...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Tue, 02 Sep 2014 04:27:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer no The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer) 2006-2009 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Creation Is a Many Splendored Thing (2): Genesis 1:1-2:3 Tue, 02 Sep 2014 04:01:25 +0000 hs-1995-45-a-large_web

Crucible of Creation: Orion Nebula (detail: Hubble)

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.

• Psalm 93:1-2, NRSV

As the Bible’s first creation account, Genesis 1 enjoys pride of place. Positioned as the cosmogony of cosmogonies, the Priestly account is also the most carefully structured text in all of Scripture. Its intricate arrangement reflects something of creation’s own integrity . . .

. . . As creation unfolds “daily,” it becomes constructed in the imago templi, in the model of a temple. What took Solomon seven years to complete (1 Kgs 6:38), God took only seven days, and on a cosmic scale no less! In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests.

• William P. Brown

In our first post reflecting on insights from William P. Brown’s book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, we noted Brown’s observation that the story of “creation” is found not just once, but seven times in the Bible:

1. Genesis 1:1-2:3
2. Genesis 2:4b-3:24
3. Job 38-41
4. Psalm 104
5. Proverbs 8:22-31
6. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; 12:1-7
7. Isaiah 40-55 (excerpts)

The first of these accounts, of course, is in Genesis 1. Brown’s interpretation of this text is close to my own (with some significant differences — see My View of Genesis 1– a post I will update soon). In particular, let me mention the following seven points, with which I am in full agreement:

First, Genesis 1 may have the polemic purpose of contrasting the Jewish view with that of the Babylonians and others in the Ancient Near East, but it does so subtly. Whatever hints of cosmic conflict it may contain are muted, with the overall effect of portraying God as One who is majestically above all other so-called gods.

Second, the account is intricately structured, primarily by the number 7. This is not always appreciated by English readers, but it is  key to understanding that this is not merely prose reporting of events, but “exalted prose” that is written this way for effect. It is not poetry, but if not, it comes close to having a poetic effect on the reader. Some suggest it may have been liturgical in nature, but whatever its precise genre, it is magnificent in its numerical complexity while at the same time it speaks with profound simplicity of language. “. . . the order inscribed in this account imparts a remarkable mathematical aesthetic, the quantifiable order of a fully stable, life-sustaining, differentiated world.”

Third, the narrative also follows a symmetrical order by which God addresses the conditions spoken of in 1:2 — “without form” and “empty.” God forms his creation on the first three days and then fills it on days 4-6. These days are essentially parallel to each other, with some variations, so that on Day 4 God fills what he formed on Day 1, and so on. Day 7 stands alone as the day of completion, answering “Day 0″ when creation was uninhabitable.

Gen_Pattern_convertedFourth, Brown notes that this pattern is consistent with the three-fold arrangement of sacred space in ancient temples. Genesis 1 is a portrayal of God the King creating a cosmic temple in the world.

Orion Nebula (Hubble)

Orion Nebula (Hubble)

Fifth, this gives us a clue as to the place of humans as creatures made in God’s image. “Many an ancient temple contained an image of its resident deity within its inner sanctum. In Jerusalem, however, the physical representation of God was expressly forbidden . . . . Genesis 1, however, does not jettison the language of divine image but recasts it by identifying the imago Dei with human beings, created on the sixth day.” This suggests that humanity’s role is to rule as priests in God’s good creation, to embody the imago Dei in the world.

Sixth, in creation God works with its material elements, not simply over them and without their free cooperation. The idea that creation is “good” includes its fecundity and ability to generate and sustain itself. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive.

As a whole, creation takes place in Genesis 1 from the top down and from the bottom up. God commands from on high for creation to happen, yet much of the creative process emerges from below. Both the earth and the waters contribute to the emergence of life. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive. The creative process is no singular event; neither is it a unilateral process. The result is a creation that exhibits structure and variety, a cosmic living temple, a creation deemed “extremely good” (1:31).

Seventh, God is portrayed as a beneficent Ruler who builds his temple as he commanded Israel to build hers: led by Moses (who spoke the word of divine instruction), Aaron (who served as priest), and Bezalel (the artisan who crafted the temple by the Spirit). All these roles are filled by God in Gen. 1.

• • •

One more thought in closing. Brown gives us an important reminder about the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This story came to Israel in an important socio-historical context.

The Babylonian exile of 587 BCE had left the land of Judah more than decimated. From the perspective of those most affected, imperial conquest and deportation rendered the land “void and vacuum.” The survivors experienced such national trauma as nothing less than a resurgence of cosmic chaos, leaving the land “empty,” stripping the community of its national identity, and leaving the temple in ruins. The good news of Genesis 1 is that God can work with such chaos to bring forth new creation. Heard in the time of exile, the message of imago Dei in Genesis would have been a “clarion call to the people of God to stand tall again with dignity and to take seriously their royal-priestly vocation as God’s authorized agents and representatives in the world.”

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For Labor Day: Gene Veith on Vocation Mon, 01 Sep 2014 04:01:59 +0000 Camille_Pissarro_-_The_Harvest

The Harvest, Pissarro

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that God give us our daily bread, which He does. He does so not directly as with the manna to the Israelites, but through the work of farmers, truck drivers, bakers, retailers, and many more. In fact, He gives us our daily bread through the functioning of the whole accompanying economic system — employers and employees, banks and investors, the transportation infrastructure and technological means of production — each part of which is interdependent and necessary, if we are going to eat. Each part of this economic food chain is a vocation, through which God works to distribute His gifts.

