Mary 23 – Queen of Heaven

Posted: February 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mary, Queen of Heaven

I thought it would be fitting to close my series on Mary with a reflection on her title as Queen of Heaven. I know from experience that many of my fellow Protestant Christians find that appellation disturbing, though I’m not sure if it’s for theological reasons or because of our American discomfort with monarchical titles. In order to understand this title for Mary, we have to first look at Christ and specifically his Ascension.

To be honest, it’s not clear to me what the typical modern Evangelical thinks or believes about the Ascension of Christ. Sometimes I almost get the sense that they have a vision of Jesus as some cosmic spacemen flying off into outer space. But that’s certainly not what the Scriptures of Christian tradition are describing. When someone was crowned king or emperor, they ascended to their throne, which means they entered into their power. That’s what we see happening with Christ, but he was not ascending to a typical throne. Rather, he was ascending to the throne of God, to the seat of power in the Kingdom of the Heavens (which is to say God’s Kingdom).

And that’s where the “clouds” enter into the picture. Smoke or clouds were associated with the visible presence of God in Hebrew imagery. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt in the desert, he did so as a pillar of clouds. When the shekinah glory of God entered and rested upon the first temple, it did so as smoke. When Isaiah enters the presence of God in visions, he is surrounded by clouds and smoke. And so when Jesus ascends into the clouds, it’s a way of saying he is entering his power and taking the throne of heaven. Heaven, of course, is overlapping and interlocking with the material creation, but it is presently veiled from us, so as Jesus enters his power, he vanishes from their sight. But he didn’t leave and go someplace else. As we read in Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” And sometimes that veil is pulled back. Stephen, the protomartyr saw the throne of God at the time of his death. Paul experienced the reality of the third heaven.

So Jesus the Christ, Son of God, is in Christian terms, the reigning King of heaven and earth. In Hebrew culture, going back at least to the time of the Davidic kings, who is the queen? It’s the king’s mother, also called the queen mother. In fact, that’s true in many cultures. In England, the mother of the monarch is even affectionately called the Queen Mum.

So Mary is rightly called the Queen of Heaven because her son is the reigning King of Heaven. Of all her titles, this should be one on which every Christian can agree. If we deny her the title of queen mother, we deny her son as king.

Now, as the Queen of Heaven, what does Mary do? She does what she has always done, which we see exemplified in the story of the wedding at Cana in John 2. She points to her son and commands us all, “Whatever he says to you, do it.”

Are not those the words we all need to hear?


The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

Posted: June 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

I’ll conclude my series of reflections on Khouria Frederica’s book with this reflection on the path thoughts take to pull us away from prayer. The fathers identify stages such thoughts take.

1. Provocation. Provoking thoughts can arise from our subconscious or whispered by other powers. They can appear blasphemous, evil, or even noble and good. If blasphemous, we might wonder how we could think such a thing, which is always a good indication that it may not be your own thought. The fathers consistently advise us to ignore provoking thoughts. Don’t try to argue with them or agree with them. Keep praying.

2. Interaction. Of course, we don’t usually do that. Instead, we engage the thought. Our nous turns from God and begins to consider the thought instead. The thought has a foot in the door. The fathers advise crying out to God for help. Wrap your nous in the Jesus Prayer.

3. Consent. “At this point, the nous has become intoxicated with the thought and embraces it. A sign of this stage is that the nous becomes absorbed in gazing at an image or playing out a fantasy.” It’s at this point, when we have consented to an image or fantasy, that we become responsible for sin as Jesus warns, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

4. Captivity. With consent, the ability to resist the thought begins to crumble. At some point, it will be put into action.

5. Passion. After repeatedly consenting, we no longer have the ability to use our will to resist. The thought appears and we act without resistance. It has become something we suffer, similar to a compulsion or addiction. We are ruled by it. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Without spiritual healing, we are helpless.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Recently, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware gave a couple of lectures at North Park University in Chicago. The first lecture was on the Jesus Prayer. I recommend listening to the whole lecture, but I wanted to highlight his description of the two uses of the Jesus Prayer.

