Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 24

Posted: August 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 24

89. Some people with possessions possess them dispassionately, and so when deprived of them they are not dismayed but are like those who accepted the seizure of their goods with joy (cf. Heb. 10:34). Others possess with passion, so that when they are in danger of being dispossessed they become utterly dejected, like the rich man in the Gospel who went away full of sorrow (cf. Matt. 19:22); and if they actually are dispossessed, they remain dejected until they die. Dispossession, then, reveals whether a man’s inner state is dispassionate or dominated by passion.

It seems to me that St. Maximos touches on something very important here. The state of our heart when it comes to possessions is not usually revealed by what we have. Some greedily seek ever more and crush people to attain it. But many of us are not like that. The state of of our heart is revealed when we have our possessions taken from us or are in danger of losing them. Are they truly our possessions or do they in fact possess us? Do we have stuff or are we in bondage to stuff?

My older son loved the movie Labyrinth when he was little and my youngest daughter rediscovered the movie and also has enjoyed it. I’m reminded now of the scene in which the old women carrying great loads of their possessions begin to similarly burden Sarah with the stuff she “needs”. Freedom came in letting it all go. If we cannot let go, then we are not the owners. We are the owned.


The Jesus Creed 4 – The Jesus Creed as a Table

Posted: August 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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: Matthew 11:16-19; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 19:1-10.

Tables create societies.

That’s the provocative sentence which opens this chapter. Reflect on the statement. Read the gospel readings. (Those are three of my long-time favorites, but we don’t seem to talk about them very often.) Consider sociological contexts. Consider your own experience. Scot McKnight continues with an amusing example, but we should have little problem coming up with many of our own. There is something about the way we gather together in so many ways to eat and drink. Something light … and something darker.

Tables can create societies; they can also divide societies.

There is something intimate about sharing a table. We may have masked some of that in our American culture (though it’s not hard to see glimpses if you look), but other cultures still clearly expose that reality in their approach to the question of who could eat at the table and how the meal is conducted.

Jesus used his table to create an inclusive society. And it was a society his contemparies understood as dangerous. In his culture, table customs were often used to measure Torah commitment. And they denounced Jesus. ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard.’ The accusation is more than it first appears. It is a precise quotation of an ancient Israelite law book … and it is pinned to Jesus’ lapel because of his table customs.

Tables don’t become walls strictly through meanness or evil intent (though the laws/customs of segregation certainly contained both). The Pharisees cared so much about those with whom they ate, making their table into a very high wall indeed, because “they were zealous in their commitment to how they thought the Torah should be applied.” It was a wall between the observant and the non-observant, sometimes even the accidentally non-observant. They would often refuse to eat or drink with anyone but other Pharisees.

But for Jesus the table was to be a place of fellowship and inclusion and acceptance… Jesus’ attitude gave him a bad name. For his custom of including all at the table, Jesus was called a ‘glutton and drunkard.’ This expression points to a legal charge against Jesus. The accusers of Jesus use the specific language from a passage regulating how parents are to make legal charges against a rebellious son. Parents are to take the son to the elders and say, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then they are to stone the rebellious son to death in order to purge evil from the community. Yikes!

Yikes, indeed! Of course, I was already familiar with the law in question. It’s in that largish category of Old Testament things I don’t understand and have difficulty reconciling, but mostly don’t much worry about. I do know it’s abused still today as an excuse to cast kids out (perhaps not actually stoning them, but not dissimilar in some ways). But that does provide a certain gravitas to the charge, one that is otherwise completely lacking in our cultural context. It’s only as I have been increasingly able to better understand the table in Jewish society (and lots of sources have helped me in that regard), that I’ve been able to understand the depth and intensity of these exchanges. And reflections on this law help me better understand the father in the prodigal son. Given the treatment of sons like the prodigal, it’s likely the father’s urgent concern for his son and need to reach him before anyone else in the community that has him racing down the road to him in a manner most unbefitting his station. As a prodigal of sorts I’m grateful that was the Father’s reaction to me. As a father myself, that’s the response I deeply understand. It matters little what my children do. I would never be able to stone them.

