Spiritual Formation

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The Fall and Family 2: Generational Sanctification

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

On Tuesday I wrote about a pattern in Genesis that I find powerful for explaining the human condition: the consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve are felt in the family. The most intimate human relationships are where human sin is most acutely evident.

What I didn’t say, and should have made clear, is that God doesn’t defer hope from the time of Abraham until the time of Christ. The church is where God’s family is restored completely. But right there in Genesis, God is already bringing healing and wholeness.

Abraham is the first in the family to follow God. And he isn’t very good at it. He’s faithful with some things—he’s loyal to Lot and generous in his dealings. But the things Abraham gets wrong, he gets really wrong. Twice he claims his wife is his sister because he fears foreign kings will kill him to marry her. He fails to trust God to provide him an heir, so he sleeps with his wife’s maidservant. Abraham struggles to walk closely with God from the beginning of his story to the end.

Isaac, Abraham’s son, is no model Israelite either. But he makes steps in the right direction. Isaac, too, tries to pass of his wife, Rebekah, as his sister. But he only does it once. That means he’s twice as faithful as his dad.

Isaac’s son Jacob is a scoundrel. There’s really no way around that. But Jacob’s relationship with God is more intimate that his father’s or grandfather’s. He wrestles with God by the Jabbok River. Contending with God seems like a bad thing, really. But I think the point is Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel after this episode) realized God was his only hope. Jacob couldn’t rely on his wits to keep him out of trouble. He needed God’s blessing. And he refused to let God leave without blessing him. It may have been superficial faith. But it was authentic faith.

Jacob’s son Joseph was the real deal. He was Israel’s first theologian. He started out sort of a brat, but when he grew up he was the first in his family to be able to identify how God was at work in his circumstances. When he is finally reunited with his brothers in Egypt, years after they sold him into slavery, he told them, “It was not you who sent me here, but God. God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:8, 7). He recognized God’s broader plan in his brother’s sin: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph understood the character of God, and trusted it, more than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob before him.

What on earth is the point? The point is that God worked to sanctify this family generation by generation. They grew closer to God over time, not because Joseph was so much smarter or holier than Abraham, but because God is faithful. And the closer they drew to God the more grace and forgiveness is evident in their families (Gen. 50:15-21, for example). That’s good news. That means the sins of fathers—divorce or abuse or whatever—don’t have to visit their sons and grandsons. It means we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Not because we are smarter or holier than our parents, but because God is faithful.

What Difference Does Tradition Make?

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

My people on all sides of the family are low-church anti-traditionalists. Many of them bend in an anti-institutional direction in general. They like their privacy. They don’t like to be told what to think or how to behave—not by Hollywood, not by the government, not by dead Christians they’ve never met.

This is the earth I was grown in.

Some of these convictions stuck with me. My autopsy (and my writing, too, I hope) will reveal a deep vein of populism running head to toe. But despite my anti-traditionalist upbringing, I’ve found great comfort and guidance in the Christian tradition. Here are just a few ways I find tradition makes a difference for my faith.

It offers a framework for questions.
When I was a teenager, I often got the impression it was unfaithful to ask faith-related questions. And boy did I have questions. What I’ve learned from tradition is that there’s nothing wrong with questioning. But there are wrong ways to question. (Here’s a great recent book on just this topic.) The Christian tradition gives me a stable place to stand while I ask my hard questions. Not to mention lots of examples of faithful questioners.

It gives direction for discipleship.
In every age Christians decry certain vices and celebrate certain virtues. It can be very easy to convince ourselves that we are good Christians because we don’t cuss or because we vote Democrat or because we have deep convictions. Tradition reminds us that the things other generations pursued—like holiness and justice and simplicity and compassion—are as important today as ever, whether we recognize it or not.

It points out my presuppositions about Scripture.
If you’ve seen this book you’ll know that I think we sometimes get Scripture wrong. The cheapest way I know of to have a cross-cultural experience is to read old writers. Tradition helps us see what we take for granted; it illuminates our blind spots. Reading texts from other centuries has taught me more about myself than anything written in my own generation. And the better I know myself, the better I read the Bible.

It helps me make sense of the present.
At some point I began to wonder why the faith community I grew up in believed what we believed and behaved how we behaved. This book by Nathan Hatch explained it. Our instincts in the twentieth century were formed by debates and battles from a hundred years before. The tradition helps me understand why things are the way they are so I know how to live faithfully in the present.

It gives me hope for the future.
God has been at work through his church for two thousand years. We face real challenges today. But history bears out the truth of Scripture: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” There is hope for the future because God has been faithful in the past.

I’d love to hear from you. What difference does tradition make for you?