God heals the sick. While He can and sometimes does do so directly, in a spectacular unmediated miracle, in the normal course of things God heals through the work of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. God protects us from evil. This He does by means of the vocation of police officers, attorneys, judges — also through the military vocations. God teaches through teachers, orders society through governments, proclaims the Gospel through pastors.

The Gleaners, Pissarro (detail)

The Gleaners, Pissarro (detail)

Luther pointed out that God could have decided to populate the earth by creating each individual and each generation separately, from the dust. Instead, He invented families. God ordained that new life come into the world — and be cared for and raised into adulthood — through the work of a man and a woman who com together into a family. Husband, wife, father, mother are vocations through which God extends His creation and exercises His love.

All of this simply demonstrates that, in His earthly kingdom, just as in His spiritual kingdom, God bestows His gifts through means. God ordained that human beings be bound together in love, in relationships and communities existing in a state of interdependence. In this context, God is providentially at work caring for His people, each of whom contributes according to his or her God-given talents, gifts, opportunities, and stations. Each thereby becomes what Luther terms a “mask of God”:

All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government — to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things. (Luther, Exposition of Psalm 147)

• Gene Edward Veith, Jr.
The Spirituality of the Cross

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Spiritual Formation Talk: Sacred Reading Sun, 31 Aug 2014 04:12:16 +0000 13390748525_b4a245d001_z

The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.

• Psalm 119:130

• • •

In our second post on Fr. Charles Cummings’ book, Monastic Practices, we take up the first of the three basic practices of monastic daily life, in order to consider how they might inform the spiritual formation of those who follow ordinary callings.

Sacred reading, manual work, and liturgical prayer constitute the threefold footing of our daily life. (p. 7)

The first practice is sacred reading (lectio divina). Cummings notes that St. Benedict devoted two to three hours each day to this practice in the warmer months, and four to five hours in the winter months.

As Fr. Cummings describes this practice, sacred reading is a conversation with God.

The monk or nun would sit with the text of Scripture and begin to read attentively and reflectively until a word or phrase struck the imagination or the heart. At that moment the reader paused, put the text aside, and gave himself to prayer. The prayerful pause might last less than a minute or might be extended for a number of minutes. When attention faltered, he or she would resume reading until the next moment of insight or movement of love. The rhythm of reading and pausing would continue peacefully, unhurriedly, until the bell announced the next exercise of the monastic day. (p. 8)

The alternation of reading and pausing for contemplation or prayer is key to this practice and makes it conversational. It is about listening and responding, just as we do when we have a talk with a friend. It also gives us space to focus on small passages of text so that we might draw deeper meanings and implications out of them.

These are the words the author uses to describe this process: assimilation, impregnation, interiorization, personalization. It involves “savoring” and “relishing” the words we read, tasting, digesting, and drawing nourishment from them. And like taking meals, the effects may not be evident immediately. The goal is not to have spectacular “experience” every time, but to maintain a good diet that promotes long term health and well being.

Fr. Cummings warns us that we will run into obstacles as we pursue this practice. First, the texts we have before us may not always lend themselves to sacred reading. This is true of the Bible itself — though all Scripture may be “inspired,” a given passage may not be inspiring in a way that lends itself to this approach. Some texts may be beyond our present capacity to understand. Certain questions and issues may distract us from the conversational purpose of our reading. If we are reading devotional materials from another author, the style may be unfamiliar to us, the language or idioms difficult to grasp. “At some point the reader has to make an honest decision about whether a particular text is worthy staying with for sacred reading” (p. 10).

13390768785_a2c5019e02_zAnother obstacle is our own impatience. Sacred reading is meant to be a leisurely conversation, understood as one small exchange in a lifetime relationship. In our day, many of us tend to expect an instant pay-off whenever we give ourselves to a practice. That is not the goal here. Nor is this reading in order to gain a bundle of information or to get through a certain amount of material. “Speed reading is useful, and even necessary, for digesting the contents of textbooks, periodicals, or newspapers. But when the time for sacred reading comes, I have to be able to read slowly and patiently, in a relaxed and open spirit, ready to “taste and see how good the Lord is” (Ps. 34:8) (p. 11).

We are encouraged to prepare for this kind of reading. Set aside time. Have a suitable place. Take a few moments to relax and quiet the noise within. In prayer, ask God to meet with you as you read.

Although Charles Cummings is hesitant to set any “rules” for the practice of sacred reading, he does give examples of how others have practiced lectio divina and encourages us to learn from them. For example, the twelfth century Carthusian prior Guigo spoke of a four-runged ladder of (1) reading, (2) meditation, (3) prayer, and (4) contemplation. Guigo compared this to the way we eat: (1) taking food into our mouths, (2) chewing our food, (3) swallowing the food, and (4) enjoying the refreshment and fullness our food gives us.

Cummings also compares this with the fourfold patristic way of interpreting the Bible: (1) the literal sense, (2) the moral sense, (3) the allegorical sense, (4) the spiritual (or anagogical or eschatological) sense. When we read, we grasp the meaning of the words. Then, through meditation we search for what the text has to say about life and God’s values. Through the third step, prayer, we learn what the text says about God and his Kingdom, and in the fourth we enter into a vision of the heavenly realities that the text represents.

Finally, Fr. Cummings suggests the fruit that may grow in our lives from this practice.

Continual exposure to the power of the word of God in sacred reading must have noticeable effects on the reader. Gradually the word will become flesh in the reader’s daily life. He or she will become not merely a hearer, but a doer, of the word (Lk. 6:47). Sacred reading makes an opening through which the life-giving word of God can enter the reader’s heart and carry on its work of healing and transforming. The word once received is received more readily the next time.

