Prayer for Holy Week (Karl Barth)

ImageLord our God, we are gathered here on this day to consider how you have carried out your good, firm will for the world and for all of us, by allowing our Lord Jesus Christ, your dear Son, to be captured that we might be free; to be found guilty that we might be found innocent; to suffer that we might rejoice; and to be given over to death that we might live forever.

Under our own power, we could only be lost. And we have not deserved such a rescue – no, not one of us. But in the inconceivable greatness of your mercy, you have shared in our sin and our poverty, in order to do such a great thing for us. How else could we thank you but to grasp, take up, and acknowledge this great thing? How else should this happen, but that the same living Savior who suffered for us, was crucified, died, and buried, and was also raised up, should now come into our midst, speak to our hearts and minds, open us to your love, and guide us to trust in it completely and to live by it and by it alone.

So we ask in all humility, but also in all confidence, that this happen in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers (2008), 23-4.)

Prayer for Lent (Walter Breuggemann)

“Loss is indeed our gain”

The pushing and shoving of the world is endless,
We are pushed and shoved.
And we do our fair share of pushing and shoving
in our great anxiety.
And in the middle of that
you have set down your beloved suffering son
who is like a sheep lead to slaughter
who opened not his mouth.
We seem not able,
so we ask you to create the spaces in out life
where we may ponder his suffering
and your summons for us to suffer with him,
suspecting that suffering is the only way to come to newness.
So we pray for your church in these Lenten days,
when we are driven to denial
not to know the suffering,
not to engage it,
not to acknowledge it.
So be that way of truth among us
that we should not deceive ourselves.
That we should see that loss is indeed our gain.
We give you thanks for that mystery from which we live.
Amen.

(Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth [2003], 153)

Poems for Lent: Luci Shaw

Continuing the series on Lenten poems, here is “Royalty” by Luci Shaw (fitting for the week of Palm Sunday).

He was a plain man
and learned no latin.

Having left all gold behind
he dealt out peace
to all us wild men
and the weather

He ate fish, bread,
country wine and God’s will

Dust sandalled his feet

He wore purple only once
and that was an irony

(A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation, edited by Luci Shaw [1984], 91)

Poems for Lent: Ephrem the Syrian

ephrem-the-syrianEphrem the Syrian (d. 373) was a theologian and poet of the ancient Syrian Church. He wrote Bible commentaries, sermons, and hymns, but it is for his poetry that he is most widely known – his contemporaries called him “the harp of the Spirit”. Some poems were verse homilies and probably recited, but the majority were composed in stanzas and meant for singing in communal worship. For Ephrem, the poetic form was ideal because it suited his understanding of the Christian mystery: God takes flesh to himself and offers it for us to consume as Bread and wine. The Christian life is enveloped in mystery, and Ephrem’s poetic hymns are meant to guide Christians into an encounter with the mystery of grace and participate in it through worship.

This is from Ephrem’s poem “On the Resurrection (1)”

1. The Lamb has come for us from the House of David,
the Priest and Pontiff from Abraham;
He became for us both Lamb and Pontiff,
giving His body for sacrifice, His blood for sprinkling.Blessed is His perfecting!

Refrain: Blessed is Your rising up!

2. The Shepherd of all flew down
in search of Adam, the sheep that had strayed;
on His shoulders He carried him, taking him up:
he was an offering for the Lord of the flock.
Blessed is His descent!

3. He sprinkled dew and life-giving rain
on Mary, the thirsty earth.
Like a seed of wheat He fell again to Sheol
to spring up as a sheaf, as the new Bread.
Blessed is His offering! [...]

16. His birth gives us purification,
His baptism gives us forgiveness,
His death is life to us,
His ascension is our exaltation.
How we should thank Him! [...]

22. Whom have we, Lord, like you -
the Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
the Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
the King who bore disgrace to ensure honor for all!
Blessed is Your honor!

(Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, translated by Sabastian P. Brock and George A. Kiraz [2006], 81-83, 91, 95)

Poems for Lent: Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory of NazianzusI have lately been reading the poems of Gregory of Nazianzus and Ephrem the Syrian, both 4th century theologians. As I was pondering one this morning the thought struck me how fitting it is for Lent. This is from Gregory the Theologian’s “On the Son” (De Filio):

First of all we shall sing the Son… [1]
He didn’t shave off any bit of Godhead, and still he saved me, [60]
stooping as a doctor over my foul-smelling passions.
He was a man, but God. David’s offspring, but Adam’s
Maker. A bearer of flesh, but, even so, beyond all body.
From a mother, but she a virgin. Comprehensible, but immeasurable.
And a manger received him, while a star led [65]
the Magi, who so came bearing gifts, and fell on bended knee.
As a man he entered the arena, but he prevailed, as indomitable,
over the tempter in three bouts. Food was set before him,
but he fed thousands, and changed water into wine.
He got baptized, but he washed sins clean, but he was proclaimed [70]
by the Spirit, in a voice of thunder, to be the Son of the One Uncaused.
As a man he took rest, and as God he put to rest the sea.
His knees were wearied, but he bolstered the strength and knees of the lame.
He prayed, but who was it who heart the petitions of the feeble?
He was the sacrifice, but the high priest: making an offering, but himself God. [75]
He dedicated his blood to God, and cleansed the entire world.
And a cross carried him up, while the bolts nailed fast sin.
But what’s it for me to say these things? He had company with the dead,
but he rose from the dead, and the dead, the bygone, he raised up:
there’s a mortal’s poverty, here the incorporeal’s wealth. [80]
Don’t you dishonor, then, his divinity on account of his human things,
but, for the divine’s sake, hold in renown the earthly form
into which, thoughtful towards you, he formed himself, the
incorruptible Son.
(translated by Peter Gilbert, On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus [2001])

Conversion and Ritual

In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative inImage which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.

The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).

This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. Continue reading

What do we mean by “the Christian life”?

We promised some excerpts from our forthcoming book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, so here we go. An obvious question is simply what we mean by the construction “the Christian life.” To what does it refer, what is its range of meaning, and from where does one draw to fill out its content? This is taken from the Introduction:

‘The Christian life’ is theological shorthand for redeemed human existence in communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit. That is, it names the temporal experience of ImageGod’s eternal purposes for fellowship as they are realized in human beings according to God’s grace. To state it yet another way, to address ‘the Christian life’ is to speak about the character of reconciled and renewed human existence. God’s gracious purpose to conform fallen people to the image of Christ takes shape and fulfills itself in time and space; this is the Christian life.

Putting it this way points out the rich doctrinal nexus within which the doctrine of the Christian life is situated. While the primary reference of ‘the Christian life’ is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension.

Lent for Academic Theologians

What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate Doctor of Divinitya bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Let me add a few thoughts.  It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their  vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Continue reading

Abiding in Relationships

Ben Quash’s 2013 Lent Book, Abiding, is a beautiful meditation on the Christian life. Here is an excerpt from the chapter, “Abiding in Relationships.”

ImageHuman relationships will sometimes fail – often in small ways and occasionally in big and terrible ways. The Christian confidence is that no failure that is enacted by the embroiled human will can outrun grace. The Christian belief is that our abiding in relationship with God and one another is a ‘work’ that prospers only because God first abides in relationship with us. And God can bind all things – including the times, the seasons, and our fractured lives – not because God is one solitary and almighty will, but because he is faithful, and makes covenants, and gives himself, making an ‘us’ that will abide for eternity because it is established in the power of this infinitely responsive love (p. 128)

Sanctified by Grace is coming (finally!)

Kyle and I have been working for several years on a theology of the Christian life. In fact, we started the project while office mates and quick friends at the University of Aberdeen. We are verySanctified by Grace_cover_March62014 happy to say it is done and will be published in the early summer by T&T Clark! (you can preorder here) In the meantime, we are going to post some excerpts to whet your appetite.

The following is from the book jacket:

Books on the Christian life abound. Some focus on spirituality, others on practices, and others still on doctrines such as justification or forgiveness. Few offer an account of the Christian life that portrays redeemed Christian existence within the multifaceted and beautiful whole of the Christian confession. This book attempts to fill that gap. It provides a constructive, specifically theological interpretation of the Christian life according to the nature of God’s grace. This means coordinating the triune God, his reconciling, justifying, redemptive, restorative, and otherwise transformative action with those practices of the Christian life emerging from it. The doctrine of the Christian life developed here unifies doctrine and life, confession and practice within the divine economy of grace.

Drawing together some of the most important theologians in the church today, Sanctified by Grace achieves what no other theological text offers – a shared work of dogmatic theology oriented to redeemed Christian existence.

Letters to a Church Father

I tried something in class yesterday with wonderful results. In an upper level theology letter writingcourse we came to the end of several days grappling with writings from a handful of early church figures on the topic of Christology: Irenaeus, Arius, Athanasius, Apollinarius, Gregory of Nazianzus,  Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Jerusalem. We had walked through these readings together, and along the way I  sprinkled our conversations with background information, pointed out doctrinal connections they might not have seen, and drew their attention to particularly salient points.

