My Journey Out of Calvinism – Part 2

I entered my undergraduate education with a deep love and affection for Scripture. When I was 12, my father had given me a Bible he owned when he was younger. The back cover was falling apart and adorned with a gleaming silver duct taped spine. It was red, and filled with assorted coloured highlights and underlines, revealing its timeless power to transform lives. I loved reading the little notes my dad made in the margins, speculating on what he may have been going through in his own life as he read the same words I was reading. I inherited ancient wisdom that was wonderful and mysterious at an age where wonder and mystery was not yet abandoned. 

When I was admitted to Bible college, I didn’t know quite how to read what I was given, or really what it was. But I treated it with a reverent hunger, knowing that its content had the power to enlighten my young mind and change the trajectory of my life. I was hoping that Bible college would help me learn to read the Bible better and understand its nuances. Though I eventually chose to focus my undergraduate degree in “Biblical Studies,” what I learned most during those college years was not Biblical expertise, but how to pray. How fitting that the greatest gift my Pentecostal college gave me was to teach me how to pray in a new way. It was the context where I learned how to dive into the depths of God through fasting, fervent prayers and disciplined Bible reading. 

I’m not saying that my college was one of those feel-good, prayer-only schools that didn’t teach Biblical exegesis and hermeneutical fallacies. I had great professors. But it was ultimately the alluring influences of Calvinist preaching during my time at Bible college that solidified the lens by which I would read Scripture.[1][2]This was an experience that I am very grateful for because through Calvinist preaching, I developed a love for Scripture and theology that I hadn’t experienced before. A way of talking about church, Jesus, and the gospel, that was foreign to my Pentecostal upbringing, despite my early love for the Bible. 

But along the way, something changed. My life of prayer was slowly trumped by a life of study. Why they became mutually exclusive I can’t explain, but somehow exegetical Bible study and listening to sermons supplanted prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Something else happened as well. Without knowing it, the humble posture towards Scripture and theology that I had embraced as I entered college was usurped by a fault-finding superiority and conceit. The beauty of my growing love for Scripture and theology was morphing into something ugly.

Visiting my Bible College in Massachusetts last year.

In college, we had chapel services four times a week. These services included music for worship, preaching, and a response time. I had made like-minded friends, who were also disillusioned by their Pentecostal heritage, and captivated by the Calvinist impulse.  My friends and I critiqued the preachers who didn’t preach expository sermons. We found solidarity in bemoaning the topical sermons and emotionalism as deeply unbiblical and therefore inferior. We’d text each other protests of our laments during chapel services when preachers took Scripture out of context, and students rushed to the altars to rededicate their lives to God for the 4th time that week. “Another topical sermon about being better Christians?” “When will hear actual Scripture?” “Does this guy even know the gospel?” 

Indeed, we’d find a sort of superiority in skipping chapel services of “prayer and fasting” seeing them as hysterical sentimentality and a major waste of time. On on day of prayer and fasting, while every other student was on their way to chapel, famished from their fast, my Calvinist guild and I decided to order pizza to our dorms and watched videos of Matt Chandler and John Piper instead. We embodied an aloof smugness that was masked in Biblical fidelity. 

In many ways I am deeply grateful for this shift that took place in my life. I had a growing appreciation for preaching and Scripture, and its role in transforming lives. And I’ll admit, there were many sermons in chapel those years that merited cause for suspicion, so I sympathize with my younger self. But in my immaturity I didn’t realize how in my entrance into the world of Reformed theology, I had become smug, vain, and bitingly critical. I don’t blame Calvinist theology for my immaturity and sin, but there seemed to be no mechanism in place nor any model from my digital mentors on how to be a Calvinist without being angry.[3]Combative criticism and angry arrogance seemed to come with the territory of “gospel purity.”  

There is an irony here. The Calvinist notion of God’s total involvement in each person’s individual salvation is meant to be a humbling, God-glorying, doctrine. And yet I found precisely the opposite in my Calvinist community. My Calvinist camp taught that because man is totally depraved, he is unableto say yes to God’s invitation to accept and follow him, unless of course God has already chosen him in advance. Indeed, Jesus’ invitation to follow him isn’t a real choice for the non-elect, nor is it a real choice for the elect, since God’s choice is “irresistible.”  These doctrines that were meant to make you humble, made you, more often than not, prideful, arrogant and angry. I found myself passing off angry preaching as “boldness,” never considering how my words and tone might be received. 

