I’m only just now finally reading this superb volume, and I am struck by several things. First, in all of my biblical studies classes, the focus has always been on historical critical interpretation. Citing theological sources, or biblical commentaries that were more than 20 10 years old was considered bad research. Newer was always better. I think this methodology feeds into the problem I identified in yesterday’s post that the modern age suffers from a self-centred historical amnesia in which we are the enlightened generation and we are the first and only to consider the “obscure” passages of Scripture and we read them, or “recover” them because no one else before us has, supposedly.
Second, in my context, very often the attitude is “all we need is the Bible and nothing else.” This then sidelines theological reflection and historical reflection, and we end up with an anemic theology of Scripture, one that forgets that the same Spirit who is the author and inspirer of Scripture is also the author and inspirer of the Church community. Reading Scripture should be an ecclesial and communal endeavour.
Third, what would it have looked like if in some of my biblical studies classes, the professor had included some sort of historical interpretation text so that students could see how Christians throughout the ages have read the Bible? Would I have been more likely to gravitate towards biblical studies rather than theology?
This is where this new volume comes in handy. Taylor and de Groot have gathered excerpts from thirty-five nineteenth century women who commented on eight women in the Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges. These excerpts are short enough, and have a good basic introduction to the life of the female interpreter, that a professor could easily create reflection exercises, group discussions, or student presentations, that integrate, rather than supplant, the main biblical text of an OT class, either on Joshua & Judges specifically, or an OT historical books class more generally.
My favourite section is Clara Balfour‘s reflection on Deborah. Here Balfour attempts to make sense of how a woman could be a leader in ancient Israel, looking at the text through the lens of a discussion of the nature of masculinity and femininity:
…It may be considered another proof of the essentially feminine character of Deborah, that Barak should have laid so much stress on her appearance among the children of Israel at that time. The human mind is far more affected by contrasts than similarities. Had Deborah been a fierce, stern, masculine woman, she would have aroused no enthusiasm, her character would have approximated too closely to their own — she would have ben a sort of second-rate man, instead of being as she was, “A perfect woman, nobly plann’d/To warn, to comfort, to command.” It was the presence of a thoughtful, spiritual, intellectual woman as a leader of the armed host, that awakened energy and strengthened hope… (pg. 70).
When I was in seminary, there was a theology professor who insisted on calling me “the feminist theologian.” At first I thought it was just a joke, but I eventually realized that he was serious. One day, as we were passing in the hall, he greeted me in his typical manner, and I turned, very politely, with a laugh in my voice, and replied, “Actually, I’m not a feminist theologian, I’m a theologian who just happens to be a woman!”
I tell this story because it is emblematic of how I understand my faith and my identity. My primary calling, before being a wife, a mother, a woman, a Canadian, a geek, etc., is that I am a Christian. Any other designation is simply a modifier or adjective that is secondary to my primary calling. It is an ordinary and yet extraordinary calling. It is ordinary in that to be a Christian is not based on works, social status, or culture, but is the identity of all those who profess faith in, and heed the call to follow, Christ. This ordinary calling is broadly equalizing, making distinctions and signifiers secondary, if not outright irrelevant, in light of the extraordinary work of the One after whom we are named, and in whom we are being moulded and fitted for glory.
It is from this context of experience and understanding that I came into my first semester of PhD studies and Marion Taylor’s course, “Reading Scripture through the Ages.” Throughout the semester, both through the weekly class gatherings and the course readings, I was struck by the ordinariness of the interpreters and their interpretative work, especially the female biblical interpreters. These women did not interpret Scripture primarily out of some sort of feminist agenda (whatever that means), but were first and foremost responding to the Divine Word. They were compelled to translate, interpret and share (be it teaching, preaching, or writing) because of their encounter with the revelation of God in Christ, because of their identities as disciples of Jesus, and because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit who is the author and sustainer of Scripture.
Through twelve weeks of reading entries from the Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters, I was introduced to women from diverse walks of life, across cultures, historical periods, life situations, and socio-economic statuses, who all published, preached, taught and interpreted Scripture. I read about women like Dhouda, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I, and Marguerite de Navarre, who came from families of wealth and/or political power and made use of their connections to find a platform for their interpretative work. There were women like Magdalena Beutler and Elizabeth Smith who lived in poverty, and women like Elizabeth Hands, who worked as a domestic servant. There were women like Catherine Booth and Mary Cornwallis, and Esther Copley, who were married to ministers; women like Briet Bjarnhjedinsdottir and Christine de Pizan who were widowed; and women like Hannah More, Elisabeth of Schönau, and Rebecca Jackson, who were single either because of choice or life circumstance.
