Musings On the Holy Spirit, Water, and Sacrament

It’s thunder-storming this afternoon. I love thunderstorms, especially when they come after a week of oppressive summer heat. As water droplets rain down from the silver sky, greens are more vivid in their wetness–almost glowing. The landscape outside my office window is soaked by the gentle downpour; everything seems fresher, cleaner. And my heart is so full of the Holy Spirit it’s difficult to articulate. Today, I can’t help but think of the Lord Jesus and all the ways in which water reminds me of Him.

Several months ago, a sweet friend remarked to me, “Isn’t it something when God gives us a theme week?” That comment has stuck with me, because I realized in that moment how often, in the past two years, the Holy Spirit has gotten my attention through themes—some subtle and some blatant. One of the more significant ones has been water. There’s a long backstory about this that begins with the rainy summer afternoon a couple of years ago when I was walking through my neighborhood Kroger parking lot. In one of those rare, preternaturally clear moments, I received my first indication that my family and I were meant to visit the local Anglican church. Much, much more Holy Spirit craziness happened in the months following to confirm this direction. The interesting thing is, the major themes leading up to that dramatic transition have continued.

Today was one more installment in the ongoing theme of water.

This morning, the worship at my church opened with a song I’ve loved since it came out several years ago. The lyrics compare God’s love with the most violent rainstorm, a hurricane.

Water

I was standing at the very end of a row, singing the words; to the right of me, in the center aisle stood the baptismal font. My eyes were particularly drawn to it during the song, to the consecrated water glistening among the sleek river stones in the white scallop-shell basin.  I stared for a moment, pondering the sacramental cleansing of baptism.

Water

Each week, after the time of song, the Anglican liturgy includes a reading from the Gospel, and today it was the story of Jesus’ encounter with the solitary woman at the water well:

John 4

When Jesus knew that the Pharisees heard He was making and baptizing more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), He left Judea and went again to Galilee. He had to travel through Samaria, so He came to a town of Samaria called Sychar near the property that Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, worn out from His journey, sat down at the well. It was about six in the evening.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water.

“Give Me a drink,” Jesus said to her, for His disciples had gone into town to buy food.

“How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” she asked Him. For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

10 Jesus answered, “If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would ask Him, and He would give you living water.”

11 “Sir,” said the woman, “You don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. So where do You get this ‘living water’? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are You? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and livestock.”

13 Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again.14 But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again—ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life.”

Water, water, water.

What strikes me about this passage is that it speaks of baptismal water, drinking water, and the living water of salvation all within a few verses. I wondered: How could anyone, after having read this account, ever look at water in the same way again?

Jesus’ relationship to water, in his life and in his teaching, was profound. The water He turned into the finest of all wine at Cana; the Holy Spirit descending upon Him at His baptism; the water imagery in his words, such as his conversation with the Samaritan woman; His calming of the sea; His walking on water; His washing of the Disciples’ feet; the water that flowed from his side after He died on the cross. I understand Christ’s use of the simple, everyday things of human existence as a clear sign of the sacramental nature of the Christian life–the tangibles, like water, that the Holy Spirit uses as “outward signs of inward grace” as we Anglicans like to phrase it.

Following the sermon (which, by the way, was not about water) we proceeded, as usual, into the Eucharistic Liturgy. After my turn at the table, I returned to my seat on the end of the row. I love watching my brothers and sisters going forward in single file to receive the elements; nothing makes me feel as integrated with the body of believers as joining them in this precious weekly sacrament. Today, I watched as some reached into the font as they passed by and then made the sign of the cross—a physical prayer with fingertips wet with the consecrated water.

Water

And finally, in what was a novel occurrence (at least for me), our Bishop then announced that a woman from the congregation had been given a word from the Holy Spirit and was going to be permitted to speak it out to us.

It was all about…water.

About how the Lord desires us to ask Him to pour his Holy Spirit refreshment on us. She used the illustration of the Israelites thirsting in the desert, the image of parched mouths and dry, rocky ground. And she echoed my thoughts about the Gospel reading from earlier in the morning.

Water, water, everywhere, and so very much to drink. 

 

Anger, Ecstasy, and Lament Unfiltered: Reading the Psalms as Humane Literature

No doubt, there are significant elements of subjectivity involved in our experience of the written word. A myriad of factors influence how we receive a piece of literature, including (but not limited to) our worldview, educational background, past experiences, cultural context, and maturity. A work may be experienced quite differently at various stages of one’s life. The Psalms are a perfect example of how true this has been for me. 