Yesterday, as we pulled the threads together, I asked my students to write a letter. “Chose one of these ancient figures and reach back across the centuries” I told them. “They, like us, sought to contend for the Gospel – can you express to them how their Christology benefits you today? And they, like us, did so imperfectly – even if you disagree with their Christology, could you receive them as a legitimate conversation partner?”

Their letters were immensely encouraging and showed theological maturation on many different levels. The points of agreement and disagreement between the ancient figures did not go unnoticed, and many were able – without being asked in the assignment – to articulate the rationale which motivated the arguments. They drew wisely upon relevant biblical material, were sensitive to their place within the tradition of faith, and showed surprising maturity related to the pastoral issues connected to the doctrinal debates. These are all good and show the development of the technical skills required for theologians, but, frankly, more encouraging to me was the tone of the letters.

“Bravo!” I said to them today, “My young theologians, you sought to genuinely hear from these figures, to enter into dialogue with them, and not merely stand over them.” For instance, many more than I expected wrote to Apollinarius, Continue reading

Prayer for my students (and me) on the first week of classes

How are we already one month into the spring semester?  I prayed this prayer with my students at the conclusion of the first week of classes in a course on the doctrine of the Christian life.

Isaiah 8:21-9:1 – Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and Imagefearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

God of Grace, your coming to us always precedes our coming to you,

we come sometimes eagerly
other times stubbornly
but we always finding our true selves in coming.

Your “nevertheless” marks our way, for whatever way we find to you is one you charted already:

you made a way for there to be anything at all
you made a way for a barren couple to be your partners in blessing
you made a way for your blessed-to-be-a-blessing-people to exodus
you made a way, you made a way, you make a way

We have called these way-makings of yours

Creation
Covenant
Exodus
In short, faithfulness.

We gave different names to your way-making in flesh, calling it

Incarnation
Atonement
Reconciliation
Redemption
Sanctification
Restoration
Perfection
In short, grace.

As we give ourselves to considering the particular existence which arises from these actions – the Christian life – continue making your way to us and among us through it, and may there be for us no more gloom, only the light which dawned. Amen.

Abiding with the Dying

ImageLike so many across the Midwest I am hunkered down watching massive amounts of snow fall outside my window. My kids have worn themselves out in the white stuff, and with a cup of coffee and plate of Christmas cookies I have a few moments to reflect on a recent visit to my parents and to my elderly grandmother.

My mother and father are the primary caregivers for my grandmother (97), who is now bedridden and rapidly loosing mental grasp of herself and her surroundings. Sitting with her is less now about conversation than holding her hand and reminding her that I am present. The tasks are without doubt more physically and emotionally arduous for my parents. Unlike them, I am not called upon to meet the daily challenges her care requires: scheduling nurses, carrying to the bathroom, monitoring health, anxiously waiting daily for the next sign of deterioration.

Being in the presence of the care my parents are offering confirmed something Ben Quash writes about in a lovely little book called Abiding. The dying ask three things of us above all else (quoting Dame Cicily Saunders): help me, listen to me, stay with me. Quash goes on:

The challenge of caring for a dying person is that the effectiveness of the usual tools and roles is relativized. The patients are not going to get better, and they do not need a ‘solution’ to something. What will often be most precious to them, instead, is people to undertake to ‘accompany’ them in what they are going through…The model of abiding that Jesus bequeaths to his disciples is not one in which the tick of the clock is accumulating units of expensive time, and the persons involved are either engaged in the targeted application of technical skill or professional know-how, but are attentively and mutually available to each other. They undertake ‘accompaniment.’

What I experienced first-hand with my grandmother, and strongly suspect my parents are as well, is the painful relativizing Quash describes. Our power to be effective, Continue reading

Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent

Arise, shine: for your light has come.Jesus_Birth
O God, we live as if the light had never defeated the darkness in the world or in us.
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
We confess that we ignore the Christ you sent to be among us, to be in us.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.
We’ve kept the birth of your Son confined to the Christmas season and do not yearn for his birth each moment in our waiting hearts.
And the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lord, you come to us in the fullness of time.
Forgive us for not opening our eyes to your coming.
It’s time that we prepare for your coming.
Let the earth ring with song. Let the light break forth.
Let us all rejoice in the miracle of love.
Let Christ come into the fullness of our time. Amen.
(The Worship Sourcebook [2004])