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])

Scripture: where elephants and lambs swim

In the sixth century St. Gregory composed a commentary on the book of Job. Upon beginning he realized the task was more difficult than imagined: “[When] I learned the extent and character of the task to which I was compelled, being overwhelmed and wearied with the mere burden of hearing it, I confess I sank under it.” Elephant Swimming

Gregory was interpreting Job according to the Four-Fold Senses which was common in his time (the Quadriga): the historical sense (plain sense), the allegorical sense (typological), the moral sense (tropological), and the anagogical sense (pertaining to the last or ultimate things).  Here was Gregory’s challenge: on one hand, he sought to avoid missing the obvious meaning that stared him in the face in the historical or literal sense; but on the other hand, he wanted to avoid missing the spiritual senses that lie a bit “deeper.”

So, to explain the way in which Holy Scripture is both shallow (easily accessible in its historical sense) and deep (requires spiritually discernment) Gregory used the metaphor of a “river.” The Bible is deep enough that the most devout and skilled among us can never reach the bottom, and shallow enough that the simplest among us can swim.

The word of God, by the mysteries which it contains, exercises the understanding of the wise, so usually by what presents itself on the outside, it nurses the simple-minded.   Continue reading

Theological Conversation

When studying for my PhD at the University of Aberdeen I walked home nearly every Imageafternoon with a fellow student and office mate who lived in the flat next door. Kyle, another contributor to this blog, became one of my closest friends. Those theological conversations while strolling back to our families were rich, and I credit them to helping me complete my thesis. Clarity often comes when we  articulate our thoughts. That insight left to rattle around in your head, the one you suppose to be brilliant, may sound silly when you put it in words – that revelation is a great gift!

One morning over the summer I was having a similar sort of theological conversation with a colleague at Huntington. He brewed a fine cup of coffee, we settled ourselves into his nice little office, and our conversation meandered from topic to topic: his work on Barth’s aesthetics, my research on Radical Orthodoxy, our common love of beauty, etc.

When parting, Bo reminded me of a beautiful little exchange between Anselm and his conversation partner Boso in Cur Deus Homo:

Anselm: What you ask from me is above me, and I am afraid to handle ‘the things that are too high for me.’ If someone thinks, or even sees, that I have not given him adequate proof, he may decide that there is no truth in what I have been saying, and not realize that in fact my understanding has been incapable of grasping it.

Boso: You should not fear this so much, but you should rather remember what often happens when we talk over some question. Continue reading

Virtuous Minds

Summer is over when faculty meetings begin! Today my division held our yearly colloquium, and with that (regardless of what the calendar says) Virtuous Mindsmy summer ended. Don’t get me wrong, our meeting is always an excellent time for reconnecting and learning from each other. I heard papers on a delightfully diverse range of topics: Open Theism, Karl Barth’s aesthetics, Paul’s journey’s in Asia, “blindness” in the Gospel of Mark, ministerial support strategies, and a tantalizing preview of Tom Bergler’s new book.

The subject for the morning discussion was Philip Dow’s Virtuous Minds. Released by IVPAcademic earlier this summer, it hits its target audience of parents, high school students, and educators dead on. Specifically parents and teachers of  high school students (and those students themselves) will find much for them here. College educators will want more detail and depth, fair enough. But they (we) are not his intended audience. That being said, Dow’s book provoked a vigorous and lively discussion about intellectual virtue at Huntington University. I also think every one of our freshman should read this book.

From my experience, intellectual tenacity and courage are the two virtues most embattled in our educational system in America. Dow’s concise definitions for both don’t say everything that needs to be said, but they at least get the conversation started: Continue reading

Holy War in the Bible (a review)

Guest Post: Dr. John Noble (Huntington University)

To the credit of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School,thomas_holy-war-in-bible the concern of two seminary students over “Old Testament divine war imagery in light of Christ’s call to peace” became a colloquium, which developed into a collection of fourteen essays published by IVP, Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an OId Testament Problem . Here I examine a few of the articles that most sparked my interest.

“Joshua and the Crusades”

Douglas Earl argues—I think persuasively—against Roland Bainton’s attribution of the Book of Joshua as a primary narrative for the mobilizing rhetoric of the Crusades (Maccabees apparently had a larger role). But he pushes the argument too far with his citation of the interpretation of selected passages from a codex of the crusader-era Bible Moralisée. Since the passages make ecclesiastical references without explicit mention of crusades, it signifies “that Joshua was read more in terms of the typology of the church than as a manifesto for conquest or crusade” (25).

Must the situation be either/or? Can the manifesto for conquest or crusade not be cast in terms of the typology of the church? After all, the idea of crusade is an important theme of the work, and a dear cause to the French royal family for whom this particular codex is thought to have been produced.