Perhaps herein lies one of the problems of a world obsessed with digital pastors: the increasing neglect of the Christ-forming context of the church. In retrospect, I found that my love for preaching and the Bible was not only stunting my prayer life, it was diminishing my ecclesiology to mere “methods.” Church wasn’t essential to discipleship, nor a picture of the diverse and far-reaching grace of God. It wasn’t the context where God forms his people, but the place where we reinforce our short-sighted ideas. Indeed, the real church was the one that agreed with me in my newly unearthed theology. It was now salvation by Calvinism, a sadly myopic and unsightly vision of the church Jesus had been building for two millennia.  In hindsight I realize that I wasn’t at all growing in greater love for the Bible, but for my particular reading of the Bible, offering a sense of superiority that comes with being right. 

My journey out of Calvinism has had many twists and turns. Indeed, my anger and arrogance would eventually be met by sadness, despair, and even depression. But my moral and existential crises experienced as a Calvinist were ultimately not the reason why I abandoned its theology. In the end there were biblical and theological reasons for my departure. These reasons I will explore more closely in my next post. 


[1]At the risk of over-generalizing a complex and variegated system of belief, I will express some of the elements of Neo-Puritanism as I encountered it. In this post I’ll refer to it to “Calvinism.” 

[2]I’ve come to see a big difference in classical Reformation theology and the more common/popular expression of Calvinism known as “New Calvinism” or “Neo-Puritanism.” I personally embrace much of Reformed theology, particularly aspects of Covenant theology, as well as much of the writings of John Calvin, who’s theology should not be reduced to “five points.” Calvin had much more to say, including a much more mystical approach to the Eucharist, which I’ve written about here.

[3]I’m not the first to suggest a problem with anger and arrogance in the Neo-Reformed community. A prominent Calvinist, one which I admire, addresses the problem here. Jonathan Merritt from Religion News has raised similar moral issues here.

My Journey Out of Calvinism

I distinctly remember the warm and sunny drive back home to Montreal from my Pentecostal Bible college in Massachusetts. It would be the last of many I had made over the years. Most of the drive was spent with windows down and music loud; I felt nervously exhilarated by the sensation of leaving one stage of life and entering a new one. Always keen for a new adventure, I was feeling receptive and open. Degree in hand, and car brimming with all the possessions I had accumulated, my drive was christened by a 5-hour lecture series on Calvinism by a well known Calvinist pastor (a topic I had been exploring over the last three years). When I got home (to my Pentecostal pastor of a father), I looked at him and with the ambivalent confidence of a freshly certified undergraduate student in theology I declared: “Dad, I think I’m a Calvinist.”


“We’re created to glorify God,” I asserted, “and God forgives us for his own glory,” I continued, quoting Isaiah 48. “We are born depraved and can’t possibly respond to God’s gracious election apart from his irresistible exploits.” I had my dad’s attention, but he didn’t seem worried. He listened curiously and waited patiently for me to finish my speech and then responded. He pointed out his own proof texts in a respectful, classy way, in the form of questions to get me thinking. But I had just gotten my degree in Biblical studies, and I was 20, so it didn’t really matter what proof texts he had. I had TULIP-coloured glasses on, helping me see Scripture in a new (and true) way. How could he not see what I see? 


My newfound confession of the “doctrines of grace” was the culmination of about three years of reading books and listening to sermons and lectures from Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, John Piper, and one of my favourites, RC Sproul. Driscoll of course, was the gateway drug. I still remember where I was sitting when I first heard him talk about men and manliness on a video clip from a “Desiring God” conference in 2007. 


calvinist reading

Without really knowing it at the time, I began to drink, eat, and sleep Neo-Reformed theology (also distinguished as Neo-Puritan theology by some).

