Faith Formation

The Mystagogy of Easter: According to what Reality Do We Live?

Mystagogy for the Third Week of Easter: The Meaning of God’s Union with Humanity

(For the first in this Easter mystagogy series see The Doubt of Thomas the Twin)

We are encouraged in the texts for the third Sunday of Easter to revel in the joyful astonishment of the Resurrection and to ecstatically contemplate the amazing work of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Gospel of Luke we remain on that first Easter day, with the Twelve and the disciples of Jesus in that upper room.

Now that we see and have passed through the waters of baptism and have died and been risen with Christ, we see two things:  1) This is an amazing thing and  is contrary to what we would expect and 2) it is what God had always set out to do and has been part of God’s revelation and what the witnesses to this revelation have consistently been saying.  Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the Scriptures and Hebrew prophets.  Moses, the writings and prophets all anticipated what is unexpected and astounding.

These two things show us that only after the incarnation passion and resurrection can we then read the Scriptures in the fullness of God’s self-revelation, and enter God’s saving and loving work in the cosmos form all time.  If we look and interpret the world and the Scriptures from without the vantage point of Jesus of Nazareth we see a very different world and hear a different word, read a different text.

This is a source of the joy and awe of the Resurrection: without the Resurrection and prior to the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the universe and the human condition makes sense but leads one to only death and futility (“vanity”).  While this understanding leads the Church to affirm witness to God’s revelation in the particularity of the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, this biological identity isn’t a guarantee of hearing God’s revelation. The church has also affirmed that human reflection and contemplation on God and the cosmos has encountered something of God.  And on the level of needing completion God’s theophanies among and self-revelation to the particular people of Israel and the human attempts to know and understanding the divine share a similarity in that such understanding of God is only completed or fulfilled in Jesus Christ the incarnation of God.

This is a further mystery the fullness of God found in Jesus Christ doesn’t impart knew knowledge , rather the fullness of God in Jesus Christ becomes a way to see all knowledge,  and understanding of  God.

The mystery we wrestle with now after – after Jesus’ Resurrection and ascension, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after our baptism- is that after is often much like before.

What makes the difference?  This is our awe. Nothing is erased, not even the suffering of God the Son. Rather it is all taken up into God, and thus sin and our separation are transformed.  What makes the difference is only the incarnation of God the Son as Jesus of Nazareth. We live either in the awareness of this reality or the reality of the universe before the incarnation, before the union of God and humanity and all creation.  We can see the world and in seeing experience the world in very radically different ways, one of true liberation and one of bondage and futile struggle.

This is the meaning of the Resurrection, there is a new way to be in the universe, and there is a new way of being for all of creation.  The created, physical, and human order is now united to God,  reconciled to God.  The logic of this way of being is life that has passed through and overcome death and futility.

We can still be blind to this, we can still fail to understand and see that God, in Jesus of Nazareth, accomplished a new thing. But if we commit to the path of theosis, to living in the Resurrection, we live in the age to come and no longer need to be bound to the age that was and is now passing away, but is still here bound to sin and death.

The Mystagogy of Easter : The Doubt of Thomas the Twin

The lectionary each season of Easter brings us back to the same texts. Lent has a similar structure but there is a little more variation between each year in the three year cycle, while for Easter we read the same  passages from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John.

This all is related to Baptism: preparing for the waters of Baptism at Easter and then unpacking the meaning of living in our new life given at baptism.  The teaching that prepares one for baptism is called catechesis and the teaching of the meaning of the baptismal life is called mystagogy, teaching about what had remained hidden before one gained sight in the waters of baptism.  We must learn to see.

The texts for the Second Sunday of Easter direct us to sight and touch.  The author of the epistle of John claims that the reality he is speaking of and witnessing to is what he and the other apostles not only saw but handled. And of course the Apostle Thomas famously says I will not believe unless I touch the wound in his side and holes in his hands.

