Tagged: God

Schmemann on modern escapist spirituality

“Tired and disillusioned by the chaos and confusion he himself has brought about, crushed by his own ‘progress,’ scared by seemingly triumphant evil, disenchanted with all theories and explanations, depersonalized and enslaved by technology, man instinctively looks for an escape, for a ‘way out’ of this hopelessly wicked world, for a spiritual haven, for a ‘spirituality’ that will confirm and justify him in his disgust for the world and his fear of it, yet at the same time give him the security and the spiritual comfort he seeks. Hence the multiplication and the amazing success today of all kinds of escapist spiritualities—Christian and non-Christian alike—whose common and basic tonality is precisely negation, apocalypticism, fear and a truly Manichean ‘disgust’ for the world”
– Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, 84.

Praying Sacramentally

christians-praying-iconThere are typically two types of prayer: prayers of longing, and prayers of supplication (or, request). Both are good. But, it seems like most people prefer one over the other. In many prayer meetings I’ve attended and led, I have learned that attendees desire to be given a list of needs to pray for. This isn’t bad, but what I’ve learned is that the prayer of supplication is safe(r): it has the potential to allow us to pray (a good thing), in a way that is selfless (i.e. pray for other, which is also a good thing), and yet, it very often can be superficial (a not so good thing). The prayer of supplication in this manner is invulnerable, shallow, and obligational. Its function is to merely check off from the list of duties another good thing we did for God. Or perhaps, we think it’s good for us (we’re pragmatists!) and so we do it.

Yet, prayers of supplication (like many of the Psalms), are good and necessary. Essentially, supplications are requests for God’s kingdom to come to his creation he has so generously conferred to us. The prayer of supplication though, as I’ve alleged, can often become superficial and dutiful. The way this happens, I think, is that we think of that thing we’re praying about—a ministry, a neighbourhood, a church—as something unrelated to us. Or, more precisely, we allow a small degree of “relatedness.” The small degree can be illustrated by various articles of clothing. I am a shirt, and you are a hat. We are both part of the same body; there is some degree of relatedness there. But there’s something lacking here.

I started by saying that there are two types of prayer, but what I should say is that they are two in one: they are not distinct, but enhance and enable each other. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But I have not yet described the so-called “prayer of longing.” A prayer of longing is when your truest self is exposed before God. A prayer of longing is true knowledge of self and the world, and consequently, a deep desire for God himself. When confession is abounding and repentance is desired, and God is sought in a most honest way, we are praying with longing. So how is a prayer of longing and a prayer of supplication related? Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s a problem when we think we are only barely related to the “external” things we prayer for. We consider ourselves only formally associated to our workplace, the children’s ministry at our church, the people in our community groups, the leaders of our churches.  Do we pray for these things and people because we know them? Because they’re in our lives in some degree? How can our prayers of supplication—prayer for others—truly be a prayer of longing?

Here’s a hint:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.”
– Colossians 1:15-18

What preceded these words was Paul’s description of his prayer of longing for the Colossian church (see 1:1-14 for yourself). With special emphasis on the church, Paul believes that all of creation profoundly shares in Christ. In Christ, all things hold together. Paul’s high Christology grounded his understanding of church (his ecclesiology), thereby forming his prayers. Paul could pray for the church without slipping into an obligational superficiality. He didn’t him see himself as merely related to the church, but for Paul, he and the church shared so intimately, so deeply, so profoundly in Christ, that they were one person: one body.

Knowing that all of creation shares in some degree in the work and person of Christ, we can pray for others with a longing that is honest. That honestly views ourself as mysteriously woven, not as separate articles of clothing, but as one beautiful tapestry that includes the ongoing problem of sin, the ongoing gift of salvation, and the ongoing work of new creation, in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

Humble Hermeneutics

His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:16

We’re given a good reason to avoid reducing Scripture to pithy little (universal) principles (that I keep seeing on Facebook, more than anywhere else). The way it happens, is that people read a Scripture, quote it, then draw out a principle from it. And it’s done so confidently, so ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ -ly. That, I think, is dangerous.

