Monday, January 31, 2005

On Prayer: “Jesus, Help”

Prayer Brings Transformation

Simply put, God’s will for our lives is healing and wholeness: nothing short of our complete redemption and the transformation of our minds into the likeness of Jesus. We practice the disciplines that we might put ourselves in the way of God’s transforming power, “presenting ourselves as living sacrifices” as Paul entreated. In prayer, we create a space both to listen and to speak, and simply to be with the Master who works redemption into everything. Creating that space is how cooperate in being “his workmanship in Christ Jesus.” Foster says this:

“To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives. The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ. William Blake tells us that our task in life is to learn to bear God’s “beams of love.” How often we fashion cloaks of evasion – beam proof shelters – in order to elude our Eternal Lover. But when we pray, God slowly and graciously reveals to us our evasive actions and sets us free from them” (Celebration of Discipline, 53).

Yahweh pursues us. He never stops. He never tires of wooing each of us. When we stop and choose to be with him, he works love and healing into all the dark places we seek so furiously to protect.

Prayer Precedes Yahweh’s Action in the World

The modern, empiricist worldview creates a false division between “natural” and “supernatural” causality. Yahweh does not watch from afar, but is active in his creation, empowering its redemption through the common life Christians are formed to share. He seeks to bring about his desires for the world through our action and asking. I can’t make that “make sense,” but it’s Jesus who tells us to pray even though the Father knows what we need.

How to Pray

The only way to be bad at prayer is not to do it. Praying the wrong things is fine, because that can be worked out. Paul says that when we don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit does it for us. I think we can trust that. The only real failure in prayer is not to do it. We ought not to entertain any illusions about how sweet prayer is, or think nice flowery thoughts about it, when it’s really just hard work. It’s tough to be with Jesus in the dark and lonely places, and it’s hard to pray for people in those places.

As I’ve said, it’s alright not to know what to say. The greater part of prayer needs to be listening. So create the empty space. Sit and be quiet and ask the question, “What do You want for your world?” Let the god who is redeeming your person and transforming your mind give you his desire for his world and the people in your life. If Jesus incites compassion in you for anyone around you, pray for their need.

You don’t have to pray for a large number of people to pray well, or pray for “big deal things.” Focus on somebody, and consider whatever their pain, struggle or need might be. Ask, “Jesus, what do you want for this one whom you love?” Visualize Jesus laying hands on that individual, and healing. See him speaking words of tenderness into hurt and fear. Ask him to do it. You don’t have to use fancy words. “Jesus, help” can be more than sufficient.

A Word on Unanswered Prayer

Yes, sometimes our own wrong motives can be the explanation for unanswered prayer. I know that sometimes the answer to prayer looks like something very different that what we would hope. I don’t want to say anything to explain away what might look like Yahweh’s neglect, because sometimes we just need to sit with the idea. One should never be flippant regarding apparently unanswered prayer.

I do know for certain that neither an incorrect formula, nor lack of faith (as if could be measured) is the culprit. One can only pray poorly if one does not pray at all. And Jesus said that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The depth or “size” of one’s faith is unimportant. The object of faith is. Big faith in Jesus to save is not the issue, but rather faith in Jesus enough to ask. (I’ve written on this before, if you’re interested.)

Check out “Prayer” in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for deeper treatment.

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Friday, January 28, 2005

Why Church, IV: The Question

Emerging Church Deathmatch Posted by Hello

I acknowledge and decry the reality that many traditional Christians are so attached to their existing institutions for their own sake. Buildings and professional clergy and budgets and mission trips and Easter musicals, Sunday worship and all that carrying on are often not seen as tools for God’s mission in the world, but rather the ownership and use of those things becomes God’s mission itself.

Is it at all sane to suppose that I can walk into that world and be with people in that context and teach a re-valuation of those religious and cultural trappings without doing away with those trappings?

Do I stand in the pulpit and say “but you know, folks, really, being a Christian is about how you live your life every day of the week,” or do I say, “Aha! No more going to church on Sunday! Let’s see you be a Christian now!”

