Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 2)

Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 2)

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Pastor Doug Wilson offered four “Presbyterian caveats” in support of not observing Lent.  But, given the large and growing number of Reformed, Presbyterian, and other Protestant and evangelical Christians who now observe Lent, such caveats warrant more consideration – questions, if you will, rather than statements.  In part one of this article, I offered some thoughts on the first two caveats, posed as questions.  Here, I do the same with the last two.

3 – Does Lenten observance reveal the “rootlessness” of evangelicals?

On this point, Wilson commends Dr. Carl Trueman’s article “Ash Wednesday: Pick and Choosing Our Piety” where he offers multiple objections to Ash Wednesday and Lenten observance.  Among them, he says, “I suspect that the reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything… Yet if your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.”

I would agree wholeheartedly that modern evangelicalism suffers from liturgical poverty.  In fact, I would call it liturgical squalor.  I would also agree that fleeing such churches could be a good move.  However, why would an evangelical who is fed up with the lack of “historical, liturgical, and theological depth” join a church which, according to Trueman’s (and Wilson’s) description, would explicitly not provide that depth for which they are already searching through the specific observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent?  It seems an odd invitation: Join our church because we also do not observe the things you increasingly see as important.

Dr. Trueman counters that the need is not for evangelicals to observe days like Ash Wednesday or seasons like Lent, but rather to embrace a higher view of the Lord’s Day.  He writes, “Presbyterianism has its liturgical calendar, its way of marking time: Six days of earthly pursuits and one day of rest and gathered worship.”  Evangelicals do need greater appreciation of the Sabbath, but Trueman seems to assume that this would (or should) rule out the observance of other days.  But, observance of Ash Wednesday in no way indicates that one despises or neglects the Lord’s Day, as observance of Advent does not indicate that one neglects the Resurrection (for more on Ash Wednesday, see here).

The Presbyterian and Reformed world does not speak with a uniform voice on the observance of days.  In fact, as mentioned in part one of this article, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that the “ordinary religious worship of God” may also be accompanied by “religious oaths,  vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (XXI.5).  Special seasons or occasions of both fasting and thanksgiving are permissible and in no way detract from faithful observance of the Lord’s Day.  More to the immediate point, given that the Lenten fast is suspended on Sundays, for celebration and feasting on the day of Christ’s resurrection, one could argue that the Lord’s Day is emphasized during Lent, not neglected.

Trueman further argues that Ash Wednesday is unnecessary because its message of repentance and forgiveness is “conveyed by the reading of God’s Word, particularly the Law, followed by a corporate prayer of confession and then some words of gospel forgiveness drawn from an appropriate passage and read out loud to the congregation by the minister.”  He seems to describe part of what many call “covenant renewal worship,” which is based on the Old Testament pattern of offerings – sin offering, then burnt or ascension offering, then peace offering (cf. Leviticus 9).  The result is a biblically, historically, and theologically rich liturgy.  But, this Old Testament liturgy, given to be observed on the Sabbath, was also accompanied by days of fasting and feasting.  Why accept part of the Old Testament pattern of worship and covenant life, but reject others?  We should observe a rich liturgy (biblically, historically, and theologically) on the Lord’s Day and observe days or seasons of feasting and fasting.

Continuing, he claims, “When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.”

Is this the only thing one could conclude?  Given what has already been argued here, from both Scripture and the Westminster Confession, it seems that one could conclude that some Presbyterians are attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent because their understanding of history and theology has grown.  Presbyterians are not dispensationalists, which means we can and do find authority and value in the Old Testament and its patterns (to what extent, of course, is hotly debated – like nearly every issue brought up among Presbyterians), and those patterns inform our liturgies, our theology, and they should inform our calendars.  Granted, Presbyterians who observe Ash Wednesday and Lent might be out of step with certain strains of Presbyterianism, but that does not mean they are out of step with broader Presbyterian and Reformed theology or tradition.

Additionally, being a historically faithful Presbyterian (or Baptist or free church evangelical, for that matter) does not require acting as if nothing good happened before 1517.  When Protestants of various stripes observe Lent, they may step outside of their particular denomination’s traditions, but they are not outside of Christian tradition.  It seems odd to tell those Christians that, in order to have greater historical depth, they must neglect Christian traditions that began in the fourth century (conservatively) and embrace those that began in the sixteenth, even when the earlier traditions do not violate Scripture, the Creeds, or the Confession of Faith.  Odd, that is, unless our goal is merely to deepen denominational distinctives.

One final contention from Dr. Trueman is what could be called the “hipster” accusation.  He writes, “I also fear that it speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.”  In other words, they hold to Ash Wednesday or Lent ironically, for the sake of appearances, while neglecting the substance.

These assumptions do not seem to add up.  Why would we assume that someone from a liturgically-impoverished evangelical tradition, who is “poorly instructed in the theology or history of their own tradition,” yet recognizes these deficiencies, would only observe Ash Wednesday or Lent out of ironic, superficial consumerism?  Wouldn’t a Presbyterian who longs for richer liturgies, deeper historical and biblical awareness, and greater theological sense to take root in the American church should take heart in such developments?  Why would those of us who lament the state of American evangelicalism respond with more lament when we see trends away from it?

