Archive for January, 2012

26
Jan
12

encountering God in the darkness

A couple of time a year when I was in seminary we would have “Quiet Days,” which were basically half-day retreats that third year students had to attend.  It was in the music of one of these Quiet Days that I experienced God speaking.

Two different pieces of music were played that day, and we were to meditate or pray while we listened.  I was not particularly connecting with the first piece – a Christian pop song – but the mournful sounds of a choral adaptation of Barber’s Adagio for Strings resonated with me immediately.  There is a certain reverence about the piece, but it also gives you the eerie sense that you are confronting something very dark. I noticed that this feeling struck a particular chord within me, and that I felt a deep connection to God in that confrontation with darkness.  I am talking about a kind of existential moment, a standing at the edge of “the abyss,” contemplating the futility of human efforts, the radical corruption of human desires, the “nothingness” of human existence and achievement.

I have faced depression on a couple of occasions in my life, and I believe that those experiences changed me profoundly.   I am not a particularly mournful or pessimistic person, but, I still pause in those “existential moments,” and feel an incredible resonance within me.  It is very difficult to describe.  The words of Ecclesiastes 1:8 spoke so clearly to my experience at the height of my depression:

All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.  

While I don’t struggle with that feeling regularly, I have never really left it behind, and the brief moments when that weariness has resurfaced in my life have been some of the most profound encounters I have had with myself, and with God.

Aside from the music, I remember connecting with the Psalms we read that day, and with the practice of praying the Psalms, which I have done since experiencing the daily offices in my first year at Wycliffe.  During my depression, I was comforted to find an expression of my experience in Ecclesiastes, and in a similar way I have found it liberating to be able to pray with the emotion found in the Psalms.  Strange as it may seem to some, I find that I feel closest to God in those moments when I contemplate the loneliness and futility of human life with honesty. Somehow I know that God is there, because, as the Psalmist prayed, Christ also prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In God the Son’s decent into that “abyss” of human darkness, he established his true presence in the God-forsaken places of this world. I am, therefore, surprisingly comforted when I find myself in such a place, knowing that, in spite of the profound sense of darkness I feel, he is indeed there, and I, in Christ, can make the same cry with authenticity.

I do connect with God in feelings of joy and thankfulness, of course.  Often, however, the shallow “happiness” that is sometimes characteristic of evangelical worship fails to resonate with my experience.  There is an unfailing optimism (“Christians should be happy people!”) among many which is only possible when the problem of sin and suffering is gravely underestimated.  Coming to terms with human depravity was a watershed moment for me, not only in terms of understanding myself and God, but also in terms of understanding the broken world in which we live.  I am not in any way discouraged by the profound brokenness of the world, or by my own depravity, given the sufficiency of Christ’s work.  Rather, I feel a great sense of freedom in resting my hope in him alone.

I was particularly thankful during that Quiet Day, that I could experience that dark encounter once again, and still feel that powerful resonance within me.  I am thankful that I have not left that experience behind, though I am no longer confined by it.

19
Jan
12

Theology and the Laughter of the Angels

Two weeks ago I began teaching Systematic Theology II at Tyndale Seminary.   I suspect that not all of the students in the course are excited to be there, both because the class meets at 8:30 AM on Mondays, and because systematic theology is not everyone’s favourite subject.  Some of the students are probably only taking the class because they have to.  I told them, “That’s fine.  You don’t have to love systematic theology.  You don’t have to be excited about it.  But you do have to know the basics.”

I think anyone who wants to be a leader in the church needs to be familiar with the basics of Christian doctrine – how it has developed and why it is important.  Systematic theology is not idle speculation; it’s not about professors sitting in their offices thinking up topics for papers.  It’s about the gospel and the God of the gospel.  It’s about proclaiming that gospel faithfully and biblically.  It’s about seeing the big picture of how each doctrine relates to the others; and it’s also about learning the lessons of history, so that we are not doomed to repeat the theological mistakes of those who have gone before us.

Stanley Hauerwas makes an interesting observation about the nature of seminary training today.  He’s concerned that many people don’t take seminary training seriously enough, and he makes his point by comparing seminary and medical school.  He asks us to imagine if a future doctor got to medical school and said, “You know, I’m just really not into anatomy.  I’m not going to worry about that subject. I’m going to focus more on my bedside manner.”  What do you think the school administrators would say to that student?  They’d say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested in anatomy.  It’s important.  If you want to be a doctor you’ve got to understand how the human body works!”

