Thursday, February 4, 2016

Advent meditation 3 from On the Incarnation

     When beginning his discussion of the incarnation, St. Athanasius takes us all the way back to the beginning, the creation of the world. "The first fact that you must grasp," he writes with emphasis, "is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning." All life comes from God, both physical and spiritual, therefore all death comes from that which is anti-God. So, the only way that life can be restored from death is through re-creation by the Creator. Through the will of God the Father, Christ, the eternal Word, works both to create us and to save us. Whatever the Word says is done; to speak something into existence is to make it; so also, to call us to repentance is to restore our spiritual life -- "...and those He called, He also justified..." (Rom. 8)
     But before he gets to the significance of creation and new creation and their relationship to the incarnation, St. Athanasius delivers an interesting apologetic against false views of the creation event. In fact, although succinct, it is one of the best and most useful ever written, for these false ideas are still with us, surprisingly unchanged. We often think that in pre-modern times these false ideas were expressed in myths and stories, but St. Athanasius does not mentions these at all. He cites three prevailing philosophical viewpoints instead.
     First, he cites the Epicureans, who said that "all things are self-originated, and, so to speak, haphazard" because they denied the existence of any kind of  "Mind" behind the universe. This sounds, alarmingly like the theory of evolution, and philosophically, it is indeed the idea that stands behind naturalism. We even see here a hint of the scientific "random mutations over time."  But St. Athanasius replies that they are not even paying attention to who they are or their own experience, for only one entity or thing could come of it, not the diversity we see all around us. (I have often felt that this logical argument against evolution is too little used. What would a random world really look like? It would be chaotic, no doubt, and lifeless, as well, completely without an ordering influence, and it could only, at best, produce one "thing." Yet, no system of operation or thought on the planet fundamentally works this way. We live in an ordered  and complex world, even though we take it for granted.) The differences we see point to a designing Mind who employed engineering hands; in other words, a Cause. Consequently, any time one comprehends the cause of something so great as the universe, so vast as all things, it has to be God.
     Second, he refers to Plato, who taught that God made everything from pre-existing, uncreated matter. This would make God out to be a craftsman like a carpenter, who makes items from already existing wood. This view puts limitations on God. He must work with something outside of himself, which he also did not have the power to create. If we understand God to be limitless and all-powerful, this type of creation could not be done by God at all; it would have to come about some other way. Plato's idea bears some resemblance to the steady-state theory of cosmology that maintained that the universe did not have a beginning but it has and will always exist in the same form as it is now perceived. Giving the universe some kind of eternal existence does away with the need for a cause, so any creator that might come along to make things must be less than God.
     This brings us to the third theory, espoused by the Gnostics, who attributed creation to a demigod. They believed that God the Father appointed the task of creating to this lesser entity. However, St. Athanasius rather quickly points out that this goes completely against the teachings of Scripture, citing the passage in Mt. 19 that states that the same God who joins a man and a woman in marriage also created them. Another passage that supports creation by the triune God is Jn 1:1-3: "In in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God... All things were created through him..." Heb. 11:3 also tells us: "By faith we understand that the universe was created by God's command..." The Bible blatantly affirms that God, and no one or nothing else created the world. To argue against this in any way, he writes, is to be blind to the truth -- "These simply shut their eyes to the obvious meaning of Scripture."
     In summary, St. Athanasius purposes three telling reasons why we should believe that God is the Creator of all things: 1.) There is strong evidence all around us for the existence of "Mind" -- design, order and unity of purpose exist in everything we observe, including ourselves. 2.) The generosity of God's goodness is evident in all that exists. God is good, therefore all he has made is intrinsically good and good for us. 3.) Humans bear in themselves a special grace or gift from God -- the very image of God, which enables us to think, feel and have the ability to know and be known by God.
     Now, back to why this is central to the necessity for the incarnation. What was made so good and unblemished in the beginning, that is, the soul of man, was corrupted through mankind's conscience choice to sin against God. This brought about man's spiritual death and need for divine rescue. "It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out his love for us..."
     St. Athanasius believed that the Fall into sin, in a strange sort of way, negated the original creation. It placed man on a path towards non-existence, the road to Hell. Instead of being ever drawn towards Heaven, man was corrupted, turned irrevocably the other way. We were in danger passing away entirely, essentially returning back to nothingness, because evil had overtaken our hearts. Once this began to happen, "corruption ran riot," as the primal glory and purposes of creation were abandoned for the lusts and desires of fallen flesh. Only the presence of the eternal Word who had made humanity to begin with prevented its complete and utter obliteration.
     It was sin, then, that has caused men, since almost the the very beginning of our existence, to lose sight of the truth about Creation. Sin made the heart of man blind to the purposes of the Creator and caused us to forget the glory and wonder from which we came. False theories about our origins have always plagued us, because we rebelled against the truth. So man has ever blindly followed a weary treacherous path of lies about the God from whom he came. But the amazing thing is, St. Athanasius affirms, it that God wanted us back so much that he expressed his creative love fully and finally by sending his Son to walk the dismal, dark and ruined human path: "...he made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of his taking human form, and for our salvation that in his great love he was both born and manifested in a human body."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Advent Meditation 2 from On the Incarnation