The habit of listening during sacred reading fosters the attitude of listening in other situations to what the word of God is asking. The habit of mulling over words and phrases or murmuring them aloud fosters the practice of repeating short, ejaculatory prayers during free moments or while working. Fidelity to sacred reading should work a gradual change in the reader’s relationships with other people, helping him or her become more generous, considerate, gentle, and less selfish, cranky, gossipy, touchy. Sacred reading spreads out into daily life as a power of ongoing reformation and conversion and enabling the reader to recognize and respond to the word of God spoken at diverse times and circumstances. . . . (p. 18)

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Saturday Ramblings: Labor Day Edition, 2014 Sat, 30 Aug 2014 04:01:26 +0000 1681640-poster-1280-1-men-at-lunch-poster

Happy Labor Day weekend!

In my heart, mind, and body rhythms, this weekend will always be the end of summer. However, here in Indiana, where we have an abomination called a “balanced school schedule,” we are already a month into fall. In fact, on July 31 my grandson announced to me that he was going to the pool on the next day because it was the (and I quote) “last day of summer.” What are they doing to our children? I’m pretty sure that the opening sequence of the Andy Griffith Show — you know, where Andy and Opie are walking down the road to go fishing — was filmed in summer, maybe even in August. If I take my grandson fishing like that now, we’ll be facing truancy and contributing the delinquency of a minor charges! And if we’re a month into fall already, that means Christmas decorations will be going up any day now, and — worst of all — the airwaves will soon be filled with campaign ads for the elections! This whole thing has made me so crazy, I’m rambling!

Which, by the way, is what we’re supposed to be doing together this morning. C’mon, let’s get away from my rantings . . . and ramble!

settings-iconlabor-day-postcardAccording to this informative Time Magazine article, we owe the date of Labor Day to our nation’s greatest president ☺, Grover Cleveland, who signed it into law in 1896 in recognition of the growing labor movement. The piece notes that International Worker’s Day is actually May 1, but scholars explain that Labor Day is a “government alternative” to IWD because they wanted to avoid linking the holiday with the infamous Haymarket Affair in Chicago, in which many people died when workers marched to demand the 8-hour work day.

Here is one pundit who builds a strong case that on Labor Day we should think about the positive impact unions make in our economy and how we should be concerned about making them strong again. In Robert L. Borasage’s opinion, “This Labor Day, we should do more than celebrate workers — we should understand how vital empowering workers and reviving worker unions is to rebuilding a broad middle class.”

However, in this piece by Morgan O. Reynolds, the author argues that, although one can make a case for other voluntary worker associations that represent the interests of employees, labor unions as we have had them are not good for the economy. Why? Because (1) they “do best in heavily regulated, monopolistic environments,” (2) “gains to union members come at the expense of those who must shift to lower-paying or less desirable jobs or go unemployed,” and (3) “despite considerable rhetoric to the contrary, unions have blocked the economic advance of blacks, women, and other minorities.”

What do you think? Discuss.

settings-iconUS News & World Report has a list of the 100 Best Jobs in the U.S. Here is their ranking of the top 10, based on, “employment opportunity, good salary, manageable work-life balance and job security.”

  1. diverse-medical-career-group-849x565Software developer
  2. Computer systems analyst
  3. Dentist
  4. Nurse practitioner
  5. Pharmacist
  6. Registered nurse
  7. Physical therapist
  8. Physician
  9. Web developer
  10. Dental hygienist

The worlds of technology and medicine dominate the top 50 (medicine alone accounts for 40% of all the jobs), with a nod here and there to engineering, finance, and education. Oh, and #49 — Nail technician.

I’m sorry to say I didn’t find “pastor,” “chaplain,” “blogger” or “baseball fan” anywhere on the list.

settings-iconAll this work has to make a person tired, doesn’t it? Maybe a good “power nap” is just the thing for you. Did you know that drinking some coffee or ingesting some other form of caffeine before shutting your eyes might help that nap be more effective, more refreshing? Say hello to the “coffee nap.” Read about it in the article: Scientists agree: Coffee naps are better than coffee or naps alone.

settings-iconWhile we’re discussing work, let’s think for a moment about “good works” from a Christian perspective. August 28 was the anniversary of St. Augustine’s death, and Relevant Magazine shared 15 of his most memorable quotes that have helped to shape Christian thought over the centuries. Here’s one of my favorites:

On Serving Those in Need
What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.

Here is what St. Augustine said about the relationship of faith and good works. He is commenting on the relationship between Ephesians 2:8-9 (“not of works”) and Ephesians 2:10 (“for good works”).

We are framed, therefore, that is, formed and created, “in the good works which” we have not ourselves prepared, but “God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” It follows, then, dearly beloved, beyond all doubt, that as your good life is nothing else than God’s grace, so also the eternal life which is the recompense of a good life is the grace of God; moreover it is given gratuitously, even as that is given gratuitously to which it is given. But that to which it is given is solely and simply grace; this therefore is also that which is given to it, because it is its reward;-grace is for grace, as if remuneration for righteousness; in order that it may be true, because it is true, that God “shall reward every man according to his works.”

settings-iconNightsounds-BillPearceHere is another suggestion for getting a good night’s sleep and having sweet dreams so that you’ll awake refreshed and energized to go to work in the morning. Way back in the 1970′s and 80′s, we used to listen to a late-night radio program out of Moody Radio in Chicago that soothed our souls and made our eyelids heavy. It was called “Nightsounds,” and its host was a man with an incomparably consoling voice named Bill Pearce, who spoke gentle words of encouragement and played peaceful music into the wee hours. Now, not only can you go to the Nightsounds website and listen to these programs, but there is an app for your phone or tablet so you can listen anytime and drift off, thinking the loveliest thoughts . . .