Rather than seeing the growth of evangelical Lenten observance as a negative development or consigning them as hipsters, we should welcome it as a sign of maturation.  And, if it does reveal dissatisfaction with their impoverished traditions, haven’t we been begging them to see it all along?  Such trends represent tremendous pastoral opportunities to shepherd “rootless” evangelicals, rather than simply assign flippant or ironic motives, which we could not possibly know and have little right to assume.

4 – Is it more important to fast during Advent since that season is so commercialized?

Wilson argues that keeping Lent is not a priority for him because everyone already understands that it is a season of fasting.  Rather, he keeps the Advent fast, and sees that as more important because so many think of Advent as a four-week extension of the Christmas celebration.  He writes, “I celebrate Advent and Christmas because it has been successfully highjacked by commercial interests. Not one person in a hundred knows that Advent is supposed to be a penitential season, and not one person in a thousand doesn’t know that you are supposed to ‘give stuff up’ for Lent.”

Wilson’s disdain for the over-commercialization of Advent, which he rightly notes is a penitential season rather than an extended pre-Christmas party, is admirable.  But, while attempting a kind of counter-cultural switcheroo, it seems rather like the culture is dictating which penitential seasons he observes.  Given our culture’s proclivity towards indulging every whim and desire, is it pastorally wise to pick a fight with the one season of self-denial they still recognize?  Fasting is a widely neglected spiritual discipline within the Church already, so we should feel no need to encourage further neglect.

The church calendar, like the pattern of fasting and feasting in the Old Testament, teaches us to remember the works of God for His people.  Lent, like Advent, helps us view our days through the lens of Christ.  In Advent, we anticipate His birth with fasting, prayer, and a growing longing for Him and, yes, we should do so even more faithfully given the commercialization of the season.  And, in Lent, we commemorate Christ’s fasting, journey to the cross, and His crucifixion.

Sure, there is more cultural familiarity with Lent as a penitential season, but so what?  Knowledge of the season’s meaning, or lack thereof, has no bearing on whether we should keep it correctly.  There is great cultural awareness that Easter has some connection with the resurrection of Christ, but I will continue celebrating it in spite of insistence that it also has something to do with bunnies.  Partial or false observance by some should not create negligent observance by those who know to do better.

Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 1)

Why We Should Observe Lent (Part 1)

by Pastor Brian Phillips

When the Lenten season begins, so does open season on Lent.  Particularly enjoyable are those who, with great vehemence, vitriol, and (for alliteration’s sake) venom, argue against Lenten observance, claiming it reflects a too curmudgeonly view of Christ and His work.  Not all Lenten detractors object in such a way, and their more thoughtful critiques warrant further conversation.

Of particular interest were posts by Douglas Wilson (here) and Carl Trueman (here), because they both pose their objections to Lent and Ash Wednesday as being distinctly Presbyterian or Reformed objections – an intriguing claim, given the varied nature of Presbyterian and Reformed response to both (see here and here, for example).  Wilson offers four “Presbyterian caveats” to support his willingness to “sit this one (Lent) out.”  Condensed, while hopefully capturing his point, they are:

1 – Ash Wednesday is a violation of Matthew 6:16.
2 – Lent is inconsistent with the Old Testament pattern of feasting, particularly now that Christ has come.
3 – Lenten observance reveals the “rootlessness” of evangelicals.
4 – It is more important to fast during Advent because the season is commercialized.

Now, I would like to turn Wilson’s caveats into questions and then argue the opposite of his conclusion – that is, Presbyterians (by that, I refer to Reformed Christians and, if I may, Protestants in general) can and should observe Lent.

1 – Is Ash Wednesday a violation of Matthew 6:16?

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is traditionally observed by the imposition of ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  In other words, while it is a day of mourning over sin, the mourning is not without hope – it points to the cross, to the work of Christ.  It is not the sour-faced ash-sitting that some describe.  Rather, it is a service in which we confess our sins, seek the Lord in repentance, and look to the cross.

But, does the imposition of ashes violate Christ’s words in Matthew 6:16 – “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”  It sure could.  In fact, I bet some people violate Matthew 6:16 every Ash Wednesday.  And then continue the violation by social media-ing their Lenten fasts and sacrifices, ad nauseum.

If you parade the ashes about, putting off a good scrubbing as long as possible, hoping to be noticed, then, sure, you are violating Christ’s command.  But, while pastors should instruct their congregations about the dangers of that, we must be humble enough to admit that we cannot pinpoint why someone got the ashes.  After all, Christ’s admonition in Matthew 6:16 is one of several that address the motive for good deeds, whether giving to the poor (v. 2), prayer (v. 5), or fasting (v. 16).

Ash Wednesday is not a default violation of Christ’s words any more than praying out loud is a default violation of Christ’s words in verse 5.  Nor would we stand by a Salvation Army bell ringer and berate those who give as “self-righteous hypocrites.”  Christ is attacking the self-righteousness of the Pharisees who gave, prayed, or fasted to be seen.  He is not attacking the humble attempting obedience.  The question, then, is whether the ashes are received to be seen by others or to be reminded again of Christ and His cross as the remedy for our sin?

