Tag Archives: Prayer

Obey! (Or something like that)

The problem with having so many projects “on the desk” is that things start to overlap. The ideas emerging from one thing frequently merge into the notes for another. Thankfully, even my dissertation intersects with some of my “work” work, especially around the questions of practices and formation.

This last year we have developed a series of resources that describe the ordinances of the Church of the Brethren— Baptism, Love Feast, and Anointing. Speaking humbly, they turned out great. In doing the background work for those cards I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about ordinances as a concept. For many traditions within the Radical Reformation, the idea of sacraments we handily rejected. It was simply too magical and too clerical. But they were struck with the clear commands of the scriptures to “do” certain things. And for many of these folks, who took the idea of “scripture alone” to its logical and radical conclusion, when scripture said to do something it must mean we are to do it. So the idea of an ordinance is that these things we do— baptize, wash feet, share the bread and cup, and anoint with oil— are simply matters we are to obey. Jesus and the scriptures commanded them, so we do them out of our obedience to Christ. They were ordained (hence ordinance) as set apart practices for the church. No magic, no complicated theological interpretations, we just do what we are told.

The idea of obedience is certainly not fashionable today. In some ways, “obey” is a new dirty, four letter word. We like freedom. We crave the idea that we can do what we wish, buy what we want, and vote for our guy. Freedom of choice is the mantra for 21st century America. It is the most supreme of values. So to try to talk of Christian practices as acts of obedience is a nonstarter. If there is anything our culture tells us to obey, it is our inner wishes and desires. True freedom, we are told, is a matter of following our own inner longings.

So, then, what about desire? For good church folk, the word desire is just as taboo as obedience is in the wider culture. Its too messy, sounds too sexually charged. And we all know that decent folks don’t talk about those things. Yet, as James K.A. Smith says over and over again in his book “Desiring the Kingdom,” desire is fundamental to our humanity. We desire things and people. We desire recognition. We long to be accepted. All of these point to the deepest longings of our hearts. And, as Smith says just as frequently, there are forces at work on our desiring. We are formed to want certain things and certain ends. We may not talk about those things as our desire, but we want them nonetheless. The forces at work on us come through the various things we do and see. So commercials and the euphoria of buying work on us, below our conscious awareness, to want the very things we want. These practices point our desiring energy in certain directions. So like it or not, we desire. And like it or not, someone or something is telling us what we should want.

My daughter is in that fantastic age where she wants to be her own person but still wants to please mommy and daddy. So she will venture out on her own, try out something new, and even push the boundaries a bit here and there. But when she does something we don’t like, and we tell her, you can see that she is crushed. The bottom lip pushes out, the head turns down, and little tears start to collect on her eyelashes. When she is clearly tired, or is disconcerted by a new situation she says, with the most soft of voices, “Daddy I want you.” It is as if she gets that weird intersection of desire and obedience that we adults try so hard to pull apart. At her tender age of three, she wants us as parents so much that she wants to do what we want her to do, even while she tests the boundaries of her own identity and explores her own options.

It seems to me that Thomas Merton described just that intersection in his memorable prayer from “Thoughts on Solitude.” His words have stayed with me ever since first reading it: “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” Right there, in the meeting place of God’s will and our desire, is the intersection summed up in idea of ordinances.

We do these things, not out of coerced obedience but out of longing desire. That is the tough-to-grasp nature of our freedom in God that Merton frequently tried to describe. We are most free when we are living within the will of God. For those around us, the idea that freedom and bounds, choice and direction seem contradictory. But in Merton’s prayer we see the beautiful paradox of our “desire to please” and the desires God has for us. The irony here is that Christianity is at least up front about this meeting place of desire and an another’s will. We, as disciples, are in the process of conforming our desires to the will of God.

The advertises, marketers, and the corporations they represent try to buy this intersection. They mask the work they do on our hearts under the guise of “choice.” No commercial is designed to get us to exercise freedom of choice, but to get us to choose this particular thing. There are always people around us telling us what we should want. They conform our desires to the will of an unknown other.

