Ascension Journey: A Lenten alternative

As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Luke 9:51 NLT

 

Introduction

Lenten materials arrived in my church mailbox.  They included scripture references.  I wondered which New Testament passages would explain Lent.  Not finding any, I started asking questions and doing some research.  The passage above helped me raise questions.

Background

In the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the common language instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted for the period before Easter. This word initially simply meant spring (as in German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen. The original Greek term for the period is tessarakoste, for the “fortieth day” before Easter. This form is preserved for the period in Romance, Slavic and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima).  Depending on the tradition the 40 days are calculated in different ways.  Sundays are skipped in the Roman Catholic tradition because they are “mini-Easters.”  Some have connected the fasting of Lent to an imitation of Jesus time in the wilderness (which would end possibly about the beginning of Lent).  Later, Lent “floated” to connect with “Holy Week” observances.  The roots of Lenten observance are believed by some to extend back nearly to the time of the apostles.   It is interesting to note that observation of Lent became part of expected religious observance after Christianity became the official religion of the empire.

Practice

Traditionally, church guidelines for Lent include prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  In addition, some people feel experiencing suffering during this time is important.  This takes the form of not eating a favorite food, for instance. (!) We know Jesus spent time in meditation and prayer. Luke tells us that he went out to pray “a long time before day”.  Other places we are told of Jesus fasting.  No specific mention of meditation is made but the words of Jesus various places, esp. John 14-17 suggest that times of meditation preceded the talks/prayer. Jesus gave up material goods and comforts even before the days leading to his death.  This is made clear by his words to the prospective follower:  “Birds have nests and rabbits their hole, but the son of man has no where to lay his head.”  I would affirm the blessing of these spiritual disciplines, not just for a period in the spring, but throughout the year.

Questions from my study

The question being asked is what is the nature of what Jesus did during his last days: forty-five to fifty days of Lent or the eighty days to the ascension?  I wondered why in the nearly fifty years that I had been a Christian I had never heard this question.  (I think during the first part of that period we had revivals, rather than Lenten observances.)  An internet search revealed that I could order an “I gave up Jesus for lent” T-shirt but little more.  Since the Mennonite Church emphasizes following Jesus’ example, it seemed appropriate to review the practice of Lent in light of that focus.  Many questions have come to me as I reflected on Jesus activities during his last 45/80 days.  What questions would you ask?

Luke 9:51 marks the beginning of Jesus last days on earth, those associated with Lent, Easter and the Ascension. Some see the transfiguration in Luke 9:28ff as the beginning of this period.  There are very few indicators of time elapsed in these chapters.  The NT writers are fond of the number 40, so it is surprising that Luke does not mention forty days (or 45 if weekends are included) or some time period. (Articles referenced below on the origins of Lent do not refer to Luke 9:51 and what Jesus did during his last days on earth.)

Last days’ activities

What did Jesus do during those last days before his death as he anticipated his ascension?  He clearly had a sense that this was a crucial time in his ministry. How did the pressure of his coming death and ascension influence his activities?  Surely the activities of Luke 9 through Luke 22 arose out of Jesus declaration in his first sermon (Luke 4).   Beyond that, Jesus, I believe, was preparing the way for continuation of kingdom work.  He began a new phase outreach by sending out seventy of his followers (chapter 10) to announce the coming of the kingdom. Once ascended, he would reign and provide intercession for his followers as they lived as they were created to live.  During the last days of his life, didn’t he continue to do what he announced what he would do? What indications are there that he simply prepared for his death? (Of course, he prepared for his death or the manner of his death at Gethsemane.) Just before the ascension declaration in 9:51, Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then raised from the dead.  Did he change what he was doing under the threats from religious and political leaders? To what extent is it true that the way he lived led to the cross; to the tomb; from the tomb to his exaltation as King?  Was this why Jesus came, to draw people to God, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven? to be acknowledged as king in the kingdom of God?

Conclusions

Much of the Christian church uses the period before Passion Week to anticipate Jesus death. Jesus, according to Luke, “As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”   The question I am asking:  what does one do about the disconnect?

