Fr. Stephen Freeman: Theophany

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.  The post is entitled “Theophany:  Showing the World to be the World“.

One of the problems with sacramental thought is the notion that when a thing is blessed it somehow becomes something other than what it really is.  (And this is why many evangelicals recoil at the sacramental way of looking at things.)  There is a problem here:  If this is true, then it limits the work of God in the sacrament to the church, the altar, the font, etc.  This creates a two-story sacramental order in which an object becomes blessed but the rest of the world around it remains exactly as it is.

Freeman lays out an alternative view in which the sacraments show us things as they really are.  It is us who fail to see things as they really are.  The Jordan is the Jordan, but we don’t see it as the Jordan, we just see it as a bunch of water flowing over a bunch of rocks.  This is secularism, the great heresy of our age:  a denial of the sacramental character of the world.  The world is not a material thing that exists apart from and devoid of God, rather it is the means by which God shows himself to us.  That is, n essence, the sacramental way of looking at things.

Read:  Theophany – Showing the World to be the World

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Morgan Guyton on Being On Fire for Jesus

Today I direct your attention to a piece by Morgan Guyton.  Guyton is a Methodist college pastor on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He blogs at Mercy Not Sacrifice.

The post I wish to direct your attention to is entitled “The Evangelical Zeal for Zeal“.  In the world of American evangelicalism, one of the driving forces is the push to be different–to distinguish oneself from the surrounding culture in order to show that one’s faith is having a measurable impact on one’s life.  The primary way in which one does this is via personal moral purity–not drinking, smoking, cussing, or having sex outside marriage.  This is driven by zeal–to show a watching world that Jesus is real and faith in him is having a noticeable effect upon your life–otherwise your faith is just a meaningless exercise.  Because of this, there is a certain personality profile that you have to exhibit:  the bubbly, extroverted, winsome, contagious Christian who is “on fire for Jesus” and just can’t stop telling people all about it.

This is good, in a way, because churches that are full of people who are winsomely “on fire for Jesus” are going to grow more explosively than churches that are not.  But there is a downside because those kinds of churches are generally not safe for those who do not fit that personality profile.  Guyton cites a particularly gruesome example of a staffer at an evangelical Methodist church who met with a parishioner and spent some time telling about all that was weighing heavily.  The parishioner shut the staffer down with “But are you wildly in love with Jesus?  How about let’s start there?”  Most evangelicals would not see any empathy deficit here but would instead see a spiritual zeal that is to be highly commended.  That’s a problem.

A Wildly In Love With Jesus church is going to cultivate a level of hype that will bolster Exponential Church Growth, but is it a place where it’s actually safe to bring your whole self? It works as long as you’re straight, comfortably married, financially stable, and extroverted. And if you’re not, then you’re just a Negative Nelly.

Read:  The Evangelical Zeal for Zeal by Morgan Guyton

Advent Week 4: Prayer

We are now in week 4 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  What we usually do around here during Advent is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

We have been going through through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on prayer.

Williams leads off with the observation that growing in prayer is not about developing a set of spiritual skills that operate in only one area of your life.  Instead it is about growing into the kind of humanity that Christ demonstrates for us.  Christian theology began as people realized that because of Christ we could talk to God in a different way; if that is true then there must be things we ought to be saying and believing about Christ.  The essence of prayer is letting Jesus pray in you.

From there Williams unpacks what three of the earliest Christian theologians had to say about prayer.  He starts with Origen, who lived in the third century AD and whose book on prayer is the first truly systematic treatment of the subject by a Christian.  One of the big questions Origen attempts to engage with is, “If God already knows what you are going to ask then why bother to pray?”.  His answer is as good as any that have come since:  God already knows what you are going to say, sure, but God has decided to let your prayer be part of the process of bringing about whatever he intends to do.  Origen also engages at length with the Lord’s Prayer, and one of his big ideas is the spirit of adoption we have received.  Because of this we address God not as someone far off but as one who is close to us.

Very near the heart of Christian prayer is getting over the idea that God is somewhere a very, very long way off, so that we have to shout very loudly to be heard.  On the contrary:  God has decided to be an intimate friend and he has decided to make us part of his family, and we always pray on that basis.