Centuries ago, the philosopher Plato described the human soul as a chariot pulled by two horses. The first, he said, was the desiring horse that pulls us towards certain things. The second was just the opposite. That horse directs us by pushing away other things. In that combined movement of reaching out and pushing away the human soul moves towards an end. In different terms, in our desire for one thing we are simultaneously rejecting others. There is a boundedness to that movement. Our reasoning ability, said Plato, holds the reigns of these two powerful animals. We guide the two— the desiring and the rejecting— between the unlimited consumption through desire on one side and the rejection of everything on the other. Contrary to the proponents of free choice, where every option is on the table and good, reason steers us between the options in the quest to reach what is truly good and beautiful.

And this is just what Merton and my three year old daughter teach us. We desire to obey. We long for what others desire for us. That is the paradox of an ordinance.

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The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

It is all the rage among popular theological writers today to make the apophatic turn. Apophatic theology is basically being clear about what we do not know about God, and that our theology needs an “ unsaying” through a negating of the names we use for God. For example, we can say with confidence “God is my rock.” Apophatic theology reminds that we must also say “God is not a rock.”

In the wake of the Emergent Church movement these writers, exemplified in the work of Peter Rollins, have turned to Deconstruction in the mode of Jacques Derrida to raise up the importance of questioning often unquestioned dogma and culturally assumed ideas. Following Rollins’ book, there is a need to turn away from the idolatry of God.

What these followers of Derrida rarely acknowledge is that apophaticism, or negative theology, has historic roots in the Christian tradition itself. Basically, they say nothing new. Their method, however, barely echoes these historic roots. Instead, what Rollins and others present is a mental exercise of negating the terms within theological discourse. For the ancients, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, apophaticism was a formative process- an ascetic discipline.

For Pseudo-Dionysius, the early proponent of such a negative theology, there are two modes of talking about God- the naming of God or kataphatic theology, and the corresponding descent of un-naming God or apophatic theology. As Sarah Coakley argues in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self, the twin modes of theology were accompanied by the ascetic pursuit of contemplative prayer. In order to speak to God the theologian names God and then must negate those names in order to listen to God. This was far from a practice of theological discourse or thinking, rather it paralleled the reformation of self often called asceticism.

The work of Rollins and others falls into the modern trap of thinking the problem is with the way we think. Instead, I think the early apophatic writers were clear that we need to reform our practices and our thinking. The two are not to be separated. What is more, the apophatic turn- the negation of the names for God- was a means of clearing the ground of the mind in order to hear God in prayer. Simply put, apophaticism wasn’t a philosophical or rhetorical exercise. It was a way of life, based in waiting on God in prayer.

In our time, the seeds of the Enlightenment have taken full root. Coupled with the publishing market place for theology, we are often dealing more with the realm of ideas than we are with practices. Speak the word “theology” and we all assume we are talking about a way of thinking. Yet, as I have highlighted in other posts, these earlier writers were convinced that theology was comprised of practices and thinking. As Evagrius said, “the theologian is one who truly prays.” Theology in this frame is not about publishing books but praying to God. In fact, the very word “orthodoxy” was not about right dogma but about the right praising of God (doxa being the Greek word for praise).

Rollins and others are right in the impulse to reclaim the ancient practice of un-naming God. However, this practice is not a reclamation of Hegel’s full dialectic (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; antithesis corresponding to the new apophaticism). Nor is it a philosophical approach to writing made popular in the works of Derrida. The ascetic and contemplative of the early proponents of negative theology reveal just how mind focused our theological discourse has become. The contemporary apophatic writers miss the need to silence the world of words that hinder our very prayers.

Of course, I am biased in this assessment. Having read Dionysius and many others it is easy to see the gaps in Rollins’ approach. That is not to dismiss the role his writing plays in popular theology, but rather to name my own hope that his work is an entrance into contemplative tradition of the church. In short, bringing apophatic theology back into common, Protestant theology is not about questioning authority, but recognizing that our prayers are both filled with words and silence in the presence of God.