The first is the free use of the prayer. In the free use, the prayer is prayed at various times throughout the day during the course of your normal activities. This is the manner in which the Jesus Prayer came to me and it remains its most natural use to me. I like the way Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes the free use of the Jesus Prayer in a single phrase.

Find Christ everywhere.

That phrase succinctly captures the heart of this use of the prayer. Christ, of course, is everywhere. Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age. Christ, in union with the Father and the spirit, is everywhere present and filling all things. In him we live and move and have our being. All creation subsists in him from moment to moment.

But we easily lose sight of that reality. We tend to act and live as though Christ were somewhere else. The free use of the Jesus Prayer helps us find Christ where we are in the midst of our activities. And it invites us to shape our reaction to our circumstances in and through an awareness of Christ’s presence.

Am I angry or frustrated by a coworker? (I’ve been told I don’t easily suffer fools.) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Is rush hour traffic raising my blood pressure? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Am I tired of people, even people I love, placing demands on me? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Yes, those all seem like little things and minor annoyances. But if we do not learn to find Christ in the routine of our lives, we will not often find him in the larger things, either. I’m not sure why that’s true, but at least for me it is.

The second use of the Jesus Prayer is the fixed use. In other words, it’s the practice of the Jesus Prayer as part of a daily or fixed hour prayer rule. Khouria Frederica’s book has primarily focused on this use of the prayer, but it had not consciously occurred to me that the fixed use had a different goal. Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes its use in another easy to remember phrase.

Create silence.

With this phrase, he ties the prayer to a prayer from the Psalms. Be still, and know that I am God. It’s important to recognize that we cannot simply will inner silence. All traditions (at least those which value inner stillness) recognize that truth. All forms of meditation are, at least in part, designed to still our racing thoughts. However, the Christian tradition does not seek silence for its own sake. Rather, we seek stillness only to know God and know that he is God.

Curiously, be still and know that I am God, is another prayer (of sorts) that came to me at a time of great personal stress and which kept repeating until my frantic mind began to calm. Since that time, I’ve returned to it many times. Before this lecture, I had never made the connection between it and the Jesus Prayer.

Our cogitating minds, in their frenzy of thoughts, make God seem distant, even though he is anything but. With relatively rare exceptions,  God is not in the mighty wind, the shaking ground, or the raging fire. Rather, God comes to us in a still small voice and without silence, we do not hear him.


The Jesus Prayer 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

It seems to me that a life of unceasing or constant prayer is very often dismissed as impossible by many Christians today. I’m not entirely sure why that’s so. For most of Christian history, the discipline of prayer has been one of the central practices of Christian faith. And it seems clear that St. Paul considered prayer extremely important. In no fewer than four places in the Holy Scriptures, he exhorts those hearing his words to pray constantly or unceasingly. If it’s captured that many times in the texts of Scripture, we can be certain it featured prominently in his oral exhortations and teachings.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Rom. 12:12)

Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance. (Eph. 6:18)

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with Thanksgiving. (Col. 4:2)

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

I think, to riff off Chesterton, the discipline of constant prayer has not been attempted and found impossible or wanting by so many Christians today. Rather it has been found difficult and left untried.

And it is certainly difficult. I’m the first to confess that my rule of prayer is a poor one and even so I fail to keep it as often as I succeed. My efforts at constant prayer still produce sketchy results at best. But I do believe that St. Paul would not have kept exhorting those under his care to pray constantly if it were not humanly possible to do so.

Moreover, the practice and seriousness of the ascetic discipline of prayer colors and shapes the whole of Christian history. I first encountered the Christian discussion of unceasing prayer through Bro. Lawrence, but the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries are the ones to whom Khouria Frederica turns in this chapter. We think we need novelty in prayer lest it become stale and we become numb to it, but the following story speaks volumes about that conceit.

Abba Pambo (AD 303-75) could not read, so he asked another desert dweller to teach him a psalm. When he heard the first words of Psalm 39, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,” he asked the other monk to stop and then meditated on that verse alone — for nineteen years. (Asked whether he was ready to hear at least the remainder of the verse, he replied that he had not mastered the first part yet.)