What does this suggest we should do to honor Jesus last days on earth?  Perhaps we should see the last days as he did.  We should be announcing the kingdom, doing the works of the kingdom, accepting the consequences of kingdom work and recognizing the vindication by God of what has been done through Jesus’ giving himself.   Then, praising God for raising Jesus to his right hand to be our intercessor.  I will be posting a list of readings from Luke 9:51 through Luke 24.  Later I will add scripture from Acts and other sources for the period leading up to the ascension.

The Origins of Lent, MARCH 31, 2014 BY BILLY KANGAS
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2014/03/lent.html#FcsZTBaACGK4XXs5.99

Accessed 1/29/2018

The Early History of Lent, Nicholas V. Russo, 2013 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, accessed 1/29/2018 through

https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/193181.pdf

The Beginning of Lent
“Like all Christian holy days and holidays, Lent has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same.”  TED OLSEN, Christianity Today, August 8, 2008

Accessed 1/29/2018

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“Bread of Life?” Too many carbs!

bread.jpg

How do carb hating Americans begin to understand Jesus’ words on “bread of life”? My mother baked bread. She encouraged Julia to bake bread and Julia has baked bread at nearly every other week for the nearly 50 years of our marriage. I really enjoy her bread. During tomato season a BLT, usually without the B, is a frequent feature of my lunch. Colder weather brings out my carefully seasoned cast-iron skillet for grilled cheese with the addition of mustard, then meatloaf or sprouts or Lebanon bologna or whatever compliment is available.

Until my Meniere’s was brought under control bread toasted was a first food welcomed after a bout of nausea. (That and Cheerios which I still associate the Biblical character Legion. After recovery from nausea, getting dressed and eating food again—Cheerios usually—I felt I, like Legion, was “clothed and in my right mind.”)

But bread “of life”? For the first century citizen, according to a bit of research I did, bread made up a third to a half of the diet by volume. On this year’s Thanksgiving Feast table, I am not sure I saw any bread—there was some in the stuffing/filling/dressing. Probably the five loaves and two fishes the boy carried in his bag would give us a volume of ten to one or so. He probably ate the dates his mother packed.

In an era when Wonder Bread was first introduced, Consumer Reports experiments determined that rats could not be kept alive with the bread. How can we gain any sense of Jesus’ “bread of life” saying? Even with the vitaminized version of bread today “in a healthy diet” as the bread loaf label says, do Jesus’ words have any clarity? Has this rumination brought me any closer to a first hearer’s understanding of Jesus’ words? Can the tools of historians and cultural anthropologists cut through the veil of 21 centuries to open up the truth of what Jesus was teaching? Will eating a Biblical diet bring me closer to Jesus?

 

 

Another patriotism? Love of the Father

Bible Knowledge Quiz

How many times does each of the following phrases occur in the New Testament?

God of hope      God of love      God of peace       God of wrath       God of judgment

[Find the answer below]

What kind of God do you serve and worship? What image of God comes to mind when you think about God? When you feel the need for something or someone beyond yourself for support or comfort, what vision of God do you have or feeling about what God is like?

For me this question was a puzzle, especially when others in the small group talked of a grandfatherly person on whose lap they could climb or a large, fearful elderly person. The only image that came to me was from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon of Calvin at school. When Calvin was not learning as expected, a large, ugly scary looking teacher grabbed him by the ear and dragged him to the blackboard to ‘teach him’. The other image I had of God was of a very large dark area with bits of light showing around the edges. Later, I realized that image of God looked somewhat like photographs of complete solar eclipse at the height of the eclipse.

What kind of God do you think of when seeing “In God we trust.” on coins? When you recite the new version of the Pledge of Allegiance using the phrase, “under God”? The God of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, is sometimes seen as a violent, revengeful and judging God. That may have been a major component of my image of God. With the benefit of teaching, reading and meditation, I realized that image needed to change. Most important was God’s image/likeness/appearance in Jesus.

