Reflections on Resurrection 9 – Burial

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 9 – Burial

I have gradually come to understand that our funeral practices reveal a great deal about our actual beliefs. I grew up deeply aware of death and experienced a variety of approaches to death. Personally, I believed that cremation was best and, looking back, I can see the influences that led to that belief.

From a scientific, secular perspective cremation makes a great deal of sense. It’s economical. Modern cremation is sterile. It avoids the problem of crowded cemeteries. And whatever you think does or doesn’t happen after death, the remnant of a lifeless body has no value and nothing to offer.

Cremation is also the funeral practice of the Hinduism of my youth. (I understand that burial is a common practice in some strands of Hinduism.) The soul quickly proceeds on its karmic journey after death and the remains should be purified by fire to break any remaining ties and then scattered on a sacred river. (All rivers are sacred in Hinduism, I believe.) The real you, however that may be conceived, has moved on and the rites aid that journey.

I was Christian for many years before I even began to understand that burial is the normative Christian funeral practice. In large part that’s because the strands of Christianity within which I move have lost their connection to the historic faith and burial or cremation are largely seen as a matter of personal preference with no intrinsic significance or meaning. I eventually came to understand, though, that burial was the normative practice specifically because of our Christian belief in resurrection. The body is treated reverentially and not deliberately destroyed because it is not a discarded shell. Rather, that body is our beloved and it is that body which will be resurrected.

Of course, resurrection is not a zombie-like resuscitation of a corpse. It is intrinsically an act of new creation. However, this act of recreation uses up the matter of our bodies and is continuous with them. Two of the key features of Jesus’ resurrected body are that the tomb was empty and that, though strangely different, he was still recognizably the same person. We are our bodies, though we are not merely our bodies. It is ultimately this body which will be resurrected and it should be treated accordingly.

That does not mean that God’s power of resurrection is limited in any way by the treatment of our bodies. It was not uncommon for pagans in the ancient world to threaten saints with the complete destruction of their bodies because they thought that would shake their confidence in resurrection. God can and will raise us regardless. Nevertheless, the way we treat the bodies of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord speaks volumes about what we actually believe about resurrection.

Christians also confess that the bodies of those among us who have reposed have been the temple of the Holy Spirit. They have been the abode of God. As such, they are no less holy ground than the ground before the burning bush or the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple. If we believe that is true, then we must treat the body as a holy object.

Funeral practices matter and I think much of the confusion in practice in modern Christianity flows from our confusion about God and about what it means to be a human being. As Christians, we have forgotten who we are.

I believe this post concludes my reflections on resurrection for now. I didn’t delve into the reasons a belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (which is the foundation for our own belief) is historically reasonable. For those interested in such things, N.T. Wright gave a lecture at Roanoke College summarizing his big book on the topic, Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? I recommend it. It’s very well done.


Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

Posted: November 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

In order to grasp the Christian narrative of resurrection, I think it’s necessary to understand the larger narrative of creation and the nature of reality within which it’s embedded. While that’s a lengthy and complex topic in its own right, I’m going to explore a few facets in this post which I think are particularly important.

Matter is not eternal and creation was not something God accomplished by shaping or forming already existing material. Nor is reality marked by an eternal cycle as it is in some religions. In the Jewish and Christian narrative, God is said to have created ex nihilo, which is to say out of nothing. However, that idea itself has to be unpacked to be understood. As Christians, we begin by saying the only eternal is the uncreated God. The Father, the Son — begotten, not made, and the Holy Spirit proceeding eternally from the Father have always existed in a self-sufficient, perfect communion of love. God did not create because he lacked anything or needed anything. Creation, rather, is an overflow of love.

I began to understand that truth, when I heard someone (possibly Fr. Thomas Hopko) say that describing creation as ex nihilo is an incomplete statement. When we say that, we then have to ask: Where did the nothing come from? Think about that question for a minute. Let it fill you with its wonder. While it’s true that God fills and sustains everything, from the Christian perspective we would not say that God is everything. No, out of his overflow of love, God has made room — made space for nothing and time to order it — within which a creation that is truly other can be spoken and can grow. This is a great mystery, but creation is not merely an extension of God, but rather is free even as it is wholly filled and lovingly sustained moment by moment by God. While the Christian understanding is often described as panentheist (not to be confused with pantheist), I remember hearing N.T. Wright once say that a better term might be the-en-panist (God in all).

The only other perspective I know which can be described as panentheist is that of Brahman within Hinduism. But that’s a very different sort of perspective. I can’t possible summarize it in a paragraph, but it does hold that all that can be said to exist is Brahman, even as Brahman is also transcendent, or more than the sum of all that exists. It’s also a cyclical view of reality in marked contrast to the Christian view. Moreover, there is not the demarcation between the created and the uncreated which exists within Christianity. It’s a fundamentally different narrative.