We can now put together our first few chapters. Jesus teaches that the center of life before God is the Jesus Creed. When the Jesus Creed turns into prayer, it becomes the Lord’s Prayer; when it becomes a story, it becomes the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And when it becomes a society, it becomes the table of welcome around Jesus.

Hmmm. If that’s the measure of the society created around Jesus, how well do our churches hold up. Sometimes pretty good, but much of the time? I think less so.

The observant person’s table story: You can eat with me if you are clean. If you are unclean, take a bath and come back tomorrow evening. Jesus’ table story: clean or unclean, you can eat with me, and I will make you clean. Instead of his table requiring purity, his table creates purity. Jesus chooses the table to be a place of grace. When the table becomes a place of grace, it begins to act. What does it do? It heals, it envisions, and it hopes.

At his table, or by bringing them to his table, Jesus heals those who are spiritually or socially sick. He restores people to society. The table also envisions. “Jesus table fellowship actually creates a new vision of what Israel means and is to become. … ‘Israel’ now refers to those who love God by following Jesus. ‘Israel’ describes those who are spiritually attached to Jesus.” At the demonstrable, physical level, what our churches saying?

And finally, McKnight explores how the table hopes or anticipates the Age to Come. “sharing table with Jesus is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God for each of us.”


The Jesus Creed 3 – The Abba of the Jesus Creed

Posted: August 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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: Matthew 6:9-15; Luke 15:11-32.

My father golfed only occasionally, but one time he told me this golfing truth: ‘If you hit the ball straight, you will have better scores.’ The problem with truths, of course, is absorbing them into the core of our being so that they can shape our lives. Even today, when traipsing through weeds off the fairway or poking my club into some pond to retrieve a ball, I recall that little golfing truth my father told me.

He was, and is, right.

The most important divine truth ever given is far truer and even more difficult for us to absorb than a simple golfing truth. From Moses to Malachi and from Jesus to John, the Bible witnesses to this elemental truth: God loves us. He loves you, and he loves me — as individuals. This big truth needs to be absorbed into our beings.

God’s love is an easy creed to confess but difficult to absorb.

I’ve opened simply with a quote from the beginning of the chapter because that truth strikes me as so utterly foundational. He is a good God who loves mankind. The words and actions of far too many Christians say many things about God that stray from that simple statement. We need to be reminded. And we need to say it until we believe it.

There are many studies and articles today about ‘fatherless’ men (and women) and the way that experience shapes their lives. I would contend that, given the clear teaching and example of Jesus, no Christian can truly be ‘fatherless’, whatever their situation with their earthly father. Does that mean people can’t carry wounds, even deep wounds, from those (father, mother, or whoever) who should have loved us and cared for us, but didn’t? No! Of all people, I would certainly never minimize or denigrate that pain. But we are the people who should know this truth in our bones. We have an Abba who loves us, who will never abandon us, who will never hurt us, and who can heal us. It is because Abba loves us that we are able to love him and love others. Yet this can be a very hard truth to absorb and and a difficult reality in which to trust.

The Jewish people at the time of Christ did have a concept of God as a loving and protective father. It was not a completely new or alien concept to them as I’ve heard some modern Christians erroneously assert. But they rarely addressed God as “Father” in prayer, which Jesus almost always did. (Scot McKnight says the only exception is the ‘My God, My God’ exclamation on the cross.) Jesus also taught, even commanded us, to address God as Abba as well.

What Jesus wants to evoke with the name Abba is God’s unconditional, unlimited, and unwavering love for his people. In this name for God we are standing face-to-face with the very premise of spiritual formation: God loves us and we are his children.

McKnight describes this love as one which originates in the home where an Abba dwells. He also describes the home as the place our first understandings of God begin which are ‘transfers’ from both parents to God.

