalking the door. (Some say it began in Bavaria.) This custom is an Epiphanytide tradition that is either celebrated on the eve of Epiphany, or on the Sunday of Epiphany (today). The purpose is to bless one’s home. The tradition is still practiced by many Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics, as well as other similar traditions. The practice is to chalk one’s door with a pattern such as 20 τ C τ M τ B τ 18, where the numbers refer to the year 2018 in this instance. The four crosses (I have used a Greek letter τ (tau) since my keyboard did not offer me the “cross” style as a choice) are combined with the letters C, M and B. These Latin letters C, M and B refer to the three magi: traditionally known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. But these three letters are also the Latin abbreviation for the words: Lord bless this house!
In some contexts the minister will pray over chalk in the liturgy and then the people take the chalk home to mark their doors in a family ceremony. This custom has a biblical foundation in the story of Israel. You will recall that they marked the door to their home during the passover in Egypt so that they would be saved from death.
There are at least two ways this custom has been understood by churches. It is a liturgical practice that serves to protect Christian homes from evil spirit beings until the next Epiphany Day, at which time the custom is repeated. Families also perform this act because it represents the hospitality of the family of Jesus to the Magi (and ultimately to all Gentiles). Thus we mark our homes so that we too will be hospitable to others.
The chalking thus serves as a special house blessing which invites God’s presence into one’s home.
When I was a young boy my parents bought a new family home, only about three blocks from my first home. I have a lasting impression of them inviting guests into our home on a Sunday evening for a “blessing of the home.” (Anita and Id did this in our first home because of my parents model to us.) There was music, food, a brief message and some prayers. I think I was about five, maybe just six, years old. I remember this like it was yesterday. I always thought of our home as a special place, a gift from God and a place of safety and gospel grace. My parents lived this faith and all were welcome at 709 Westwood Drive, both black and white. (My home was the deep South, in the pre-Civil Rights era. I knew of no other home so open to all people!)
I think of all the nations that have come to the shores of America, just during my own lifetime. America has generally been a land of openness with a warm welcome for all who come to our shores. (Our laws regarding immigration and refugees have changed, sometimes radically, but generally we have been both welcoming and tolerant to newcomers.) We should remember at this Epiphany that all of us in this great land came from somewhere else, unless of course we are Native Americans. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Chalking our homes this year (even if only in reading about the service in a post like this one) might remind us of this fact and then address our anger at others we do not know or innately fear. What kind of welcome are the followers of Jesus Christ giving to the various peoples who come here? Have we adopted an angry and deeply political response or are we open and generous to others not like us?
On this Epiphany let us pray for the attitude of Mary and Joseph who welcomed strangers to the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
You received a blog from me just a few minutes ago. As soon as I posted it I saw so many errors in the text that I was mortified. (I wrote this after prayer this morning and did not do a serious edit after I finished it.) So, please read this same post with my numerous corrections.
While I am at it, I intend to write more blogs in 2018. TO do this I will write less posts taken from other sources and posted on my Facebook wall, a wall that is privately read by some friends. So watch for more blogs and please forgive me for being in such a hurry to share my newest blog early this morning. I hope this edition is a better, more readable, version of what I tried to write before.
Lord, Orchestrate My Desires
Much of our life is about understanding and responding to our passions and desires. The dictionary says a desire is “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.”
Each of us are afflicted by certain passions and desires that occur because of the fall of Adam and Eve. This is something like a disease that has passed down to us as humans. (The Eastern and Western Churches have different theologies of how and why this happened; i.e. of the effects of the fall.) But from the word “passion” we get another word: “passive.” One Orthodox writer says: “The passions are sin sicknesses that have occurred in our hearts after the fall that feel so natural we can have them operate in our lives and we are its passive victim. Because of this, to be healed from them, we have to fight. We don’t fight in our own strength, but in the grace of Jesus Christ. It is still a fight, however, because healing from the passions feels very unnatural to us. But in fact, the effects of the passions in our life is quite unnatural. We were never created for this.”
Many of the passions we experience as persons feel quite natural and pleasurable to us, like gluttony pride, lust, anger and avarice. But in reality, these things cause us to suffer and pull us away from loving and trusting God. Jesus plainly says we cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24.
Everything in life, even good things, has the potential to draw us away from the love of the father. Yet most of our desires are fixed, or caught, in the illusions of deeper fulfillment.
