Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A post about prayer on the blog, Permission to Live, kicked the wheels of my mind into gear and started it whirling. As my mind peeled back layer upon layer, I quickly realized I couldn’t really say anything meaningful in a comment. But in this case I also realized I did want to write something on the topic. The post in question actually touched on a number of areas, but I’ll primarily focus my thoughts on the purpose of prayer and the deeper question of why God does not prevent evil things from happening to people who do not deserve it and allows good things to happen to the wicked. Obviously, those are topics that can’t possibly be addressed in a blog post. The Library of Congress would not suffice.

When I try to express thoughts in areas like these I particularly feel the need to state up front that the things I say will of necessity be incomplete. I have to discuss God, but God is greater than me in such a way that no analogy, no description, no words could ever truly describe him. My mind and imagination are insufficient to the task, but they are the tools I have. So the reality is always far greater than anything I can understand or say. Please keep that in mind and try to work with my imagery rather than against it — at least for the short time that you are reading this post.

Before we can move to a discussion of prayer on a topic this deep, we have to begin with the nature of things from a Christian perspective. The fundamental division of reality lies between the uncreated and the created. Only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can be placed in the category of uncreated. Everything else that exists is a creation of God. Moreover, God created all things good. Nothing was created evil. (Elizabeth Esther actually just posted on the innate goodness of human beings.) It’s important to grasp this fundamental Christian tenet since it runs directly counter to the narrative of some religions — both ancient religions and present day ones.

When we acknowledge that truth, something should immediately stand out. There is no place in those divisions for evil. This is one of the thoughts behind my recent post on evil as mystery. Evil is not uncreated; the only uncreated is God. Moreover, all created things are created by God and are created good. Part of the mystery of evil is that it cannot be said to have the same sort of existence as created things. In fact, it almost has to said to have no existence in the sense that creation exists. Yet evil is palpably real. So what then is evil? That’s the question to which we have to turn.

One of the aspects of creation is its freedom. There is a randomness woven into the fabric of created things that seems to provide the framework within which, for example, human freedom can exist. While that provides the basis from which we can exercise our free will and creative abilities and thus have the potential of truly being in the likeness of God, it’s not limited to humanity. That element of freedom is woven into the fabric of created things by a God of overflowing love. And that freedom is, as part of creation, also an innately good thing.

Such freedom does introduce a certain wildness into creation — even absent the influence of man. I think people often particularly misread the second creation narrative in Genesis. The garden cannot represent some idyllic, perfect unfallen reality. There was already a wilderness outside the garden into which the man and the woman could be banished. I tend to think of the image of the garden in terms of a nursery. It was a place of few challenges in which the man and the woman could learn to fulfill their created function.

And what was that function? At least part of it was to order the wildness and randomness of creation. Some of that can be seen in the act of naming (though that bit also has other meanings) since names are powerful. It’s also seen in God’s command to them. A part of our natural function is also to act as priests in creation, offering it back to God in Thanksgiving. In this sense, Jesus commanding the storm, healing the sick, and feeding the many displays his true humanity at least as much as his divinity. Yet, the story of the garden illustrates that even in the safest possible nursery environment with only a single ascetic challenge, we still do nothing but turn away and hide from God. Read the story. Man accomplishes nothing in the garden but sin. From the time we were able to lift our heads above the animals, we have turned away from God.

And that provides our first clue into the nature of evil. Evil is an aberration, a distortion, of that which was created good. It flows from the freedom instilled in creation when that freedom is turned against God. (It wouldn’t be freedom if that capacity did not exist. And if it exists, it happens.) We could ask why God then created such freedom, but that strikes me as a futile question. Any such reality we could imagine would be incredibly diminished. Beauty flows from that freedom. Love flows from it. I don’t see how a God of overflowing love could have created anything less.

Yes, I’m sure God knew from the beginning that evil would flow from the fabric of such a creation. That’s why we have the apocalyptic image of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God knew and was planning to rescue and complete his creation from the start. In that respect, creation is not simply something that happened in the past. Creation continues to happen every time the darkness is pushed back even a little, every time evil is transformed into good, every time love conquers. Creation is the ongoing process of renewing all things.

So what then is prayer? It seems to me that many Christians today reduce prayer to little more than intercessions. While that’s an aspect, I don’t believe it’s the central purpose of prayer at all. What is our truly human created role and responsibility in creation? Humanity was created to be the ruling, royal priesthood of our world. We were to order creation and offer it back in thanksgiving to God. (There is much that could be pursued from the Eucharist beginning as bread and wine rather than wheat and grapes, but I’ll set that aside for now.) First and foremost, prayer is our direct connection to God. And it’s in and through our communion with God that we order time and the rest of creation.We are created for communion with God and prayer is an expression of that communion.