We are wired this way. This is not something we do rationally and intentionally. It is something we do instinctually.

Grant me this point, and I’ll give you one back: since none of us has perfect parents, none of us has a perfect sense of love to transfer to God. In fact, some of us — and I say this with the empathy of someone who has heard students’ stories for two decades — had awful childhoods, and just thinking about God’s love is confusing, bewildering, and nearly incomprehensible.

The point he makes strikes me as deeply important. I have to say I’ve never considered my childhood ‘awful’, though it seems those who hear me describe some of the more dramatic parts of it do. Now this is not because I’m in denial about the reality of my childhood. There’s a lot of it that was, at times, distinctly unpleasant. But it rarely devolved to something ‘awful’ and my overall sense has never been that it was ‘awful’, though there are times I’ve wondered why myself.  I think that’s because there were almost always multiple adults around me who genuinely and deeply loved me. And I knew it. There is something richly nourishing about being loved, whatever your other circumstances might be. Apparently it is even able to temper some pretty difficult and painful experiences. In fact, despite the overall stability and even prosperity of some people’s childhood, if love had to be earned, I think their experience was in some ways much worse than mine. Even so, McKnight’s overall point is granted. My path to full conversion was … circuitous and difficult.

McKnight then explores how the parable of the prodigal son is what the Jesus Creed looks like as a story. He notes something critically important — Jesus offers this story as his justification when asked why he eats with sinners.

He justifies his love for others (the second part of the Jesus Creed) by appealing to an Abba who is the focus of the parable.

McKnight then explores how central absorbing this truth and knowing or experiencing our Abba’s love for us is to all healing and spiritual growth. Trust. Abiding. Surrender. All that and more requires that we be open and receptive to that love. And then McKnight wrote something that resonated deeply with my experience and practice at the time I first read it and which still marks my life today.

Another way to open up to Abba’s love is to repeat throughout the day a short prayer reminder: ‘Father, thank you for loving me.’ The wisdom of short — sometimes called breath — prayers has been planted in the church, in the pages of the Bible, and in the lives of spiritual advisors.

And finally, McKnight closes the chapter with this.

The Jesus Creed is to love God, and the premise under the Jesus Creed is a promise of truth: Abba loves us.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 23

Posted: August 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 23

81. Four things make a soul cut itself off from sin: fear of judgment, hope of future reward, love of God and, lastly, the prompting of conscience.

There is a growth or progression in the path St. Maximos outlines. It seems to me that far too many Christians are trapped in one or both of the first two categories. There are entire groups that gain compliance through manipulation of their members based on fear of God’s judgment. And they try to grow by making others fear. And it’s extremely common today to see the entire ‘pitch‘ for Christian faith reduced to the reward of ‘going to heaven when you die.’

Neither of those ever had much hold on me personally. There isn’t much opportunity to fear judgment when you believe the ultimate goal is reunion with the all by eventually extinguishing your own sense of personal identity. Similar, reward-based motivations also have fewer opportunities to gain a foothold. Still, I see the value in both as motivators toward action and growth. It’s when your entire experience is limited to those first two things that they become problematic.

I’m not sure how well my conscience has developed as a Christian. Such things are notoriously difficult to gauge. But I do know that I am Christian and remain Christian because of the love I’ve found not just for some generic ‘God‘, but for the God made fully known to us in Jesus of Nazareth. And that love of God is wholly rooted in the love I’ve experienced from God, not in any fear of punishment or anticipation of reward.


The Jesus Creed 2 – Praying the Jesus Creed

Posted: August 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13.

Sometimes prayer is like
     dry lima beans
          in a dry mouth
              on a dry day.

That’s how McKnight opens this chapter. I really like the imagery.

Why? Prayer is hard, it gnaws into our schedule, and it can be as much a source of frustration as satisfaction. Brother Lawrence, who has probably encouraged more people in prayer than anyone in the history of the Church, found routines in prayer dry and dull. He was bluntly honest about his own perplexity with prayer. Such honesty about prayer by a champion of prayer encourages us all in our own struggle to pray.

