Category Archives: Theology

Does it matter how we live in creation?

One of my cousins sent a video of a sermon by John MacArthur to a group of us on Facebook (here’s the video of his sermon, but I just read the text). It’s a sermon about whether or not we should be concerned about climate change. I had some serious concerns about what MacArthur had to say, and not only theologically/scripturally. My cousin didn’t want to have a group debate about this issue (neither did I), but he welcomed a private message laying out some of my theological/scriptural concerns. I thought I would post it here as well (I don’t include the personal/introductory material and I’ve lightly revised it).

I disagree with MacArthur on several points, though I should probably give it a closer read before I speak definitively (I read through the text of the sermon rather than watch the 1-hour video). So I will just highlight a couple of things. 

But first I will say that I agree that the future is in God’s hands. He is in control. I agree with that. My concern is that we shouldn’t use that truth as an excuse for irresponsible stewardship of what God has given us.

It seems that our starting points—MacArthur’s and mine—lead us in different directions. (To keep things easy to follow, I’ll number the thoughts.)

1. MacArthur says that the earth and everything in it was created for human beings to do with as they please, apparently even if it means abusing and harming creation. Now as long as it is in fact ours, I suppose one could argue that we can do what we want with it (though I would question the wisdom of doing so if it could lead to harm in the future). But I’m not convinced that’s what the Genesis account tells us.

Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over [all the animals].” I’m just learning and thinking about this, so this isn’t completely developed and I can’t explain it fully here, but there is a sense in which we are given rule over creation precisely as God’s image bearers. In other words, there is a sense in which we are representatives of God in his creation; we steward his “property” on his behalf. In Genesis 2:15 it says God puts the man in the garden “to work it and take care of it.”

So I would say the earth isn’t ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). We are only caretakers. It belongs to God.

2. That, in turn, gives us a responsibility. And I do think we can mess it up very badly, even if I’m theologically sure that God won’t allow the human race to extinguish itself.

In fact, if you think about it, MacArthur’s claim that “we don’t have to worry because God will…” really only makes sense in the western context where we are so far (relatively) unaffected by the (potential?) changes in climate. It makes about as much sense as saying in church that “God will protect us from harm…” moments before terrorists barge in and shoot everyone—it certainly seemed true before the bullets started flying.

The world seems a safe place when we live in a country in which things seem fine and we have the wealth in place to offset and protect from any negative consequences. And yet there are wars and mass murders and epidemics and natural disasters. (What I mean is, God doesn’t always protect the human race from our foolish/evil/disobedient choices). I’m sure MacArthur recognizes the existence and problem of evil, but what he says in his sermon seems to ignore it.

3. MacArthur says that the bad things that do happen in creation are because of the curse, and by implication, therefore, they are God’s will. Creation, MacArthur says, would destroy itself if it human beings didn’t work it and rule it and subdue it. He doesn’t back this up with evidence, scriptural or otherwise, as far as I can tell. And it’s not entirely clear how he connects this with whether or not climate change is real (because there are few, if any, that I’m aware of that are actually suggesting we shouldn’t cultivate, explore, understand, or develop the earth—it’s just a question of how we go about it.)

But I note a couple of things:

First, when God addresses Adam after he has sinned, his words to Adam are, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” Now, I want to be careful to not read our modern issues back onto this ancient text more than the text allows, but I find it interesting that the curse on the ground is the result of human choice—that is, the problem with the ground is man’s fault. There’s some sense in which God doesn’t want it this way, but because of man’s choice, it is this way. God says what he created is good and he never takes that back, even with the curse.

But, second, even if what MacArthur says about the curse on the ground is true, the curse is not the way it is supposed to be. The whole story of redemption in the Bible is about undoing the curse. And, in fact, Paul teaches in Romans and other places that Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection has undone the curse—in Christ there is a new creation (1 Cor. 5:17).

So even if we grant MacArthur’s point, as Christians we should not be using the curse as an excuse for living as if the curse still applies. As Christians, we should live as if the curse has in fact been undone (because it has) in anticipation of the day when Jesus returns and makes all things new.

4. Finally, MacArthur brings up 2 Peter 3:10, which seems to suggest that in the end all of creation will be burned up. A pretty common approach among conservative Christians is to say, “It’ll all be destroyed in the end anyway, so why does it matter what we do to it? (Maybe our destruction of the earth will hasten the return of Jesus!)” I can’t remember if this was the approach MacArthur took in his sermon or not, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. 

