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])

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