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Sabbath & Eucharist in Brueggemann

Sabbath as Resistance is one of those brief theological reflections that packs a punch.  It does more real work – exegesis, ethics, prophetic exhortation – in less than 100 pages than most theological works do in 300+.   For Brueggemann, the esteemed Old Testament don from Columbia Seminary, Sabbath is not merely Blue Laws and avoiding lawn work, it is both an act of resistance and alternative to the dominant culture.  To enter into Sabbath rest is to enact a counter-liturgy (here I am influenced by James K.A. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies) to the slavish existence that Pharoah brings.

In a remarkable passage from the Preface, Brueggemann links his vision of Sabbath with the Eucharist in a vivid image:

I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. Imagine having a sacrament named “thanks”! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are “weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care” receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed. (xvi-xvii)

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath is a gift of God that grows us in grace.  It is an alternative to the “earn and take” society we know too well, in that we can only receive this good gift and be glad in it.

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath invites us to a different world, a different narrative.  The “give us this day our daily bread” from the Lord’s Prayer might well hearken back to the manna that sustained God’s people in the wilderness, bread they were given each day – except the day before the Sabbath, in which they were given a double portion so they could experience rest.

Similarly, the bread of the Eucharist is a Sabbath bread, an invitation to receive from God’s own hand, and to rest (however briefly) in a world where abundance is not deserved or grabbed, but received and shared by all who desire it.  To participate in the Lord’s Supper is to gain a glimpse of the Kingdom feast, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, where all are fed and none go hungry.

As the author of Hebrews said, “there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God,” a rest that we envision every time we sit at table with Jesus and his friends.  We are not Superman, we are allowed a respite, and there is none more nourishing than this great feast of the church.

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The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures

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I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.

Egads.

There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

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The Purpose of Doctrine is Not Church Growth (or, A Correction to @RNS)

Tom Krattenmaker over at Religion News Service wrote the following a while back in a piece unfortunately titled, “Why a stout theological creed is not saving evangelical churches”:jesus crying

For many years now, it’s been treated as common knowledge in some circles that the liberal beliefs of mainline churches have been the instruments of their decline. As the story goes, if you want to know why the Episcopalians, Lutherans and others like them  have suffered precipitous drops in members and cultural clout since the 1960s, you need look no further than their acceptance of society’s changing sexual mores, women’s equality and so on.

Conservative churches and their strict, unbending doctrine, we’re told, are why they have held onto, and have even grown, their numbers.

The whole piece is worth a read, only so you can follow me as I dissect it.  The bottom line: this is not so much a piece of helpful analysis as it is a thinly veiled exercise in schadenfreude (rejoicing in someone else’s misery) by someone who is attempting to be a leading “secular” voice.  In other words, he’s simply rejoicing that his enemy (religion) appears to be in retreat.

A few points:

  • The headline – “a stout theological creed” is misleading.  Free churches, represented by the Southern Baptists he cites, are non-creedal.  A journalist of religion should have better grasp on the language of religious practice and denominational history than this.
  • The confusion of doctrine and social ethics is unhelpful.  Evangelicals make it too, and I’ve talked about it before.  But all the historical creeds deal with primary doctrine: the nature of God, the resurrection of Christ, etc.  It’s hard to know if Mohler and Moore, as quoted, are talking about basic doctrine or ethics, but this confusion of terms from the outset is problematic.  Liberal theology and progressive social policy are not the same thing.
  • There are evangelicals who are not Southern Baptists.  What Krattenmaker does not account for is the degree to which an even more precipitous mainline decline is hindered because of a remnant of evangelicals in denominations like the UMC.
  • Krattenmaker seems to have no sense of the global religious scene.  The church is growing rapidly in the developing world, and their Christianity is not the progressive Protestant variety he seems to prefer.  The American Church as a whole may be declining, but the growing global church is largely evangelical and, especially, charismatic.

The point of Christian doctrine is not church growth but identity. The value of creedal Christianity is not a guarantee of growth but the blessing of a tradition not invented last week. There is a “faith once delivered” (Jude 6), there are certain truth claims that are constitutive of Christian worship and piety.  Churches and religions that can pass on their particular faith stories to young people effectively tend to retain more of the next generation.  On this, research by Christian Smith and others is clear that Mormons and evangelicals tend to do this well, while mainline Protestants and Catholics tend to do this badly.  Even in the largest of the Mainline denominations, the UMC, the fastest-growing churches tend to be evangelical.  Krattenmaker and others might not like this fact – Progressive Methodists invent new levels of obfuscation every time these statistics come out – but it makes it no less true.

I can appreciate that Krattenmaker wants to be an emerging voice for “secular” people.  (Although, most folks I know who are secular don’t identify that way.)  But this is self-serving narrative masquerading as informed analysis.  Something that says “Religion News Service” at the top of the page should have better standards.

