Tag Archives: spirituality

“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.

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins [Review]

olkholm book

“What happens when we listen to premoderns who did not know they were doing theology and psychology at the same time?” 

What can ancient Christian ascetics teach us today? According to Dennis Okholm, an Anglican priest and professor of theology, a great deal indeed.  In his new book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks, Olkholm builds a compelling case that much of the wisdom of Christian monastic discipline is quite compatible with contemporary psychological perspectives.

Olkholm proceeds by way of an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins (originally eight “bad thoughts” in the Eastern tradition).  In most chapters, his approach is a combination of examining classic Christian teachings on a given topic (lust, greed, vainglory, gluttony, etc.), putting that into conversation with contemporary psychology, and then exploring through both lenses how to cure the soul from the particular passion in question.  This passage from the chapter on anger is representative of Olkholm’s fascinating approach throughout:

“Nonetheless, we have seen that in the case of anger management modern secular psychology has not progressed beyond the insights of these ancient Christian psychologists and that the moderns have in a few cases reversed their theories only to ‘arrive’ at the conclusions reached by ascetic theologians 1,500 years ago.” (115)

While his insights, culled from both ancient and modern sources, are quite interesting, there are a few critical points worth noting.  Olkholm uses many of the same Fathers repeatedly; in some places, it almost feels as if one is reading a treatise on Evagrius and Cassian on the Seven Deadly Sins (other common interlocutors include Benedict and Aquinas).  Thus, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety from early Christian teaching.  Additionally, there is probably a bit more contemporary psychology in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins than one would expect from reading the front and back covers.  Moreover, other than a couple of blurbs on the back from folks with psychological credentials, it is hard to see where Olkholm’s expertise in mental illness and psychological disorders originates.  A forward from someone with such credentials would have provided a bit more confidence in the author’s psychological conclusions. (As an aside, I cannot wait to share this book with friends who have more psychotherapy training than I – which is to see any at all.)

On the whole, however, Dennis Olkholm has contributed a great deal in this new volume to our understanding of ancient Christian wisdom and how it might inform and even bolster contemporary psychological findings.  Students of spirituality, ancient Christianity, and counseling will all benefit from this work.  For preachers, I would also recommend this as a resource for a study or sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins (it would pair quite nicely with, for instance, Will Willimon’s book Sinning Like a Christian).  The question at the top of this review, which the author asks in the introduction (p. 7), is a significant one.  I, for one, hope that others develop the important connections that Dennis Olkholm has made even further, for the benefit not just of the therapist’s couch but for the church as a whole.

Arminianism & Postmodern Spirituality

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” -Psalm 150:6

During a recent talk at Pfeiffer University, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance and a leader in the missional church movement, discussed the shift in spirituality from Enlightenment modernity to 21st century postmodernity.  In previous generations, when there was a measure of Christian influence in the culture, evangelism could begin with certain premises.  But times have changed.

A case in point is whether or not human beings are, from the outset, separated from God.  Much 20th century evangelism began from the premise that the person on the street who has never heard of Jesus is in a state of sin, totally apart from God and lacking a saving relationship with Christ.  Hence the old revivalist standby question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”  The answer, of course, is that if one has not “received Christ” they will certainly go to hell.  Many an altar call has been successful through this strategy.

But postmodern spirituality no longer makes such a soteriological strategy wise (if indeed it ever was).  As McNeal pointed out – and research from many quarters has borne out – North Americans today are less religious, but more spiritual than ever.  While measures of religiosity such as church attendance, baptism rates, etc. are at historic lows, huge majorities of Americans still express belief in the Divine in various ways.  Thus, beginning a conversation with non-Christians from a premise of a-priori separation is not a fruitful evangelistic strategy.

Enter classical Arminianism.  Arminians affirm that God’s grace is active in all persons, preceding human knowledge of or decision for God.  Unlike the Calvinist conception of grace, which is irresistible, prevenient grace (which “comes before”) is active upon all people but does not overwhelm individual will.  Prevenient, or, as John Wesley called it, “preventing” grace is the common possession of all people, made in the Image of God.  No one is utterly separate from God because God is always drawing us toward Himself by prevenient grace.

This makes for a powerful evangelical message to postmoderns already convinced they have a connection with the Divine.  Arminian spirituality recognizes, in common with many ostensibly secular Western persons, that all people do indeed have a relationship to and knowledge of God, however incomplete.  Thus, the message of a postmodern,  authentically Arminian evangelicalism can, without hesitation, say to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd: You are not fully separate from God, in fact, He’s been working on you all along.  Thus a subtle but powerful shift in evangelical rhetoric occurs, from “come and meet He of whom you are ignorant,” to “come and embrace fully the One whom you know in part.”