2 – Is Lent inconsistent with the Old Testament pattern of feasting, particularly now that Christ has come?

Wilson writes, “In the Old Testament, there was one public day out of the year where they were instructed to afflict their souls (Yom Kippur, Lev. 23:27).”  That is an excellent argument for observing Ash Wednesday – one public day on which we afflict our souls.

He continues, “Everything else about their prescribed calendar was made up of feast days. There was always room, of course, for private disciplines (Num. 30:13), just as there is room for that in the Christian era (Matt. 9:15).”  Lent is a season for the private discipline of fasting.  Jesus, after all, describes fasting as a private discipline (Matthew 6).  Pastors and individual churches may recommend Lenten observance and provide resources for encouragement during the season, but there are no Presbyterians (or any Protestants), to my knowledge, arguing for the mandatory observance of Lent.  It begins with a day of public “affliction of soul”, but it continues through to Easter with a private, non-mandatory fast.

Wilson quotes the Westminster Confession XX.1 here: “But, under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.”

Fine and good.  But, if the Westminster Assembly had intended to rule out seasons like Lent by such a declaration, then XXI.5 is horribly out of place.  There they wrote:

“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (emphasis mine).

It is worth noting that Chapter XXI addresses “Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day,” that is, things done by the Church for the benefit of Christians.  Lent begins with a day of repentance on Ash Wednesday, and continues with a “holy and religious fasting” that is encouraged by the Church.  I would argue that both are in keeping with the pattern of the Old Testament (even as described by Wilson) and with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Wilson argues that “Deliverance should not be commemorated with long faces.”  Agreed, but this is only an argument against improper fasting, as prohibited by Jesus.  But, given that Lent commemorates the 40-day fast of Christ in the wilderness, and is suspended on Sundays for feasting on the day of His resurrection, it could be argued that Lent highlights the work of Christ, rather than detracting from it.  It highlights feasting through fasting.

To be continued…

Reflections on the Beginning of Lent

Reflections on the Beginning of Lent

by Pastor Brian Phillips

As we prepare to begin our journey through Lent – a journey of fasting, repentance, and prayer – the encouragement and perspective gained on Ash Wednesday is extremely helpful. The Ash Wednesday service… 

  • Unites us in a "mere Christian" practice, a tradition observed by our Christian brothers and sisters through the ages, and around the world

  • Provides encouragement and fellowship with one another as we begin Lent

  • Reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ

  • Nourishes our souls through the Lord’s Supper

  • Calls our minds back to the purpose of fasting

  • Helps focus our fasting on Christ, not on our own “suffering” or what we are “giving up”

  • Gives us an opportunity to pray for one another

  • Allows for a time of focused prayers of repentance and confession

But, what about the ashes?  First of all, the imposition of ashes is optional.  It is not a sacrament, but it is a powerful reminder of our own mortality, and therefore, of the great attention we should give to repentance and our walk with Christ.  One Anglican pastor recently reflected over the sobering act of applying the ashes:

“—An older man shuffles forward to receive the ashes. This would be his last time…and he knows it. The cancer has eaten away at his esophagus and the doctor gave him less than nine months. He gets these eleven words more than most: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

—A new mother presents her sleeping baby. The skin of the child is soft and pure…it seems too harsh to remind this woman that her child will die; would go down to the dust. How awful! But it is true. None are exempt. The words are hard to say, but I say them anyway and try to not wake the child. I touch the new forehead lightly: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

—Once, a business woman stood before me in a smart looking suit. She was dressed for success. She had come during her lunch hour to our service at high noon. I press the ashes on her forehead and then realize that I am smudging her makeup too. Her careful facade has been marred by the sign of the cross. I wonder if she will make a quick trip to the bathroom to reapply her cosmetics. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Second, the imposition of ashes does have a biblical basis, in addition to centuries of Church practice.  For more on that, take a look at "Ash Wednesday: What & Why." 

If you decide not to receive the imposition of ashes, you will still greatly benefit from the Ash Wednesday service and you will not be out of place. 

If you do receive the imposition of ashes, do so humbly, as a reminder of your own mortality and need for repentance.  Remember the warnings of Jesus - “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

We can all be tempted to parade our “righteousness,” even in circumstances that should create humility.  When we fast or – as in the case of Ash Wednesday – begin our fast, we should never do so to be seen by men.  Once the ashes are applied, remember their meaning – repent.  Then, pray, wash them off, and walk in obedience. 

Finally, remember that the ashes are made in the shape of the cross for a reason – there is hope in Christ!  In Christ alone do we rise from the ashes to new life.

 

Ash Wednesday - What & Why?

Ash Wednesday - What & Why?

by Pastor Brian Phillips

We are nearing the season of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday (February 14th) and ends on Easter (excluding Sundays). The 40 days mirror numerous biblical accounts – it rained forty days and forty nights in the flood, Moses spent forty days at the top of Mt. Sinai, Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, Elijah was given bread and water by the angel of the Lord but then didn’t eat again during his forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb, Nineveh’s 40 days of repentance before the Lord, and Christ’s 40 days of battling temptation in the wilderness. The tradition behind Lent, then, can be traced back to the early Church, but also back to the Scriptures themselves.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a day that is unknown to some Protestants, even those who may observe Lent. Traditionally, Christians gather for a service of contrition and repentance on Ash Wednesday, typically called a “service of ashes.” Elements of those services differ, but many churches practice the “imposition of ashes” – the applying of ashes in the sign of the cross on the forehead.

