Reflections on Resurrection 8 – Heaven

Posted: November 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 8 – Heaven

I can’t discuss the Christian narrative of resurrection and new creation in our modern context without discussing heaven. It seems that far too many people today perceive the goal, the telos, the reward if you will of Christian faith as going to heaven when you die. Within this perspective, the present world and our physical bodies become nothing more than something which is passing away and which one day will be cast aside — discarded as at best useless and at worst refuse. It is a future reward that is not much concerned with our present reality.

But that begs the question, what is heaven? I’ve heard it described variously, but I understand it best as the spiritual dimension of reality in which God’s will is already done. But this spiritual realm cannot be seen as in some way separated or at a distance from our material realm. No, as the stories throughout scripture illustrate, that spiritual dimension is all around us. It’s often a matter of perception. Heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking. There is presently a veil between them (for our salvation), but heaven is not best described as a place that we go.

Most importantly, heaven is not the culmination of all things or the eschaton. Rather, the culmination of the Christian narrative is a renewed creation with no veil between it and heaven and our ultimate home is the renewed physical realm, not the spiritual realm. We are material, embodied beings and our charge is and has always been to care for the physical world and offer it back to God as our eucharist or thanksgiving.

Christianity does not say a lot about what happens immediately after death. We know that to die is to be with Christ, which is far better. In John 14, Jesus talks about preparing temporary dwelling places for us. We know that we remain conscious and active and praying. We see in the stories of the saints up to the present day that they are able to manifest and are actively involved with us, but we also see in their relics that their material body has not yet been used up in resurrection as Jesus’ body in the tomb was.

I’m also not sure that speculation on such topics is ultimately useful. Our goal and our salvation is union with Christ. If we are able to remain focused on that — which is certainly a tall order — I have the sense that everything else will work itself out. I do still like Bishop Tom’s phrase, though. Christianity has little to say about life after death. It has a great deal to say about life after life after death.


Reflections on Resurrection 6 – Angels?

Posted: November 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 6 – Angels?

I have to confess I feel almost embarrassed to write this post. Yet I have listened and read and it seems to me there is some real confusion among at least some people on this point, so I will say it as simply as I can.

We do not become angels after we die.

Or demons. Or spirit guides. Or any other sort of spiritual or disembodied power.

We don’t know a lot about angels and the other spiritual powers and beings who are part of the fabric of creation. We do know that angels are created beings of spirit. We know they also have free will, though a will unmediated by a material body seems to manifest in different ways. It seems they are either wholly serving God or wholly opposed to him with little of the gray areas and gradual change with which we live. But we mostly know they are different creatures from us.

They are spirit. We are embodied. That is a fundamental and eternal difference. Angels don’t become human beings and human beings don’t become angels. We have bodies and there is really no concept of immaterial existence for human beings within Christianity. Our narrative is one of resurrection.


Reflections on Resurrection 3 – Preexistence of the Soul

Posted: November 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 3 – Preexistence of the Soul

The preexistence of the soul refers to the understanding that our souls, as disembodied spirits of some sort, existed before our bodies existed. When this is combined with the understanding that our souls are naturally immortal (and it is almost always so combined),  we become possessors of eternal souls. Christianity, of course, confesses God as the only eternal, but I still sense that a lot of Christians today have some belief that their soul somehow existed before they were conceived.

Christianity teaches that we are each created embodied beings and we did not exist before we were conceived. Moreover, in some sense our creation is a synergy between God and our parents. The creation of a whole human being is a beautiful image — much more beautiful to me than the image of shaping a body for an existing spirit to inhabit.

Now, like the immortality of the soul, most people don’t directly talk about the preexistence of the soul. However, I do believe this perception of what it means to be a human being underlies some of the things that are more commonly expressed even among Christians today. I wanted to clearly identify both ideas before proceeding.


Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

Posted: July 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. 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 chapter opens with the questions Scot assumes most will ask (and that he also asked) about stepping out of our own Portiuncola two or three times a day to pray with the Church in the basilica. “What will we be saying? Did Jesus teach anything about that? Won’t it get repetitive to say things over and over?” His answers are the ones found throughout the history of the Church. “We’ll be using the prayers of the Bible, of Jesus, and the Church. Yes, it will be repetitive but in a good way. Praying with the Church might lead to vain repetitions, but it is meant to lead us away from them.”

In order to understand the guidance Scripture offers, Scot guides us first through the Jewish form of prayer in use at the time of Jesus. We’ve already seen that Jews prayed at fixed hours — “morning, afternoon, and evening. This was the sacred rhythm of the temple and of Israel at prayer together. But what did they say?”

The Jews prayed (usually by singing) the Psalms. They are a collection of 150 (or 151) prayers. These were at the root of their prayers. “Everything Israel and Jesus learned about prayer can be found in the Psalms.” They also recited other set prayers and creeds. The Shema, of course, was recited by any observant Jew at a minimum on rising and on retiring. However, they also did everything Moses wrote for them to do (Deuteronomy 6). Memorize them – ‘Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.’ Teach them — ‘Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.’ Make it physical — ‘Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.’ Publish them — ‘Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’ The Shema was so interwoven into the “ancient faith of Israel that it would have been impossible for followers of Jesus not to adopt (and adapt) the custom of turning to God at sundown and sunup.”