I immersed myself into any book I could get and any sermon I could find. I loved what I considered to be strong preaching, with Biblical books and verses coming alive to me in a way I had never experienced before. And some of these guys were cool too. They communicated eloquently and were in tune with cultural norms. And I was a great evangelist of the content–I’d share lectures and sermons and even burn CDs with whole sermon series for those who showed the slightest interest. 


Finally, I had discovered the true gospel, in its full form, I thought, uncontaminated by any “works” pseudo-gospel that told me to “do better” or “try harder.” I came to believe that if you weren’t preaching imputed righteousness via justification by faith alone through Christ alone, then you weren’t preaching the gospel. Verse-by-verse exposition was the only justifiable way to preach biblically (making Paul and Jesus “unbiblical” preachers). I was convinced that “topical” preaching was for the seeker-friendly crowd, and would sooner or later dilute the full gospel (because of course Jesus wasn’t a friend to seekers).

My tribe and I embraced and accepted this new line of believing. We had the truth. And it was God’s truth. 


On January 1, 2012, a year and a half after my drive home from Bible college, I moved to Vancouver BC to begin my MA in Theological Studies at Regent College. In the time between I had been devouring anything I could from the aforementioned four horsemen of Neo-Puritanism. In that process I had discovered JI Packer, who’s Knowing God was new and exciting territory for me. Packer wonderfully combined theological vigour with heart, devotion, and emotion–combinations I hadn’t seen modelled before. I remember it not being too arid or abstract theology, nor airy-fairy feel-good Sunday school lessons about nice-guy Jesus. It beautifully captured a Christianity that lived in the tension of the head and the heart–and presented a much more confrontational Jesus that I admired. Though I may not agree with all of Packer’s views today, his writing drew me to Regent College where he taught, and where I’d eventually get to meet him and discuss other topics around pastoral ministry, theology and spirituality. 


Though some might consider Packer as one of the father figures of the Neo-Reformed movement, his influence on the true leaders of the movement was behind the scenes. What’s unique about Packer is that he’s Anglican, an Anglican who’s done quite a bit of work to help evangelicals appreciate other Christian denominational expressions, something R.C. Sproul and his crew was not happy about. Indeed, Regent College was and is an evangelical, trans-denominational school; and so it was where I met Christians who weren’t Pentecostals, for the very first time. 


Regent was where I was introduced to some of the contemporary hard hitters of the Christian faith in the likes of James KA Smith, NT Wright, Mark Noll, Henri Nouwen and others. As Smith depicts it so well in his Letters to a Young Calvinist, I was so enamoured with a small room of Neo-Puritanism in a mansion of Christian spirituality, to the point where I came to believe that the small room was all there really was and all there needed to be. Of course, Smith uses the analogy of a mansion to speak of the riches of the Reformation, though I think he’d agree that the mansion can also be the “Great Tradition” beyond the Reformation. For a long time, I didn’t explore life outside my own like-minded Neo-Puritans–and I mostly just read from one publishing house. 


I was [pleasantly] surprised to discover that Regent would begin the slow process of unraveling my Neo-Puritanism. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, and not via any intentional process on the part of Regent. At Regent, I was gently and respectfully challenged to visit the other rooms in the mansion. With hesitation I did just that; visited these room, mostly because I had to or I would fail. Regent challenged me to read outside of my comfort zone, and at least learn to thoughtfully understand and articulate the theological positions I was claiming to oppose.  Initially I treated them as rooms that could be visited only for educational purposes–like an ancient ruin sealed off due to its dangerous air quality. It was already a stretch to read and write about the various Christian expressions that were vastly different than my own. So I inspected them as if visiting a crime scene, but not really a place to inhabit. I’d always just go back to the room I was most comfortable with. 


With time I found these rooms were far from ancient ruins or a crime scene to be investigated. They began to provide new vistas by which I could see the world and be enriched in my faith. They were a source of oxygen for my suffocating spirituality, which was beginning to wane with its overly cerebral dogmatism and stoic passivity. My spiritual life was being rescued because I was being introduced to the deep well of the Christian faith, much more robust in its theology, practice and spirituality.