We can get caught up in Thomas’ doubt.  When so many Christians act so very certain, Thomas becomes the patron saint of those who aren’t always so sure.  This use of  this story of the Resurrection of Christ allows many to have the faith of Thomas in the face of the absolutism in which doubt is seen as akin to darkness and thus a sign of God’s absence in a distorted interpretation of 1 John 1:7.  Yet, we shouldn’t settle into the comfort of this interpretation, which still focuses on the doubt rather than the encounter.

1 John 1 is about the tangibility of the truth which the Twelve Apostles handed on and which has come down to us.  They saw and handled.  Thomas, an Apostle needs to handle his faith. While, Jesus’ words of blessing to those who believe without the tangibility given to the Twelve and the disciples, still affirms that we have faith in  something that was visible and tangible: that is in the physical and not just ethereal, spiritual or psychological, but something that affects the whole of us and the universe.

1 John 1 expands upon the story of Thomas the Twin: It invites us into faith beyond mere assent.  We misread the testimony of the epistle of John if we think it says just accept what I say because I say I handled and saw.  No, this witness of seeing and handling is an invitation into the tangibility of the faith of the Church, the Body of Christ.  We are invited into the actualization of the Blessing Christ bestows on those who will hear Thomas’s story and his encounter with the Risen body of Jesus Christ, still bearing the wounds of his passion.  This is real, no fantasy, no story to make us feel better, so in a sense there’s no point to go along with it all if one has never had the encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

If someone tells me they don’t believe because they have never encountered God, or experienced the reality of Christ (and especially if they say this as one who had been formerly a Christian as one assenting to belief), I think of Thomas, and I say yes, there is nothing I can say to you – mere assent to belief you haven’t encountered isn’t the faith of the Church.  All I can do is witness to my own encounter within the realm of the faith of the Church that has been handed down from Thomas the Twin and the other eleven Apostles, who handled and saw this mystery. Through their witness handed down for centuries I too have handled and seen.

Good Friday: Just another day in Post-Christendom

Yesterday, I had an appointment with someone, in the conversation my being pastor came up (it wasn’t about anything church or religiously affiliated), but that we met on Maundy Thursday, nor that today was Good Friday came up in the conversation.  The person whom I met seemed to have no sense that I as a Western Christian was in the midst of our high holy days, and that Sunday was Easter.

As I traveled to the Oratory’s Maundy Thursday service with a member of the Oratory, the business of the City was unchanged, people coming home from work as any other day.  I went out briefly today and the feeling is the same.  This week I’m running on a different time than many of those who are about me.  In this post Christian and post-Christendom world we have these strange remnants like Christmas, and people talk about the war on Christmas, and of course the Media has been putting out the requisite biblical or Jesus stories (though even that seems less prevalent this year, than in past years.)

This isn’t a complaint.  But it does feel like I’m going about this celebration in secret. Part of this is that the week has been less intense for me since, the Oratory will only have held a Maundy Thursday service.  We are going together to other congregations for Good Friday and for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday services.  I have more time to see that many others, some of whom may be Christian aren’t as taken up in to this the central holiday of Holy Week and the Three Days.  I’m also more attuned I guess that for many Easter Sunday will come and that will be that.  The center of our faith will be a blip on events that fill up their lives.  That this is so for the Christmas and Easter crowd is fine, what I find more problematic is when due to a variety of factors otherwise committed Christians won’t take the time to sit with the passion, death and Insurrection of Christ.

Even so, I understand.  This week has, as I said above, has been less focused then in previous years where we had a dramatic liturgy of Palm?Passion Sunday with Palms and processions and dramatic reading of the passion Gospel, and having the full three days celebrated with one or two other congregations.  This year I will be celebrating the three days but this week hasn’t been so consuming.

This isn’t a complaint. There is something of a truth in that Holy Week seems to be something barely noticed and passing by without remark.

What God did in Jesus of Nazareth isn’t obvious.  What was happening on that Friday in ancient Roman occupied Palestine, was just another execution of yet another failed resistance to Roman rule.  Yet another “messiah” crucified.  Move along and make a few snarky comments, nothing more, life goes on.