Likewise, leaders in the church need to be able to think theologically.  It’s important.   This means they need to know the basic doctrines, historical figures, schools of thought, and so on, but more than that, they need to be able to bring these resources to bear upon the questions they face in their own life and ministry, so that these questions can be thought through theologically, and not simply on the basis of other concerns, be they pragmatic, psychological, financial, etc..

It is often said that everyone is a theologian.  I think this is true.  Theology is, simply put, God-talk. We all talk about God, and in that sense, we are all theologians.  The question is, are we going to be good theologians or are we going to be hacks?  We don’t need everyone to be experts.  But just like we expect that doctors will know the difference between our heart and our stomach, church leaders need to know the difference between Christology and ecclesiology; they need to see how they relate to one another, and both our Christological and ecclesiological assumptions inform our practices.  Just like a doctor needs to be able to tell the difference between a healthy person and a diseased person, church leaders need to be able to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.

Having said all that, it’s important to recognize that theology is not like anatomy.  God is not laid out on a slab for us to poke and prod and test and dissect.  Although God does make himself known to us through Christ and the Spirit, this is always a profound condescension on his part; he comes down to our level so that we can understand him with our limited human minds – but we have to always remind ourselves that God is bigger than any theological system.  He is greater than the greatest thing we can possibly imagine. and so we have to remain humble about our theology.  We can speak truthfully and faithfully about God but we can never speak exhaustively.

I ended my introductory remarks during our first class with this wonderful quote from Karl Barth.  I reminded them that Barth was the greatest theologian of the 20th century – many would say the greatest theologian since the Reformation.  He wrote prolifically.  His Church Dogmatics was up to six million words when he died – and he hadn’t finished it.  In spite of all this, Barth retained a wonderful humility, both regarding himself as a person and about his theological work.  I always try to keep this quote in mind as I think theologically:

“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.”
Quoted in Robert McAfee Brown’s “Introduction” to Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casalis, trns. Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964, p xiii.

12
Jan
12

Book Review – Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community

Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker, both professors of evangelism as United Methodist seminaries, wrote Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010) as a contribution to the “New Monastic Library” series, from Wipf and Stock.   The book is an engagement with the “new monasticism” movement from a specifically United Methodist perspective.  The authors are both advocates for new monasticism as a renewal movement, and both are involved in new monastic communities.   Heath and Kisker see the new monasticism as a way forward in the quest to renew the Methodist tradition in America.

New monasticism is a relatively recent movement of Christians who are banding together and forming intentional communities of radical discipleship, often (but not always) including communal living in what New Monastics call “the abondoned places of empire.”  Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way community in Philadelphia are probably the most well-known examples of new monasticism, but there are many others.  If you’re trying to get a sense of what the movement is about, look up the 12 Marks of New Monasticism.  For a book-length introduction, see Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).

Heath and Kisker have written a book which is aimed at a United Methodist audience.   That means they document new monastic communities within the UMC, locating them within the broader new monastic movement, and they also lay out a proposal for further development of new monastic communities in the UMC.   In doing this, they argue that the new monasticism resonates with the heart of the Wesleyan vision for Christian community.  That is, they argue that Methodists can embrace the new monasticism as an authentic re-envisioned embodiment of the original Methodist communities.

After an opening chapter in which the authors recount their personal stories, the book spends two chapters looking at the history of intentional communities in the church: an initial chapter focused mainly on the history of monasticism in the early church and the middle ages, followed by a chapter discussing “Protestant Models of Intentional Community.”  The book does not present detailed scholarship (that is not its purpose), but provides an interesting narrative of church history from the perspective of intentional communities and their role in renewing the church.  So, the Anabaptist, Pietist, Moravian, and Methodist movements are laid out as part of a history of intentional communities of radical discipleship – a history that extends back to the ancient monks of the Egyptian desert.  The point is not to say that Methodism (which is the main focus of the book) was “monastic,” but that it shared many of the aims and features of monastic communities, in its own way, even as its forms of life were more directly borrowed from the Anglican religious societies and the Moravians.

