Tag Archives: holiness

“The Spitting Image of God”: Our Life’s Goal and the Lord’s Prayer

smith bookThe world of Christian publishing is rife with material about “purpose.”  Everyone wants to read about their life and someone else’s opinion of what it should be about.  Much of this is based on a misreading of Jeremiah 29:11, which was never a word of the Lord to every individual for all time, but a promise to the exiled Jewish community that the God of the covenant would not abandon them.  So I don’t know that we have much reason to believe that God has a “plan” for each an every one of us; I find little reason Scripturally to believe that God has designed us genetically to be butchers or marketers or writers or actresses or what have you.  The most we can say (and this is enough) about God’s purpose for each of us is that we were designed for fellowship and union with God.

For many Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a regular and powerful part of their spiritual journey.  It is for me and for many of my friends and colleagues.  The prayer that Jesus gave us is not only a pattern for prayer but a  rich prayer in its own right.  Even aspects of the prayer than are often overlooked provide an amazing fount of insight into life with God.

As Warren Smith, who teaches historical theology at Duke Divinity School, suggests, when we pray “hallowed be Thy name,” we are remembering the holiness of God and thus the true purpose for our life:

So the confession “hallowed by thy name” grounds our lives in the knowledge of who God is and what God has done for us. This daily confession focuses our mind upon the end or purpose of our journey – that is, fellowship with God – and the quality of our life – that is, holiness – necessary to attain that God. But when we confess that God is holy we also confess that we cannot become holy on our own. We cannot be holy apart from the Holy Spirit. Our thinking and speaking and acting become holy when we cultivate holy habits by living in the company of the Spirit. By inviting us to share his name, by calling us to be saints, God has set a high bar for his children. But he has given us the Holy Spirit as our companion who helps us gradually replace unholy habits of thought, speech, and action with holy thoughts, holy conversation, and holy actions as we grow into the likeness of our heavenly Father, becoming the spitting image of God. (The Lord’s Prayer: Confessing the New Covenant, 46)

This is a small example of how a deceptively simple line such as “hallowed be thy name” works on us over time.  The Lord’s Prayer is full of such wisdom and beauty – a treasure too often ignored, and too little appreciated.

You want purpose? Pray and work, die to self daily so that you might become “the spitting image of God.”  There’s plenty of room to grow there for several lifetimes.   And thanks be to God, he never stops his gracious, other-regarding, self-giving through the Spirit so that we might become who he made us to be:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

-2 Cor. 3:18 (NRSV)

What role does the Lord’s Prayer have in your spiritual life? How does your faith community make use of it? I’d love to hear about your experience below.

Christian Perfection or Christian Perfections? John Cassian on Degrees and Kinds of Perfection

just forgiven
“Just” forgiven? Shockingly, good soteriology is hard to do in 5 words.

“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” says a popular evangelical bumper sticker.  My grandpappy in the faith, John Wesley, would disagree – as would many other Christians who think salvation is not less, but certainly more than, justification.  But is the perfection that is a gift of God’s grace one address, or a street with many different addresses?

Wesley famously defended his unique (among Protestants of the time) doctrine in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  He quotes one of his brother Charles’ hymns to show that they had believed and taught perfection from the beginning of their ministry:

Safe in the way of life, above
Death, earth, and hell we rise;
We find, when perfected in love,
Our long-sought paradise.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Saviour, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin!

If we back-pedal many centuries, though, we find that what Wesley rediscovered for Protestants was something present quite early in the Christian tradition.  John Cassian, a great influence on Benedict and his Rule, spends a chapter in his famous Conferences discussing perfection.  He records the following from a conversation with Chaeremon, an Egyptian anchorite:

“Scripture summons our free will to different degrees of perfection, and this in proportion to the condition and the measure of the individual soul. It was not at all possible to propose to all together the same crown of perfection, since everyone does not have the same virtue, the same disposition of will, or the same zeal. Hence the Word of God lays down the different degrees and the different measures of perfection.”

