Category Archives: Faith

The Lorica (St. Patrick’s Breastplate)

The following is a prayer attributed to St. Patrick. I like it a lot. There are parts of it that may seem a bit superstitious to our modern ears, but they make perfect sense in Patrick’s context in pagan Ireland, whose people believed that trickster gods lay in wait around every corner and for whom death was a daily concern.

Perhaps my current context is too mild to consider Patrick’s prayer appropriate, but it is still a good daily reminder for me–why I arise in the morning and who goes with me through the day.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation

St. Patrick (ca. 377)

(I see now that there are variations on this–more modern translations and variations on the old wording.  I prefer “I arise today” over “I bind unto myself today” because, well, I don’t know what “binding unto myself” means.)

The Lion and the lectionary

Chapel on Friday mornings is an abbreviated version of the morning office–we pray, read scripture, recite the Apostle’s Creed and are silent together.  It’s a good time.

In the last couple of weeks, the scripture readings in particular have been quite jarring, but not in the way you might expect. A couple of weeks ago I read from Acts 19:21-41. The bulk of the text is about a riot at Ephesus and the material is largely political in nature.  I kept checking the readings for the day to make sure I wasn’t reading the wrong passage. What a bizarre passage to include as part of the lectionary readings, I thought to myself. What does this tell us about anything? I saw my homiletics professor afterwards and asked him how someone would preach a sermon on that passage.  What’s the big idea in that text?

The lesson, I suppose, is that even if the Bible is inspired and the word of God, it cannot be picked apart willy-nilly. There are some parts of scripture that are unpreachable outside of a wider context.  And even if such a passage functions within a wider context, the passage itself may not have anything to present to use other than information driving the story.

Today in chapel I read from Revelation 9:11-21. It’s a dark passage about plagues and the death of one-third of the earth’s inhabitants. Symbolism and metaphor or not, it was a difficult passage to read and then end with “The word of the Lord” to which the rest of the people replying, “Thanks be to God.”

This is the beauty of the lectionary: it takes us places in scripture we would otherwise not go. To run with C.S. Lewis’ imagery a bit, the lectionary teaches us that the Lion’s word is no tamer than the Lion himself.  Don’t think we know it all, that we have it in our grasp.  It can slip away from us easily, mystify us, frustrate us–maybe even offend us.

And perhaps that’s as it should be.

And now the school year can begin.

I’m the seminary chapel coordinator this year.  That may sound like a big deal, but it’s not, really. The majority of my role is simply to lead chapels, make sure that there is music and someone to read scripture. Speaker scheduling is done by someone else.  My biggest responsibility, however, is planning day of prayer (which is technically 3 hours of prayer, but never mind).

Day of prayer is finished now.  It was a good day. A really good day.

But what a lot of preparatory work! I’ve been able to focus on little else since the school year started. I’m a little behind in reading and I have some assignments due on Friday.

The lesson learned (or re-learned) in all this is that I can’t please everyone.  This is a lesson that needs to be hammered home to me, because I want to make everyone happy.  That wasn’t what the day was about, of course, but in preparation I wanted to be sensitive to the variety of people we have in our school.

Let me get specific. The day was structured around the Lord’s Prayer and for the portion related to “Forgive us our sins…”, I thought communion would be appropriate.  I asked a professor here who was recently ordained to the Anglican priesthood to preside over the service. I didn’t know at the time that his vows gave him liturgical boundaries, which meant that he would have to use the Anglican eucharistic liturgy.  This was actually quite fitting–I was already borrowing material from the Book of Alternative Services before I asked him, and the day included a variety of responsive prayers and scripture readings.

But here was the issue: the priest preferred to serve wine in a common cup.  We are an interdenominational school and so there are a variety of approaches to and opinions about communion.  It may just be the vestiges of my upbringing in a conservative community of (theoretically) teetotalers, but I was sensitive to the possibility of some people attending the day of prayer might be offended by the use of wine.

So I spent much mental energy coming up with an approach that could include both wine and juice as an alternative, without creating an ideological divide at the ceremony (and undoing one of the central elements of the Eucharist).  After further discussion with the priest, he reminded me that to be truly interdenominational (which our seminary is) is not to pretend that all the church traditions are the same and therefore make up a sort of hybrid communion service that covers all the denominational bases (e.g. wine and juice); neither is it to resort to the lowest common denominator and just go with the least potential to offend (e.g. juice only).  Instead, to be truly interdenominational means to respect recognize each tradition for what it is and what it offers.

There is no position here which does not have the potential to offend. As my brother noted, to some traditions a communion service that serves juice isn’t much of a communion service at all.  (And, quite frankly, there is nothing about the Eucharist that says that cannot or should not offend. The very nature of the Eucharist and its liturgy is offensive in some sense–sin, the need for forgiveness, etc.)

