Lent is a time for us to revisit, recall, retell, relive Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and especially his suffering and death. I would like to share with you the scripture reading guide I’ll be following during Lent. Read it slow and in a contemplative manner; try to fall into the story. Be there with Jesus. I pray this Lenten journey through the second half of the Gospel story will help you to encounter Jesus in fresh new ways.
(As you will notice the Sunday readings depart from the narrative course to recall the resurrection.)
(The artwork is The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Brueghel The Younger)
Lenten Scripture Reading Guide
by an Orthodox Christian priest who has just returned from an ecumenical
gathering of largely Evangelical clergy.
Once there was a starving man who found a field of potatoes, and finding the potatoes, he found life. Potatoes alone were enough to keep him alive.
One day a family took a drive out into the countryside for a picnic and happened across the man saved by potatoes. He was a gaunt and sickly man with little strength, but he was alive and thanked God for his potatoes.
"What are all of those things you are eating?" the skinny potato man asked.
"Apples and corn and potatoes and ham and cake for dessert," they replied.
"Cake for dessert? the man inquired.
"Yes, cake for dessert. Would you like some?"
"Certainly not," said the potato man. "You don't need cake and ham and corn
and apples to stay alive. Potatoes are enough. Look at me. I was dying of
starvation and potatoes saved me. Everything I needed was in potatoes."
Your Grace, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,
At the outset, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to His Grace Archbishop Rowan Williams for inviting me to address the members of the Nicean Club. Your Grace, we highly value your personal contribution to inter-Christian dialogue and your commitment to keep the Anglican Communion unified. We know your love of the Russian Orthodox Church, of its saints and great theologians, of its spiritual tradition. We assure you of our continual support and prayers.
We also highly appreciate the work of the Nicean Club which aims to strengthen relations and to stimulate beneficial co-operation between the churches of the Anglican Communion and other Christian confessions.
I recently spent four days ministering at Sugar Creek Mennonite Church in Wayland, Iowa. There I witnessed varied signs of Jesus’ Kingdom coming together here & now in ways rare & desperately-needed in North America.
Sugar Creek is a historic peace church in the Anabaptist tradition. They believe in Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbor and enemy alike—which works itself out in lavish potlucks, barn raisings and other community-oriented good deeds and a commitment to resisting war.
Over 20 of Sugar Creek’s members were conscientious objectors in WWII-- an unpopular outworking of following Jesus in choosing to love and pray for (rather than kill) national enemies. Like many peace churches, living out Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a high priority. Nathan, the pastor, had invited me to share on dimensions of discipleship less known & practiced by his congregation--the gifts of the Holy Spirit & healing prayer.
Charisma Magazine asked me to write an op-ed addressing this question: Can Christians save the mess that is today’s American political scene? Better yet, should we? I was asked to represent the position that the church is an alternative society and our role of prophetic voice is better served when we remain transcendent to political partisanship. I was given a thousand words. Of course I explained that the relationship of the church to the state is one of the most complex issues we have faced in our two thousand year history and it would take at least a thousand pages to adequately address this topic. Nevertheless, I took a shot at it. Here are my 999 words on the subject:
The Church as an Alternative Society
By Brian Zahnd
One of the ways to understand Tolstoy’s relationship with the Orthodox Church is in the context of his search for certainty, certainty regarding truth. Tolstoy’s relationship with the Orthodox Church is paradoxical, that is, very Russian, quite Orthodox.
In 1878 at the age of 50, Tolstoy was experiencing a kind of religious awakening during which he frequently attended the village Church wanting to absorb the spirituality of the people. However in the year before, the Russo-Turkish war began and this year the Tzar commanded all of the churches to pray for the troops (sounds like this could be the U.S. today). However, part of the prayer, apparently, contained references to the Turks being destroyed by “sword and exploding shell.” This was too much hypocrisy for Tolstoy. How can the priest proclaim the Gospel of Christ and at the same time pray for the death of enemies?
Nearby our church, there’s a halfway house for men who are nearing the end of their incarceration. One of the core families in our church lives in between the church and the halfway house. The father in that family is an interesting character. He looks like some cowhand from an old cowboy movie: a rough, tough, fifty year old man, dirt all over and skinny as a nail. He wears an old hat with a hole in it, smiles with crooked teeth, has one eye that works, and loves to talk to anyone who walks by the place. Underneath that rough exterior is a very intelligent, thoughtful follower of Christ who loves to get in people’s faces, (lovingly, of course) and ask them questions about their life. Around the church, we call it the “GP interrogation” (although we say his full name). If you survive the GP interrogation, you can usually handle anything after that.