Why We Say the Apostles’ Creed

Monday, October 29th, 2012

For Reformation Sunday, I was asked to share about why we say the Apostles’ Creed. Here’s what I said:

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been learning the Apostles’ Creed as a congregation. And I’ve been asked on this Reformation Sunday, when all the pieces will hopefully come together, to explain why we say the Creed, what it means, why it matters. It occurred to me as I was preparing that explaining the Apostles’ Creed won’t do much good if we can’t agree about the value of creeds in general. So let’s take a step back.

For many evangelical Christians, like us, the great enemy of the faith is not naturalism or secular media or humanism. The great threat is religion. Time and again as a child I was reminded that authentic Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship. It’s me and Jesus, unmediated and uncomplicated.

Religion, by contrast, is a collection of human traditions, established for any number of reasons, that make it harder for people to have a relationship with God. Religion, some say, is what Jesus came to abolish. He scolded the religious leaders of his day because they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” (Mt. 23:4). Jesus overthrew religion when he taught, “You have heard it said…but I say… .” Jesus brought life where religion had brought spiritual slavery and death.

And many of us fear creeds grease the slippery slope to religion.

Well, the Reformers we remember this morning were as aware of the dangers of “religion” as anyone. Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin and, before them, other famous Johns like Wycliffe and Hus, wanted their fellow Christians, priests and pope and pauper alike, to abandon the traditions of men—like the doctrine of purgatory and the sale of indulgences and superstitious traditions related to the Mass—and return to the clear, simple teaching of Scripture on matters of faith, behavior, and worship. They wanted to chip away the plaque of human tradition until they found the gleaming, precious pearl of biblical Christian faith beneath.

So it may come as a surprise to know that to accomplish this, the Reformers found the church’s early creeds invaluable, especially the Apostles’ Creed. In his book The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin followed the outline of the Creed when he addressed key doctrine of Christianity: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He didn’t believe the Creed was actually written by the twelve apostles, as many had claimed before him. But that didn’t matter. He felt it recorded their teaching faithfully. In fact, he wrote that the creed “gives, in clear and succinct order, a full statement of our faith, and in every thing which it contains is sanctioned by the sure testimony of Scripture” (II.18). That’s quite an endorsement! Especially from one of the men who insisted that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the final authority for Christian faith and practice. In other words, for Calvin, even though the creed was written by human beings like you and me, the words of the Creed contained the clear teaching of the Bible. So all of us who fear elevating the teachings of human beings over the teaching of Scripture can rest assured. Saying “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” and so forth is the same as claiming, “I believe what the Bible teaches about God.”

Of course another important commitment of the Reformers was that the Church be always reforming (semper reformanda). The creed can help us here, too. For all our talk about submitting only to the Scriptures, most of us don’t actually spend as much time reading the Bible as we should. Consequently, it’s easy to forget what the Bible teaches us about God and our relationship to him. The Creed can be a helpful reminder of the basic commitments of the faith. For example, when we grow lazy in our discipleship but comfort ourselves with the thought that Jesus is cool and groovy and doesn’t want to stress us out, the creed reminds us he “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” and “from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” And for us Presbyterians who do everything rightly and in order, by committee, and by the book (even if we have to write the book first), the creed reminds us that we believe “in the Holy Spirit.” And that should make a difference in our ministry.

For sixteen hundred years, Christians have relied on the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the basic outline of the Christian faith. They have used it as a guide for prayer. Reciting it together today reminds us of the “communion of saints” to which it testifies and orients our vision forward to the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” that is our hope. And that’s no empty manmade religious doctrine. It’s the consummation of our relationship with Jesus Christ, God’s “only son our Lord.”

Review: Awaken Your Senses

Monday, July 9th, 2012

What does forgiveness taste like? How does grace sound? These are the kinds of questions Brent Bill and Beth Booram invite readers to consider in Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God (IVP 2011).

Bill and Booram don’t downplay the importance of more traditional, verbal sorts of communication. But they do lament that the majority of our spiritual education comes from “sermons, books, Bible studies and other spiritual resources that instruct our thinking” but often “miss our souls.” This gives us a spirituality informed by half our brain—the left half, which interprets our experiences—and largely ignores experience itself, which is why the right half of our brain is important: it “does the experiencing through our senses.” The authors want us to use both sides of our brains and our five senses to gain an experiential knowledge of God. They want to “help more of you [singular] experience more of God.”

To do that we must each learn how to interpret our daily experiences as sacraments, means of God’s grace in our lives. So, after a brief introduction, the book is divided into five sections, one for each of the senses: tasting, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling. The bulk of each section is given to practical spiritual exercises related to a specific sense.

