Nominal Christians and the Zombie Apocalypse
Readings: Psalm 97, 99, 100 ◊ Judges 13:1-15 ◊ Acts 5:1-42 ◊ John 3:1-36
“Acknowledge that the LORD is God… LORD, your name is holy. The LORD is King!” Psalm 97:1; 99:1, 3; 100:3
My thoughts today are inspired primarily from readings in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter five opens with a narrative about a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11 NLT). This recounting tells of this couple selling some property they owned and bringing part of the money to the apostles while claiming that they were bringing all of the money from the sale.
I’ve read this account from Scripture many times and I’ve heard teachings from it many times as well. In most cases, the main point has been stealing from God and attempting to deceive God. During my reading today, I think I was given a glimpse of a more encompassing application.
“How could you think of conspiring to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (Acts 5:9 NLT)
As I was reading this passage, I noticed several things that seemed to parallel the spirit of our contemporary society. As we have acknowledged earlier, Ananias had property that was solely his (and his wife Sapphira’s). Peter acknowledges and affirms that the property and the money was Ananias’ to do with as he willed (Acts 5:4). Therefore, the issue here was not about stealing from the Lord, at least not in the strictest sense. I can understand how stealing from God might be an interpretation in a collateral sense as Ananias had professed offering all the proceeds of the sale to the apostles, yet held back a portion for himself, but I think this misses a more important and comprehensive understanding of the text. Likewise, I’m curious about the nature of our focus on the deception of Ananias and Sapphira. Speaking only for myself, I believe I have missed the true deception until now.
I recognize part of the deception perpetrated by this ancient couple was prompted by vainglory. I think it is natural to assume they were motivated to deceive because they wanted the accolades of their peers and the apostles; they wanted the appearance of righteousness without the cost. It was this realization that made me aware of the similarities existing between Ananias and Sapphira and our contemporary world, especially the first-world west.
How might we be similar to these deceiving posers? Anytime we prop up our appearances to show forth a false righteousness, assuming honesty and lacking whole-hearted obedience to the teaching and the commands of Jesus, we are cut from the cloth of Ananias and Sapphira.
This was the primary transgression of this deceptive duo. It was not that they were “cheating the Church or God” of financial offering, and it was not that they were lying to their “pastor” or brothers and sisters in the Church. Their sin was the conspiracy of deceiving their own heart and in the process tempting the Spirit of God.
What is an example of this conspiracy and heart deception today?
I think there are many examples, but likely the most pervasive is the attitude of nominal Christianity. Before explaining what I mean, it might be helpful to clarify that there truly is no such thing as a nominal Christian. A Christian either is, or is not. This does not mean a Christian cannot be without fault or imperfect… quite the contrary. There are many imperfect Christians and Saints. A Christian is simply a person who has accepted in word and testimony that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. Their confession of this faith is their word. Their testimony is the outworking of faith that accompanies their word, which manifests itself in Holy Spirit empowered love and honest obedience to all the teachings and commandments of Jesus Christ (whether through him directly or interpretations thereof through the apostolic writings of his disciples). Consequently, a nominal Christian is one who selectively chooses the commands and teachings of Jesus that they will follow. They will maintain an appearance of faith and righteousness vis-à-vis various works of the flesh with the intent to look holy before their peers, but resisting God’s transforming work in other areas of their life. This is not unlike the transgression of Ananias and Sapphira…not at all. The mediocrity of faith and unwillingness to surrender the throne of self to God is the sin unto death of our day. This sin renders the Church powerless and all but completely stops the spread of the Gospel. It is the sin that Jesus confesses, which makes him want to wretch.
“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” (Rev. 3:15-16 NLT)
In our example from the Book of Acts, we see the Holy Spirit strike both Ananias and Sapphira dead in their tracks for their sin. The question might be asked, “Why not the same sudden punishment for us today?” Perhaps the mercy of God is extended to us that we might correct our selfish error while there is still time. Those who fail to obey the Christ have already had judgment passed upon them; “Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment” (John 3:36 NLT).
If we fail to answer the call of Christ, to follow Him faithfully and obediently surrendered to his will and way (regardless of the fits, stutters, stumbles, and shortcomings, but still faithfully giving our whole-hearted effort), we are nothing but walking dead… Zombies, unaware that our self-righteous conspiracy to test the Spirit of the Lord has murdered our soul.
