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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Remember Billy Graham (1918-2018) in His Most Inspiring Quotes

Regis Nicoll

Regis Nicoll's weblog

As eighteenth century English writer Samuel Johnson might have put it, “Nothing concentrates the mind like knowing that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.” And nothing is a more bracing reminder of that reality than the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Placed on the forehead in the form of the cross, the ashes symbolize the Great Paradox: to live, I must die.

The Ash Wednesday Rite marks the beginning of the forty-day process from mortification to renewal through the Lenten practices of self-examination, repentance, and spiritual discipline. Although the extent of this process for most early Christians was limited to Holy Week, the current period can be traced to St. Athanasius in the early fourth century based on a rich biblical tradition:

  • Noah spent 40 days on the ark
  • Moses sojourned 40 days on Mt. Sinai
  • The people of Nineveh fasted 40 days after receiving Jonah’s message
  • Elijah traveled 40 days to Mt. Horeb
  • Jesus spent 40 days in desert

In each case, the period of self-denial and deprivation was the means to a higher end than relief from want and need:

  • On the ark, Noah was preparing to replenish the earth
  • On Mt. Sinai, Moses was being groomed to lead the Israelites
  • In Nineveh, the people were making ready for the greatest pagan revival in history
  • On the road to Horeb, Elijah was preparing to meet God for a mission
  • In the desert, Jesus was preparing for his earthly ministry (after his resurrection, he spent 40 days preparing his disciples for Pentecost and the Great Commission).

In the early Church, catechumens who had completed a three-year period of catechesis underwent the forty-day period leading up to Holy week in preparation for baptism and their new life in Christ.

Lent, then, following the pattern of Scripture and early Church tradition, is a period of preparation that looks beyond a one-time event or annual observance to a calling and ministry. Accordingly, we should approach Lent, not just as a time of spiritual reflection and refinement preparing us for Easter, but for our life-long role in making the invisible kingdom visible. And that gets us back to the Great Paradox. Continue reading here. 

Lent, the penitential season of prayer, self-examination, and repentance prepares us for the celebration of Easter and our heart’s deepest desire: an encounter with the risen Lord. Few songs convey that longing like Paul Baloche’s Open the Eyes of My Heart. Over half of the lyrics consist of the title appeal, followed by the reason: “I want to see you.” The relentless repetition of those phrases expresses a desire, bordering on desperation, for a life-giving encounter with our Lord and Savior.

The good news is that Christ does have a habit of showing up in the lives of his people, sometimes in unexpected ways. To Saul, he came in laser-bright intensity on his murderous march to Damascus. To Mary Magdalene, he came whispering her name in her frenzied search at the garden tomb. And to two confused and crestfallen disciples, he pulled alongside them as they traveled a dusty road in Judea.

The Emmaus Road
On Resurrection Sunday, Cleopas and another disciple were making their way to Emmaus, a seven-mile hike from Jerusalem. Embroiled in discussion over the events of Passion Week, they are joined by another traveler who, unbeknownst to them, is Jesus. Luke describes the disciples as downcast, as their remarks to their companion make clear.

They reference their crucified Lord as a “prophet,” the one hoped “to redeem Israel,” indicating that they had expected him to be the conquering Messiah, not the suffering Servant. Even the early reports of Peter and John and Mary Magdalene about the not-so empty tomb—containing only grave clothes in a collapsed, cocoon-like condition—had not helped them put the puzzle pieces together.

Jesus chides them for their ignorance of Scripture (“Those I love, I rebuke and discipline”), then proceeds to connect the dots for them.

Tracing the thread from Moses to the Cross, Jesus likely began with Genesis 3:15 where, in the aftermath of the fall, God informed the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman … he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” From there, Jesus probably reminded them of the animal skins given to Adam and Eve to cover their “nakedness”—coverings provided by God at the cost of innocent life—a divine initiative that foreshadowed the sacrificial system culminated on the Cross.

Exhausting the Pentateuch, Jesus moved to the Psalms and Prophets pausing, in all likelihood, on Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Daniel 9. When he reached Zechariah, his two companions would have been particularly stung by the prophet’s warning, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered,” given their quick exit from Jerusalem,

But whatever discomfort they may have felt, they were so stirred by what Jesus said that when they arrived home they pressed him to come inside for food and fellowship. Jesus graciously obliged them, entering and eating before vanishing before his breathless hosts (“If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”)

Seeking and finding
When Cleopas and his companion set out that day, the hope that they would meet their crucified Master was as far from their thoughts as the idea that they would meet Abraham. But their hospitality to a stranger and hunger for Scripture led to a high voltage encounter that energized them to make the seven-mile journey back to Jerusalem (the same day!) to share the good news.

For those who long for a similar God encounter, these two disciples have much to teach us. Read more.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus is more than a bracing reminder about our duty to the poor; it is a cautionary tale about misjudging our spiritual condition.

In Jesus’s day, material wealth and well-being were commonly assumed to be divine blessings for personal righteousness: the rich were rich because of their moral virtue, and the poor, poor because of their sin. The rich man had bought that line only to learn too late that he had been wrong, tragically so. Sadly, it is a line selling well today, as evidenced by the popularity of the Prosperity Gospel and its various permutations.

Jesus told his disciples that there will be people at the threshold of heaven, claiming to have done great things in his name, only to be told, “I never knew you”—people like the rich man whose spiritual valuation was all wrong.

As we enter the New Year, these warnings should prompt us to consider our own spiritual well-being.

Vital Signs
If pressed, would you say that you are spiritually healthy, sick, on life support, or, like the rich man, a dead man walking? Based on what vital signs?

I can imagine many folks considering themselves “healthy” based on some combination of religious activities: church involvement, bible reading, worship attendance, tithing, keeping the commandments, probably the very things the rich man relied on which, in the end, didn’t serve him well. And it is not hard to understand why.

Since religious activity can be the product of spiritual formation or behavior modification, taken by itself, it is not a reliable indicator of our spiritual state. Basing our spiritual health solely on religious activity is like basing our physical health solely on physical activity. While diminished physical ability can be indicative of a serious medical condition, many times it isn’t. Lance Armstrong was competing in, and winning, world cycling championships while harboring a virulent, undetected cancer. In the same way, religious activity alone, despite fervor and effectiveness, may never reveal a moldering interior life.

Understanding our physical risks requires that we undergo intrusive procedures—blood tests, colonoscopies, pelvic exams, and mammograms—involving needles, x-rays, scopes, and probes that can be uncomfortable, painful, and embarrassing. Understanding our spiritual risks requires an equally intrusive and sometimes unpleasant procedure: probing beneath the surface of religiosity and moralism to the temper of our heart—the attitudes, affections, and motivations that shape what we are and what we do.

Spiritual formation is an inside-out process. It begins in the head, transforming our thoughts in how we view ourselves and the world; proceeds to the heart, transforming our character as manifested in “fruits of the Spirit”; and flows out to the hands, transforming our activities from works leading to death and works of righteousness to “fruits of the Kingdom.”

Given that Jesus regarded “fruits” as the touchstone of spiritual formation, we might consider how they might apply in a year-end spiritual assessment. Continue reading here.