We now live in a literate culture with easy access to almost any text we desire, including myriad translations of the texts of Scripture. Moreover, there are everywhere churches that claim to be “bible-believing.” But can we honestly say that we take the texts that seriously? What does belief mean in this context?

The particular form of the Jesus Prayer arose because so many of those who encountered Jesus in the Gospels asked for mercy. I’m not sure exactly why this prayer is the one that kept coming to me when I was searching for a breath prayer, but that likely had something to do with it. (And perhaps it’s also an example of the mercy of our Lord. He knew the prayer I needed, even if I didn’t.)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
      Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
            Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
                  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Khouria Frederica then asks a good question. What does it mean to ask for mercy? I never realized it was a good question until I read this section of her book. I had always read it the way we see it used in Scripture and in many contexts of history, literature, and life. Asking for mercy is a way of asking for help.

But a lot of Christians today think of mercy as something a prisoner begs from a judge — basically a plea for leniency. While that’s a limited, but valid, meaning of the term in English, that’s not the way it’s used in Scripture, common Christian usage, or even in general usage. If you take mercy on someone, you help them. I’ve always seen it so. But I realized that in my Christian context, a lot of my fellow Christians have equated mercy with the leniency of a judge, not with rescue.

God’s forgiveness is a gift bestowed on all humanity. We don’t need to ask for it. We don’t need to do anything to gain it. He is a good God who loves mankind. His forgiveness is abundant and free. The following quote captures the real problem better than anything I could write.

So this isn’t a question about whether we’ve forgiven. No, the problem lies elsewhere; the problem is we keep on sinning. Sin is in us like an infection in the blood. It keeps us choosing to do and say and think things that damage Creation and hurt other people — and the ill effects rebound on us as well. There can even be sin without guilt. Sometimes we add to the weary world’s burden of sin through something we did in ignorance or unintentionally, for example, by saying something that hurt a hearer for reasons we knew nothing about. Our words increased the sin-sickness in the world, yet we are not guilty for that unintentional sin (though we are still sorry for inadvertently causing pain). Sin can be recognized as a noxious force on earth without having to pin the guilt on someone every time.

In the Eastern view, all humans share a common life; when Christ became a member of the human race, our restoration was begun. The opposite is, sadly, true as well; our continuing sins infect and damage everybody else, and indeed Creation itself. It’s like air pollution. There is suffering for everyone who shares our human life, everyone who breathes, even the innocent who never did anyone harm.

I will add that we need look no further than the life of Christ to see the truth of that last sentence. If there was ever anyone who was truly innocent, it was he. And yet he shared in all our suffering. So when we cry to him for mercy — for help — Jesus understands in a way only another human being could. We keep asking for mercy because we continue to need help. At least, I continue to need help every moment and every day. I suppose I shouldn’t presume to speak for others who may need less help than me. Sometimes, if I stop asking for mercy, I begin to believe I no longer need any help. That rarely ends well.

I’ll close with another quoted paragraph from this chapter. It describes what has been slowly (sometimes imperceptibly) happening in my life.

Theosis is a vast and daunting goal even to imagine, so there’s something distinctively, sweetly Christian about using a prayer that is so simple. There have been plenty of other religions that taught convoluted mystical procedures for union with God, but for Christians it is as straightforward as calling on our Lord and asking him for mercy. As you form the habit of saying this prayer in the back of your mind all the time, it soaks into you, like dye into cotton, and colors the way you encounter every person and circumstance you meet.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

Posted: December 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 7 – Truth is a Promise

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

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin begins by reflecting on Jesus’ own words about his church in Matthew 16:18.

The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

Do you believe that is true? Really? Because the vibe I get from many of the modern Protestant strands is that we can”t simply take Jesus at his word. Paul believed it was true. It’s why he did what he did the way he did it. It’s why he calls the church the “pillar and ground of truth” when he’s writing to Timothy. The early Christians did. They wrote of the Church as the ark of salvation and the end of religion. We now knew the truth. Pagans charged them with being atheists.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew’s Gospel is one of his clearer ones, but you wouldn’t think that was the case if you were to read most of the English language commentaries we have available for us today. Many of them explain at some length how Jesus really didn’t mean what he said, but meant something else instead. Matthew Gallatin’s reaction to that question, once he was able to ask it honestly, was straightforward.