My Prayer Today:
O God, I look to you and call upon your name for the blessing of peace that surpasses human understanding. You alone, O LORD, know the state of my mind and the condition of my soul. I open and offer them both to you and humbly ask that you order them according to your will and purposes. Remove from me, all those distractions that would derail my attention. Attune all of my senses to your frequency that I might resonate in perfect harmony with you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Book Review: A Commentary on the Psalms
Author: Allen P. Ross
Publisher: Kregel Exegetical Library
I continue to be impressed with Kregel’s Exegetical Library and Commentary series. I have obtained and reviewed several offerings from this set and the excellence and consistency remain steadfast. This second volume in Alan P. Ross’ Commentary on the Psalms keeps the “high bar” standard alive in the series.
This is actually the first volume of the Psalms series I have had the opportunity to work in. Volume one was released in February of 2012 and volume three is slated for release later this year (November 2014). I can say that I will be going back for volume one and I’ll be waiting in line for volume three, as I’ve enjoyed this copy immensely and count it as an indispensible resource for my Psalm studies and personal devotions.
Allen P. Ross (PhD, University of Cambridge) is professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School and has also taught at Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry and Dallas Theological Seminary. Having chaired the Old Testament department at Dallas Theological Seminary and served as Hebrew Scholar assisting in the translations of the New Living Bible and the New King James Bible, Dr. Ross is imminently qualified to offer exegesis and insight from the Psalms.
The treatment of each Psalm begins with an introduction of the text and textual variants. Here Ross shares the English translation and information relative to the original Hebrew, Greek translation variants, and other relevant manuscript and/or translation information. Next, is composition and context indicating the nature and purpose of the Psalm (lament, praise, hymn, confession of repentance, etc.). Following these introductory sections, Ross begins his exegetical analysis and expository commentary. This section is where Ross’ expertise truly shines. His extensive knowledge of the Old Testament and understanding of the Hebrew language combined with the temperament of an educator make this presentation very readable and interesting. I have used many commentaries that tend to gravitate toward one or the other spectrum of too academic or too narrative (almost paraphrasing the text with personal opinion). This commentary series seems to rest in the sweet spot of that spectrum with a comforting push toward the academic side. Ross completes his treatment of each Psalm with a homiletical application or “what does this mean to me” and “what should I do with it” consideration.
As I said at the beginning of my review, this is another fine addition to the Kregel Exegetical Library and should be near the top of anyone’s list for Commentary sets working with the Psalms. You can check out an example chapter here.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Kregel Publishing to read and post a review on my site. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Book Review: Exploring Christian Doctrine
Author: Tony Lane
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
I am always on the lookout for teaching tools that will help me to share What Christians Believe. InterVarsity Press and Tony Lane have worked together to produce what is, in my opinion, an extraordinary systematic study in basic Christian doctrine.
Tony Lane (DD, University of Oxford) is professor of historical theology at the London School of Theology. One might suspect that systematic studies of Christian doctrine can be rather dry and academic, but Tony Lane has broken that stuffy stereotype and written a work that is interesting, edifying, and understandable across a broad range of learning styles and levels of Christian maturity.
One of the many things I appreciated about this compelling study was the theological stance of Tony Lane. He is self-described as “‘eclectic’ rather than ‘confessional,’ writing as an Evangelical Christian, but drawing upon a wide range of Christian traditions—Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, etc.—without being tied to any specific one.” This attitude is pervasive throughout the study, from cover to cover; Lane shares insight and knowledge without bias and presents information as objectively and evenly represented between the Christian traditions as any resource I’ve ever come across.
The introduction sets stage for the purpose and format of the book. Lane writes; “This book originated as a series of Lectures for a first-year undergraduate Christian Doctrine Survey module. It is designed to be used by students at that level, either on their own or as a textbook for a whole cohort. It is also written to be accessible to the educated lay person who has no formal theological training.”