Check out the Nightsounds App here.

settings-iconA lot of pastors and ministry leaders are working hard to make their churches grow. But according to this piece by Alexander Griswold, it only takes one simple step to shrink your church. Here is his argument: “Every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization on sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership.” He cites the usual suspects to bolster his case: the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, the UCC, the Presbyterian Church USA. On the other hand, he points to growing conservative bodies such as the Assemblies of God, the Roman Catholic Church, the LDS.

So, the question is, is this causation? or correlation? I don’t know; what do you think? Griswold claims that conservative Christians never have to sacrifice the one responsibility of growing their churches to fulfill their other responsibility of upholding what they think is just. Is he right about that? Have mainline churches who have made decisions about broadening their positions on sexuality made a bargain to sacrifice growing their churches to affirm what they think is a justice issue? And have conservative churches, in contrast, faithfully struck the balance of upholding both values? Or have they sacrificed other things?

settings-iconWe end with a guy who is a real “piece of work.” I apologize ahead of time — I just couldn’t help myself. Here is the promo for “pastor” Ed Young’s latest sermon series.

Yes, Ed. That’s exactly how I imagine God. As a drone (I guess that should be Drone) who is constantly spying on my life so he can strike when I get out of line. Get your drone on?!?

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Meeting Jesus Through Community? Fri, 29 Aug 2014 05:20:04 +0000 1100px-1DundasI am involved in a number of different communities. Some are communities of faith, but most are not. Now, this may sound like a cop out, but my primary way of introducing people to Jesus has been to introduce those in my non faith communities to my faith communities.

Let me introduce you to first to my non faith communities:

1. My neighborhood. We used to have a reasonably social neighborhood. Typically there would be 1 or 2 block parties a year, at either Christmas or during the summer. The two sets of organizers moved away, and for the past ten years there really hasn’t been any group social functions. In my area of Canada it only seems to be the summer time when you get a chance to interact with your neighbors. Case in point, my next door neighbor recently met the lady who lives diagonally across from me. They had been living in their houses for 25 and 50 years respectively. Their is probably only one family we know well enough in our immediate neighborhood to invite to join in with one of our faith communities.

2. Our kids’ school communities. We moved into our neighborhood when our eldest was less than a year old (he is about to turn 20). It was not until he started school that we started forming relationships within our larger community (see #1). Often the friends we made live several blocks away. We would not have met them had it not been for the school community. While I am not as involved in the school community as I used to be, many of the relationships remain. Three families from our school communities have attended our church as a result of our interaction with them. Four two of these families is was a one time only visit.

3. My daughter’s cycling community. My daughter has been racing competitively for nearly two years. In that time I have gotten to know many of the other parents. Some of them quite well. Now when we go to cycling events many of us eat a communal meal. We are friends on facebook and there is much encouragement that goes on. In fact, we have become friends with parents of riders from other teams as well. One of the parents from our team has invited us to a barbecue tomorrow (more on this later). It is in this group of people that I see the most potential for making spiritual connections. They are the sort of people that I think Jesus would like to hang out with. They like to drink and party and have a good time. They are also open to discussions about faith. Having gotten to know me over two years they know that I am not some kind of religious nut job. I just can’t imagine inviting them to church. They wouldn’t fit it. They wouldn’t feel comfortable. They wouldn’t be back.

4. My work community. My current work position is quite different from my previous one. In my previous position at a marketing company, only about 5% of the company attended church. In my current position in a software development company the number is about 50%. In my current position however I am a manager and as such I feel a lot less free to talk about matters of faith. The questions do come, and I am happy to answer them when they arrive. Sometimes those questions have led to others become followers of Christ, but I have always played a minor role in the process.

5. My facebook community. Facebook has been really good with helping me reconnect with old friends, and helped me make some new ones. Many of my friends have extreme views (both left and right), but I try to be pretty moderate with my comments. I don’t link from facebook to Internet Monk, as I know that what I write hear will upset many of my friends, both left and right. While I don’t say much about matters of faith on facebook, I have gotten into a few discussions when incorrect information about Christianity is being disseminated.

Moving on to the faith communities:

6. Internet Monk. Many of my Christian associates do not understand Internet Monk. They fail to realize that it is primarily of those who have tried evangelicalism and found it wanting. They fail to realize that while Internet Monk rejects much of evangelicalism, we are seekers after Jesus. We know that through Internet Monk some have come to Christ, others have returned to Christ, and still others have been strengthened and encouraged in their faith. Michael Spencer focused on a “Jesus Shaped Spirituality”, one that cut away at the cultural baggage being currently associated with Christianity. There are certain non Christian friends who, while not being able to appreciate the whole of Internet Monk, would be interested in several of the articles that have been written here. Michael Spencer’s devotional commentary on Mark is being edited in such a way that it will encourage others to “Reconsider Jesus.”

7. My small group. I lead a small group. We have about 13 adults involved, all at various stages in their spiritual walk. We share a meal and do a bible study every two weeks. Our prayer times are special as we do certainly care for each other. One of our members came to faith in Christ relatively recently and was baptized about a year ago. We have potential, but at the same time I think it is hard for non Christians to join in with us. Much of that focuses around material selection and finding resources for small groups that is appropriate for both new and established believers.

8. My church. There is a lot I like about my church. The leadership definitely has the desire to reach out to our larger community. Howver, in doing so the church has paradoxically developed an us versus them mentallity when it comes to interacting with non christians. Couple that with having almost no social interaction with church members outside of small group, and I have reached the point where I am no longer comfortable inviting outsiders into my church community.