Well, a few weeks ago, one of the men from the halfway house was returning after work. The men are allowed to attend work and, sometimes, church, with very strict guidelines and rules. The man from our church (GP) met him on the street and began his loving interrogation. After spending some time to get to know the man and his story, GP asked him if he’d met Jesus while in prison. The man responded, “no, not really. I’d already met Jesus in Sunday School as a kid.”
There’s a man in Denver named Gene Cisneros who runs a health club. He was recently interviewed in the Denver Post. I was very impressed by his business philosophy because it mirrored what I feel is a biblical philosophy of ministry.
One of the main frustrations in pastoral ministry is the constant pressure – both from the world and the church – to base local church ministry on programs, products, and performances. In other words, we as pastors are judged to be successes or failures based on our ability to build and lead an organization that offers excellent programs, products, and performances to an ever-increasing customer base (or market share). People don’t use those words, of course. The “customers” would, instead, use phrases such as, “my kids love it there!” or “I’m just not being fed by the teaching ministry,” or “I really love their music,” or “our church just doesn’t have much of a youth group right now,” or “I like that they offer a Saturday night service so we can use Sunday for family stuff.”
You’re probably familiar with statements such as, “we don’t GO to church. We ARE the church.” There are similar ones that go something like this: “Church is not what we do when we gather on Sunday mornings for an hour or so. Church is not a place or a building. It’s what we are OUT THERE.” Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and, although there’s some truth and some wisdom in these statements (which I’ve spoken myself), I’m no longer so sure about them on the whole.
This kind of thinking has developed enough steam over the last few decades that I think you could fairly call it a “movement.” I’d suggest that its full name is the “anti-church-as-an-institution-or-building” movement. It’s also quite opposed to all forms of regular, traditional (and, especially) LOCAL churches. I attended a pastors’ convention in June in which a youth pastor preached one of the workshops. According to his senior pastor, this particular young pastor was being greatly influenced by his buddies in the International House of Prayer (IHOP) movement (which may or may not be influencing him in this area). Anyway, the main thrust of his message was that “we need to get free from the local church” and “we’ve got to get away from local church kind of thinking and get out there and be the kingdom.” Naturally, I couldn’t help but notice that he was saying this in a local church that paid him a nice salary, etc., but I digress.
From Rowan William's Enthronement Speech (Feb. 2003)
Once we recognise God's great secret, that we are all made to be God's sons and daughters, we can't avoid the call to see one another differently. No-one can be written off; no group, no nation, no minority can just be a scapegoat to resolve our fears and uncertainties. We can't assume that any human face we see has no divine secret to disclose: those who are culturally or religiously strange to us; those who so often don't count in the world's terms (the old, the unborn, the disabled). And this is what unsettles our loyalties, conservative or liberal, right wing or left, national and international. We have to learn to be human alongside all sorts of others, the ones whose company we don't greatly like, the ones we didn't choose, because Jesus is drawing us together into his place, into his company. So an authentic church has a difficult job. On the one hand, it must be constantly learning from the Bible and its shared life of prayer how to live with Jesus and his Father; its life makes no sense unless we believe that the secret Jesus reveals to those hungry for life is the very bedrock of truth. The Church can't believe and say whatever it likes, for the very sound reason that it is a community of people who have been changed because and only because of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian because of the change made to me by Jesus Christ, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which gives me the right to call God 'Abba Father; what other reason is there?
Once we recognise God's great secret, that we are all made to be God's sons and daughters, we can't avoid the call to see one another differently. No-one can be written off; no group, no nation, no minority can just be a scapegoat to resolve our fears and uncertainties. We can't assume that any human face we see has no divine secret to disclose: those who are culturally or religiously strange to us; those who so often don't count in the world's terms (the old, the unborn, the disabled). And this is what unsettles our loyalties, conservative or liberal, right wing or left, national and international. We have to learn to be human alongside all sorts of others, the ones whose company we don't greatly like, the ones we didn't choose, because Jesus is drawing us together into his place, into his company.
So an authentic church has a difficult job. On the one hand, it must be constantly learning from the Bible and its shared life of prayer how to live with Jesus and his Father; its life makes no sense unless we believe that the secret Jesus reveals to those hungry for life is the very bedrock of truth. The Church can't believe and say whatever it likes, for the very sound reason that it is a community of people who have been changed because and only because of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian because of the change made to me by Jesus Christ, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which gives me the right to call God 'Abba Father; what other reason is there?
The centre cannot hold—mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
so that they may be one as we are one.