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A New Kind of Devotional Reading

by Drew 3 Comments

A confession: I find much that passes for “Christian inspiration” cloying and vacuous. C.s.lewis3

On the other hand, I quite like what many of my colleagues found utterly painful in seminary: real theology.

Hey, I can’t help it. As Saint Gaga says, “I was born this way.”  But, it turns out, I am not alone.  In his marvelous introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, C.S. Lewis commends theological writing as devotional reading:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.  I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

A couple of things stand out here: Lewis noted decades ago that the “devotional” books were not necessarily aids in growing our devotion to Christ.  How many popular devotional books are little more than nuggets of popular wisdom with a dollop of Scripture?  That describes vast majority I’ve encountered, at least.

Also, this helps us understand why a layman without any formal theological training turned out to be such an excellent theologian: he read extensively in the primary sources – like On the Incarnation of the Word – rather than getting trickle-down doctrine from lowest-common-denominator books designed for consumer ease rather than depth and truth.

Lewis’ experience resonates with my own.  What about you? Have you tried theology as devotional reading?  What makes your heart “sing unbidden?  If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with Lewis’ corpus, his work – such as Mere Christianity, or Screwtape Letters – would be a wonderful place to start.  You just might find them more devotional – drawing you closer to the heart of God – than those page-a-day readers that the publishers push on us year after year.

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Darkness is My Only Companion [Book Review]

darkness companion coverImagine a book that NT Wright recommended to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who enjoyed it so much he not only wrote the Foreword, but credits it with renewing his faith.

I could probably stop there and it would be enough to tell you that you should pick up the new 2nd edition of Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Revised and Expanded Edition, Brazos, 2015) as soon as possible.

But, in case you are unconvinced, let me give some of my own accolades, just in case you don’t want to take NT Wright, Justin Welby, or Stanley Hauerwas at their word (Hauerwas has a highly complimentary blurb on the back cover).

Every Christian should read Darkness is My Only Companion.  Here’s why.

Christians, by and large, have difficultly approaching mental illness, and this comes to the fore in a variety of contexts: in caring for friends and family who suffer with it, in attempting to talk about mental illness without blaming God or personal sin, and in coping with personally (because it has been so mishandled by the church, in part).  The societal stigma that keeps the mentally ill shut in on themselves, ashamed and afraid to seek help, is little better (and perhaps sometimes worse) in the Christian community.

Greene-McCreight brings a fascinating perspective, both personal and theological, to bear on the subject.  As the author notes, this book is difficult to categorize. It has elements of personal reflection and memoir, theological exploration, medical and psychological data and devotional piety.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts I’ve name, though. Quite simply, this is a remarkable book that deserves a wide reading in the church, particularly by anyone in a care-giving role.  Christians who are or have suffered from mental illness would likely benefit from the author’s own honesty in sharing her story of living with bi-polar disorder and wrestling with big questions.

She does not shy away from those questions we are often too afraid to ask (or answer too glibly), such as:

  • What is the role of spirituality in coping with mental illness?
  • How does sin relate to mental illness? Is acedia related to depression?
  • How should a mentally ill person read Scripture?
  • How can the church and other caregivers best show support to those suffering mental illness?
  • What is it like to receive treatment (medication, psychotherapy, “electro-shock,” etc.?
  • How does St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” relate to mental illness?

Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote this book because what she sought out was not available; thus the importance of this work – it is simply unique, and its power is bound up in the need of the author for a resource to help her journey with mental illness as a disciple of Jesus. “Yet while therapists and counselors, psychiatrists and medications abound,” she notes, “I found no one to help me make sense of my pain with regard to my life before the triune God.” (5)

Both the author’s personal piety (she is an Episcopal chaplain by vocation) and deep well of knowledge (she holds a PhD from Yale) are present on every page.  She peppers her stories of struggle and heartache with petitions from the Book of Common Prayer, and transitions from SSRI’s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to praying with the saints with a deft hand.  Greene-McCreight writes many things that need to be repeated in our pulpits and small groups, such as this simple but profound statement: “Mental illness is not an indication of the weakness of one’s faith.” (117)  As a pastor, I am glad to have this book to recommend, and I will be doing so frequently.

We need to hear this word from a sister in Christ who has walked this lonesome valley and invites us to tarry on with her; we need her wisdom, her depth, and her faithful tenacity in the face of illness.  I continue to be struck by this:

…sick people are not necessarily weak. I am ashamed to admit i did not already know this. Sick people are afflicted. They need the help of the Christian community, not our rejection. Mentally ill people can shock us. The stigma of mental illness can turn us off. But it should be the Christian community of all places where those who suffer are welcomed and supported, prayed for and comforted. (162)

As best as I can tell, churches tend to avoid the uncomfortable topic of mental illness. I am guilty of this.  But I believe I am better equipped to address these hard issues and help reduce some of the stigma in the community I serve after reading Darkness is My Only Companion.  More than anything, Greene-McCreight has convinced me we can and must do better.