Of course, even most of us who are Christian do not live in constant, unceasing prayer. I don’t think most of us regularly or ever recognize the extent of our culpability in the evil of the world. We are not isolated individuals. We were created not only for communion with God, but for communion with each other. As such, we share a common nature and bond with each other and with the created world we are intended to rule. It’s through that shared nature that the work of Jesus is efficacious. He became one of us in every way, sharing the fullness of our common nature, and by doing so he redeemed us and defeated death on our behalf. And by healing the human nature Jesus also completed all that was necessary to heal and redeem the whole created order.

But therein lies the rub. The evil we do spreads to others and to the world in ways we do not always directly perceive. As we particularly see in Romans 8, creation itself groans beneath that weight. When we turn away from God, we turn energies shared in the human nature to evil. By our own acts, we have contributed to the evil others experience and to the evil others do. I rarely hear of a crime or evil act and think to pray for the way my sin contributed to it. We deny our interconnectedness or we embrace only the positive and personally beneficial aspects of it. But to the extent we have each done evil, we have contributed to the evil of humanity and the world.

Finally, we are also instructed to pray for intercession, especially for others. And God sometimes intercedes. God miraculously heals a person. God protects an innocent in desperate need in a manner that offers no easy explanation. And yet many other people die despite many intercessions. Children suffer. Not everyone is healed. Not everyone is protected. All of this is true. And sometimes Christian attempts to explain this truth away do more harm than good, I think, especially when they try to call evil something sent by God or something that was really somehow “good.” Evil is evil and it is not of God. Our hearts look on evil and cry out, “Why?”

This is where I try to remember that God is not willing that any perish, that God is actively working for the salvation of all. I remember that God is constantly turning evil into good. I think of Joseph, who is certainly a type of Christ. Great evil was done to him again and again and God did not stop it. But Joseph did not despair. Joseph did not curse God.  And ultimately he could tell his brothers that God had taken their unquestionably evil act and turned it into a tremendous good. That’s the gospel of Christ prefigured. Jesus suffered in every way we suffer. He endured torture and execution under supremely unjust and evil conditions. Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could do and defeated evil and death on behalf of us all.

I believe God perceives all possible outcomes of every decision and every interaction. Reality is not static, so there is no single path. I tend to think of a bubbling stew, though that’s a weak analogy. It has states of being that are fluid and change. And the freedom of creation, especially our freedom, has immense value. Even in those times when God has blocked a human action, he has not blocked the intent or the effort to perform the act. God does not make human beings less than they were created to be. (Though it must be said we tend to do that ourselves.) And from all the stories I’ve read throughout Christian history, it’s rare even for God to so physically restrain someone from acting.

God is always working for our salvation — the salvation of every human being. And God is always working to transform evil into good. But he does not reach into our being and restrain our hearts from working evil. I believe God intercedes or doesn’t according to those goals and more. Other influences are the prayers of the communion of the saints. As the evil we do works its tendrils into the fabric of reality in ways we can’t perceive, so our prayers permeate creation. Either the things we do accomplish something or there is no point doing them.

It’s not an answer that explains. As one who has suffered evil and seen those I love suffer evil, I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. But I trust reality is at least somewhat like what I’ve described. We can’t avoid choosing a narrative framework and a perspective on reality. Of all the ones I’ve explored or held over my life, the Christian narrative offers the best lens through which to understand the nature of things. I’ve encountered this strange God, but even if I hadn’t I would want to believe this framework over the alternatives.

We cry, “Lord have mercy!” And he does.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

In this chapter Matthew tackles another issue which is a common objection raised among some particular groups of Protestants, including Baptists (with whom I am most familiar). As with most of the other issues he tackles in this section, I have to confess this is one I’ve never really understood on a visceral level. The issue itself is straightforward. The non-liturgical churches largely do not use set prayers in either their corporate worship or individual discipline of prayer and consider such formal prayers a form of vain repetition. (It sometimes seems as though they believe there can exist no sort of repetition that is not somehow vain.)

Of course, there’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more involved in that statement. In truth there is an expected structure and order to the extemporaneous prayers and it takes little time or effort to discern that structure in any church. And that, as much as anything else, reveals something about human beings which God and His Church have always known. We learn from those around us, we absorb tradition almost unconsciously at times, and we are creatures of habit — for good or ill.

There is not and never has been anything wrong with extemporaneous prayers. Prayer is one of our primary means of mystical connection with God. If we have something to say, we should say it and strive to learn to speak honestly. But prayer consists of so much more than merely talking to God. It is a means by which — both individually and corporately — we fill our lives with God. In and through prayer, we order time and days with the fullness of Christ. As we work to keep the connection of our true mind — our heart or nous —  centered in Christ, he is able to heal and transform us. If salvation is union with Christ, then true prayer is surely one of the means through which we achieve that union.

And extemporaneous prayers are not enough. They never have been. And when you look beneath the surface, those who advance in the Christian life all know it. Billy Graham mentioned in an interview I read that he works through all the Psalms and the Proverbs every month. The Psalter has always been at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition of set prayers.