My studies at Regent were only the beginning of my journey out of Calvinism. It took a few years and a lot of dark nights of the soul from my first day at Regent in 2012 to the day I would resign from my position at a church and move back to Quebec in 2016. That part of the story will be addressed in my next post.

Reflections on Gratitude and the Holy Supper

gratitude

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 1 Cor 10:16

Eucharisteo is the Greek word for gratitude.

The posture of thanksgiving is what the biblical narrative points to as the proper posture of the imago dei in man. This stands in contrast to our North American culture of excessive hoarding and addiction through the gratification of insatiable desires. Hans Boersma makes the observation that this is quite understandable since our words is astonishingly beautiful: “When we smell, when we taste, when we hear, when we see, when we touch—the pleasure that follows can be overwhelmingly powerful.” But the purpose of our lives is not for increased gratification of the instinctual sort. What separates us from animals and what makes us rightful candidates of the imago dei—that uniquely human calling to image the Creator—is a posture of eucharisteo: gratitude. But not just any gratitude, but the kind that leads to self-giving, the kind that recognizes that all of creation—all that we can taste, touch, smell, hear and see—is merely a gift to be offered back to God.

In response to Jesus’ instructions, christians have made what has come to be known by countless names (holy communion, eucharist, holy supper, etc) as the definitive marker of the Christian identity.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. Then word “communion” refers to the greek word, koinonia, which is also translated as fellowship, and participation. This special Christian act is precisely that: fellowship, participation, a unique and unexplainable mystery of entering into the Trinitarian life. And as we enter into the life of the Trinitarian God, we are launched into a life of eucharisteo.

To be authentically human, according to Christian faith and practice, is constituted by the posture of thanksgiving that leads to self-giving.

Paradoxically, and in opposition to everything we’re told by a culture of rampant consumerism, a life of gratitude is the life that is most satisfying of all.

Studies have shown that gratitude in itself is a healthy posture, and daily practices of expressing gratitude will contribute to happier life. But who are we to thank? How we answer this question will determine whether or not we will move from thanksgiving to self-giving.

Discipleship is More than You Know

Discipleship

Over the last half-decade of church work I have wrestled with what it’s supposed to look like for churches to practice discipleship.

The models of church that I’ve seen most are built on the idea that discipleship means accepting ideas about God.  The more “truth” you know about God, the greater disciple you are. But discipleship is not about having information, because if it is, the disciples weren’t really disciples after all. Let’s just say they didn’t have their systematic theology in order. For the disciples, and for us, discipleship is more than you know.

At the180 we are looking at how there are moments in life that we need the courage to unlearn the bad habits we’ve picked up on our journey. Jesus often calls his disciples and listeners to unlearn something—which is hard, scary, and takes courage.  The sermon that kicked off our series on unlearning reminded me of how we tend to reduce the Great Commission to “coming to church to be a christian”, instead of “going out to make disciples.” The church at large has come to the conclusion that disciple-making means giving people a list of things to believe and then making them do the same.

But Christian discipleship is much more than some heady acceptance of ideas about God.  Jesus didn’t commission his disciples to make us into great consumers of ideas or “absolute truths.” This discipleship thing has to do with our hearts, heads and hands.

Here’s something: discipleship is a word Christians use but it’s not something only Christians do. Discipleship happens to every human. Every person is being discipled all the time—something is drawing us into its way of life, teaching us a way of living that we believe will bring satisfaction. Another word for disciple is learner, but not the kind of learner that sits in a classroom to receive ideas, the kind of learner that follows a person in the way that he/she handles life, relationships, people, money, everything. Ideas play a small part.  Apprenticeship might capture what discipleship entails—being with someone long enough to become a lot like him or her. And it always happens in communal spaces, like with friends around a dinner table or a sports games.

“It’s about life!” my professor Rikk Watts is know for saying. Discipleship is about life in the most comprehensive sense. It’s about being with Jesus in order to do what he does. It’s asking the question (thank you Dallas Willard) “what would Jesus do if he was me?”

