Archive for Christian

Karl Barth and Good Friday

Christ of St. John of the Cross by Salvador Dali

“Man is faithless, but God is faithful. The death of Jesus Christ is not just God’s accusation against man, not just His condemnation of man. It is also — in fact it is first and foremost — the victory and establishment of the complete dominion of His grace.  God is righteous; He is not mocked. What man sows he must also reap. But God has taken it upon Himself to reap this fatal harvest. In man’s own place and on man’s behalf, God has sown new seed. God has placed Himself under the accusation and condemnation which stand over godless Adam and the fratricidal Cain. And God Himself, in their place and ours, became for us the true man from whose way we have strayed. God has thereby spoken. His word of forgiveness, His word of the new commandment, of the resurrection of the flesh and an eternal life. Here is the place where it becomes unmistakable that God’s grace is pure, free, unmerited grace. Yet even more important, here is the foundation and revelation of the fact that God’s grace endures, triumphs, rules, and is effective.” ~ Karl Barth, “The Christian Proclamation Here and Now” in God Here and Now, 9-10.

A Prayer for Sunday

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In Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community, February 1st is the day to remember Brigid of Kildare (450-523). Brigid was known for caring for the poor and hungry in her community. She is also known for founding a community of religious women at Kildare.

Brigid’s Feast:

I should like a great lake of finest ale
for the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
for the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith
and the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,
for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
and the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
and bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink;
all homes, O God, embrace.

Books on Spiritual Formation — A Few Recommendations

I am teaching THEO 112 Introduction to Spiritual Theology this semester in the college. And one of my goals is to give my students tools to help them to grow and flourish in Christ over the next four years at Briercrest. What follows is a few choice books from my ever-growing list of books that I would recommend if someone asked “Where do I start reading?” These books have been chosen based on their accessibility/readability.

 

bonhoeffer life together  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible. I am using Bonhoeffer’s book as the textbook for the course, and the students are doing two assignments based on it. First, they are reflecting on and constructing a theology of the Christian life in response to Life Together. Second, they are going to pray the Psalms and respond to Bonhoeffer’s thesis that the Psalms are the prayers of Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

grenz created for community   Stanley Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living. This book is a little dated (1996), but it is a book that is accessible while still being academic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

a-long-obedience  Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. You can’t talk about spiritual formation without referencing Peterson. This book is written to a lay audience. I would also highly recommend Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. (I contemplated adding Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places to this list, but it better fit in a seminary-level course on spiritual formation rather than in a college-level course/a small group study in a church).

 

 

 

 

forgotten songs  C. Richard Wells & Ray Van Neste, eds. Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship. This is a good complement to Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible. I would especially recommend this book for pastors/churches that do not currently incorporate the reading/singing of Psalms in their regular worship services. The introductory chapter opens with a fantastic quote from Willem VanGemeren on the Church’s neglect: “Though no Old Testament book has been more important in the history of the church than the book of Psalms, we are in danger of losing it, partly because of lack of use of the psalms themselves and partly because of lack of use of the skills required for understanding them.”

The Practice of Rest

The following is adapted from a paper I gave at a colloquium last spring entitled: Towards a Theology of Rest: Using the Language of Sacrament and Ordinance to Understand the Christian Practice of Rest. See also my earlier post: Enforcing Rest?

 

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We live in a culture of busyness. Sometimes this busyness is constructed by the program-oriented ministries of the church, with families having some sort of church activity and obligation (kid’s club, Bible study, worship practice, not to mention Sunday worship) three or more days a week. Sometimes this busyness is constructed by life outside of church, and pastors have to recognize that very often families are too busy with work, extra-curricular activities and family obligations to participate in all (or even just one) of the activities in the life of the church. Congregations, eager to keep people plugged into the life of the church, have adjusted to the reality that Sunday morning services are competing with Sunday morning soccer practices in the summer and Sunday morning hockey games in the winter, and have begun to offer mid-week church services for those who are too busy on the weekend to spend an hour or two in corporate worship.

How does rest fit into this life of busyness? More specifically, why do we practice rest? Often, the primary answer is the pragmatic answer: because it is good for us. Rest is often framed within an individualistic context in the Christian literature; though couched in Scripture proof-texts, the thesis is still the same: practising rest is good for me, therefore I will rest. And of course, there are plenty of resources for Christians on how to practice rest, with suggestions and strategies for even the busiest of people.

But what if, in trying to address the necessity of practicing rest, and in exploring the reason why we rest, the theological answer is not framed around us and how it benefits us, but around God and how rest is his work, into which he invites us to participate?

I want to suggest that rest is more than a commandment or ordinance to follow; rest is sacramental. The activity of rest becomes an outward sign of inward grace that points us not only to our present rest that we find in Christ, but also forward to the future rest that is promised in the eschaton. It is the tension between the present reality of rest and the eschatological one, between the “now and not yet,” that Christians testify to, participate in, and give thanks for, in their regular practice of rest. Rest is a practice that pulls back the curtain of the heavens and reveals the reality of how and why God is at work in the world.