Of course, nobody who knows me would be surprised that the reference to Brother Lawrence struck a chord with me. Still the statement is true. McKnight continues:

At the bottom, prayer is simple. It is loving communication with God. All we need for prayer is an open heart.

All? How easy for any of us is a truly open heart?

The good news for us is that it was struggle with prayer that gave rise to the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples were struggling with their own prayer lives. After observing Jesus pray, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” To help them with prayer, he gave them a prayer…

McKnight then provides the ancient Jewish prayer Jesus amended through the lens of his modified Shema. This is that prayer (which we know was present and widely used at the time of Jesus) call the Kaddish (Sanctification).

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

This prayer bears striking similarities to the Lord’s Prayer and McKnight proposes that Jesus makes it his own. And this connection, while not as obvious or clearcut as the amendment of the Shema, makes a lot of sense within its context. Jesus amends the central creed and then he amends a sacred prayer, reshaping them both in dramatic ways. McKnight examines the parallels between the two in several tables. When you lay them out side by side, the correlations are pretty obvious.

There are three basic changes: First, the Lord’s Prayer begins with ‘Father’ (Abba). [I also want to note that in an appendix, McKnight the linguist, bible scholar, and theologian notes that ‘Daddy’ is an inappropriate interpretation of ‘Abba.’ It’s a form adults used and so ‘Father’ (or I would also suggest ‘Dad’) is appropriate. I’ve typically used ‘Dad’ myself, but have heard others promote the ‘Daddy’ version. Minor note, really, but I wanted to mention it.] Second, Jesus adds three lines. Third, the additional lines shift from ‘your’ to ‘us.’ As a result of these changes, the Lord’s Prayer has two parts (you petitions and we/us petitions). The ‘You’ petitions are ‘Love God’ petitions and the ‘We/Us’ petitions are ‘Love Others’ petitions. (Notice that none of them are me/I requests.)

Next, I will note that Judaism is deeply symbolic, creedal, and essentially what we call ‘liturgical.’ Further, it is the only system of worship that, in its original form, was directly established by God. At least, it’s the only one recorded. And God established a highly liturgical form of worship. In our ‘low worship’ style, it’s important that we remember and acknowledge that reality because McKnight’s next point is one I’ve noticed many Baptists (and others) struggle with. McKnight even confesses his own struggle. This is an important note for his next section, titled “The Lord’s Prayer as a Gift for Liturgy.”

When the disciples asked Jesus for a prayer, he said, ‘When you pray, say.” Literally, ‘say’ means ‘repeat.’ I already knew that, but I’ve watched people go to great lengths to make it mean something else. Further, contextually it makes no sense for Jesus to do anything else. The disciples ask for a prayer. Given their liturgical setting, they would expect a prayer they could repeat. Like the Kaddish. Like others. Surely that’s what Jesus would have given them?

Of course, liturgical prayers *can* become mindless rote. But frankly, non-liturgical prayers easily become just as mindless, shallow, and empty. The problem lies not with the prayer or the form, but with us. If prayer, any prayer, is actually loving communication with God, it’s real prayer whatever form it takes. If it’s not, it’s nothing but empty words.

The advantage of liturgical or structured prayers is twofold (in my mind). By their content, even if we start in a place of mindless repitition, they always have the ability to capture our attention and shape our thoughts toward God. And if we start with God in mind, they contain many ‘hooks’ that can lead us into conversational prayers. Neither liturgical churches nor Jesus suggest that *all* prayer should be structured. But structured prayers give us a routine and a place to begin when we don’t otherwise ‘feel’ like praying, when the ‘dry lima beans in a dry mouth on a dry day’ experience descends upon us.

The Lord’s Prayer focuses us on the priorities (loving God and loving others) and does not allow us to easily descend into what McKnight calls ‘self-saturated prayers.’ He quotes Lauren Winner (a convert from liturgical Judaism to liturgical Christianity), “Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims.” Maybe it’s the ‘postmodern’ (or whatever) within me, but that statement resonates deeply.