So really, I am a bit stuck. I don’t have a great landing place for those in my non faith communities who might want to consider exploring Christianity and who Jesus was. I don’t have a faith community that I think I could plug them into. This is something that I will want to be thinking about over the next few months to see what kind of direction that will take.

How about you? Have you had similar experiences in the interaction between your communities? How comfortable are you inviting your non faith communities into your faith communities? What issues or barriers do you face? As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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Love in the Desert (1) Thu, 28 Aug 2014 04:01:08 +0000 Menas jesus

All these problems together convince many modern Christians that they could only become real Christians if it were not for the other people in the world. For them to be Christian means to be a “spiritual” person, full of love and joy to share with all the human race, but they find it very hard to be in contact with the real flesh-and-blood problems of other human beings. In their minds, “spiritual” people “rejoice in the Lord always” and whatever hinders their rejoicing, including a lot of complexity and ambiguity in life, gets rejected. Often they can hardly tolerate other people’s real problems or even their personalities. Real people tug them away from the pure, spiritual love of God.

• Roberta C. Bondi

• • •

Yesterday’s case study highlighted something I have observed for a long time as a pastor, a chaplain, and as a Christian. At ground level, most trouble we experience in the church is about relationships between people. Followers of Jesus most often fall through a failure to love. As much as we might talk about our “relationship with God,” or faith, or sound teaching, or worship practices, etc., the bottom line for most of us is how we treat and are treated by the other human beings around us.

This is why Jesus pinpointed one thing that would identify people as his followers (John 13).

This is why the N.T. epistles spend so much time urging people in the congregations to practice genuine love by exhibiting mutual affection, honoring others above themselves, generously contributing to others’ needs, showing hospitality, being supportive to one another in times of rejoicing and in seasons of sorrow, not being haughty but willing to associate with the lowly, not returning evil for evil but being kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ forgave, extending forbearance, showing compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (see Romans 12, Ephesians 4, Colossians 3).

And on and on it goes. The apostles knock themselves out, finding every way possible to urge their friends to love each other. Paul defines the Christian life itself in these terms: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). The only thing that counts, he said. Did you get that? The only thing that counts.

Now we can learn another thing from this constant repetition of instruction and exhortation: Christians don’t do it very well. At least not consistently. Or with all people in mind. Or when it’s not easy. Often we fail to love in epic ways. If believers loved one another well, loved their neighbors as themselves, and if churches were model communities of love to the world around them, we would have a much different New Testament.

Roberta C. Bondi expands our understanding of early Christian teaching on this subject by showing us what the early Desert Fathers and Mothers said about Christian love, in her book, To Love as God Loves.

Before discussing aspects of their thoughts on loving as God loves, Bondi reminds us that these early saints taught largely through indirect methods: parables, stories, sayings. They avoided making propositional statements carefully defining the Christian way. “These early Christians had a dislike . . . for rigid answers about what it meant to be Christian.” What they give us is not rules to be followed, but words of wisdom for contemplation, encouraging those who hear to let the Holy Spirit help them make an appropriate response.

Furthermore, although these believers shared an overall common vision for Christian living, they did not speak with a single voice but respected the variety of people’s personalities, experiences, and the many paths on which believers may walk to become people of love.

Finally, Bondi warns us that these ancient sages, with whom we share a common humanity and common challenges, sometimes spoke in ways that seem foreign, even wrong to us. For example, the overall vision that drove them to the desert was the pursuit of “perfection.”

That’s a difficult word for us, and she urges us not to dismiss it merely as an ascetic’s rigorous pursuit of adherence to monastic rules or disciplines. Nor should we think of it as we use it today: attaining an absolute state of changeless faultlessness and completion (that’s more of a Greek philosophical idea), or in terms of a “perfectionist” who is obsessed with getting things right all the time (and needing therapeutic intervention). Rather, they thought of perfection as Jesus taught about it in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:48 in context): loving our enemies as well as our friends. Perfect love. A “perfection” that is not changeless but which involves change and growth and development — moving forward on the way of perfection, with God, into God’s love. Trusting God as they did, and grieved over the loveless world in which they lived, they sought God in extraordinary ways that he might form them into people who loved God and their neighbors well. (Not that they always succeeded in keeping that vision and their practices pure, but that’s another story.)

Our early monastic friends . . . believed too fervently that, working with the overwhelming gift of God’s grace, not only could an individual come to be fully loving in a way that significantly changes the world but also that, in the continuation of the work of God begun in Christ in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the whole human race and the cosmos itself would one day be transformed in love.

We will continue looking at what these fourth century believers learned and shared about love in weeks to come. We conclude today with a story of how God has made us to need each other, so that we live in God’s love by giving and receiving from one another in love.

Desert-FathersThey said of an old man that he went on fasting for seventy weeks, eating a meal only once a week. He asked of God the meaning of a text of the holy Scriptures and God did not reveal it to him. So he said to himself: “Here I am: I have worked so hard and profited nothing. I will go to my brother and ask him.” Just as he had shut his door on the way out, an angel of the Lord was sent to him; and the angel said: “The seventy weeks of your fast have not brought you near to God: but now you are humbled and going to your brother, I have been sent to show you the meaning of the text.” And he explained to him what he had asked, and went away.

• “The Sayings of the Fathers,” in Western Asceticism (Chadwick)

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Case Study: What’s a Parishioner to Do? Wed, 27 Aug 2014 04:01:33 +0000 parishioner

Today, I present a case study for your discussion. Here is the situation:

You are a member of a small to medium-sized mainline Protestant church, and have been active and involved, particularly in one certain ministry of the congregation. That ministry and its leader (who has led it for many years as a part-time paid position) was one of the main reasons you joined the church and has been a primary way you have participated in the congregation. The ministry leader herself has been a big part of the public face and personality of the church, and the work she directs, which is visible and has given the church much of its identity, has been effective in getting people involved and helping them grow.

