I love November. It’s the summer month par excellence for me. Early mornings, days stretching to their apogee, their afternoons often swallowed up by thunderstorms and rain that beats the smell of ozone from the earth. November is full of the dance of some old thing we’ve mostly lost to the advent of 24-hour living. Novembers are simply magical.
November isn’t hugely productive as a rule. Combined with the mischievous wink of summer and sun and the approach of Christmas (tacky, seasonally inappropriate decorations seemed to go up at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of October) and the beckon of the schools closing for the year, November is about as circumspect as a toddler presented with a bowl of candy. It’s an odd time to be thinking about the Advent season and the new year, when so many things seem to be telling you to stop thinking, to turn your face to the sun and the season and to just breathe it all in.
I wonder whether God isn’t asking the same thing with prayer. Glancing through my prayer list, much of it is busywork: me trying to press my case or impose my will (masquerading as God’s will of course) or otherwise labouring at my idea of what a faithful life looks like. Sometimes that labour is necessary – if I didn’t go against my natural urges, how often would I get up early on a Sunday morning to go to church, for instance – but maybe like the month of November, sometimes prayer isn’t a job to do or an item to tick off or a solemn request to make, but a turning to the “sun” of God in our lives.
For the last few weeks, whenever I go outside it’s to a scatter of small lizards streaking in all directions, startled by my appearance. If basking in the sun were a religious practice, lizards out-holy us all. They go to the sun with nothing but the need to be warmed, and nothing but the expectation that they will be warmed. There’s no wrong way to be a lizard in the sun, other than not seeking the sun, of course. There’s no wrong way to seek God, other than not seeking him.
Work and necessity will play tug-o’-war with November for our heart. Even Advent will push its own agenda. But I think the month of November is itself a kind of prayer. All the while, whatever the season, God is there, trying to lure us from the shadows of tradition and busywork and our own limitations into the warm sun of his light, love, grace and mercy; back into relationship with him, friendship with him, communion with him.
Sometimes that communion is bread and wine in a church building. Sometimes it’s the rustle of Bible pages at the end of a long day. Sometimes it’s a hurried, muttered prayer in the mornings. But sometimes, other times, it’s a shady, grassy spot under a big tree with the wind whispering through the leaves.
“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV
“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.
In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.
I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?
We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?
I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.
I am blind, be thou my light,
ignorant, be thou my wisdom,
self-willed, be thou my mind.
Open my ear to grasp quickly thy Spirit’s voice,
and delightfully run after his beckoning hand;
Melt my conscience that no hardness remain,
make it alive to evil’s slightest touch;
When Satan approaches may I flee to thy wounds,
and there cease to tremble at all alarms.
Be my good shepherd to lead me into the green pastures of thy Word,
and cause me to lie down beside the rivers of its comforts.
Fill me with peace, that no disquieting worldly gales
may ruffle the calm surface of my soul.
Thy cross was upraised to be my refuge,
Thy blood streamed forth to wash me clean,
Thy death occurred to give me a surety,
Thy name is my property to save me,
By thee all heaven is poured into my heart,
but it is too narrow to comprehend thy love.
I was a stranger, an outcast, a slave, a rebel,
but thy cross has brought me near,
has softened my heart,
has made me thy Father’s child,
has admitted me to thy family,has made me joint-heir with thyself.
O that I may love thee as thou lovest me,
that I may walk worthy of thee, my Lord,
that I may reflect the image of heaven’s first-born.
May I always see thy beauty with the clear eye of faith,
and feel the power of thy Spirit in my heart,
for unless he move mightily in me
no inward fire will be kindled.
Dear Lord, I don’t want to write a prayer for you today, not when you’re technically responsible for PMS. I don’t want to pray when praying feels like falling down a deep pit with no bottom in sight and no way to turn back. Maybe, really, I just don’t want to pray at all. Words, words, words. I’m tired of talking when talking doesn’t seem to do any good.
They say You’re in the silence, Lord. Today I need to believe that. I need to believe that silence isn’t an absence of You, but Your presence magnified to the point where speaking or hearing isn’t necessary, but arbitrary, like comparing dim long-distance phone calls to companionably sitting together on a couch as the sun sets. I need to believe, again, still, always, in the reality of You. It’s such a beginner lesson, Lord, but I keep failing this class. For the love of You, help me.