I have always heard people say “it’s really about what you do every day,” but it never really was. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have a theology for it. They really didn’t; they just said it but never explained why.

These idols are tough to beat. +Alan suggests that “some things may well be evil for a time and for certain reasons”: check out that reasoning here.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Why Church, III: What About Churches that Don't Get It?

You know, I don’t really know. No Christian community has been perfected, and that’s okay. God’s will is to redeem, reform and grow us. If I were going to be part of a local community, regardless of whatever other trappings they keep around (buildings, Sunday schools, evangelism or mission “programs,” I would only require they be open to the above ideas, and be willing to let God convince them of their importance. And some of the trappings that drive me up the wall might be appropriate for some missional contexts. That’s okay, too.

But if the congregation’s leadership were casting a vision that works against the above points and continued to teach them to be consumers (savvy or not), I couldn’t deal with them. I recently left a congregation because I saw no evidence that they were really interested in being friends with me or anybody else outside the walls. I can’t let myself be bothered by other peoples’ bad theology. I can be in relationship if they are correctable. I must be, also. The Holy Spirit will have a terrible time leading us into truth if we insist that in all of our little practices and opinions we already possess it in its fullness.

My question is, ultimately, would they tolerate a real live move of God in their midst? Would they attempt to discern it and get on board, even though it’s nothing like they thought it would be?

On to Part IV: The Question
Back to Part II: Living "Church" on the Ground

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Why Church, II: Living “Church” on the Ground

No Christian is an Island

Pauline language does not lend itself to a “Jesus and me” theology of the Christian life. It’s not about me “pursuing” God, or me getting holy or me being restored or even me getting saved. We are baptized into the Body of Christ. Becoming Christ’s own means being joined with other Christians. Christ ransomed a Church, not a disparate group of individuals that keep going their own way. Being New Testament Christians means dedicating ourselves to one another as the primary way we dedicate ourselves to Jesus. One cannot love Jesus in a general, abstract sense. One loves Jesus in specific ways to love him at all, and those specific ways have faces.

Church as Witness

Jesus said the world would know us as his disciples by our love for one another. Christians are meant to bear witness to the reality of the Risen Christ and the reign of Yahweh in a broken world. This isn’t done thorough words, words, words. The redemptive power of the Holy Spirit is not unleashed by the intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions. Only a life lived with Christ, in the community, broken but being redeemed, put out there for outsiders to see (through relationships, not the religious exhibitionism that passes for evangelism) can come close to bearing witness to the reality of the Risen Christ in his fullness. People aren’t going to believe he’s redeeming the world if nobody sees him redeeming us.

Church Causes Growth

Modern day evangelicals have thought that the primary means for spiritual growth is more information. So we create, disseminate and consume vast quantities of religious informed designed to improve our individual spiritual lives. And somehow end up more impoverished than before. We were meant to live together and grow up into Christ together. There is nothing more than this, and nothing less will sustain us and make us complete in Christ.

What it looks like

Mind you, I’m not saying that this is what those buildings with church in the name are all about, or that the people who frequent them to produce and consume religious goods and services believe in these things. But that’s the DNA of Church as I understand it. So here’s what I think someone definitely needs if they’re going to be serious about being a Christian and being Church with other people:

  • Read scripture and interact on it together
  • Study the history and theology of the church and interact together
  • Celebrate the sacraments together (lord’s supper and baptism, at least) as well as various disciplines that can stretch us and support us in our growth into the Christlife (confession, guidance, obedience, etc.)
  • Pray alone, pray together, pray for one another and pray for the world
  • Be with one another in a creative variety of ways that will deepen and express the reality that you’ve dedicated yourselves to loving one another well, and being agents of change and redemption in the lives of one another.
  • Be with non-Christians in a creative variety of ways that will deepen and express the reality that you’re dedicated to loving them and prophesying in word and action that they are deeply and passionate loved by Jesus Christ who wants to restore their lives pour his spirit into all of the broken and dry places.
  • In light of these two points, I consider hospitality to be foundational to evangelism.

At this point, I think those things are really it. I probably sound like a minimalist with extremely high standards, but that’s okay.