Peter, in this epistle, notes the difficulty in properly interpreting Paul’s letters. The basis of his warning is, Scripture + ignorance = distortion and destruction.

I can hear listeners say, “well I guess we can’t read Scripture then.” You think that way simply because you, like every human, (including myself), have a tendency towards extremism; like a pendulum swinging from right to left. In other words, we are either too confident in our interpretation of Scripture, or, give up the hope for better interpretation.

I like what Paul tells Timothy in his second epistle: “Think over (or reflect) what I am saying, for the Lord will give you understanding in all these things” (2 Timothy 2:7). Something similar is said by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6).  Two things I note from these passages. First, is the need for work. Hard (intellectual) work is underrated in some  denominations. It is treated as an optional add-on; the proverbial third plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet: have some if you can fit it in. It is ironic and quite sad that the average Christian (and I’m speaking in my North American context) is progressively getting less thoughtful in a context that is progressively more resourceful with regards to Bible study. Thinking well and thinking hard needs to be emphasized for all ages again – the Church must rediscover the riches of Catechesis, and that sola scriptura always meant, ‘now you can read/study the Bible for yourself’ – a very prominent theme during the Protestant Reformation! Secondly, God is the Engineer in this whole process. He creates, he sustains, he brings growth, he multiplies. He is the One who gets the glory.

The answer, I think, is the need for humility.

It doesn’t mean that we do not attempt to interpret Scripture, but quite the contrary. We work hard, we attempt, and we maintain an attitude that is willing to be wrong, willing to jump in and make a mistake – because lets face it, we all make mistakes in all areas of life. This won’t apply to all things biblical hermeneutics, but it does provide a framework by which one can explore the treasures of Scripture. With learning, humility, and discernment (that is of course, empowered through communion with the Resurrected Lord), one can learn to hear Scripture, and hear the Lord speaking through it.

Lord, help us come humbly to your word, knowing that it bears witness to You, not a principle, but a person who is part of a grand story: the story of salvation, of rescue, of love and grace and beauty, a beauty that has been revealed, is being revealed and has yet to be revealed in its fulness. We are created and you are Creator: all glory is yours.

Amen.

Psalm 1 & 2: The Already and Not Yet of Blessing, Worship, & Hope

I love the Psalms. Here’s a reason why:

Structured like the Pentateuch (on purpose), it is 5 books into one. We’re given a doxology to mark out the end of one book and the beginning of the next (24, 72, 89, 106). The individual books were particular collections (i.e. “From Korah”), and eventually put together into one.

The Psalms, in the format that we have them, were probably not completed until Israel’s post-exilic period. They represent many centuries of Israelite worship.

We shouldn’t encounter them as a loose collection but as a book. They aren’t randomly scattered, but it seems clear that in the compilation, there is a consciousness of what is going on.

Psalm 1 is a great case study.

What’s is curious about this psalm is that it is not a prayer but a blessing; a blessing for those who go on the right way in contrast with those who do not. The reader is greeted not as a worshiper but as a journeyer, an individual not as a group. Private mediation on the law is commended. It implicitly provides an important point of entry for the whole book; inviting the reader into blessing by lawful mediation, guiding the reader on how they are to read.

Chapter 2 seems to be read in continuity with chapter 1.

Chapter 2 is kingly. As mentioned, what is interesting about the whole book, this anthology was only put together after the exile, yet there were no kings in Israel at that time. This raises the obvious question, why include psalms in an anthology closely tied to the king when there is no king? Here’s why: language of Kingship in the prophets often point to the eternal kingdom established by God’s Messiah. Conclusion: Psalm 2, and the other “royal” psalms are understood to refer to a king to come, and in that way they become messianic texts. In fact, Qumran writings interpret them as such.

Eschatological hope becomes the context for worship.

Psalm 1 outlines 2 ways for individuals and psalm 2 outlines 2 ways for nations. This is about messianic future and righteous government, with a here and now dimension while holding in tension the future hope; the already and not yet.