So those of an Arminian bent are especially geared, if we own our doctrinal inheritance, to reach the inwardly spiritual but outwardly agnostic masses of the 21st century.  The work of the Society for Evangelical Arminians has been superb in helping Arminians reclaim our voice in the wider Christian conversation.  Such resources aid us in proclaiming, without compromise, that the instincts of an increasing number of youth and young adults are not wrong: they do apprehend the true God, albeit through a glass and darkly.  This is a significantly more hopeful starting point for conversation than the lie – too often told – that anyone could be, even if they so desired, fully apart from God.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.
Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

What do you think about the connections between Arminian doctrine and postmodern spirituality? How best to contemporary Christians reach out to the “nones” among us?

Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

More like your own personal idol.
More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.
An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

“A School for the Lord’s Service:” 6 Lessons from a week with the Benedictines

monastery2014
An elderly monk-priest enters the sanctuary to prepare for one of the many prayer services of the day. Personal photo.

I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C.  I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college.  While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned  much during my all-too-brief time with the community.  Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself.  I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.

1) Community is a blessing

Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience.  As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”  In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died.  Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways.  They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same.  After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.

2) Community is difficult

The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together.  This, of course, would not be without its own problems.  But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift.  After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times.  This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)

Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a  rather petty creature.   I suspect I am not alone.  That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places.  Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.

3) Reverence is a rare treasure

Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery,  was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence.  Awe.  Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp.  I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship.  God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness.  But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost.   We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort.  In his instructions to his Order, known as  the Rule, Benedict says,

“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, 
we do not presume to do so 
except with humility and reverence. 
How much the more, then, 
are complete humility and pure devotion necessary 
in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!” 

4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift

UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.”  The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way.  The Rule of Benedict, again, says:

“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region 
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires, 
provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”

I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel.  They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome.  As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me.  He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.”  He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.”  What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.

5) Obedience and freedom are connected

Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them.  I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way.  The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop.  Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus  avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”

The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,

“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.

But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”

Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together.  Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries.  Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true.  Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.

6) Silence is holy

Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence.  The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence.  They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect.  This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast).  The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.

In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,

“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times,
but especially during the hours of the night.”

I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction.  My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is.  After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Concluding thoughts

This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk.  I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again.  They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.

Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:

“Whoever you are, therefore, 
who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, 
fulfill with the help of Christ 
this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; 
and then at length under God’s protection 
you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue 
which we have mentioned above.”

Henri Nouwen on Living Where God Is

From The Inner Voice of Love:

“To live a disciplined life is to live in such a way that you want only to be where God is with you.  The more deeply you live your spiritual life, the easier it will be to discern the difference between living with God and living without God, and the easier it will be to move away from the places where God is no longer with you. 

The great challenge here is faithfulness, which must be lived in the choices of every moment. When your eating, drinking, working, playing, speaking, or writing is no longer for the glory of God, you should stop it immediately, because when you no longer live for the glory of God, you begin living for your own glory. Then you separate yourself from God and do yourself harm.

Your main question should always be whether something is lived with or without God. You have your own inner knowledge to answer that question. Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God.  These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them. But every time you do something for the glory of God, you will know God’s peace in your heart and find rest there.” (pp. 23-24)

Who Gets You Out of Bed On a Sunday Morning?

I’m reading N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian with a small group at church.  It’s proving to be a little heady, but most are liking it.  (While many on the theo-blogosphere might not find it so, it’s worth remembering that even Wright’s popular writings are far denser than the drivel that is typically mass-marketed to literate believers.)  He does a great job of mapping out three different ways of relating heaven and earth, or, if you like, the physical and the metaphysical.  The Bishop says they are either the same (pantheism), overlapping and mysteriously interlocking at various and sundry places (the Jewish/Christian view), or they are utterly distinct (gnosticism and its cousins).  The last of these views is held by many in the West who believe in a vague, uninterested and uninteresting god – the one Pacino/Satan in The Devil’s Advocate calls “an absentee landlord.”  Wright correctly notes that such a God would motivate few if any people to do anything worthwhile; even something as simple as getting out of bed for such a deity would seem rather pointless.

In fact, many people in the Western world assume that when they talk about “God” and “heaven” they’re talking about a being and a place which – if they exist at all – are a long way away and have little or nothing directly to do with us.  That’s why, when many people say they believe in God, they will often add in the same breath that they don’t go to church, they don’t pray, and in fact they don’t think much about God from one year’s end to the next.  I don’t blame them.  If I believed in a distant, remote God like that, I wouldn’t get out of bed on a Sunday morning either. (Simply Christian, 62-63)

 

For a great introduction by Bishop Wright, check out his lecture from a few years back at the National Cathedral over at their site.