Next Williams turns to Gregory of Nyssa, who came about a century after Origen.  Gregory of Nyssa builds on much of what Origen has to say and takes it in some different directions as well.  One of his big ideas is that prayer is all about healing relationships; if people prayed seriously they would be reconciled.

You could sum up what Gregory says about the Lord’s Prayer simply by saying, ‘Prayer heals relations.’  Prayer is about reconciliation, justice, and how it changes your attitude to other people and the world.  Prayer is not a narrowly private activity; it is about your belonging in the body of Christ, and in the family of humanity.  If you understand what is going on when you pray, then the world changes.  And if in prayer you are gradually becoming attuned to the will and purpose of God, then the divine power that comes into you is bound to find its outlet in this healing of relations.  That is not to say that you pray in order to be a nicer person, or so that justice and reconciliation will happen.  You pray because Christ is in you.  And if that is really happening, then the sort of things you can expect to see developing around you are justice and reconciliation.

Finally Williams turns to the monk John Cassian, who lived around the fifth century AD.  Cassian traveled from Russia to Egypt to be a monk.  In Egypt he met some of the greatest monastic teachers of that era, and his work provides a summary of their teaching.  Cassian’s big idea is that prayer takes for granted that you are already working on your self-awareness and everything else on the practical side of things.  It takes for granted that you have already cleared your mind of anxieties and distractions before you begin to pray.  When Cassian reflects on the Lord’s Prayer he begins with the idea that we are adopted children, which is one of Origen’s emphases.  Like Gregory of Nyssa, whose emphasis was on prayer as healing relationships, he notes the seriousness of asking God to forgive you as you have forgiven others.  He also takes a crack at one of the most frequently asked questions concerning prayer:  what does it mean to pray “Lead us not into temptation”?  Cassian’s answer is that people are tempted all the time but being “led into temptation” is like being dropped right into the middle of it with no tools to face it and no way out–that is what we pray to be defended from.

Prayer, more and more, is not something we do, but what we are letting God do in us.  And when that happens, it is not surprising that we get a bit wobbly and our emotions become a bit tempestuous, and we become baffled and depressed as well.  So don’t panic!  For when those disturbances are going on, it is very likely that God is beginning to settle down more deeply in you.

Advent Week 3: Eucharist

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  We are now in week 3.  This Sunday is traditionally called “Gaudete” – that is, “Rejoice”. The dominant theme of this Sunday is rejoicing. The intro to the liturgy is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. For this week the purple vestments are swapped out for pink or rose-colored vestments. If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it.

What we usually do around here during the Advent season is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year we are going through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on the Eucharist, alternatively known as Communion, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Table, and other things.

For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted. It is, perhaps, the most simple thing that we can say about Holy Communion, yet it is still supremely worth saying. In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.

For Williams, the Eucharist is the sacrament of hospitality.  Williams takes us to the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) to show us how Jesus not only extends hospitality but draws it out of others in ever-expanding circles.

In other words Jesus is not only someone who exercises hospitality; he draws out hospitality from others. By his welcome he makes other people capable of welcoming. And that wonderful alternation in the Gospels between Jesus giving hospitality and receiving hospitality shows us something absolutely essential about the Eucharist. We are the guests of Jesus. We are there because he asks us, and because he wants our company. At the same time we are set free to invite Jesus into our lives and literally to receive him into our bodies in the Eucharist. His welcome gives us the courage to open up to him. And so the flow of giving and receiving, of welcome and acceptance, moves backwards and forwards without a break. We are welcomed and we welcome; we welcome God and we welcome our unexpected neighbours.

There is much diversity of thought and practice among Christians concerning the Eucharist.  Some believe it is a symbol while others believe it is more than that and the elements are the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.  Some celebrate it every week while others celebrate it once a month, once a quarter, or even once a year.  Regardless, one thing all Christians are agreed on is that through the Eucharist we eat and drink with the risen Christ.  That is the heart of it all:  that at the Lord’s Table we meet Christ and share a meal together.