Part I: "Church in the Scope of God's Big Plan
Part III: What About Churches That Don't Get It?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Why Church, Part I: “Church” in the Scope of God’s Big Plan

A friend recently asked me why I would bother with church – at all, or in its present form. So I sat down and thought. And thought. And then as you might suppose, I had some things to say. So enjoy yourself. It’s not as meticulously argued as some of my pieces, nor is it a formal apologia. It surely leaves out something I’d consider important, but it is what it is. We can chat about it if you like.

God’s intention toward the creation is redemption: restoration of everyone and everything to what it was or should have been before the Fall. Unfortunately, we fallen image-bearers are intrinsically rebellious and disobedient. Israel was a people created by YHWH’s saving act, and meant to be defined through obedience to him. As a people peculiarly his, the nation was meant to be as a city on a hill, providing their temple as a place of prayer for all the nations, that through their life with YHWH, everybody in the world would become his own. N.T. Wright argues that one of the reasons Jesus judged the temple was because, like Israel, it was no longer bringing people to YHWH, but busy defining itself in terms of being separate from those other people.

Jesus himself replaced the temple. He was the dwelling of YHWH on earth, and in his own body presented Israel to YHWH for judgment. He suffered for this as the Godforsaken, but then was vindicated by God, as evidenced in the Resurrection. This vindication applies to everyone baptized into the name of the Messiah. Because Resurrection was something that only happened to everyone at the end of time, this occurring only with Jesus in the middle of time really messed up prevailing ideas.

The Resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, is only the beginning. We will be raised up again to a physical life at the end of time, when YHWH rules the world directly. But the new age has nevertheless been inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ. The disciples of Jesus are a community of YHWH’s reign in the in-between time when the world is not ruled by him yet, but the Powers that Be have been routed by the Cross. Just as the teaching and risen life of Jesus provide the prototype for a redeemed life in Christ (sanctification is a process of returning us to what we would have been before the fall), the shared life of the Church is the prototype of God’s plan for the entire world.

The Body of Christ, then, is the instrument of God’s mission in the world.

Next: Part II, Living "Church" on the Ground

Monday, January 24, 2005

Praise and Thanksgiving

I had a great weekend. I had some friends over for breakfast yesterday and got to use my incense burner for actual devotional purposes. I hope the roommates don’t mind terribly: “Why does it smell like adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in here?”

Captain Sacrament strikes again!

I’m writing a short autobiography for a little project I’m working on. It’s really more fun than I thought it would be, since it’s got me drawing out themes in my journey that I didn’t realize were quite so strong. Maybe I did, but it’s really fun to see just why it is that I talk about the things I do all the time.

It’s got me thinking and giving exuberant thanks: I live in friendship with four different cohesive Christian communities. We get to pray for one another and see up close the transformation and grace Jesus is working in our lives. I love that, and I really don’t know what more I could ask for.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Short Reflection on Worship

Worship as Response

Simply put, worship is the response we make to Yahweh’s initiative in our lives. He created us to live joyfully in community with him and one another. Because of the Fall, this is neither natural nor intuitive. Happily, the Christian story is all about Jesus winning us back to God and giving us his own Spirit that we might learn to walk in the ways he originally intended. We can simply be with him.

I often keep a cluttered space at home, and when someone comes to visit, I have to pick up all the clutter, coats and clothing off the chair so they can sit down. Worship is somewhat like this – making a space for God to enter, by quieting our hearts and being still. The liturgy we use – this order for Evening Prayer – is a way of knocking away the clutter and inviting Jesus in.

Creating Space for the Presence
“You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

— Ephesians 2:19.

Christ dwells in our common life. We are the temple of the Living God; we are the Body of Christ. He is here among us not because of any good and right things we say, or bad things we don’t do, but because of who we are.

That means the pressure is off. Choose to waste time. Don’t try to figure out anything new, either in regard to him or yourself. Don’t worry about saying the right things, or saying anything at all. You can speak to him, or just sit and listen. We will create an open space for him to simply be, for no particular purpose. This is a wasted time, wasted energy that could be spent getting something done. This blesses him.