What unites these ordinary women, regardless of denomination, is that they are all examples of the biblical image of the priesthood of all believers. They all demonstrated that the Holy Spirit calls Christians, regardless of other identity markers like gender, class, and culture, to respond to, wrestle with, and share the message of the Gospel as recorded in Scripture.
Take for example, Argula von Grumbach, who is probably my favourite female interpreter. She was compelled to speak out because she believed in the final authority of Scripture. She had no formal teaching, and even though she came from a noble class, she was title-rich but financially poor. She knew that 1 Timothy 2 says that women are to keep silent, but the calling of Christ in Matthew 10 to confess Christ, gave her the authority to speak, not from her position as a woman (noble or otherwise), but from her identity and calling as a Christian.
It is this calling that also drives both men and women, from different ages, cultures, and social positions, to wrestle with even the most difficult texts. The modern age suffers two problems when it comes to biblical interpretation. First, it suffers from a self-centred historical amnesia in which we are the enlightened generation and we are the first and only to consider the “obscure” passages of Scripture and we read them, or “recover” them because no one else before us has, supposedly. The second problem is that the modern age suffers from an exaggerated form of political correctness, in which only women can speak to texts about women, and only special interest groups can properly speak into, and claim authority over, difficult parts of Scripture.
In Reading the Bible with the Dead, we see how incorrect these two problems are. The reality of the Christian identity and the importance of Scripture drove interpreters and theologians to wrestle deeply with texts like the narratives of Hagar and Ishmael, Jephthath’s foolish vow and the death of his daughter, and Gomer and Hosea’s marriage. As well, there are the imprecatory Psalms, examples of “heroes of the faith” doing dishonourable and/or villainous things, and social/cultural practices that appear to no longer make sense in a 21st century context.
What characterizes all of this is wrestling. Because of their encounter with the revelation of God in Christ, because of their identities as disciples of Christ, and because of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, who is the author and sustainer of Scripture, these interpreters throughout the history of the Church wrestled with, and tried to make sense of, the whole of Scripture, even the uncomfortable parts. Thompson argues that the difficult passages of Scripture “are actually made more accessible, not less, by consulting the commentators of our distant past.” In his discussion of the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Thompson argues that modern feminist readings of this text are not new and that they can actually be strengthened by “an awareness of how our forebears received and read the story.” This does not mean that the commentators of the past always interpreted Scripture perfectly. For example, Origen, in trying to make sense of Abraham’s polygamy, ends up over-allegorizing Hagar so that she becomes a “virtue of wisdom” and since “a man can never have too many virtues!,” Abraham’s polygamy is virtuous rather than problematic. The danger of over-allegorizing Hagar is not just a danger in the past, but modern feminist scholars also run the risk of over-reading Hagar, even if it is not done allegorically, to the point that she becomes something wholly distinct from the original narrative. By recognizing the ordinariness of interpretation in the past, we can learn to be aware of our own cultural and hermeneutical foibles, and to approach all interpretation with charity, patience and humility.
Related to this, it is also possible that the interpreters of the past may actually have a better experiential lens with which to read Scripture. We can see this in Origen who, though he badly mangles Hagar in an attempt to explain Abraham’s polygamy, offered a sensitive reading of Jephthah’s foolish vow, because he read it through the lens of being the son of a man martyred for his faith. This life situation allowed Origen to wrestle deeply with the apparent gaps or silences in the narrative, and he attempted to make sense of what appears to be a senseless death. For Origen, Thompson notes, martyrdom was a senseless act, but, while “the martyr’s crown may be visible only to faith…it is visible to faith.”
History judges the validity of interpretations. Some, like Augustine’s attempt to make sense of Jephthah’s daughter’s death by saying that Jephthah’s vow was okay because he was expecting his wife to be the first through the door to greet him, do not stand the test of time. But it does teach those of us in the 21st century that one day future interpreters will look at our attempts to interpret difficult passages and some of our explanations which we now consider cutting-edge, provocative, or the ultimate solution to the theological or exegetical problem, and may conclude that our interpretations are nothing more than curious footnotes to be dismissed as quaint, overly simplistic, or even too fringe.