The Psalms provide a place of identification with the post-exilic people of Israel. We, like them, are in a state of tension, experiencing our own Exodus journey, and like them we can proclaim in hope that “we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

He is faithful.

Make Disciples

When things get busy and there are due dates to meet, hours to work at a job that isn’t very exciting (Sbux), relationships to maintain, and not enough hours in the day, it gets easy to lose a sense of purpose.

As a future-oriented person, I tend to plan a lot. I think of the future a lot. Being aware of this, I have tried to counter it by focusing on the now. Still, I can’t help but wonder, what’s next? That’s often followed by a, “how is right now related to what’s next?” And a “why I am here doing this, and not that?”…  I want the big picture. God doesn’t seem to work that way.

Jesus calls us to make disciples. There is the assumption, and rightly so, that he will equip us to do that calling well – even though we don’t have all the answers. In fact, 40 000 denominations in the Christian Religion tells me that God is okay with using people who don’t have all the answers. This is freeing.

There’s something beautiful about God’s use of broken people in order to make disciples. I believe it’s so closely connected to our human calling to ‘make shalom’. I’m not sure which one comes first, but it’s granted that making shalom includes making disciples, and vice versa.

With that said, by faith I can believe that all that is happening now and will happen in the future is a means by which God is using in order to produce that thing we call fruit. All the studying and learning, which I love, is not meant for some intellectual gluttony fest. It’s meant to make me a cultivator of shalom and maker of disciples. This is good news and fills my heart with hope and joy. It draws me into worship — and i don’t just mean singing, but singing included.

This means that right now, God is meeting with us. In the busyness, in the times of relaxation, in the times of curiosity, questioning, wonder, and doubt: God is working on us.

And God is faithful.

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

Attending to Jesus

I’m observing Lent for the first time.

Again I am reminded of Paul’s prayer, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).

From a devotional I am using, Lent is described as

“a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate the death (Good Friday) and resurrection (Easter Sunday) of Jesus. It is this very preparation and repentance – aimed at grasping the intense significance of the crucifixion – that gives us a deep and powerful longing for the resurrection, the joy of Easter.”

The purpose of Lent then, is to meet with Jesus. My prayer is that he would meet with me, so I’ll be attending to Him. Not simply when I have devotionals or time set apart for prayer, but my hope is that I will be attending to him wholly, fully, as I study and research for school, as I spend time with friends, as I work, that I would be attending to Him, waiting on Him to meet with me.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). 

Jesus, Culture, and Faith

In a class I’m taking called “theology of culture”, we’re looking at the Christian ethic as it relates to culture. How should a practicing Christian engage with culture?

I can’t go into detail about the course at this moment but the point I would like to make is that this question IS important. If we are to take seriously the call to be “in the world, but not of the world” we MUST not rush to conclusions as to what that may or may not look like. Christian thinkers have, through the centuries, employed varying interpretive lenses in order to live out this calling faithfully. We all have them: interpretive lenses. Those lenses are shaped by our very culture, which intensifies the need to THINK through these issues.

The 5 typologies given by Richard Niebuhr in his “Christ and Culture” are astoundingly important:

Christ Against Culture
Christ the Transformer of Culture
Christ in Paradox with Culture
Christ in Above Culture
Christ of Culture

Again, I can’t go into detailed description for each typology here, but what stood out to me was that each typology is to some degree and in certain contexts, a viable option. No thinking Christian could simply place themselves in strictly one of these categories for every cultural confrontation. Essentially, they are contextual categories. What I mean is, with every confrontation with culture, discernment needs to take place. Maybe on monday I’ll fall under the first typology, but on thursday I’ll fall under the third one.

With that in mind, discernment and wisdom, biblically speaking (and practically), are employable when one is in a state of dependance on God: Faith.

We must believe that God has and will continue to provide us with enough (not all) answers in order for us to discernibly and thoughtfully live according to his will and his glory.