Jesus will come to be among us. He enjoys our presence, and desires that we would enjoy his. Several of us may not. We’ve been forced to sit with destructive, exploitative images of God and sitting with Jesus while those old ideas are still banging around in our hearts can be uncomfortable. He’s really very much okay with that. Where Jesus is, he heals.

Avenues into the Presence of God

Invocation. Jesus comes to be with us because he loves us and because we need him; that’s why he first came to us. We can invite him into our midst on that basis; we need no other.

Praise and Thanksgiving. Sit. Remember the works of Yahweh. Acknowledge the good things you have received as being his gifts. Cite those moments of the day when some word, action or remembrance reminded you that you are loved and cared for. Thank him. Say, “I love you, too.” Tell him he’s wonderful.

Confession. Welcome him into the dark places. Don’t try to fix them up. Certainly don’t keep him out of them. Ask forgiveness only for actual sins: brokenness and need are not sins, and do not require apology. If you’ve got an incredible problem that you can’t seem to work out, tell him about it. Not that it will fix anything necessarily, but we need to cultivate a habit just being with Jesus in those places where we are uncomfortable being ourselves. If you’re not sure what to say to him because you just realized he’s not the horrible trickster god you were brought up with, say so. You don’t have to talk beyond that. Don’t make promises, just be there with him.

Listen. Read the scriptures. Let your friends affirm and challenge you. Sit and receive.

I utilized Richard Foster’s chapter in Celebration of Discipline to cover the bases.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Vindicated: Why I Blog

…it was not done in a corner.

—Paul, The Acts of the Apostles 26:26

Living in God's New Community

The Christian community is the outpost of the Reign of God in a world that has yet to learn that its old rulers and gods have been put to flight by the Easter event. It provides a fellowship of healing and redemption in which men and women can be restored to humanity as it was meant to be.

What does it mean to bear witness that Yahweh has raised up his Christ from the grave, and also raises up men and women to a life with himself here and now?

This cannot be accomplished through mere preaching, or religious presentations, or whatever programs someone devises as “evangelism.” The good news of our restoration to God through Christ can only be demonstrated in the whole life of an entire community. Words are nice, but they just aren’t enough. Only living with people would give you an idea of what this looks like.

Captain Sacrament

So I tell my story. My life, in the context of my wounds and failings, my strengths and God’s healing, is one example of what redemption can like. Not for anyone to emulate, but simply to listen. My primary audience (to my mind) is my friends, the people with whom I share community life. I put into words parts of my story that I share with the community. Some folks I haven’t met read also this stuff, surely. God bless you. Maybe we’ve been to some of the same places in our journeys.

In the life I live with Christians, many of those places are considered godforsaken. They aren’t, and we aren’t. I demonstrate that with my life and explain it with my words.

Why Vindicated?

Jesus of Nazareth was Yahweh come to judge his people, and to redeem them all at once. He took the suffering of Israel and the punishment due their idolatry upon himself. In the person of Jesus, Yahweh himself became godforsaken, abandoned by the people, accursed by the law, and destroyed by the pagans.

Yahweh vindicated Jesus, and all those who are in the Messiah find themselves vindicated as well, blameless and without fault, raised up to new life in him. This is the restoration of our humanity.

Jesus the Crucified God is ever near the godforsaken.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Holiness as Action and Contemplation

The last bit of my Merton reflection.

Holiness as Contemplation

Merton warns us against thinking of contemplation in terms of separating “bodily” life from the life of the spirit, which results in dualism. He talks for a few pages in terms of the psyche and pneuma, and finding the real self behind endless activity. I’m not certain what it is he’s talking about (ask Alan; I’m no mystic), but he seems to be working on an idea of contemplation as a restful activity. Even then, contemplation is not truly inactive, for the whole purpose is to engage, know and love “the other.”

