Sabbath Rest

No matter how arduous the week may have been, no matter how afflicted and abandoned I may feel, every sabbath the Lord reminds me who HE IS and subsequently, who I am.

Yet, I think sometimes we remember to breathe once we hit the Lord’s Day as a space in between the mundane, as if it’s a capstone to the week, the manner in which we end our labor. What I think we sometimes neglect, though, is that the Lord’s Day is the FIRST day of the week. The benediction becomes even more relevant when framed as the sending out into the world as we begin our weekly labors. The Liturgy ends with a sending out into the milieu of the secular. The Sabbath is rest, but it is also the manner in which we begin our labors.

In effect, we announce that our lives for that week may not properly begin apart from the worship of the Lord. We have that first day to orient ourselves properly, to remind ourselves whom and what we truly love, and prepare to show that affection for the next six days.

And so every Sunday we gather to proclaim the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do so in a certain way and prescribed way. There is an ordered path to how we spend our time. We are greeted by the God who is; we are called to worship Him, His Law is read, His Gospel is proclaimed, we confess our sins; we are assured of His pardon; we are fed by Word and Sacrament and with the benediction we are sent out to proclaim His glory and love our neighbor.

Forgetting

As time goes on, I feel the loss of my grandfather more acutely. First came the loss of his voice, then his face, which when coupled together brought a loss of his presence. And that is what the memory of a person is, the recollection of their presence.

The loss of memory is accompanied by the loss of the evocative, the absence of presence, that immediate sense that another person is within your space, occupying at least some of your attention. And once gone, there is no amount of invocation short of actual presence that can renew it. WE NEED proximity in order to “know” someone. We’ll often speak of “getting to know someone” and we’ll do that by sharing a meal, coffee or some other communal activity. But the unifying elements are presence, contact and interaction. We don’t get to know that person by reading a printout or a biographical sketch. Rather, we get to know them through engaging them and taking part in their lives. As an aside, this is a functional difference between being present for preaching and listening to a recording.

And if forgetting is the loss of presence, then the inverse is also true; the practice of presence is the means we employ to stave off that loss of that we experience through forgetting that can be caused by our absence from their presence.

Remembering Through The Ordinary Means

Through prayer and worship we renew our relationship with the trinity; we take part in the renewal of the covenant that takes place in the supper; we hear the gospel, our sins are laid bare before us and our pardon is declared on account of Christ’s work. From the call to worship to benediction, the point is to form us to live doxologically; to be truly human. Because a flourishing life is a life that pursues the greatest good and purpose of our existence…the glory of God. We flourish by participating in his worship and pursuing his glory among his people. Because as we attend to Word and Sacrament we are formed into disciples that maintain shape out of the mold, extending the doxology out the door of the Church and into the wilds of creation among those who see no sense in our words or deeds, who pass off our eschatological hope as foolish and our teleology as wasteful and empty.

This is how I remember who I am, who I am to be, and what I must pursue. I am convinced that one of the most potent remedies that we possess for the weak of faith, of those tormented by their sins, doubt and ignorance is the convocation of God’s people on the sabbath, to hear the invocation and declaration of his will for our lives in the call to worship and the reading of the law; the knowledge that my sins are neither hidden from God nor held against me, but that I am forgiven in Christ. But it doesn’t stop there; God then goes even further and feeds me through Word and Sacrament. Every Lord’s day I am broken down and put back together, each time becoming more like Christ, more human. Thus, it is only through prayer and worship that I approach my humanity with any measure of authenticity. To be authentically human is to be Christian.

On Knowing and Doing

While reading through Hearers and Doers by Kevin Vanhoozer, I was reminded of Jonathon Edwards On Knowing Christ where he says,

If God have made it the business of some to be teachers, it will follow, that he hath made it the business of others to be learners; for teachers and learners are correlates, one of which was never intended to be without the other. God hath never made it the duty of some to take pains to teach those who are not obliged to take pains to learn. He hath not commanded ministers to spend themselves in order to impart knowledge to those who are not obliged to apply themselves to recieve it.

The name by which Christians are commonly called int the New Testament is disciples, the signification of which word is scholars and learners. All Christians are put into the school of Christ, where their business is to learn, or recieve knowledge from Christ, their common master and teacher, and from those inferior teachers appointed by him to instruct in his name.

Jonathon Edwards on Knowing Christ, pg 23

It Is A Gracious and Loving Father They Need To Know

Confessional orthodoxy coupled with a view of a heavenly Father whose love is conditioned on his Son’s suffering, and further conditioned by our repentance, leads inevitably to a restriction in the preaching of the gospel. Why? Because it leads to a restriction in the preacher that matches the restriction he sees in the heart of God! Such a heart may have undergone the process that Alexander Whyte described as “sanctification by vinegar.” If so, it tends to be unyielding and sharp edged. A ministry rooted in conditional grace has that effect; it produces orthodoxy without love for sinners and a conditional and conditioned love for the righteous.