As pleasurable and deceptive as these human passions are, we can be healed from them. But this healing can only be found in deep mystical union with Christ. This requires a transformative process that is often painful, prompting Paul to write, “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
What do we need? We need to see ourselves rightly. We need to know the difference between the passions and desires that entrap us and lead us to move away from the father’s love. We need to realize that these passions and desires are unnatural for us. They are a sickness. We will become well the more faithfully we live in the Spirit and thus allow the fruit of the Spirit to flow in us (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). As with any sickness we attain wellness through healing. The problem with so much Western teaching about sin and fallenness is that it cannot produce hope in us. We assume we are so deeply wedded to the power of our fallen passions and desires that we will always fail so long as we live in this world. (This is one reason we read Romans 7-8 the way we do, a reading that I have long felt missed what Paul was really saying!)
St. Innocent of Alaska wrote: “Every individual instinctively strives for happiness. This desire has been implanted in our nature by the Creator Himself, and therefore it is not sinful. But it is important to understand that in this temporary life it is impossible to find full happiness, because that comes from God and cannot be attained without Him. Only He, who is the ultimate Good and the source of all good, can quench our thirst for happiness.
So if St. Innocent is right, and I believe he is, then we need to turn our desires toward true happiness. And true happiness can only be found in the father’s house, where love abides in grace and mercy. We need to seek God’s love because “God is love.”
Healing from our passions, thus from our fallenness, is always a process. But if we concentrate on this process overmuch we will always fail. We must choose an audacious and bold direction with our life by making choices about what we will do, say, read, etc. We can begin each day by choosing a way that we will gladly embrace, even if it is painful. I can ask God, through the freedom he has granted to me in Christ, to orchestrate my desires in a vibrant loving melody rich in harmony. He can transform my desires and passions into one central desire for the kingdom of God!
Let us pray in 2018 for this single-minded desire for the kingdom, for God’s love and mercy. Here we can find the continuing transformation that will allow us to overcome our passions and desires. But we must never expect that this process will end in this life. This is summed up well by Abba Evagrius:
“What a man loves, that he certainly desires; and what he desires, that he strives to obtain.”
The famous Henry David Thoreau wrote:
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
Live the life you have imagined.
That’s not a biblical way of putting it but it is a good way to lay hold of God’s love and purpose for your life.
I will soon by sixty-nine years old. I can now confidently say that I have not lived every part of my life in the way I wish I had. Who can? But I say I have confidently moved in the direction of my dreams. I have lived a life than very close to what I imagined as a young man in college and my twenties. I am satisfied, deeply so. I have made mistakes but I have learned from them, or so I hope.
In the end I am at peace with God, my wife, my children, grandchildren and my friends. Those who are not at peace with me, so far is it is within me, I have tried to be at peace with them. I have enemies but I love them. I have friends too, a lot of them. I could not have confidently moved toward my dreams without so many dear and true friends.
Live your life for God’s glory, for real purpose. Move confidently toward his love and rest in his grace. He is good, all the time.
Matthew’s Gospel has always caused modern readers some consternation when they read the first chapter. Why is this long “genealogy” put here at the beginning of the first Gospel?
I prefer to first think of this list of names here in terms of what is clearly said in the first verse, Jesus is “the son of David, son of Abraham.” But genealogy might sound confusing. One version says, “This is the document of the origins of Jesus Christ.” I like that. It is clear and connects with me in a different way. Why?
The Bible is careful to connect events and persons from the history of God’s redemption. The entire Bible draws strength from a continuity of history and thus from the fidelity of God to his own promises. This is the key to this list, or document, of the origins of Jesus.
There are 42 names in this list. They are arranged into three series of 14 names each. It is quite obvious this list is not complete nor does Matthew mean it to be so. Why Abraham? He is the father of the faithful, of true believers. God promised to unite all the nations around his family. Jesus is also the son of David. Why? Because all Israel knew that from David would come the Savior of the world. This list includes the adoptive father of Jesus, Joseph. Among the Jews, this adoption was sufficient for Jesus to be considered, like Joseph, son of David. The list also includes four women.
All of this document of origins announces, rather discreetly, that Jesus came to save Sinners and to open the kingdom of Israel to the multitudes that would stream in from the pagan world. The Savior is is the fruit of the earth and the the flower of the chosen people (Isaiah 45:8). God led the Jews to a degree of human and religious maturity where the teaching and ministry of Jesus would take on it full meaning.
This document of the origins thus reminds us, especially during Advent, that we are in solidarity with Christ, the anointed One, the Messiah. We are in solidarity through distinctly human ties, thus through the history of Jewish families. This is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the whole world.
The late philosopher and atheist Jean Paul Sartre one wrote a Christmas play called Bariona. In this play he tries to imagine Joseph in Bethlehem, and writes: “He [Joseph] feels himself slightly out of it. He suffers because he sees how much this woman whom he loves resembles God; how she is already at the side of God. For God has burst like a bomb into the intimacy of this family. Joseph and Mary are separated forever by this explosion of light. And I imagine that all through his life Joseph will be learning to accept this.”