There are a couple of things to point out here:

First, this passage isn’t as clear as this argument suggests. Yes, it uses language of heavens disappearing with a roar, etc., but there is a good argument that this is apocalyptic language to describe God’s judgment on the earth: everything will be exposed and laid bare before God (look at that verse in some more modern translations like NIV, NRSV, ESV, NLT). At the very least it seems clear that we should be careful not to be too literalistic about the image it presents. It may be more like metaphor.

Second, to say “It’s all going to be burned up anyway, so why does it matter what we do?” is a pretty consequential approach—that is, significant, with huge consequences—to take from a single verse in scripture (never mind the fact that the meaning isn’t as clear as some would like to think).

Finally, if MacArthur and others are right about what this passage means, it doesn’t follow that it’s our business as humans to make that happen, to destroy the earth on God’s behalf. Just because the owner of the house we’re watching plans to pull it down when he returns doesn’t mean that we can just go ahead and do it for him before he gets back! (Especially if what I said of humans as caretakers is correct.)

There are a number of other things he said that I think could at least use a little pushback, but I won’t do that here!

A Heart was Hardened

Our high school Bible study has been reading through Romans this year. They like choosing difficult books—last year we went through Revelation —and Romans is no exception. Some weeks we struggle to find anything to talk about (we discuss one chapter each time we meet), other weeks we struggle to understand, other weeks I confuse them with my attempts to help them along (I try to avoid teaching and instead guide and facilitate discussion), still other weeks I annoy them when I get really excited about something and pull out the white board (I do like to teach sometimes!). Then there are weeks when they find some answers on their own or have moments of clarity. Those days are wonderful. And on occasion I am able to help them understand or have a moment of clarity, which is particularly gratifying.

Today we discussed Romans chapter 9, which talks about Paul’s grief over the unbelief of Israel and then goes into God having mercy on whom he will have mercy, and hardening some people’s hearts, and the analogy of the potter and his clay. It’s a difficult chapter, one I imagine Calvinists like to go to (wrongly, in my opinion) for their predestination theology.

It troubled some of the youth, as it troubles me, that God might harden some hearts against him. We tried to figure this out, how this could work, why God would do this. I talked a bit about how we live in a very individualistic, personal rights-oriented culture, which is offended by any notion of someone compelling someone else to do something against their will, but that in an ancient group/family-oriented culture what Paul says may not be received negatively in that way.

One youth suggested that maybe if a person rejects God, God responds by hardening that person’s heart. I suggested that God might “give them over” to their hard-hearted desires (as Romans 1 talks about)—if that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get. Commentaries seem to agree (we don’t always go to commentaries, but sometimes it helps).

We looked at the story of Moses and Pharaoh, which this chapter in Romans may reference. Early in Exodus God tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the people of Israel go. When the confrontation actually happens, there’s a lack of clarity about whom hardens whose heart. Initially God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, then Pharaoh’s heart is simply hardened, and later it says Pharaoh hardens his own heart. So which is it? Perhaps it’s both.

I suddenly thought of a real-world analogy. I asked the group, what is our first response when we are confronted with a negative truth about ourselves? If Dixie criticizes something about me, what is my initial reaction, even if what she says is true? I may get angry or offended, I may deny the charges, I may get bitter, I may argue, I may try to turn her comment back on her and point out her faults. In a sense, Dixie’s words have the power to prompt a “hardening of my heart,” even if ultimately it is the preexistent state of my heart that is ultimately responsible. Nods of recognition from the youth. In a very bad situation, I say, one where a relationship is already strained or perhaps where no real relationship exists, such a critical comment—such a confrontation with the truth—may actually strain the relationship or potential of relationship beyond possibility, at least for a time.

Similarly, when we are confronted with the truth and power of God when our hearts are already in rebellion against him, that very truth has the power to harden our hearts, even though it is ultimately the prior condition of our hearts is responsible for the hardening.

That was helpful insight.

TINAoS*: God’s Covenant with Noah

*Things I’ve Never Asked of Scripture.