One of the things we talk about at the180 is how the church is made up of those who are “called out of the world to go back into the world.” If discipleship is more than cranial consumption, if disciples is more than you know, and discipleship has to do with the way we live, then the church needs to be more than a dispenser of ideas. The church learns to be “the called out ones” in a sacred space to rehearse the life of the kingdom through the practices of singing, eating, and sharing together around a common Lord. And it’s in this space that we learn to be disciples together–learning to live the Jesus-life–so that we can go out and make disciples.

 

 

Can We Know God’s Will for our Lives? Part 2

In my last post, I suggested that a Christian should be able to answer the questions, what is God saying to me and how do I know that he’s saying it?

Unfortunately, some Christians feel they need to discern God’s will about what they eat for dinner. What we eat for dinner is not something that God is really concerned with, provided we eat with gratitude. An important reality, often overlooked in our anxious searches for God’s will, is that many life decisions are left for us to make freely. Some Christians walk with an enormous weight of uncertainty, worrying about every jot and tittle of their lives, when God has allowed a certain degree of freedom.

Through Scripture, we know enough about God to make most decisions. Some questions have been answered with a “no” and others with a “yes,” while many other questions are left to up to us. Imagine God gave you a watch. Would you honour him more by asking him for the time or by looking at the watch? I know that I ought to practice kindness and patience towards my wife, and I know that I ought not hate or judge my brother. However, what I eat for dinner is my choice.

Still, some decisions require more than logical reasoning and biblical knowledge. Some decisions we face beckon us to slow down and listen carefully to God’s direction. Maybe it’s prioritizing tasks for the week in order to make decisions well, or considering a career or relational opportunity that might change the direction of one’s life completely. There are certain matters we know the answer to, other matters in which we are free to choose for ourselves, and still other matters that require thoughtful and prayerful discernment.

Let me illustrate:

Pretend a coach of a soccer team has drafted you into his team. When it’s game time, it would be silly to ask about the rules of another sport, or whether or not you should try to work as a team with the other players. The first question is irrelevant and the second is obvious.

Likewise, to fret about God’s will for my dinner or whether or not I should be “kind” to my neighbour misses the point of discernment. In the first instance, we’re asking a question that has nothing to do with the game or even the sport, and in the second instance we’re ignoring the rules of the game we’ve already been given. There are also moments in the game when passing the ball to player A or player B will be your choice, and to ask the coach for his instruction in that moment would be detrimental to the game.

I know the rules, I know the point of the game, I know that there will be moments where I must depend on my reflexes and choose accordingly. In this way, we can understand “God’s will for my life” as referring to my position on the field and how I can best use my strengths to win the game according to the strategy.

In order for me to play well I will ultimately need to know myself: how am I built to play this game well? This is the task of discernment.

Seeking God’s will for my life does not dismiss everything he’s already revealed in Scripture, but seeks to understand my fit in it. What are my “gifts” in the context of the team and the strategy already given?

The particular will of God we seek is in the context of our participation in the life of the church.

One of the early challenges the church had to wrestle through was individual gifting, or vocation. Every individual equally contributed to the life of the whole, just like every part of a body contributes to the life of the body. And that body, being the church, exists for the common good of society. The question is: what is Jesus saying to me personally (now comes in the individual, the parts that make up the whole), in the context of our calling to be the church in our world.

We must learn to listen to the voice of Jesus for ourselves, but not apart from our team. So how will we do it?

Here are five voices we must be listening to in the dance of discernment:

1) We listen to Scripture, which speaks not only to our heads, but to our hearts as we contemplate its stories and teachings. Scripture has an authoritative power, not because it has special secrets about how old the earth is, but because it has a special way of igniting faith, hope, and love in us. In an overarching sense, Scripture tells us of the gospel news of God’s rescue mission to bring the world to its intended harmony. It tells us the rules of the game and the strategy for winning. But to know how we fit in the game we need to learn to read the Bible personally: how is a passage, a verse, a story speaking to you, in this moment?  When we take the time to slow down, listen, and contemplate God’s word, it has a special power to speak to us in a personal way, because the Bible always brings us to the person of Jesus who is the Word of God in the flesh. Sometimes this means sticking with one word, one verse, one parable or psalm or story that sticks out to you, and letting it resonate with you until your heart catches guides your head. Perhaps you’ll receive a picture, an invitation, a sense of gratitude, or a memory. This isn’t an easy discipline, but a very rewarding one.