I think many people are confused about the fundamental purpose of prayer. While we should intercede for others before God every day, prayer is not primarily about asking God to act or to do something specific. And yet, that seems to be a common understanding today within certain groups of Christians. We pray so that we can stand aware of the presence of God and be transformed and renewed by him. Prayer operates on levels we do not necessarily perceive. Even when we don’t feel like praying, we need to pray. In fact, it’s probably most important to pray when we don’t feel like it. And stopping to pray at set times will begin to alter our perception and experience of daily life.

It’s slow going. The reality is that I often don’t want God, not at the deepest levels of my heart. I want to order my days as I see fit. I don’t pray without ceasing because I often want to keep God at arm’s length. Set prayer slowly chips away at that wall and more than anything else, I think that’s why we all resist it.

Historically, of course, liturgical prayers for corporate worship and the practice of set prayers at set times flows straight from ancient Jewish practice into the life of Jesus and his followers as captured in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and through them into the life and practice of the Church. It’s one of the easiest historical threads to trace and permeates Christianity in all places and at all times until the modern era.

Personally, I was exposed to Roman Catholic prayers when I attended a Roman Catholic school growing up. I also practiced Hindu meditation and had some exposure to Buddhism. As an adult within Christianity, I’ve explored the tapestry and tradition of Christian prayers. And one thing I can say with certainty is that the goal of chanting or other repetition in the Eastern religions is vastly different from the purpose of set prayers in the Christian tradition.

Neither of those, though, are what Scripture have in mind when it refers to many words or vain repetitions. In many of the ancient pagan religions, flowery and grandiose language was used and often repeated in an effort to gain the god’s attention and, hopefully, favor. Even in the texts of the Holy Scriptures, examples of that specific sort of pagan prayer abound. One of the clearest examples can be seen in the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal. The priests were chanting, dancing, and even cutting themselves in their efforts to gain Baal’s attention.

Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are different. Repetition, either in group chanting or private meditation, is intended to clear or empty your mind in order to open your consciousness. In Christian set prayers (and particularly in short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer), you are trying to place your heart with Christ. Connecting yourself to Christ may be many things, but it is rarely vain.

In fact, I would say that in this particular instance, Hinduism and Christianity share more similarity with each other than they do with the sorts of ancient pagan prayers that are called ‘vain repetitions.’ Hindu chanting and meditation is the shape prayer takes if there is a transcendent, panentheistic ‘God‘ who is the ground of reality, but who is not personal (for lack of a better term). We need to free ourselves from the illusion which binds us and learn to perceive the divine within ourselves and which permeates everything and everyone. (I am not and have never been a guru, so I apologize in advance for mangling the concept.) The deep tradition of Christian prayer — from the liturgical prayers to the daily personal discipline to prayers like the Jesus Prayer — is the shape prayer takes when there is a transcendent, panentheistic God who is as personal as a perfect communion of ‘persons‘ or hypostases who have created each of us to join in that divine communion. (Never forget that in God we live and move and have our being and that He is the Creator God in whom all that is created subsists every single moment. If God were to withdraw himself from any part of creation, it would simply cease to exist.

With that said, Matthew Gallatin makes some intriguing points in this chapter in ways that I had not really considered. Some of those points, however, require a deeper understanding of what Christianity calls the nous. Nous is a Greek word that does not easily translate into English. It’s the word used, for instance, in Romans 12:2. Among modern Protestants of certain stripes, it’s common to see that verse referenced as evidence that we need to think the right things about God. While it’s true that holding wrong ideas about Christ — wrong images of God — in our intellect does interfere with our ability to truly know God, that understanding does not reflect the actual Christian understanding of nous. I’m not sure I can clearly express the concept, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, our nous is the center of our being created to live in communion with God. And it is our nous which is darkened by sin. It is our nous, as the foundation of our whole selves, that was dead and to which Christ came to give life. If our nous is not healed, nothing about us can truly be healed. With that in mind, Christianity normally divides our inner being or consciousness into two levels. One is often called our intellect. It is the seat of our rational thought and emotions. It’s of the same essence as the minds of the animals, though we tend to have more capacity. We now know this function is inextricably intertwined with our physical brains. The nous, sometimes also translated as heart, is the mind we do not share with the other animals. It’s that deeper level in which we stand before God in mystical communion. Formal prayers help us descend through our intellect into our nous. When we are “conversing” and formulating our prayer as we proceed, we are necessarily bound to our intellect speaking to our mental construction of God. Extemporaneous prayers are ultimately too noisy to allow us to meet God face to face.