     St. Athanasius begins by referring the reader back to his first book, Against the Heathen, also addressed to "Macarius." This could be Macarius of Jerusalem, who is thought to have been present at the First Council of Nicea with St. Athanasius. We know that he received warnings against Arianism from St. Athanasius, who also referred to him as one who embodied the "honest and simple style of apostolical men," but we do not know if this is the same person to whom the books are addressed. However, we can be certain that Macarius was a Christian; he is called a "true lover of Christ."
     St Athanasius reminds Macarius that in his first book he had given an apologetic for Christianity, discussing who Christ is, why he came to earth and detailing the meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection, as well as giving a scathing condemnation of idolatry. Christ is the divine Word, who together with the Father, brings all things into being and so it follows that " is through Him that the Father gives order to creation,  by Him that all things are moved, and through Him that they receive their being." The incarnation is linked inexorably with creation, for life and being come from God alone as the Word carries out the Will of the Father, both to make us in in his image in the beginning and to remake us in the image of Christ for all eternity.
     When contemplating the meaning of the incarnation, one finds that it is first and foremost, a mystery. It is not, however, a who-done-it mystery, for it is all the work of God, but it is a spiritual mystery; a work of God so powerful and paradigm-changing that, although we can see the results of it, we can never understand or explain it in sufficient human terms. But because people are always trying to explain or explain away the spiritual mysteries instead of accepting them by faith, St. Athanasius refers to the two most common ways this is done: "That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride..."
     The word "traduce" means to speak ill of something or someone by deliberately telling lies so as to damage a reputation. This is what the Jews, particularly the Pharisees, often did to Christ during his earthly ministry. As controversy swirled around the blind man whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath day, they intoned, "'This man is not from God, for He doesn't keep the Sabbath.'" They claimed that Christ's miracles were satanic deceptions, and when Christ was raised from the dead they bribed the Roman soldiers to tell the lie that Christ's body had been stolen by the disciples in the dead of night.The apostle Paul said that the Gospel is a "stumbling block"to the Jews, for by desperately trying to explain it away, they hopelessly twist their words and fall into unbelief.
     In the same passage, Paul says that the Gospel is "foolishness" to the Greeks. They see it as crazy talk worthy only of scorn and derision. The Roman soldiers mocked Christ during his trial before Pilate by crowning him with thorns, calling him a sham king. The Greeks who heard Paul speak in Athens ridiculed the message of the resurrection as a joke, and after King Agrippa heard Paul's sermon, he snidely remarked,"Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?"
     St. Athanasius encourages Macarius to study the incarnation because " his Manhood he seems so little worth." Not only do unbelievers lie about Christ and make light of him, but believers may also belittle and ignore the incredible truth that God became man. If we examine the life of Christ, we will see that "he [makes] his Godhead evident." We must study the person of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels over and over again, for the more we look and the longer we consider, we will see his divine worth rising up from his humanity and growing within us into a knowledge that is deeper, wider and ever more real and glorious. So,by not being ashamed to take on human flesh, he has reminded us of the love with which he made us in his perfect image and of our eventual union with him which is our eternal destiny.
     Yet Christ came in the weakness of a tiny baby's body. He felt hunger and thirst, pain and loss, and not only experienced but also bore our sadness and sorrow. "Wiseacres" may point at this and laugh critically, but those who know Christ realize that his power, love, mercy and grace all radiate and explode from this weakness -- "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God's power to us who are being saved," and, "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." The cross is the unlikely focal point of the Incarnation.
    St. Athanasius affirms to wiseacres, doubters and to all who are just plain weary of life: "The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible..." This world-of-impossibility, that God could care enough to leave Heaven and come to a ruined planet, that he could love the unlovable, and die for sins he never could commit, is all made possible through the power of the Incarnation. "When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a redeem those under the law..." And from the very beginning of his coming, the angel's words to Mary hold true,"For nothing will be impossible with God."