The format follows this basic pattern: (1) Chapter—the basic belief found in the doctrinal subject; brief historical account of the doctrine; important texts supporting the doctrine and any creedal support; differences over doctrine between groups and interconnections of doctrine between groups; relationship of doctrine to the contemporary scene in both Church and culture (2) Interactive questions are sprinkled throughout each chapter with “What do you think?” invitations. Lane provides resources for the reader-student to engage and also includes his personal opinion on the subject. (3) Skeptic’s objections are discussed (4) Creedal and Confessional statements related to the doctrine (5) Errors to avoid regarding the doctrine (6) Issues creating tension and speculation are presented (7) Inclusion of aspects of participation in or with worship (hymn, liturgy, ritual) and prayer.
At the end of each chapter study, Lane includes a notes section and resources section that contains bibliographies for further study. Likewise, he provides a “question to answer” and suggests answers be limited to 100-words or less. He makes this recommendation to prepare the student to have a ready answer for man-on-the-street type questions where the listener may not be prepared or willing to listen to an essay styled response.
I have really enjoyed my reading through this presentation of Christian Doctrine. I do not exaggerate when I state it might be one of the finest I have come across in all my studies…especially, when I consider the range, depth, and diversity of presentation that it encompasses. I will likely be using this as a primary textbook for catechism with new disciples and likely engaging “old” disciples as well. As always, I continue to praise the work of InterVarsity Press with their tireless efforts to the ministry and education of God’s people.
Book Review: Midrash
Author: Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
Publisher: Paraclete Press
I read this book several months ago and I’m just getting around to reviewing it. Since it has been in my “to be reviewed stack” of books, I’ve gone back to it time and again re-reading snippets here and there. I’m certain it will make my list of favorite books read in the year 2014.
I’m sure that I’m not alone when I confess that the world of Jewish religious literature was a bit of a mystery to me. I still do not understand it all (Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Tanakh), but I’m trying to learn since I believe that these ancient religious writings have bearing on my own Christian faith. I realize there are many Christians who do not agree with my thoughts, but believe that is to their loss.
The literature known as Midrash is an interpretative dialogue seeking the answers to religious questions (both practical and theological) by searching the meaning of the words of the Torah. Midrash attempts to “fill in the gaps” of stories where we do not have the information provided for us. There is much more to defining what Midrash is than the brief explanation I’ve provided, but we needed a working definition.
The very idea of filling in the gaps of Scripture might be terrifying, especially for evangelicals and fundamentalists who might hold a literal view of Scripture. It should not be terrifying. Midrash invites us to the wonder and possibility that God’s Word has for the believer. We don’t know everything about Scripture and we don’t know everything about what was intended for and about the people Scripture was originally spoken or written. Midrash suggests possibility and asks questions about what, if, and how. These questions and possible scenarios and outcomes engage our minds and the questions of our own souls. We wrestle with the living wonder that is God’s Word to humanity. This is my paraphrase of what Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso teaches in the first section of Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks.
In part two of Midrash, Sasso introduces and shares a collection of translations and interpretations of twenty essential, classic midrashic texts. I can truthfully share with no exaggeration that I did not leave a single writing that my mind was not set into action pondering the original texts of the Scripture the midrash was referencing. This, I believe, is good.
There are discussion questions at the end of each midrash that are equally helpful in individual reading and study or with a group. Personally, I think this book would be best enjoyed in the context of a group. Additional resources of a bibliography, suggested reading lists, glossary and a brief notes section complete the book.
Book Review: Know the Creeds and Councils
Author: Justin S. Holcomb
When it comes to the Christianity and the Bible, it can seem there are as many different “beliefs” and interpretations as there are people. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. This can present considerable challenges when comes to trying to understand “What we believe…” with regard to the Christian faith.
It is precisely for this reason that a book like Know the Creeds and Councils is such a valuable resource for members of and people who are curious about the Christian Church. The creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils are the declarations of faith and unifying statements of the people to make up the Christian Church. These defining words are the “things we believe.”
Justin Holcomb has done a commendable job articulating these belief statements in a way that most anyone with the ability to read at a sixth grade level can understand. While some of these creedal statements and confessions can be a bit cumbersome, Holcomb has summarized them in such a way that there has not been any compromise to the integrity of the original statement.
One of the things I liked most is the linear development of theology and doctrine observed through these creeds and confessions. Most, if not all, of the succeeding statements build on the preceding teaching lending to a more robust and deeper understanding of the things the Church believes. Personally, this is important to me with respect to Ecumenicism; where my choices and considerations may differ from another Christian brother or sister, I can reach back to a confession or creed where we have common ground and stand in that place to build unity.