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Discipleship Not Dogma

This post is part of a larger NuDunker conversation, “Dunker theologizing: How we do our God talk” including a series of blog posts and a live Google+ hangout Thursday, 10/3 at 10 AM eastern. We would love for you to add your voice to the discussion! Check out the list of blog posts on our Google+ page here.

The Brethren often are accused of being anti-intellectual, both from those within the tradition and those outside. In fairness, that moniker is often applied to evangelicals as well (see Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind). For Brethren, though, it does seem to be in our DNA. Culturally, we have been a rural denomination. Though education is clearly important, there is often a mistrust between plain folk and those of the ivory tower. I have written elsewhere that this might be better construed as anti-elitism. The family vision of being church often plays out as a kind of radical egalitarianism that has little room for specialists or academicians. The second reality is that our roots in Pietism included a skepticism of the scholasticism that emerged in the second and third generations of Lutheran and Reformed theologians. Though these thinkers did not debate the number of angels on the head of the pin, a derision often applied to medieval scholastics, they did work towards dogmatic precision.

These Pietists, as well as their Anabaptist predecessors, did not have much good to say of such dogmatism. The theological precision, birthed in academic ivory towers, often elevated belief above discipleship. We might say that dogma, a kind of rigid and precise theology, is a lifting of ideas out of lived experience. For the Radical Reformers, such an approach to God-talk was one of the many problems with the state of the church. Theology, for them, appears to have been first and foremost a part of discipleship- understanding what it means to follow Jesus.

None of this is said in order to imply that the Brethren are or have been atheological. Since theology is first and foremost “talk about God,” then everything we do and pray is a kind of theology.

I have found that the liturgical theologians exemplified in writers such as Alexander Schmemman, Aidan Kavanaugh, Gordon Lathrop, and Don Saliers help to understand the way Brethren do theology. Though their talk of Liturgy is more high-church terms they do distinguish between two kinds of theology. Primary Theology, they argue, is the theology expressed in our worship. In that sense, all prayer is theology- talk not only about God, but to God. As Don Saliers puts it, Primary Theology is a theology of address. Secondary Theology, then, is the reflection on and interpretation of the theology in our doing. That is what most people think theologians do in writing books and teaching classes.

The difference is born out in two great maxims of the early church. First, Evagrius of Pontus, a monk of the fourth century, wrote this of prayer and theology: “A theologian is one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian.” The idea is clear- our prayers are theology, and anyone who prays is to be understood as a theologian. The second comes from a writer in what is now France called Prosper of Aquitaine. In one treatise he summed up what was expressed in a great number of writers before him. “The law of supplication is the standard of belief.” That long phrase, often cited in Latin has come to be known in a shorter phrase- Lex orandi, lex credendi” or “The rule of prayer is the rule of belief.”

For Brethren, it seems to me that the phrase might be altered a bit- Our way of life is the rule of belief. This gets to the deeply embodied sense of what it means to do theology. This includes our worship, our commitment to mutual aid, and the way we envision a witness for peace. All this is to say our discipleship is our theology.

That is not to say that we are not “secondary theologians.” By that I mean we do have a need to reflect on both our categories for God and God’s mission through the church, and especially our experiences in the living out of our confession of faith. It is just that our commitment isn’t to dogmatic theology. Rather, our theology and reflection are subjective, integrated within our particular lives. Dogma, as the lifting up of a theology beyond what we know and experience, is counter to this integrated mode of theological reflection and discipleship.

In a recent meeting sister Dana reminded me of what our teacher Don Saliers often said as he taught this liturgical approach to theology- “You all already know this.” By this he was trying to remind us that many of the theological categories often relegated to the realms of systematic theology are already a part of our worship and prayer. I often offer this as a reminder to members of the Church of the Brethren. Though I may have several theological degrees, my commitment to the Priesthood of All guides me to hear the thoughts and perspectives of my sisters and brothers. Even more so, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher of theology to remind us that we each are theologians. For, as Evagrius said, when one truly prays, one is a theologian.

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I am apart of all whom I’ve met

This morning I received word that a friend and mentor passed away on Sunday. While I grieve the loss of such an important person in my life, I could not say I was sad. My friend did not pass suddenly. In fact, he lived a beautiful 88 years- years which took him from a family farm in Illinois, to a Mennonite college as a student and later as a teacher. He served as a minister, established and led study terms in South America, raised a beautiful family, and graced me with too many stories to recount.