Why? The Scriptures repeatedly refer to ashes as a sign of repentance for sin or mourning.

  • Esther 4:3 – “And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.”

  • Job 42:5-6 – “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

  • Jonah 3:4-6 – “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

  • Ezekiel 9:4 – “And the Lord said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’”

Note that the “mark” here is literally the tav, a Hebrew letter which in ancient script was written as a cross-shaped letter (tav = “+”). The Church father Tertullian remarked that God had given to Ezekiel “the very form of the cross…”

Of course, the imposition of ashes on the forehead is quite new to many, so we should stress that it is not required, and that an Ash Wednesday service is significant whether or not ashes are applied. Beginning Lent with an Ash Wednesday service…

  • Provides encouragement and fellowship with one another as we begin Lent

  • Reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ

  • Nourishes our souls through the Lord’s Supper

  • Calls our minds back to the purpose of fasting

  • Helps focus our fasting on Christ, not on our own “suffering” or what we are “giving up”

  • Gives us an opportunity to pray for one another

  • Allows for a time of focused prayers of repentance and confession

In other words, ashes or not, make time to attend an Ash Wednesday service as you begin the Lenten season. And, as we prepare for Lent, let us ask the Lord to grant us longing hearts; hearts that seek Him above all else – above our own lusts and desires, above our love of self and comfort. For we don’t fast in order to gain favor with God or out of some severe asceticism, but rather to bring to light our struggles with sin and put them to death by His grace and strength. We do it so that we might be reminded of how serious our sins truly are, and that we might lay them before the cross, in preparation for the celebration of resurrection.

When King Solomon Kicked Me in the Face

When King Solomon Kicked Me in the Face

This was originally delivered as an exhortation at Holy Trinity Reformed Church on January 20, 2019

by Brian Phillips

In Proverbs 17:27, Solomon writes, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” In our home, we are developing the habit of reading one chapter of Proverbs each morning and then praying together as a family around the breakfast table. Just a few days ago, on a particularly hectic morning, we came to this verse in Proverbs 17.

After waking up late, suddenly remembering several things I needed to do that day, getting peanut butter on my shirt, and losing patience with both the kids and my coffee maker, I sat down to read “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.”

Sometimes the Bible is inspiring, encouraging, and uplifting. Other times, it is a swift kick to the face. We need both. And while I think this particular verse deserve contemplation on its own, I want us to take a moment to remember something more general: we need the Bible. May God forgive our neglect of His Word and give us grace to walk in obedience to it. 

Epiphany: Why & How to Celebrate

Epiphany: Why & How to Celebrate

The celebration of Epiphany is the culmination of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The word literally means “revelation” or “sudden unveiling,” and Epiphany commemorates the day when wise men from the East came to Bethlehem, guided by the miraculous star.  The magi, it seems, were the first to comprehend that Jesus was not merely the fulfillment of Jewish hopes, but the Light of the World, the joy of every man’s desiring.  They beheld the glory of God in the City of David, the Savior was born.  Epiphany is the celebration of that good news.

In Epiphany, we not only see the unveiling of the good news of Christ to the wise men, but the unveiling of Christ to the nations; the proclamation of salvation to all the nations.  And, what good news it is!  It begins with the wise men, but goes so much further.

In Acts chapter 10, Peter has the strange vision in which he is commanded to eat the unclean animals, and comes to understand that God is speaking, not just of food, but of the Gentiles themselves.  In verses 34-35, Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Paul makes a similar declaration in Ephesians 3.  There he refers to himself as an apostle to the Gentiles and says that it has been given to him to proclaim the “mystery of the Gospel.”  In verse 6, he says, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

There are numerous other passages that could be examined in light of this, but one more will suffice to echo the beauty of this; that God would extend His mercy and redemption beyond Israel to all the nations; that He would graft us in through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.  Ephesians 2:11-16 says:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

We were once “separated” and “alienated” from Christ, but now we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  How wonderful!  “He himself is our peace,” and He has tore down the walls of separation that once divided Jew from Gentile, bringing us together as His one people.  Christ has “reconciled us…to God in one body through the cross.”  That is what Epiphany is all about!  That is why it matters!

So, now what are we to do?  How should we or could we celebrate Epiphany?  Scripture does not give us specific requirements that must be observed in celebrating Epiphany, but Church history is quite helpful here.  So, here are some ideas and principles to keep in mind.

  • Be sure to teach your children – The days God commanded Israel to observe were opportunities for teaching the children. Why do we observe this day? Why are we doing these things? Teach your children about Epiphany so it doesn’t become a simple matter of routine, but a true tradition.

  • Feast & celebrate – If you study Epiphany throughout Church history, you will see that one thing is certain: it is a day of feasting. In fact, while there is no set menu, the common elements were beer and wine, lots of chocolate, and a King’s Cake (some quite elaborate and others quite simple). Christmas decorations are often taken down on Epiphany, but amid the singing of carols and hymns. Even though the decorations come down, they come down in celebration that the Light of the World has come and, though the season ends, life in the light of Christ continues.