So we went with the full-on Anglican Eucharist–common cup, wine and all.  We are an interdenominational school, I said today, and we have a growing number of faculty and students who are Anglican, so today we will have an Anglican communion service.

There are a number of other ways  to look at the situation. For instance, one could say that we are an interdenominational school and this day of prayer is not an Anglican day of prayer and so we should have a communion service in which everyone can partake of the elements in good conscience.  This a valid approach, but no more valid that the “truly interdenominational” approach that we went with.

Others might say that we should go with the juice for the sake of the “weaker brother or sister” of which the Apostle Paul writes.  But this is not, in my estimation, a “weaker brother” situation.

So we had an Anglican communion service as a part of our day of prayer, and it was very good. I don’t think we had anyone not participate in some way–apparently one person abstained from taking the elements, but came up for a blessing.

In the end, I think this was more an issue with me than anyone else.  I am not a teetotaler, but I had to wrestle with the notion of how to approach this potentially sensitive issue as well as with my own concerns about “what people might think.”

Next semester I will be planning another day of prayer, and we will likely do something different again.

It was a very good day.

And now I can start thinking about assignments again.  And hope and pray that I don’t crash and get really sick.

The Lord helps those…

I’ve dived (dove? doven?) right into my reading for this semester.  The first book I started is Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (a mouthful with the subtitle).  It’s written from a sociological perspective and one of the chapters deals with the fact that, among other things, Christianity was able to mobilize a human response to epidemics in a way that pagan religion was not able to.

What was new and different about Christianity was the “notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural” and that “because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please  God unless they love one another” (86).  Emperor Julian–not a fan of Christianity–noted the benevolence of Christians and wanted pagans to at least match this activity, “but for all that he urged pagan priests to match these Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.  It was not that Romans knew nothing of charity, but that it was not based on service to the gods” (88). The pagans mostly fled the cities to save themselves from epidemics; Christians stayed in the cities and cared not only for their own but also for those sick pagans who had been left behind.

There were, in Stark’s view, a number of implications to this Christian charity which contributed to the rapid rise of the faith, but that’s another matter (though an interesting one).  However, this particular passage struck me:

I suggest reading the following passage from Matthew (25:35-40) as if for the very first time, in order to gain insight into the power of this new morality when it was new, not centuries later in more cynical and worldly times:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.

When the New Testament was new, these were the norms of the Christian communities. Tertullian [one of the church “fathers”] claimed: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'” (87)

This immediately put in mind of the relatively recent brouhaha over universal medicare in the U.S. Run from your church if they talk about social gospel!, says Glenn Beck (inexplicably the new spokesperson for what appears to be much of the Christian right).  What is the social gospel?  As far as I can tell, these words of Jesus in Matthew are the essence of the social gospel. And it comes from the mouth of Jesus!

How it is that the “Christian right” came to oppose the notion of universal healthcare is beyond me.  It seems to me that they ought to be the ones who most strongly support it.  I’m not suggesting that state sponsored medicare is a biblical mandate.  What is a biblical mandate is care for those who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned and what have you.  The state steps in because Christians are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Somebody needs to heed Jesus’ words.

It would be one thing if the Christian right opposed universal healthcare on the grounds that they wanted to provide it instead of the Joe and Jane Taxpayer, but from what I can gather those within the church who opposed universal healthcare are not afraid of the government shuffling into their territory.  At least, not the territory of taking care of orphans and widows in their distress.  But the territory of tax dollars and the American dream?  Yes.  After all, God helps those who help themselves, it says somewhere in Hezekiah.

It scares me to think that many Christians seems to be drifting away from this “notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural”.

Grace is not a transaction

Linda once again asks a question that has dogged me for some years:

The crucial question is “What about making a decision?”

This is the manner in which I have always heard the gospel presented. But what does it mean? That by OUR decision something is accomplished?

She then refers to Ephesians 2:4-8, in which Paul writes that even while we were dead in our sins Christ made us alive with Christ–not through our own efforts, but as a gift.  Similarly, she quotes Romans 5:10, which says something similar.  She notes:

I am not saying that choosing, believing, and repenting (turning your life) are not vitally significant. They determine the way in which you experience (continue to experience) salvation and life in the kingdom as a daily lived reality.

…It is the gift of God. Grace is not a transaction.

There are 46 comments on the post.  I haven’t read them all, but from what I did read there was a helpful, friendly conversation about what she said.

Who are the exceptions?