The pastor has been very supportive of this ministry and its leader over the years. He has participated in it, publicly praised it, has often given creative license to those involved, and advocated for it with the church board.

As with all ministries, it has not been completely smooth sailing. At one point, for example, budget cuts affected the ministry leader’s salary and led to some diminishing of her position. But the biggest source of ongoing irritation has had to do with the fact that this particular ministry and the pastor’s responsibilities overlap to some extent. This has meant that the pastor has often stepped in unawares, made unannounced changes, altered strategies and plans without notice, and made unilateral decisions that affected the ministry, its leader, and everyone who has been involved (a good number of people in the congregation).

The ministry leader finally reached a point where this became unbearable, and she resigned, which was a surprise to everyone working in the ministry. She and her family will leave the church, because there are other opportunities out there for her to fulfill her calling and they have personal reasons for going elsewhere. There was no big “blow up” with the pastor, no one single issue or big problem that caused this. However, the leader felt that she had reached a point where she wasn’t really “leading” the ministry anymore and that things were unlikely to change, given the pastor’s propensity for micromanagement and unpredictability.

pewsAs an active participant in this ministry, what will you do?

You know about the problems. You may not have been in the “inner circle” all the time, but the broad parameters of the situation have been general knowledge, and you agree with the ministry leader’s perspective on this. People joke and kid all the time about the pastor’s tendencies to “keep people on their toes” with constant changes and surprises.

But you also like the pastor and have benefited from his ministry. You want to be a loyal member of the congregation. Yet it grieves you to know that this ministry, which has served as your main area of participation, will be changed dramatically. You struggle with knowing that the personality of the church will be altered, and not by natural change, but because of what you see as an unnecessary departure of a key person. You wonder if such changes have the potential to cause serious damage to the church and threaten its health and well being.

As for “solutions” or a way forward, you don’t want to gossip about this with others, knowing that would be unhealthy and unhelpful. You wonder if it’s your place to talk with the pastor and you don’t really know if you understand enough about the details of the situation to even comment about it. You certainly don’t want to lay blame. You also wonder what good it will do. The leader has left, and change has already come.

You are hurt, confused, angry, and grieving. You are also trying to keep a level head and manage your emotions. And you are trying to understand what this means for you and your future with the congregation.

What will you do?

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Another Look: Who and What Are Forming You? Tue, 26 Aug 2014 04:01:21 +0000 14742146983_4b9a7e0a22_z

A classic IM post by Michael Spencer from April, 2007.

Every time I feel like I have lost my way in the Christian life, I find myself back looking at monasticism, and the lessons I learned in two decades of reading Thomas Merton.

I’m not attracted to Catholicism, but I am very much attracted to the tradition of self-conscious, disciplined spiritual formation into a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is a great failing of our side of the church.

As much as we Protestants talk about being shaped by the Bible alone, most evangelicals are thoroughly formed and shaped by the communities where the Bible is handled, taught and practiced according to a “rule” or accepted authority, and by the media that supports and communicates the values of that community.

It is, without a doubt, one of the most appealing and positive aspects of Catholicism that it is self-conscious about its “rules” and authorities for spiritual formation. (Rule as in “way,” as in The Rule of Benedict.) It surely must be humorous to knowledgeable Catholics to look at the various sects, denominations and varieties of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, all claiming to “just read the Bible.”

For a large portion of my recent evangelical journey, I have found myself wandering between three varieties of evangelicalism:

1) Southern Baptist fundamentalism
2) Evangelical Calvinism
3) Generic contemporary evangelical revivalism

All of these communities could be characterized as shaping the spiritualities of believers according to largely unwritten rules and authorities.

The closest thing you get to self-conscious spiritual formation among most evangelicals: Jabez, Purpose Driven Life, or an evangelism course. Or a cruise.

It has occurred to me that at least two of these streams have done much to shape me in the belief that pursuing polemic argument is a primary expression of discipleship. I have been affected by this kind of spiritual “rule,” and when I step away from it, the effects are very obvious.

Lots of time is taken up in finding error, pointing out error, justifying the seriousness of the error (even if it is in a non-essential area), and responding to the error with the proper arrangement of Biblical material.

It’s amazing how many Christians conceive of almost the entirety of discipleship in terms of argumentation. This is seen in the pastoral models they choose, the books/blogs they write and the spiritual activities they value most (debate and classroom lecture.)

These largely unarticulated forms of spiritual formation can be seen in what is not important. I note with interest that one simply cannot say enough bad about most kinds of contemplative prayer, and any sort of silence among many of the reformed particularly. Any kind of intentional approach to spiritual formation, and any kind of intentional approach to discipleship (Dallas Willard, for example) is undertaken amidst a barrage of criticism. If the imagination is mentioned, all fire alarms are pulled and a search for Oprah Winfrey ensues.

14535833307_44abcc45c4_zMe thinks the lady doth protest too much.

The “fully formed” Christian in these traditions is not a person of silence, but of much talking, talking and more talking. Worship is lecture, a rally, or an emotion-centered event. The primary encounter with the Bible is exposition and lecture. Correcting theological error, moral error and ecclesiastical error is the main business of the church.

In other forms of evangelicalism spiritual formation is done under the guise of church growth and using ones “gifts” to grow the church. Or perhaps in the cause of righteous, upright living in the culture war. Again, the kinds of prayer, worship, community life and worship that are generated by these priorities are obvious to most observers, but largely invisible to the participants.