Help me to have faith, and love, and mercy, and above all hope that You are even a speck of who You say You are. Surely that speck is bigger than the visible cosmos.
I won’t lie, despite being a Presbyterian, historical Reformation stuff doesn’t exactly set my very soul on fire, and I don’t feel I know enough to write a big old post about it. But I did have a thought – just the one, and just as well! It’s not particularly novel. It’s simply this: today’s Christian religion is as much in need of Reformation as the church in the sixteenth century.
I know, I know, I write about this a lot; it’s the whole point of departure for my Looking Lectionary series. I believe the church is called to better the world, to be Christ’s hands, feet and heart, and that’s a hard feat to accomplish when we’re generally so compromised on the institutional level. We sell our indulgences as freely and happily as the Catholic church in Luther’s day did, trading our support, approval and censure for power, influence and wealth. Sure, the evangelicals who supported Trump are the easiest example to cite, and I often do! But all of us bear some responsibility in some way. If there’s a problem in the institutional and ecumenical church, it’s because we – the folks in the pews, or not in the pews – have accepted, cultured or allowed it.
We often talk about needing a revival, but I sometimes wonder just what it is we want to revive. The general trend of Westen Christianity the last few decades has been down, not up, and that’s rooted in its own subset of symptoms. Luther didn’t set out to reform; he set out to revive and considered himself in line with Catholic church polity. But you can’t revive something so troubled, and his beliefs and teachings eventually led to a schism: a reformation for both Protestants and Catholics.
I’m reminded of a scene in one of the first few episodes of Preacher. Jesse, imbued with unnatural power, commands a brain-dead girl to open her eyes. She does so, but there’s no life in them, and she’s as vegetative as ever. I think we’re a lot like Jesse in this sense. We try to “revive” our churches, which is really just a way to try to attract new people to old traditions we’re reluctant to part with. The idea of revival is closely tied to the idea of resurrection, but resurrection and revival are not the same things. Jesus wasn’t revived as human/Son of God, he was resurrected to the Son ascendent. Perhaps the reason revival has been so thin on the ground in most places is exactly because we don’t need revival, but reformation and resurrection.
I couldn’t say what this would look like on an ecumenical level, but maybe we can think about some ways to do it on the personal level. My first thought is that we’ve become much too church-centred. We still see “church” as the building we go to, and we separate it from fellowship and the rest of our lives. We know on some level that believers are Christ’s church. Trying to figure out how to live this should be a priority. I can’t help but think that recognising God’s grace as Luther did on an individual level will reform how we think of grace in a communal sense. If we find ourselves in God’s grace, we’ll be emboldened to live that grace out wherever we go. That is church.
It’s only once we centre the locus of control on God and his grace that we’ll be able to reform the institutional church. How could we possibly reform the institutional church when we use it to anchor our faith, rather than building a personal relationship with Jesus and living that relationship relationally with others? Church used in this way becomes a golden calf we’re willing to compromise for and to defend even when it breaks from the heart of grace.
My second thought is that, counterintuitive as all this may seem, it’s only once we’ve claimed back responsibility and agency and individual faith that we’ll be able to reform our churches. Reformation begins with Jesus: who he is and what he has done. Reformation then asks us what we believe about Jesus, how we relate to the Godhead and how that relationship changes us and the world. It begins with our own resurrected/reformed lives. Believers preceded the institutional church by decades, but especially lately there’s been an antagonism towards individualistic faith. The fear is probably that left to our devices and without doctrinal standards and bodies of authority to castigate us, we’ll run amok. But it’d be foolish not to recognise that much of this kind of attitude could also be construed as the institutional church trying desperately to remain relevant and powerful, rather than the more benign motives usually attributed.
I believe we have a very real responsibility to take back “church” from the institutional church. It’s what Luther did in his day, and his task remains: as long as there’s an institutional element to the Christian religion, it will be in need of reformation. We love to say that “church is a hospital for sick people”. By virtue of what it is, the church is most susceptible to “catch” the disease of sin. We need Luthers who through love for the Lord, dedication to a relationship with him and neighbour have faith lives strong enough to diagnose and withstand those diseases when they pop up in the power structures around our churches.
As I wrote earlier, reformation begins with Jesus, and it continues when we become active participants in responding to his call to resurrection and reformation. This is not an easy journey or a short one. It’s the day-to-day faithfulness of individual believers that leads to the 500th anniversary of an event that changed the world, the church and all believers forever, and for the better.