Wow.  I’m not sure how this woman (Linda at Kingdom Grace) got into my head and then took what she found there and made it so beautiful and succint:

This might be kind of quirky, but I really am enamored with this topic.  For over a year now,  it has been like a shiny object that I hold in my hand or pocket and take out frequently to admire, study, and enjoy.  I am not sure if the fascination is because it is new to me or if it is just inherently fascinating.  Anyway, I appreciate the people in my real life and on the blog who humor me in my latest obsession.

So what did Jesus accomplish in his death and resurrection?

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Romans 5:18)

One has died for all, therefore all have died. (II Cor. 5:14)

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5)

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (I Cor. 15:21-22)

Who are the exceptions to “all”?

Just as death spread to all men through Adam, in Christ we all died and we have all been raised into new life.  We weren’t consulted about this.

The gospel has never been about qualifying people for salvation, it is about letting them know the really good news . . . that they are already loved and embraced by the Father. (Link)

(I posted something similar by Bonhoeffer earlier.)

Why ought we believe?

Today this question came to mind: “Why do we believe in Christ?”*

My childhood answer would have been, “So that I can go to heaven.”  I think that continues to be the answer of many mature Christians as well.  Maybe the answer would be more nuanced–something like, “Because he died for me/my sins.”  Or perhaps someone might answer, “Because I love him.”  But with a follow-up question–“Why do you love him?”–things are likely to end up in the same place: “Because he died for me/my sins.” However it is phrased, often it ultimately boils down to avoiding consequences.

I’m starting to think that a better or possibly more accurate answer ought to be, “Because he is Lord.”  It seems to me that the difference between the two answers is subtle but important.  To say, “Because he died for me,” is in a way a self-interested answer, because my primary motivation is the consequence (salvation or damnation), not the person.  Conversely, the primary motivation for believing “Because he is Lord,” is the person of Jesus.  This seems to be the New Testament answer as well.

You might say that “Because he died for me/my sins” is an egocentric answer, whereas “Because he is Lord” is a Christocentric answer. The difference between “Because he died for me/my sins” and “Because he is Lord” is the difference between what might be (in my own interest) and what is (regardless of my own interests).

This is why it is important that in Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Jesus is saviour whether people believe it or not. Jesus as Saviour and Lord is a fact not contingent on my believing it or your believing it.  This, according to Bonhoeffer, is ultimate reality. He is Lord–I can choose to believe it or I can choose to ignore or deny it, but that’s the way it is regardless of my choice.

So for Bonhoeffer spreading the Gospel or sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ is not about presenting people with what might be and then having them actualize this potential through a choice of belief or non-belief.  Instead, evangelism (or proclamation, which is apparently the more Bonhoefferian term for it) is simply about pointing people to the way things are.

This is also, I think, why theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (to name the three I’ve spent some time with this year), who all have a highly Christocentric theology, all at least tend towards supporting some form of universal salvation (through Christ).  Because for these theologians it is ultimately about who Jesus is rather than what might become of me.  Of course, what becomes of me comes into the picture somewhere along the line, but that is still ultimately an outworking of who Christ is. No matter how you look at it, Christ is the centre.

I feel like I could transition into some of my reflections on this past year which I presented in church a couple of weeks ago as a part of our “The Spirit Speaks in Community” series. I reflected on the impact of “faith of Christ” vs. “faith inChrist” in Galatians 2 on my own thinking on the subject.  However, a) people tend not to read overly long posts, and b) I need to crunch those thoughts down into a post-sized form. So this post is, in a way, to be continued…

_______________________

*I suppose another way to frame the topic is to ask, “What is the essence of the Gospel?” but this is the way it came to mind today.

David Bentley Hart on “The New Atheists”

David Bentley Hart has written a rather searingly critical essay on “The New Atheists” (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris). He laments the loss of the true skeptic of yesteryear (such as Hume, Neitzche, et al) and the shallowness of the New Atheists.

It’s a very long essay.  But from what I can tell, Hart is a master of the English language. The article is worth reading for that reason alone.

… a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

…As a rule, the New Atheists’ concept of God is simply that of some very immense and powerful being among other beings, who serves as the first cause of all other things only in the sense that he is prior to and larger than all other causes. That is, the New Atheists are concerned with the sort of God believed in by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Deists. Dawkins, for instance, even cites with approval the old village atheist’s cavil that omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible because a God who infallibly foresaw the future would be impotent to change it—as though Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so forth understood God simply as some temporal being of interminable duration who knows things as we do, as external objects of cognition, mediated to him under the conditions of space and time.

There are a number of books in this category I ought to read, including both Hawkins’ (The God Delusion) and Hitchens’ (God is Not Great).  But those should be read together with Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate and Hart’s recently released The Atheist Delusion.

Will I get to any of those books any time soon? Alas, it is unlikely.