When you perceive reality as the free overflow of love of a Creator God, the Christian story begins to come into focus and make sense. Of course, the God who loves it would see this creation as fundamentally good and the ones who were created according to the image of Christ in order to be formed into his likeness are seen by God as very good. While they are no less awe-inspiring, the lengths to which this God will go to rescue his creation make sense. They fit. And we also see that the Word would have always had to become flesh for us to ultimately be united with God. We did not have that capacity. If creation had not turned from God, Jesus would not have had to die to defeat death. But he always had to become one with us so that we might be one with God. Salvation is nothing less than union with Christ.

So then we see resurrection for what it is. It is God’s act of new creation for the human being. Death has been defeated and God makes us new. But Christ’s act of new creation does not stop with us. “Behold, I make all things new.” All creation has been rescued and the image we see is one of a new or renewed humanity serving truly as priests within a renewed creation. Unless you glimpse that whole picture, I’m not sure the individual bits and pieces make much sense.


15 Authors

Posted: October 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

I don’t often participate in the blogging lists in which you are tagged and tag others in turn. I guess it’s just not my thing. However, Fr. Christian Mathis (how cool a moniker for priest is Fr. Christian?) tagged me for this one and I have to confess the topic intrigues me.

15 Authors (meme)

Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what authors my friends choose.

Those who know me know I’m something of a reader and have a small personal library. Moreover, I’ve read constantly virtually my whole life. I mean that literally. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. More than fifteen authors sprang to mind in the first minute that I considered the meme and more have continued to come to flood my mind, so I’m going to be a little more selective in the ones I pick. I’m also going to pick authors who have really influenced me — whatever that influence might have been — rather than the best list. I couldn’t possibly put the authors in any sort of order, so I’m not even going to try. So here my top fifteen in no particular order.

1. Edith Hamilton. I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology the first time when I was in the fourth grade. I choose to list her because she was my gateway into a love for ancient history, the exploration of ancient beliefs, and a world of ancient literature. After I read her Mythology, I quickly moved on to read Bullfinch’s Mythology, the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer, and many other works. I suppose it would make a loftier soundbite to say that Homer influenced me, but the truth is that if I hadn’t read Edith Hamilton, I’m not sure I would have read Homer at all. I certainly wouldn’t have read his works until I was much older.

2. J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien has influenced and still influences me deeply. I no longer have any idea how many times I have read his novels of Middle Earth and I still read them regularly. I’m not sure I knew he was a Christian or consciously saw the ways his faith influenced his writing until I was in my thirties, but they nevertheless helped shape me as a human being.

3. C.S Lewis. I can’t mention Tolkien without also mentioning C.S Lewis. I was pretty young when I received a boxed set of his Narnia novels and read them for the first time. As with most of the authors who have influenced me, I’ve read his books many times over. I’ve also shared Narnia with my children — even reading The Magician’s Nephew over the course of some weeks to my daughter’s second grade class at one time. I loved his Space Trilogy when I read it. And I’m certain the rest of his books shaped some of my perception and understanding of God.

4. Robert Heinlein. I was introduced to the twists and turns of Heinlein’s writing by A Stranger in a Strange Land (I believe I stumbled across it in my father’s library) when I was eleven or twelve. I was fascinated by his insights and perspectives — a fascination that would never wane. I thoroughly enjoyed the “children’s books” from his early career (Space Cadet and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel anyone?). I loved the ones more in the middle such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and I reveled in the rollicking fun of his later novels. Friday and The Number of the Beast are a blast. His writings could rarely be called conventional, but then I’ve only lately been a more conventional sort of person.

5. William Shakespeare. The Bard has a special place on my list and in my heart. I remember one of the first acting sorts of things I did publicly. I was in 4th grade and living (for a few months) in West Virginia and decided to do something in some sort of talent show. I had been reading Shakespeare (I had a volume of his complete works) and elected to do the scene from King Lear in which Cordelia and Kent are banished. Yes, I did all the parts. I loved it and that experience led me to take acting classes through the Alley Theater when we later lived in Houston. I’ve read most of his works, seen his plays, and performed in them more than once over the years. Most recently I had the pleasure of taking my youngest daughter to Shakespeare in the Park here in Austin to see A Midsummer’s Night Dream for the first time and watch her laugh as she fell under the Bard’s comedic spell.

6. Anne Rice. I was in 6th or 7th grade when An Interview with a Vampire came out in paperback. A friend of mine had it and lent it to me. I read it straight through, much of the time upside down in a recliner. I’ve read it and others of her books many times since. The history with which her stories have been interwoven has always appealed to me and her characters live and breathe. Her books are a part of me.

7. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His book, Science of Being and Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation, was the first in that vein I remember deeply reading and regularly practicing when I was twelve years old or so. Like Edith Hamilton, I would hardly classify him as the deepest or the best in this category. But if I had not read him, would I have read Lao Tzu, the Bhagavad Vita, or the story of the life of Prince Siddhartha? It’s hard to say, but he was certainly a significant part of my early spiritual formation.