Matthew opens with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which I’ll include at the end of this post, but first I want to cover some of the other points he makes. The first is so obvious that I had never even noticed it. The same sorts of Christians who reject the set prayers and the prayer tradition of the Church think nothing of memorizing and singing hymns and choruses. Especially in corporate worship, there is a deep Christian tradition of chanting or singing prayers. While the tradition of hymns and choruses may not be as deep (though some hymns are ancient indeed), they do form a type of corporate liturgical prayer using memorized or written prayers. For surely if our songs are not ultimately prayers, what meaning can they hold?

Spontaneous prayers also tend to be an expression of self. The more passionate and heartfelt they are the more that is true. And while there is benefit in exposing ourselves to God, that benefit lies primarily in learning to see and know ourselves truly. God already knows us. We need to know God, not the other way around. Moreover, we deceive ourselves more than we care to admit. When our prayers consist merely of expressing ourselves to God, we can deceive ourselves and turn our own selfish desires into “God’s desire” for our life. When we pray the prayers of the Church, including the Psalter, those prayers lay bare our self-deceit.

Matthew relates the following, which touched me deeply, though I’m not entirely sure why. The emphasis is mine.

The holy ones who pray in silence are those who, by the grace of God, have transcended even the need for the bridge of words. These blessed ones simply dwell in the nous, beholding like the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration the glorious Light of God (see Matthew 17). Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve had the very humbling privilege of meeting some of those mystically sweet and eminently quiet souls who by the grace of Christ have entered that place. Their eyes seem as deep as the universe.

I struggle with even the simplest rule of prayer. I cannot imagine my meager efforts ever approaching such a point. But I recognize my heart’s desire in the description above.

And finally, I’ll close with the words Matthew quotes from old Screwtape. (For those who are unfamiliar with the book, Screwtape is an older demon writing advice to his nephew, a younger demon with his first charge.) I’ll include the emphasis Matthew adds. I find it strange that so many evangelicals today love C.S. Lewis. He writes a great many things that must be uncomfortable for them to hear.

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party [ by “Enemy,” of course, the demon means God], like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised … in which real concentration of will and intelligence  have no part … That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.


Reality

Posted: November 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reality

Sometimes it seems to me that a great many Christians in our present culture and age have surrendered the reality of our faith. That manifests in a host of different ways and crosses both the modern “liberal” and “conservative” Christian divides. I’ll try to explore some of those ways in this post, but I’m not trying to be comprehensive. Rather, I’m trying to peel back the layers and at least make an effort to reveal what lies underneath.

Some ways this happens are obvious. For instance, there are many who deny the historical reality of our faith. They reject the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other facets of our faith yet often want to maintain some connection or identification with it. While our faith is not merely historical, it collapses if God did not in fact become one of us — fully and in every way — confronting the powers and ultimately defeating them. An euvangelion is a particular sort of “good news.” It’s the good news of a victorious king who has defeated the enemies that assail his people, and who has thereby made his people safe. Either that’s what Jesus accomplished or as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to be Christian.

Perhaps I see the demarcation more clearly than some who have been raised and formed within some sort of Christian context. I have been other things and I have worshiped other gods. Whatever similarities you can find between them, they say fundamentally different things about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. That’s why in some contexts (ancient and modern) Christianity is said to be the end of religion. God has intruded into history and in Jesus, the eternal Son and Word became one of us in every way. Jesus makes God known to us. Jesus reveals God to us. And Jesus provides the path through which we can know God and be one with God. If Christianity is true, we aren’t guessing about reality any more. But that’s only the case if Jesus of Nazareth truly forms the center of human history.

Sometimes this disconnect from reality happens in other ways. For instance, I’ve never been able to grasp what Christians who assert that the cosmos are only a few thousand years old are trying to achieve. That’s so clearly and demonstrably false across virtually every discipline of knowledge that it comes across more as a denial of reality than anything else.

It is true that as Christians we do not share the same understanding of reality as materialists who hold there is nothing beyond the sensible realm (though things like quantum mechanics stretch what we mean by sensible realm). But we should not deny the clear evidence of our senses. Where a materialist, for example, would perceive nothing but the physical mechanics of, for instance, the processes of evolution, a Christian would (or at least should) see a process infused by the particular sort of God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence for that view is in the Incarnation, not in anything we can learn through our study of nature.

How do you perceive a God who is sustaining and filling everything from moment to moment? How do you see the God who is maintaining the existence of both the observer and the observed? If we had the capacity to know God on our own, the Incarnation would not have been necessary. Everything we learn or know has the capacity to draw us to God or away from God. The result is really up to us. But we aren’t going to be able to somehow distill and separate God from his creation. Yes, God certainly transcends creation. That’s why he had to become human — to empty himself — in order for us to know him. But he’s not a separate aspect or element in creation. The smallest particle, the least bit of energy, the smallest fragment of a wave are all sustained moment by moment in and through Christ. There is nothing that has any independent existence. Only God is self-existent and eternal. Everything else is created and depends on God. Fortunately our God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation. It would be a frightening thing for existence to depend on the whim of the capricious God so many imagine.

