My Chief Care

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My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom–still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, and death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: “Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this His love is found, and in accepting this I can give back His love to Him and give myself with it to Him. For in giving myself I shall find Him and He is life everlasting.”

By consenting to His will with joy and doing it with gladness I have His love in my heart, because my will is now the same as His love and I am on the way to becoming what He is, Who is Love. And by accepting all things from Him I receive His joy into my soul, not because things are what they are but because God is Who He is, and His love has willed my joy in them all.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 17-18

Yes. But it can be hard to do.

It becomes easier when one obtains a clear, compelling, truthful, robust, rich, more-fully-comprehensive, sought-after, earnest, biblically-shaped, experientially-informed vision of God. Merton writes the above because he possessed such a vision, a vision of the God “Who is Love,” revealed as Trinity, one God, three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yielding to God and actualizing the divine will becomes an “easy yoke,” to use imagery from Jesus, when one knows intellectually and existentially that God is out for our ultimate good in any and every circumstance in which we find ourselves.

How do we get there? How does it become easier to make my chief care “the thing God has willed for me?” Thinking on God is a beginning. Having thought, and entering a place of worship, not only points us toward our destination. It is itself the path. We do not only make this or that decision as a sacrifice or offering to God. We ourselves become the living sacrifices who are by grace transformed into the image and likeness of the Christ, who leads us in the doing of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.

It is one thing to know the good. It is quite another to become the kind of person who is able to do the thing God has willed. In Christ, becoming the latter is our invitation and opportunity, opened to us by virtue of the resources made available to us by Jesus, presented to us in his kingdom.

Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus

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Truth is the point of reference we share with all human beings. No one can live without truth. Though we may disagree about which particular things are true or false, allegiance to the truth–whatever the truth may be–permits us to stand alongside every person as honest fellow inquirers. Our attitude is therefore not one of ‘us and them,’ but of ‘we.’ And we are forever here to learn and not only to teach.

Dallas Willard, “Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus” in Renewing the Christian Mind

Apologetics is the Christian discipline of theological argumentation concerned with the defense of particular doctrines, beliefs, or practices. The Latin term apologia translates “defense.” Christian apologists often cite 1 Peter 3:15, which in part reads, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

Cast out of your mind the notion that argument can only be conducted in anger, or that arguments are always and only about power. Calm, reasoned arguments can be made. And they are often made. If willingly entered into by parties who are share a common objective of arriving at what is true, good, and beautiful, arguments can be decided on the merits. Arguments can be helpful. I wrote yesterday about arguments, not for the sake of argument, but toward wisdom, or the maturation and development of the human soul.

In that same essay cited above, Willard writes:

So, if at all possible–sometimes it is not, due to others–we ‘give our account’ in an atmosphere of mutual inquiry animated by generous love. However firm we may be in our convictions, we do not become overbearing, contemptuous, hostile, or defensive. For we know that Jesus himself would not do so because we cannot help people in that way. He had no need of it, nor do we. And in apologetics as elsewhere, he is our model and our master. Our confidence is totally in him. That is the ‘special place’ we give him in our hearts–how we ‘sanctify Christ in our hearts as Lord’–in the crucial service of apologetics.

I’ve always been struck by Willard’s contention that “Love of those we deal with will help us to observe them accurately and to stay entirely away from manipulating them–meanwhile intensely longing for them to recognize that Jesus Christ is master of the cosmos in which they live.” Willard understood apologetics to be a helping ministry, and as such, it must be conducted in a spirit of neighborly love.

Thus, to be an effective apologist requires undergoing a spiritual formation, not only a disciplining of the mind but of the body, wherein one is free to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to reason freely and without fear, to seek the good of the other, to put self aside, from a place of security derivative of one’s position as a child and servant of God.

Keeping God Before Us

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Last week I relayed a thought from Dallas Willard (1935-2013) explaining that to think of God rightly, in a manner leading to worship, “is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person.”