8. Isaac Asimov. From psychohistory to the three laws of robotics to the caves of steel in which a crowded and insular earth population huddled, Asimov’s writings fascinated me. Even when robots were the central focus, he was always writing about what it meant to be human.

9. St. Athanasius. In his work, On the Incarnation of the Word, St. Athanasius describes a God in whom I not only could believe, but one in which I wanted to believed. More than any other single factor, I think it was his writing that snapped my resistance against and antipathy toward this thing called Christianity. People and events certainly contributed, but it was when I read his description of God that I truly let go of my anger and despite and decided this was actually a God whom I could worship. I’ll also let St. Athanasius stand in my list for all the ancient Fathers who have meant so much to my spiritual formation as a Christian. I think especially of St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Isaac the Syrian, and St. Maximos the Confessor, but a host of others have contributed as well. Without their works I’m not sure I could have bridged the gap from what I was to something more like a Christian. Even if I could have made that leap without them, I’m not sure I could have remained Christian all these years.

10. Mary Stewart. Another book I read at a pretty young age was a collected set of tales of King Arthur and his Knights. The book was somewhere around a thousand pages I think, but I no longer have it and have no idea which collection it was. But the Arthurian mythos has been a significant piece of who I am ever since. I also loved Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon and was torn about which of these two to list at this point. But I finally had to go with Mary Stewart. I was around twenty years old when I was fascinated anew by her rendering of Arthur and Merlin.

11. N.T. Wright. I didn’t encounter Bishop Tom’s writings until five or six years ago. Nevertheless, he has been a huge influence on my understanding of Jesus and Christianity. I’ve read many of his books and listened to just about every lecture or sermon he’s done that can be found online. If you are unfamiliar with his body of work, I would recommend any of it.

12. Edgar Allen Poe. I know The Raven by heart and used to love watching Vincent Price read the poem each year. Lenore still pulls at my heart. The Pit and the Pendulum and The Telltale Heart are masterworks of horror while also peeling back the masks we all wear.

13. Scot McKnight. The Jesus Creed has been a part of my own (poor and sometimes barely present) rule of prayer for some years now. Oddly, it was also through his writing that I first came to see that the Orthodox were something other than an Eastern sort of Catholic. Somehow I had never made the mental leap from the ancient Fathers to the modern Orthodox Church.

14. Stephen R. Donaldson. I believe I was either twelve or thirteen when I first read Lord Foul’s Bane. I’ve followed the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever faithfully ever since. Stephen Donaldson introduced me to the idea of the deeply flawed anti-hero who, though he often does great damage to those around him, can also achieve great good. I think I’ve always been more of a Thomas Covenant or a Lestat than I’ve been an Aragorn, a Frodo, or a Gandalf.

15. Anne McCAffrey. I had a hard time deciding who to choose for the fifteenth slot in this list. From Killashandra Ree to Lessa her characters have spoken to me in their flaws and in their courage.

There are many other authors and books that have shaped who I am today. But these are fifteen who all hold a special place for one reason or another. I’m also lousy at following rules, so I’m not going to tag fifteen other people. The only person I’m going to tag is Tom Cottar. I want to see fifteen authors who have influenced him and why. (And I can harass him about it until I wear him down if needed.)


Reflections on Resurrection 1

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throughout this blog and in my comments elsewhere, I often focus on resurrection. In many ways, it is the Christian teaching of resurrection which drew me deeper into this faith and it is certainly one of the linchpins that keeps me in it. I can say with certainty that if I did not believe in Christ’s Resurrection and that it was the first fruit of our own resurrection, then Christianity would hold no interest for me. As Paul writes, if Christ is not risen then we are of all men the most pitiable.

However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion today, even among Christians, about Resurrection. Since it dawns on me that it is not possible to really understand some of the things I write without understanding what is wrapped up in that one word, I thought it might be wise to write a short series outlining my perspective on the subject. I’ll write, as I normally do, from a personal perspective. If you’re more interested in a comprehensive academic treatment of Christ’s Resurrection, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. That sort of exhaustive treatment is not my goal.

When pressed, I normally describe my background and childhood formation as pluralistic. In order to understand what is behind some of the things I plan to write in this series, I think I need to explain what I mean when I use that term. First, I need to say that my childhood was not shaped within the context of a single non-Christian religion nor was it particularly non-theistic or atheistic — though there were certainly aspects of a number of different religions and non-theistic or loosely theistic influences. However, my childhood, whatever else it may have been, was not anti-Christian at all.

In fact, while I’m not sure anyone growing up in the American South in the 70s could avoid exposure to Christianity, my experience of it was, while pretty varied, largely positive. I was baptized in a Baptist Church at a pretty young age. At different times I attended both Episcopal and Catholic schools. (I also attended a bunch of different public schools, a nonsectarian private school, and was even home-schooled for a few months in Mississippi when my mother discovered the local schools were still segregated.) Over the course of my childhood, I also experienced a wide array of other Christian traditions and denominations. Ironically, though not raised strictly Christian, I probably encountered more of the diversity which constitutes Christianity in America than most of my peers.