In the greenness of childhood, with little life experience and zero knowledge of the character and purpose of Hebrew poetry, the book of Psalms seemed mostly irrelevant to my life. I viewed it as one more book of ancient Jewish writing, buried somewhere near the middle of the Bible, perhaps mildly interesting because of its poetic structure and mention of musical instruments. Later, as a teenager, the descriptions of God’s attitude towards the sinful exemplified my perception of Him as a harsh master whose eagle-eye remained fixed upon me day and night, waiting for me to fail so that he could unleash His retributive wrath:

11:5-7 His eyes watch; He examines everyone. The LORD examines the righteous and the wicked. He hates the lover of violence. He will rain burning coals and sulfur on the wicked; a scorching wind will be their portion. For the LORD is righteous; He loves righteous deeds. The upright will see His face.  

Later in life, still woefully unlearned on the literary character, purpose, and context of the Psalms, my family and I experienced a difficult two-year season in which misfortune seemed to rain down incessantly. A parent was terminally ill, a housing crash crippled us financially, my husband’s job was miserable—the list went on. I felt genuine anger towards God, and I was drawn to passages such as:

10:1 LORD, why do You stand so far away? Why do You hide in times of trouble?

Where was the life of bounty spoken of in Psalm 25:12-13, which seems to guarantee a good life to those fear the LORD? Was I not being good enough to earn God’s blessings? I read the chapters that spoke of kindness and prosperity surrounding those who trust in the Lord (such as Psalm 32:10) and felt jilted, because I took all such verses as absolute promises rather than the reflective words of a lyricist. My relationship to the Book of Psalms, to be honest, was one of confusion, sadness, and bitterness.

Ten years have passed since that painful and discouraging period, and as I read the Psalms in this phase of life, I do so, I believe, with much more spiritual and theological maturity, born of that suffering. I now appreciate them for the sometimes gritty expressions of our humanity that they are. In other words, I’m able to read Psalms as humane poetry and appreciate the various perspectives of the psalmists, who wrote these verses during times of great joy, confusion, or even utter sorrow. I, like the psalmists, have at times felt far from God, but also like them, I’ve seen how God beautifully redeems excruciating circumstances and how our souls are enriched through hardship.

Two types of psalms have become especially dear to me: those that celebrate the visible wonders of creation, and those that express deep lamentation and repentance for personal sinfulness.

The creation psalms speak strongly to my intellectual passion for natural theology. Paul’s words in Romans 1:20 about man being without excuse because of the visibility of God’s wisdom and power exhibited in the created order are enhanced by the far more ancient passages, such as Psalm 19:

19:1-4 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.

In my dissertation research, I’m particularly concerned with the mysterious resonance between the creation, the mind of the Maker, and the mind of man; Psalm 8 applies:

8:3-5 When I observe Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You set in place, what is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him? You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honor.

God has instilled His image within us! What a gracious and glorious gift to be able to commune with Him through reflection upon His creation, our place in it, and our ability to discover its secrets with our God-given rationality.

To some it may seem odd that I also find great depths of spiritual richness in the psalms that express grievous lament over sin. While it is true that Christ has set the believer free from the bonds of sin, we must also recognize that we still fail and are called to a life of ongoing repentance. 

My ecclesiastical journey has brought me to a liturgical/sacramental tradition that emphasizes both the importance of continual repentance and the unmerited gift of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. The Psalms are part of our Daily Office and our Sunday worship liturgy. Particularly during the season of Lent, I experience the paradoxical joy that results from the practice of genuine, focused remorse over my sin alongside thankfulness for the redeeming work Christ did on my behalf. Psalm 51 is one of my favorite verses about repentance, and I quote it in prayer often: 

51:10 God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

I encourage you to take a fresh look at the Psalms and contemplate their timeless truths and quintessential humanity. 

 

Man’s Search for God–Closer to Truth

I’m a huge fan of Closer to Truth, an extraordinarily well-done series on PBS hosted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Kuhn is an agnostic who is passionate about the Big Questions, such as the existence of God, the nature of mankind, and human free will. He has interviewed top scholars from around the world representing very diverse perspectives on ultimate reality. I have a deep appreciation for Kuhn’s open-mindedness and insightful questions. Once in a while his personal biases come through, but he seems to work hard to be very fair-minded (such a rarity!!). The best moments on the show, in my opinion, are when you can tell the person he is interviewing has said something he finds striking and unsettling to his agnosticism.

On a recent episode, Kuhn interviewed Dr. Sarah Coakley, an Anglican systematic theologian and priest who is Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and holds the established chair in philosophy of religion. Their conversation was so compelling, I couldn’t resist posting it. I encourage you to check out this and other episodes of Closer to Truth.

