“Kneeling Theologians”

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“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian’s task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”

John Webster, here, via Ken Myers, “Why Theologians Should Be on Their Knees

I like this idea. But I am among those who believe that the work of theology is first a work of prayer and second a task of service. Theologians do not firstly serve the academy, though they are found there in official capacities, but rather theologians dedicate themselves to a discipline of inquiry that is intended for service to the Lord and, by extension, to the people of God, the church.

Not all understand the discipline in this way.

The Prayer in Chris Farley’s Pocket

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As I stumble through this life,
help me to create more laughter than tears,
dispense more happiness than gloom,
spread more cheer than despair.
Never let me become so indifferent
that I will fail to see the wonder
in the eyes of a child
or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged.
Never let me forget that my total effort
is to cheer people, make them happy
and forget – at least momentarily –
all the unpleasantness in their lives.
And, in my final moment,
may I hear You whisper:
‘When you made My people smile,
you made Me smile.’

The Clown’s Prayer

The closing words offered in the 2015 documentary “I Am Chris Farley” are “The Clown’s Prayer,” words Mr. Farley carried in his wallet that he would recite before auditions and shows. They are read by Mr. Farley’s friend and fellow actor Pat Finn.

I cannot imagine a more fitting, more perfect ending.

There is a prayer for every vocation, words that might be spoken as one pursues any good endeavor, that God might bless those efforts toward eternally good ends. Even for the comedian. While there has been a great deal of material published in recent years on faith and work and many sermons and talks given besides, I suspect the need to pair these two in the Christian imagination will not soon fade, and that we will need further reminders that the work of God is undertaken by the whole people of God in the fields, offices, workshops and warehouses of our world.

A House of Prayer

First Methodist Church, Waco, Texas

I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.

This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.

We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?

In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.

Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:

My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.

And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.

Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.

The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.

Easier to Take the Ocean

In his book The Jesus Prayer: A Cry for Mercy, a Path of Renewal, John Michael Talbot tells this story:

Bishop Augustine was preaching his series of homilies on the Trinity in the cathedral of Hippo. Between services he would walk to the seashore to meditate and rest his mind. He saw a boy on the shore digging a hole and then filling the hole with a bucket of seawater. He did this repeatedly. Finally Augustine walked over to the boy and asked, “Son, what are you doing?” The boy replied, “I am going to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole.” The wise and fatherly Augustine said kindly to the boy, “My son, the ocean is too big to place in that little hole.” The boy looked up at the bishop and said, “Easier for me to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole than for you to take the big Trinity and put it in your little mind, Bishop Augustine!” At that the boy disappeared. He was an angel sent by God to remind Augustine that sublime as his teaching might be, he could never fully understand or express the divine mysteries of the Trinity (or the incarnation, for that matter).

The words we utter about God should always be spoken with humility, for the reality is far greater than that which the human mind could ever comprehend or behold. And yet, on this night, Christian people proclaim that this God came in the form of a child, in the person of Jesus, and in and through him, delivered salvation to the world.

A Wesleyan Prayer for the Soon-to-be Wed

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While browsing for a resource on family devotions I came across these prayers for couples, and this one, I liked:

A Prayer for a Couple About to Marry

“O God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, bless these Your servants.
Sow the seed of eternal life in their hearts,
so that whatever they learn in Your Holy Word they will profit from it,
and bring their learning to fulfillment by their deeds.
Look, O Lord, mercifully on them from heaven. Bless this couple.
As You sent Your blessing on Abraham and Sarah to their great comfort,
so send Your blessing on these Your servants.
Help them to obey Your will and always live in safety under Your protection.
May this pair live in Your love to the end of their days.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.”

– From The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, 1784

The Patient Friendship of God

Master of the Universe, through your son you would have us be your friend. But what could it possibly mean for us to be friends of God? Friendship with other people is hard enough. To be your friend is quite simply unimaginable. Friendship with you is right up there with asking us to be friends with our worst enemy, but then, maybe you are our worst enemy. Maybe I am my worst enemy. So, if you are nearer to us than we are to ourselves, unless we become friends with you we cannot become friends with ourselves or anyone else. This business of friendship must take time, but thank God your patience with us gives us all the time we need. Make us your friends so that when the puzzled world cannot figure out what makes us Christians the same, they will say, “But see how they love one another.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries

In John 15:15, Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” What a profound statement.

Jesus is speaking with his disciples. In John, Jesus is offering his “last words” to his friends before being betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed. One of the last things that he imparts: “I have called you friends.” Why? “Because I have made known to you everything that I heard from my Father.” Jesus, the Son, withheld nothing. Not even his life.

Hauerwas’ thoughts on friendship mirror my own. “What could it possible mean for us to be friends of God?” He is right to observe our relationships with other people, even our friends, are “hard enough.” Friendship with God is all the more challenging because God, being God, knows us inside and out. God can bring us face to face with that which is most unlovable about us. How? By facing us with the reality of the cross.

In his prayer, Hauerwas leaves enough openings to allow us to make our own connections. In becoming friends with God we discover the love that enables us to truly befriend not only ourselves, but our neighbor. We find both strength and wisdom to love our enemies. We discover the hope that our enemies may even one day be counted as friends, a hope made possible solely by the power of God. God has also tasks us with work: Jesus, by counting us among his friends, commands us to befriend one another, and in being friends, so display love that leads to witness.