More fundamentally, Earl’s judgment that “there is no straight line that one can draw from Joshua, through the crusades, to more recent examples of colonialism and religiously legitimized militarism” (43) may be true, strictly speaking. But such a statement obfuscates, in my view, the very real legacy of conquest and other biblically justified violence that checkers Western expansion. Continue reading

New Monasticism

I published an essay on new monastics this month in the journal American Theological Inquiry, “New Monastic Social Imagination: Theological Retrieval for Ecclesial Renewal.” The basic idea was to explore new monastic retrieval through the lens of social hermeneutics. Charles Taylor and Etienne Wenger were my principle conversation partners on the social hermeneutics side, and among new monastics I focused primarily on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Here is an excerpt (read the entire essay here).ATI

In order for new monastic retrieval to succeed on its own terms—to recover the monastic impulse from past monastic movements—new monastic imagination must be distinctly theological. That is, some imagination, Christian or otherwise, will invest the practices of new monastics with meaning(s); the issue is whether that imagination will be theological. This is not to say anything of the actual efficacy of such practices, in other words whether or not they achieve the “ends” or telos they are believed to serve (e.g. spiritual transformation, ecological stewardship, community formation, etc.). Rather, the issue at stake is the cultivation and maintenance of a theological imagination sufficient for the task of investing their practices with meanings broadly consistent with the Christian tradition and more narrowly with the monastic-like movements in which they see the monastic impulse and seek to retrieve it (p. 54)

Formed for the Glory of God (chapter 3)

This summer has been an intense time of writing as my book on theologies of retrieval draws to a close. It has left me with little time for other sorts of reading, but I have managed to fit some recreational texts into my summer schedule: Dante’s Divine Comedy (Ciardi’s translation is beautiful), the Reformation Commentary on Philippians and Colossians, Augustine’s Enchiridion (why had I never read this before?), and of course Kyle’s great new book on Jonathan Edwards’ vision of the Christian life.

Formed for the Glory of God is a fantastic read! You can see my previous posts on the first couple chapters here and here. Chapter 3 sets up the second half of the book on spiritual disciplines by treating the role of “affection” in Edwards’ thought. Kyle explains it as the development of our “taste” for glory: Formed for the Glory of God

The Spirit of God works within one’s heart to give them a divine taste – a taste of the ways of God. It is this vein that the psalmist would say, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps. 119:103). Without it, people cannot recognize God and his way as beautiful, “no more than a man without the sense of tasting can conceive of the sweet taste of honey, or a man without the sense of hearing can conceive of the melody of a tune, or a man born blind can have a notion of the beauty of the rainbow’ (Religious Affections, 208). The disciples were given a divine taste, and so they sought to satisfy their longing by following Christ. [...]

Tasting and seeing that the Lord is good entails having the whole of one’s heart made alive to God in Christ by the Holy Spirit – it is communion with the three-personed God. Tasting and seeing are the kinds of things that beget more tasting and seeing. Tasting and seeing beget desire. It is this desire that turns the Christian more and more fully to her Lord who is beautiful and glorious. It is a journey we will continue for eternity (pp. 62, 64).

You can’t miss what Kyle accomplishes in following Edwards’ moves through the first half of the book. This is a God-centered vision of the Christian life that fully engages the human person in all our dimensions. The tradition is littered with imbalanced accounts, either swaying heavily toward the affective or the intellectual or the volitional. On any such portrayal we end up with Christianities of feeling, of the mind, or of action (look around today and you see examples of all three). Following the lead of Edwards, however, Continue reading

Formed for the Glory of God (Chapter 2)

The theme of beauty continues throughout chapter 2, as it does here in the following excerpt on the beginning of the Christian Life, conversion:

Think about the most beautiful sight you have ever seen – the Imageimmense presence of a mountain, or maybe the setting sun glimmering off of the ocean. You see it clearly and know you see it correctly (in other words, your sight is “true”). But that is not all that is going on. You grasp what you see as beautiful, and in a real sense your heart inclines to it. Some feel a quickening of their heartbeat, and others, maybe a shortness of breath. Deep beauty moves us. Edwards uses this as an example of the Spirit’s work in the hearts of people in conversion. He tells us this divine light “assimilates the nature of the divine nature, and changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld.” This sight weans us from the world and raises our eyes to heavenly things. This contradicts what many people think about Edwards. Edwards is often touted as a preacher of hellfire seeking to turn people to God through fear. Rather, for Edwards, the fear of God cannot turn someone to God. Only a sight of the beauty of God can save. As Edwards claims, we are not weaned from the world by affliction or through fear, but are only weaned off of the world by the sight of something better. In Christ, God has revealed what is better. Once we see the beauty of Christ our inner clocks are set to the pace of the heavenly time.