One of the readings in my prayer book a couple of days ago was Genesis 9:8-17. When I read it, I asked a question I had never asked before: why does God make the promise never again to destroy all life?

Before the flood we learn that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (6:5) and “how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways” (6:12). “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth” (6:6), so God decides to destroy everything as a result.

After the flood, at the end of chapter 8, God decides in his heart that he won’t completely destroy all life like this again and in chapter 9 he makes a covenant with all living things to this effect. God decides this “even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (8:21), which was the reason for the flood in the first place. Even though the reason for God causing the flood in the first place remains, he decides he won’t do this again. No reason is given, other than God smelling the pleasing aroma of Noah’s burnt offering, which on its own seems like little reason for such a huge change of heart—after which one can’t help but wish that Noah had made such an offering before the flood occurred, perhaps preventing it from happening. But then that’s what sacrifices appear to do in the Old Testament.

Which makes me wonder, Why? Why does God take this gentler approach after the flood, even though the human heart remains the same? Does he regret causing the flood, like he earlier regretted creating human beings?

At the moment I don’t have an answer. A quick look at some commentaries shows they aren’t asking the question either.

This question remains for me even if looking at the flood narrative only as a story, leaving aside questions about its function in its ancient cultural setting, its historicity, etc.

God has already given us permission to love.

I’ve been reading J.B. Philips’ short book Your God is Too Small with a couple of colleagues. It’s a quick read and an interesting approach to helping us see who God is and all the ways we get God wrong. The first half of the book, which is as far as I’ve read, is about all the destructive, unreal pictures of God that people often have (the second half is about constructive views). The following paragraph stood out to me. It’s from a section on a god who we see as an entirely negative force in our lives, whose “whole Nature seems to deny, to cramp, and to inhibit” our own nature:

“They are bound by their negative god by their upbringing, by the traditions of a Church or party, by the manipulation of isolated texts of Scripture or by a morbid conscience. At last they actually feel that it is wrong to be themselves, wrong to be free, wrong to enjoy beauty, wrong to expand and develop. Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing. Disaster will infallibly bring them to heal, sooner or later, should they venture beyond the confines of ‘his plan for them.'” (p. 51, Epworth Press edition, 1975, emphasis mine)

“Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing.” Two things strike me about this:

1. I see this crop up among the youth at our church who want to be faithful to God in every decision, but who are stuck because they need God’s permission (or direction) to choose this job or that job, this college or that college. I’ve told the youth on a couple of occasions that they are free to make their own decisions about these things, as long as they are pursuing love of God and love of neighbour in their choices. That’s not to say they shouldn’t listen for God (that’s part of loving God!) nor that God doesn’t have a specific call for them. But the tendency is to think that God has one, single, narrow path laid out for our lives, and we had better find and stay on that path if we want things to go well for us. Instead, I think there is a wide field of potential and opportunity that lies within the scope of loving God and loving neighbour and we are free to wander and discover and live within it.

2. In spite of what I tell our youth, I also find myself wrestling with this negative vision of God, without whose permission I often feel I can do nothing. In a strange and dangerous way, I subconsciously think that because I was called to pastoral ministry, I somehow have to be in line with God (within his field of specific permission) for every step I take along the way. But why should it be any different for me as a pastor than for a plumber, teacher, doctor, mechanic, or student? It shouldn’t. And yet there I often live.

God has already given us blanket permission to love him and others, and within that permission there is room for creativity, growth, change, risk, and so on. But some days it’s hard to believe this.

Thoughts on Revelation 2: What Did John Actually Know or Understand?

Recently, as a way to review what we’d read in previous Bible studies, I was listening to an audio version of the book of Revelation, as read by actor David Suchet (I know him a little from the Poirot tv series). It’s really a wonderful reading of scripture, particularly of Revelation. In fact, the way Suchet read Revelation was itself a revelation.

He reads it with a note of wonder in his voice, as if he was actually describing what he saw in the vision, as if it was John’s first time sharing the vision. This made a significant difference in how I read and hear Revelation. I’ve tended to read and hear it as if John writing down deliberately coded imagery and narrative, like he’s kind of winking at us and saying, “I know a lot of things but I can’t tell them to you directly, so here it is in code that I hope you can figure out.” It’s our job as modern readers to decode it and try to figure out what exactly John is on about.