Think of this and ponder it anew. Joseph’s vocation is utterly unique. He is the foster-father of the Son of God. I see in this man a model for making good decisions and for dealing with profound doubts. But the text of Matthew 1:24-25 says: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
Obedience was not easy for this man, even with the appearance of angels and the clarity of the dreams God gave to him. He is a model of faithfulness to us as we meditate on the birth of Jesus during Advent. What is your vocation and how faithfully do you follow your course in life as you love the King?
No truth is (perhaps) more complex than that of the Trinity, one God in three persons. But I am persuaded that no truth is more central to living well as a follower of Christ. The Trinity is not a debate, at least for me. It is revealed yet it is a stunning mystery. A professor, playing on an earlier line, once said, “If you deny the Trinity you may loose your soul but if you accept the Trinity (and truly embrace it) you will likely find life and freedom.” So true.
My journey into God has been deeply Trinitarian for decades but much more so in the last twenty-plus years. My first memories of God, as a young child, were a mixture of terror with that of a friendly person who loved me. So far as I remember I always believed in God. But I also believed in hell and believed I might go there. (Massive confusion helps create this fear yet Scripture does, quite plainly, warn us of judgment.) I also believed in Holy God, everywhere present and all-powerful. I think as a child I imagined heaven as a place that I would go where God would allow me to take a “guided tour.” It was quite literal and highly imaginative, as is often the case with children.
So many small children are taught that they should not be naughty but nice. But what is “nice”? Who knows for sure. And what if “nice” is not enough? I remember several children dying in my circle of friends before I reached age sixteen. I was always aware that I too would die. I actually thought about dying almost every day. At times I was terrorized by these thoughts. In fact, one day as a storm rolled across my area I ran into the house and asked my mom, “What happens to me at death?” Sometime later I “understood” that Jesus came to take away my sin and because of His grace and forgiveness He would save me if I trusted him. My mom wisely showed me that following Jesus was not a “simple formula prayer” and over time I “gave my life” to Him (daily) to follow Him wherever He would lead me. I still have the flannel board piece that has the cross mom used to show me “the way” as she explained his death and my hope for forgiveness through Him. Later, I was baptized since I grew up in a Baptist church. That was a powerful moment as I entered into what “felt” like a dying experience to come out feeling like I was “new” (cf. 1 Peter 3:21). My first sense that baptism had some sacramental consequence was that experience at age seven. Strange as it is, I was in a church that opposed this notion but I “felt” otherwise and later would learn why.
But what about the Trinity? It was a mystery, as I said above. But that never stopped me from trying to solve it. I love solving problems. The question is: “What is a mystery?” Many back off once you put it this way. Not me. As I reached my teen years I was puzzled and kept reading. I asked a lot of questions. Very few around me were interested but I was deeply interested. Words like “I and the Father are one” and “I will send you the Spirit” were deeply puzzling yet filled with power for me.
During my freshman year at the University of Alabama I finally heard some serious teaching on the Holy Spirit. (Some of it was most unsatisfactory but at least I began to desire the fulness and power of the Spirit in my life and I saw that this reality would make a huge difference if the Spirit indeed filled me with his grace and power.) I conceived of the Spirit as a “breeze” who enflamed my soul with power to witness and love for God. That’s a start but not a solid place to stay.
Yet deep inside of me the “fear of hell” remained strong. What if I had not really repented as a child? What if I had been deceived? What if my faith was not from God but a delusion? I was searching for the elements of the Christian religion that are gentle and helpful towards removing craven fear and destructive thoughts.
Gerald O’Mahony, SJ, in his most excellent memoir A Way to the Trinity: The Story of a Journey (1988), had a very different experience than my own, growing up in a pre-Vatican II home in Ireland. But he refers to his fear as “that old schizophrenia,” a term I can relate to as a childhood Baptist. The weight of my struggle came down more often than I care to admit on fear rather than grace and forgiveness. For example, I would sit through “invitations” to come to Christ and time and again want to go forward to “be sure” I had done it right. This is pure Pelagianism, one of the ancient heresies of the church, but I had no idea what this meant at the time.
What was missing? I believe it was a healthy view of the Trinity but I will come to that in a later post. For now it was a failure to understand that grace was a deeply personal and very human relationship.
The way of St. Ignatius has helped me in my adult life. In The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola the believer is urged to think for thirty days on God calling me to and for the future. Ignatius introduces the Trinity by showing three persons jointly deciding what to do about the the terrible state of the world. He decided to send His Son into the world as one of us. Once this is grasped the retreatant is urged to contemplate scenes from the early life, public ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. What I began to realize from this practice was that I had a much deeper consciousness of the life of Jesus as a continuous whole. Joined with this I had a deeper and stronger sense of myself as His follower. I could picture Jesus here and there and me with him, following and loving. I was on the way to living in the life of the Trinity but did not know it for some time.