Motherhood and the Life of the Mind

Happy Mother’s Day!

For those of  you who are not subscribers to Christian Research Journal, my cover story from last year has now been unlocked for non-subscribers. Hooray! Click below. [I do highly recommend subscribing to CRJ; it has quality articles written by legitimate scholars on a wide range of timely topics. It’s not a magazine in the ordinary sense!]

FILM REVIEW: The Case for Christ

I took a much needed break from my research and writing cave this afternoon and went to see the The Case for Christ, which is based upon the best-selling book by Lee Strobel. The film tells the story of Strobel’s journey from committed atheism to Christianity, detailing (in much shorter form) the months-long investigation he carried out by reading widely and interviewing atheist, agnostic, and Christian scholars.

Image result for case for christ film

I must say up front that I get nervous when I hear about new Christian films. Some of them are so cheesy and poorly-acted that they’re an embarrassment, quite honestly. But, I had heard impressive praise from friends for the Strobel film (and he is, after all, my colleague 🙂 ), so I made a plan to see it at the theater.

**This is an honest review!**

I’m not going to rehash the plot–from the trailer you can get a great idea of the content. Instead, I’d like to comment upon why I think this is a beautifully-made film and one believers should support with ticket purchases and recommendations.

  1. The acting is excellent. Crucially, the actors who portray Lee and his wife Leslie did an outstanding job. What was a delightful surprise was that the secondary characters were every bit as believable and endearing. Alfie, the woman who shares Christ with Leslie early in the film, was my favorite, but the Christian in Lee’s office at the Chicago Tribune was a close second (he was hilarious).
  2. The portrayals of the various real-life scholars were compelling. The conversations Lee has with them are, by necessity, condensed down into a few main points, but this is handled very well. I think someone not knowledgeable in apologetics would be encouraged to learn more. The actor cast as a 1980 William Lane Craig was great.
  3. Skeptics are portrayed with the utmost dignity. The main atheist in the film, one of Lee’s older, father-figure friends, is intelligent and well-read. Lee goes to him for skepticism reinforcement from time to time. The agnostic psychology professor was presented as a thoughtful and elegant lady.
  4. I can tell you, as a child of the 80s, the set, costumes, hairstyles, and cars (!!) were spot-on. I spied an original Home Interiors owl print that my mom had in our house when I was in elementary school. 😀
  5. No Christianese!!! Thank you, Lord! Even the conversion prayer (which I was worried about) felt authentic; it wasn’t the mechanical, repeat-after-me “sinner’s prayer.”
  6. The deep humanity. You see the main character in his best and worst moments. Emotional scenes–especially those showing marital conflict–are realistic, not over-the-top. I love that the film makes clear that Lee’s atheism was about more than a perceived lack of convincing evidence for Christianity while not diminishing the fact that the actual evidence was a major factor in his conversion.
  7. Non-cheesy, chuckle-worthy humor in just the right spots.
  8. Realistic in terms of not shying away from themes such as over-indulgence in alcohol, slightly edgy language (not profanity), etc.
  9. Ecumenical (hooray!). One of the experts Lee visits is a Roman Catholic priest and former archaeologist who really knows his stuff about ancient manuscripts. However, it made me laugh when the priest pulled, from the dusty shelves of his church office library, the original P-52 fragment. Ha!! (I don’t think he calls it that, but the shape of that fragment is so iconic, there’s no doubt that’s what the filmmakers used.) One funny thing I noticed is that when the priest gives the count for surviving New Testament manuscripts, he uses the current total, which I’m pretty sure is significantly higher than the total was in 1980.
  10. Lee Strobel himself makes a brief cameo. See if you can spot him. 🙂

Go see it! Well worth your time. I’ll definitely be purchasing the Blu-ray when it becomes available.

Communion: Holy Sacrament or Mere Sign?

In honor of Maundy Thursday, I have updated a piece I wrote a little more than a year ago. So much of what I said then is what I’m reflecting on this Holy Week, so I thought I’d repost it. 

I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. For that reason, it is difficult for me to admit that for more than three decades, I never stopped to investigate the concept of sacrament. In fact, if you had asked me to define the term 18 months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give an entirely correct response. I have no excuse for this gap in my theological knowledge; I’m sure it was mentioned at some point in my Essential Christian Doctrine courses in grad school, though I have no solid memory of any in-depth discussion of it. Once I began exploring the liturgical/sacramental traditions of Christendom through research and church attendance, some pivotal questions surfaced.