The destination for the Christian is a sight and experience of God in eternity. It is, ultimately, life with God. God knows and loves himself infinitely, enjoys and delights in his own life fully for eternity, and now calls us into that life. This life is characterized as God’s beauty (pp. 48-49)

Formed for the Glory of God (Chapter 1)

I just received an advance copy of Kyle’s new book on the Christian life, Formed for the Glory of God: Formed for the Glory of GodLearning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards. Kyle is quickly becoming one of the most well-respected and prolific contributors to the study of Jonathan Edwards’ thought. Last summer I reviewed his edition of Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits that goes a long way toward making an important work of Edwards on love more easily accessible (read my interview with Kyle here and a review here). This new book is an immensely readable vision of the Christian life that draws throughout on the wisdom of Jonathan Edwards. I will be blogging through it chapter by chapter in the coming weeks.

In Chapter 1, Kyle paints a portrait of the goal toward which the Christian Life is drawn: the beatific vision. “Life is a pilgrimage of faith that dissolves into sight,” he writes. “That sight is the beatific vision.” Seeing God transcends merely visual perception. As Kyle points out, “To see God is to become like God” for in seeing God we come to know him in fullness.

Truly seeing God is grasping him as the highest good, truth and beauty. It is having your eyes opened and  taking in the reality of who he is. Continue reading

John Webster moving to University of St. Andrews

It is a sad day for Aberdeen, but John Webster is heading south to the University_Hall_01University of St. Andrews. Ivor Davidson, head of school at St. Mary’s, said the following in the press release (more here):

John Webster is widely recognized as one of the very best theologians in the world. He has a stellar reputation as a scholar, author, and communicator, and is an outstanding servant of both the academy and the church. His major current projects promise to be of immense significance for the shape of English-language theology in the years ahead. John has long had collaborative links with several colleagues in the School, and I am absolutely delighted that he will now be joining us at St Mary’s College, where his research, teaching, and supervision of graduate students will add considerably to our established strengths in several areas. Professor Webster’s appointment further reinforces the reputation of St Andrews as one of the world’s most dynamic centres for theological and biblical scholarship.

Liberating Theology for the Disabled

I mentioned in my last post that senior seminar has been studying disability theology this spring. We Bible Disability and the Churchread contemporary voices like John Swinton, Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Vanier, Brian Brock, Thomas Reynolds, Henri Nouwen, and Hans Reinders, as well as deliberating over relevant biblical texts.  We are capping off the semester by closely reading Amos Yong’s recent theology of disability, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God

Our first discussion centered almost entirely on Yong’s method. He worries that traditional interpretation of Scripture has been oppressive of disabled individuals because it operates from what he calls a “normate” (i.e. non-disabled) perspective.

According to Yong, “normate bias” is the “unexamined prejudices that non-disabled people have toward disability and toward people who have them. These assumptions function normatively so that the inferior status of people with disabilities is inscribed into our consciousness” (11). This normate bias, or “ableist worldview,” influences our interpretation of Scripture and leads to theologies of disability which confirm, support, and extend our assumptions about normalcy, abledness, and capability. Thus, to challenge our normate bias and question our presuppositions about disability, Yong offers an interpretation of Scripture and theological perspective on disability that is specifically “derived from the experience of disability.

I posed the following question to my students: why is perspective so important to Yong? Wouldn’t someone suppose that the biblical text is the biblical text regardless of your context as an interpreter? “Well”, Yong might say, “Yes, but…” Continue reading

Adam: God’s Beloved

The topic of senior seminar in the Bible and Religion department this spring has been disability theology. Together we engage relevant biblical material and consider important contemporary figures. The seminar is entirely student-led which is a real treat, and not just because I don’t carry the same preparation load. It is a unique opportunity for me to explicitly take the position of learner alongside my students and colleagues in the department. What I find shouldn’t surprise me: they consistently have something to teach me.

Our biblical texts this week were from Luke (Jesus’ sending of the 72) and the reading was Nouwen’s Adam: God’s Beloved. The book is an extended reflection on a man Nouwen knew from his time at the L’Arche Daybreak Community. As the book jacket describes, “In the eyes of the world [Adam] was a complete nobody. And yet, for Henri Nouwen he became ‘my friend, my teacher, and my guide.’ It was Adam who led Nouwen to a new understanding of his Christian faith and what it means to be Beloved of God.”

The student who led us through the material works in group homes for the mentally disabled, so his engagement with the reading was intensely personal. I found my reading of the text no less personal but for different reasons. The acceptance of God and his unconditional love which Nouwen learned from Adam resonates deeply with my own struggles as a scholar. Vocational expectations and career comparison so quickly threaten to overwhelm my sense of self. As Nouwen says, “While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” A timely reminder.

Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he Adam.God's Belovedunderstand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more about my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you in prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”

And while I, a so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was life me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered” (Adam: God’s Beloved, p. 55-56).