Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 5

Posted: January 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 5

10.  If a man loves someone, he naturally makes every effort to be of service to that person. If, then, a man loves God, he naturally strives to conform to His will. But if he loves the flesh, he panders to the flesh.

I have several thoughts. First I’m reminded by the first sentence of Dallas Willard’s definition of love: To actively will the good of the beloved. (I’ve probably mangled it, but that’s how I remember it.) It’s on that point that modern Christian patriarchy (in both its hard and soft forms) utterly fails. Under that model, the man does not serve his wife and children. Ultimately, he expects them to serve him.

The next sentence flows straight from 1 John. Heck, it flows directly from Jesus.

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)

Today, you’ll most often see the excerpt “the truth shall make you free,” but that’s not at all what Jesus is saying. (In fact, ‘truth’ in that sense can often crush us, not make us free. Who can stand the complete and unvarnished truth about themselves at once?) Jesus has previously described himself as the truth and we see in the last part he rephrases his earlier statement to make it clear. If we love Jesus, if we abide in him, then we will truly be his followers, we will come to know him, and he will make us free.

We can instead become enamored with our mortal condition — focusing on the pleasures that flow from it rather than the pain. And we are easily enslaved so that we pander to the passions rather than loving others or God — actions which are intertwined and cannot be separated.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

Posted: September 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

9.  The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful  experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The most important point I want to stress is that whatever we call the wrath of God is always an expression of his love. Our God is love and a love so sublime and unutterably wonderful that the divine Son — the Logos — the one through whom everything that is was made and in whom all is sustained, became fully and truly one of us. This is the God who is not willing that any should perish. This is the God who is life.

It’s true that the first two councils that we now recognize as ecumenical were primarily defending against attack on the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But that has been more the exception than the rule. From the late first century and second century docetists and gnostics to the heresies that were the subject of the other five ecumenical councils, it’s usually been the humanity of Jesus that has been attacked. I sense the same sort of spirit today in a lot of evangelicalism. It often seems that the Incarnation is reduced to little more than a form upon which the Father can vent his wrath. Everything centers on the Cross. The Incarnation is an almost pro forma precursor and the Resurrection is reduced to an afterthought.

The Cross is, of course, the instrument of our salvation, but it only has meaning in the full context of the wonder of the Incarnation and in the light of the Resurrection. But if Jesus was not fully human in every way, if he did not become fully and truly one of us in order to heal us, and if he did not defeat death — destroy Hades as it is poetically stated — in the Resurrection, then our nature is not healed or capable of being healed and we are not saved. That which is not assumed is not healed.

So every time we consider wrath, we have to consider it in that context. We have tendency to confuse giving someone what they desire (or getting what we desire) with love. But the two are not the same at all. As Dallas Willard puts it, if we love someone it means we actively will their good. And what they desire — what we desire — is often not that which is for our good. Often our will is in the grip of those things we suffer — our passions. A heroin addict is ruled by their addiction. They might desire heroin with all their being. But would any of us consider it loving to give them what they desire?

Of course, even if we truly and actively will the good of one we love, we often have a very hard time discerning what would truly be for their good. Even if our efforts are not thwarted or twisted by our own passions, we often make mistakes. We will good, but we end up causing at least some harm. “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” I know I have often done ill where I meant nothing but good.

God does not suffer from either of those limitations. He unfailingly wills our good. And he always knows what is for our good. His is love and all his acts are love — even if they feel like wrath. Thus, as I discussed in my series on Hell, the wrath and fire experienced by some is not actually anything different than the warmth and comfort others experience. Rather, that particular wrath is the experience of the fire of the unveiled love of God by those who do not want it.

Similarly, as St. Maximos points out in this text, the wrath we sometimes experience now is also God’s love. We experience it as wrath because we are not getting what we want. But if we are not getting what we desire, we need to recognize that’s probably because what we desire is actually our destruction. Sometimes (actually pretty often, I think) God is like a loving parent who allows us to experience the pain of our own choices so that we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes he does not mitigate the cross of undeserved suffering — but whatever it is, he has been there too and experienced it as well. Sometimes he does act to protect or heal. In neither case is it random or arbitrary.

The Christian recognizes that God is always acting from love and from his unwillingness that any of us should perish. We often cannot see the reasons. That’s especially true in the middle of suffering. Sometimes, perhaps years later, we can see the hand of God in hindsight. Sometimes we can’t. But if Jesus of Nazareth is who we believe him to be — the fully divine Son who becomes fully human in every way — then this is the God we worship.