From the Bible

Jesus assured us that if we have seen him, we have seen the father. The God that Jesus showed us is a God of love, compassion and justice. Through Jesus we see how God was leading his people in the past and what he was expecting of his people in the future. That includes today. At times governments have expected or required actions of the people of God that differ from our example, Jesus. Often governments have assured citizens that their duty is to kill their enemies, proclaiming the support of God for this. Political leaders declare that duty to the state or patriotism should motivate us to do whatever the commander-in-chief or king or Caesar tell us to do. But is that what the God revealed in Jesus wants us to do? Perhaps redefining ‘patriotism’ can help us think more clearly about how our actions could be guided by the image we have of God as revealed in Jesus.

Patriotism defined

The other ‘patriotism’ I would like to propose is love of our Father in heaven (not the father land). The usual understanding of ‘patriotism’ is love for or devotion to one’s country that includes love of the ‘fatherland.’ Those feeling this kind of patriotism will fly flags, have “God and Country” or “God bless America” bumper stickers and feel having “In God we trust” on our coins is important. Other believers in a more standard patriotism emphasize the importance of protecting family, friends and property and are willing to give and take lives to protect others.

Actually, the root of “patriotism” is the Latin “pater” or Greek “patria” just means father. There is nothing in the word root itself suggesting love of nation/land/country. I am thankful that I was born in the United States. God has blessed us with natural beauty and rich resources. However, at times the activities of our government, its leaders and those who support its purposes conflict with our love of the father. Our heavenly father through his son, Jesus, tells us to love our enemies so that we can share the love that the father has for us with all those who were our enemies.

Our Father, the God of peace

The other patriotism, the love of God the Father, includes living the life and sharing in the death and resurrection that the Son of God experienced. The phrase “God of peace” occurs many more times in the New Testament than the others is a clue to the kind of Father we serve. You check, but the phrases “God of wrath” and “God of judgment” do not appear. “God of hope” and “God of love”, only once each. But, “God of Peace” occurs many times. (From Willard Swartley’s book: Covenant of Peace.)

Can we connect Jesus words: “My kingdom is not of [like] the world’s kingdoms or my servants would fight” in John 18 with later words from Jesus?

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (I John 2:15)

Love of the Father: Another patriotism.

 

 

Singing justice for the poor: Looking for Anabaptist-flavored worship music

I proclaim the power of God: You do marvels for your servants;

Though you scatter the proud-hearted  And destroy the might of princes.

To the hungry you give food,  send the rich away ——empty.

In your mercy you are mindful  Of the people you have chosen.

Refrain: And holy is your name through all generations. (verses 2 & 3 “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13 Sing the Journey). See also, “I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” verses 2 and 3 Hymnal, a worship book #166)

Where can we find similar praise to God for caring for the poor and hungry in contemporary and traditional worship music? The results of the search I’ve done show few examples of helping the marginal and bringing down the powerful in praise and worship music.   Early 2015 the Mountain States Mennonite Conference concluded an Anabaptist songwriting contest. They asked for “New songs with lyrics that espouse Anabaptist/Mennonite values: (e.g. Non-violence, love for enemy, reconciliation, communal life, etc.), musically spanning from traditional forms to non-traditional genres, styles and cultural expressions.” Specific mention of the social justice theme is not made, but perhaps it is implied in “Anabaptist/Mennonite values”. The link below identifies winners and includes their lyrics and music. One of the six mentions attention to the poor. * The 2015 Mennonite World Conference Songbook, Walking with God includes at least three of fifty-six selections that specifically praise God for his attention to the oppressed and poor. January 4, 2016, MennoMedia announced Project 606, intended to produce a new hymnal by 2020. Will this project include work on identifying elements of Anabaptist-flavored, Bible-based worship music?

 What Biblical models warrant placing a strong emphasis on praising God for social justice, especially in praise music? “Social justice” here is short hand for God’s act in delivering an immigrant/slave people from the super power of the day. It is a social act because a group of people, the children of Israel, was rescued. A new people with a new plan for living (the Torah) were established. God’s rescue of an oppressed people was “just” because it showed God’s love and mercy, not because Jacob’s descendants deserved it.