We can see, then, that when the risen Christ eats with the disciples it is not just a way of proving he is ‘really’ there; it is a way of saying that what Jesus did in creating a new community during his earthly life, he is doing now with the apostles in his risen life. We who are brought into the company of the apostles in our baptism – which, remember, brings us to where Jesus is to be found – share that ‘apostolic’ moment when we gather to eat and drink in Jesus’ presence. And that is why, throughout the centuries since, Christians have been able to say exactly what the apostles say: they are the people with whom Jesus ate and drank after he was raised from the dead.

Holy Communion makes no sense at all if you do not believe in the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the Eucharist becomes simply a memorial meal, recalling a rather sad and overpowering occasion in the upper room.

…There is indeed a certain sombreness about some ways of celebrating the Eucharist (and a bit later on, I’ll suggest why that is not always inappropriate). But the starting point must be where the apostles themselves began, eating and drinking with him after he was raised from the dead, experiencing once again his call into a new level of life together, a new fellowship and solidarity, and a new willingness and capacity to be welcomers themselves.

Williams then unpacks how the Eucharist connects us with God as Giver.  In going back to the original event which started it all, we see Jesus giving thanks on the very night before he was about to be handed over, stripped, beaten, and then crucified.  By giving thanks, Jesus connects this with the reality of God, saying that this is ultimately rooted in who God is as Giver.

If Jesus gives thanks over bread and wine on the eve of his death, if Jesus makes that connection between the furthest place away from God, which is suffering and death, and the giving and outpouring of his Father, and if in his person he fuses those things together, then wherever we are some connection between us and God is possible.  All places, all people, all things have about them an unexpected sacramental depth.  They open on to God the Giver.

This also has implications for how we view the material world, not as objects there for our blind consumption regardless of consequence, but as things graciously given to us by God the Giver.  This view of things has implications for environmental policy which would doubtless make many conservative evangelicals very uncomfortable, but which must be considered nonetheless.

Not only does this way of looking at things change our view of the material world, it also has implications for our view of other people.  Ultimately, it forces us to look at others in Christian community, even those who are least like us and whom we may dislike the most, and say “There is someone whose company is desired by God.”

There is one other element of the Eucharist which Williams unpacks in detail, and that is the theme of repentance.  Repentance is needed because, though we are there because our company is desired by God, we are also there with the capacity to betray God and everything He represents.  Many liturgical churches begin the Eucharist portion of the service with the words “On the night he was betrayed…”.  It is incumbent upon us to confront this capacity within us to betray and forget all the good gifts God has given us.  Thus, Williams says, the Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior but rather the food we need to prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our self-enclosure and self-absorption.

Williams brings all this together in a poignant quote, with which we will close today:

In many of our churches it was once thought that receiving Holy Communion was something you should only do when you felt you had made ‘proper’ preparation. There was a time in the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic Church when weekly communion was something your confessor might allow you to undertake if he thought you were doing well. And there is still, in many parts of the Christian world, a kind of assumption that Holy Communion is something for ‘the holy’. All that I have said so far should remind us that Holy Communion is no kind of reward: it is, like everything about Jesus Christ, a free gift. We take Holy Communion not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Not because we have arrived, but because we are travelling. Not because we are right, but because we are confused and wrong. Not because we are divine, but because we are human. Not because we are full, but because we are hungry.

And so that element of self-awareness and repentance is completely bound up with the nature of what we are doing in the Holy Eucharist: the celebration and the sorrow, the Easter and the cross are always there together. And as we come together as Christians, we come not to celebrate ourselves and how well we are doing, but to celebrate the eternal Gift that is always there, and to give the thanks that are drawn out of us by that Gift.

Advent Week 2: Bible

We are now in week 2 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  What we usually do around here during Advent is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we will work through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on the Bible.

For when you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life.  Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God.

Williams takes pains to remind us that the picture many evangelicals, and perhaps other Christians as well, have of someone all alone in a quiet room with an open Bible in front of him/her, studiously devouring every word, is a relatively modern phenomenon.  For the vast majority of church history and all of Old Testament history prior, people did not have their own personal copies of the Bible.  Scripture was something that was recited, usually within the context of a public worship service.  The same is true for Christians in many parts of the world today.