With Suchet’s reading, I began to realize that just maybe John is actually just describing what he saw in his vision and that he himself may not know what it all means either. After all, Jesus invites John to “write what you have seen” (1:19). John sees something, but he doesn’t necessarily know what it all means. There are places where John explains something apparently on his own (such as identifying the dragon as Satan in 12:9). On the other hand, when Jesus tells John to write what he sees, he has to explain to John what he had already seen (the seven stars and seven golden lamp stands, etc., 1:20), suggesting that John doesn’t quite understand what he sees.

This is speculative on my part, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the text that suggests that John understood everything he saw. A first century reader/hearer/seer (such as John) might be able to untangle the Old Testament imagery sprinkled throughout better than most average modern readers can, but maybe even for them it was largely a mystery too.

On the other hand, there are some parts that are clearer than others and there are some overarching themes that are also clear. This would emphasize that the point is really to get these more obvious big picture things. Things such as: Jesus is victorious king and worthy of worship, be faithful, endure what you may have to endure, all shall be well, and not get hung up on some of the other weird imagery which may just be intended to evoke something more like general understanding (e.g. evil is at work in the world, Christians will likely face persecution of some kind, etc.) rather than being imagery we are meant to decode. This is how I’ve been reading it already, but mostly so that the youth do get the big picture and don’t get too hung up on sorting out all the weird stuff—but I always with a sense that we are nevertheless missing something.

I tend to agree (with Toni 🙂 ) that much of Revelation is referring to events in Rome in the first and second century, but this doesn’t really change anything for us in terms of reading it the above way, because even if it was written to and about that time period, the book is nevertheless for us, and the big picture stuff we see at work through the centuries.

I started writing this post weeks ago, and it only now occurs to me that this approach presents a sort of irony when it comes to reading and interpreting Revelation. To say that John is simply reporting a vision he saw is to read Revelation in a straightforward, literal way (which is not what I necessarily advocate doing). Yet it is those who tend to read Revelation in a woodenly literal way who seem to be hung up on explaining all the imagery and seeing modern-day significance in every object, creature, and beast.

Thoughts on Revelation: The Mark of the Beast

Our youth small group Bible study has been working its way through Revelation chapter by chapter this year. Knowing that this particular book of the Bible presents readers with unique challenges, I’ve been doing some reading in commentaries and other books in advance as we go through. Yesterday, reading through Eugene Peterson’s excellent Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, I had a bit of a revelation myself.

Yesterday we talked about Revelation 14. Both that chapter and the one before it mention the “mark of the beast,” which goes on a person’s hand or forehead. The question of the mark of the beast and what it is has been a hotly debated question for some Christians, particularly in more conservative circles, for a long time: is it a barcode tattoo? credit cards? debit cards? chip implants? Every time some new technology comes out it seems like someone brings up the mark of the beast. This is especially true when the new technology involves financial transactions, because Revelation 13 says that people won’t be able to buy or sell without the mark.

I’ve always thought a mark on the forehead or the hand was an odd place to put a mark, but then for a long time I’ve also known that Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor and so there is much there that should not be taken at literal face value. So I haven’t thought about the mark much, until it came up in our reading.

Then Peterson made a connection I had never heard before, but makes complete sense, especially given how much Revelation (re)uses Old Testament imagery. The mark of the beast is on the forehead or the hand. Way back in Deuteronomy 6, Moses speaks for God and says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (this is the “Shema“), and then he goes on to tell Israel to tie this command to their foreheads and hands. From this we get the phylactery, a small box Jewish men would wear (or put on their doorposts) containing a little scroll with a portion of the Torah on it, probably even the words of the Shema itself, which reminded them of who they were: people of the One God, the God they were to love completely.

This correspondence between the phylactery and the mark of the beast was a lightbulb moment for me. Suddenly the mark of the beast made a great deal more sense. The phylactery is a symbol or mark identifying who a people belong to, who they follow, who they obey. It is a symbol of allegiance. It is a visible symbol of a life that is lived.

I realized suddenly that the mark of the beast is not about physical objects or marks like credit cards or tattoos. The mark of the beast is a way of life. Just as the mark of Christ, the seal of the Spirit, which the Christian bears, is love (and faithful endurance, to use the language of Revelation), so the mark of the beast is the opposite way of life (Revelation is filled with opposites, e.g. the Lamb that was slain and the beast that looks a like a lamb). Given the contexts of these chapters with dragons and beasts and buying and selling, the mark may play out in things like false religion (including perhaps most insidiously false Christianity), allegiance to a certain political system or market economy, self-interest, individualism, and all manner of idolatries, etc.