McKnight then relates the personal impression the Lord made on his heart about this prayer as he studied and reflected on it. Now he concludes each of his Jesus classes with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (and begins it with a recitation of the Jesus Creed).

McKnight explores four things which we can learn when we permit the Lord’s Prayer to mentor our Prayer to mentor our prayer life.

We learn to approach God as Abba….This is the signature term of Jesus and it marks the center of his teaching about God.

We learn what God really wants… God’s love plan is for his glorious Name to be honored and his will to become concrete reality on earth. Earth is Abba’s frontier; heaven is already his. In pondering God’s Name, kingdom, and will, we are prompted (daily) to yearn for what God yearns for. Love always prompts yearning.

We learn to think of others… As Jesus didn’t leave the Shema to be a God-only thing, so he didn’t leave the Kaddish to be a God-only thing. And he doesn’t want it to be an I-only thing either.

We learn what everyone needs. Hanging our prayers on the framework of the Lord’s Prayer will lead us to yearn that all will have provision, be granted forgiveness, and be spared temptation. … We need to think our way back into Jesus’ world by recalling that we have just petitioned the Abba about his Name, Kingdom, and will. Our concern is with God’s breaking into history to make this world right for all of us. And that means praying for others so that they will have adequate provisions, spiritual purity, and moral stability. I don’t know about you, but I tend to begin my prayers for others with what I know about them and what they need. Jesus offers another path: We can begin with what he wants for them. By using the Lord’s Prayer, we join his loving prayer for them.

Do you get those things from the Lord’s Prayer? I’m starting to. Prayer is a big issue. As I’ve related in other posts, in my search for how to pray and especially what it meant to pray without ceasing, and my dissatisfaction with the things most evangelicals seem to write and say, I turned to Brother Lawrence. And through, at least in part I believe, his intercession, the Jesus Prayer came to me. I’ve never confused set prayers with “vain repetition” probably because I have a sense of history and first-hand experience with other religions. In the ancient context, people would use many words and take other actions in an effort to get their god’s attention. We see that recorded in our Scripture as well. One excellent example is the encounter between Elijah and the priests of Baal. I’ve also meditated with mantras whose purpose is to clear your mind of thought and activity. That’s neither the goal nor the result of praying Christian set prayers.

McKnight concludes with the note that the Lord’s Prayer is a “gift for action.” It’s “a commitment of the pray-er to the values of the Lord’s Prayer.” He then includes a quote from Frank Laubach. (I don’t know who that is, but I really like the little excerpt here.)

It [the Lord’s Prayer] is the prayer most used and least understood. People think they are asking God for something. They are not — they are offering God something.

… the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer to God to do something we want done. It is more nearly God’s prayer to us, to help Him do what he wants done… He wanted that entire prayer answered before we prayed it…. The Lord’s Prayer is not intercession. It is enlistment.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 22

Posted: August 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 22

80.  If you wish to find the way that leads to life, look for it in the Way who says, ‘I am the way, the door, the truth and the life’ (John 10:7; 14:6), and there you will find it. Only let your search be diligent and painstaking, for ‘few there are that find it’ (Matt. 7:14) and if you are not among the few you will find yourself with the many.

As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Life is inherently a journey. The person I was is connected to the person I am, just as the person I am will be connected to the person I become. As I align the thread of the way of my life with the Way of Jesus, I come to walk along the path of life. But it is easy for us to choose the way of death instead. Lord have mercy.


The Jesus Creed 1

Posted: August 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 1

Since I just finished posting my reflections on one of Scot McKnight’s books, Praying with the Church, I decided to go ahead and post my series of reflections on the first of his books that I read, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. I’ve read the book a number of times over the years and the Jesus Creed itself remains a part of my personal prayer rule. If you haven’t read the book, I definitely recommend it. I hope you find my rambling thoughts and reactions to the book interesting.