  • Remember & be thankful – Israel observed special days so they would not forget (the most common sin they are charged with in the Old Testament), and we too must learn to remember the goodness of God. Epiphany is a time to celebrate the good news that Christ has come to save. He has extended His grace even to us Gentiles, grafting us into the true olive tree, making us the new Israel, reconciling us to God by the cross. Remember and be thankful!

Join Us This Christmas Eve!

Join Us This Christmas Eve!

"FOR TO US A CHILD IS BORN, TO US A SON IS GIVEN; AND THE GOVERNMENT SHALL BE UPON HIS SHOULDER AND HIS NAME SHALL BE CALLED WONDERFUL COUNSELOR, MIGHTY GOD, EVERLASTING FATHER, PRINCE OF PEACE."

Isaiah 9:6

Join us this Christmas Eve for our annual combined worship service with Trinity Lutheran Church, as we celebrate the end of Advent and the arrival of Christmas! The service begins at 4:00 pm and will include singing, prayers, a homily, and communion.

When: 4:00 pm on Christmas Eve
Where: Holy Trinity Reformed Church - 3747 Trinity Church Rd., Concord, NC

2018 Advent Readings - Week Three

2018 Advent Readings - Week Three

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Among the many wonders God wove into His creation are the seasons. With every year comes Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Spring brings new life, Summer brings warmth and growth, Autumn brings the turning of leaves as the old is pushed away, and Winter is a season of death – death of flowers, grass, insects, in preparation for the coming life of Spring.

Yet, in this season of death, we pin lights to our houses, put bright decorations on our lawns, and put trees up in our living rooms! This time of year, even our mini-van grows a red nose and antlers. We wear festive colors and intentionally ugly sweaters, sing songs written solely for this season, and break out recipes we only use this time of year.

We do all of these things in winter – the season of death. And it is so fitting that we do so. The Advent season is a time of preparation, but like Lent, we know that this season has a definite and joyful end. We know that our fasting during Lent will end with resurrection! We know that our Advent preparations will end with the Incarnation and celebration that our Savior has come.

And so, we prepare in hope that is certain; not wishful thinking, but certain promises. Let us pause now to contemplate the growing light, the growing anticipation of celebration. Come, thou long-expected Jesus, the Light of the World to pierce the darkness, the Life of the World into a dying world.

To help us observe Advent, here is a collection of Scripture readings for each day of the season, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. The readings for week three are taken from the Psalms, the prophet Isaiah, and the four Gospels. It can be helpful to begin the day with the first Psalm reading, then read the prophet at mid-day, and end the day with the Gospel reading and evening Psalm(s).

Contemplate these passages in light of the Advent and its call to preparation for the celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Sunday, December 16th – Third Sunday of Advent
Psalms 63:1-8; 98 (morning) · Psalm 103 (evening)
Isaiah 13:6-13
John 3:22-30

Monday, December 17th
Psalm 41, 52 (morning) · Psalm 44 (evening)
Isaiah 8:16-9:1
Luke 22:39-53   

Tuesday, December 18th  
Psalm 45 (morning) · Psalms 47-48 (evening)
Isaiah 9:1-7
Luke 22:54-69

Wednesday, December 19th
Psalm 119:49-72 (morning) · Psalm 49 (evening)
Isaiah 9:8-17
Mark 1:1-8 

Thursday, December 20th
Psalm 50 (morning) · Psalm 33 (evening)
Isaiah 9:18-10:4
Matthew 3:1-12

Friday, December 21st
Psalms 40, 54 (morning) · Psalm 51 (evening)
Isaiah 10:5-19
Matthew 11:2-15

Saturday, December 22nd  
Psalm 55 (morning) · Psalms 138-139:1-17 (evening)
Isaiah 10:20-27
Luke 3:1-9

2018 Advent Readings - Week Two

2018 Advent Readings - Week Two

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Advent is the beginning of the Church year. For four Sundays before the celebration of Christmas, Christians observe Advent. Traditionally, the first act of Advent is the lighting of one candle on the Advent wreath – which is made up of four candles (one for each Sunday in Advent), 3 purple/blue and one pink (though that varies from culture to culture and by Church tradition).

Lighting Advent candles is not necessarily “magical,” but it does mark the beginning of something. To give one very inadequate example, when you light birthday candles, the song begins. When we light the candles, we mark the season of Advent and, with each additional candle each week, the light grows, pointing us to the Light of the World whose birth is the end of the Advent season and the beginning of Christmas. Just as the birth of Jesus divided all of history into B.C. and A.D., so it divides Advent from Christmas – two different seasons. 

The Advent season is a time of preparation. It is a time to decorate the church, our homes, even our yards. But more than that, it is a time for spiritual preparation - individually, household by household, and as a whole congregation.

To help us observe Advent, here is a collection of Scripture readings for each day of the season, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. The readings for week two are taken from the Psalms, the prophet Isaiah, the Gospel of Luke, and the Gospel of John. It can be helpful to begin the day with the first Psalm reading, then read the prophet at mid-day, and end the day with the Gospel reading and evening Psalm(s).

