Why Do We Pray? 1 – Series Intro

Posted: February 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

Sometime last fall, a blog I follow published a poll asking respondents why we pray. (I think it was Tony Jones, but it’s been long enough that I’m not certain.) If I recall correctly, the poll provided two answers: we pray to change God or we pray to change ourselves. Ever since then the question, “Why do we pray?” has been bouncing around my head. My thoughts aren’t really about the poll in question. I don’t even remember the results or any discussion about it. That was just the trigger for my own musings.

In this series, I hope to approach the question from several different angles. If you’re reading this and had a question about Christian prayer, please share it in the comments. I’m interested in the questions and thoughts others may have.


A Christian Nation?

Posted: January 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments » http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XddLDufkaig

 

 

 

Especially on the “conservative” side, it’s common to hear people claim our country was founded as a Christian nation. It wasn’t, of course. Nor was it founded as an atheistic nation, like the Communist regimes of the 20th century. Our founders were trying to establish the world’s first secular nation and I think, for good or ill, they largely succeeded. Certainly our culture is deeply and thoroughly secular. But that’s a different discussion from the one I want to focus on here.

The video above shows the building and opening of a Rebirth of Orthodoxy exhibit in Moscow. It’s pretty impressive. But there’s a section where an icon is brought in for veneration. The long lines and devotion impressed me, as it has in other videos of Russian devotion I’ve seen. Russia suffered under an atheistic regime that actively tried to stamp out Orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. Virtually nobody still alive in that country can remember a time before Communism. And yet they held onto their faith. Culturally, they remained a truly Christian nation, and when the boot of the oppressor was removed, that deep faith almost immediately began blossoming again.

It’s hard for us to imagine a country, like Russia, which has been a Christian nation for a thousand years, or one like Greece, which has been a Christian nation for even longer. As a nation, we’re still in the early portion of our third century. And our cultural memory tends to be short, anyway. Certainly as far as our privileged majority goes, we tend to dismiss slavery, our genocide of Native Americans, and even the more recent Jim Crow era as “ancient history.” Very often, even if not explicitly expressed, the attitude is that those peoples who have suffered should just “get over it.”

Some form of Christian faith has, collectively, always been the majority religion in our country. But I don’t think that alone is enough to make us a Christian nation. I watch the Russians and I can’t help but think of our own country. While the majority of us can collectively be described as individually Christian, it’s a fractured and divisive Christianity. We have no culturally cohesive and unified Christian identity. If we had suffered under a repressive and often brutal atheistic regime for a century, would we have retained any meaningful Christian identity? Maybe in pockets here and there, but across our country?

I’m skeptical. I don’t see here the same sort of deeply rooted faith we are seeing in Russia. And our cultural memories are short. We are pretty much repeating today the same mistakes we made in the late 19th and early 20th century and most people seem completely oblivious to that fact. Even our cultural memory of the era of segregation, which a lot of people still alive can remember, is fading.

Compared to Russia and other truly Christian nations, in what sense, then, can we call ourselves a Christian nation?


Love of Enemies

Posted: June 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Love of Enemies

Like many, I was disturbed by the gleeful celebration of so many Americans at the death of Osama bin Laden. Was his death necessary? Perhaps. Fortunately, I was not the one who had to make that decision or act upon it. But as Christians, we worship the God of life who joined his nature to ours that we might live. Our God was betrayed, mocked, tortured, unjustly convicted, and executed while forgiving all of those who wronged him.

And he commands us to do the same.

Love of enemies is a hard thing. I’m not particularly good at it. I don’t feel any particular sorrow at bin Laden’s demise.

But …

I recognize that my God does.

And at least in some small measure, I long to be like him.

I think the best thing I heard on the topic was a podcast by Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Hard Reality of the Kingdom of God. It’s only about ten minutes long. I invite everyone to pause a few moments and listen to it. It’s well worth the time.


Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

I realized today that I left an important thought out of my discussion of oral cultures this morning — the cultural bias of trust. In an oral culture, texts tend to be distrusted. That was particularly true in the ancient world where all texts were written by hand. How do you know that a text really comes from whom it says it comes? Even if it did, how do you know that it hasn’t been altered? By contrast, verbal communication, especially in the form of oral tradition, tended to be trusted. You knew who was giving you the tradition and you had a basis on which you could decide whether or not you trusted that person and thus whether or not you trusted what they said.

If you look, you can actually see that dynamic at play in the NT texts, especially in Paul’s letters where he is typically trying to address problems and needs the Church to accept his communication in absentia. He makes a point of greeting and saying things that indicate his personal knowledge of people in the Church. He often describes who is with him as he was writing the text. He will sometimes commend the one carrying his communication (and who will present it to the Church). He will write a greeting in his own hand at times. While those serve multiple purposes, one thing Paul is doing is trying to overcome the automatic cultural distrust of texts.

By contrast, in a literate cultural we are biased to trust texts over oral communication. When we can reference something in a publication, it gives greater weight to our argument. Printed texts are not necessarily easy to modify. (We can see that dynamic changing with electronic communication, but there remains a cultural bias toward the written form.) It’s an unconscious bias that permeates our evaluation of the things we can or can’t trust.