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?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

I participate in (or sometimes just read) a number of different blogs as well as being active on twitter. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the Christian perspective on reality. I’ve decided to go ahead and record my present thoughts in a series. I doubt I will say anything better than others have already said elsewhere, but I will probably express it a little differently. Or perhaps somebody will read what I write who wouldn’t otherwise read or hear anything that has shaped my understanding of what Christianity teaches.

I don’t intend to include anything that is a novel idea in this series. If anything I write appears to be a new idea to anyone reading, there will thus be two general possibilities. It may be that I have misunderstood or failed to properly express something in my particular synthesis of traditional Christian interpretation. Or it may be that what I write expresses a traditional Christian perspective that some of those raised within modern Christianity have never heard before. Or it could be some combination of both.

I could claim that I am writing to express the “scriptural” perspective, but that would be disingenuous of me. It’s a given that anyone who calls themselves a Christian believes and expresses an interpretation that they believe to be consistent with the Scriptures of Christian faith. So I am writing in order to try to express the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on matters of ultimate reality. The sources that feed my understanding are many and varied, ranging from ancient Christians like St. Athanasius the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian to modern voices such as C.S. Lewis, Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dallas Willard, and Fr. Stephen Freeman. It’s not that they all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. But on key elements all those voices and many more through the ages are more similar to each other than not. And those elements are often different than those found in many popular modern interpretations of Scripture.

I originally thought I would simply do a series on “Hell,” but as I considered it, I realized I couldn’t do that without writing about “Heaven”. And then I realized I couldn’t possibly speak about Heaven and Hell without discussing “Earth”. The specific format I chose for the series title has a meaning that should become apparent as we progress through the series.

Obviously, it’s not possible for me to cover every facet of this topic. As such, I will have to pick and choose the topics I cover and what I choose to write about each one. If you’re reading this series and have a particular question or issue I don’t address, or a particular text from scripture that troubles you, let me know and I’ll address it to the best of my poor ability.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 5

Posted: April 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 5

15. If we detect any trace of hatred in our hearts against any man whatsoever for committing any fault, we are utterly estranged from love for God, since love for God absolutely precludes us from hating any man.

16. He who loves Me, says the Lord, will keep My commandments (cf. John 14:15, 23); and ‘this is My commandment, that you love one another’ (John 15:12). Thus he who does not love his neighbor fails to keep the commandment, and so cannot love the Lord.

I wanted to take these two texts together. Christians who acted out of love toward me in ways that did not fit with what I thought about Christianity opened that door in my life which I had thought was closed and sealed. If they acted that way because of Jesus of Nazareth, I needed to know more about him. And the standard of love he lived and demands from those of us who follow him is … daunting. I suppose I can understand why so many people seem to want to discount, limit, or disregard that command.

The above texts come straight from Scripture, of course, and are found in many places. Some are referenced above. But 1 John should give every Christian pause.

He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. (1 John 2:9)

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:14-15)

But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:17)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?  And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21)

I know I don’t love others very well. But I don’t pretend that I can love God any better or more fully than I’m able to love my enemy.

I have never heard Christians in the US today (including me) criticized because we have loved too much or too outrageously. Until we can recover something of the love of our Lord, I’m not sure that we have much of anything worth saying at all.

Love is hard. It does not mean that you simply give people what they think they want. They may be ruled by a passion that is destroying them and those around them. As Dallas Willard puts it, love means actively willing the good of the other. No matter what they do or say to you. And that often seems impossible. Much of the time I’m not sure what is truly “good” for me, much less able to discern the good for another. And even when the need is obvious, I often don’t desire that person’s good.

But we either learn to love or whatever else we might be, I don’t see how we can possibly call ourselves Christian. Yes the Lord is merciful and loving, but this isn’t about his judgment or love. This is about the sort of human being we choose to be. Do we choose to love God or not? Not according to our criteria, but according to his? Not according to our fantasy, but in reality? He won’t force us to love him. He never has.