Information on Macarius from Wikipedia
Scripture (HCSB) Jn. 9:16, Mt. 9:34, 28:12-17,27:27-31, Acts 17:32,26:28, 1Cor. 1:18,23

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent meditation 1 from On the Incarnation

     I thought I would take my Advent meditations this year from one of my favorite books -- On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. This little book is a classic work that dates back to the time of the ancient church. But the introduction to this book, written by C.S. Lewis (though "new") is even more of a classic piece of literary apologetics, for it is here that Lewis famously encourages us to "read old books" and to see within them "God with us."
     On the Incarnation is indeed a very old book. It was written when St. Athanasius (c296-8 -- 373) was still a young man, probably before 319. At the age of 27 he not only attended but had an influential role at the First Council of Nicea (c325). In fact, as a mere assistant to the bishop of Alexandria, he was the one to suggest the use of the now-famous word homoousion (consubstantial) to describe the relationship of God the Son to God the Father. This keystone of Trinitarian theology is forever enshrined in the words of the Nicene creed: "We one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."
     Of course, St Athanasius greatly expands on this theme of God becoming man and yet remaining fully God in his book. It is an old book of deep, yet accessible theological literature, and Lewis tells us that it is especially important to read such old books; it is far more important, he says, to study them than to study the works of modern theologians such as Niebuhr, Berdyaev or even (how can this be?!) himself! In retrospect, which viewpoint we now enjoy, the works of C.S.Lewis have become "old" -- perhaps because his soul was made old and pure and his writing given extraordinary clarity through his faithful study of not only the Word but the ancient church Fathers as well. All of us who attain to write about the "queen of sciences" should strive for nothing less than this comfortable familiarity with the classics of Christian thought.
     Lewis gives us two reasons for reading old theology books: 1.) they teach us the principles of "mere Christianity," and 2.) they refresh our vision of a fundamental Christian worldview. Modern books, he feels, deal far too often with modern controversies or trends and less with the discussion of Christianity itself. Exclusive study of them causes misinterpretations and disagreements to arise. He writes, "The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity...Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books." On the Incarnation enlightens our souls with instruction on fundamentals of the faith such as creation, the trinity, salvation and Christology. We also see more clearly how Christianity fits in with our vision of the world; how it makes sense of the happenings and philosophies that swirl around us.
      For Lewis, reading the old books caused him to consider the shape of Christianity long before he discovered the reality of faith. He read the poet Herbert, the allegorist, Bunyan, theologians St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the epic poet Dante and the not-so-old father of fantasy, George Macdonald. (I mention these because I have read and loved these, too.) He says that as he read, even though he tried to ignore it or explain it away as "English studies," the power of Christian thought and ideas kept breaking through to his searching soul. "[The books were] of course, varied; and yet -- after all -- so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life..."