The contest (see above) reminded me of my quest of some years to find references to discipleship in worship music, narrowed here to social justice. Some 40 years ago I had a period of illness that resulted in a significant loss of hearing. Gradually I lost additional hearing until today I am nearly deaf. Hearing aids and now a cochlear implant. Cochlear implants are engineered to help with the hertz range of conversation level, but do not cover high and low notes of music. So, I give my attention to the words of the song. This has led me to ask questions about the theology behind the music used in worship. As a non-musician I make no claim to expertise in evaluating musical quality of any of the songs mentioned. I need a welcome help in identifying the quality of lyrics and music featuring attention to God’s interest in the oppressed.

Worship music in the evangelical churches I am familiar with usually includes what can be categorized loosely as contemporary Christian music (CCM), traditional hymns, and gospel songs. These types of music have some overlap. I will not attempt to fully distinguish between them. Each type has its focus. They are not fully listed here. Contemporary and traditional music praises God for many attributes and deeds, gives many invitations for re-dedication to Christian living, and rejoices in the promise of future life with God, but seldom praises God for concern for the poor and oppressed. My focus on the marginalized in this essay is very narrow.

Christian contemporary music

Several writers have noted the lack of attention to social justice issues in CCM. Jay Howard writes: “There are few [contemporary Christian worship] songs concerned with social justice because there are few songwriters from the Anabaptist tradition.” He analyzes 77 Contemporary Worship Songs –those most frequently requested of the licensing service CCL–and finds only one that gives direct attention to social justice issues. John L. Bell, songwriter argues that CCM is mainly about the birth and death of Jesus and ignores his life. Have I missed some CCM titles that give attention to Jesus’ life, especially to his attention to the poor, the widow, and the outsider?

 Traditional ‘gospel songs’ and hymns

Praise and thanksgiving in traditional hymns and gospel songs (I will not define these here, but look at that category the Mennonite Hymnal for examples) give little attention to social justice. “Gospel songs” are strong in their emphasis on grace, God/Jesus’ companionship and love. I have not found any of these that praise God for his love and care of the “widow and fatherless”. There are a number of hymns in Hymnal, a Worship Book (HWB), that include an interest in the poor and oppressed and justice for them. One that praises God for this attention is “I’ll Praise My Maker”, verses three and four (HWB, #166). Some encourage us to follow Jesus’ example in caring for the marginalized. Did I miss hymns that specifically praise God/Jesus as Miriam and Mary did for God’s championing of the oppressed?

Models and sources:

The preliminary Biblical models I would propose for praise songs are Miriam’s song (Exodus 15) and Mary’s song in Luke 1. The book of Psalms was Israel’s “praise and worship” book. That requires some attention to psalms that praise God for his attention to disadvantaged and those who prey on them.

Miriam’s Song

While God the warrior image usually makes Anabaptist uncomfortable, God is first called holy when he rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian cavalry and foot soldiers.

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you?—majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders?
 You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them. (Ex. 15:11-12 (New English Translation)

God is praised for delivering the immigrant/slaves God chose to become his covenant people.

 

The Psalms

In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says that the things we praise God for shows the way we view the world and our place in it.  Many Psalms praise God (see also Miriam’s Song) for delivering a slave/immigrant people from the Egyptian superpower whose religion favored politically powerful and the rich. We are sometimes tempted to assign God’s action here to a special category, rather than see it as a model of what God does.  Psalmists praise God (and kings) for their concern for the poor and marginalized.  God is praised for being a just judge and for making wars cease.  See the following Psalms: 9, 10, 29, 35, 65, 66, 68, 69, 72, 74, 81, 82, 94, 96, 97, 98, 99, 102, 103, 105,106, 107, 109, 123, 124, 135, 136, 139, 140, 146.

Phrases from Psalms 72 and 146 capture a king’s and God’s attitude and action and are characteristic of the other Psalms:

 

Ps. 72: The King:

— takes pity on the weak and the needy
— saves the needy from death.
rescues them from oppression and violence,
— for precious is their blood in his sight.

Ps. 146. The Lord

–upholds the cause of the oppressed
–gives food to the hungry.
–sets prisoners free,
gives sight to the blind,
— lifts up those who are bowed down,
— loves the righteous.
watches over the foreigner
–sustains the fatherless and the widow,
–frustrates the ways of the wicked

Praise the Lord.