Holiness as Action and Contemplation

Right action is grounded in right contemplation. When in our contemplation we can understand ourselves as being known and loved by Yahweh, we can live in the self-forgetfulness that allows to engage, know and love the other without defensiveness or fear. In searching out and loving the otherness of people around us, we will love Yahweh. This contemplation, this being with Yahweh while being with others and our own selves, is the ground of right and holy action. Mediating on truth, knowing and loving the other, will guide us in our physically active work of speaking creative truth and building a healing society in the midst of people whose lives have been wreaked by the exercise of power for its own sake.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Holiness as Action

Is holiness found in right action, or contemplation? Perhaps both.

Merton sees in the second creation narrative humanity’s vocation to a particular kind of action. When Elohim makes humanity in his own likeness, the god who is creator, worker and father commissions these people to be that also. They will build a society, and form order from chaos in order to safeguard and nurture the Creation that brings the first Creator so much joy. They were created to be like him and do like him, but to exist as separate persons who could love and honor him. Using those creative gifts rightly, those borne from Yahweh’s own being, is, in Bach’s phrase, “a gift back to the giver.”

Merton continues:
And in the line of this thought, original sin would be a perversion of man’s active instincts, a turning of man’s creativity away from God so that he produces and creates not the society and the temple which God’s own creation demands as its fulfillment, but a temple of man’s own power. The world is then exploited for the glory of man, not for the glory of God. Man’s power becomes an end in itself (60).

I find this a helpful conception. I’ll draw it out. In such a case, living redemptively would be to continue living in and working out of that vocation following the manner of Christ. Just as the Creator brought form and a life like his own from a shapeless void, so would his Anointed One. Jesus entered that chaotic maelstrom of competing powers and through his healing works, execution and subsequent vindication brought order and the rule of Yahweh into the midst of it. Christ the second Adam did what the first Adam failed to do.

How do we continue this work? As the Church, we integrate ourselves into every aspect of human existence. We take common cause with sufferers, speaking correction and hope to victims and victimizers alike. We step into the lives of one another to speak truth that will chase away the lies, and to invoke the Spirit of Yahweh into the godforsaken places through the laying on of hands. We live as prophets, speaking order and healing into the brokenness of a fallen and chaotic creation. The Word of God created, the Word of God redeemed, and we will continue as Christ-indwelt prophets, speaking the words of God to effect his work of re-creating broken and wounded men and women.

Holiness is something you do.

Download Matt and Alan's reflections on the Schola page.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Yahweh as Ground of Being

We're reading a bit from Merton (of course we are) for the Schola this month. Here's the first part of my reflection. The others are on the schola page.

A friend once told me about a comedy bit, “Facial expressions you don’t want to see from Jesus.” The comedian proceeds to frown, grimace, and manifest plain bewilderment, presumably in response to whatever it is you’re up to this time. It’s funny, because for many of us, that’s a real fear. Merton, it seems, would tell us that we’ve nothing to worry about, because the very existence of a creature is an act of praise to Yahweh (“Image and Likeness, in The New Man, 51ff.).

Yahweh himself exists as a Trinitarian community, outside of time and space. He wills that others exist as part of that community, to be loved by it, and to love within it. It is the nature of the Trinity to exist and love in community. Therefore the creative act by which Yahweh spoke the universe into being is the inevitable consequence of his own nature. The Creation praises, for it exists out of obedience and the knowledge that it is known and loved by Yahweh. To exist, any creature must first be conceived and loved in the mind of Yahweh. Therefore anything that exists in the original created order is intrinsically and irrevocably an object of Yahweh’s love.

Only non-existent creatures can be unknown to and unloved by Yahweh. If I exist, I was created by Yahweh. Yahweh creates solely out of creative love. If I exist, it is because I was conceived as an object of Yahweh’s love. Therefore the intrinsic ground of my own being is the reality that I am loved by Yahweh. Ecstasy and forgetfulness of self are normal for the Creation, Merton says, because self knowledge rests entirely on the truth of being loved by Yahweh. On such a foundation there is not need to hide or protect oneself.

Who can comprehend or explain the mystery of what it means to awaken to one’s own reality as an existential consequence of the fact that we are loved by Reality Itself? (54)

This is a god who will not grimace at our failings.