Each chapter provides a brief summary of each creed, confession, catechism, or council. Holcomb provides the historical background, content, and some contemporary relevance. The book is not exhaustive, nor is it intended to be. It does not cover every creedal document in detail, but provides an overview of the major statements of faith. It is a perfect introduction and gives the pertinent points necessary for beginning conversations that might lead to deeper study. Each chapter includes discussion questions helpful for the individual reader or group reading. There are also recommended resources for further reading about each creed, council, catechism, and confession at the end of each chapter. Additionally, there is a thoroughly annotated notes section at the end of the book that can provide even richer studies, should the reader decided to venture there.
Know the Creeds and Councils by Justin Holcomb is a great place to start with understanding the what and the why of our Christian beliefs.
Leaven, Stability, Patience, and Humility [Pt.2]
Readings: Psalm 119:49-72 ◊ Joshua 8:1-35 ◊ Romans 14:1-23 ◊ Matt. 26:36-68
“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong… Let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up” Romans 14:1, 19
Today I am impacted with thoughts surrounding these very rich, deep-meaning words as I am in the throes of discernment and decision-making. There have been a blur of days where the input I’ve received has been very affirming and positive; with the positive input, my receptivity and the consideration of my choices have been heavily weighted in a direction that has minimized my objections. Now, some of my more recent conversations have re-introduced thoughts and circumstances that I’ve pushed against and walked away from. My soul is conflicted.
My last installment in this ongoing series reflected a positive attitude and hopeful look forward, but today I second-guess that hope and positive attitude. In Part One of this series, I was considering what it might look like to be leaven and I considered how leaven interacts with the mix it is introduced. Today, I think I’m being invited to a deep reflection upon the meaning of patience and humility.
The first thought that comes to my mind regarding patience and humility is this: What does it mean to me in the very formation of patience and humility when the first signs of stress and opposition stir feelings in me of resistance or the desire to retreat? Neither resistance nor retreat can coexist with humility and patience…at least not in the sense that I am speaking.
Humility is the glue of our relationships. Humility is the foundation of community and family and friendship and love. Humility comes from understanding my place in the universe. -Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily (p.55).
As I consider these twin pillars of spiritual formation, I realize that neither is formed alone; they are inextricably linked. In order to grow in the way of patience, one must exercise an attitude of humility; likewise, humility cannot manifest without at least a modicum of patience. Neither one can exist without the presence of the other. This strikes me as an interesting dynamic. Scripture, the Saints, and the Fathers and Mothers of the Church teach us that we grow, and are nurtured, best in community. Now, deep in my reflection of some of these godly virtues that lead us in the way of Christ-like formation, I notice even the godly attributes we seek for our spiritual formation exist in community. Saint Benedict, in chapter seven of his rule, makes a codependent link between humility and patience saying, “The fourth degree of humility is that he hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even any kind of injustice, enduring all without growing weary or running away.” Saint Benedict closes out his thoughts on this fourth degree of humility with these gut-checking words; “Moreover, by their patience those faithful ones fulfill the Lord’s command in adversities and injuries: when struck on one cheek, they offer the other; when deprived of their tunic, they surrender also their cloak; when forced to go a mile, they go two; with the Apostle Paul they bear with false brethren (2 Cor. 11:26) and bless those who curse them (1 Cor. 4:12).”
I sit here this morning pondering these thoughts; in my mind’s eye, I stand sheepishly before the Lord with my head hung looking down at my feet as I shuffle and nervously kick at the ground. I believe I have a reasonably solid understanding of what and where God wants me to exercise my vocation and calling. Part of me says, “yes,” but another part of me is desperately looking for almost any shred of evidence that would help me to justify a “no” answer.
“If it is possible, let this cup be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” -Jesus (Matthew 26:39, 42)
My heart longs to live in communion and fellowship with people who are open and hungry to taste and learn that the Lord is good. I desire to dwell amongst a people who believe there is much to learn from others and people who do not think and worship as we do. I crave community with people who are not indoctrinated and acculturated to the privileges and consumerist worship of the west. I yearn to run alongside fellow disciples who have counted all things as rubbish, leaving them behind, to chase after Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. The problem with all this yearning desire is that I believe God is calling me to a different place to serve…and this “place” conflicts with most of what I long for.