By faith we can trust that God will “fill [us] with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding…in order that [we] may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that [we] may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light”

Colossians 1:9-13

With All Your Mind

Why is it that many Christians today separate the work of the Spirit from the work of the mind? As if any thought of the mind is a product not of the Spirit but of the flesh.

Mark Noll wrote on this subject, calling it the “Scandal” of the Evangelical mind: simply put, that there is no mind. He argues that Christians today, specifically Evangelicals, don’t think ‘Christianly’ about culture the way their Fathers did. By Fathers, I’m referring to the Fathers of Evangelicalism; John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and others.

In my thinking, the Liberal Theology in the 19th century rejected the supernatural and embraced science, humanistic endeavours, and ultimately the mind (and that definitely created a problem, but that’s not my point right now). This liberal theology welcomed the popular consensus that reason was of utmost importance. Maybe it’s a bit of an overstatement but I think in many ways the fundamentalist reaction to liberal theology in the 19th century was one that led to the rejection of the use of the mind, creating a false dichotomy between the mind and the Spirit.

Here’s how:

The wake of the 20th century saw immense supernatural activity amongst Evangelicals, resulting in the birth and growth of Pentecostalism. Being raised Pentecostal, I tread carefully on these waters, but not uncritically. Perhaps the embrace of the supernatural at the expense of the natural became catalytic in the discarding of the mind. (As a side note, this seems to fit perfectly well with a pre-millenial eschatology that longs for an escape from this ‘evil’ world, dualizing God’s “good” creation. I realize that statement opens up a whole other dialogue, let’s forget I said that for now). Don’t misunderstand me here, I believe in the supernatural and I believe that it’s something we can and should seek, but not at the expense of the natural. The supernatural work of the Spirit was never meant to be worshiped, just like the natural (creation, our bodies, etc) was never meant to be worshiped.

Let’s talk about it.

If Jesus asks us to love God with our whole being, including our minds, then thinking (about both God, culture, and the world), should not be considered an action that is mutually exclusive to the work of the Spirit. In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit is not manifested ONLY when something supernatural happens, that is a false dichotomy. God is the God of the natural and the supernatural. Christian’s need to again begin thinking Christianly about culture, about God, and about how they are to engage in the world. Not escaping it, not leaving it, not disappearing from it, but showing the world what it means to be human; this involves the mind empowered by the Spirit.

Your Kingdom Come?

The historical transition from the Pagan Roman Empire to the Christian Roman Empire was a big part of Christian history, having massive implications. How should it be viewed? Here are some thoughts.

Though it is difficult (for me) to affirm any extreme theological assertion with regards to many matters, in my opinion, Christianity cannot (ever) provide an authentic basis for political rule. The only alternative, biblically speaking, is to live in a (paradoxical) way that seeks to acknowledge Christ as the King above all kings, while living and engaging with a world that does not.  (As apposed to running away from it, or inventing doctrines that promise future escape, completely disregarding the creation narrative… but that’s another issue).

At the fall of Rome, pagan’s argued that Rome’s traditional gods were wreaking revenge and causing its downfall for siding with the God of the Christians. Augustine responds by differentiating God’s kingdom from the kingdom of the earth: The “Christian” kingdom of Rome was not the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus’ claim that his kingdom is not of this world does not mean that it does not effect this world, on the contrary, it is one that subverts the worldly kingdom with a Kingdom in which the “first shall become last, and the last shall become first” (Mark 10:31).   I agree with Jacque Ellul that the militant and political interpretation of the Gospel is a falsification, and I would add that it is a recurring misunderstanding of the Gospel message, revealed with Jesus’ own disciples: their expectations of what was to happen represent the same expectations of all of Israel; that God would eventually send a Messiah who would militaristically and politically take charge of Israel (Luke 9:46; Mark 9:33; Matt 18:1; Acts 1:6).

The alternative then, is to seek the kingdom of God as revealed in the Gospels: a kingdom that subverts all notions of unequal and unjust social systems through selfless love: a world in which claims to rank and status have no place at all. This is a paradigm exemplified most beautifully by God himself, who leaves his throne to die on a cross in shame.

How should this impact our political stance?