I pray “Lord have mercy” because I’m increasingly aware just how much in need of mercy I stand.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

Posted: February 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

The fourth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Prayer: Random or Discipline?, is devoted to his encounter with the Christian discipline of corporate set prayers that began when he returned to the University of Illinois for graduate studies. He began attending the daily Office of Evening Prayer at a small chapel across the street. He describes the building and makes the insightful comment that all buildings are icons. Indeed they are. In fact, I would say that everything we make, to one degree or another, is an icon of something. It seems wired into our being. That, of course, is the doom of every effort we might make at iconoclasm, even if iconoclasm were not itself a denial of the Incarnation. Howard points out again the essentially Buddhist or Manichaean nature of iconoclasm in general and its Christian manifestations in particular. There is also a false dichotomy and an improper perspective of creation that is manifested when beauty is pitted against faith or against “works” or against humility and simplicity.

Before I continue with my thoughts on Howard’s writing, if anyone is looking for something to read on prayer written by an evangelical, there are two books I would recommend (and they are the only two evangelical books on prayer I’ve read that I would recommend). The first is Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight. The second is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. (Obviously, the latter is on the spiritual disciplines in general and not focused solely on prayer, but it does cover the discipline of prayer well.)

Howard, flowing straight from the criticism of set prayer normally found in evangelicalism, immediately addresses the accusation that such repetition must become routine, bleak, and dead. I found myself nodded at the parallel he chose.

Yes, indeed it does dry up and die, if there is no taproot of life irrigating it. Just as the utter sameness of marriage dries up and dies if love departs, so will any routine. To the libertine accustomed to woman after woman, the man who returns day after day, year after year, to the same spouse, with no variety, appears unfortunate in the extreme. We must ask the man himself how things are. He will tell us that routine is the very diagram of peace and freedom …

Indeed. Interesting is a good term for describing far too much of my life. So much so that even when I was young I understood intuitively and immediately that the wish, May you live in interesting times!, first was a curse and then why it was a curse. This year my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I’ve found tremendous “shelter from the storm” in the peace and freedom and safety of our marriage.

Howard then notes a fact that has long confused me. In their rejection of set prayers, evangelicals are rejecting the very practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As I delved into Christian belief and practice, I never was able to understand how they did so.

Evangelicalism, encouraging a spirit of individual responsibility before the Bible, had made it possible for me to discount centuries of Christian practice.

Basically, if an interpretation of the Scripture of the New Testament that shows the practice of set prayers is not obvious to an individual’s own interpretation (or that of their interpreter of choice), set prayer can be disregarded, even if that particular interpretation is at odds with the overwhelming majority of historical Christian teaching and practice. (Apparently, the practice in the Old Testament or even what Jesus himself practiced makes no difference since that’s “judaism” and as such has been abolished.) I have to confess that I still don’t really grasp the nature of the mental gymnastics required for that particular chain of reasoning. I do grasp that an overriding focus on individualism seems to be the culprit.

As Howard practiced a daily office, he came to a realization that is perfectly consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian practice.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that once a day, far from being too often for devotion, was not enough.

Indeed. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Lawrence myself.

Howard next reflects on the way the discipline of prayer (a rule of prayer as it is often called) actually enables a person to pray consistently. The structure and order of the rule frees us to pray. Inevitably, if we approach it as an individual practice, it becomes subject to our moods and whims. Almost all of us will not always feel like praying. And even if we try to make ourselves pray, we’ll find we have nothing to say. Making prayer a rule using set prayers does not ensure that we will pray. But it does not place the burden entirely on our own mood and ability. It helps us make prayer a habit rather than something we struggle to do.

Howard notes that some people can pray freely every day of their life. Some people truly can be consistent with a daily free form quiet time. He even says that as far as he knows, his own father was such a man. But, Howard says, “He was an extraordinary man.” Most of us are not so extraordinary. It’s not just Howard and me. I’ve listened to youth and adults both describe their difficulties praying regularly and consistently over the long haul. This is a problem that permeates evangelicalism and other “enthusiastic” movements. And we do people no favors when we keep prescribing the same solution — an approach that has already failed them multiple times. Instead, we place a crushing load on them.

Howard describes in some detail a particular order of prayer. It’s worth reading, but there are many prayer books available. The first thing is to begin to pray using some sort of prayer book. You’ll still slip in and out of the habit of prayer. The merciful Lord knows I constantly fall away from my own rule of prayer. It’s not some sort of magical panacea. Consistent prayer is hard. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s called a discipline. It requires much effort to pray when you’re tired, when you’re irritated, when you feel distant from God, when you’re angry at God, when life grows hectic, or in a host of other life situations. Set prayer does not make prayer easy. Rather, it makes prayer possible.

I am thankful to the ancient Church for its wise and earthy awareness that we Christians need all the help we can get and for supplying us with so much in its Office and in its other forms of set prayer.