This is part of the reason my soul is in conflict… “I” do not want to be a Sisyphus rolling a boulder uphill for eternity. I don’t want to be Ezekiel who was sent to a proud and hard-headed people (Ezekiel 2:3-8); I don’t want to be a Jeremiah, whose message was ridiculed and rejected. I’m also tired of wandering like Abraham and I’m ready to settle in and put down roots… and these are all part of the systemic problem of me, myself, and I. This is part of the reason my soul is in conflict. This is part of the reason God has given me these words: leaven, stability, patience, and humility to ponder. I made a covenant promise to God that I would “deny myself” and follow Him, no matter the where and no matter the cost. I asked God to help me and to shape me in His image…He has been faithful to do these things and so much more.
These are the stages to freedom from self-centeredness, to humility, the centerpiece of life. The first stage of humility is to keep the sacred nature of consciousness and the world in which it exists always alive in us. Everything we think, everything we do, everything we feel, is cast in time forever. Every moment that we live is irreplaceable, therefore each moment is hallowed. We must be on guard against despair, against fear, against bitterness, against self-seeking, and have the tenacity and courage to think optimistically and act affirmatively, and to put the needs of others always before our own. -John McQuiston II, Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living (pp.39-40).
At this moment, I know I will say “yes” to where God leads, but my soul is downcast and I want this to go away. This, I believe, is part of the lesson and practical exercise of learning patience and humility. They cannot be learned without testing, application, and practice. Real life and real adversity is my lab practicum. I will surround myself with the Saints of the Church, I will lean on my mentor Saint Benedict, and I will look for living companions to help me in my journey and with days when I suffer with the afflictions of “self.”
I’m sure this reflection has not come to an end. I anticipate more writing and thoughts will be shared in this series, but I will close with thoughts shared from Father Alexander Men who writes the following:
“Patience.” “What is patience or long-suffering? It is not the state of cattle that simply endure everything. It is absolutely not the humiliation of a person. It is certainly not a compromise with evil. Patience is the ability to keep an undisturbed spirit in those situations that otherwise do not allow for such tranquility. Long-suffering is the ability to go for the goal even when you encounter various obstacles along the way. Long-suffering is the ability to maintain a joyful spirit in the midst of great amounts of sadness. Long-suffering is to have victory and to overcome. Real long-suffering is a form of bravery. -Fr Alexander Men, An Inner Step Toward God (p.79)
So, it is with all the thoughts from above I close out my meditation with this prayer:
O Lord and Master of my life, Take from me the spirit of sloth,, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yeah, O Lord and King, Grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, For blessed art Thou, unto ages and ages. Amen. (Prayer of Saint Ephrem of Syria)
Leaven, Stability, Patience, and Humility [Pt.1]
Readings: Psalm 119:105-112 ◊ Hebrews 12:25 ◊ Romans 8:1-11 ◊ Matt. 13:11-12
“I have sworn and am determined to keep your righteous judgments.” Psalm 119:106 NRsV
Leaven, stability, patience, and humility…these are big and deep words—packed with meaning—and they just keep bouncing around my thoughts and digging into my heart.
I actually started this journal entry about three days ago thinking I might be able to work through some of what God could be trying to speak to me through these words that have a long and storied history with me. I think I’m beginning to get something of a clearer picture of where they may be taking me, but I’m sure that I’m only beginning to mine the very surface tip of this iceberg of wisdom.
Leaven : to mingle or permeate with some modifying, alleviating, or vivifying element; An agency or influence that produces a gradual change; to pervade, causing a gradual change, esp with some moderating or enlivening influence. [from Latin levare to raise - via Old French ultimately from Latin levāmen relief (hence, raising agent, leaven) from levāre to raise. (see also lever)]
What does it take to be human leaven or a human leavening agent among people? Considering the definitions I found for leaven, especially in the context I think it applies, I believe it takes heavy portions and exercise of the other words I’m considering these days: Leaven requires—stability, patience, and humility. One of the definitions sounds as if it includes these action words in its description; “An agency of influence that produces a gradual change; to pervade…” I distinctly hear patience and stability in that definition. Whether it is obvious or not, I consider humility assumed when talking about interaction and change among people… where diversity, differing opinions, and competing worldviews are part of the mix.