“Sacraments are material things that point beyond themselves to their creator. They are windows into divine reality.”[1] All of creation can be sacramental, as the material world points to and gives hints to the mystery that is behind it. To think sacramentally is to understand that creation, created things, and physical practices (like the Lord’s Supper or Baptism), point to something larger than themselves. To think sacramentally is to acknowledge that God’s working in creation is mysterious and that humanity “cannot fathom how [sacraments] work or trace the lines form physical element to spiritual power and action.”[2]

The physical practice of rest, in which Christians participate, points to the mystery behind the practical: that God created rest, not as negation of work, but rather as the fulfillment of work. Just as God resting on the seventh day of creation was a sign that God was satisfied with His creation,[3] so too the Christian practice of rest is a sign that we acknowledge that Christ’s work was and is sufficient. God’s salvific work of sending Jesus is more than sufficient, it is also good, and there is nothing that we, as humans, can do, through working or striving, to improve it.

The practice of rest, the visible action of spending time in ceasing to work, points to the promises found in Scripture. In God’s instituting Sabbath at the creation of the nation of Israel, the practice of rest became a visible sign to remind the people that God had indeed delivered them from bondage in Egypt.[4] Entering the Promised Land became a powerful promise and image of rest that God would bestow on Israel, historically, soteriologically and eschatologically.[5] This rest was not an abstract, impersonal reality, instead, it is His rest,[6] given by and owned entirely by God Himself.

It is also important to note that just as sacraments not only have a vertical dimension, but also horizontal dimension,[8] so to the practice of rest is not solely about reconnecting the believer with God, but also about the reconnection of the believer with other humans. The day of rest has built into it a chance not only for Christians to gather in worship, but also for families to spend time together in a way that does not happen during the busyness of the rest of the week. In the Old Testament, Sabbath days, Sabbath years (e.g., the Year of Jubilee) and Sabbath feasts were communal practices, drawing the nation of Israel together to celebrate the goodness of God, and to practice hospitality, to acknowledge and allow the land to lay fallow, and for debts (and indentured persons) to be forgiven (Leviticus 25).

[1] Leonard Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 17.

[2] Vander Zee, 54.

[3] Pipa, 121.

[4] Deuteronomy 5:12-15.

[5] Kaiser, 138.

[6] Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 4:3.

[7] Hebrews 4:11.

[8] White notes that sacraments are inherently communal in nature, and “overcome corrosive individualism,” James White, The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 28.

 

The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Formation

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Jesus Christ was a man of the Spirit.” ~Clark Pinnock

We see the Spirit at work in Jesus’ life right from the beginning, “While Mary was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18).

We see the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism, marking the beginning of his earthly ministry (Matt 3:16). Immediately, after His baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit to the wilderness where he will face temptations from the Devil. Luke records that Jesus returned from the desert in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14), and upon going into the Temple, Jesus reads the words of the prophet Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and Jesus’ ministry includes mighty works through the power of the Spirit (e.g., Matthew 12:28).

While there is no direct reference to the Spirit at the Transfiguration, Eastern Orthodox theology suggests that the cloud that enveloped Jesus and his disciples on the mountain was the Spirit.

The Gospels make no mention of the Spirit at the crucifixion of Jesus, but the author of Hebrews says “by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins” (Hebrews 9:14).

Likewise, Paul sees the Spirit at work in Christ’s resurrection (Romans 1:4; 8:11), and the ascension of Christ is followed ten days later by a massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

If the goal of spiritual formation is to shape us in the image of Christ, then it would follow that we should look to Jesus for an example of a Spirit-filled life. And yet, as I map out a theology of spiritual formation, I am struck by the tendency to downplay the role of the Spirit in the Christian disciplines, even though Jesus’ life and work was and is so intricately connected with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Thus it is vital that any theology of the Christian life takes into account the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the process of spiritual formation.

That being said, there is still a distinction to be made: Jesus is the Messiah and we are not. Therefore, while Jesus’ life is paradigmatic for us, it is also something completely other. The Holy Spirit, working in our lives, helps us to become Christ-like but in no way will the empowering of the Spirit make us Messiah.

The Holy Spirit works in and through our spiritual disciplines, illuminating them. And so, even when it feels like our practices of prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, etc… are a chore, we should remember that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through those practices, sanctifying us so that we may be united with Christ.

JI Packer says it best: “The way to benefit from the Spirit’s ministry of illumination is by serious Bible study, serious prayer, and serious response in obedience to the truths that we have been shown already.”

The Practice of Prayer Beads

Today, for Throwback Thursday (#TBT), and continuing this week’s theme of spiritual practices, I’m posting a reflection I wrote in the summer of 2013 on the gift of a set prayer beads given to me while I was in the hospital.  Enjoy!

 

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The Lost Week.

The yellow sickly-sweet smell of jaundice, iodine and antiseptic.

The flurry of nurses, doctors, and diagnostic tests.

The haze of pain meds, sedatives and general anesthetic.

An ambulance ride from the local hospital to the big city hospital for a specialized procedure, and then back to the local hospital for surgery.

It wasn’t the plan for the week, but one trip to the emergency room changed everything.

The four walls of the hospital room were giant white walls that blocked out the world. Cut off from family. Cut off from life.