Next, in chapter four, Heath and Kisker briefly describe the new monasticism, focusing particularly on how United Methodists have become involved.  The fifth chapter was the one I found most interesting, because it makes some concrete suggestions about how the UMC could embrace new monasticism.  For example, a rule of life is offered, based on United Methodist membership vows.  Phoebe Palmer is presented as a potential “patron saint” of new monasticism, someone who “embodied just about everything that the new monasticism holds dear” (53).  And the chapter deals with such concrete issues as appointments and the possibilities of bi-vocational ministry.   The book closes with reports from three United Methodist new monastic communities.

This is a very short book, and as I said above, it is not an attempt at rigorous scholarship, though it is well written.  It’s very accessible, and it offers an interesting window on the new monastic movement from a Methodist perspective.  Because it is aimed specifically at a United Methodist audience, I did feel at times like I was listening in to someone else’s conversation.   But I think this was a necessary consequence of the authors’ choice to write specifically for United Methodists.

As a Wesleyan who is interested in the history and theology of renewal movements I find the prospect of a “Methodist new monasticism” to be very intriguing.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, the origin of Methodism as a religious society in the Church of England means that Methodists have inherited a somewhat ambiguous ecclesial status.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Methodists longing for renewal would attempt to return to radical forms of intentional community as a way of re-connecting with the Methodist ethos in a new context.

05
Jan
12

“ekklesiophobia,” and Balthasar on the church’s particularity

Over at Reclaiming the Mission, David Fitch is blogging about “ekklesiophobia,” (he calls is “ekklesaphobia” but I prefer ekklesiophobia”) an issue he sees among people who are involved in the North American missional movement (a movement in which Fitch is involved).  The ekklesiophobia he’s describing is an unhealthy fear of any practices that are traditionally associated with being “church.”

He began his first post in the series in this way:

It happens on facebook when I give the slightest indication the church is God’s instrument in the world. It happens frequently when I am speaking and assert that God has empowered the church to extend Christ’s presence in the world. It happens when I coach church planters that are missionally oriented and ask them when they gather for worship. It happens when I engage my missional friends on one of the variants of the formula “missiology precedes ecclesiology.” It happens each time I meet someone who has been abused by the traditional church. Each time there is a out-sized reaction against organizing people into practices traditionally associated with being the church (this is especially true of the public worship gathering, or the ordination of clergy).

Read the rest here, and part two here.  More to come.

I’m glad to see someone flagging this as an issue.  The missional movement is making great contributions to the contemporary church in North America, and has started some important conversations which are spilling over its borders and engaging those who minister in more traditional denominational churches and structures.   But I’ve detected something like an ekklesiophobia in my own interactions with some of the misisonal literature (though I admit I’m not totally up to speed on it).   I sometimes worry that the church’s community life, manifested in things like weekly corporate worship, sacraments, and church fellowship, are treated as if they are barriers to mission (at worst), or (at best) simply a pragmatic means to the end of being the church “in the world” – something to be tolerated as a rejeuvenating exercise when such rejeuvenation is needed, but not a discipline to be attended to as part of the church’s essential vocation.

Of course, these critiques are based on the fact that corporate worship and fellowship can become barriers to mission, if the church becomes a kind of social club which is completely turned in upon itself and closed off from the world.   However, if this problem is met by an approach that avoids such “churchly” activity, it will create other problems – namely a vaccuum of Christian formation.   It is the church’s internal life that provides the basis for such formation, and therefore the church’s internal life is essential to the church’s being and well being.

All of this makes me think of the following quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

 The Church must be open to the world, yes: but it must be the Church that is open to the world.  The body of Christ must be this absolutely unique and pure organism if it is to become all things to all men.  That is why the Church has an interior realm, a hortus conclusus, fons signatus (a walled garden, a sealed spring), so that there is something that can open and pour itself out (from Truth is Symphonic, 100).

The church’s mission in the world cannot be played off against its internal life of regular worship, sacraments, catechesis, fellowship, and so on.  Being the church requires those practices.  The church needs to be in the world,  but as Balthasar says, it is the church that must be in the world.   Therefore, the church’s particularity, its apostolic strangeness, embodied in ecclesial practices, is an essential aspect of its mission.




Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates

My book