I further think about leaven and its characteristics and it occurs to me that leaven itself is indifferent. Leaven is leaven and does what leaven does. It has no agenda and suffers no failure if its surrounding ingredients fail to rise. As I consider this very simple thought, a light turns on in my own brain and I remember the teachings of Ignatius in his exercises with the meditation of Principle and Foundation. Basically, the sum of the teaching of Principle and Foundation is this; “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.”
Naturally, this ideology or spiritual philosophy may be expressed according to the uniqueness of each individual. My expression of praise, reverence, and service to God may not be the template that is right for another person, but when each person, specific to their uniquely created order, lives out their God-ordained vocation, joyful fulfillment can be the expected outcome. The underlying foundational attitude to live out this principle and foundation is known as holy indifference. In the Ignatian context we are using this word it does not mean lack of feeling or concern… or apathy. Instead, what we mean is that we hold with sacred trust that God is in control, guiding and gifting us as needed to bring us fully to the maturity of our created place in the image, likeness, and Body of Christ. Indifference in this context can be described as true spiritual freedom. We stand before God with a posture of humility, openness, and trust. We look to welcome Christ in each person we meet with Christ Himself guiding us in every situation we encounter. We are ultimately free to respond, serve, persevere, and love as God desires. We are free to be the person God has created us to be, exactly where we are, in the very present moment. Holy Indifference. “Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me” (SE 23).
I think, as an agent of human leaven, this shall be my attitude. Leaven is leaven; it is 100% as God created it to be and does 100% what God created it to do. In whatever environment I am in and whatever my surroundings I want to be all that God created me to be and do all the God has created me to do.
It is clear, then, that to love others well we must first love the truth. And since love is a matter of practical and concrete human relations, the truth we must love when we love our brothers is not mere abstract speculation: it is the moral truth that is to be embodied and given life in our own destiny and theirs. This truth is more than the cold perception of an obligation, flowing from moral precepts. The truth we must love in loving our brothers is the concrete destiny and sanctity that are willed for them by the love of God. One who really loves another is not merely moved by the desire to see him contented and healthy and prosperous in this world. Love cannot be satisfied with anything so incomplete. If I am to love my brother, I must somehow enter deep into the mystery of God’s love for him. I must be moved not only by human sympathy but by that divine sympathy which is revealed to us in Jesus and which enriches our own lives by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
The truth I love in loving my brother cannot be something merely philosophical and abstract. It must be at the same time supernatural and concrete, practical and alive…and not in a metaphorical sense. The truth I must love in my brother is God Himself, living in him. I must seek the life of the Spirit of God breathing in him. And I can only discern and follow that mysterious life by the action of the same Holy Spirit living and acting in the depths of my own heart. -No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton (pp4-5)
I feel like there is so much more to say about this posture of heart, but I fear I’ve run out of time and energy for this reflection. I plan to explore the meditation and reflection upon these words. I want to ponder them individually and ponder their interactions with one another. I will share these thoughts as time provides me the opportunity to record them.
Your Word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. I have sworn and am determined to keep your righteous judgments. Accept, O LORD, the willing tribute of my lips, and teach me your judgments. Your decrees are my inheritance forever; truly, they are the joy of my heart. I have applied my heart to fulfill your statutes for ever and to the end. -Psalm 119:105-112
Readings: Psalm 16, 20, 21 ◊ Deut. 31:7—34:2 ◊ Romans 9:1—10:21 ◊ Matt. 24
“The godly people in the land are my true heroes! I take pleasure in them.” Psalm 16:3
Yesterday got me to thinking. I was reminded that it was the Feast of St. Benedict (July 11) and considered the many ways my life has been influenced by his work and life dedicated to the life and course of Jesus. I am often asked about the medal I wear around my neck, which is the medal of St. Benedict. I picked my medal up in 2011 when I first went to the Pecos Benedictine Monastery for the School of Spiritual Direction. I had been studying and admiring the Rule of Benedict for around two years by that time and I had begun the practice of forming for myself and living according to a personal rule of life. I have scarcely taken the medal off since first acquiring it.