First of all, I perceived this would mean that those teachings and practices I had previously dismissed as “Catholic” and “unscriptural” might actually be Spirit-inspired. The Faith as it was understood and practiced everywhere by millions of believers for at least a millennium would embody the truth Christ gave to the Apostles — if I believed that Jesus had the power to live up to His promises.

And that’s really the core of the matter. Do we believe that Jesus has the power to do what he said he was going to do or don’t we? It seems to me that’s the question most people never ask themselves.

How could I have thought my Lord to be the most powerless God ever worshiped?

That’s the point at which Matthew Gallatin found himself. It’s an honest and revealing question.

Now, that is not to say that the Church is or has ever been some perfect, utopian ideal. But then that’s not what Jesus founded. He was starting a hospital. As Jesus said, he didn’t come for the healthy; he came for the sick. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Moreover, the Apostles recognized from the outset that the principalities and powers were organized against them and that part of that threat would be from within. John wrote against the docetists in the Church and called them antichrists. Peter wrote about ravening wolves masquerading as shepherds. Jesus himself said that the wheat and the tares had to grow together and would only be separated in the end. Attacks from the outside have usually made the Church stronger. The powers have long recognized that it’s most effective to attack it from within.

And even absent outright attack, the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. (Paul’s image of body is quite apt.) Jesus emptied himself and became wholly and fully one of us in order to rescue and heal mankind. His victory is manifest and worked out not from a throne, but from a body build from broken, imperfect, and often corrupt humanity. As such, the Church has often done great evil as well as great good. We must acknowledge and confess those wrongs, not excuse them or hide from them. Nevertheless, it’s in our weakness that we are made strong. Jesus has overcome and continues to overcome and he is the cornerstone on which the Church rests. Do we or do we not believe that he has the power to support and maintain that church — even with all its marred and broken stones?

Ultimately, Matthew Gallatin had the following thought.

By the mercy of Christ, I’d always somehow known that when I found the real truth, I would find real love. After all, Truth is no a thing; it is a Person. And that Person, the Incarnate Son of God, is infinite Love.


The Jesus Creed 16 – A Society of Restoration

Posted: September 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 16 – A Society of Restoration

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 readings for this chapter are: Matthew 23:8-12; Mark 5:24-34; Luke 5:12-16.

If justice is really about restoring people to God and others, then it follows we are a society of restoration. So this is an obvious next step.

However, the chapter begins with a discussion of miracles. Scot McKnight explores the way many Christians think that miracles are proofs of various sorts. And while they do, in fact, prove that Jesus is God, the Son of God, and basically is ‘right‘, that’s really more of a side-effect. I hadn’t thought of it exactly that way, but it’s a strong thought.

God isn’t in the show-off business or in the convincing business. Miracles, again speaking generally, are not done to prove the truth about God or about Jesus Christ. They may reveal plenty about Jesus (as our next chapter will show), but their intent is often otherwise.

I must emphasize this: Miracles do reveal things about God and His Son. That is beyond dispute; that they are always designed to prove something is disputable. I’m on the side of those who think Jesus did miracles, and on the side of those who think miracles tell us something about Jesus and about truth. But I am also on the side of those who think the miracles had intents other than proving something.

Let that sink in for a bit. I’ll go further. I believe God is still in the miracle business today. There is little else that accounts for some aspects of my experience and life. But it isn’t about ‘proving something’. At least I don’t see it that way. What is it most often about? Restoration. And that, as the title indicates, is McKnight’s point.

It is quite easy to see the normal intent of Jesus’ healing miracles. Any glance at the many records of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels reveals what the miracles normally do: They restore people. Miracles are performed by Jesus out of love and are done to restore humans to God and to others. Miracles are what happens when the Jesus Creed becomes restorative.

Think about that. As we expect the Jesus Creed to restore, do we live in expectation of miracles? Not at our beck and call as some ‘Christian‘ sideshows would proclaim, but unexpectedly and when and where they are needed? It’s something to ponder.

Jesus heals to restore others into a society without the age-old classifications. He heals to knock down walls between people.