As I was finishing my MDiv at Candler, my friend graciously agreed to serve as my site supervisor. Many of our conversations at the office or at his home often started  with the reminder that he was not trained like these academic theologians and pastors. Yet, each conversation inevitably led to me learning something of his wisdom. We usually had to suspend our conversation for the lack of time, not of insight or interest.

One such conversation began with a bit of self revelation on his part. In the time since I had serving as interim pastor, he began seeing a woman he met at an afternoon bible study. He had lost his first wife a few years before, and the companionship was something he clearly cherished. The congregation had quickly welcomed her and rather enjoyed seeing the two of them together. In truth their relationship bloomed quickly and at that particular time they had been together for but a few months. That day he mentioned that they were talking already of getting married. I smiled and nodded. And honestly, I don’t remember what I said. Later, as the congregation sent us off to my next venture in studies, he mentioned that particular conversation. “You didn’t even blink an eye,” he said. I was honored to officiate at their wedding with her pastor, a memory I will forever cherish.

For the two years we were together I learned more than I can recall in a simple blog post. Yet, I do remember one quote from Tennyson he often shared in the course of his stories. “I am a part of all whom I have met.” I can only hope my own stories will include such a keen observation.

I can’t make it back to Atlanta for the funeral, though I will be closer than I have been in years. I almost grieve that fact more than I grieve his passing. There is something about gathering with his loved ones to celebrate the many gifts he blessed us all with. He was simply a strong and compassionate guide for his family, his students, and the congregations he served.

From a distance, then, I can only say he is indeed a part of me.

God Speed Vernon.

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Why I hate February

February is a cold month, in many ways. Not only is it freezing, but the long nights and the frequent cloudy days make it a prime month for seasonal affective disorder. Yet that isn’t why I hate this month.

Some despise the month for its “Singles Awareness Day” that comes right in the middle of the month. Yet, that is not why I hate this month.

See 20 years ago this week was a pretty devastating time. Early in that week, a friend of mine went in for heart surgery and didn’t make it. He had a complicated life, with multiple surgeries and various health concerns. But it was still a shock to my entire 8th grade class that someone we saw on a Friday would not be coming back to school, riding our bus, or just playing around.

Just a few days later I was sitting at my grandparents with my uncle. He had just moved back home so my grandparents could care for him as the complications from AIDS was taking over his life. As we left, Mark began a rough coughing spell that just pummeled his 90 pound body. He went to the hospital late that night. By the afternoon of February 20th he could no longer fight.

A year later, my great-grandmother passed just minutes before I walked into the room to see her.

Since then I have watched as a young girl,  just turning 3 months old, breathed through the smallest tube you can imagine. Just a few years later I was a hundred miles away as my uncle, the father of a high schooler, passed from an insanely agressive cancer.

Some people say that death comes in threes. And honestly, I usually start counting. But come February I settle in for the long haul. There are just too many lives to remember during this freezing, dark month- both those who have died and their families that grieve again each time the calendar turns.

Today, I penned another grieving prayer for an 11 year old girl. Though it was written for her and her family, 20 years of grieving in February are behind each word.

Gentle God, no words come. Few things can even begin to touch such profound grief. And in such times we can only imagine that you weep too. Receive this young girl today. And with her take our tears, our frustrations, our grief, and our questions. Hold them all as only you can. And hold her family in the hope of resurrection. For it is in the name of the risen one that we pray…

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Keeping Time

This message was shared with the Church of the Brethren Office community September 29th 2010.