People ask me, “why…” “Why do you wear that medal? Aren’t we supposed to be followers of Jesus?”
My answer is, “Of course we’re supposed to follow Jesus…and I am. At least, I’m trying according to the best of my knowledge, to follow Jesus.”
So, why Benedict? Because he followed Jesus… and there are some pretty great stories and testimonies that surround his life of following Jesus. If you are not familiar with the Rule of Benedict, you might find it an interesting and encouraging read. It is over 1500 years old and still used in close to its original form today.
Surrounding the entire back of the medal are the initials V R S – N S M V – S M Q L – I V B, which stand for the rhyme:
Vade retro Satana! Nunquam suade mihi vana! Sunt mala quae libas. Ipse venena bibas!
Get behind me Satan!
Do not tempt me with vanities!
The things you offer are evil.
Drink your own poison!
Oh, and I talk often about being a Wesleyan-Arminian pastor. The Wesleyan part comes from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodism, from which quite a few denominations have been birthed including the denomination in which I am ordained, the Free Methodist Church of North America. The Arminian piece of that moniker is from Jacob Arminius, whom Wesley developed quite a bit of his own soteriological views (not all, but quite a bit).
So yeah, I follow John Wesley and to some extent Jacob Arminius too…and I follow St. Benedict of Nursia. Most of all, I follow Jesus, but I also follow Peter, Paul, John, and other disciples of Christ… all of who followed Jesus.
Jesus told his followers they must follow him if they wanted to be where he was/is. He said if anyone would come after him to be his disciple, they must be willing to lose their life and follow him (Matt 16:24). But it isn’t always easy to follow after Jesus. Right or wrong we struggle with following Jesus. Most of us struggle with the essence of who he is, and if we believe the teaching of the Bible, he is both God and he is man. God and man. Jesus as a man is a tough enough act to follow, but God? Oh please, C’mon…follow God? Most of us will say that ain’t happenin’ even on our best days.
Theologically, we might agree that we’re supposed to follow Jesus and we might even give a hearty intellectual nod to the confession of Jesus being 100% God and 100% man… as if that’s normal. I think; the truth is more closely buried in our “don’t really get this folder” and we just nod yes and move along. The incarnation is a paradox we fail to fully comprehend and what we fail to comprehend we usually do not pursue passionately. Where then does this lead us with following Jesus? I think for many of us it leaves us not really following Jesus…at least not in the capacity and on the terms he desired that we would follow him. As we said earlier, he’s a tough act to follow. I think he knew that.
This brings me to the reason why I follow Wesley, Benedict, John the evangelist, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus’ really good friend Peter (among others). All of these men followed Jesus, their lives and the writings about them testified to their diligent following after Jesus. Therefore, when I find it hard to follow Jesus, I can follow someone who is seeing and hearing him well enough—and follow them—this puts me on the path following Jesus too.
Many times throughout his epistles, the Apostle Paul exhorted his friends to “follow me…imitate me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 10:33-11:1). Likewise, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews has this to say about following others:
Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith. (Hebrew 13:7)
Many of these godly men (and women too) had wonderful habits. They practiced disciplines and developed spiritual exercises that helped them to crucify the works of the flesh, they developed ways to memorize and study Scripture, so the Word of God was fertile in their mind and hearts. They learned and trained themselves to practice life-giving prayer habits. We can learn a lot from the things they did and by imitating their practices, we will become better at following Jesus and imitating his way of life; this is, after all, one of our main goals…to imitate and follow Jesus.
So yeah, I wear a medal of St. Benedict and I call myself a Wesleyan-Arminian pastor…and there are likely other men and women I will look up to and imitate. I will do my best to choose well; I will examine the lives of these saints of God and think of all the good that came from their lives and follow their examples of faith. I think, according to them and others before them, it will lead me along the path of Jesus Christ. He’s the goal. He’s the prize.
Return to my Senses
Readings: Psalm 137, 144 ◊ Numbers 24:12-25 ◊ Romans 8:18-25 ◊ Matthew 22:23-40
It’s coming close to a full week that I’ve been back from my month away at the monastery in Pecos, NM. I have already experienced a range of emotions from ecstasy at being home with my family all the way to “emptiness” and “dryness” feeling hollow in my soul… and many points in-between those extremes. Yes, it hasn’t even been a week yet.