I want to begin with the Creed itself.

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.

Scot McKnight then opens with a central principle.

The first principle of spiritual formation is this: A spiritually formed person loves God and others.

The principle is simply stated, yet profound. One would think it is obvious, and perhaps it is … intellectually. But this central reality is often lost — or never discovered at all. Now consider again the particular spiritual disciplines Dallas Willard chose to explore (some of the most common through the ages). Recall that spiritual disciplines are intended as tools to aid in our spiritual formation. Do they not all help teach or train us either to break the grip of things that prevent us from loving God and loving others or actively help us build that love? Certainly food for thought.

I was struck by the fact that Scot McKnight immediately hits that very point. He discusses the aims and goals of those he describes as “spiritual masters” and uses those to define the following questions.

So, the big questions are these: What does Jesus know (and say) about spiritual formation? What, according to Jesus, does a spiritually formed person look like? These questions are different than to ask which spiritual disciplines Jesus practices and teaches. These questions stand quietly behind the disciplines and ask: What are they for?

Did Jesus ever express his view of spiritual formation? Yes. And he does so by transforming a creed. I call it the Jesus Creed and the Jesus Creed becomes clear (on nearly every page of the four Gospels) when we recall the Jewish context of Jesus. So we begin there.

In other posts, I have mentioned the Shema (literally “hear”) of Judaism. I pronounce it as well as I can, though the actual pronunciation is given as Sh’ma. I’ve never been able to produce a decent glottal stop (which is what I believe the ‘ represents in middle eastern languages). The Shema is constructed from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and two other texts, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41.

The observant Jew recites it daily at least twice, when awaking and when retiring. It’s the first ‘prayer’ that Jewish children are taught to say and is described by a specialist of modern Jewish devotion as ‘the quintessential expression of the most fundamental belief and commitment of Judaism.’ Anyone who wants to understand what Jesus means by spiritual formation needs to meditate on the Shema of Judaism. It is the Jewish creed of spiritual formation… The Shema outlines a Torah lifestyle for spiritual formation: memorize, recite, instruct, and write out the Torah, and wear tzitzit (fringes) to remind ourselves of Torah.” Live by the Shema and be blessed.

One can say, then, that the creed of Judaism is this: Love God by living the Torah.

In this light, look again at the man who asks Jesus about the most important commandment. “For a Jew this man’s question is the ultimate question about spiritual formation. He is asking for the spiritual center of Judaism.

Jesus responds, as any Jew would expect, with the Shema. But then he adds to it. Now that you grasp the importance of the Shema, the audacity of that action stands out. It would be like someone reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed or John 3:16, but at the end, adding to it something new and different. This is not a commandment that is unknown to Judaism, nor is Jesus criticizing Judaism. But ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ from Leviticus is not a central creed of Judaism, though the idea is central to Judaism itself. Jesus takes the ‘Love God’ Shema and makes it a ‘Love God and others’ Shema. “Making the love of others part of his own version of the Shema shows that he sees love of others as central to spiritual formation.

This opening of the book altered in a fairly profound way the manner in which I have approached the gospel. Sure, we talk a lot about the two greatest commandments …. yada, yada, yada. But understanding the context adds such depth to it. Jesus transforms the central creed of Judaism itself. As Scot McKnight writes, “We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Shema for Jewish spiritual formation. So when Jesus amended the Shema, we need to take note.” And do we ever!

But Jesus’ addition does more than tack something else onto the Shema. His amendment makes it personal. First, he redefines loving God from a Torah lifestyle to a life spent following Jesus. We see that in Luke in the man who desired to follow Jesus and love God with all his heart, but first he needs to bury his father. Scot McKnight points out that the man was probably in the interval between placing the body in the tomb and going back to move the bones to an ossuary, but the request was God-honoring, nonetheless, by the Torah. There is even an exception in Judaism: “One whose dead is lying before him [awaiting burial] is exempt from the recitation of the Shema.” The proper burial was “how good Jews showed respect for a father, how they applied the commandment to honor one’s parents, how they loved God by following the Torah.