In the nature of the case there is a kind of psychological tendency for Christians to associate the character of God with the character of the preaching they hear-not only the substance and content of it but the spirit and atmosphere it conveys. After all, preaching is the way in which they publicly and frequently “hear the Word of God.” But what if there is a distortion in the understanding and heart of the preacher that subtly distorts his exposition of God’s character? What if his narrow heart pollutes the atmosphere in which he explains the heart of the Father. When people are broken by sin, full of shame, feeling weak, conscious of failure, ashamed of themselves, and in need of counsel, they do not want to listen to preaching that expounds the truth of the discrete doctrines of their church’s confession of faith but fails to connect them with the marrow of gospel grace and the Father of infinite love for sinners. It is a gracious and loving Father they need to know.

 Sinclair Ferguson, “The Whole Christ” pg 72

True Colors

The truth is, the crook in the lot is the great engine of Providence for making men appear in their true colours, discovering both their ill and their good. And if the grace of God is in them, it will bring it out, and cause it to display itself. It so puts the Christian to his shifts, that however it makes him stagger for awhile, yet it will at length evidence both the reality and the strength of grace in him. “You are in heaviness through manifold temptations, that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, may be found unto praise.” 

Thomas Boston, “The Crook in the Lot”

Facebook Is Not For Kids

Many parents, like myself I imagine, are leery of their children growing up. And at this point in our world, at least in America, growing up means more than hormones, the opposite sex and the struggle of identity pursuing and finding explorations and “rebellions.” It’s the pursuit of recognition and conformation by the “popular,” a collision of a need to stand out (radical individualism) and blending in; the need to stand out in a peer group that has been identified as the “in-crowd” while simultaneously losing oneself in the membership of the crowd; all played out on a digital stage before the “literal” world of a teens existence. It is that very need to be on display while finding meaning and affirmation of that being on display as a member of the “in-crowd.” This is the modern context of teenage angst that as a parent concerns me the most. Because social media, the often overlooked liturgies of the modern rite of passage, the cellphone, bring to the fore the “on display” aspect with an immediacy and ubiquity that even sleep can’t rescue you from.

James Smith succinctly describes my own concerns for my children and intuitions regarding social media. He explains,

The universe of social media is a ubiquitous panopticon. The teenager at home does not escape the game of self-consciousness; instead she is constantly aware of being on display—and she is regularly aware of the exhibition of others. Her twitter feed incessantly updates her about all of the exciting, hip things she is not doing with the “popular” girls; her Facebook pings nonstop with photos that highlight how boring her homebound existence is. And so she is compelled to constantly be “on,” to be “updating” and “checking in.” The competition for coolness never stops. She is constantly aware of herself—and thus unable to lose herself in the pleasures of solitude: burrowing into a novel, pouring herself out in a journal, playing with the fanciful forms in a sketch pad. More pointedly, she loses any orientation to a project. Self-consciousness is the end of teleology.

James K. A. Smith, “Imagining the Kindom: How Worship Works pg 145-146

Just say no and help your child learn how to be in the world before they become part of the world. Because self-consciousness is the end of purpose.

Assured Though Ill

I remember sitting in a psychiatric hospital so spun I could barely stay awake, let alone be contemplative, yet never once did a denial of my heavenly Father enter my mind. I never lost sight of the object of my faith. And I was assailed by doubt…constantly in fact. And as tenuous as it might have been, I found assurance and comfort knowing that I rested in the embrace of my savior. Knowing that I was kept by his promises (John 17:12) with an infallible assurance that rested upon a covenant keeping God, not an oath-breaking man, one of whom I was all too acquainted with. Bipolar disorder and PTSD have shown me unambiguously that I can have assurance nowhere else than in union with Christ. Neither keeping the law out of fear of condemnation and damnation nor a cheap grace that leaves no room for repentance or piety, but in my grasping hold of my savior, rejoicing in the Law as manifest evidence of my Fathers care and love for me as his child. Because I can do nothing else but acknowledge my guilt, rejoice in the grace of God, and display my gratitude, my love of the law and my savior by keeping his commandments.

This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3

My question was always, “How can I gain assurance?” What can I do to settle my restless spirit? But what I found and where I found it was in a love for the law of the Lord and a burgeoning grievance with lawlessness and sin. Because lawlessness is hatred of the Law and by consequence of the Lord. And it is here that my assurance, and I would hazard a guess, the assurance of others, began to tremble. For as my sin grew, my hatred of his Law grew; pleasure and pain inexorably dampened and nearly extinguished my love of God. I was a wretched man who didn’t believe that God had any desire to set me free (Romans 7:24) That the gospel could find no purchase in my heart, which was constantly assailed by doubt. While the enemy stole my joy, in my despair I agreed with him.