If the mark of the beast is a way of life then, on the one hand, the concerns of a more fundamentalist/literalist, end-times/tribulation focussed view—concerns about whether, say, debit cards are the mark of the beast or some future where we’ll have to make a choice about chip implants—largely disappear.

On the other hand, the mark of the beast as a way of life is much more insidious, because we tend to slide very easily and without much thought into the whatever current trend or way of life that comes our way, trends and ways of life that very often are or turn into idolatry. In other words, the mark of the beast is not necessarily something we consciously choose to receive, but something we may simply slide into without even consciously doing so.

This requires patient endurance from the saints indeed!

Evolution, Genesis, and Discipleship

I haven’t blogged about the question of how we read and understand the Genesis creation accounts in a while, though it continues to be of interest to me. Today I happened to listen to and watch a delightful moderated dialogue between Richard Dawkins, the famous biologist and outspoken atheist (to be fair, he identifies as an agnostic), and Rowan Williams, the former-but-current-in-the-video Archbishop of Canterbury, the sort of figurehead of the worldwide Anglican communion. (I don’t normally have the patience to watch anything on YouTube that’s longer than 15 minutes, but the whole discussion was 1.5 hours long and I was captivated. I must have been soothed by their English accents, particularly Williams’. Actually, it was a truly interesting exchange, and Dawkins was civil.)

Nothing particularly bloggable was said in the first hour, but just after the hour mark things got more generally interesting for a while in response to a question from the audience. Williams believes that the universe is billions of years old and that evolution, so far as we understand it, is how we got to now—at that level, he and Dawkins agree. Of course, as a Christian, Williams believes God is involved or present in this process (though in the discussion he does not explain how).

Here is a link to the portion of the video that I’m referring to (starting automatically at about 1:08:27 and you can stop listening at about 1:11:39, if you wish), but I will also include a transcript of the relevant bits below.

Moderator Anthony Kerr, quoting an audience question: “Surely if the truth is that the universe is billions of years old and life evolved, it would have been better when the Bible was written to say nothing about how humans began. Did the writers essentially get it wrong?”

Archbishop Rowan Williams: Probably [a question] for me…I can’t imagine that the biblical writers were, if you like, faced with a set of options, including telling the truth that the universe is billions of years old, and saying, “Oh, that’s too difficult.” The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were nonetheless not inspired to do 21st century physics.

This is probably the most succinct way of explaining why we should not read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific textbook or manual. Williams goes on:

Williams: They were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know—forgive the naked theology here, but I might as well come clean—and that means reading the first book of the Bible, what I look for is the basic information—this might be a different sense [of information] from what we were talking about just now: the universe depends on God, God’s freedom, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and from the first measurable moment humans have made a rather conspicuous mess of that role. That’s where the Bible begins, that’s what I need to know, so to speak. And I don’t think that it makes very much sense to talk about the writers of scripture getting it wrong in the sense that there being lots of information available and they happened to get the wrong bits of it.

He goes on to say, in response to a follow-up question from Dawkins, that reading Genesis in this way is “something which isn’t just a 21st century invention, but it’s a way people have read Genesis from very early on.”

What does appear to be a 21st century invention, however, is an insistence on a strictly literal (in the sense of literal six 24 hour days of creation—a sort of reverse scientific literalism, I suppose) reading of Genesis, which I suspect is a reaction to overzealous conclusions about religion and the existence of God drawn by some from the scientific evidence.

In many respects I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I don’t know much about evolutionary theory, nor do I have detailed knowledge of the evidence, so I can’t make an independent decision about its veracity. However, the vast majority of the scientific community, as far as I’m aware, including the many Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian scientists among them (including personal friends), agree that the universe is very old and that we evolved, so I have to deal with that fact.

At this point I’m not sure it matters what a person believes about this question. I think a person can be just fine believing in a 6,000-year-old earth and a one-week creation; I think a person can be a fine follower of Jesus and hearer of scripture and believe the universe’s age is in the billions of years and that life evolved.