Jesus abruptly answers the man, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” The man, with as much as a year to wait before completing the burial is sitting on the horns of a dilemma. Should he follow Jesus or should he follow (how he understands) the Torah?

Jesus calls the man to follow him and, in so doing, equates loving God to having a personal relationship with Jesus. To use other terms, the Shema of Judaism becomes the Jesus Creed: One loves God by following Jesus.

That was something of a profound thought for me. For as I have reflected on the manner in which Jesus changed the fundamental understanding of what it meant to love God and how you went about it, I have begun to see it again and again. Over and over, loving God is associated with following Jesus. Tangibly. In real ways. At whatever cost. This is a “personal relationship” that actually feels like a real relationship unlike the more ethereal or “spiritual” way it is often presented.

Let’s put this all together now: As a normal Jew, spiritual formation for Jesus begins with the Shema of Judaism. But Jesus revises the Shema in two ways: loving others is added to loving God, and loving God is understood as following Jesus. This is the Jesus Creed, and it is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches about spiritual formation.

A creed, of course, is designed to be recited. As we recite it, we internalize its message. It sets a rhythm to our days and our lives. There is no reason to believe the followers of Jesus stopped their twice daily recitations of the Shema, but there is every reason to believe they altered their Shema to the one Jesus gave them.

A scribe asks Jesus about the essence of spiritual formation, and Jesus gives him an old answer with a revolutionary twist: Love God and love others, and love God by following me. The scribe realizes that he will need to recenter everything.

Does it not still have that impact today?


Saturday Evening Blog Post – July Edition

Posted: August 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post – July Edition

For the July edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I chose my post, The Concentration Camp and Separation from God. It’s one of the posts from series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell). If you enjoy that post, you might want to check out the rest in the series.

Go check out the posts shared by others on the SEBP. It’s quite a varied assortment. There’s usually something there that anyone would like.


Praying with the Church 11 – Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today

Posted: August 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 11 – Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today

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 is the concluding chapter of the book and in it Scot ties the threads of the book together. He begins by reminding us of the two kinds of prayer: “personal, privation devotion — praying in the church; and public, communal worship — praying with the church.” The focus of this book has been the latter. So how do we, as individuals in our own contexts, adopt this practice? Scot offers some suggestions.

First, we need to have realistic expectations. It’s unlikely that any of us can thoroughly revamp the order of our lives instantly and dive into an observance of all the offices of the Liturgy of the Hours on day one. If you have a personality at all like mine, it can certainly be a temptation to try. I took his warning here to heart. It spoke right to me. That’s why I’ve moved slowly and thoroughly examined each practice I have adopted or modified. And I’m in no rush to add more. First I feel a need to allow the ones I have so far attempted to speak into and reshape my life to the extent they will. And then move to the next. The goal, after all, is not to achieve some herculean pinnacle of effort, but rather to change ourselves into people of prayer, which I take to mean people shaped and ordered by the rhythms of the sacred.

However, this is balanced by its counterpoint. We have to try. If we attempt nothing, we will not progress at all. Whatever approach we choose, we must try something or we will stay where we are today. I suppose if you’re completely satisfied with your present prayer life, that would be OK. I guess. I do wonder, though, if Jesus would expect us to follow him in some sort of sacred rhythm of prayer as well as our own private prayers of intercession, devotion, and simple relationship. This is, after all, the way he lived and the way he taught. Who understands us better? It’s the same sort of reaction I have to those who speak dismissively or negatively about liturgy. The only example we have in scripture of an order of worship given directly by God is deeply liturgical and symbolic. Might that be because God knows us better than we know ourselves? And in truth, every worship I’ve seen falls into liturgical patterns even if the word is avoided. How much uproar was there in our church when we moved the offering to the end of the service? That was a change in our liturgy. I think we are too dismissive of these sort of things. And we are dismissive because our view of the nature of people is not correct. But that could be just me.