Tonight, I along with many other Christians will adore this once common implement of execution.  Granted it has other symbolic resonances, yet at base we adore tonight what should have been failure and the end of the story. We do something strange, because what we adore is hidden from view. The significance of these three days is almost to common, or rather like a treasure hiden in a field, it isn’t obvious or remarkable on the surface.

This is just another day, nothing special, life will go on.  Yet, we assert something remarkable happened and happens.  Something slowly is transforming the ordinary into something more, revealing the inner beauty and reality of the ordinary as what is quite extra-ordinary. And this began in a torture and death of one particular human being, a seemingly unremarkable and ordinary human being on the edge of a great empire over 2000 years ago.

 

The Remnants of Christendom among Revivalists and Pietists

Recently it has come to light that Holly Hobby Lobby who posed in a photo with automatic riffle in one hand and the bible in the other, proclaiming her love of God, country, guns, and “family values,” had an adulterous affair with a video editor fo the Tea Party News.  hollyfisherI’m not surprised.  Not because I think all Tea Party members and conservatives are hypocrites but because this person’s Christianity is a remnant of common sort of Christianity in Christendom.

More to the point, I’m not surprised because Holly Hobby Lobby’s Christianity, at the height of Christendom, would have been seen by many (including my forebears) at most as a place to begin the call to conversion and repentance. We don’t often talk about how Christendom functioned to keep people in the orbit  of the Church and Gospel (granted with other less positive effects).  Without Christendom revivalist and pietist call to conversion would have been meaningless.

Excursus: “Church” is a tricky term, and discussions of this sort often fail to define the term.  For the purposes of this post I’m combining a sacramental and pietist understanding of Church. Thus Church is both an entity, the Body of Christ, that transcends time and space and made up of the baptized as the body of Christ, and this body of Christ is best identified by those who are truly converted by and to Christ.  And while were at it: I see “Christendom” as the cultural, societal and political space where the religion of Christianity is dominant and provides a cultural and political supportive environment for the Church. I see the case of Holly Hobby Lobby as a way to flesh out these two definitions in a time of post-Christendom.

Let me give an account of Church, Christianity and Christendom, from a pietist perspective, and specifically Lutheran pietism.  In Lutheran Christendom, as in most forms of Christendom, the state made Christendom possible through making citizenship and being Christian equivalent. In Lutheran Christendom to be Christian was to be Lutheran. ( I know your hackles are all up, but lets let this be a lesson in history for now.)  Pietists tell the story of the State sponsored Christianity as a dead Christianity.  Pietism is in part a critique of dead dogma, and lifeless faith.  As we tell it, Pietists came along and brought the vitality of the Gospel and encounter with God into dead Lutheran orthodoxy.  What this early negative evaluation of Christendom doesn’t recognize is the ways in which Christendom and Christianity of  Lutheran Orthodoxy and State church brought people into the orbit of conversion and encounter with Christ, which then the Pietists could offer.  Pietism fails to recognize it’s own dependence upon Christendom.  Because of Christendom (and that means also dead orthodoxy)  Pietist didn’t have to explain who Jesus Christ was, nor who the God of Jesus Christ was and is.  In the Lutheran state churches since to be a citizen was to be a Christian, one had to know the catechism, the creed, and Lords Prayer.  We pietists, to use the tired phrase, brought head knowledge into the heart, but without Christendom, and the role of the state in making it’s citizens Christian, there would have been know mere “head” knowledge of the Gospel, God , and Christ.

 Pietist and other revivalist Christian groups in Christendom assumed and made use of the common cultural religious assumptions of being Christian, and called  conversion what was, from one point of view,  simply a deepening the Christian commitment and faith of the Christian citizens of Christendom.

What happens then when the fabric of cultural assumptions of Christendom are in tatters or non-existent, and a certain group of Christians, and Christian leaders, still seek to claim that to truly be a citizen of a particular state, one should claim a Christian heritage?  My answer is you get people like Holly Hobby Lobby, who through their own actions show they haven’t a clue what being a member of the Church is truly about, let alone what it would mean to follow Jesus Christ or to have the Mind of Christ, as we Pietists might say.