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:46-47

There is a story, of which I can’t speak to its accuracy or veracity, about two neighbor boys. One winter day they began to talk about snow and the coming holidays. In the process they soon realized they were talking about two different “holy days”. When the one talked about 8 days of gifts the other perked up: “What do you mean eight days?! Don’t you mean one?” From then on this Jewish and Christian pair entered into the world of comparative religion. That spring, the Christian boy attended his first Sedar and experienced the whole exodus narrative in one multi-sensory night. The trade off came finally on Easter morning when the two attended the celebration of the resurrection. When it came time for the sermon, the pastor took off his watch and laid it onto the pulpit. The Jewish boy, accustomed to the question and answer of the Sedar ritual turned to his friend: “What does that mean?” Having experienced the fullness of the Hebrew symbols, the Christian boy rolled his and sighed: “Nothing.”

Keeping time must be a multi-million dollar industry. Not accounting for the changes in smart phones, we are at a fever pitch about time. Calendars to keep events, watches to tell us time, alarms to make sure we get there on time, and probably timers on our computers to tell us when its time to leave. So its no wonder the boy was dismayed when the watch came off, it meant that time had no hold on that Easter service. No matter how long the roast had been in the oven, the preacher would go on and on….and on….and…

Really time is precious. The idioms of our culture make it clear to us: Time is of the essence, Time is fleeting. Time is money. It’s difficult to say which came first, the nice capitalist awareness that time is money or the ability to count milliseconds. No matter the correlation we can easily say we have an unhealthy sense of time. We turn on lights so we can work into the night and we light up the desert so we can play into the morning.

So its no wonder that worship attendance in any christian community is waning and its no surprise that any activity during the week barely draws a tenth of the congregation. “We just don’t have time!” I call BS on that. I mean with all that money being spent on making the most of our time, on keeping track of time, of managing our time how is it possible that we can have no time? If we gaged minutes by dollars spent, our clocks should be turning backwards!

The answer is simple: we’ve missed the point. Once we exit the baptismal waters, our relation to time completely changes. No longer are we defined by a need to cram everything into the few seconds of a lifetime, but are in fact managed by Everlasting to Everlasting. Its no wonder that Jesus’ words in Revelation hold together past present and future- I am the Alpha and the Omega (22:13). In one sentence, the beginning, present and end are one. Our time is defined by our living in Christ, living in the past, present and future. In essence time stands still before Christ and, by our adoption into Christ, before us.

That must have been something understood by the first Christians Luke tells us about in Acts. From our capitalist, time is money obsession, those disciples didn’t have a clue: They spent their day singing, eating and listening to sermons. I mean really, what got done! Didn’t they have missions to enact, congregations to support, pensions to maintain. Hell, didn’t they have a budget to balance? …Wait, that’s us.

Well, in a short and simple answer, no. No they didn’t have to work and produce like their lives or their church depended on it. Their daily rhythm was defined by other things: It was defined by Christ, crucified, buried, and risen. Each day was a microcosm of all history: its beginning and its end. What mattered most, what mattered first of all, was being present to the great I am.

So we read of things which sound strange to us today such as the practice of gathering at the church house to pray into the sunset while lighting the vigil candle as if Christ was buried each night. And we read of how, before dawn, these same followers of Christ would return as if Christ was rising again each new day. We read later of monks who maintained such practices by not only praying at night and morning, but at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours to remember daily the significant moments of the crucifixion.We read of the early preachers calling Sunday, not the Sabbath but the eighth day, when creation was begun again in the rising of Christ. We read in the Didache that Christians were to fast on Tuesday and Thursday so as to mark their weeks by the resurrection of Christ. ALL of time, not just hours of work and leisure, were defined by the resurrection of Jesus. The calendar was not set by imperial decree, but coincided with the coming of the Messiah. The only thing we have left to remind of this is the antiquated marker of the age as Anno Domini.

So then, friends, what measures our day? Prayer with the living Christ, or an arbitrary system of seconds and minutes? I wish I could say that taking off my watch was a way of living into Christ, but really, it means nothing. I am still tied to a means of production, I am still tied to an alarm, and I am still keeping time by whatever means helps me produce. This does not mean that time isn’t precious, but simply to say that are there not better, more faithful ways of living each day than by production? Might not we be better off as the Church to organize ourselves around practices of what Benedictines call prayerful work, of labora et ora?

Brother’s and sisters, may our ancestors in Christ remind us that there is nothing better than to eat, sing, and pray together in Christ.

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