Scot’s third point is that we must have space for silence. While the prayers can be said anywhere, we should establish a place that can become our sacred space of solitude and silence and prayer. I’m reminded here of the Celtic Christian tradition of “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth is worn thin. By returning to a single place, it becomes a place where the presence of the invisible and spiritual can be sensed. As in Psalm 131, it becomes a place where we can truly quiet our soul. And we must become quiet. For prayer is not just about speaking. It is about being open and sensitive to God as well.

For his fourth point, Scot recommends variety and flexibility. I tend to think is a concession to the sort of people we have been shaped to be by our present American culture. However, it’s a concession that in no way bothers me. Sometimes we just have to recognize who we are, and most of us are people who will turn from a discipline of prayer and damage our prayer lives if we find it dull and inflexible. I strove to follow the “Baptist” ideal of quiet time and prayer for several years. (I tend not to expect instant results, so give such things time.) And it started fine, but fairly quickly became oppressive in its strictures and stayed that way however I tried to vary it. Such has not happened at all with those disciplines I have so far adopted in this tradition, even though on the surface they might appear dull and repetitious. Instead they are shaping my life in ways that was not true of the more intellectual and less ordered Baptist discipline. Perhaps this is a distinction between those still shaped by the Enlightenment forces of the last couple of hundred of years and those of us less shaped by them? I don’t know, but I do think it’s possible.

I like Scot’s rule: “Avoid making rules about prayer.”

His fifth observation is that we need depth and breadth. Take a deep bath in a prayer book or a specific tradition. Give it three months to a year. This one is second nature to me. I forgot it was even in here. Further, I thirst for breadth of understanding. Scot points out what I have found to be true. No practice or discipline yields instant results. But over the course of months or years an effective discipline will anchor itself in the very fabric of our being.

The sixth observation is that we need to know what to say first, words of adoration and dedication. And that is how all the prayer books open each time of prayer.

Seventh, we need to use the Psalter. Of course, all prayer books use it, so if we use a prayer book, we will use the Psalter. Even without a specific prayer book, we must bathe ourselves in the Psalms. Billy Graham did, reading all the Psalms every month. And if we don’t read all the offices of the prayer book, we may want to add to what we do incorporate the rest of the Psalms.

Eighth, we need to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Creed every day. This is also a great place to begin. Other than the Jesus Prayer, this is the part I have already begun. It’s not enough to have their words stored in our memory. We need to say them out loud to make them a part of our being, part of who we are.

Ninth, we need hymns and readings. The Church has loved to sing and the Church has produced great writings through the ages, wisdom from which we can benefit. Both practices are important to maintain.

And so Scot closes with an invitation for us all to join with the Church in the basilica in prayer, adoration, and reverence of our Lord.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

Posted: August 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

72.  Just as it is easier to sin in the mind than in action, so warfare through our impassioned conceptual images of things is harder than warfare through the things themselves.

I quit smoking slightly more than fourteen years ago. (I could count the days over fourteen years if I wanted, but I try not to dwell on it that much.) I had smoked and smoked fairly heavily for two decades by that time. My body and mind had been formed and shaped with and around nicotine. As studies have shown, one of the effects of nicotine is that it increases focus and concentration. So in addition to breaking the other physical aspects of addiction, I had to learn how to intently focus my mind without the aid of a drug. But I managed all of that and the physical aspect of my smoking addiction has long since passed. I not only fought that war, I won it.

My conceptual images of smoking are another thing entirely and I am still not free from them. I can still remember the feeling when that first deep drag floods your body with sensation. The memory is so intense, it’s as though I can almost relive it. And it’s compelling. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t have to remind myself that I am not a smoker and I am never going to be a smoker again.

I won the war over the things themselves years ago. The war over my impassioned conceptual images of the things? Not so much. That war continues. I think I grasp some of what St. Maximos is describing in this text.