Granted in the United States Christendom was perpetuated and created through less overt political means.  In the U.S. Christendom was the result of cooperation between various Christian groups that came to be understood as denominations.  So, we still need to account for how we went from Revivalists and Pietists calling for deep commitment and conversion to Holly Hobby Lobby’s identity without conversion and change of being and mind.holly-fisher From the revivalist and “evangelical” view the culturally established and powerful denominations represented the domain of dead and nominal Christianity, as long as these “dead” denominations, the “mainline”, were willing to do the work of maintaining Christendom (if one wonders what I’m talking about a remnant of this reality is still found in the denominational affiliations of the United States Congress, and that oaths are still made upon the Bible).*  As the dominant mainline denominations began to embrace a more secular and pluralist view of the U.S. slowly abandoning Christendom (most likely unwittingly, or so puzzlement over their loss of relevance indicates) Revivalist and Pietist denominations were gaining ascendancy and began to take up the mantle of preserving Christendom, that is America as a “Christian nation.”  It’s not surprising then, that some members of these denominations would come to assume Christian identity as a heritage, and not as a break with the dead identity of the Christian citizen.

Revivalist and Pietist Christian language has now been put to use in shoring up Christendom.  Strangely then conversion for some results in being passionately patriotic.  Before the mainline abandoned Christendom, the revivalists and pietist could leave aside the question of Christian identity and American identity. We could call to conversion and new life in Christ, and such calls wouldn’t necessarily call into question ones American Citizenship nor even have to challenge patriotism. Christendom benefited from more vibrant faith as long as such a faith wasn’t too radical in questioning of the equivalence of citizen and Christian (we know such groups as the Anabaptist or the radical reformers, Mennonites, the Brethren and Society of Friends (Quakers) were seen as trouble makers.).  However, the pietist faith didn’t need to couch itself in patriotic trappings, since cultural assumptions of the Christendom had that covered.  If conversion led some to take up activism to correct the ills in society, well these reformers were working for a better Christians society that all tacitly agreed was a good thing (not to deny that these pietist and revivalist reformers were at times opposed, often by members and leaders of the “mainline”.)

Back to Holly Hobby Lobby: Such a form of Christianity comes out of a pietist and revivalist faith become guardian of Christendom. However, as such it is no different from the “dead faith” of Lutheran orthodoxy. My forbears would recognized it for what it is, at best the beginning, the spiritual space in which the call to conversion could take hold, at worst it is a dead, useless, and hypocritical faith.  As such Such a Christianity can hardly be called faith, and can’t claim to know much if anything of the Mind of Christ or the Church.

* Also, I can’t recommend highly enough Martin E. Marty’s book Righteous Empire: the Protestant experience in America for one account of this reality before and during the Modernist/Fundamentalist split and before the Mainline abandoned Christendom to support a more pluralist and secularist societal fabric. 

12 Chapters on Listening and Being Right

Ed. note: after publishing this I recognized  the genre .  It’s the ancient Christian genre of writing on the spiritual life in “chapters”: short paragraphs over which one is too linger in contemplation as one reads but which together form a sustained reflection on a topic.  I’ve now numbered the paragraphs and revised the title of the blog post to reflect this realization.  However, I do not claim to match the wisdom of those who mastered this genre.

1) Listening is a key piece to the cure of souls.  As various controversies rage and people dismiss others views, I believe listening becomes even more important, listening to those who may say things that one finds offensive or even dangerous.

2) Not everyone is in the place to do such listening.  And not every thing said is worth being heard.

3) But listening from the perspective of Spiritual Direction and the Cure of souls isn’t about validation or agreement. Listening in such a view also isn’t about letting one person simply rage or lash out.

4) The listening I’m talking about is giving space to questions.  It is also giving space so that genuine sentiment, faith, and experience can come to the fore.