I could, if I wanted, frame a relatively typical Baptist conversion narrative. I don’t do so because that does not truthfully capture the reality of my experience. Yes, my encounters with and scattered experiences within a Christian context were authentic (whatever that means), but they were hardly my only spiritual influence. Moreover, my rejection of what I understood about and experienced from Christianity as a sixteen year old teen parent was just as authentic as any of my earlier experience. These were markers on my journey of conversion, but I don’t consider myself to have finally converted to Christian faith and practice until my early thirties when I unexpectedly reached a point where that label described something central to my identity.

Christianity, though, was just one aspect out of many in my formation. My family and thus our extended circle of family friends includes many involved in the scientific and academic community. Although, of the many things I’ve been or practiced, I never felt any pull toward atheism or even classical enlightenment-style deism, that perspective and manner of approaching life and reality has certainly been a part of my formation. I don’t find it threatening. I also do not find it antithetical to belief. I do find that this part of who I am is the part that’s mostly likely to make the determination that a particular religion (or one of the many different Christian Gods proclaimed today) is not worth believing or practicing, and its deity not worth worshiping.

The other most significant and formative spiritual perspective from my childhood was Hinduism. Why Hinduism? The simplest answer is that we had Indian friends and my mother was at least dabbling in it. It was just part of the air I breathed as a child, as present to me as was Christianity. Now, it’s important to recognize that the term itself is a broad label encompassing virtually any religious practice rooted in the perspective found in the ancient Vedic texts. It’s not really a single religion in the sense of a single set of beliefs and practices, though there are a number of consistent underlying perspectives on the nature of reality. Rather, there are many gurus, past and present, who teach different things.

I never really followed a guru. I’m not sure why, exactly. I just didn’t. I did spend some of my late preteen and early teen years actively practicing transcendental meditation, which does have a particular guru, but I never formally engaged it. I just practiced privately using a book as a guide. Beyond that, I explored various published writings including, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.

Hinduism, however, was not the only other part of my childhood spiritual formation. I don’t remember ever hearing the term New Age in the seventies. However, many of the things lumped under that heading in the bookstore today were part of my experience. My parents ran a small press bookstore in Houston for a few years and that gave me easy access to books on numerology, runes, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and many related topics. Even before then, I remember sitting with my mother when I was as young as six or seven as she brought out her tarot deck and did readings. I also clearly remember participating in a past life regression workshop my parents hosted for a friend when I was eleven or twelve. I was captivated by the modern myths of Atlantis. I also recall some interaction with Wiccan and neopagan systems of belief. (In my twenties I also had a number of Wiccan friends.)

After being rejected by and in turn rejecting the Christian aspect of my formation, I tended to operate from a basic Hindu perspective of reality, but I explored a number of different options. I read a fair amount of the Qur’an at one point, but Islam never held any appeal to me. We had had some Jewish family friends growing up and there were aspects of modern Judaism that did appeal to me, but it’s not a direction in which I was particularly drawn. I did explore Buddhism and Taoism, but at the time they didn’t really appeal to me either. (Ironically, I find some elements of both more compelling now after being significantly shaped by Christian faith and practice than I did at the time. If I was going to be anything else other than Christian today, it would probably be one of those two.) I looked a bit at Wicca and neopaganism, but they were just too modern for me, if that makes sense. I have a deep sense of history. You may have noticed that in some of my writings.

For most of my twenties, I settled into a sort of lackadaisical Hindu belief and practice. I didn’t seek a guru. I didn’t actually attend anything. But those were the beliefs about reality I privately held and, to the extent I practiced anything, I practiced Hindu meditation. I also continued to privately practice tarot, but I abandoned most of the other practices in which I had dabbled over the course of my childhood.

Why does this matter for this series? It’s really pretty simple. When we discuss Resurrection and the nature of the human being, a lot of people today — including many Christians — seem to believe something more like the other perspectives in my spiritual formation than anything identifiably Christian. And it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that’s the case. Now, I’m hardly anything approaching a guru when it comes to Hinduism or any other religion. In fact, after the last fifteen years during which I have consciously and deliberately embraced and explored Christian belief and practice, I’m pretty certain I know more about Christianity than I do any other belief system. I absorbed a lot from those other systems and explored them all to some extent, but never with the commitment or to the depth that I have Christianity. Nevertheless, I am conscious of these other perspectives on reality and see their influence (or the influence of some of their cousins) in American Christianity in ways that many, perhaps, do not. And it seems to me that the central point of dissonance lies in the all-important Christian proclamation of resurrection.

I’ll continue this series next week, but if anyone is reading this over the weekend and is willing to share, what thoughts come to your mind when you hear resurrection?


America’s Four Gods

Posted: October 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on America’s Four Gods

Two Baylor professors have published a book that is gaining a fair amount of attention. Baylor has been conducting a different sort of survey of religion over the last few years. These surveys go beyond the basic sorts of questions about affiliation and attendance and probe attitudes and specific practices. This sort of approach is more valuable and useful in our richly pluralistic nation.