I will note that the idea that an oral tradition — even one that can be traced continuously back to the first or second century — can’t be trusted unless it can be confirmed in a text is one that could only arise within the context of a literate culture. As such, it can be eliminated as a technique used in the ancient world. Instead, the bias would have worked the other way. The oral tradition would have had to attest to the reliability of a text before the text would be trusted.

If you don’t grasp the way in which that underlying bias works, you’ll probably make the wrong assumptions when examining ancient Christian writings.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 19

Posted: May 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

70. You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person.

We can always find a reason to hate. In fact, hatred is probably the easiest place for us to rest our heart. It’s sad that Christians in the US today are generally better known for who they hate than for who they love. It doesn’t really matter what justification we use — and we have little difficulty justifying hatred — when we hate instead of love, we are not ‘Christian‘ in any discernible way.

There is nothing ‘Christian’ about loving those who are like us or who do good to us and hating our enemies and those unlike us. We are only ‘Christian’ when we love our enemies, when we do good to those who want to hurt us, when we care for the least of these, and when we pray for those who wrong us.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 12

Posted: April 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

43.  If a man desires something, he makes every effort to attain it. But of all things which are good and desirable the divine is incomparably the best and the most desirable. How assiduous, then, we should be in order to attain what is of its very nature good and desirable.

As something of a competitive overachiever, I like this text. It reveals a simple, yet often overlooked truth.We can reliably gauge how much we want something by how much effort we are willing to expend to gain it. This, of course, is one of the threads behind Jesus’ statement that a man cannot serve two masters.

By this measure, I can ask myself if I want God. And far too often, it seems that my answer is no, or at least not very much. I want to want God. The Christian story has captured my heart and imagination. But I expend tremendous effort in many other areas of life and often have comparatively little left for God.

However, I do have faith that as I keep doing the little things that I can do somewhat consistently, God will take those and build upon them. God gives me grace, which is to say that God gives me himself, so that I might want him more. If I did not believe that, then I suppose I would see this whole Christian thing as fundamentally hopeless.


What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

Posted: November 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I almost always enjoy listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko, but I’ve especially liked his podcast series on The Names of Jesus. Names remain important today. The names by which I am known certainly describe me in the minds of others. But in the ancient world, the power of names was much more widely recognized than it is today. And Jesus has many, many names in the Holy Scriptures. In this week’s podcast, Jesus – The Life, Fr. Hopko explores the name Jesus gave himself as the Life. My thoughts mostly riff off one thought in the podcast, but it’s well worth your time to listen to it in its entirety.

At one point in the podcast Fr. Thomas mentions that we are not spirits whom God places in bodies. We did not exist before we were conceived and we were not created to have any sort of existence apart from our bodies. We are the embodied eikons of God within creation, not spiritual beings. There already are spiritual persons in creation who do not have the same sort of physical bodies that we have. The Holy Scriptures call them angels (or demons for those who oppose God).

Fr. Hopko was specifically refuting Platonism, something Bishop Tom Wright also does fairly frequently. Platonism held that the spirit was eternal and had always existed. In Platonism, a spirit has a body for a time, but that body is not who you truly are as a human being. After death, your spirit is freed from your body and might have the opportunity to join the “Happy Philosophers” eternally in a purely spiritual existence. That perception of reality does not even intersect the Christian perspective of reality, yet has infiltrated it again and again over the centuries in one form or another.

I’m not particularly interested myself in the flesh/spirit dichotomy of Platonism and never have been. However, I realized as I was listening that to the extent I begin to think of spirit as eternal, I remain drawn to the Eastern non-Christian aspect of my formation. While I can’t say I ever fully embraced it (or anything else) before I was eventually drawn into Christianity, I do remember the attraction the Hindu perspective on reality held for me. Oddly, now that I’ve been shaped within Christianity, I would probably lean more toward Buddhism than Hinduism were I to rebound or drift in the direction of another world religion. I say “oddly” because in my younger days I didn’t find any flavor of Buddhism particularly attractive at all.

However, both Buddhism and Hinduism deal with spirit as eternal in a much richer and fuller way than either Platonism or the strains of Christianity influenced by something like that perspective. Whether it’s the Happy Philosophers or an eternal ‘spiritual’ existence in ‘heaven’ adoring God, both perspectives share the same fatal flaw. They are deeply existentially boring. I can think of no better word for it. Whatever else might be said about them, Buddhism and Hinduism are not boring. They are both deep and rich.

The sad thing is that Christianity actually has a lens into the heart of reality that is deeper and richer than anything I’ve ever encountered. It has the most profound things to say about what it means to be human and alive. And yet that lens seems to have often been buried so deep it’s impossible to see. And that shallow perspective has no legs to stand either against materialism on the one hand (we are just bodies) and the ancient Eastern religions on the other (all is actually spirit).