     I am reminded of how the Apostle Paul used literature in a similar way when addressing the pagan sceptics on Mars Hill. He said, "even as some of you own poets have said" in order to communicate the idea that our life comes from God and the living God surrounds us. The Apostle Peter told the first Gentile believers that "all the prophets testify about Him;" in those old, old books they would learn the story of the hope for all the world. But Paul, who would go on to write so much of the New Testament, said of his own sermons and letters: "I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. For I didn't think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." And so this fundamental idea -- the centrality of Christ -- which permeates Scripture and runs through the old (and new) classics of Christian literature, draws us deeper into the heart and mind of Christ.
     Lewis also contends that the old books are devotional as well as didactical. By working hard at extracting an author's meaning and vision, we come to learn truths that delight our hearts. He vividly describes this experience as "...working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand." I, myself, scribble away in the margins of the old books, but with an accompanying cup of tea instead of a pipe! I fear my children do not know what to make of the notes I scribble in the books we trade back and forth, but perhaps one day they grow to appreciate my momentary flashes of insight. I will say, "Never fear, C.S. Lewis used to scribble in his books, too, only he became a great writer!"
     But back to St. Athanasius. In the Christendom of his day, the Arian Controversy held center stage. The bishop he had assisted at the Council of Nicea, Alexander of Alexandria, had crossed swords with the presbyter Arias, also of Alexandria, who theorized that the Son was not the same as the Father; that he was made, not begotten, and therefore not God in the flesh. From the time of the Council on, through his long term as bishop of Alexandria (during which he endured five periods of exile), to the end of his rather long life, Athanasius would oppose, fight against and counteract this false doctrine. But Arianism was insidious and wide-spread in this long-ago world -- supported by clergy and royalty, its tentacles spread north into Europe, south into Africa, east into Byzantium. In 359, St Jerome lamented "...the whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian."
     And so, Athanasius was destined to live out his epitaph -- "Athanasius contra mundum"-- Athanasius against the world. At the center of his fight was a burning desire to keep the faith, to embrace a Christianity that is genuine and old, as old as the prophets, evangelists and apostles, old, yet ever new. His fight was not so much with unbelievers, Lewis reminds us, as it was with those who having once believed fell away into "sub-Christian modes of thought." Jesus referred to this mentality as the seed that falls on thorny ground. It sprouts but is subdued by the "worries of this age," Arianism among them.
     Those who persist in this type of thought, inventing "'sensible' synthetic religions" are still with us. They belittle Christ and reconstruct the truth. They interpret the Scriptures to their own satisfaction and vainly look for good in the darkness of their human hearts, all the while claiming to follow true spirituality. Today, as followers of Christ, we stand in Athanasius' footprints, against the world. On the first page of On the Incarnation, St.Athanasius addresses these types as "these wiseacres," a clue to his "wit and talent" which he maintained so faithfully during his lifelong struggle against apostasy. By reading his little old book during this season of Advent, may we also take a stand against the world and with and for Emmanuel, God with us, the babe of Bethlehem.