Along with this, reading the ordinary interpretations from the past, warts and all, should help us to assess our motivations in interpreting. This is especially true for academic interpretation. In an age where funding, publishing contracts, and tenure are prized, and threaten to overwhelm the heart of the academic endeavour, it can be easy to chase after the interpretation, methodology, or critical engagement that will garner the most funds, land the largest book contract, or secure tenure. The scholar/interpreter then needs to ask: are their interpretation, exegesis, and theological reflections guided by a hermeneutic of provocation, or are they guided by a hermeneutic of faithfulness? By reading the interpretations of ordinary Christians throughout the ages, there is an ever-present reminder that a Christian’s work, be it in academia, in the pulpit, or in the ordinary everyday living out of the faith, is done in and for the Church. The “Church” is more than just a gathering of people in this specific age, culture, and life situation, but also includes the gathering of “saints” from across generations, cultures and life experiences.
This is not to say that there should not be innovation in interpretative frameworks, or that there should not be “fresh” readings of texts. There should be, but these innovations cannot be done apart from the legacy of 2,000 years of Christian interpretation, because the Holy Spirit, who is the author and sustainer of Scripture, is also the author and sustainer of the Church.
On the first class, Professor Taylor quipped, “you can have dead mentors.” And as much as I like theological giants like Karl Barth, I find myself wishing I could devote more time and research to highlighting some of the ordinary voices that have been lost in the currents of history. There is something inherently ecclesial in recovering those ordinary voices which have been neglected not because of faulty or heretical interpretations, but simply because of the progress and sweep of history. This ecclesial listening and researching is a holy work that not only benefits the current age of Christianity, but builds up the whole body of past, present, and future ordinary saints.
 Copley is interesting because it appears that she ghost-wrote many of her husband’s sermons when he was inebriated. See, “Esther Beuzeville Hewlett Copley,” 139.
 Jackson was married when she received the call to celibacy. See, “Rebecca Cox Jackson,” 284.
 see her letter to the University of Ingoldstadt in Peter Matheson, Argula von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).
 I wonder if part of this can be traced to an overall decline in biblical literacy both in the broader culture and in the church, where people are not being exposed regularly to the whole of Scripture, but are instead exposed to a pericope approach to Scripture, where only snippets of Scripture are taught.
 John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007).
Last night, I attended a special meeting at St. Aidan Anglican Church with Bishop Rob Hardwick of the Diocese of Qu’appelle. I was there to listen to his explanation of his vote at Synod, and to discern his vision for the diocese over these next several years.
Bishop Rob, in a move that surprised many lay people, voted in favour of the motion to change the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage. While he did say that to do so meant that he had removed “himself” from the vote (i.e., he voted against his conscience), to vote for the good of the church, he would not say explicitly that come 2020, our diocese would not authorize SSM. He did emphasize that at a diocesan level he has the right to veto, but he did not say whether he would veto any diocesan level endorsement of SSM.
On the one hand, I do see Bishop Rob making an effort to protect clergy who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage. His support of the “opt in” amendment included an emphasis on allowing a priest who chooses to refuse to perform a SSM to use the Bishop as the excuse: “My Bishop has not authorized me to do this, you may talk to him.”
On the other hand, the subtext of the conversation seemed to clearly point to the likelihood that come 2020 Bishop Rob will authorize someone in the diocese to perform SSM. There are several reasons why I see this. First, Bishop Rob is a moderate and is trying very hard to hold two sides together, in a “Third Way” type of dialogue. (I am not convinced that this will actually work, see the GAFCON statement). Second, when asked about the statement from the seven conservative bishops, Bishop Rob, instead of expressing support and solidarity for that statement upholding the traditional view of marriage, expressed his anger at their statement, likening them to flipside of the bishops who have vowed to go ahead with SSM without waiting for the next vote. Third, the dean of our cathedral in Regina (which is usually a very powerful/influential position in the diocese) is very much in favour of the motion, and if anyone were to be authorized it would probably be him.