This is not to diminish the importance of personal Bible study.  And Williams does not either:

Now I say this not to deny the importance of all Christians having a Bible in their pocket with which they are familiar, but to point out that very often we make a set of assumptions about what is central and most important for Bible reading, which would have been quite strange in many parts of the Christian world for many centuries.  And it still is strange to many of our fellow Christians today.

The Bible in the hands of individual believers was a needed corrective for many abuses that had arisen during medieval times.  But the benefit of having easy access to our own personal copies of Scripture to read and study at any time comes with some side effects that I do not think we have fully considered.  First, a book is impersonal and the emphasis on individual Bible study that is pervasive in evangelicalism leads us to believe that our primary responsibility is to study, parse, and analyze independently.  Reading Scripture in corporate worship personalizes it by emphasizing the I-thou dynamic that is present in conversation.  Second, it leads us to prioritize our own study and interpretation of Scripture–apart from and independent of the community of other believers–over hearing the Word in the context of community.

When you do get around to reading and studying the Bible, you will find that it is a very complex thing which resists any attempt to cast it as a simple, straightforward “Thus saith the Lord…”.  The Bible is a collection of texts which span several centuries and represent a bewildering diversity of perspectives and literary forms.  You think the Bible is one thing and then lo and behold, you turn the page and it is something completely different.

According to Williams, the best way to understand the Bible is as a parable.  It is a record of how a certain people saw, heard, and responded to what God was doing in their midst.  The operative question is the same as it is for any of Jesus’ parables:  Who are you in the story?  Where are you in the story?

Ultimately, this brings us back to Jesus.  Says Williams:

It is all very well to talk about finding yourself in God’s story, about reflecting and imagining; but, as we do all that, how can we decide what a good or bad interpretation of that story might be like?  What criteria do we have for discerning truth from falsehood?  The Christian answer is, unsurprisingly, in terms of Jesus Christ.  As Christians read the Bible, the story converges on Jesus.  The full meaning of what has gone before is laid bare in Jesus.  The agenda for what follows is set in Jesus.  And, without trying to undermine or ignore the integrity of Jewish Scripture in itself (a complex question that needs the most careful and sensitive understanding of the experience and reflection of our Jewish brothers and sisters), the Christian is bound to say that he or she can only read those Jewish Scriptures as moving towards the point at which a new depth of meaning is laid bare in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As we read the Bible, we place ourselves in the story.  We understand from the perspective of the people who are living out the story.  We attempt to make sense of their words, attitudes, and actions, and relate and evaluate it all in terms of Jesus Christ.  What we learn of him helps us to evaluate what constitute a faithful response and what constitutes an unfaithful response.

Williams gives an example from the development of the Tanakh (the Jewish law/prophets/writings).  Jehu was anointed by the prophet Elisha to become king of Israel and purge the evil legacy of king Ahab from the land.  Jehu does this by slaughtering en masse Ahab, his family, and his supporters at a place called Jezreel.  The story is presented and celebrated in 2 Kings as a triumph of God’s righteousness.  But only a few generations later, the prophet Hosea takes a much different view of things:

For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1.4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain they were doing the will of God. And I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory.’

Williams brings it all together by emphasizing that the Bible is a thing which we read together:

The Bible that we read is a Bible that has already been read by countless Christians before us, and is being read by others today.  And so we need to listen not only to what the Bible is saying, but to what it is saying to those around us and those in the past.  That is one of the meanings of ‘tradition’ in the Church.  You listen to the way in which people have been reading the Bible.  And it is one of the crucially important things about the Church now:  that we listen to one another read the Bible…

So we read together, we hear together.  And instead of that picture of the Bible as a book held in the hands of a solitary reader alone in a room, have in your mind another kind of picture, one in which somebody is proclaiming God’s story to a gathering of diverse people – and all of them asking themselves, and asking one another, ‘How do we find ourselves in this?  How are we going to be renewed together by this reading?’  Because when that happens, the Bible is an essential source, as well as a sign, of the Christian life.

 

Advent Week 1: Baptism

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas.  What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we will work through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on baptism.