The introduction to the section on taste, for example, points to the Jewish Passover Seder meal as an example, with biblical origins, of how taste can teach. Every flavor on the Seder plate represents something of spiritual significance. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery. The charoset, a sort of chutney made of fruit and nuts, represents the bricks and mortar the Hebrew slaves made during their enslavement. The saltwater represents the tears of the people. And so on.

In the spirit of the Seder, Brent Bill suggests making a menu on which each food is representative of some aspect of your personal spiritual journey. The intrepid can prepare the menu and eat it as a spiritual experiment (if you don’t have the time to actually cook everything, he invites you to imagine the meal). While eating, think about what each food represents. Savor the flavors. Meditate on the experiences they represent. Let the meal serve as a means of connecting to the grace of God in your life.

Full disclosure, I haven’t tried this yet; not exactly. But my wife and I have done something like this. When we decided, after several years of deliberation and setbacks, to begin the adoption process, we ate dinner at a favorite special-occasion restaurant. Almost two years later, a possible adoption fell through. At the last moment a birth mother chose a different couple to raise her baby. And we went back to the same restaurant, this time to mourn. I still remember what I ordered: peppered steak and mashed potatoes. I believe that meal will always bring to mind the profound grief we experienced that week. We would have celebrated at that restaurant the day we got news of our new baby boy. But we didn’t have time. We got the call on Friday afternoon and brought him home on Monday morning! Even so, today the eatery serves as something of a testimony to God’s faithfulness. Sounds strange. But because we marked the beginning of our journey there, commemorated the lowest point of it there, and one day—Lord willing—will celebrate our journey’s end there, that menu is likely to always have spiritual significance for us.

Oh, and lest you worry that the opening question of this review (“What does forgiveness taste like?”) is rhetorical, Booram suggests a practice involving vinegar and peppermint that might give you some idea.

The authors’ language of “sacrament” might bother some readers. Are they proposing new “works” by which to earn God’s favor? No. They define “sacrament” broadly as anything that helps us experience and internalize God’s grace. And they never give the impression that these exercises will put you in God’s good graces. Instead, they remind us of our profound creatureliness. That is to say that God doesn’t need us to observe this sort of spiritual exercise. But we need them, or something like them, because we’re not as smart as we think we are. We can’t just think and will our way into godliness. The more of our body and minds we engage in the process of spiritual formation, the more likely we are to truly be transformed into the image of Christ.

Faith and Justice in the Early Church (The End)

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

The early Christians didn’t distinguish between theology and practice.

These first three hundred years, during which the church was so radically countercultural, were also crucial years for the development of Christian theology. It was during this time that theologians articulated what the Bible teaches about the two natures (divine and human) of Christ. It described the relationships between the persons of the Trinity and wrote the first book about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. But these activities were not undertaken by different groups. There wasn’t a faction of “thinkers” on the one hand and “doers” on the other. And the church didn’t engage in these behaviors because they were motivated by a certain political or social agenda. Rater, they believed their conduct was the direct application of the gospel.

For example, Basil of Caesarea, who helped articulate the nature of the Trinity, connected his beliefs about Jesus directly with care for the poor. God and Jesus share one nature. And humans are made in God’s image. That means that regardless of ethnicity, class, and gender we all stand before God as one human race. We are required to care for all children of God, whether they are Christians or not. That’s pretty radical stuff.

As for the confidence Christians had in the face of persecution, the theologian Athanasius attributed this to faith in the Resurrection. Unlike pagan Romans, “All the disciples of Christ despise death,” he wrote. “They take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead.” Christians could care for the plagued and refuse to hail caesar because they didn’t fear death. This set them apart from their pagan neighbors, to be sure. And it motivated their conduct in the empire.

Conclusion

For the last 50 years or so, American Christians have been fighting for influence and input in American culture. In more recent years, we have lamented the declining impact Christianity appears to have on society at large. Churches strive to be culturally relevant in their worship and communication styles. We lobby for policies and legislation that will enforce biblical principles and values. For the first three hundred years or so, Christians approached these issues very differently. Of course we can’t simply mimic the early church. There are many important differences between the world they lived in and ours. Christians couldn’t expect to be represented in Congress by elected officials. Only citizens could depend on the state to protect their rights; and only a small percentage of the people who lived in the Roman empire were full-fledged citizens.

In other words, applying the example of the early church might be complicated. More to the point, the example of the early Christians can be uncomfortable. They were unflinching and uncompromising in their language and actions. But their perspectives and principles can be enormously helpful to us as we continue to learn how to live as “strangers in a strange land.” Their example compels us to take a close look at our convictions and decide whether we are as committed to bring our beliefs and behaviors in line and put our faith in action in a way that truly makes an impact.

This article originally appeared at ChristianBibleStudies.com. I’ve broken it into several pieces here.