Contemplate these passages in light of the Advent and its call to preparation for the celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Sunday, December 9th – Second Sunday of Advent
Psalms 148-150 (morning) · Psalms 114-115 (evening)
Isaiah 5:1-7
Luke 7:28-35

Monday, December 10th
Psalm 25 (morning) · Psalms 9, 15 (evening)
Isaiah 5:8-12, 18-23
Luke 21:20-28  

Tuesday, December 11th
Psalms 26, 28 (morning) · Psalms 36, 39 (evening)
Isaiah 5:13-17, 24-25
Luke 21:29-38

Wednesday, December 12th
Psalm 38 (morning) · Psalm 119:25-48 (evening)
Isaiah 6:1-13
John 7:53-8:11

Thursday, December 13th
Psalm 37:1-18 (morning) · Psalm 37:19-42 (evening)
Isaiah 7:1-9
Luke 22:1-13

Friday, December 14th
Psalm 31 (morning) · Psalm 35 (evening)
Isaiah 7:10-25
Luke 22:14-30

Saturday, December 15th
Psalms 30, 32 (morning) · Psalms 42-43 (evening)
Isaiah 8:1-15
Luke 22:31-38

A Bit about St. Nick

A Bit about St. Nick

Reposted from The CiRCE Institute, with permission and with additions. 

December 6th is the feast of St. Nicholas!

by Brian Phillips

Santa Claus stands as a centerpiece of the Christmas season and though the feast of Saint Nicholas lasts but one day (December 6th), the Santa frenzy will continue through the holidays.  Children around the world will find it hard to sleep, anxiously waiting for him to swoop down the chimney, leaving presents under the tree.  But, where did the idea of gifts from jolly ole Saint Nick come from?  The tradition stems from an event that vividly displays the “gentler side” of Saint Nicholas.

Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, lived during the tumultuous fourth century, when both false teaching and the Roman Emperor continually assaulted the Church. Fascinating stories swirl around the life of Saint Nicholas, and while we face some difficulty in distinguishing the tall tales from the true tales, they all combine to create the portrait of an inspiring man. Orphaned when he was young, Nicholas’s wealthy parents left him a small fortune. As Nicholas grew older, he developed into a man after God’s own heart, passionate and compassionate, zealous for truth and mercy. His passion and zeal for truth compelled him to slap Arius the heretic across the face at the Council of Nicaea (“You’d better watch out…Santa Claus is coming to town”), but his compassion and mercy are the foundation for the more well-known tales of his life. These stories gave rise to Nicholas’s “alter-ego,” Santa Claus.

When not assaulting heretics, Nicholas ministered as a bishop with a true pastor’s heart. One night, while walking through the village where he lived, Nicholas heard a girl crying. He stopped to listen and overheard the girl lamenting the fact that her family was too poor to provide dowries for her and her two sisters. In those days, dowries were given from a father to the suitor of his daughter and young ladies had little prospect of marriage without one. Unable to bear the girl’s sadness, Nicholas filled a bag with gold coins and tossed it into the poor family’s house, providing enough for the girl’s dowry. The following two nights, he did the same for the two younger sisters. All three girls were married the following spring, thanks to the mercy and generosity of Bishop Nicholas. The family never knew who provided the money.

Details of the story vary. Some say the bags of coins were thrown down the chimney, giving rise to the idea that Santa Claus comes down the chimney to leave presents. Others suggest that the coins landed in shoes or stockings left by the fireplace to dry, inspiring the practice of putting out stockings or shoes for Santa to fill with gifts. But all agree that Saint Nick’s stealthy delivery skills continue to thwart those trying to catch him in the act. May the warm and generous spirit of Saint Nicholas inspire the same in us all.  Merry Christmas!

Ideas for observing the Feast of St. Nicholas:

1) Fill a boot (we use a plastic "Santa" boot) with chocolate coins and put it by your fireplace or Christmas tree for the kids to enjoy.  It's a great time to retell the story of St. Nicholas.

2) Host a lunch or dinner for friends or neighbors and tell the story of St. Nicholas while feasting.  It's a great way to extend hospitality, show generosity, and everyone gets to remember the life of a great man.

3) Make up "St. Nicholas bags" (not sure if that's a real term, but it works) for the homeless and needy.  Use large Ziploc bags and put in helpful items (a bottle of water, granola bar, toothbrush, toothpaste, even a few dollars, if you like).  These can be packed on St. Nicholas day, then kept handy for when you see folks in need, at a stop light, exit, sidewalk, etc.

2018 Advent Readings - Week One

2018 Advent Readings - Week One

by Pastor Brian Phillips

Advent is a season of preparation – of prayer, contemplation, fasting, and spiritual renewal.  It is a time in which the people of God, by God’s grace, make straight His paths in their hearts.  Rather than simply being an extension of the Christmas celebration, Advent prepares us to more truly and fully celebrate Christ’s birth. 

To help us observe Advent, here is a collection of Scripture readings for each day of the season, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer.  The readings for week one are taken from the Psalms, the prophet Isaiah, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Luke. It can be helpful to begin the day with the Psalm reading, then read the prophet at mid-day, and end the day with the Gospel reading.