Baptism marks the beginning of one’s life as a Christian.  In the evangelical world we see it as a public profession of faith in Christ; in other places it is seen as the means by which one comes to faith in Christ.  Some churches and Christian traditions baptize infants; others baptize only adults who are old enough to make a meaningful profession of faith in Christ.  In some places it is done via sprinkling or pouring of water upon the person being baptized; in others it is done via full immersion.

Jesus spoke of his death as a sort of baptism–that is, a dipping or an immersion–that he had to go through.  So from the beginning, Williams points out, baptism as a ritual for joining Christian community identifies us with the baptism of Jesus’ death in that we are swamped or immersed in the reality of what Jesus endured.

When Jesus was baptized at the river Jordan, he went down into the depths and when he came up the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.  Williams ties this imagery back to creation:  at the beginning there was watery chaos and the Holy Spirit hovering or a great wind blowing (depending on how you read the Hebrew, perhaps one is a metaphor for the other) over it, and out of this comes the created world.  Thus the early Christians referred to baptism as a sort of “new creation”.

They also came to see this “new creation” as a restoration of what it means to be truly human, a recovery of the humanity that God intended.  We have let go of that humanity, forgotten it, corrupted it.  Jesus came down to earth to restore that humanity from within.  He did so by entering into the chaos of our world in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness.  This suggests that our path forward as Christians, as baptized people, as “new creation”, is to enter into the depths of human need in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness.  What’s more, it means we are also in touch with the chaos inside ourselves, because we all live with a great deal of chaos and inhumanity inside of us.  Williams puts it thusly:

So baptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’:  the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need – but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.

If all this is correct, baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else.  To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people.  It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say contaminated – by the mess of humanity.  This is very paradoxical.  Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed, and re-created.  It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied.  And the gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world.  To put it another way, you don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!

The life of the baptized people is not only a life of openness to human need, it is also a life of openness to the Holy Spirit.  It is a paradoxical, seemingly contradictory existence:  in the loving embrace of the Father’s love for the Son as personified via the Holy Spirit, and yet at the same time in the thick of a world of suffering, sin, pain, and danger.  But because Jesus has taken his stand right in the thick of both these realities, that is where we take ours.

Through baptism we identify with Jesus Christ, and one way to think of the identity and calling of Christ is through the titles of prophet, priest, and king, which in Christ are all rolled up into one.  Williams concludes this chapter by unpacking each of these.

For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a threefold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptized person identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human which characterize and define his unique humanity. As we grow into his life and humanity these three ways come to characterize us as well. The life of the baptized is a life of prophecy and priesthood and royalty.

As baptized people who identify with Christ the Prophet our role is to remind each other what we are here for.  The Church plays this role to the wider world by expressing important yet easily forgotten questions in our society.  This is more than just loudly echoing the talking points of the RNC, as many people in the wider world seem to think (and rightly so).

As baptized people who identify with Christ the Priest–in the Old Testament a priest was somebody who represented humanity before God and vice versa.  His job was to build bridges between humanity and God, by offering sacrifices to God he would restore a relationship wrecked by sin.  Our role, then, is to build bridges and mend shattered relationships between God and the world.

As baptized people who identify with Christ the King–in ancient Israel the king had a priestly role but also the freedom to shape the law and justice of his society.  He would use this freedom to keep the people of Israel close to the demands of God’s covenant, to make justice a reality, or to fail miserably at both of the above as many of Israel’s kings did.  We use our freedom to shape our world in the direction of God’s justice and model something of God’s liberty to heal and restore.

The Solution To American Tribalism Is…Belief In Satan?

On a certain level this makes sense.

At one time, belief in Satan as the ultimate evil in our world to which all other evils pale in comparison, was a widely held belief.  As our culture has modernized and secularized, this belief has largely disappeared.  But when Satan disappeared, someone or something had to take his place.  Thus it has become very easy to believe that the Republicans or Democrats or whoever happens to be on the opposing side of whatever the big political issue of the moment happens to be, is the ultimate evil and must be treated as such.  This explains a lot as to where we are in our current level of political discourse.

Read:  The Solution to American Tribalism is…Belief in Satan by Michael Bird