Reality itself is thus fundamentally sacramental or a mystery of God. And our role within it is to act as priests — to minister God to creation and offer creation back as thanksgiving to God. If you can perceive reality through that lens, it makes a mockery of Zwingli’s musings. His idea that anything could merely represent God or, as is often said today, could be purely symbolic could only be true if there were, in fact, some sort of division between God and creation. His ideas require two thing that are altogether missing in the Christian perspective of reality — distance and self-existence. If water is never merely water then how can it become merely water when it is used sacramentally? It can, perhaps, become even more truly water, but it cannot become less. The same is true of oil and incense and bread and wine. They become even more real, not less.

I’m also confused about how modern Christians perceive reality when I see how many of them treat variation in Christian belief and practice almost as matters of personal taste and preference. Even after fifteen years, it makes no sense to me and it seems to be a pretty modern occurrence. As recently as two hundred years ago, though there were many differences among Christians, they all believed those differences really and truly mattered. Now? Not so much. But our perception of God defines our understanding of reality. If, for instance, Calvin accurately described God, then reality is very different than it would be if, for contrast, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s description is more correct. One of them could be right. They could both be wrong. But they cannot both be right. They offer divergent and often completely contradictory images of God. Athanasius and Anselm both wrote on the Incarnation and they do not say the same thing. God is the fundamental ground of reality and how we understand him is vitally important, not a secondary concern. To the extent we misapprehend God, we misapprehend reality.

While we do have some limited capacity to shape reality within the sphere of our personal power and will, to a large degree reality is simply what it is and lies beyond our ability to mold. And we certainly can’t change God just by imagining him to be a certain way. There is a name for that space between reality and our perception of it. It’s called delusion. Personally, I would prefer to be as free from delusion as I can be. I know I can’t do that on my own. Christianity proclaims that I don’t have to. The Word became flesh and gives us the grace, which is to say himself, to know God. Christianity tells us that, if we are willing, we can see reality as it is.


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.


The Jesus Creed 7 – John the Baptist: The Story of New Beginnings

Posted: August 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 7 – John the Baptist: The Story of New Beginnings

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 ones for this chapter are: Luke 3:1-20; John 1:6-9, 15, 19-34.

In the middle section of the book, McKnight explores the implications of the Jesus Creed through the stories of different people in the gospels. He starts with John the Baptist. There are several themes in play. The Jordan River marked the time the children of Israel crossed over into the promised land for a new beginning. Likewise, John was calling for a new beginning. We also need to compare priests and prophets. John’s father was a priest. John was a prophet.

A priest speaks for humans to God in the privacy of the temple. A prophet speaks for God to humans in the publicity of the town square. Priests wiped sins from the people; prophets wiped sins in their faces. Most importantly, priests summoned people to tell the truth so they could make restitution, but prophets summoned people to tell the truth so they could start all over again.

And prophets didn’t always use words. There are many examples of prophets being told to act out the drama they were prophesying. So it is with John. Not just with words, but location. He stages his drama on the far side of the Jordan River, the side from which they entered Israel.

John is saying that if Israel wants to enjoy the blessings of God, they need to go back to the Jordan and begin again. … This is the only way to make sense of John is his world: He wants his audience to see that life can begin all over again. At the Jordan, John gives us the opportunity to start over. How? John has a word for it.

Repent! It’s the first word out of his mouth. Repentance “with an edge“. Repentance means we “must confess our sins“, in other words, “we must tell God the truth.” And that’s hard. We have layers.

Our public persona.

Our family image.

And our inner self.

And telling the truth to God means we expose all of them. “The Jesus Creed begins with loving God. Love, for it to work at all, requires truthtelling.” Don’t we see some of that in the Psalms? If we are not first honest, good and bad, we can hardly claim to love at all.

Truthtelling awakens forgiveness. By telling the truth, we are able to receive forgiveness from our Abba. If we do not learn to tell the truth, we are closed off from that forgiveness. We hide. God thrills at each reconciliation. That is clear. Truthtelling gets real, though.

Spirituality. Many of those listening had their spirituality anchored in their Jewish heritage. So does John and he’s probably proud of his heritage. Nevertheless, our spirituality must be anchored in our Abba.

Our possessions. Oh, that’s a tough one for us today. But honestly it’s always been tough. “The Bible speaks often of money because it is with money that we exercise the freedoms of choice.” That’s a heady thought. John says, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none.” How important are our possessions to us? We need to tell the truth.

Our power. To one extent or another, we all have it. Many of those John faced abused it. “If we love God and love others, we will use our power for the good of others. We need to tell the truth about power: how do we use it?”  This is why the discipline of confession strikes me as so very important today. We are all lousy at telling the truth about ourselves. It’s often not pretty. But unless we do it, we will never grow in faith.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 8

Posted: February 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 8

The eighth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book is title, The Eucharistic Liturgy: Diagram and Drama. He opens the chapter with the idea that the drama of the liturgy unfolds a diagram of the gospel to the literate and illiterate alike. There is, of course, some aspect of that associated with liturgy, and for a while I focused on that aspect of it alone. The first part of the liturgy was certainly where the curious could hear and see the gospel proclaimed and the catechumens could be taught while the center of the liturgy (the Eucharist) was performed with only the baptized present.