My theological journey, as a young man in my early twenties, took me to L’Abri in Switzerland from 1973-1974. I was quite taken by Francis Schaeffer, but I was never fully convinced by his brand of an updated version of Calvin and the Calvinist tradition. In short, I was never held by the Reformed tradition. The Reformation is the womb of modernity, and much of the fragmentation we face today is the consequence of the reformation. The children are out of the womb, now adults and each doing what is right in the sight of their own eyes (and few agree on what the right is).
I had been reading a great deal of C.S. Lewis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I was quite aware that Lewis and Schaeffer dwelt in different environs. Lewis was grounded in the classical way, a Medieval-Renaissance scholar, a catholic Anglican and he had serious doubts about both the Reformation tradition and puritan Calvinism. Schaeffer was a true believer in the Reformed read of the reformation, and its implications for the church and society. Lewis could argue the case for mere Christianity, but there comes a point in the trail when Schaeffer and Lewis part paths for substantive theological, ecclesial and cultural reasons.
As I neared the end of writing this book I had coffee with a close friend of mine. He told me a story about a young man that he had become friends with. This young man left the Church because his experience of it had been of a surface faith. He saw people calling themselves Christians, but living their lives as they pleased and caring little for those around them. Sadly, this led to not only his rejection of Church, but Jesus as well. He continues to be a spiritual man seeking God and attempting to live a spiritual life, but due to his experience of Church he wants nothing to do with Christians and thus nothing to do with Jesus. How many of us know people like this? Too many have encountered Christians not living out the culture of the kingdom and have as a result not encountered Christ. This story is why I care about the things I have written. That my friend’s friend was at the gate and walked away because of those within breaks my heart. It should break your heart as well.
As the apostolic / prophetic movement has become increasingly bizarre, many who were told to simply bless everything are now deeply disillusioned. In these days when renewal meetings, alleged outpourings and flamboyant leaders have reached a point of crisis, it is tempting to throw up our hands, become cynical and opt to retreat to a safer, saner spirituality. And yet we know in our hearts that we can't go back to a Christian faith without the presence, power and voice of God. Neither dead orthodoxy nor practical deism can provide a harbour for us. Some are simply walking away from the faith altogether. Is that really our only option? How do we stay open to the Spirit? How do we restore prophetic purity? How can we continue to engage in authentic experiences with God without becoming wacky? What if we were to recalibrate our faith practice and renew prophetic purity?
For those who haven't heard yet, we made quite an important and wonderful announcement at Fresh Wind on Sunday, Sept. 15. For those who only have a moment, if you just skim down to the bold letters below, you'll get the basic idea. Let me begin by sharing a visitation that I experienced the night before the announcement that finally gave me some perspective on it.
I came before the Lord in prayer and engaged with something he had been speaking to me through the writings of Hans Urs Von Baltasar. I sensed him say, 'Gaze on me and I will gaze on you. I will see you and see through you and into every part of you. I will open up every door and every drawer of your soul and I will evaluate you. I will judge you thoroughly, even where you would not dare judge yourself. I will see and know what you cannot even see and know. And I will render my verdict of mercy, my sentence of kindness, and my gaze will be adoration.'
“… God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained in it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees! ‘Make level paths for your feet’, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.”
Over and over since the beginning of the year I’ve felt the call to pray for God to strengthen and help us where we are weak and immature.
He shows me the ‘great’ men and women of the faith; those we all look up to because of their special gifts and anointings, and then He says ‘now pray for them where they are weak, stunted and foolish.’
Recently I’ve been reading about modern Christian marketing techniques. I’ve been told they suck and aren’t good enough. A bad imitation at best, not enough effort at worst. Apparently people think the church’s communication efforts are a joke.
It made me realize how much Jesus-loving faith communities (and their critics) have missed the point. Have we invested too much worth in reaching the world with the world…? It got me wondering, were we ever supposed to ‘market’ God like the world markets gods?
Nothing can be farther from the truth than the facile belief that God only manifests himself in progress, in the improvement of standards of living, in the spread of medicine and the reform of abuses, in the diffusion of organized Christianity. The reaction from this type of theistic dilution, which a few years ago had almost completely supplanted the faith of Moses and Elijah and Jesus among modern Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, is now sweeping multitudes from their religious moorings. Real spiritual progress can only be achieved through catastrophe and suffering, reaching new levels after the profound catharsis which accompanies major upheavals. Every such period of mental and physical agony, while the old is being swept away and the new is still unborn, yields different social patterns and deeper spiritual insights. (W.F. Albright)
It has become glaringly obvious in my own experience that I cannot seem to attach myself to any one social cause or endeavor. As a pastor who wants to live with eyes wide open, I see things that prod my compassion into fight mode. Yet even though I often take steps onto various battlefields, I find myself once again poling my boat out into the great river of suffering looking for that one beachhead upon which I am supposed to sacrifice myself.