In addition, the Jews of that time probably recited the Ten Commandments along with the Shema. We have a document from about a century before Jesus that appears to link the recitation of the two and it also makes sense in the context of the Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler.

And finally, we also know of a prayer that was called by three names, “the Amidah (standing prayer), the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), or the Ha-Tefillah (The Prayer). They had other prayers and certainly also prayed spontaneously, but their sacred rhythms of prayer were formed and shaped by the Shema, the Amidah, and perhaps the Ten Commandments. These “expressed the central dimensions of Israel’s faith and concerns with clarity and aesthetic simplicity.”

Scot has an amusing way to think about it for someone concerned about ‘vain repititions.’ (That’s never been any particular issue for me, so maybe it’s not as funny to someone with whom that is a significant worry.) Repitition can be a mindless routine, but it can also be a rhythm for daily renewal. If you don’t think that’s the case, consider explaining to your spouse that you’ve been saying “I love you” far too often and you’ll have to stop or it might become a vain repitition. I’m sure that will go over well.

However, Scot sees this concern as actually possibly masking a deeper one, a hesitation to use prayers written by others. His section exploring that is a good one, so I’ll just quote from it in closing.

Our tendency is to go to the Bible for something new, to read it in the expectation of a fresh discovery of something we did not know or had not heard or had completely forgotten. As a professor who teaches the Bible, I know the experience.

But the discovery of something new is not the sole, or even the main, purpose for reading the Bible. The longer you look at the idea that we read the Bible to find new meanings, the sillier it becomes. We read and return to the Bible not (just) to find something new but to hear something old, not to discover something fresh but to be reminded of something ancient.

What we find in the sacred rhythm and sacred prayer tradition of Israel is the wise recitation of those passages in the Bible most central to spirituality, passages we need to be reminded of daily because of their importance for how we are to conduct ourselves before God and with others. The reason psalms are repeated in the sacred rhythm of prayer is that they continue to teach us how to pray; the reason the Shema is repeated so often is that it summons us to the central orientation of our heart: to love God with every molecule we can muster.

Jesus was spiritually nurtured by pious parents in a world where the sacred rhythm of prayer shaped spiritual formation. Jesus didn’t adopt that rhythm without reflection or alteration. One might say that Jesus actually re-shaped the sacred rhythmical prayer practices of his world so that they would reflect his own kingdom mission.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 9

29. When our Lord says, ‘I and My Father are one’ (John 10:30), He indicates their identity of essence. Again, when He says, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me’ (John 14:11), He shows that the Persons cannot be divided. The tritheists, therefore, who divide the Son from the Father, find themselves in a dilemma. Either they say that the Son is coeternal with the Father, but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not begotten from the Father; thus they fell into the error of claiming that there are three Gods and three first principles. Or else they say that the Son is begotten from the Father but nevertheless divide Him from the Father, and so they are forced to say that He is not coetemal with the Father; thus they make the Lord of time subject to time. For, as St Gregory of Nazianzos says, it is necessary both to maintain the one God and to confess the three Persons, each in His own individuality. According to St Gregory, the Divinity is divided but without division and is united but with distinctions. Because of this both the division and the union are paradoxical. For what paradox would there be if the Son were united to the Father and divided from Him only in the same manner as one human being is united to and divided from another, and nothing more?

I don’t actually have much that I think I can add to this text. But I wanted to include it because I think it’s an important reflection on the three Persons of the Trinity. “Divided without division” and “united but with distinctions” are phrases to ponder. The key thing to me seems to be that the division and unity of God transcends the sort of unity and division we as human beings know and experience with each other. We are theomorphic (made in God’s image) and it is toward something more like that union that we are moving in and through the work of Christ. But it is beyond our ken and without the work of God would have always been beyond our grasp.


Holy. What’s in a word?

Posted: June 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

This will be just a short post. It’s primary purpose is to urge anyone reading to go listen to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s podcast, Jesus – The Holy One of God. It’s the most recent one of his Names of Jesus podcast series, all of which are well worth the time it takes to listen to them. Fr. Thomas does a really good job of explaining the way that holy doesn’t describe an ethical or moral system, but rather the way God is wholly (pun intended) separate or apart. He is the uncreated and all else is creature or created.

I’m still really digesting this podcast and will probably listen to it several times, but even on an initial read, I picked up something I had never really heard before. Unlike most languages, including Hebrew and Greek, English has two words that translate the same word. Holy and saint both translate exactly the same word. Obviously there has to be some rhyme and reason surrounding the way interpreters have chosen to use those two English words. I have no particular insight right now into that thought process, but I know it exists and my interest is piqued.

There are a host of other reflections on ‘holy’ in the podcast. That’s just one little tidbit that leaped out at me. I definitely recommend listening to the entire thing at least once.


Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: November 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post

I’ve read Elizabeth Esther’s blog for a while now, but have been hesitant about participating in her Saturday Evening blog post. I finally decided to go ahead and add a link. I chose my reflection last month on holiness. No particular reason beyond the fact that it was the one I most enjoyed writing.

Cheers!