In all the years I was reading Merton’s spiritual direction writings, I can’t recall anything I would call polemic of any kind. He simply didn’t waste his life arguing with others. He read scripture constantly, but as the stuff of prayer, liturgy and meditation, not as the raw material for debate. He went through the “political years” when he was critical of his church for not living up to his standards of peacemaking and justice, but in the end it was the ancient life, the deep life of monastic rhythms that sustained Merton and made him a man and a monk. He worked on himself for a lifetime. Some will say because he didn’t believe in the reformation doctrine of justification. Perhaps. Maybe, however, the path of personal spiritual formation isn’t as instant, passive or automatic as we’ve been told.

I’m not holding Merton up as an ideal. Far from it. I’m simply saying that when one’s spirituality is formed by the pronouncements of pastors who are constantly chasing church growth, the culture war or the latest challenge to Calvinism, you are going to get one result, and when you go back to the sources, find the value of the ancient paths of formation, value silence, read, meditate, contemplate and seek to grow in love, you will get another result.

I can’t help but think there is an “internet Christian” spirituality as well. Formed by reading blogs. Expressing itself in writing. Concerned with all the perceptions of reality that run rampant on the net. I’m sure this isn’t a good thing either.

Spiritual formation happens in the real world. It’s not just reading, but it’s discussion and asking questions of those further down the road. It’s having leaders who are humble before the Word, and not leaders who take the word and become the pictures of arrogance. It’s seeing your sin in the light of holiness, not excusing your sin in the light of the latest crisis.

Much evangelical spirituality has become like fantasy baseball. We have our own league, our own team, our own statistics, our own insulated world in which all of this matters. We can give great speeches and write long posts (and I am the chief of sinners here) on what doesn’t matter much at all. These days, we don’t all get our 15 minutes of fame, but we can all worship a pastor, go to a winning church, opine on a blog, imagine our arguments are significant in the world.

Meanwhile, we start to look and act more like a fantasy league junky, and fewer and fewer people have any idea what we are talking about.

Here is where I have come out on this:

  • Get the devotional books out. The old ones.
  • Read Peterson, and Nouwen, and Fr. Groeschel, and Bonhoeffer and Whitney. With a group of others who care about the same things.
  • Turn it all off for a couple of hours every day.
  • Find the silence.
  • Chew up, meditate over, digest the scriptures.
  • Repent of living in the community of unaware evangelicals who devalue spirituality and overvalue polemic, argument and debate.
  • Look for the sins that grow in this mess, and root them up.
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Creation Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1) Mon, 25 Aug 2014 04:01:44 +0000 1024px-Pillars_of_Creation

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (Hubble image)

Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.

• Proverbs 9:1

Though separated by over two and a half millennia, the authors of ancient Scripture and numerous scientists of today find themselves caught up in a world of abiding astonishment.

• Brown, William P., The Seven Pillars of Creation

• • •

In William P. Brown’s stimulating book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Brown suggests that good scientists and good theologians and people of faith all explore mysteries that should provoke awe and wonder. But instead of being “lost in wonder,” it seems that many have “lost wonder” and replaced it with a spirit of adversity and contention. This book is William Brown’s attempt to restore a sense of Albert Einstein’s famous maxim back into the discussion: the experience of mystery “stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

In order to facilitate this, the author suggests the following:

To recapture something of the awe that fostered the spirit of inquiry among the ancients and today ignites the “vital spark of wonder that drives the best science,” I want to embark on my own tour of sorts, not so much a roller-coaster ride as a leisurely excursion. I propose a tour of the biblical contours of creation conducted in conversation with science, an expedition that boldly charts the now uncommon ground of wonder. (p. 5)

The central aim of The Seven Pillars of Creation is to help readers contemplate “the Bible’s own inexhaustible richness, its profound wonder” in its accounts of creation. Notice, I said accounts (plural). One of this book’s contributions to our creation discussions is to remind us that “the creation story” goes far beyond Genesis 1-2 and weaves its way all throughout the Hebrew Bible. In fact, he notes seven creation accounts, seven separate accounts, none of which tells the complete story in and of itself.

1. Genesis 1:1-2:3
2. Genesis 2:4b-3:24
3. Job 38-41
4. Psalm 104
5. Proverbs 8:22-31
6. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; 12:1-7
7. Isaiah 40-55 (excerpts)


Stellar Spire, Eagle Nebula

Brown operates with a couple of foundational perspectives as he takes us on this tour of creation accounts:

First, the truth of the Incarnation means that Christians cannot separate their views of the biblical world from what we learn from the natural world.

Theologically, there is no other option: faith in such a God calls people of faith to understand and respect the natural order, the world that God deemed “extremely good” (Gen 1:31) and saw fit to inhabit. The God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) has all to do with the world in which we do indeed live and move and have our being. The world subsists in God even as God remains present in the world. It is, admittedly, a mystery. But through science we become more literate in the mysteries of creation and, in turn, more trustworthy “stewards” of those mysteries. (p. 7

Second, “Wisdom” may form the bridge we need between matters of science and faith. He observes that the rabbi’s linked “Wisdom’s seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1) with the seven days of Creation in Genesis 1.

This insight, regardless of its exegetical validity, has inspired the title of this project. Wisdom’s “edifice complex” is, I submit, an appropriate framework for studying biblical creation in conversation with science. Biblical wisdom was nurtured by a spirit of inquiry. It acknowledges creation’s multifaceted integrity, complexity, and mystery. . . . As biblical Wisdom invites her students to enter her spacious home and partake of her varied fare (Prov 9:2-4), so the reader is invited to enter the Bible’s various perspectives on creation, to wander and to wonder, and from wonder to gain wisdom. (p. 8)

Third, though science and theology represent independent realms of inquiry, cross-disciplinary discussions are meaningful and important to both.