In America’s Four Gods,  the authors note that across the spectrum of religious belief, Americans tend to divide into four different groups with very different basic images of the God they worship. On their site, they have a brief little quiz to identify the God in which you believe and compare you to your demographic. (I’m in a minority in mine — well below 20% in all demographics. But I knew that already.) And they also have a little test of your response to images. Both are a fun little diversion. America’s Four Gods has also gained some media attention on ABC News and in USA Today.

Of course, that’s not a new idea to me. My formation was more pluralistic than most, so I’ve always found it natural to listen to how someone describes their God, try to understand that God, and decide if their God was a God I was willing to worship or follow. I did that when exploring all sorts of religions and religious practices. I didn’t stop doing it as I’ve become Christian. Nor did I have a foundational assumption — as many seem to have — that “Christians” all worshiped the same God. Instead, I looked at everything they said about God and made the same sort of decision about the God they described.

That’s why I phrase things the way I do. When I say, for instance, that Calvin’s God repulses me and I would be something other than Christian if I believed his God was really the Christian God, I’m judging the God he describes and deciding whether or not I am willing to worship that God. In the case of Calvin’s God, it’s as clear as such things can be. There’s nothing about that God that I find the slightest bit attractive or worthy of worship. As a result, I tend to use Calvinism as an example when I write about this process.

However, I also recognize that however I try to mediate or qualify my statement, those who do worship Calvin’s God will hear me saying that they are not Christian. And that’s not really my intent. It’s my own personal judgment about the sort of God in which I am or am not willing to believe. In fact, if God is as I believe him to be, then I know that he is at work trying to heal and renew and restore all of us. Our image of him can certainly hinder our ability to cooperate with his efforts. And if we choose to wrap ourselves in delusion and reject healing God will not force himself upon us. God is not willing that any should perish, but he is also not a tyrant. The God we worship matters. But it doesn’t change God or in any way control his activity. I just don’t happen to believe that Calvin’s God, Brahman, or any of a host of ways of describing the ultimate reality of our universe actually exist.

The Four Gods that the authors identify are divided into four general quadrants: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. These are broad categories, but the professors found they are also predictive of attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of areas. In other words, the general sort of God in which you believe shapes the way you live and act. I suppose that’s not surprising. As I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright say, “We become like what we worship.”

I wasn’t surprised that the Distant God, which is essentially the same sort of God that the Deist founders of our nation worshiped, is still widely followed. Roughly a quarter of the population, across all religions, believe in this sort of God. This is the God who starts the universe running and then mostly stays out of it.

I was, however, discouraged that so few Americans believe in a Benevolent God. Now, that does not mean that those who believe in a different sort of God don’t believe that God can be kind, merciful, and loving. They often do. It does mean, though, that they do not believe that love defines his essence. Most people do not truly believe that God is a good God who loves mankind. It’s hard to find an Orthodox prayer or liturgy that does not somewhere declare God’s goodness and love for the whole of humanity.

That does not mean that God is a God of enlightenment toleration. He’s not the good God who tolerates anyone and any behavior at a respectable distance. No, he is the God who seeks to heal us and who desires union with us. And sometimes the prescription for healing is painful. But he is the God who has suffered with us, who brings himself to us by becoming one of us in every way.

The deepest problem with Protestantism is that it makes it even easier for us to define God any way we please. If we don’t like one picture of God, we’re free to invent another. That’s always been a problem for Christianity, so the issue itself isn’t new. We have a desire to remake God in our image. But Protestantism, in which every person decides for themselves (or at least has the authority to decide for themselves) what sort of God they worship, exacerbates that tendency in us all. I think the deeper studies like this one simply reveal that underlying weakness. Yes, the majority of the people in this nation are Christian, but we can hardly claim to all worship the same God.

Lord have mercy.


Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 13:31-32.

Jesus thinks paradoxes best explain the kingdom.

Is there any better way to capture Jesus’ parables? What are they if not paradoxes? And the particular parable under discussion in this chapter is even more the paradox than many. N.T. Wright has noted that Jesus did things and when questions or challenges were posed him as a result, sometimes he refused to answer and other times he told a story that forced his listeners to work out the meaning of his actions themselves.

But instead of defining ‘kingdom’ as paradise, Jesus defines it with a paradox. If you want to see what the kingdom is like, look at a mustard seed. This surprises everyone because it asks everyone to think of ‘kingdom’ in a new way. We should look at what they were already thinking — and be honest enough to admit that what they were thinking is what we are thinking — before we look at what Jesus means by a mustard seed.

When we think ‘KINGDOM’, do we really think mustard seed? That’s not the impression I get, whatever people say. The following expresses it well.

Why does a mustard seed attract comparison to the kingdom of God? Because for Jesus the kingdom is about the ordinariness of loving God and loving others. The kingdom is as common as sparrows, as earthy as backyard bushes, as routine as breakfast coffee, and as normal as aging. He hallows the ordinary act of love, making it extraordinary. Instead of finding it in the majestic, Jesus sees God’s kingdom in the mundane. The kingdom of God is the transforming presence of God in ordinary humans who live out the Jesus Creed.

Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God, but it doesn’t look like any sort of kingdom that people expected. Paul saw that Kingdom growing and spreading and the word he most commonly used to describe it was ecclesia, a word that did not have a strictly or even primarily religious meaning before it was adopted by Christians. (At least, that seems to be the general consensus.) We translate it Church, of course, in English.

The mustard-seed paradox of Jesus surprises in many ways. The first surprise is that Jesus finds the presence of his kingdom at work in the most unlikely of persons. … Time and time again Jesus chooses odd people to follow him, and then he holds them up as examples of what the kingdom is all about.

As one of those unlikely persons, I certainly empathize with this. Think about it. Don’t you see it again and again in the gospels?

Our natural tendency is to search for the perfect, for the powerful, for the pure, and so prepare for paradise. But Jesus’ kingdom is about tiny mustard seeds, not big coconuts; it is about the ordinary act of loving God and loving others with a sacred love that transforms.

Love God. Love others. The two cannot be separated. And it’s work and requires discipline and a willingness to change. Moreover, we have to love others even though they disappoint us and hurt us. But if we say we love God and hate our brother, we are liars. John said that, though I’ve noticed we don’t much like to read what he says.

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed tells us that the mustard seed, though small when it is planted, becomes a large bush. It grows. So also the kingdom of Jesus: it spreads like seeds, one at a time, from person to person.

And I suppose that captures the essence of my discomfort with “programs” of evangelism. I see that they ‘work’ with some people, whatever that means. At the same time, I see how thoroughly I could have decimated any of them if someone had naively attempted to convert me using one of them. It wasn’t any ‘program‘ that reached me. There were a number of individuals over time who acted out of love toward me. Over time that softened my dismissal and rejection of Christianity. I doubt anything else could have ever reached me.

In the world of Jesus, there are only two ways the kingdom can be established: either wait patiently and peacefully for God’s time or force the rule of God with violence.

That’s certainly a true observation. Which did Jesus choose? Can there be any doubt at all? What does that say about us?

Jesus has a thing for paradox. The thing is that it works.


Praying with the Church 1

Posted: July 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 1

I’ve mentioned Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, several times in different posts. After reading it the first couple of times in 2006, I wrote a series of reflections for a few friends of mine. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This book by Scot McKnight is a short one and I’ve already read it twice. It makes the millenia old tradition of set prayers, first established by Yahweh to order the time and lives of his people, accessible to the large swathes of Christians who long ago lost this aspect of our faith.

McKnight opens by noting that most Christians are not happy with their prayer lives. It’s my observation that he appears to be correct. Certainly my prayer has often been less than formative. In fact, I’ve often lacked words to pray, and through that lack and a deep desire to pray accidentally rediscovered one of the oldest Christian prayer traditions (which we’ll see later in the book). I believe I also read somewhere (don’t remember if it was in this book or not) that many pastors are less than satisfied with the quality of their own prayer life.

It’s important to understand the title and focus of the book. The sort of prayer many Christians know is that of praying alone in the church. Scot paints a picture of praying alone in the church “whenever an individual prays exactly and only what is on his or her heart.” That’s true even when the prayer is public or with a group of Christians. When it is our prayer and our thoughts alone, we are praying alone *in* the church. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Scot notes that it is essential to healthy Christian formation and is modeled on Jesus and the Apostles. We cannot do without it. However, it is not the only sort of prayer we find modeled in Scripture and throughout the early church. It is on this latter sort, widely forgotten and ignored, that Scot focuses in this book. As the title would indicate, he calls this sort of prayer praying *with* the Church.

Praying with the Church consists of praying set prayers from Scripture and from the pens and hearts of some of our greatest writers at fixed times during the day. This creates a sacred rhythm of prayer joining with millions of Christians around the globe who pause to pray the same prayers. This is variously called liturgical prayers, fixed-hour prayers, the Divine Office, the divine hours, the hours of prayer, or the Opus Dei (“the work of God”). Whatever it is called, it is joining hands and hearts with Christians around the world as we pray together as the Church. Praying with the church requires that we order our lives around prayer rather than ordering prayer around our busy lives — something which often ends up as very little prayer indeed. As with children, the quality of time is not more important than the quantity of time. Without a regular and reliable quantity of time ordering our lives and relationship, the quality inevitably suffers. We are body, soul, and spirit. As any part of us goes, so goes the rest. I have been adding things slowly, essentially feeling my way, but I can already attest to that truth. As I have allowed even fairly simple prayers to order my life, the quality of the rest of my prayers have dramatically improved.

Ours seems to be a tradition that finds saying the prayers of another somehow dangerous. We even go to tremendous lengths and exegetical gymnastics to avoid actually saying the prayer Jesus personally designed for us to say during set prayers. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but it clearly is. We need to get over it. Whatever it is we’re trying to do in its place clearly isn’t working. I’m not even sure what, out of the practices we do encourage, is really supposed to take its place.