Being a friend of God should unsettle us, even frighten us. “You? Friends with me?” After all, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But this same fear should also fill us with reverence and awe, for, despite our expectations, friendship with God is not only possible, but is sure. God has made such friendship available in and through Jesus Christ. For people of faith, this friendship is not contingent, but is established. And God, being eternally patient, has given us all the time we need to become his friends.

Reading George Herbert

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Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee

– George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.

“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.

Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”

God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).

The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.

I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.

But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.

The Secrets of God

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At first we want the consciousness of being guided by God, then as we go on we live so much in the consciousness of God that we do not need to ask what His will is, because the thought of choosing any other will never occur to us. If we are saved and sanctified God guides us by our ordinary choices, and if we are going to choose what He does not want, He will check, and we must heed. . .God instructs us in what we choose, that is, He guides by our common sense, and we no longer hinder His Spirit by continually saying–“Now, Lord, what is Your will?”

– Oswald Chambers, “The Secret of the Lord,” My Utmost for His Highest

Chambers follows a citation of Psalm 25:14 with a question, “What is the sign of a friend? That he tells you secret sorrows?” Chambers, rightly, says that many are glad to share their troubles, not only friends. No. A friend draws near not uniquely by sharing their woes, but instead when disclosing “secret joys.” When do we receive secret joys from God? Chambers answers with a question: “Have we ever let God tell us any of His joys, or are we telling God our secrets so continually that we leave no room for Him to talk to us?” If God has secret joys to share, surely we want to hear them. Hush. Listen.

Chambers identifies an ever-present Christian concern: knowing the will of God. We often seek the will of God by asking, presenting our requests. We pray, desiring assurance that every choice, every avenue we take, every word we utter, every feeling we have, every thought that crosses our mind, is, with certainty, according to the will of God. But Chambers gently reminds us that answers come with listening and through relationship, the means by which God “gets us in touch with His purposes.”

How does God do so? We listen for the voice of God in prayer; we also study the Word of God in Scripture. God has spoken, and God speaks. We also remain mindful that when we face trials and tribulations, it is through those circumstances that God conforms us to the likeness of Jesus, refines us by the fire of the Spirit, and matures us in faith. We look upon our days with and through the eyes of faith, trusting that God is there, present, with us, has not left us nor forsaken us, and is, right now, renewing our minds, hearts, souls, bodies.

Sanctification is a promise. God does set us apart as holy and will, by grace, render change in those who sincerely trust him–of outlook, understanding, feeling, or hope–at God’s own rate of speed. Our arrival at that place of transformation is often by a circuitious route that we would not choose nor could ever design. It comes when God confides in us, guides us, teaches us, instructs us, not only in what we should actively avoid, but how we are to be and become: people of love, gentleness, wisdom, discernment, service, truth, joy, peace, and humility.

Chambers is clear in reminding us that God knows every detail of our lives. God shares “amazing intimacy” with us. God knows us best, tending to our “tiny things,” in which God reveals his grace. As grace takes effect, we speak differently, we feel differently, we think differently and believe differently, we become like God by learning the way of Christ from Christ and in Christ.

The brilliance, I think, in Chambers’ meditation is the suggestion that we are not always consciousness with regard to how or why God has brought about our harmony with God’s will, our freedom in Christ, and our accountability to the Spirit. We desire God’s guidance. We draw near to God. Then, we find ourselves doing things that stem from being bathed in God’s grace, immersed in God’s Word, and present to God’s Spirit. We don’t always perceive it. We should. Chambers says God “guides our common sense,” which might also be said as, “God gives us wisdom” or “adjusts our judgment.”

That which seems natural to us was once unnatural. Our common sense would not be common apart from the God who is truth. The supernatural has taken up residence in us, the Spirit of God has made a home in us, and God’s immeasurable grace has done a quiet work in making us something we could never have become without The redeeming work of Jesus.

To walk in the will of God as though it were the only way to walk, the most natural way, is an incredible testament to the gracious action of God. God has shared “secret joys” with us, the greatest of which is God’s very self. God is there to be known, and God makes that knowing possible.

Prayer is One Part of a Larger Life

As I’ve thought over what I wrote over the weekend about prayer, I’ve returned to the idea that prayer needs a context to make sense in our life with God. Prayer is not only about getting answers, or fixing problems, or changing the course of history, though God is certainly free to give us answers, or address our issues, or change our present reality. Prayer is a part of something bigger. It is not an isolated activity, but is part of a larger whole.

What is that larger whole?

Our life.

Dallas Willard explains:

Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.

To try to locate divine communication within human existence alienated from God is to return to idolatry, where God is there for our use. To try to solve life’s problems by getting a word from the Lord is to hide from life and from the dignity of the role God intended us to have in creation. As John Boykin remarks, “God does not exist to solve our problems.” We exist to stand up with God and count for something in this world.

We must ultimately move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own–that of the kingdom of God. Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of him and in our delight with his creation and his provision for our whole life. Our aim in such a life is to identify all that we are and all that we do with God’s purposes in creating us and our world. Thus, we learn how to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). That is, we come in all things to think and act so that his goodness, greatness and beauty will be as obvious as possible–not just to ourselves, but to those around us.

Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, Updated & Expanded, 274-275

That’s the greater context. We pray, not so that we can fulfill a religious duty (one that can be undertaken either happily or unhappily), nor to get God to do what we want, but instead to be in relationship to God and to live according to God’s greater purposes, to learn how best to fulfill the purposes for which we have been made and the vocation to which we have been called.