Here is Henry Scougal (1650-1678) suggesting much the same thing:

The awareness and remembrance of the divine presence is the most ready and effectual means both to discover what is unlawful and to restrain us from it. There are some things a person could attempt to mitigate or defend, and yet he would not dare to look almighty God in the face and then set out to do them. If we look to him, we shall be enlightened. If we set him always before us, he will guide us by his eye and instruct us in the way wherein we ought to walk (Psalm 32:8).

The Life of God in the Soul of Man, p. 133

Scougal observed that many believe Christianity, or the true nature of religion and spirituality, to be a matter of orthodox belief or doctrine, outward behavior or ethics, and/or emotion or ecstatic experience. But religious faith in the Christian tradition, while it may involve such things, is none of these in and of themselves. Rather, Scougal writes, true religion “is union of the soul with God. It is a participation in the divine nature. It is the very image of God drawn upon the soul. In the apostle’s words, it is Christ formed within us” (p. 29). Scougal refers to this as “a divine life.”

Biblical and theological knowledge helps us to know God as God has been revealed to humankind, and a careful study of the history of the Christian movement and the conclusions reached concerning sound and reliable teaching by God’s grace and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are helpful for our own journey. So, too, is the adoption of patterns of life and protocols for decision making that result in godly action. Furthermore, there are feelings and emotions evoked by the contemplation of a transcendent truth, the observation of the nature’s wonders, or the participation in a healthy, vibrant community that can encourage us and inspire us along life’s long and difficult way.

But there is no substitute for a personal relationship with God stemming from an open and wholehearted response to God’s invitation to fellowship, made possible to us not through a doctrine, or an ethic, or a feeling, but through a person: Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:1-3 puts it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

The invitation is open to all, to know and to be in relationship with the “life” who has appeared, who through faith imparts to us the gift of fellowship with God, and through fellowship establishes within us “the divine life.”

Change on the Inside

Recently, I learned that one of the most prominent leaders in an important segment of Christian life ‘blew up,’ became uncontrollably angry, when someone questioned him about the quality of his work. This was embarrassing, but it is accepted (if not acceptable) behavior; and in this case, it was the one who was questioning him who was chastised. That is in fact a familiar patter in both Christian and nonChristian ‘power structures.’ But what are we to say about the spiritual formation of that leader? Has something been omitted? Or is he really the best we can do?

[ . . . ]

The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) ‘fails’ is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act. What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they ‘did it’ or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?

Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help. Indeed, in the early stages of spiritual development we could not endure seeing our inner life as it really is. The possibility of denial and self-deception is something God has made accessible to us, in part to protect us until we begin to seek him. Like the face of the mythical Medusa, our true condition away from God would turn us to stone if we ever fully confronted it. It would drive us mad. He has to help us come to terms with it in ways that will not destroy us outright.

Without the gentle though rigorous process of inner transformation, initiated and sustained by the graceful presence of God in our world and in our soul, the change of personality and life clearly announced and spelled out in the Bible, and explained and illustrated throughout Christian history, is impossible. We not only admit it, but also insist upon it. But on the other hand, the result of the effort to change our behavior without inner transformation is precisely what we see in the current shallowness of Western Christianity that is so widely lamented in the notorious failures of Christian leaders.

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 79

Simultaneously terrifying and freeing, the only way to come nearer to wholeness, healing, and conformity to Christ is by asking the Spirit of God to assist us in plumbing the depths of our own souls, reveal to us the truth about what is there, and to guide us as we seek to put off the old self and to put on the new self, a person made radiant in Christ.

I’ve thought about Willard’s analysis, quoted above, often, as I’ve long wanted the person I am on the outside to correspond to the person I am on the inside, and the person I am on the inside to become more fully cast in the image and likeness of Christ. In other words, I have wanted to be a person of integrity.

I have also wanted to be a person of depth.

Willard writes, “Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help.” The transformation we most need is brought from the outside, in, then put on display from the inside, out. It is shared work, and it is firstly God’s work. And it only seems possible when by grace and through grace we yield ourselves to grace, expressing to God our deep longing for union and communion, humbly asking that God would make us whole, heal us, make us well.