I think there is a reason for some of what I’m feeling and sensing. I’ve just come off a pretty incredible month. There were many highs and I was very active intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. All or much of my faculties were laser-focused on the presence and working of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… even the seeming mundane was flooded with the Divine. This is not to say that the same cannot be true here at home in my daily routine; it often is, but for now, and while getting readjusted to my normal routines, I am a little bit spiritually discombobulated.
I also have some unknowns in my immediate future that add to my discombobulation. These unknowns can be a source of confusion for me at times and are difficult to get a solid read. The unknowns can sometimes feel like “silence” and “emptiness” to me. These feelings and senses prompt me to inner questions and soul examinations…sometimes it is likely that I read too much into them. I am an introvert and can be prone to a lot of inner dialogue …and not all of it healthy I’m sure. Just this morning I was feeling a bit down in the swirl of all these thoughts and questions of the soul. I wrote the following in my journal as I was praying and preparing for my morning readings:
“Sometimes the quiet in my soul bothers me…”
Even as I was writing out this thought (above), I remembered a word from Fr Thomas Dubay in his book Seeking Spiritual Direction where he writes; “Healthy and apparent ‘emptiness’ is a blessing…” (p.57). Of course, this assumes the “healthy” emptiness is discerned and distinguished from “real emptiness due to selfish clingings which is a cause for alarm.” So, I was awash in thoughts and questions attempting to discern my “emptiness” from the healthy or unhealthy variety. (sigh)
As I was considering these thoughts, I reminded myself to go back and read again some of the writings from St. John of the Cross and his teaching about the dark night of the senses. While I do not consider myself in this place, it might be helpful to read it again for perspective. I do have a sense of God’s nearness. I feel my challenge is something a bit different…something I find difficult to put into words. With these final thoughts, I began my morning readings from the Daily Office Year 2 in the Book of Common Prayer. And this happened.
“I see him, but not here and now. I perceive him, but far in the distant future.” (Numbers 24:17)
Lacking contextual application or not, I had some of the hairs raise on the back of my neck when I read these words. I felt as though this somewhat described what I was feeling in my spirit. Seriously, I walk by faith and not by sight. I know that my emotions are not the dictator or discerner of my spiritual state of well-being. I often ignore how I “feel” and bring doubts into submission to the order of Christ. I get this, but these words rang true and they uncovered a deeper emotion that had remained buried. I want the fullness of Jesus now. Sometimes I get tired of waiting. I know I’m supposed to practice faithfulness to the moment and feeling impatient sends me into guilt convulsions and spiritual embarrassment. I pushed my guilt aside and paged over to my next reading…
“Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.
For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.
We believers groan,
Even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory…
For we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We wait with eager hope. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.” (Romans 8:18-19, 23, 25)
Wow. This was just the reminder that I needed. I’ve read this passage many, many times…even have it memorized, but it struck a chord in me in a very special way today.
It never ceases to amaze or surprise me when God steps into my small little world. No matter how often I confess and profess the things I “know” based on my intellectual knowledge, there are still those things my soul longs for experientially…those things that still exist only in our future eternal. The Apostle writes and reminds us this is a normal longing. The Teacher also reminds us that God Himself has seeded the soul of man with a taste of eternity (Ecc. 3:11), it is only normal then that man would long for it. I think God does not want us satisfied with the echoes and shadows of the eternal future… those things we experience today are mere facsimiles of the eternal realities God has waiting for those who will persevere to the end. And so we groan (Romans 8:23) and we wait… waiting for something we don’t understand and we cannot see. It is no wonder some people go mad. Without the direct and mysterious, intervening Voice of God who does speak to us, we might doubt to our own destruction and death. It is for this reason, I thank God with all my heart for His wonderful and life-giving Word to me today.
My prayer from Psalm 144
Praise the LORD, who is my rock.
He is my loving ally and my fortress, my tower of safety, my Rescuer.
He is my Shield, and I take refuge in him.
Open the heavens, LORD, and come down.
Reach down from heaven and rescue me;
Rescue me from deep waters.
I will sing a new song to you, O God!
Joyful are those whose God is the LORD.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.