information on St. Athanasius, and Arianism from Wikipedia
Scripture references (HCSB): Acts 17:28, 10:43, 1Cor.2:2, Matt. 13:22
C.S.Lewis' introduction is in the 1946 edition of The Incarnation of the Word of God, published by Macmillian

Friday, October 30, 2015

Pragmatic Grace -- Sunday sermon devotional -- 3

      It's no secret that "grace" is the primary message of today's evangelical church. It is certainly a message that has been received with many open arms and accompanying sighs of relief. This message of grace, rightly or wrongly, has made a good many Christians feel quite a bit better about themselves.
       But as I have said before, grace works. It does not stop at salvation by merely bringing us into the body of Christ, but it goes on to work in and through us into that body for its good and growth. Grace must be expressed in the church in ways that are profitable and practical. It must be used, not merely admired. When we use grace to bring about the betterment of others, we will find that everyone will benefit, for grace imparted is grace received, which, in turn, is grace empowered, something that is unstoppable.
     Our first task in making grace work it to embrace it fully, and, consequently, to live it out. Grace demands more than a passing interest or a warm feeling. Grace, because it is a gift of God, always pushes its way to the forefront of our lives. It touches everything we do and factors in to everything we feel. If we turn away from grace, try to ignore it or keep it in a special spiritual corner or our lives, we will find that we are powerless to deal with many of the negative forces that press in on us daily. Embracing grace is literally like giving a hug; we hold it close to our souls with feelings of joy and contentment. We know that it is good and precious because love has proven it to be valuable. Grace must be taken to heart. It must become our most prized possession.
      Like any thing or relationship that is worthwhile, we need to work to make it better. Our understanding of grace must be developed and deepened. Prayer and Bible study are two powerful tools we can use to familiarize ourselves with the ways of grace. Getting to know Christians who are or have been shining examples of gracious behaviour will teach us how to apply grace to everyday life at home and in the church. Anyone who receives grace will show their understanding of it by being gracious, and this is the way of life that truly makes a difference.
     Just as the grace we received from Christ, the saving grace of God, gave us many benefits, grace in our lives bestows benefits on others. The writer of Hebrews instructs us: "Therefore strengthen your tired hands and weakened knees...Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness...Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and by it, defiling many." (12:12-15) Gracious living requires hard work and dedication. It means persevering even when we are tired or worn out by something or even someone. While doing the work of grace, we must keep our eyes fixed on God, for if we are distracted by the chaos in which grace labours, it will be easy for us to become negative, bitter and discouraged. When that happens our good efforts are tainted with selfishness, turning a good thing into "trouble" for all concerned.
     In 2Tim. 2, the Apostle Paul reminds us to look to Jesus as our perfect example of a life of grace: " strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." But he is not referring to "fuzzy-feeling" grace.  He is talking about the grace that shines through suffering, hard times and even rejection. Jesus suffered so that we might be saved by "grace through faith." Bringing the good news of salvation to others often includes times of suffering. Paul says we need to be as self-disciplined in our christian life as soldiers and athletes are in their pursuits. This requires constant attention and detailed vigilance. He says we need to be like a "hardworking farmer" who not only labors long and hard, but exhibits steady patience while waiting for his goals to be realized. Grace will not allow others to fail, even if that demands strenuous work.
     Grace that works, that looks after others, that cares about and encourages another person, is a hard and even messy business. But it is immeasurably worth it. Once again, Christ is our example -- "...who for the joy that was lay before him endured a cross..." Whenever we feel that we are done or even fed up with living and acting graciously, God gives us the strength to go on. He gives us "grace upon grace" that proves to be strong and resilient. This strong grace, acting through unconditional love, truly makes a difference in our lives, in the lives of others and in the church, who has been called, received, and commissioned by love without limits, with grace beyond measure.  (sermons from Aug. 23 and Aug. 30)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