However, I don’t believe that’s the entire story of the drama of the liturgy, just an aspect of it. The center of the liturgy, I believe, is making present the Kingdom of God. It’s the place where what will be true for all creation in the eschaton is brought into the present and manifested in its fullness. The Christian liturgy is not an act that portrays truth. Rather, it reveals the truth about reality that we do not often see.

Howard then walks through the various parts of the Roman Catholic Mass. I’m pretty familiar with the Mass, so I somewhat skimmed that part of his book. I did like the way he discussed intercessory prayers for the dead, especially these points.

And where else but in God’s hands is the fate of anyone, living or dead? … God is the judge; we are priests, part of whose ministry is to offer prayer for all people.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard evangelicals describe prayer for creation as part of the priestly ministry or work or vocation of the royal priesthood of all believers. But my experience is limited, so I could have missed it. And, of course, we are dismissed from the liturgy charged to carry out our priestly vocation caring for God’s creation. I liked the way Howard captured that as well.

All in all, if you’re reading the book and are unfamiliar with Christian liturgy, it’s a pretty good introduction.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

Posted: February 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

The sixth chapter in Thomas Howard’s book, Ritual and Ceremony: A dead Hand or the Liberty of the Spirit?, opens with the note that when the early Christians met for worship, everyone present was a full participant.

Bishops, priests, deacons, and laity were the four orders in the Church that we glimpse in the New Testament and in the writings of the men taught by the apostles.  … It [worship of the Church] is an act, to which we come as participants, indeed as celebrants, if the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means anything.

I noticed early on that evangelicals called everyone priests, but seemed to have no conception of what it meant to be a priest. In a typical evangelical service, the laos or people, the first order of the royal priesthood of all Christians, effectively have nothing to do but be present, perhaps sing a few songs, and give money. There is no sense in which they are celebrants or even participants.

Howard also notes than until recent times the center of Christian worship was always the Eucharist. In much of evangelicalism, that has changed, so much so that the Eucharist, even in a diminished form, might be celebrated as infrequently as once a year.

It’s a common evangelical objection that ritual is boring and empty. Howard turns to C.S. Lewis to respond to that. After quoting Lewis, Howard comments on what Lewis had written.

Lewis touches here on something profound, which does not always present itself easily to people like us who are keen on expressing themselves and who have been taught that freedom lies in getting rid of structures. It is an idea especially difficult for people whose religion has taught them that structures are deadening. That ritual might actually be a relief, and even a release, is almost incomprehensible to them. That the extempore and impromptu are eventually shallow, enervating, and exhausting seems a contradiction to these people, who so earnestly believe that nothing that does not spring from the authenticity of the moment is actually fruitful.

As Lewis points out in this same context: “The unexpected tires us; it also takes us longer to understand and enjoy than the expected. A line which gives the listener pause is a disaster … because it makes him lose the next line.” Any Christian who has tried to stay abreast of impromptu public prayers will testify to the truth of this observation.

Of course, all of us build and follow a routine in the activities of our life. The routine may vary somewhat over time, or for other reasons, but then every liturgy has some variation within its structure. And the truth is that even the most “unstructured” worship will still operate within some defined framework. Even Quakers sitting in a room waiting for the movement of the Spirit are enacting a ritual, one that they will repeat time and time again.

I’ve never had a problem with ritual or ceremony myself. Again, I was not formed within an evangelical context and I don’t really grasp their aversion to and futile attempt to escape ritual, even after fifteen years as one. So in many ways, this chapter had relatively little to say to me, certainly little that was new. But Howard’s approach was more one of encouraging people to recognize the way ceremonies of all sorts permeate our lives and experience; trying to help them move beyond their cultural gut reaction against formal ceremony in worship. It’s hard for me to judge how effective the chapter was, but it seemed like a good approach to me.

I’ve noticed that evangelicals seem to have an aversion to the sign of the cross that has never made any sense to me. I liked the way Howard described one aspect of it at the end of the chapter.

By making the sign of the cross with our hands we signal to heaven, earth, hell, and to our own innermost beings that we are indeed under this sign — that we are crucified with Christ.


For the Life of the World 19

Posted: January 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

During the press of the holidays, illness, and all the rest that has been happening, I’ve fallen pretty far behind in this series. I’m going to work to catch up this week. I find both Fr. Schmemann’s book and Dn. Hyatt’s podcasts on that book fascinating and illuminating.