The dark shadows of fear and sickness and despair crept from the corners and overwhelmed the room.

God was an abstraction, blocked out by those impenetrable hospital walls.

There was no praying. 

There was no worship.

There was no seeing or feeling anything beyond those four white walls.

I was alone. And my faith was failing me.

And then, that mild Saturday evening, day three of my seven day sentence, the pastor arrived. She was quiet and sweet and kind-hearted, just as she was every Sunday at church. She came and she listened. She chatted. She told stories. The dark shadows began to recede back into the corners, held at bay, even just for a little while.

Can I pray with you? She said. And then she pulled out a present: a string of Anglican prayer beads.

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Prayer beads to give rhythm and structure to my prayer instead of flailing words lost and uncertain.

Prayer beads to help me pray the prayers not of my own creation, but the prayers of generations of faithful Christians. I could be carried on the strength of their prayers instead of trying to rely on the weakness of my own.

My God, my God why have you forsaken me. Christ’s prayer would become my prayer.

Prayer beads that, even if I couldn’t say any words, I could physically cling to the cross at the end of the circle of beads. I could hang on to the cross of Christ that for 18 years had been transforming my life.

And so, starting at the cross at the bottom of the circle of beads, I prayed.

 

O Lord make speed to save me. O Lord make haste to help me. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

 

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden…

 

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

 

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…

 

Around and around the circle I went for hours, the rhythm pushing back the shadows until dawn broke and the summer sunshine rose to wash over the white walls.

And then came surgery day. After being wheeled back into my room, in pain and groggy, I reached for those brown beads, and held onto them tightly as the sedatives worked on my weary body, calling me to sleep.

And that little circle of beads allowed my soul to rest in the knowledge that those four white walls did not have the power to hold out the Almighty One. There, in the very midst of pain and sickness and suffering, was the One who Suffered. There, in the midst of the doctors’ training, and the nurses’ gentle hands, was the Healer. There, in quiet and stillness of the white walls, was the assurance of Resurrection and Glory.

And that lost week that wasn’t planned turned out to not be such a loss after all.

Enforcing Rest?

sabbath britishThis Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a dire preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8)

 

 

Should “rest” be mandatory? The Ten Commandments include an exhortation to keep the 7th day holy, not only through an act of worship, but also through the act of ceasing (Exodus 20:8-11). Throughout history there have been repeated examples of laws and rules being created to ensure that the day of rest is observed. For example:

  • Pharisees – They were so focused on keeping God’s Law that they had created layers upon layers of rules of what exactly could and could not be done on the Sabbath, rules that were not originally part of God’s institution of Sabbath in the OT.
  • Synod of Elvira (Spain -306) – specific prohibitions about the day of rest that were grouped in 5 categories: no working the land, no judicial acts or public assembly, travel restrictions, no sales of goods, no hunting.
  • Council of Laodicea (363) – outlined expectations of Christians regarding the observance of the Sabbath. Even though Christians were to observe the Lord’s Day, it was not necessary for them to rest on the Lord’s Day. Instead, the council offered instructions focusing on which day (Saturday or Sunday) should be set aside for worship but rest was “only for those who are able to do so.”
  • Council of Macon (585) – all local businesses (not just Christian businesses) must be closed on the Lord’s Day to observe rest.
  • Ireland (9th century) – no writing, haircuts, bathing, baking or housecleaning on Sundays.
  • Reformation – For a brief time in England, Protestant churches specifically allowed and encouraged their congregations to work, so as to rebel against the edict by the Roman Catholic Church that outlawed work on Sunday.
  • 20th Century– Even Canada had rules in place banning stores from being open on Sunday in observance of the Lord’s Day, whether they were Christian or not. (Ontario abolished the Sunday shopping ban in 1992)

And while some (many?) of the rules noted above seem legalistic and even downright absurd, I wonder if the 21st century church, in its attempt to be relevant to a 24 hour/7 day a week culture, could learn from this. Not in a “let’s tell society that they must rest” kind of way, but in a “how can we as Christians practice rest in such a way that is a witness and light to a culture that is “on” all the time?” kind of way.

Of course, it would be helpful to define “rest” which I will do in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

Theology of Christ 2014

 

THEO 350 ONL syllabus Fall 2014

Graduation Blessing: A Husband’s Prayer For His Seminary Wife

Grad letter and writers blockToday the seminary held a “Blessing of the Grads” chapel service. Each grad was honoured to have a blessing read out from a loved one. What follows below is Charles’ letter to me. I am so thankful for  a husband who has supported and actively encouraged this educational journey.

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Amanda, as I have watched you tackle the challenges of graduate study while dealing with the challenges of work and home, I have been continually reminded what an privilage it is to be your husband.  You have been and continue to be a blessing to me and to our children.  My prayer is that God will open doors for you to develop the immense potential that we see in you.  My prayer is that our children will learn to understand what an amazing mother they have, and will look to you as an example of what a powerful woman of God can be.

Lord, make Amanda an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let her sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

 

O Divine Master, Grant that she may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 

Amen.

Karl Barth Conference

I’ve just registered to attend the Karl Barth Conference at Princeton June 15-18, 2014. Will I see you there?