Archdeacon Dell Bornowsky noted that part of the problem with the motion at Synod is that the commission behind “This Holy Estate” was tasked with presenting an affirmation/rationale for SSM, but no document was commissioned presenting a rationale against SSM. His hope is to write one. He also expressed interest in partnering with the Dean of the Regina Cathedral to create a dialogue between the two positions, possibly even having himself and Dean Mike Sinclair “flip” positions and argue for each other’s side.
If you had asked me three weeks ago, I would have said that ours is a mostly conservative/evangelical diocese, not just related to issues of sexual ethics, but related to scripture and tradition. Given my week at camp, I have to come to see that our diocese is not really as conservative as it seems, and that it only appears so because we are small, mostly rural, and rapidly aging. When the vote came down and then was reversed the next day, I was at our diocesan camp, cooking for the pre-teen camp. Several of our volunteers were ordained clergy. It became apparent quite quickly that the clergy on camp were in favour of the motion to authorize SSM, some excitedly so. As the conversation progressed into the evening, including the boasting about all the clergy in the diocese who are in favour of the motion, it became abundantly clear that the evangelical/traditional position on marriage was, at best, on its way to being irrelevant within a generation or two, or at worst, a supposed detriment to the gospel and example of the church being on the “wrong side of history.”
What is the future of the Anglican Church of Canada?
From what I see, the second vote to amend the marriage canon is inevitable. Schism is also inevitable. And schismatics are not necessarily the ones who leave. The Church is fractured. At the very least, the Anglican Church of Canada as a whole, with a general Synod, has become irrelevant, given that several bishops have chosen to thumb their nose at the process and do their own thing anyway. The Anglican Church in Canada cannot hold together nationally, and is headed to a loose federation of dioceses. This actually works, ecclesiologically, as the Bishop is usually the final authority. If we end up having these regional centres of Anglicanism, based on bishop’s authority, then this gives space for the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC) to be a viable alternative for evangelical, traditional, conservative Anglicans. There can be loose affiliations/networks of dioceses working together based on theological commitments, social justice projects, proximity, and distinct community needs.
It will be impossible for a diocese to hold a third way and have priests and parishes teaching that both traditional and progressive understandings of marriage are equally valid. It will create theological whiplash, to have one church teach a traditional view of marriage, while another church teaches the opposite. It will create a pastoral care crisis, because a person who comes for care (or who ends up being under discipline) at either church could simply go to the opposite church to hear what they want to hear.
While I appreciate the calls for unity, the reality is that unity is meaningless without discipline. And in several parishes, and even at the national level, unity is being used as a bullying bludgeon, where unity means “you have no choice, you have to let us do what we are doing.” The call to unity is one sided and there is no attempt for the progressives to say, “maybe we shouldn’t do this, for the sake of unity.”
So what does all of this mean for the Hackney family?
We love St. Aidan. It has been a wonderful place for our family. Two of our kids were baptized in that congregation. It is because of St. Aidan that we do morning/evening prayer together as a family. The rhythms of liturgy have shaped us, as has the weekly participation in communion.
If this was just about St. Aidan, we would stay. Dean Pinter preached a fantastic message out of Colossians on Sunday morning about being rooted in the Word and faithful to the Gospel. But the reality is, St. A is not Pastor Dean’s church. As was noted at the introduction of Bishop Rob’s talk, St. A is the Bishop’s church. So can we sit under a bishop who will not affirm explicitly the traditional view of marriage as the view for this diocese?
For the past several years I have been trying to find a place to serve. As St. Aidan toyed with the idea of being an abbey (sending) parish, there was talk of me becoming a licensed lay reader (i.e., lay preacher) and the possibility of doing pulpit supply across the diocese. But when it came to be commissioned, Bishop Rob decided it was not the right time. I am not faulting him for this. He wants to commission a group of lay readers simultaneously, which means I have to wait 17-24 months for others to go through the training (which I basically have on account of my 2.5 theological degrees). But this has felt like an inexplicably closed door. At one point, while I was at Wycliffe, I was asked why I am not on the ordination track and my response, jokingly, was “I can’t even get licensed as a lay reader in my diocese!” It was then that I learned that me being licensed as a lay reader should not be as difficult as it has been, and thus I realized that God was keeping the door closed, for some reason.