Contemplate these passages in light of the Advent and its call to preparation for the celebration of Christ's Nativity.

Sunday, December 2nd – First Sunday of Advent
Psalms 146-147
Isaiah 1:1-9
Matthew 25:1-13

Monday, December 3rd
Psalms 1-3
Isaiah 1:10-20
Luke 20:1-8  

Tuesday, December 4th
Psalms 5-6
Isaiah 1:21-31
Luke 20:9-18

Wednesday, December 5th
Psalm 119:1-24
Isaiah 2:1-11
Luke 20:19-26

Thursday, December 6th
Psalm 18:1-20
Isaiah 2:12-22
Luke 20:27-40

Friday, December 7th
Psalms 16-17
Isaiah 3:8-15
Luke 20:41-21:4

Saturday, December 8th
Psalms 20, 21:1-7
Isaiah 4:2-6
Luke 21:5-19

Hanging of the Green

Hanging of the Green

On Saturday, December 1st at 10:00 a.m., we will gather for the Hanging of the Green - decorating the church for the coming Advent and Christmas seasons, including the Advent wreath and the church Christmas tree.

The Christmas tree is deeply rooted in Christian tradition, going back at least to the story of St. Boniface, an 8th century missionary to modern-day Germany, a region controlled by Norsemen who brought their religion with them.  They worshiped many gods, Thor being the chief of them and they consecrated a gigantic oak tree in Thor’s honor at the top of Mt. Gudenberg. They would gather around the tree for feasts, idol worship, and animal sacrifices.

St. Boniface, in the company of these pagans, chopped down the tree. Angry at first, the response of the Norsemen turned to repentance – if Thor could not defend his own holy place, what good was he?

Boniface then used that tree as an object lesson to tell them of a tree that actually does save, not because the tree was magic, but because on that tree, Jesus Christ died for the sins of men. That tree, Boniface said, is an evergreen, an eternal tree.  Many Norsemen were converted to Christ and it was there that they began the practice of decorating evergreen trees (even in their homes) in celebration of the Savior's birth.  Increasingly, the tree became a focal point in the home and gifts were laid under it, not in honor of the tree, but in honor of the Savior who died on the tree. It is His birth that we celebrate during Advent and it was for our sins that He died on the tree, the cross.

When: Saturday, December 1st at 10:00 a.m.

Fall Back!

Fall Back!

It's time to fall back!  Don't forget to move your clocks back one hour on Sunday, November 4th!

Of course, unless you plan to set an alarm for the wee hours of the morn, you should probably just do it on Saturday.  

If you live in Arizona, you may ignore this.

John Wesley & the Spiritual Practice of Self-Examination

John Wesley & the Spiritual Practice of Self-Examination

by Pastor Brian Phillips

John Wesley (1703-1791) was an Anglican minister who, with the help of his brother Charles and friend George Whitefield, founded the Methodist movement. Wesley served as a missionary to native Americans, itinerate preacher, prison minister (during his days at Oxford), and authored numerous books and hymns. 

In 1735, while journeying to the American colonies with his brother, their ship was severely battered by a storm. While most of the travelers were anxious and frightened, a group of Moravian Christians sang hymns. Wesley was deeply touched by their seemingly unshakable faith and piety, which influenced his later theology and practices. 

Among Wesley's personal spiritual practices were questions for self-examination. Here they are, as listed in Jake Hanson's book Crossing the Divide:

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?

2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?

3. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?

4. Can I be trusted?

5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?

6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?

7. Did the Bible live in me today?

8. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?

9. Am I enjoying prayer?

10. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?

11. Do I pray about the money I spend?

12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?

13. Do I disobey God in anything?

14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?

15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?

16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?

17. How do I spend my spare time?

18. Am I proud?

19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?

20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?

21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?

22. Is Christ real to me?

John Newton: Finding Grace the Hard Way

John Newton: Finding Grace the Hard Way

John Newton (1725-1807) penned "Amazing Grace" in 1779. It is perhaps the world's most well known Christian hymn, an anthem to the forgiveness of sin offered to man through Christ. But, Newton came to understand that grace the hard way.

Around age 18, Newton became a sailor for the Royal Navy, and eventually worked aboard British slave ships. His life at sea was rough, and throughout his years, he endured lashes from cruel captains, and was even abandoned by his shipmates in West Africa. He was taken captive by a slave trader there and Newton described himself then as "an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa."

He was finally rescued in 1748 (after about 3 years enslavement) and, while journeying back to England, Newton was dramatically converted to Christ. In 1764, he became an Anglican priest and, eventually, a dear friend of William Wilberforce, the most influential abolitionist in Britain.

Newton understood grace. He understood shackles, both literal and spiritual, and he wrote and preached often of the true freedom found in Christ. This hymn, "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds," was penned by John Newton in 1774, five years before he wrote "Amazing Grace."

No Other Gods

No Other Gods

The exhortation delivered by Pastor Phillips at Holy Trinity on May 13, 2018.

“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exodus 20:1-3).

After reminding Israel of their deliverance from Egypt, God gave them His first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. Egypt was a polytheistic culture – they had many gods. And so, having been delivered from Egypt, Israel needed to settle in their minds that they had but one true God.