He quotes a variety of Scriptures to back up this claim, including Psalms ascribing blessedness for a host of different virtues, and 1 Cor. 15:41-42, “Star differs from star in brightness. And so it is with the resurrection of the dead.”  Chaeremon adds,

“So you see, then, that there are different grades of perfection and that from some high points the Lord summons us to go higher.  Someone blessed and perfect in the fear of God will walk, as is written, ‘from virtue to virtue’ (Ps. 83:8), from perfection to some other perfection.  That is, with eager spirit he will rise up from fear to hope, and then he will be invited to a holier state, that of love.  He who was ‘the faithful and prudent servant’ (Mt. 24:25) will pass to the relationship of a friend and the adopted condition of sons.” (Conferences, 11.12)

In a sense, this is where Cassian and Wesley finally meet on Christian Perfection: love.  Earlier in Conference 11,  Chaeremon notes that three things keep us from sin: fear of punishment, hope of the Kingdom, and love.  He then goes on to describe lesser and greater perfections in terms of this sequence: “We should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue.” (11.7)

For Wesley, the perfection that is possible for the Christian to attain, with God’s abiding presence and gracious gift, is always a perfection “in love.” It is not a complete freedom from temptation or fault, but a transformation of “tempers,” a habit of the soul which has been so marked by the Spirit that it is completely filled with love for God and neighbor.

Christian perfection, for John and the early Methodists, was only a possibility for a long-time saint, probably near death.  Later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long process into an instantaneous gift, of course.  But the early Fathers and Mothers would agree with Wesley that virtue and holiness are not quickly obtained.

So are there a variety of perfections open to the Christian, or just one?   Cassian opens up the possibility that perfection is not merely a single destination, but several along the way to that final glorification for which we long – when we at last can behold the blessedness of God, not in a mirror, darkly but in full and magnificent splendor.  Like John Climacus – and, much later, John Wesley – Cassian reminds us that complete salvation is not achieved in an instant, but given by the grace of God over a long, grace-imbued road.

None of this is to our credit (this is worth repeating at the end because we Wesleyans are often accused of Pelagianism), but rather as Charles Wesley reminds us again, our boast is in the goodness and mercy of God:

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.

7 Questions for the Potential #UMC Schismatics

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Broken eggshell courtesy of dreamstime

 

1.  Is it about holiness or power?  If it is about holiness, there are existing Wesleyan communities that will share your core theological convictions and perspectives about human sexuality.  If it is about power, you will elect to go your own way.  If it is about being true Wesleyans and holding unflinchingly to traditionalist views of marriage, the Church of the Nazarene, Wesleyan Church, or other bodies would be happy to have you.  Why not strengthen an existing communion instead of adding to the brokenness of the Body of Christ?

2.  Will you have bishops?  I would note that, even if you do not like the historic episcopal office, you have authoritative voices among you which function like the historic episcopos: voices that you rally around, that provide unity and vision for your movement.  Which is to say: you may not care for the current slate of UMC bishops, but it is difficult to escape to need for leadership by whatever name.

3.  When will you have your Jerry Maguire moment? (“Who’s going with me?“)  Will you be content to leave on your own, or will you attempt do divide the UMC from some of its overseas partners, as has happened frequently in the Anglican world?  To put it another way, how many eggs do you want to break to make your new omelet?

4.  Will you itinerate? Many of the 60+ threatening schism have practically existed outside of the itinerant system, which leaves me wondering if you will move from a connectional polity to a congregationalist polity.  Of course, even in our current system, large churches are often able to function like they are within a congregationalist/call system.

5.  What about female clergy? The strict biblicism embraced by many of you about human sexuality could easily lend itself to moving the clock back on women’s ordination and leadership (especially since so many, if not all, of the leaders of this movement are men).  Wesley and his ecclesial progeny were among the first to recognize the value of women in the pulpit, and it would be a shame to see this lost in a schism.

6.  Has it already started? The so-called Wesleyan Covenant Network sounds very much like the Fellowship of Presbyterians/ECO, which quickly moved from a group of like-minded Presbyterians to a new denomination stealing congregations and promising more autonomy (see #1 above).

7. What is your end game?  Unlike some, I don’t think calling your bluff is helpful.  I appreciate being part of a big tent denomination, large enough for you and the Pacific Northwest and everything in between.  But we need to find a way to live together.  So, what do you want?

P.S. I am under no illusions that those threatening to pull away or withhold funds are the only (possible) schismatics in the church.  It can be argued that those churches/conferences/bishops that are choosing to ignore the discipline are acting in a schismatic way as well, even if they don’t go so far as withdrawing in toto.