Scot then proceeds to examine two walls that are crushed by the restorative power of the Jesus Creed.

Wall #1: Women Join the Table.

He uses one specific illustration, but the evidence is legion. Jesus breaks down the societal classifications/walls that keep women from the table of God.

Wall #2: Lepers Come to the Table.

Lepers were the prototypical outcast. Unclean. Unable to participate in any of the functions of society. The functional equivalent of the Hindu Untouchables. Jesus restored them. Again and again. I’m not sure the implications can be overstated. McKnight describes Jesus as “a contagion of purity”. Meditate on that a bit. He wasn’t consumed with the fear that others would make him impure, but confident that by bringing them to his table, he could make them pure.

Which model are we called to follow?


Four Hundred Texts on Love 25

Posted: May 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 25

96. We do not know God from His essence. We know Him rather from the grandeur of His creation and from His providential care for all creatures. For through these, as though they were mirrors, we may attain insight into His infinite goodness, wisdom and power.

I think this is the idea behind St. Maximos’ thoughts in other texts on the contemplation of created things. God is everywhere present and filling all things. As I think about this, I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis said.

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

Christian contemplation is rooted in the material creation. It is not something divorced or separated from the sensible realm. That is one of its somewhat unique characteristics. But, of course, the eternal Son of God became flesh, so how can it be any other way?


Four Hundred Texts on Love 15

Posted: May 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

54.  St Paul says that, if we have all the gifts of the Spirit but do not have love, we are no further forward (cf. 1 Cor. 13:2). How assiduous, then, we ought to be in our efforts to acquire this love.

55. If ‘love prevents us from harming our neighbor’ (Rom. 13:10), he who is jealous of his brother or irritated by his reputation, and damages his good name with cheap jibes or in any way spitefully plots against him, is surely alienating himself from love and is guilty in the face of eternal judgment.

56. If love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Rom. 13:10), he who is full of rancor towards his neighbor and lays traps for him and curses him, exulting in his fall, must surely be a transgressor deserving eternal punishment.

57. If ‘he who speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law’ (Jas. 4:11), and the law of Christ is love, surely he who speaks evil of Christ’s love falls away from it and is the cause of his own perdition.

The four texts above seem to me to be tied together by a single thread of thought. How do we acquire love? That also seems to me to be a trickier question than we often credit. We seek many gifts, but we do not often seek love, for love always means sacrifice.

We turn from love in small actions usually, not in large, dramatic ways. We think evil of another human being. Perhaps we share our thoughts with another. We might then act to ‘humble’ the other person, even though it is not our place to humble anyone. We set traps to trip each other up.

This approach to life often does not seem any less prevalent to me in Christian communities. Sometimes it seems to be more common there than among communities of friends who are not necessarily (or at all) Christian. Gossip and negative speech seems to rip through the church like wildfire. I’m more out of that loop (by choice as much as by circumstance) than most, but even I catch some of it.

And that brings us to the last text above. When we do such things, we are negatively judging Christ’s love. We turn our backs on that love. We decide that’s not how we want reality to be. And when we do that, we are saying that we don’t want God. On that scale, it doesn’t matter much what we intellectually believe (or think that we believe, anyway). When we refuse to love, we are rejecting God, who is love. We are making ourselves into creatures like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle. Even in the glory of God revealed as all in all, we will have convinced ourselves that we live in a dark, dirty, and smelly stable. Truly, we are the cause of our own perdition.

I’m as guilty of doing that as anyone I know. In some ways, perhaps I’m worse than most. But I do know that I don’t want to stay in the stable of my delusion.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 10

Posted: April 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 10

38.  If love is long-suffering and kind (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4), a man who is contentious and malicious clearly alienates himself from love. And he who is alienated from love is alienated from God, for God is love.

There are so many things we do by which we alienate ourselves from love. I doubt that most of us, when we do them, deliberately intend to alienate ourselves from God. And yet that is the inevitable result. If we thought before we acted that we would alienate ourselves from God, would we still do it?