I know it is normal to offer some critique as part of a review, even if only for the sake of custom or to appear impartial.  But I have nothing to offer on this score, and I do not wish to make something up for the sake of appearances.  As a pastor, and as a friend and companion to those with mental illness, I am grateful for this book.  I will echo Archbishop Welby, who concludes his Foreword to this new edition by giving thinks “above all to the God who unexpectedly has renewed me in his perfect love and grace” through this profound and unique work.

In the words of St. Augustine: tolle, lege.  Take and read.

P.S. I have not read the previous printing, but I was interested to read the afterword that is new to this edition, in which the author relates some of her own more recent experience with mental illness, discusses new treatments that are emerging, and responds to some of the chief critiques she’s received since the original publication in 2006.

Special thanks to Brazos for providing a review copy of this book.

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Fear of God as the Pathway to the Love of God

love the harbor“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice ithave a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever.” 

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;  for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1)

Are love and fear opposites?  In the popular sentimentality of the 21st century West, fear is on a spectrum “negative” emotions to be avoided at all costs (including sanity, truth, and virtue).  Christians often like to quote 1 John 4:18 as evidence that our faith should have nothing to do with fear. Others seem to base their whole faith on fear, reducing the gospel to fire insurance.  But a more nuanced, canonical approach reveals that the Bible is not as paranoid about fearing God as we modern Christians are.  Taking a more holistic view thus undercuts

  • Fundamentalist Christians, who use texts like Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10 to justify a fear-based approach that is both effective and damaging.  I can’t tell you how many times I “got saved” as a youth because a preacher scared the hell out of me (literally) and sent me careening toward the altar convinced that God hated me.  It’s important to remember that the only people Jesus scared were the uptight religious folks and authorities of empire; the fundamentalist wing of Christianity tends to do the opposite: apologize for empire and religious authority while putting fear into the common folks and ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalized.
  • Progressive Christians, who use texts like 1 John 4:18 as proofs against fear having any kind of role in the Christian life.  It’s common to hear progressives talk about their “conversion stories” (meaning their transition out of conservative Christianity) as a move from a “fear-and-law-based” faith to a “love-and-grace-based” faith.  While I am sympathetic to this journey because it is similar to my own, the truth is that too often Christianities that are solely focus on “love” have such a Westernized, emotive view of love that it tends towards cheap grace and even pantheism.  If God is love, and love costs nothing and elicits no response, then discipleship, worship, mission, evangelism matter little.
  • Cultural Christians, who have neither fear nor love for God.  One significant strand of this is described well by Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Cultural Christians are those who identify as Christians but have no active relationship with God and/or a faith community; they may pray when the chips are down and go to church at Christmas, but day-to-day their decisions and actions are governed by something other than the Triune God.  They have neither fear nor love for God, but might occasionally try to use God to get what they want.

But can we get to the love of God and wholly bypass fear? St. Isaac the Syrian suggests this is impossible:staniloae

Just as it isn’t possible…for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear. We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear. If these oarsmen of fear don’t handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love is the divine harbor. So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive. And when we have reached love, we have reached God. And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world.

In his classic work Orthodox SpiritualityDmitru Staniloae expands on this by noting that the fear at issue is chiefly fear of a lower love of God, or fear of remaining egotism which would keep us from reaching the harbor of pure love (Wesleyans would call this Christian Perfection, the East would call it theosis or union with God):

The will for a greater love will keep us on board and help us to steer a straight course. It will keep our heads above the giant waves of evil and the egotism which rises up within us. It will lead us straight ahead. Only in the vessel of repentance do we constantly pass over the sinful waves of egotism, which tend to rise up from deeply within us and beneath us. Only by it are we always above ourselves and moving onward from our present position, moving closer to full love, closer to the paradise where the tree of life is, in other words to Christ, the source of love which feeds our spirit. (2)

I love the vision of the life with God as a journey.  Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Eastern spirituality reminds us that there are “many danger, toils, and snares” on the way to the full love of God. (3)  A proper and holy fear of failing to reach “perfection in love” and thus the fullness of the life God intends to give us seems, as St. Isaac suggested, a part of our pilgrimage we cannot avoid if we would reach that harbor for which we were made.

What do you think? Does fear have a role to play in our journey towards a full love of God? Are repentance and fear necessarily linked? How would you preach or teach this journey? I’d love to have your feedback below.

Notes

  1. Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; 1 John 4:18.
  2. Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality: A Practical Guide for the Faithful and a Definitive Manual for the Scholar (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 140-141.
  3. “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton.
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