From ordinary to extraordinary

     One of my favorite (perhaps most favorite) stories or scenes in C.S.Lewis' powerful book The Great Divorce is that of the lady in the grand procession. The narrator sees a glimmering like a river flowing his way; yet it is not a river of water, but a stream of saints, angels and animals that form an elegant train around a beautiful and revered lady. Thinking that a person of great renown has drawn near, the narrator asks his guide to identify her. The teacher replies, "'It's someone ye'll never heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green...Aye. She is one of the great ones."
     On earth she was an ordinary woman. Her face was plain and she was poor. Her accomplishments were few and she was not well known. In the everyday course of events, she was insignificant, forgotten and even belittled. Even her faith was small. But... she was redeemed, she had been "bought with a price." When she was "yet a sinner, Christ died for [her]", and that made all the difference. For in the eternal now of Heaven, she had become extraordinary, beautiful, rich beyond all telling, and known by God!
     This tale leapt into my memory last month, as I was writing a eulogy for my stepmother, who died three days short of her 90th birthday. Her life, though filled with a variety of experiences, was ordinary. Her influence, though kindred with that of the Greatest Generation, was limited. Her contributions, though many, were limited to her small circle of friends, family and church members. My Mom was intelligent, but not thoughtful, a hard worker, but not industrious, friendly, but not intimate. She was firm in her faith, but not deep in her theology. She made plenty of mistakes, which, thankfully, I learned to let go of long ago. But all of that is now but a shadow of the greater redeemed reality that she has become.
     You see, when we exit this body with its crushing limitations of old age or disease or suffering, we are set free to be not only all of what we could have been without sin, but also all that we shall grow be in the world to come. The Apostle John wrote (vaguely) of this: "...and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1Jn.3:2) Ordinary people may enter Heaven, but they will not stay that way. The truth behind this, one that defies all explanation, is that the soul of the Christian is now fully redeemed, but our other faculties -- our minds and bodies and relationships -- await a greater redemption that will only find fulfillment in the life eternal with God. And this will be the journey, the telos, of Heaven.
      After the narrator in The Great Divorce is introduced to the Lady, and learns of her paradoxical story, he witnesses a dramatic encounter between her and someone she knew on earth. Although she is radiating joy and goodness, she stoops to ask for forgiveness from this individual, who now looks ghostly and dwarf-like. We would think that in her holy state she would have forgiven him, and not the other way round. Yet this is the picture of the true process of redemption, the occupation that will fill our heavenly days -- every relationship that we have here on earth will be slowly, deliberately and thoroughly redeemed, conforming us continually into the likeness of Christ, who forgave us all our sins.
     No Christian, however well-known or revered is immune from the ordinary life. We all have failures and broken relationships as well as negative life experiences that we cannot control. But God has placed us on a trajectory that will sweep all of those things away as we enter the resurrection life of the Kingdom. We are destined by grace to be victorious over sin and death. Jesus said, "I am making everything new!...He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son." (Rev.21:5,7)
     But in spite of the certainty of the wonder of the redemption to come, we are given the opportunity to begin this journey in the here and now. In the passage mentioned above, after the Apostle John marvels at the future possibility of our transformation into the likeness of Christ, he urges us to seek the present formation of our life in Christ: "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." (1Jn.3:3) Although we are so ordinary, we are given with each new day the invitation to do something extraordinary -- if we will only surrender ourselves to the Holy Spirit, who enables us to do (more often than not) the greater works of the kingdom in humble, almost insignificant, ways.
     Thus the Christian creed confirms the transforming power of the resurrection: "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." The Apostle Paul likewise declared: "...the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed." (1Cor.15:52) But the power of that change is not merely the body reborn and impervious to illness and decay, it is as well the reality of the soul liberated from sin and evil, so that our entire being, body and soul, will finally live fully and completely as the true humanity we were meant to be.
     For the Christian, this change begins the moment we die. "It is sown a natural body, it is raised an spiritual body." Death is the beginning point of eternal redemption. Through physical death we enter into a new and greater life made possible because the death of Christ defeated soul-death and his resurrection guaranteed our everlasting life. So, if we understand death this way, it should change the way we prepare for our own passing, because we will want to see to it that our redemptive actions (done to the best of our ability) begin today and lay the groundwork for who we shall become and all that we must redeem in the world without end. We must live every day with a view to dying well. As Paul reminds us: "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body." (2Cor.4:11)
      A favorite song of mine says, "We the redeemed, hear us singing, You are holy, you are holy!" Although we often sing it now as looking back at the Cross, we sing it forward,too, as we anticipate Heaven. And sometimes when I sing that song, I almost see it; I, trembling, touch the boundary of knowing... I, too, along with so many saints in my family, am an ordinary person with an extraordinary future.

Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce, HarperOne, c1946, 1973. Print.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Evangelicals missing the boat, pt.2: Forgotten past