This, I think, lies somewhere near the Christian practice of prayer. We believe that prayer is a direct mystical experience of God, whether we feel anything or not. In prayer, we train ourselves to be aware of God. And that is key, for only when we are aware can we choose to turn toward rather than away from God. And thus St. Paul urges us to pray without ceasing, that we not allow a moment to pass unaware of the presence of God.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Original Sin 15 – What is the Gospel?

Posted: March 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

I have been struggling over how I would write this part of the series since I started it. I know what I want to say, but I’ve discovered over the years that this is a place where the fact that I was not culturally shaped within the context of American Christianity creates a disconnect that is difficult to bridge. I don’t really grasp the inner experience and automatic assumptions of those who were shaped within that context and so it is often like navigating a minefield. I tend to express myself in ways that produce reactions I did not intend. I’ve never been known for a reluctance to “stir the pot” in any situation if that’s what I feel is necessary. However, I don’t have the sense that anything I want to say on this topic should be controversial for any Christian. It’s not only deeply embedded in the Scriptures, but consistently in the interpretation of those Scriptures throughout the first centuries of the Church. So I ask that if you react negatively to something I write in this post, take  a moment to explain your reaction to me and I’ll see if I can find better words.

I’ve been writing this series from the perspective of my own personal journey into and with Christian faith, so I’ll continue in that vein. It seems to me that most American Christians today don’t realize that in order to proclaim their story of “good news“, they must first either make a person feel bad about themselves or convince them that there is a powerful deity out there who will torment them forever if they don’t do as he requires. When you boil them down, most of the common “gospels” require you to first induce fear, guilt, or shame in the hearer before the rest of the proclamation (which is basically deliverance from the very shame, guilt, or fear you’ve worked so hard to instill) makes any sense at all.

Stop here and think for a minute about how you would explain to someone why they should consider being Christian. Am I wrong? Now, if someone is already consumed to some degree by shame, guilt, or fear, then it’s an easy sell, I suppose. But if a person is not, then unless you can manipulate them into feeling guilty or fearful about their status before this deity, most modern “gospel” proclamations have nothing to offer. And it seems to me that as soon as we fall into manipulation, we are acting in ways that God does not act. If I am trying to manipulate you, then I am treating you not like a person, but like an object instead. I cannot love you and use you at the same time. If that’s not “sin“, I don’t know what is.

I did not come into Christianity because I feared what this deity might do to me. I was living within non-Christian frameworks and was largely content with them. There was no ground in which fear of this Christian God could take root. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the Lord, but you have to be Christian or shaped by a Christian culture before you begin to understand the deep truth of that statement. And by then you should understand that it is fearful due to the all-consuming fire of his love.

Similarly, I did not become Christian because I felt guilt or shame before the Christian God for my “sin“. Oh, I had and have guilt and even shame, but largely for the way things I’ve done have hurt other people or for failing to be the person I desired to be. (Some of it also probably flows from childhood experiences, but that’s a different topic altogether.) I had no sense of guilt toward the Christian God. In fact, I would still say that I am just discovering what sin actually means in a Christian context and how deeply that thread is interwoven in my life. Sin is also something that can truly be understood only from within a Christian framework.

If those aren’t the “gospel”, what then is the “good news” of Christianity? And why is it good news?

Christianity proclaims a good God who loves mankind. Christianity tells the story of a God who is about the business of rescuing mankind and all creation. The Christian God is not some distant, transcendent deity. No, the Christian God is the one who comes near, the one who enters his creation as a part of it, who empties himself. And by doing so, the Christian God is the one who destroys death and heals mankind’s nature, making communion with God possible for us all.

Here’s a question for you. If mankind had never sinned, if we had remained faithful, would the Son of God still have become Incarnate? The ancient Christian answer to that question is yes. Jesus would not have had to die if that were the case. It was through the Cross that he was able to destroy death in the Resurrection. But it was always God’s purpose (see Ephesians) for mankind to be joined in full communion with God. And that was only ever possible through the action of God. We could never have joined ourselves to God unless he first joined his nature to ours.

When I think about the Gospel, I like a phrase of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s. “Jesus did not come to make bad men good. He came to make dead men live.” I think that captures a significant and central part of it.

I realize that this post is getting long and I’ve still not reached the point that I originally intended to make. So I’ll wrap this up here and continue the discussion tomorrow.