But if I have learned one thing it is that true faith produces a true love of the Law of the Lord. The love of his Law bears the fruit of repentance and piety in my life. My assurance is founded on this, for none of that is possible apart from my union with Christ. Paul clarified that it is not a “what” but a “who” that cannot separate us from the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:33-39). Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way:

Paul is not asking: “What can be against us? What charge can be brought against us? What can condemn us? What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Rather, his questions are: “Who…? Who…? Who…? Who…?” Satan, not circumstances, is in his crosshairs. It is the face of all Satan’s attempts to mar it that Paul enjoys the assurance that Christ keeps his people secure.

Sinclair Ferguson, “The Whole Christ” page 221

I have spent years chasing the white rabbit of assurance by works down through every warren it fled to. I have spent years broken and weighed down by a frantic repentance based on the fear of God’s judgement and wrath. I was fearful that my sin and pitiful works, what I now recognize as legalism, would disqualify me from receiving the benefits that belong to those in Christ. But I was afraid because I hated his law. I lived as an antinomian but I tortured my conscience as a failed legalist. In basing my assurance upon a fearful keeping of the law, yet living my life without regard to the law I was lawless and showed God nothing but hatred, casting his love for me and the savior that died for me back into his face. But now I can say with Paul,

25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

Romans 7:25-8:10, English Standard Version

Who’s Afraid of Empathy?

Are we a society of narcissists? Without a doubt. And are we a people afraid of guilt and shame? More than most. Would we rather commiserate with our own misery than take the outstretched hand of others? Plainly. It is astronomically easier to “grin and bear it” than it is to admit weakness. And on account of this, we hide behind excuses like “you wouldn’t understand” or “you’ve never walked in my shoes” or “you’re not me, so stop trying to understand.” And we count on people’s lack of empathy to be a cover for our apathy, anger, suffering, guilt and shame for any number of things or conditions. We rely on others not being capable of empathy because it allows us to reject their compassion as patronizing and condescending; allowing us to continue in our misery. And we’re often right. The absence of empathy can often lead to the misconstrual of suffering as sin, conflating illness with culpability leading to the misdiagnosis of mental illness and other psychological disorders as solely existing in simple categories of sin and spiritual rebellion.

I’ve done those things and I’ve made those excuses in defending my misery by declaring the absence of empathy, I cursed those I said I loved with the ability to empathize with me.

But does that make empathy the poison pill in the caring of others, an infection that no amount of antiseptic can cleanse? I don’t think so. Empathy is certainly not a positive skill; it isn’t something you set out to learn, isn’t something you possess apart from prior experience, empathy is a fruit of pain and is never acquired through anything other than suffering, it’s an irreducible consequence of the fall. Empathy is the practice of suffering with others through common experience, an experience that is shared not by choice but by circumstance. To empathize should not be a therapeutic goal but understood as the result of human suffering in this present evil age. Empathy is an accidental skill born of stumbling through a fallen world. But it is real. That we might share the sufferings of others, though it may and often leads to more effective treatment, is not something to celebrate but lamented because more people suffer. Though as with Joseph, what his brothers intended for ill, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20), the pain and suffering were still pain and suffering. Joseph did not suffer in order to receive comfort from the Lord, but the Lord comforted him and guarded his steps through his suffering.

Empathy is not a qualification for authentic compassion yet neither can it exist apart from the instinct of compassion. Compassion is sympathy “for” not “with”, to have sympathies “with” is to have empathy because you have or are suffering or experiencing alongside them. To say “I have suffered as you have suffered” is not a negative. It’s beneficial to the sufferer, as long as it is true. An experiential affinity for another’s pain is not a hindrance to compassion but an often essential ingredient for fellowship. It is a way for us to turn our pain to blessing in the lives of others in pain.

Compassion without empathy cannot operate healthily apart from a marriage with compassion. It is my shared experience that can gain me entrance into the heart of the afflicted, yet the goal remains that help is found outside of us. Empathy alone leaves us as destitute as we were to begin with, but coupled with a compassion that uses empathy as the first step outside of oneself, it is resoundingly effective.


And I’m not writing this in a vacuum. I speak as a person stricken with mental illness, an affliction regardless of my culpability. And in spite of realizing that I can use my suffering in the service of others, it is a suffering that I desperately wish that I could banish from my life, despite the window it gives me into the pain of others. But it isn’t a window that, given the choice, that I would leave open, not even a crack.

But this doesn’t make empathy without merit or necessarily insidious by nature. I don’t demand that those who counsel me suffer in the same way that I do. In fact, I rarely want them to. I know well how I feel, though it can get lost in translation. But there are also those times when the fellowship of those with like afflictions can be a reminder I’m not alone, that there are people out there like me that I don’t have to explain myself to be understood. That in itself, can be cathartic. Because it can become incredibly exhausting to always have to explain your pain.