Because both seek truth, because each discipline is driven by an “onto-logical thirst, by the thirst to know reality as it is,” each can learn from the other, especially theology from science. If theology is about relating the world to God but does not take into account the world as known through science, then it fails. And such failure strikes at the very heart of the theological task, for among theology’s anathemas is the stigma of irrelevance or “the lack of cultural competence.” (p. 8)

William P. Brown longs for a day when the world is filled with people who are both contemplators and empiricists, sages and psalmists, stewards of the earth and servants of Christ.

This book invites the non-expert who yearns to know more about engaging biblical faith and science in constructive, as opposed to confrontational, ways. This study also welcomes the scientist who desires to know more about what the ancient Scriptures say about cosmology, nature, and humanity’s place. In short, I want to help readers become more literate in Scripture and science, as I have become in the course of my research. Specifically, I want to bring together two distinct disciplines, biblical theology and modern science, and explore points of conversation in ways that I hope generate more synergy than sparks. My conviction is that one cannot adequately interpret the Bible today, particularly the creation traditions, without engaging science. Otherwise, the Bible’s “strange new world” would become an old irrelevant word. (pp. 6-7)

• • •

The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder
By William P. Brown
Oxford University Press, Inc. (2010)


William P. Brown is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

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Sunday Formation Talk: Monastic Practices Sun, 24 Aug 2014 04:20:31 +0000 13386399864_9655d545cd_z

. . . the following reflections on the basic elements of our daily life spring from a belief that the ordinary things we do every day constitute our normal monastic path to God.

• Fr. Charles Cummings

For Sundays from now through the fall, we’ll be focusing on the topics of spiritual formation and spiritual practices. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and responses to a book I bought when I had a weekend retreat at Gethsemani Abbey last spring. It is called Monastic Practices, and it was written in 1986 by a Trappist monk, Fr. Charles Cummings. This book was designed primarily as a guide for monks and nuns, but Cummings notes that “A selective, prudent use of these practices might be of benefit to persons ‘in the world’ wishing to follow the traditional christian methods of spiritual deepening.”

The majority of us may only be internet monks, but I know many hunger for the “spiritual deepening” of which he speaks.

• • •

In the introduction to Monastic Practices, Fr. Charles Cummings makes several pithy and important points.

First, he reminds us that it may not always be clear to us how any particular practice in which we engage is fostering a deeper experience of God.

As one who played and coached sports and as one familiar with the discipline of musicians, I can testify that this is simply the way it is. We do not always see a direct connection between “going through our drills” and playing the game, “practicing our scales” and performing a piece of music. Practices, drills, and acted habits of preparation can be tedious, boring, seemingly without importance or meaning. But let us stop practicing for a time and then see what happens to the quality of our performances!

Second, Cummings also notes that we may go through seasons of meaningfulness. Perhaps in the first part of our journey, a particular practice resonated with us. But now it seems lifeless. I get little gratification from it. He reminds us, “All of us need to rediscover deeper levels of meaning in the things we do every day . . . .”

The traditional practices are indeed intended to be “at the service of life” and not mere exercises to be put up with. I myself have found that feelings wax and wane and that it is good sometimes to persevere through dry times, to keep praying or working or worshiping even when it seems dull. At other times, I have found it good to set some practice aside for awhile (maybe for a long while) and then pick it up again in another season of life when it seems appropriate. It is the Spirit’s work to guide us in these matters.

13385742495_007cda68d1_zThird, perhaps the most important reminder in the introduction to this book is: “[The practices] provide the traditional outward form of monastic life; its inner spirit is love.”

God’s gifts of faith, hope, and love must give life to the “dry bones” of our practices. Our hearts, minds, and spirits must be animated by the Spirit of God, creating in us new and clean hearts that seek God. Cummings warns us to always keep in mind that “rubrics” cannot magically unite us to God. As we have received Christ Jesus the Lord, Paul wrote, so we are to walk in him, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:6-7). “By grace, through faith” is the pattern of our lives in Christ just as it was the way we became united to him.

Fourth, indeed, Fr. Cummings says, external practices may not only be “dead works” but may actually constitute defenses we erect between ourselves and God!

Many of us fear God in a cowering way. We fear actually relating to God, getting close to God, opening our hearts to God. Spiritual practices can be a means by which I actually avoid encountering God. I may base my security in a life of discipline rather than in the One who loves me with an everlasting love and who calls me to love him with a whole heart. It is a measure of our weakness that we can use the very practices God has given us to erect walls between us!

Fifth and finally, the author quotes an ancient Chinese saying: “When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten.” In other words, the goal of spiritual practices is the same as that of any other kind of practice: they are meant to help us in the actual playing of the game. Once we are in the game, we forget about practice and simply play.

No great pianist was ever renowned for how well she played her scales. Nor has any great hitter in baseball been elected to the Hall of Fame because he could hit well off a tee or in batting practice. We practice in order to play the game and make beautiful music for others to enjoy. We do not practice so that we may practice well. When spiritual practices become integrated into our lives, we can take them for granted in a good way. We do our work. We go through our paces. We prepare well. We give concentration and effort, but the result is a more effortless performance. We are becoming formed, and the “shoe” fits.

• • •

Monastic Practices (Cistercian Studies)
By Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO
© 1986 Cistercian Publications, © 2008 by Order of St. Benedict, Collegeville MN


Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO,  is a Trappist monk of Holy Trinity Abbey in Utah.

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