At one point in the discussion with the Bishop last night, it was mentioned that there is a lot of theological work to do in the diocese concerning this issue, and that not much had been done, theologically, scripturally, etc. I raised my hand to point out that we need to be careful to say not much has been done, and to think that we have to start from scratch, when in fact there are incredible theological resources available. Here I referenced Wycliffe and its faculty who have offered to be a theological resource for dioceses across Canada, the series of essays at the Living Church that examined several faulty exegetical and theological assumptions in This Holy Estate, and even my own availability to serve as a resource.
Part of the decision to attend Wycliffe over McMaster’s Religious Studies program was because I am convinced that theology is done in and for the church. But two completed theological degrees, and now working on a terminal degree at an Anglican seminary does not appear to be sufficient to do anything more than carry a candle once every six weeks. My continued cries of “here I am, use me!” appear to be bouncing off a closed door.
If we didn’t have children, we would probably be able to stay, and be salt and light. But we have our kids to think about. As parents we cannot raise our children in the faith alone. We need the church to come alongside us to help us catechize our kids. But, given what I have seen this week, there are leaders/teachers in our parish who hold to a very different understanding of marriage and sexual ethics, sometimes aggressively so. As a parent, I need to be able to trust my children to the care and teaching of their Sunday school teachers, and I don’t know that I can at St. Aidan at this time.
Our family is in an interesting position. I have been confirmed in the Anglican church, but Chuck and the kids have not. I am studying at an Anglican seminary. I am in love with Anglican liturgy.
So what do we do? Do we stay? Do we go? Where do we go? (There is no ANiC church in Moose Jaw.) Can I be an Anglican in exile, until such time as we are living somewhere that has either an ANiC church, or are living in the diocese of one of the seven orthodox bishops? Or is it time to close the door on our Anglican journey and appreciate the season that it was? What does this mean for when I return to school in September?
It has been an extremely hard week. The Synod vote was not unexpected, but Bishop Rob’s vote was a shock. I needed to hear him say that he voted no. I needed to hear him say that he stands with the seven bishops, that he affirms traditional marriage, and that our diocese will not be authorizing a change to the canon at a diocesan level come 2020. The thought of leaving St. Aidan is gut-wrenching, and I have cried all week. This whole situation is not unlike grieving a death in the family. And at a spiritual level, my soul feels like it wants to throw up. But here’s what I know: Jesus is faithful. The Church is larger than our parish, diocese, or the Anglican Church of Canada. God is at work, and God works not just in blessing, affirmation, and comfort, but also in judgment, discipline, and punishment. Through the Holy Spirit, our Triune God tends the branches, pruning, propping up, fertilizing, and re-planting.
Pray for me. Pray for my family. Pray for my pastor. Pray for my bishop. Pray for my church. Pray for the Church.
This morning, Wycliffe College is having a women’s breakfast to raise funds for bursaries for female students. I have been invited to share briefly about why I’m at Wycliffe. What follows is the manuscript of my talk. (update: the audio file is now available.)
When I started seminary in Saskatchewan my daughter Beth was 6 months old. During the four years of seminary work, she was joined by Nora, and Malcolm. It was, to say the least, an extremely busy time.
And yet, through my time at seminary, several wise mentors suggested that I had a gifting for teaching and theology. My husband saw this vocation as well, and after much prayer and reflection, we decided that my educational journey wasn’t done quite yet.
As we considered PhD programs, I was looking for a school that understood that theology is done in and for the church and because of that, it is, at its very core, a discipline of prayer. Wycliffe embodies this both in its deep desire to serve the church, and in its commitment to creating a space for prayerful theological reflection in the classroom and in the weekly practice of community Eucharist.
I was looking for a school that understood that academic rigour and the Christian faith are not inimical. The quality of scholarship offered by the professors at Wycliffe is probably the best of all theological institutions in Canada.
My husband and I were also trying to figure out how we could be good stewards of God’s resources. PhD studies are expensive, and we knew that we would need my husband’s pay cheque to cover the costs of raising 3 kids and paying for PhD tuition. And, my husband loves his job, and has his own callings and giftings. If we all moved to Toronto, not only would the cost of living be significantly higher, but it was highly unlikely that he would be working in his field.