     In many ways, evangelical Christians are all about the here and now. (this Sunday and the next series, but rarely, last year or, our former pastor said) We are always looking ahead to the next great thing that we wish to accomplish for God, forgetting or belittling our prior endeavors or accomplishments. As the wise Yoda said to Luke, "All his life has he looked the future...Never his mind on where he was...Hmm? On what he was doing." So we, too, are paralyzed by our present and enraptured with our plans.
     And when we're not eagerly looking ahead, we're wistfully looking back, way back, to the early church of the N.T., and wondering how we can be just like them -- when that will never happen. We live in an entirely different world, where we should be applying the timeless truths of Scripture to our day and age and not applying the dichotomy of a former age to our own. This is not to say that the N.T. churches no longer have anything to teach us; their stories were recorded so that we may learn many things from them, but we cannot mimic everything they did. Our story is not theirs.
     But story is very important here. Throughout Scripture, God's people are instructed to remember God's work in the past, the people who have participated in that work, and to see ourselves as co-participants in that work. In Deut. 7:18,19, Moses both reminds the Israelites of God's great act to deliver them from Egypt and informs them that this same great power will be given to them to defeat their enemies in the days to come. The members of the honor roll of faith listed in Heb. 11 (Noah, Abraham, Sarah, etc.) form the great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on in our own pursuit of God's will in his kingdom. (Heb.12:1)  Remembering the past ties our stories together with theirs. As our stories intertwine, the great story rewrites itself; in fact, it always will, because the kingdom story is all about the interactions formed by the communion of the saints, both now and in the world to come.
     The biblical word "saints" means holy, or sacred ones. The ancient Hebrews were set apart or sanctified as God's people or nation. The New Testament gives the same designation to those who have come to know Christ and have been baptized into his body, the Church. The Apostle Paul readily points this out in the salutations to most of his letters -- "called to be saints," "sanctified in Christ Jesus," and "to the saints...the faithful in Christ Jesus," he writes. So, all Christians are, or have been, saints.
      Indeed, some have been given a special designation of "Saint" by the Catholic or Orthodox Church; not necessarily a wrong thing, but more, I think, of a human thing. They have been singled out for a certain kind of honorable designation. These people are certainly worthy of great honor and respect. We, as evangelicals, should learn and, in turn, tell their stories, for their lives of faith have, whether we realize it or not, impacted us all. We should also learn from the lives of the great Protestant reformers who labored to bring the gospel back to the forefront of the church's mission. In more recent times, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical church leaders, writers and missionaries have lived exemplary lives deserving of our contemplation. Even our ordinary, everyday fellow believers, those we sit next to and passively greet on a Sunday morning, have stories that, if they were told, would amaze and edify us profoundly.
     Writing in the book I mentioned in my last post, Stanley Hauerwas says that "sainthood is power." He reminds us that we are engaged in a cosmic war between good and evil, and as the saints of God we, along with the angels, are continually fighting this war. We cannot think that being a saint is merely about being a nice, good or "saintly" person, when it is really about being a warrior who, through the power of our Lord, destroys evil forces and conquers ground for God's kingdom.
     It is odd to think that we can fight in these battles using the power of memory. Hauerwas writes, "God gives the Church the power through our remembering of the saints to wrench their lives from the tyranny of the oppressor's history so they triumph over the forces of death. In God's memory the saints triumph." (p. 103)
     We desperately need to establish forums for telling the stories of the saints, so that we may remember their courageous role in the great cosmic battle. By remembering them, their lives take on renewed power to help us fight beside them for all that is right and holy. Instead of hurrying on to the next best thing, or thinking we can ignore church history, we would do well to stop and remember the saints of old and now, and in remembering, join our resolve with theirs to pray, "thy kingdom come."

Hauerwas, Stanley. Unleashing the Scripture. Abington, 1993. Print.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Evangelicals missing the boat, pt. 1: Incomplete worship