Where this question does interest me is on the level of biblical interpretation and discipleship. I’ve talked about the question of how to interpret Genesis in relation to question of its intent (as Williams addressed in the video) and genre. The question of discipleship comes up from time to time, particularly in terms of teaching our young people in preparation for higher education. What should we teach them about Genesis and science? we wonder Some think that we should teach them to defend against evolutionary theory, that we should make sure we understand the (apparent) evidence against evolution and for a young earth to prepare them when they face all the (mis?)information in university.

I’m inclined to disagree with this approach, and not  because I think that it is true that life evolved (I remain mostly agnostic about this, largely because I don’t know enough), but for two other reasons:

  1. Jesus is the heart, soul, and centre of our faith, not how we read the opening chapters of Genesis. Genesis is very important to our understanding of the faith. I love Genesis. But it’s not the centre or focal point. Jesus is.
  2. I’m convinced that training our young people against evolution will, in the long run, do more to harm their faith than grow it. If we train them with biblical scientific literalism (my term) and then they go to university and are overwhelmed with evidence in favour of evolution, it might bring them to a crisis of faith, having to choose between faith and science. It’s a choice I don’t think is necessary to make, but we may force that choice on them, depending on how we approach the issue in our teaching.

Note that this is not about whether or not evolution is true. It’s a question of whether it’s a battle that needs to be fought, of whether the Bible requires us to believe something other than what the scientific community is (purportedly?) finding out about our world and universe. It’s a question of how we understand the Bible and how we teach our kids in relation to that knowledge.

The reality is, even apart from what we’re hearing from biologists, astronomers, and physicists, the church has historically been okay with not reading Genesis as if it reflects a scientific account of our origins. I can quote (and have quoted in the past) respected and influential theologians and Christian writers through the ages—people like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and many more from the modern age—to make this point. These men can be wrong, of course, but the point is simply that literalism of the modern sort is not something based in historical theology and interpretation. If this is indeed the case, then why turn the question of evolution into a battle for truth? It seems to me to be entirely unnecessary.

In the end, I suspect the negative reaction is to people who have taken the evidence and the capacity of science farther than it can go, exemplified by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the other so-called “New Atheists,” but also carried forward by many in the general population: namely, that all of this “proves” that God doesn’t exist (or makes it unlikely that he exists or unnecessary to believe that he does). That is perhaps a battle worth fighting. But evolution vs. Genesis? No. It’s wasted effort, as far as I’m concerned, and quite possibly spiritually disastrous.

All Shall be Well (Serendipiday)

Dixie and I have a long-running joke about what our epitaphs will say, based on our personalities and approach to life. Mine will say, “All in good time.” The punchline is that hers will say, “That was a bit excessive.” It’s hilarious. Or it would be if you knew us and I was telling you about it face-to-face.

Another option for my epitaph is “All shall be well.” I’ve never read anything by the fifteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich, except for this one line:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

This line has had a profound effect on my faith. I deeply, passionately believe her words to be true. They are hope-filled words that I carry with me wherever I go. That’s why I think my epitaph could also say (and perhaps should say), “All shall be well.”

The last few days I’ve been at a retreat centre in Chicago, taking the last class in the ordination process for my denomination. Yesterday I told one of my class-mates about our epitaphs and about “All shall be well” and how profound those words have been for me. He laughed about the epitaphs and understood my deep appreciation for Julian’s words.

The class called “Vocational Excellence” and it works through some of the competencies and requirements of pastoral work, with a particular emphasis on self-care. They provide an optional session with a spiritual director. I’ve been hearing for years now from books, colleagues, and teachers that spiritual direction is an essential resource for pastoral ministry, but due to location and fear (of the unknown) I have not actually pursued finding a spiritual director. So I gladly took up the opportunity this weekend.

There were four options for spiritual directors and I didn’t know any of them. It was a bit of a crap-shoot and it made me slightly nervous because I have heard that a person won’t connect with every spiritual director. For some reason this session felt kind of like a one-shot deal, so the choice had to be right (if you know me at all, or if you’ve eaten at a restaurant with me, this will make a lot of sense). For reasons I won’t get into here—reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest—I chose the only man on the list as my spiritual director.