And so, with prayer, and faith, and my husband working two jobs to support us, it was decided that the best way to steward all of God’s gifts was for us to become a bi-provincial family. My husband and the kids (who are now 6, 4 and 2) would stay in Saskatchewan, and I would live on the 3rd floor of Wycliffe during the school year. I skype in for dinnertime every day, and Chuck puts my skype face where I would normally sit at the dining room table. Yesterday, when I skyped in, Nora, who is now 4, was sitting at the dining room table, frantically writing. I said to her, “Nora, what are you doing?” “Shhhh. Momma I’m busy doing my homework. I have a class to teach in 5 minutes and I have a paper to write.”
The women at Wycliffe all have their own challenges (some even more complicated than mine) and yet they all have a deep sense of God’s calling in their lives to study the Word of God.
There’s a collect or prayer in one of the Anglican prayerbooks that is assigned for this Sunday (November 8th) that I think perfectly encapsulates the heart’s cry of the women at Wycliffe as we are here at seminary. Will you pray this for these gifted and called women?
Eternal God, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning,
grant us so to hear them,
read, mark, learn, and inwardly ingest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast
the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
Manda: I need to figure out which church to attend this weekend.
Introverted Manda: why not just go where we went last week?
Manda: because part of the benefit of being in the big city for school is that I’ll get to experience a bunch of new opportunities.
Introverted Manda: whose dumb idea was that?
Manda: Mine. Now let me figure out the streetcar routes.
Introverted Manda: you know, if we go where we went last week you don’t need to figure all that out because you can just walk.
Introverted Manda: how many churches are on your list to check out?
Introverted Manda: six?! That’s too many! Remember, your husband is a psychologist and remember how he likes to go on and on about the paradox of choice? Listen to him. Let’s just go back to the church from last week.
Introverted Manda: but the church we went to last week is big. You can hide. You can sit through the service and not be pestered by nosy extroverts.
Introverted Manda: the church you went to last week has contemporary worship. You like contemporary worship.
Manda: I know that.
Introverted Manda: and they share communion every week. That’s very important.
Slothful Manda: hey why don’t we just skip church and go see a movie instead?
The following is adapted from a post I wrote in 2012.
It’s been an interesting transition from studying the Reformation to backing up fourteen hundred years and studying the Church Fathers. One thing that is common to both eras is how the writers from both eras used Scripture. In their writings, Scripture is quoted and when it’s not quoted it’s alluded to, and when it’s not alluded to it is fully exposited. It doesn’t matter if it is Marie Dentiere, Argula von Grumbach, St. Clement, Barnabas or Justin Martyr. These writers are immersed by Scripture.
If I wrote a paper the way they wrote their treatises, one of two things would happen:
1. The professor would inevitably charge me with proof-texting
2. The professor would inevitably dock me points for not citing enough “academic” sources
What if bloggers wrote like these writers from the Reformation or Patristic period? Would we even read the posts? What would happen if we allegorically interpreted Scripture to comment on the latest “mega-pastor says something controversial” video clip? Honestly, I don’t know that I would continue reading blog posts that were made up of nothing but a series of quotations, allusions and expositions of Scripture the way that some of the writings of Church Fathers are.
How bad is that?
I admire how Scripture immersed these writers. It informed everything they wrote, said, did, and prayed. And even though I am a seminary student, I can’t really say that Scripture so fully immerses me. Why is that? Is it symptomatic of our 21st century Christian culture? Is it because I’m lazy?
Wouldn’t it be interesting, if instead of arguing over whether the Bible is inerrant, inspired, infallible etc. our concern was whether and to what degree the Bible immerses us?
In our efforts to assign the Bible authority, by developing statements regarding inerrancy and infallibility, we still seem to keep the Scripture at arm’s length. We can talk about the importance of Scripture, but the discussion is almost abstract. So what if the Bible is inerrant? If it doesn’t transform us what does it matter that the Bible is “fully without error?”
The liturgy that is used at the church I attend is an example of this immersion. As it tells the grand narrative of God’s redemptive work, it continually quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to Scripture. And yet, I have had a conversation with a couple of different people who have been in this tradition all their lives, and yet do not recognize the references to Scripture. They are just words on a page, and as far as they know the editors of the liturgy drew them from thin air. So this then raises another question: if people don’t even realize that Scripture is being quoted, does it matter?
With immersion comes transformation. And with transformation comes passion, a new perspective and a new posture. And this is what the Holy Spirit does as he illumines the Scriptures to point us to the Risen and Exalted Jesus. And of course, as you will notice, I didn’t quote, allude to, or exposit a single verse of Scripture in this post. Oops.