     I guess several years of attending a "megachurch" has made me a bit cynical about many of the strange goings on that abound in evangelical churches today. I'm going to try to discuss some of these issues in this and forthcoming blog posts, if for no other reason that to get some things off my chest. I shall begin with "worship."
     Its not that evangelicals don't care about worship; they care about it incessantly. Thousands of websites, blogs, sermons and twitter feeds are passionately devoted to addressing the subject. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody has a solution. Everybody is uncomfortable in some way or another. Everybody cares.
      I've recently been reading a book by the gifted, astute and quintessentially confusing theologian Stanley Hauerwas. (I think he comes across as confusing because his amazing mind gets ahead of himself and he thinks we know what he's thinking when what he says has left us quite befuddled! As the friend who loaned me the book often wrote in the margins -- "What does he mean by this?!") But Hauerwas has also long been both a friend and a critic of evangelicalism, therefore, he has a great deal of wisdom to offer us, and we would do well to heed it.
     Let me just start this discussion of worship with a couple of intriguing quotes from Hauerwas. 1.) He begins his 1993 book Unleashing Scripture with: "No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America." 2.) And from a 2010 interview with Christianity Today: "I sometimes worry that evangelicals have a kind of privacy about how they understand their relationship with God that is destructive to the church." These two statements seem to strike at the very heart of what evangelicalism stands for; that the Bible is a book to be known and read by each individual Christian, and that personal piety is essential for Christian life and growth. Once again, what does he mean?
     I think that Hauerwas is criticizing the particularly North American tendency to privatize Christianity; that is, to ascribe to a faith that is very personal and less corporate. Evangelicals tend to favor a "just Jesus and me" mentality. We are taught to read our Bibles and pray -- on our own. Discipleship training is a series of lessons on what an individual should do to become a better Christian. This is engrained in us from our Sunday school days onward. Hauerwas is reacting to this in that he believes that the Church is fundamentally the body of believers who constitute the Bride of Christ. What we do as Christians should be done together in the context of a unifying pretext, the meeting-points of the Church where and when the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are received. We must sing, pray and declare the Word together as the Church, which is one in our Savior. And certainly this is a view of worship that is lost on many evangelicals, because we are so busy trying to be good, yea, even pious Christians on our own.
      In an interview with Al Mohler, Stanley Hauerwas further addresses this issue: "Evangelicalism doesn't have enough repetition in a way that will form Christians to survive in a world that constantly tempts us to always think we have to do something new."His choice of the word "repetition" is certainly quite interesting, especially since evangelicalism has focused so strongly on trying to get rid of repetition rather than on keeping it. In liturgical Christian traditions, (S.H. is now Episcopalian), repetition is, if not everything, essential. In fact, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was designed by Thomas Cranmer to take the Church body through a yearly repetition of truth through repeated prayers (collects), Scripture readings that cover the entire Bible, and reflections centered around annual Christian holidays and seasons. Although he compiled it hundreds of years ago, it is still a fact of life that what is repeated and familiar is remembered and practiced.
     So, in light of this, when we look at evangelical worship today, we must ask questions about what we are doing and if we are faithfully doing all that needs to be done. I believe that robust Christian worship should contain five elements -- singing, prayer, scripture reading, sermon and sacrament. (If you want all 'S's," you could say "supplication!") But in many evangelical church services, only two of these are consistently practiced -- the singing and the sermon, and even then not everyone sings and the sermon may be little more than pop psychology. This makes for incomplete worship.
     We desperately need to reacquaint the body of believers with prayers for the body; prayer that addresses the true needs of the congregation and not brief breathless appeals for Jesus to come and be with us. After all, he is with us and we need to speak to him as if we believe this.
     We need to read Scripture as if it is central and not incidental to the faith we are proclaiming. We need to show respect for the Word by standing when it is read. We need to read substantial portions of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments. Why? Because, going back to what Hauerwas said, Scripture must empower the Church as a whole, and we together must proclaim, affirm and practice it.
     In spite of the fact that various evangelical groups look at sacrament or communion in different ways, we should never think that it is insignificant. It is, instead, essential to the life of the body. Even symbolically interpreted, taking food in implies receiving life-giving nourishment. When taken literally, it is the life of Christ received into our souls. Nothing can sustain the Christian like receiving the bread and wine. Jesus said, "For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink...the one who feeds on me will live because of me." (John 6:55,57) And we eat this together only as we meet together.
     In light of all this, the message of Christ to the church at Sardis (Rev. 3) takes on a reaffirmation of meaning: "Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God." Neglecting important things in any arena of life leads to degeneration and death. Deficiencies lead to indifference. As evangelicals we need to reclaim the importance of what we do in worship and do it. What is old must be made new again. Yet, worship is not old or new; it is eternal, and as such, when truly practiced, it becomes, through the power of the Holy Spirit, whole and living and everything about which we should truly care.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Unleashing the Scripture. Abington, 1993. Print.