My session of spiritual direction was first thing this morning. After a brief explanation of how this session would go, my director suggested a couple of questions I could use as a jumping-off point for our time together. One of them was “What’s your experience of God now?” and I went with that one. I talked in a meandering way about fatigue and stress and the relation between faith and doubt. We talked about that for a bit. I mentioned Frederick Buechner on faith and doubt and muddled my way through a pseudo-paraphrase of this Buechner gem:

I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.  Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?  If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. (The Alphabet of Grace, p. 47)

My spiritual director said, “Funny you should mention Buechner. I have a quote of his in my pocket.” He had meant to use it earlier when they were introduced to the class, having anticipated the need to define spiritual direction.

We talked about doubt and how perhaps doubt is a positive thing in that it could signal spiritual growth, that it suggests that a person is actually listening, to God, to life; that it’s in certainty that a person no longer listens, no longer pays attention. Somehow this led us to the topic of coincidence: he suggested that coincidence may actually be God speaking to us, so apparent “coincidences” are moments when we should really pay attention. He didn’t use the word, but I think he was talking about something like serendipity. God-ordained serendipity. And it was already happening in this session.

This is what spiritual directors do: they listen. They listen and they help the directee see God at work in his or her life. So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that my spiritual director could anticipate where I was heading.

I began talking about the sense I have had recently that what I need to do right now is slow down, breathe, and listen, but then I lost my train of thought. It had something to do with prayer, but I couldn’t remember what it was. So I sat silently, reflecting.

After a few moments, my spiritual director spoke up. He said that Mother Theresa was once asked about prayer.

“What is prayer?” she was asked.

“Listening to God,” she replied.

“What does he say?” she was asked.

She replied, “Nothing.”

This was exactly where I was going before I lost my train of thought. Prayer. Listening. I told him about how helpful it was to me when I read in one of Eugene Peterson’s books (or possibly several of them) that prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just me talking to God. It’s also me listening to God. I get that; it makes sense. But with that came this frustration: when I listen, I don’t hear God say anything. What am I supposed to hear? What does it mean that I don’t hear anything when I listen?

The point of what Mother Theresa said is that it’s okay that God says nothing when she listens. She is still listening. She is still praying. That’s the point: they are together, listening, and hearing. My spiritual director connected the dots a little more for me: it may be that God’s not audibly speaking to me, but God is nevertheless speaking to me. We talked briefly about the ways this is true.

The whole session was wonderful and deeply helpful and affirming to me. Silence on many different levels is okay. It’s not that I’m missing something. It’s about being together with God in the moment.

Slow down. Breathe. Listen.

We talked about what’s next. He said that while most people prefer to have in-person spiritual direction, he does sometimes do direction via Skype. I thanked him and told him that I plan to pursue spiritual direction, but that I’d prefer in-person direction. “I’ll do some searching in my area,” I said, “but if nothing works out I’ll get in touch with you.”

He gave me his business card just in case and I headed back to class, which had been in session during my time with the spiritual director. I sat down. I had met this spiritual director a few years earlier in a different context, but couldn’t remember his last name, so I scanned the information on his card.

I turned the business card over. On the back of the card were these printed words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Orthodoxy is untidy and rough around the edges

“The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners.”

(Read the rest.)

What if rest came first?

That last post was actually written a week or two ago. I’m now about halfway through Alan Fadling’s An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest. So far he’s written about apprenticeship to an unhurried Jesus; our notions of productivity; and being unhurried enough to resist temptation, to care (or pay attention), and to pray.

I’ve just started the chapter entitled “Rest: The Rhythm of Creation” and came across this interesting insight (it begins with a quote from Eugene Peterson):

“The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythm of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep he develops his covenant. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous. Grace is primary. We wake into a world we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn. Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated. Creation and covenant are sheer grace and there to greet us every morning.

The Hebrew mindset saw the day beginning with rest, not with work. In the West, our day begins at sunrise and, basically, with work. This sequence, as Peterson points out, is telling. We tend to see rest as the place we fall into after we’ve worn ourselves out with work. But what if our best work begins from a place of rest? What if rest takes first priority rather than the last?” (110)

What if indeed? Rest in our culture is often seen as weakness, as laziness, and Christians are often no different. But perhaps this is another place where Christians are called to live in a way counter to the culture, to live, as it were, prophetically.