One of my good friends is Byron Borger, the owner/manager of Hearts and Minds Books in Pennsylvania. Byron regularly prepares a great review of a wide array of books. I encourage you to read his reviews (which you can get by email) and buy books from him. Yes, you can buy books for a larger discount at Amazon but Byron will help you personally and guide you with a human and thoughtful response about new (and old) books. I know no other resource like Byron Borger if you love Christian books. In a recent review of new books he wrote the following about me and my book:
Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus, John H. Armstrong (New City Press) $15.95. I will tell you more about this later but I truly wanted to list it here. This is one of the most provocative and thoughtful and thorough studies of the Biblical teaching about love I have yet seen. It is serious and well researched, drawing on writers both ancient and new, from across the theological spectrum. John is a big supporter of our bookish effort, an old Wheaton College grad, a former super-strict Puritan-esque Reformed scholar and revival preacher. I liked him even when he came on a bit too stridently with his overly confident theology. Since those days, John has shifted considerably – in part motivated by studying and taking to heart a profound essay on the rightness of ecumenism by conservative Anglican J. I. Packer — and wrote one of my all-time favorite studies of this topic, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. Under the auspices of his ACT3 Network, John has been advocating, preaching, praying, writing, and networking others for more gracious and fruitful inter-denominational conversations. It is rare to find one with such conventionally evangelical theology so robustly engaged in collegial conversations and partnerships with Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, with Pentecostals and the Eastern Orthodox, with Mennonites and Methodists. John knows all kinds of people and meets with everybody, even though it sometimes breaks his heart that others don’t share his enthusiasm for learning to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or political/cultural tendencies.
This is one of the most provocative and thoughtful and thorough studies of the Biblical teaching about love I have yet seen.
Such relationships have softened him, so to speak (or toughed him up, since he no longer only hangs out with those like himself.) He has learned to be civil and gracious and recognize the good stuff God is doing in communions and ministries unlike his own.
It is a longer story to share another time but John has come to very deeply understand – he feels it in his bones as much as anyone I know – that for Christian community to develop and for something even approximating Godly unity (of the sort he calls “missional ecumenism”) will take a lot of healing, a lot of honest conversations, a lot of humility, a lot of grace extended. We desperately need to understand, encounter, and manifest God’s love. John 13 couldn’t be clearer about the urgency of Christians loving others – see Francis Schaeffer’s lovely little The Mark of the Christian or Art Lindsley’s Love: The Final Apologetic for starters on this extraordinary truth – but it seems we are ill-equipped to live out that kind of Christian love for one another. And, oddly, those who seem to know the most about the Bible and about theology are often themselves the most stubborn and hurtful when it comes to resisting efforts to tear down the dividing walls.
Surely the answer to this broken situation, this tragic violation of the new commandment of John 13:34, is love. God is love, after all. As Kyle David Bennett so creatively spells out in his book Practices of Love, our spirituality must yield the fruit of love. Out of Armstrong’s own frustrations and eagerness to press towards greater conversations and shared ministry, he set out to study love. It is the essential mark of the Christian disciple, of course, so it is important for any and all of us. But it was especially urgent for him and his new call into ecumenical, missional fidelity. It seems odd that so little of much depth has been written directly on this topic.
And so, Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus is the fruit of several years of study and several years of writing. John is a studious scholar, and a fine, upbeat writer. This book is – I don’t say this cheaply – a true labor of love.
I had the great privilege of writing an early endorsement of Costly Love, and I hope to describe it for you in greater detail, later. For now, please know of its good back-story, its semi-scholarly tone, its great, great worth. I hope you consider buying this from us – it is published by a fine Roman Catholic publisher, and the beloved Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin wrote the foreword. (It’s not every day that an evangelical like John ends up on a Roman Catholic press, but that, too, is a sign, it seems of how special this book is and what it represents.) This book needs to be better known in our (mostly Protestant) circles and I commend it to you.
There are many solid endorsements of this book from a wide variety of important women and men, theological and church voices. For instance:
“Good books make you think, great books provoke you to change John Armstrong has given us a great book that has the potential to transform churches and leaders. Costly Love presents a vision of life that is biblically faithful and consistently congruent with reality. This is as timely a work on this subject as any I have read. This is surely a book we all need for our divided times.”
Rev. Tyler Johnson, Lead Pastor, Redemption Church, Phoenix, AZ
“Love is the best thing we have – and yet we struggle to describe it, let alone live into it. That’s because love is a cross and an empty tomb; love is knitting the church back together and saving the world. John Armstrong is perfectly placed to write about love – with evangelical zeal, catholic wisdom, and erudition without obscurity.”
Dr. Jason Byassee, Vancouver School of Theology and Duke Divinity School
Hearts & Minds