The Heart and Purposes of God

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The individual disciples must have indelibly imprinted upon their souls the reality of this wonderful person who walked among us and suffered a cruel death to enable each of us to have life in God. It should become something that is never beyond the margins of their consciousness. . . . No one can have an adequate view of the heart and purposes of the God of the universe who does not understand that he permitted his son to die on the cross to reach out to all people, even people who hated him. That is who God is. . . . It is God looking at me from the cross with compassion and providing for me, with never-failing readiness to take my hand and walk on through life from wherever I may find myself at the time.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.335

What a Wonderful Invitation

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When I undertake all my activities, I am not doing them on my own, I am doing them in confidence, vision, and expectation in the spirit and character of Christ. If I am writing a paper or preparing for a conference or outlining a course, I don’t just do that looking to myself, I do that in expectation that God will act with me.

The gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus preached, ​“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” is precisely the good news that, in everything I am and do, God invites me to invite him to be my co-worker. He invites me to look to him, to act and move in tangible ways no matter what it is.

[ . . . ]

You have now heard the gospel that you are accepted by God where you are, that he put you there. You’re in your world to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth — and it is God who makes that possible. You accept the fact that you are finite, that you make mistakes, that you’re not perfect. And in so doing you get on with the work that God has appointed to flow through your life as you become the person he intended you to be.

You see, God has very high aims for you and me. His aim is that each one of us becomes the kind of person he can empower to do what we want. I am going to say that again. You and I are being trained and cultivated and grown to the point where God can empower us to do what we want. Now you recognize that a lot of work has to be done on our ​“wanter” before that can happen. But that is what life is about. And that’s what we are learning to do as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Dallas Willard, “Acknowledging God in All We Do

What struck me most was Willard’s remark about our mistakes and how liberating that is, but all of this is gold.

The Meaning of Apocalypse

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Carl Trueman has written an article at First Things in which Protestant Christians are asked to consider COVID-19 and the meaning of the term apocalypse.

“Apocalypse” is often associated with the end of the world, depicted in films as a cascading onslaught of geopolitical chaos, natural disasters, environmental decay, unstoppable global disease, and, maybe, the unleashing of evil spiritual forces. Think of The Book of Eli, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, 12 Monkeys, End of Days, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strangelove, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, or Wall-E. Ghostbusters really nailed it. Long live Peter Venkman.

In the New Testament, the Greek term apokálypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” That word translated “revelation?” That’s apokalypsis.

A hidden thing is revealed. That’s an apocalypse.

Look At All These Rumors

Trueman has been hearing that Protestants fear that the pandemic has not only decimated budgets and worship services, and uncovered stresses and strains which exist in the relationship between church and state, but that online worship services and habituated non-attendance will lead to a massive reduction in church participation. Trueman writes:

In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.

Theology nerds will find Trueman’s claims about Catholic/Protestant arguments for meeting physically together worthy of contemplation. For Catholics, Christ meets with his people in the Eucharist. For Protestants, Christ meets with his people through the preached Word.

But really, it’s the last paragraph which provides the Scorpion uppercut punch:

So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.

Let’s say, for a moment, that churches do experience a thirty percent reduction in active participation in weekend services once this storm passes. Trueman may have nailed all the causes.

But has this pandemic been truly necessary to reveal these things to be true? Or will the pandemic only make these matters even more plain, pushing those remaining in denial about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in North America to finally face the reality that cultural forces, including those within the church, have weakened our efforts at discipleship?

No Need for Anxiety

Long ago I gave up hand-wringing over matters like this. I’ve faced the fact that we are in decline, and that there is work to do. The monastics taught me to remember that God draws people unto himself and into community, and while I might be called to intercede for the world and to call upon God to bring the lost to saving faith, I am not called to be anxious about the future of the church. The Father sovereignly prunes the vine to foster future flourishing. I trust the vine dresser.

Dallas Willard once said “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus.” Indeed, that is a great challenge. But it echoes the commission given to all disciples of Jesus. Jesus has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth and has promised to be with us to the end of the age. Those are reasons for confidence, and hope.