2) We listen to people in our lives who can help us see our blind spots. Who are we reading the Bible with? Who are we worshiping with on Sundays? Who knows you enough and loves you enough to be honest with you about who you really are? But beware of people telling you what God is telling you: they may be able to guide, to advise, and even to offer an opinion, but only you can know the inner witness of the Spirit.

3) We listen to the friendships we find in the church, the local and the historical, the present and the past. Scripture has a personal and concrete word for us, yet keeping ancient friends from our Christian heritage will help us keep from making Scripture fit our own designs. Let the creeds of the church be the boundary markers of the soccer field, telling you if you’re in, or if you’re out. The creeds can also help you make sense of where you are on the pitch, providing you with an orientation that helps you know if you should pass or shoot. Our forefathers were at a different level in their prayer lives. Find an old prayer book to help you discover  new ways to foster intimacy with God (Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favourites).

4) We listen to our circumstances: how has God provided the context you are now in? Pay attention to the circumstances of your life. How are you to be faithful in your current circumstances? What do you like or dislike about your circumstances that you would like to change or not change? These questions force us to be honest about what is possible and what isn’t. But don’t eliminate the apparently impossible option, because God may indeed be calling you to something that in this moment, feels impossible. This listening is merely a matter of seeing clearly how God has been at work in your circumstances. Oppositions and obstacles need to be considered, but don’t be quick to take them as signs that this isn’t what God wants: God may very well be asking you to walk through a closed door.

5) We listen to our emotions, which help us identify what we love and what we dislike.   We tend to be suspicious of emotions, for fear of emotionalism, and end up putting too much weight on our rational abilities. However, Descartes was wrong when he proposed that humans are merely thinking beings. We are thinking, loving, and acting beings, far more complex that what Descartes suggested. Emotions are at the heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human and in order to properly discern the voice of Christ, we need to develop the capacity to articulate what is happening to us emotionally.

All of these activities happen in the context of a life devoted to prayer. Prayer is the glue that helps us make sense of each sphere of our lives. Prayer is our response to God’s initiation; in prayer, we are always responding to God’s YES to us in Christ. Prayer is constant dialogue with the coach, cheering and guiding us on as we play the game.

Seeking the will of God is not as simple as a question and answer session. Discernment is a process, it is a game, or a dance or like being part of an orchestra. We attentively listen and watch the conductor move his baton towards a harmonious composition. As we learn to play in sync with the voice of the coach, God’s team defeats opponents not by beating them but by winning them over to a new way of playing.

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences on discernment and seeking God’s will below.

Mirror Dimly

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! 1 Cor 13:12 (MSG)

In Saint Paul’s “love chapter” Paul provides us with a metaphor to explain our earthly limitations. Life before the resurrection is  life lived as though through a mirror dimly.

In context, Paul is speaking about the different aspects of worship that revolve around Scripture; singing, prophecy, preaching. These are gifts to the church to foster and serve love.  If love for God and for one another is not the motivation and goal of worship, then it is nothing more than a clanging cymbal; an out-of-place and misleading distraction. T

Paul goes on to say that we see through a mirror dimly because we and our world are infected by sin, despite our standing with Christ. The metaphor calls attention to the limitations of our ability to see and understand. Our vision is impaired, we’re stuck with a foggy overcast that beckons us to humble dependance on God. 

A mirror is used to see a reflection–of yourself, of others, of what’s around you. Scripture is the primary mirror that we use to see and know God and ourselves. But my reading of Scripture–and of who God is–is faulty and broken, and until I come to grips with this reality, I will not serve love. The God who Augustine calls, “Ever Ancient Ever New” is boundless and beyond full comprehension by me, and when I ignore my limits, I will become a clanging cymbal.

Today, Christians are bombarded with skepticism around Scripture. We are told not to trust the Bible because it’s archaic and erroneous. The temptation is to defend the Bible’s reliability in ways that ignore human limitations-we insist on the certitude and clarity of Scripture; we simplify what is complex and ignore the impaired capacity of a dim vision, the very thing Scripture attests to!