The discussion now moves from baptism to chrismation in section 4 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

In both the book and the podcast, the history of this sacrament and its divergent path in the West are touched upon. But I’m going to take this first post to focus on it in more detail. From my personal experience, I doubt that many modern evangelicals know much about the mystery of chrismation or its Western counterpart, confirmation. I went to a Roman Catholic school for three years growing up (and an Episcopal school for another year and change), I was as interested as I have ever been in spiritualities of every sort, and I still didn’t really understand confirmation until I encountered the older Orthodox tradition of chrismation.

In the early days of the church, each individual church had its own bishop assisted by his presbyters. And though anyone could baptize at need, absent an urgent need, the presbyters or the bishop performed baptisms. However, the bishop alone blessed the oil used to anoint and then anointed the newly baptized with the seal of the Holy Spirit, ordaining them as priests and kings in the royal priesthood of Christ.

As an aside, that was one of the disconnects I noted pretty early among so many modern churches. They refer to the royal priesthood of all believers, but they have no practice that anyone in the ancient world would have connected to either kings or priests. Coming from a Jewish context, that would obviously be part of a ceremony that included anointing with oil, as it was priests and kings who were anointed in the Old Testament. And I’ll note that one of the gifts the young Christ received from the magi was a rich oil. Gold, incense, and oil — truly gifts for a kingly priest. Further, the gospels recount stories of Christ being anointed by expensive oil. Though not like the anointing everyone would expect (what about Jesus happened the way people expected?), nevertheless, he was anointed with oil.

The formerly pagan believers would have understood such an act even if it wasn’t entirely native to their culture. Neither group would have understood what evangelical churches do today as something that anointed or ordained you into a royal priesthood. The concepts of king and priest had a deep cultural reality for them that we largely lack in our native culture of liberal democracy. I knew something had to be missing in our modern practice, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I encountered chrismation. It fills that gap perfectly.

At first, every church had one bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people (all anointed as kings and priests, but with different functions within the body). This is the picture we see, for instance, in St. Ignatius’ writings.  As the Church grew, there came to be more churches in a city to serve all those converting. The bishop delegated presbyters to act in his stead in the churches and visited each as he was able. And it is at this point that East and West began to diverge.

In the ancient world, we have to remember, the West was the frontier. It had a single apostolic see in Rome. And it had widely dispersed peoples. As Rome contracted, it contracted first in the West. This was further complicated by the fact that the West always had fewer bishops than the East. So over time, an individual bishop was not over a church or even a set of geographically close churches, but often serving a far flung network of churches.  The bishop could not physically be at every baptismal service at every church.

And so, in the West, they decided the physical presence of the bishop was the important thing and began to separate baptism from chrismation and communion. And over time, that developed into the confirmation of baptism performed as children entered into what was considered the earliest of the ages of majority in the medieval West. I believe, even today, confirmation is always performed when the bishop is present (though I could be wrong about that). Eventually, even first communion became separated from either baptism or confirmation. Now it is normal in the Roman Catholic Church for a child to be baptized at birth, begin taking communion sometime as a child (in a ceremony known as First Communion), and finally be confirmed near the onset of puberty.

The East took a different path as they encountered the same problem. The bishop still blessed the anointing oil of chrismation, but it was distributed to all his presbyters. And along with baptism, communion, and everything else, the bishop delegated the performance of chrismation to his presbyters so its unity with baptism could be preserved. Even today in the Orthodox Church every person, whether 9 weeks old or 90 years old, who is baptized, is baptized, chrismated, and communed in that first service. The unity of the mysteries was maintained.

The practice of the East makes sense to me. That doesn’t mean it’s right, of course. But I do think it’s significant that I couldn’t truly understand the Western sacraments until I saw them in light of the Eastern practice.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 10 – Justin Martyr on Administration of the Mysteries

Posted: July 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Now we will move forward several decades and reflect on Justin Martyr’s First Apology. This places us right in the middle of the second century. There are few left alive at this point who personally encountered any of the apostles, but there are still those few. There are now many who have been taught by those who were directly taught by the apostles. Hopefully that places some perspective on where we stand in the thread of history. As always I recommend you read the entire apology. In this post, however, we will focus first on Chapter LXV.

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

I want to focus here on the structure and order surrounding the thanksgiving or eucharist. It is only for the baptized. The one who presides over the assembly offers extensive prayers over the bread and wine. (The one who presides, consistent with earlier, contemporary, and later writings is probably best understood as the episcopos (bishop) or one of his presbyters (priests).) The people then all assent as their participation. Then the deacons hand out the eucharist, keeping some back to carry to those who could not be present, typically the ill and infirm.

If a person has had any exposure to any modern liturgical Christian practice, I feel confident they will recognize the connection to the above in the liturgy of the Eucharist. I have personally experienced Luthern, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic liturgies over the course of my life. And I have listened to a number of occurences of, but not yet been in, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. And I immediately sense how the description above is continuous with all the liturgical traditions. There is much less connection to the non-liturgical traditions like my own SBC. Even before we delve into what we mean in the Eucharist itself, our practice around it seems … disconnected from history. We see that again in Chapter LXVII where the weekly worship practice is described.