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?
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.” 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.”
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, 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. Entering the Promised Land became a powerful promise and image of rest that God would bestow on Israel, historically, soteriologically and eschatologically. This rest was not an abstract, impersonal reality, instead, it is His rest, 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, 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).
 Leonard Vander Zee, Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 17.
 Vander Zee, 54.
 Pipa, 121.
 Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
 Kaiser, 138.
 Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 4:3.
 Hebrews 4:11.
 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.
This 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!
In light of the explosion of discussion and responses to Rachel Held Evans’ article at CNN on why millennials are leaving the church, I thought I would re-post my discussion from last year on millennials and their relationship to the church. Enjoy!
I have a love/hate relationship with the Disney princesses. On the one hand, Belle was my absolute favourite princess when I was young, and she still is. On the other, as I have gotten older and now have daughters of my own, I struggle with the message that the Disney princesses give, especially how they are marketed (it irks me to no end that the Mulan princess doll is done up in froof when that was the part that she hated the most and was one of the reasons she ran off to fight in her father’s stead).
And yet, I wonder if comparing and contrasting two Disney princesses would help me to make sense of a trend in north American Evangelicalism. MSNBC has a story about how the gay marriage issue is driving away an entire generation of Christians. And while the story does cite Matthew Anderson as an example of one young Christian who doesn’t think so, the majority of the article seems to lean towards Rachel Held Evans’ thesis. Denny Burk has weighed in on his, and it has of course made the rounds on the Twitter feed.
I don’t really want to talk about the gay-marriage debate, but rather, I want to speak to the larger issue behind it: the post-modern 21st century generation of evangelical Christians who are disenfranchised with the older generations of the Church in general.
My question is this: what kind of princess is this young evangelical generation? Is it Ariel or Merida?
The message of The Little Mermaid is disobey your parents because at the end there will be a rainbow and a handsome prince, and a father who will apologize because you were right and he was wrong. Reckless and head-strong is okay because it’s all about you and no one else and your parents will see that in the end and you will live happily ever after.
The message of Brave, on the other hand, is there are consequences to your head-strong opinions, and in the end your mom was actually right and knew what she was talking about. She may not have expressed it in the best of ways, but it’s not entirely her fault that you didn’t get it. Reconciliation is needed: Merida needed to repair the tear in the family that she had created; and the Queen needed to see that Merida had gifts and strengths and that she didn’t need to be “managed” and nagged at 24/7.
The Evangelical church in North America is young, very young, in the grand scheme of 2,000 years of Christianity. And yet on many issues the 21st-century Evangelical Church think that she knows what is best and that is okay to turn her back on the “old fogeys” of both the Evangelical tradition and the larger Church because they are absolutely wrong and she is absolutely right.
I don’t know what the cause of this is. Maybe it’s the rugged individualistic worldview of the North American culture. Maybe it’s what happens with each generation of Christians but in the age of social media it has become amplified and expanded. Maybe it’s because North America is quickly becoming a post-Christian nation and it is encouraging the Church to become post-Christian as well. I don’t know.
I guess what it comes down to is this: I wish there was a little more humility; a little more listening. I get the disenfranchisement of the young people in the church today, I really do. I am of that generation. I think the difference is that I didn’t grow up in the Church, so I didn’t have my rebel moment. I came into the Church at the age of 16 with my eyes somewhat open to what I was choosing. It was (through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit) my choice to respond to the gracious gift of Jesus; it wasn’t forced on me (“you have to be a Christian because that is what this family does”). Add to that, I have spent a lot of time reading Church history, listening to the elders who have gone before, and sitting under their wisdom. It has changed me. It has softened me. It has made me (somewhat) more patient with the foibles and frustrations of a Church that is made up of imperfect humans.
I am listening to the stories and concerns of this generation of evangelicals, but I can’t help but wonder, “Are you listening just as equally to the stories of your elders and of those who disagree with you? Are you willing to do your part in reconciliation or are you expecting the older generation to unilaterally cave to your way of thinking? What happens in 50 years, when the new younger generation of Evangelicals become disenfranchised and alienated from your ideas, experiences and politics?”
The yellow sickly-sweet smell of jaundice, click iodine and antiseptic.
The flurry of nurses, cure doctors, sale 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.
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 would rise and 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.