As Christians, we say that we are neither spirits that have a body nor bodies that have a spirit. We living souls, body and spirit, inextricably interwoven, interlaced, and sharing the same substance in a profound way. Ironically, as our scientific knowledge grows, we find our knowledge of the ways our bodies impact who we are growing at an exponential rate. But this is not a victory for the materialists, somehow proving that there is no such things as ‘spirit‘. No. It’s actually an affirmation of the Christian story of what it means to be a human being.

As we see in Jesus, the death of the eikon grieves God with a heartbreaking grief. Standing before the tomb of Lazarus, even knowing that he is about to raise him, the Word is deeply troubled, is disturbed, is angry at the violation of death, and weeps the tears of God. But God is our only source of life and as we participate in the sin of humanity (of the ‘adam‘) we turn from our life and seek a non-existence we can never actually achieve. This is the wonder of the Incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God, joins his nature to that of humanity so that he might bring Life to us. Our life is now hid with Christ in God. How amazing is that?

But the life we have remains an embodied spiritual life. And we retain a function and purpose within creation as the eikons of God. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The deepest mystery is not what happens in the fully realized Kingdom, when the veil between God’s reality and our own is dropped and we see things as they truly are. No, to me the strangest mystery is how God preserves our conscious existence between the time we die and the time we are all resurrected. There are a few scattered hints in the Holy Scriptures, but they are mostly silent on that point. Of course, we also have the witness of centuries of interaction between the Church and the reposed saints to affirm that we are preserved and remain active in some sense. But the whole thing is something of a mystery.

However, for Christians, the death of the eikon, of the human being, is always an abomination, as it is to God. Death is not a release. It is not a sweet journey home. It is something that even God grieves and acted in the most amazing way to defeat on our behalf. Yes, to be apart from the body is to be with Christ, which is far better, one of the few things our Scriptures tell us. And certainly, to be with the particular God we see in Christ is certainly better. But death itself? Still a great wrong, not something good itself. And we deeply wrong people when we tell them it is for the best or that they should rejoice for their reposed loved one. Death is ugly and wrong and we know that to the core of our being.

Either that’s what Christianity proclaims about reality and what it means to be human or it deserves to die out as a world religion.


On the Incarnation of the Word 8 – The Word Became Flesh

Posted: August 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 8 – The Word Became Flesh

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Having described the breadth and depth of the problem, Athanasius turns again to God’s response. As you read Athanasius and my own thoughts, also rest in the above passage from John’s prologue. It’s important to keep in mind that the Word becoming flesh does not describe a distant God coming near us, for God was never distant.

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes to our realm, howbeit he was not far from us before. For no part of Creation is left void of Him: He has filled all things everywhere, remaining present with His own Father.

No, the purpose was not to come near us, for the Word who creates and sustains us could not be nearer or more present. No, the purpose was much grander and fearsome.

He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery—lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for nought—He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours.

A body of no different sort from ours. That’s hard to wrap our heads around. But when the Word became flesh, he assumed the totality of our nature. Even today, Christians often want to back away from that statement. They want to make Jesus less than fully human in one way or another, often subtly. We feel more comfortable, somehow, with the superhero Jesus. I suppose that’s a less intimate, less frightening, and less intimidating view of the Incarnation.

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like fire from the straw.

The power of death was fully spent in the body of Jesus. It no longer has any power over us. We are made alive again by and through his body (which certainly reads like a reference to the Eucharist). We are made alive by the grace of the Resurrection. That phrasing makes no sense if ‘grace’ is simply unmerited favor, as many present it today. But if grace is the energy and action of God, if grace is the presence and power of God himself, then it makes perfect sense. The Incarnation and the Resurrection bring the fullness of God into humanity.

Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!


On the Incarnation of the Word 6 – God’s Goodness

Posted: August 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 6 – God’s Goodness

God’s goodness is the phrase I hear echoing in this chapter of Athanasius’ treatise.

For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away, because of the deceit practised on men by the devil. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God’s handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceitfulness of evil spirits.

I wonder at the strength of the text in the original that led this translator to the awkward phrase, unseemly to the last degree. I sense the strand of the idea that true goodness compels action on behalf of others. Athanasius continues in this vein.

So, as the rational creatures were wasting and such works in course of ruin, what was God in His goodness to do? Suffer corruption to prevail against them and death to hold them fast? And where were the profit of their having been made, to begin with? For better were they not made, than once made, left to neglect and ruin. For neglect reveals weakness, and not goodness on God’s part—if, that is, He allows His own work to be ruined when once He had made it—more so than if He had never made man at all. For if He had not made them, none could impute weakness; but once He had made them, and created them out of nothing, it were most monstrous for the work to be ruined, and that before the eyes of the Maker. It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God’s goodness.

Our God is good. We say it, but then we often describe God in ways that make him seem something other than good. I think we often cannot grasp what it means to be unfailingly good. We chase after angry or neglectful gods for we understand those gods. We are often angry. We are often neglectful. But the Christian points to Christ as the fullness of the revelation of the true God who is not angry, who is not capricious, who is unswervingly faithful, and who is unfailingly good. This is the God who begrudge any of his creation, the just or the unjust, existence. This is the God who saves.