And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

Here we see even more strongly the structure of the liturgy. We see that first the Holy Scriptures are read and then the one who presides instructs and exhorts. Today this is often called the Liturgy of the Word. (It’s also interesting to note that the “memoirs of the Apostles” were being read. This almost certainly refers to the Gospels.) Following the Liturgy of the Word, we see the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This form is preserved to one degree or another within the liturgical churches. Among the non-liturgical churches? Not so much. It’s also worth noting that the Liturgy of the Word is similar in form to the synagogue worship. So basically we see an adaptation of synagogue worship in which the Gospels are read along with Torah and the Prophets and then the Eucharist — something new and not from Jewish synagogue worship at all in origin — is added as the focal point of worship.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 5 – Clement, Corinth, and Order

Posted: July 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m going to open this post with chapter 40 from Clement’s letter to the Corinthians.

Since, therefore, these things have been made manifest before unto us, and since we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do everything in order, whatsoever the Lord hath commanded us to do at the appointed seasons, and to perform the offerings and liturgies. These he hath not commanded to be done at random or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons. But when and by whom he wisheth them to be fulfilled he himself hath decided by his supreme will; that all things, being done piously, according to his good pleasure, might be acceptable to his will. They, therefore, who at the appointed seasons make their offerings are acceptable and blessed; for while following the laws of the Master they do not completely sin. For to the High Priest were assigned special services, and to the priests a special place hath been appointed; and on the Levites special duties are imposed. But he that is a layman is bound by the ordinances of laymen.

In this context, we see reinforced what Paul had written in his first letter to Corinth and the teaching from the Didache (redundant since Didache means Teaching, but I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it). The offerings (in this context eucharist) and the liturgies (the work of worship of the people) are to be done in order and at fixed times and seasons, not at random or in disorder. Further, this order had been commanded by the Lord. In addition to their schisms and divisiveness, one of Paul’s chief concerns with the Corinthian church a generation or so earlier had been their disorder in worship. It seems that many of the bad tendencies of this church had persisted.

I’m not a Greek scholar though I’ve picked up a passing familiarity with some of the rudiments of the language over the years. From past experience, the English word “laymen” above probably translated laos or laoikos. I find that the modern understanding of laymen or laity doesn’t precisely jibe with the ancient understanding. It took me a while to begin to see it, myself. In the ancient understanding, the laiokos were not the unordained. Drawing heavily on Hebrews, they understood that the people of God were reconstituted in Christ as a royal priesthood with one high priest, Jesus the Christ. That was a shift because before Christ only the sons of Aaron out of the people of God formed the priestly class. The laoikos then were those ordained into the first order of the priesthood in Baptism. As such, the people were all responsible for their part in the liturgy, in the offerings (a priest could not perform the liturgy of the Eucharist or communion alone or without the people), and in their priestly ministrations in the world.

The best illustration of the distinctions of orders actually comes a few centuries later. St. Ambrose of Milan, though his sister and mother were Christian, had not yet been baptized when the Arian bishop of Milan died. (It is important to note that it was not uncommon to delay baptism at that time because of the question of whether or not intentional sins committed after baptism could be forgiven.) Ambrose was a gifted orator and lawyer and was attempting to maintain order in a uprising of the orthodox (non-Arian) Christians of Milan. As he was doing so, the people acclaimed his as their bishop. He was immediately baptized and then ordained to the diaconate and then priesthood on successive days before being elevated to the episcopate the next week.

So there is one priesthood consisting of all the people of God and four orders within that priesthood with one eternal High Priest in Jesus Christ. We are all priests and priestesses of at least the first order if we are baptized in Christ. When we lose sight of that reality, things get muddled pretty quickly.

I’m going to close my reflection on this letter with the following section from chapter 46.

Why are there strivings, and anger, and division, and war among you? Have we not one God and one Christ? Is not the Spirit of grace, which was poured out upon us, one? Is not our calling one in Christ? Why do we tear apart and rend asunder the members of Christ, and make sedition against our body, and come to such a degree of madness that we forget we are members one of another? Remember the words of our Lord Jesus, for he said, Woe unto that man; it were good for him if he had never been born, rather than that he should cause one of my elect to offend. It were better for him that a millstone were tied about him, and that he were cast into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of my little ones to offend. This your schism has perverted many; hath cast many into despondency; many into doubt; all of us into grief, and, as yet, your sedition remaineth.

It’s important to absorb the tenor of this statement and others like it. This call to oneness tends to permeate discussions of the Eucharist in the ancient writings. Clement, of course, is echoing Paul. He’s not really saying anything new. This is an application of the tradition of the apostles which we believe according to the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament they received directly from Christ.