What about people who say fixed-hour prayers and don’t mean them? That’s an objection Scot says many raise. I don’t know that I’ve heard it myself, but my answer would be similar to his. What about them? We all have a knack for turning just about anything into meaningless acts. That doesn’t invalidate the act itself, otherwise we could find plenty of examples for anything and be left with nothing we could actually do. (I’ve heard N.T. Wright note that even if you do nothing but sit perfectly still during ‘worship’ somebody will leave the service pleased with themselves for sitting so very still.) More importantly, when teaching Jesus never seemed to use the poor practice of others to invalidate a spiritual practice or discipline, especially those like this one given us by God. I recall lots of statements that included the phrases “When you … don’t do as … but instead do …” or a form similar to that. And when it comes to prayer, we need both the set prayers with the church and our own prayers in the church. This is an instance where we definitely need both to attain any sort of sustainable balanced prayer life. At least, most of us do.

Scot then tells a story of a trip to Italy where he and Kris visited the site of St. Francis’ little ‘portiuncola’. That small, humble building is now a building within a building. Its wholly contained in the grand basilica, St. Mary of the Angels. Scot uses this image throughout the book to contrast the two sorts of prayer. At times we need to move into our portiuncola and pray in the church, but at other times (set times) we need to step out into the basilica, join hands, and pray with the church.

Prayer is both small and private and quiet and all alone (like the portiuncola), and prayer is public and verbal and with others and in the open (like the basilica). Prayer is both private and public, both personal and communal. We may seek individual prayer, but the individual needs to be encompassed by the Church in prayer. We need both the personal and the communal — both are good; both are spiritually formative.

Scot then writes that we need this second type of prayer for two reasons. First, “we pray in order to come into union with God.” Secondly, we need to pray with the Church “because we confess the communion of the saints.” Let that sink in.

And as a Church we desperately need this. We live within a fractured church and joining in prayer at set times is something we can all both agree to do and actually do. Even if we are not otherwise able to heal the many divides, surely we can at least join in prayer to our God and our Savior, praying the Psalms, the prayer Jesus gave us, and the best prayers penned through the centuries. If we can’t even do that, then we don’t believe in one holy, catholic church, whatever we might say.

Scot concludes with a little of his own story and present practice and it’s a good conclusion to the introduction.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

I participate in (or sometimes just read) a number of different blogs as well as being active on twitter. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the Christian perspective on reality. I’ve decided to go ahead and record my present thoughts in a series. I doubt I will say anything better than others have already said elsewhere, but I will probably express it a little differently. Or perhaps somebody will read what I write who wouldn’t otherwise read or hear anything that has shaped my understanding of what Christianity teaches.

I don’t intend to include anything that is a novel idea in this series. If anything I write appears to be a new idea to anyone reading, there will thus be two general possibilities. It may be that I have misunderstood or failed to properly express something in my particular synthesis of traditional Christian interpretation. Or it may be that what I write expresses a traditional Christian perspective that some of those raised within modern Christianity have never heard before. Or it could be some combination of both.

I could claim that I am writing to express the “scriptural” perspective, but that would be disingenuous of me. It’s a given that anyone who calls themselves a Christian believes and expresses an interpretation that they believe to be consistent with the Scriptures of Christian faith. So I am writing in order to try to express the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on matters of ultimate reality. The sources that feed my understanding are many and varied, ranging from ancient Christians like St. Athanasius the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian to modern voices such as C.S. Lewis, Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dallas Willard, and Fr. Stephen Freeman. It’s not that they all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. But on key elements all those voices and many more through the ages are more similar to each other than not. And those elements are often different than those found in many popular modern interpretations of Scripture.

I originally thought I would simply do a series on “Hell,” but as I considered it, I realized I couldn’t do that without writing about “Heaven”. And then I realized I couldn’t possibly speak about Heaven and Hell without discussing “Earth”. The specific format I chose for the series title has a meaning that should become apparent as we progress through the series.

Obviously, it’s not possible for me to cover every facet of this topic. As such, I will have to pick and choose the topics I cover and what I choose to write about each one. If you’re reading this series and have a particular question or issue I don’t address, or a particular text from scripture that troubles you, let me know and I’ll address it to the best of my poor ability.


For the Life of the World 25

Posted: January 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The series now moves to section 4 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter five.

Fr. Schmemann takes what, for me at least, was an unexpected turn in this last section of a chapter on marriage and love when he focuses on priesthood. His point, of course, is that any true Christian priesthood is rooted in love. And that makes sense to me when I think about it. If God is love, then it follows that those who serve the people of God do so in the context of love. Here’s how Fr. Schmemann introduces the idea.

Nowhere is the truly universal, truly cosmic significance of the sacrament of matrimony as the sacrament of love, expressed better than in its liturgical similitude with the liturgy of ordination, the sacrament of priesthood. Through it is revealed the identity of the Reality to which both sacraments refer, of which both are the manifestation.