Eugene Peterson on Growth, Change, and Fads

Sunday I preached on Christian maturity and holiness, playing off of Colossians 1:28:

“It is him whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

In my preparation I came across an excellent quote from Eugene Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall, a collection of reflections on spirituality from the life of David.  He talks wisely about the difference between growth and change, and consequently the value of both the old and the new:

“When we grow, in contrast to merely change, we venture into new territory and include more people in our in our lives – serve more and love more.  Our culture is filled with change; it’s poor in growth.  New things, models, developments, opportunities are announced, breathlessly, every hour.  But instead of becoming ingredients in a long and wise growth, they simply replace.  The previous is discarded and the immediate stuck in – until, bored by the novelty, we run after the next fad.  Men and women drawn always to the new never grow up.  God’s way is growth, not change…David at thirty-seven was more than he was at seventeen – more praise, saner counsel, deeper love.  More himself. More his God-given and God-glorifying humanity.  A longer stride, a larger embrace.” (136)

Peterson incisively names one of the besetting tragedies of our day: the idolatry of novelty.  This is true in fashion and entertainment, but also in the world of business and the church.  We hop from one thing to the next – like a frog jumping from one lily pad to the other – staying “interested,” but never growing.  Getting stimulation, but never going deep.

But God’s way is growth.  Our goal as the church is the same as was Paul’s – to present people, not just who have been “saved” or who “got Jesus” one day in the 70’s – but who are “mature” in Christ, who have spent their days following Jesus going deeper and growing more in discipleship.  These are not Sunday Christians easily imbibing just enough of the gospel so that they can remain apathetic, but engaged Jesus people who have made their lives a continual and growing sacrifice of worship to their Lord.

As John C. Maxwell has said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”

Excellence as Deviance

https://i2.wp.com/freebooks.uvu.edu/SOC1010/images/stories/Ch08/CH08figure1.png

Here is my happy thought for the day, courtesy of business professor Robert Quinn. This is from his very insightful Deep Change, which I highly to commend to everyone regardless of your calling or profession, or role in leadership.

“It seems to me that you have to be clear about something.  Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norm, you will disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust to try to make you normal. The way to achieve and maintain excellence is to deviate from the norm. You become excellent because you are doing things normal people do not want to do. You become excellent by choosing a path that is risky and painful, a path that is not appealing to others.” (176)

Though Quinn writes for a business audience, his findings about “deep change” (as opposed to quick change or incremental change) are important for anyone who, on an individual or organizational level, seeks change.  To seek meaningful, deep change, leaders must accept the pain and challenge of deviance, the disdain of the system, and the endless efforts to stifle creativity and difference.

Interestingly, I think the Christian could also substitute the word “holiness” for “excellence” in the above quote, and it would equally hold true.  What say you?

The Church and Singleness

Churches are generally not great for single people.  Even churches with vibrant singles ministries only construe them as a place to meet other singles with the hopes of making them no longer single.  Protestant churches in particular do not know what to do with single Christians.  We have no vocation of singleness to look at, no imagination for what the Christian life looks like as an unmarried person.

My last semester of seminary, I noticed a mad dash to the altar.  NOBODY wants to be a single pastor, and with good reason.  All of the social events involving my denomination’s structure are geared towards “pastors and their spouses.”  I went to my first such meeting this week, and found that I was not only the youngest person there, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one who was likely single and had never been previously married.

What does holiness look like for the single person?  How the hell does a single pastor date?  My fundamentalist past tell me, “no sex before marriage,” but this is not a positive vision for the single life.

The best I’ve read on the subject is Lauren Winner’s Real Sex.  She re-convinced me that the church’s traditional stance on marriage was correct, by being honest and giving sound theological reasons for believing them.  I have read nothing better on the subject and encourage all committed Christians, single or not, to check it out.

Again, as a Protestant, I don’t have a tradition of saints to look at, or nuns, monks, and priests who model the single life.  What are we to do?  “It is better to marry than to burn with desire,” I suppose.  But how does a pastor date? Who wants to marry a pastor? (Probably no one, if they knew what they were getting into!)  And yet our churches expect married clergy.  Truth be told, they expect the spouse to be a bit of an unpaid co-pastor.

We Protestants desperately need to find ways to affirm singleness.  Not everyone is called to be married, and if indeed it is OK to, as Paul says, “remain as you were,” they deserve better from us.