But, having another god is not simply a matter of actively practicing some other religion or of bowing down to a graven image. It is often subtler, simpler, and more deceptive than that. The wording of the first commandment literally reads, “You shall have no other gods before My face.” In other words, there is to be nothing else between us and the Lord our God.

It can be helpful to think of this in a physical way - an object obstructing our view, literally coming between us and the Lord.

Given that word picture, it becomes somewhat clearer that the possibilities for idols are seemingly endless – work, money, our over-filled schedules, and sometimes even family and friendships. Even these good things can be wrongly loved in such a way that they are placed between us and the face of the Lord.

What keeps you away from the face of God? Are there things between you and the face of God? May God help settle in our minds that we have but one true God. We are His people. We too have been called out of “Egypt.” Let us confess our sins...   

The Ten Commandments: A Message of Deliverance

The Ten Commandments: A Message of Deliverance

An exhortation to the congregation of Holy Trinity, delivered by Pastor Brian Phillips on April 29, 2018.

“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exodus 20:1-3).

When God delivered the Hebrews from the land of Egypt, He brought them out with signs and wonders, with plagues that were designed to defeat the gods of Egypt (as we’ve seen in past sermons). Each of the ten plagues corresponded to an Egyptian god as do each of the Ten Commandments. And, once the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt and were journeying to the Promised Land, God delivered His law to them – the Ten Commandments.

God was establishing Israel as a people – removing them from the gods and laws of Egypt and establishing them under His Law.

Notice the opening words – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” Two important details to notice: first, God’s Law is rooted in His mercy. We are to look at His commandments through the lens of His deliverance. God gives us His commands because He loves us and has delivered His people from bondage. Obeying God’s commandments brings freedom, not bondage.

Second, God’s commandments are a reflection of who He is. Notice the contrast – verse 2 begins “I…” and each of the commandments are directed to “You” – the people of God. Because He is the Lord our God who delivers us, we live by His commandments, which continue to guard us from the bondage of sin. Let us confess our sins...   

Good Friday Service

Good Friday Service

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Good Friday

Join us as we remember the crucifixion of Christ our Lord.

When: Friday, March 30th at 6:00 p.m.
Where: Holy Trinity Reformed Church
             3747 Trinity Church Road
             Concord, NC

Spring Forward!

Spring Forward!

Make sure to "spring forward" this weekend! Move your clocks ahead one hour before bed on Saturday night. Or, if you are an absolute stickler for the rules, or simply hate feeling rested, you can wake up at 2:00 a.m. and set your clocks ahead then!

We'll lose some sleep, but gain some daylight! 

 

 

5 Books for the Reformation 500

5 Books for the Reformation 500

by Pastor Brian Phillips

October 31st, known as All Hallows Eve or Halloween, is the eve of All Saints’ Day. The name “Halloween” derives its name is from the full title of All Hallows Eve. October 31st is also referred to as Reformation Day, in commemoration of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, the event often held to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This event is a helpful historical marker, but the Reformation began much earlier, with men like John Wycliffe and Jan Huss, and others. 

The Reformation was intended to be just that, a reformation; not a revolution. Luther and the other reformers had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church, but eventually did so, some departing on their own, others driven out. But, when we commemorate the Reformation, we do not desire to commemorate the division of the Church but rather the message of grace, and the return of the Bible to the hands of the ministry and laity of the Church.

As we near the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, here are some suggested reads for the occasion: 

1)    The Reformation by Diarmaid McCulloch

A highly-acclaimed and expansive look at the Reformation, written by Diarmaid McCulloch, who is widely considered the foremost authority on the history of the Reformation. At just shy of 900 pages, it is as thorough as it gets. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this book is that it presents the Reformation, not as one movement, but as many movements that took place in different places, with different cultures, personalities, and emphases. Very needful in a time when “Reformed” is often reduced to “five points.”

2)    The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves

Incredibly thorough given its brevity (a little over 200 pages), Reeves provides an overview of the major people, events, and ideas of the Reformation, along with arguments for why the Reformation still matters today.

3)    The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need to Know by Benjamin Wiker

Written by a Roman Catholic thinker, it may seem odd to include it on this list. However, Dr. Wiker provides a balanced assessment of the Reformation, the good, bad, and the ugly. Wiker is honest about the flaws of the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation, and the flaws of the Reformers and their descendants. Worth the read, even if you leave with some disagreements.

4)    The End of Protestantism by Peter Leithart

An honest assessment of some of the Reformation’s unintended consequences, written by a Reformed pastor and theologian. Dr. Leithart wrestles with the rampant division that rose from the Reformation, and the chaotic denominationalism that dominates the American church. He makes a case for growing unity between all the streams of Christianity. This is an ambitious work that leaves us struggling with all the right questions.

5)    Heralds of the Reformation by Richard Hannula

Richard Hannula, author of Trial & Triumph, tells the stories of thirty figures of the Reformation throughout Europe. Beginning with the forerunners of the Reformation, like Wycliffe and Huss, and proceeding geographically, Hannula includes household names like Luther, Calvin, and Knox, along with relatively unknown players.