Fr. Schmemann follows with some harsh words for what he terms “clericalism,” a process or attitude that makes “the priest or minister beings apart, with a unique and specifically “sacred” vocation in the Church.” Vocations that are not “sacred” become “profane” even if that precise language is not used. Fr. Schmemann notes that this is hardly something that happens only in the so-called “liturgical” churches. Every modern church that has specially designated or “ordained” ministers of any sort tends to fall into the same trap. It’s the modern distinction that made room for what we call “secularism” and in some sense made its rise inevitable. His words made me think of a friend who, from the stories he tells, at one point in his life was so heavily invested in his “ministerial” or “sacred” vocation that it became almost a destructive force. By the grace of God, he saw the danger and made some significant changes before it consumed him and those he loved. Others, however, are not so fortunate. “Clericalism” is indeed a path away from life and toward death. (And yes, I’m thinking of the “two ways” in the Didache — and in much of Jesus’ teaching — when I say that.) That’s true in the Orthodox Church. And it’s true in the SBC. Clericalism may not have exactly the same outward appearance when it grows from those two different soils, but it shares the same heart and is just as deadly.

It is not accidental, therefore, that the words “laity,” “layman” became little by little synonymous with a lack of something in a man, or his nonbelonging. Yet originally the words “laity,” “layman” referred to the laos — the people of God — and were not only positive in meaning, but included the “clergy.” But today one who says he is a layman in physics acknowledges his ignorance of this science, his nonbelonging to the closed circle of specialists.

As we saw in the last chapter, every member of the laos enters through baptism and chrismation. We are a royal priesthood, ordained to offer the proper thanksgiving of creation to God and live as the icon (image) of God as we were created and now are being recreated or made new. From the beginning of the church, there are those within our priesthood who are ordained to serve the laos in particular ways. But there is no “sacred” and “profane” divide. The division between “natural” and “supernatural”, “religious” and “secular”, or “divine” and “ordinary” is illusory. From the Christian perspective, those ways of ordering reality are a lie.

Our secular world “respects” clergy as it “respects” cemeteries: both are needed, both are sacred, both are out of life.

I’m not sure it even “respects” clergy that much anymore. This book was, after all, originally written in 1963 and revised and expanded in 1973. Attitudes have continued to degrade in the decades since it was written.

But what both clericalism and secularism — the former being, in fact, the natural father of the latter — have made us forget is that to be priest is from a profound point of view the most natural thing in the world. Man was created priest of the world, the one who offers the world to God in a sacrifice of love and praise and who, through this eternal eucharist, bestows the divine love upon the world.

And as Fr. Schmemann points out, Christ is the one true priest (and our high priest), because he is the one true man. Mankind failed and because of our failure “the world ceased to be the sacrament of divine love and presence and became nature.”

But Christ revealed the essence of priesthood to be love and therefore priesthood to be the essence of life. He died the last victim of the priestly religion and in His death the priestly religion died and the priestly life was inaugurated. He was killed by the priests, by the “clergy,” but His sacrifice abolished them as it abolished “religion.” … He revealed that all things, all nature have their end, their fulfillment in the Kingdom; that all things are to be made new by love.

And thus the central connection to love that this chapter explores. All things made new by love. All things made new. All things. We look into the heart of God, into the heart of creation and we find love.

If there are priests in the Church, if there is the priestly vocation in it, it is precisely in order to reveal to each vocation its priestly essence, to make the whole life of all men the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world. It is, in other terms, not a vocation “apart,” but the expression of love for man’s vocation as son of God and for the world as the sacrament of the Kingdom. … The Church is in the world but not of the world, because only by not being of the world can it reveal and manifest the “world to come,” the beyond, which alone reveals all things as old — yet new and eternal in the love of God. Therefore no vocation in this world can fulfill itself as priesthood. And thus there must be the one whose specific vocation is to have no vocation, to be all things to all men, and to reveal that the end and the meaning of all things are in Christ.

I can’t say I had ever looked at “priests” (or “ministers” if you prefer — presbyter and episcopos are the Greek words for the two orders specifically under discussion here I believe) as called to have no vocation so they could guide the laos in living out their priesthood within their various vocations. It’s a different way of looking at it. Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how the priesthood reveals the humility of the Church and its utter dependence on Christ’s love. And it’s in that love that he finds the sacrament of ordination the same as the sacrament of matrimony. Even if the priest is also married with a family, he is in some sense also married to the Church he serves. There is (or should be) that same deep bond of love.

The final point is this: some of us are married and some are not. Some of us are called to be priests and ministers and some are not. But the sacraments of matrimony and priesthood concern all of us, because they concern our life as vocation. The meaning, the essence and the end of all vocation is the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is through the Church that each one of us finds that the vocation of all vocations is to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood: in His love for man and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom.

The emphasis on vocation reminds me once again of N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And certainly the common interest and concern of all with marriage and priesthood removes both from the sphere of individual concern where we so often place them today.