Why do sacramental/liturgical traditions view and conduct things like communion and baptism so differently? It certainly isn’t all about aesthetic preference; theology is at the core of these practices. Is there a “right” and “wrong” way to carry these out? What is meant by “sacrament”?

Please understand that it is not at all my intention to criticize anyone’s perspective; rather, I wish to articulate why my personal view dramatically changed.

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and sacramental/liturgical Protestants don’t all have the same view on the number and exact nature of the sacraments. For example, the Roman Catholic church recognizes seven: baptism, Eucharist (Holy Communion), confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage. Sacramental/liturgical Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, only recognize baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments, since these were instituted, commanded, and modeled by Christ. 

Even though all of the above-mentioned Christian traditions hold these two sacraments in common, there is a difference (in general) between the non-Protestant and sacramental/liturgical Protestant beliefs about them. For instance, the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches hold to transubstantiation–the belief that the bread and wine are quite literally mystically transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ’s body. This does not mean they believe the elements turn into Jesus’s biological material; rather, the elements are transformed into the essence of His flesh and blood but not the physical accidents (that’s a philosophical term). Most sacramental/liturgical Protestants would deny this but yet affirm that, in a very real yet mysterious way, Christ is present in Holy Communion and His once-and-for-all sacrifice is thereby symbolized.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and many of my family and friends are still members of that denomination. I have enormous admiration and respect for their commitment to the right handling of Scripture, diligent personal Bible study, and emphasis on close community. Typically, the practice of communion in non-liturgical/sacramental Protestant churches (at least in my 30+ years of experience) is a quarterly worship service add-on. The officiant invites believers to participate and then reads the Scripture that records Christ’s last supper with His disciples prior to His crucifixion. Sometimes there is a moment of silence during which believers are meant to privately examine their hearts and repent from sin. Plates are passed with tiny cups of grape juice and small fragments of bread or unleavened wafer (the elements). Prayers of blessing are said over each prior to consumption. Communion is done as a symbolic practice of remembrance of Christ’s work for us.

I have a personal confession to make: In all my years as a Christian participating in communion, I had never been able to get over a sense of awkwardness and incompleteness in the ceremony, though I didn’t have an explanation for why. I did look forward to “communion Sundays,” as I craved an atmosphere of solemnity and visible, tangible acknowledgement of the meaning and holiness of the meal.  But I often felt as though something was missing. I remember how on many Sundays, I would place my empty juice cup in the tiny cupholder bolted to the back of the pew in front of me with a very real sense of deficiency.

In 1 Corinthians 11:24-28, the Apostle Paul recounts Christ’s words about Holy Communion:

the-last-supper-large-image-zoom

“The Last Supper” by Harry Anderson

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 

There are three things that really stand out to me about this passage. First of all, the practice of communion was commanded by our Lord. “Do this,” He said. Second, He calls the practice a remembrance, and Paul explains that it is a proclamation of Christ’s crucifixion. Third, Paul gives a sober warning about the necessity of coming to the table in a worthy manner–having confessed our sin with a penitent heart.

The book of Acts, our earliest text of church history, tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) and that “on the first day of the week” they “gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Sunday, the Lord’s resurrection day, was recognized through gathering together and observing Holy Communion. The indication is that this was a weekly act of Christian devotion that was accompanied by specific prayers. The writings of the Apostolic and other Ante-Nicene Fathers are further testament to the importance of Holy Communion in the early church. 

In the Anglican tradition, Holy Communion is a sacrament. What does that mean? The simplest way to explain it is that it is “an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Holy Communion is a means by which our faith is fortified, by the grace of God, in a deeply incarnational way. We are creatures of body and soul, and therefore such outward, physical expressions of worship feed our whole person. There is beautiful mystery in how this happens…yet it does! I believe this is exactly why Christ commanded the practice. I love how Rev. Gavin Pate of All Saints Dallas put it: “It is a meal of sustaining grace, embodying the prayer of Jesus, that Our Father would ‘give us this day our daily bread.'”

At my church, HopePointe Anglican, Holy Communion  is a serious and beautiful affair that I have found deeply nourishing. All those who have been baptized and are walking in repentance are invited to participate. We kneel together at the rail in front of the Lord’s table as a visible communion of believers hungry for Christ. When the broken bread is pressed into my upturned palm, I am told, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” or “The body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” When the wine chalice is presented to me, I am told, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Afterwards, it is difficult to stand, as I want to remain there indefinitely, prostrate before my holy God. My heart cries out, “Lord Jesus, I remember!”