When I think about the authority of Scripture, I think of its role as firstly attesting to Christ, who is the full and final revelation of who God is, and secondarily in forming God’s people into who they are called to be. As Christians we are often good at bible study: thinking and analyzing what the bible means and what it says, while neglecting what kind of life were called to live. We often make knowledge a virtue, forgetting that it can easily become a vice (1 Cor. 8:1-2). What I want for Christians is to trust in the power of Scripture to shape their lives, perhaps only possible when we get out of the way, when we approach it with humility. Humility and acceptance of the dimness of our vision is where God encounters us and we begin to really, and truly see. That alone will serve love.

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.

Pope John Paul II on prayer

“Prayer is also the revelation of that abyss which is the heart of man: a depth which comes from God and which only God can fill, precisely with the Holy Spirit.”

– Pope John Paul II

Praying Sacramentally

There 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.

Cross-Shaped Community

We often seek to be in relationship with people that are like us, in terms of ethnicity, dress, socio-economic status, etc.  But the Gospel transcends these categories. It creates a people that are part of the new creation: “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).  The “how” of the community of this “new creation” requires a posture of self-giving that takes its shape from the Cross. Earlier in the chapter, Paul tells us that we must

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2)

 So what is distinctive about this new creation community?  What’s the purpose of relationships if it isn’t to meet people that have similar sentiments?  I want to examine three truths from this passage that may help us make sense of Christian life in new creation community, which must take the shape of the cross.

1. We all have burdens.

The easy-road consumer-driven “prosperity gospel”  promises a burden-less wealth-filled good-life, rather than a cross-shaped life. Its popularity is a witness to the pervasiveness of our consumer mentality: it seeks to “sell” the gospel by promising  physical well-being and status. Sadly, it overlooks the Christian life portrayed by the Scriptures. . Jesus instructs his followers  that they too must bear their cross, a prerequisite to being his disciple (Luke 14:27). Peter says suffering is a means of “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” The church at Corinth suffered from persecution; Paul doesn’t tell them that they don’t have enough faith, but tells of his own suffering and exults in them, claiming that they are to bear the marks of  ministering for a crucified messiah. The reason why I mention the “prosperity gospel” is because I think it has so deeply pervaded our thinking that we have come to believe that sharing our burdens is a bad, faithless thing to do. In reality, we all have burdens, we all have struggles, we all have emotional or physical pain. We must begin with the concession that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and therefore, we all have burdens, to be shared within our new creation community.

2. A personal relationship with Jesus does not mean a private relationship with Jesus.

We love our privacy. I know I do. But a close relative of privacy is a subtle resolution for self-sufficiency. Culture  tells us that we must seek to be self-made men and women. As a result, we establish a framework in which we view people as tools to serve our independent purposes rather than as humans to share life with. It’s time to stop living as though a “personal relationship with God” means doing Christian life alone. In verse 6 (in Galatians 6) Paul warns, “if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Something who “thinks he is something” thinks it too menial a task to bear the burden of another, and will keep their own burdens private, since that would require an acknowledgment of need. If we’re not careful, we will use the language of “having a personal relationship to Jesus” as a justification for pride, and thereby avoid participation in the new creation community. 

3. Burden bearing, not being the morality police, fulfills the law of Christ.

In Galatians, Paul addresses the moral imposition of the so-called Judaizers. They wanted circumcision to be the identifying mark of the Christian, a scheme that sought to salvage a defining ethnic element of the Jewish tradition.  Paul, annoyed, writes: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (5:12).  It seems the Judaizers cared little for the burdens of the people.  They focused their energies instead on keeping their ethnic tradition intact and so imposed many laws and instructions  in a burdensome manner.  The question for the new creation community is: Will we impose burdens on each other, or will we bear each others burdens?

The Canadian way tends to be the private way, and as a result, we don’t know the deep struggles, temptations, and sufferings of those in our church communities. Despite this, within the new creation community, we are directed to bear each others burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. This requires a cross-shaped  faith and lifestyle that seeks to acknowledge our own failures, embrace the way of humility, and lovingly fulfills the law of Christ, that is, the law of love.