Repeatedly God gives attention to the oppressed and provides security and safety to victims of violence. To what extent should words and phrases like these from the Psalms be present in our worship music?

 Prophets

Attention to the needs of the orphan/widow/poor is identified more with prophets than the Psalms and I was pleased to find significant attention to this topic in the Psalms. Prophetic critiques of worship do not contain comments on purity of sacrifices, social justice content of Psalms or the quality or frequency of Psalm recitation. The prophetic critiques point out that Sabbath worship by the people of the covenant should be reflected in covenant behavior during the week.

Mary, Jesus, Paul

Mary’s prophetic vision of her son’s work is captured in the song “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13, Sing the Journey, verses 2 and 3 above). Jesus inaugural sermon repeats these themes.

The prophetic focus is reflected in Paul’s statement in Romans 12:1-2:  “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering [as your worship]. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” (The Message-my emphasis). Perhaps an important aim of worship music should be to help us connect thanksgiving and praise with covenant living.

Today our world is one of increasing disparity in wealth. God’s rescue of an immigrant/slave people informs us what kind of God he was/is. Jesus affirmed this nature in his work and teaching by giving significant focus to healing, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. Can God’s people today teach and act less like the world and more like our lord? Are there songwriters addressing this need?

 

Miriam’s Song, many Psalms, the prophets’ reminders all tell us that connecting worship and living is crucial.   The New Testament contributions of Mary’s song, Jesus life and teaching, and Paul’s take on worship in Romans 12 all point to the worship-discipleship-concern for poor and marginalized as an essential element in our praise and life. I have found very few songs in CCM and “gospel songs” with this focus and only a few in traditional hymns that praise God as a champion of the down and out. (Perhaps additional research and help from knowledgeable persons will locate songs with a social justice focus.) Eugene Peterson’s (The Message) take on Psalms 65:1 provides an appropriate conclusion:

Silence is praise to you,
Zion-dwelling God,
And also obedience.
You hear the prayer [praise] in it all.

 

*Text and music of six winners can be found at:

http://www.anabaptistsongwritingchallenge.org/

 

Thanks to Julia H. Alleman and Ray E. Horst for sharing their music knowledge with me.

 

 

Favorite hymns

 

“I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” (HWB#166) and “My soul is filled with joy” include praise for God for his lifting up the poor and pulling down the powerful. So, that’s why I list them first, although the rest of this list is not necessarily in order of my sense of their importance.

 

The chair where I sit for morning devotions faces just north of east so that more than half of the mornings during the year I probably could see the sunrise. That feeds my love of sunrises and a preference for the hymns “I owe the Lord a morning song”( HWB#651) and “When morning gilds the skies 1. The latter sticks in my memory from a theme song of a 1960s radio program, a favorite of my mother’s.

 

Since the question of favorite hymns was raised at Thanksgiving and since I spend a lot of time in the garden (or thinking about it), I must list “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground” (HWB#96).   I list this one even though I know my favorites will vary by season. The place I find myself in my spiritual pilgrimage influences my preference for songs. Recently at church we sang “I sought the Lord” (HWB#506) and that provided the help I needed at the time which music has frequently done. (Once during a period of distress I was given words and a tune for my encouragement. I wrote down the words, but the tune I heard in my head required more of a musician to put on paper. Julia suggested that maybe if she put her head close enough to mine she could hear the tune, too.)

 

In addition to looking for songs about God’s justice I have been looking for songs that see grace for the journey as important as grace for the destination. The third verse of “Amazing grace” “Through many dangers toils and snares, I have already gone” 2 does that for me. Finally, I enjoy the sustenance of “My shepherd shall supply my need”HWB#589. In addition I recommend that everyone write their autobiography outlined by the last phrase of this hymn, “no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.” I may have listed less that ten hymns, but my preferences change with seasons of the year and of my life. As I looked up the numbers for the hymns above I saw many that have been my “favorites” at various times. And, I am still searching for more songs praising God for justice.

 

1 http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/When_Morning_Gilds_the_Skies/

 

David Alleman

Nov. 27, 2016