5) In the Cure of souls it is also listening for the voice of God, in the floundering words of the one speaking.  This spiritual act of care is listening for the lacunae, the gap, the fissure that shows a contradiction, the place of the spiritual illness or blockage in a person’s life.

6) In  listening one can’t seek to make one’s own point or convince the other of the truth.

7) Listening is then an act bounded in love between the one speaking and the one listening.

8) Listening also means responding,  reflecting back, taking time to hear what the other may not hear in their own words.  Listening is interactive, its a negotiation, where the Holy Spirit plays a key and necessary role of illuminating and reviving the soul

9) Listening is seeking the truth through clearing a space where a soul may be lead into the truth by the Holy Spirit.  Listening is being willing to give oneself up to the work of the Spirit.

10) This sort of listening means each time one enters this clearing, one begins again.  Previous conclusions are held lightly, so that the truth of the soul may continue to emerge and come to light.

11) This listening in the cure of souls is the continual abandonment of the sense of having come to the right conclusions and being right so that relationship may emerge and thus the health and wholeness of the soul with whom one sits before God may come to completion and perfection.

12) Listening is accompaniment on the journey of the soul, so that the soul on her journey will have a relationship with, and remain in relationship to the source of life.

Spiritual Gifts, the Holy Spirit and our Abilities

For Pentecost I preached this sermon.  The sermon emphasizes a certain aspect of Spiritual gifts: namely that they aren’t equivalent to things we do well or like to do.  For instance you don’t have the Spiritual gift of Hospitality because you like to and are good at throwing parties.  To put it another way, having a spiritual gift isn’t the same as being ‘gifted’, as in having a native talent or ability to do X above and beyond other human beings general ability to do X.  What I preached is that Spiritual gifts are about receiving something that isn’t part of one’s native ability or natural inclinations.   The gifting of the Holy Spirit gives us that which take us beyond ourselves.

I have a problem with my sermon: What is summarized above is only part of the story.  Since I was trying to get people to connect with the divine presence in themselves, that stream of water spoken of by Jesus in The Gospel of John, I didn’t explore the connection between our native abilities and gifts and the abilities and gifts received from the divine presence in us, the Holy Spirit.  The only hint I gave that I believed there was some connection between our personal abilities and gifts and the gifts of the Spirit was to emphasize a couple of times that according to Paul gifts were given to each individually.

In my sermon I was seeking  a corrective:  we at times too easily equate a desire or propensity towards something to be our Spiritual gift. Yet,  if take seriously the account of Pentecost in Acts and Paul’s argument in Corinthians the point of being gifted by the Spirit isn’t an aspect of our own effort or ability.  In a sense speaking in tongues and gifts of healing are obvious and thus quintessential Spiritual gifts.  Other Spiritual gifts like hospitality or even discernment could also simply be natural ability or bent, though Paul also speaks of  these as Spiritual gifts.

I didn’t bring it up in my sermon (sermons are limited like that) that I do believe there is a needed discernment of the connection between what has been gifted to us from the Spirit, our personhood and our native abilities and inclinations as persons.

What might be the nature of this discernment?  There are a few things I’d suggest we need to keep in mind and pray about when we have the question of what gifts we have received.

1) As the baptized we have been given the Holy Spirit, in meditation and prayer seeking that flow of life in us is a place to begin.  In this discerning meditation and prayer where in your life, in interactions with others, do you see life springing up both in yourself and in others.  The metaphor of streams of living water for the presence and gifting of the Spirit is to direct our attention to the unexpected places we find life springing up like well watered plants.

2) The Holy Spirit chooses, the Apostle tells us, but also that the Holy Spirit gives to each individually.  While the focus of our gifts isn’t on our native abilities, that the Holy Spirit is God in us and the one who can articulate our deepest longings and desires before God in prayer (Romans 8:26) means that our personality and talents aren’t ignored in the giving of gifts by the Spirit.  I suggest that in discerning one’s gifting one is looking in that space between who you are and the edge of your abilities and inclinations.  This could mean that a gifting of the Spirit takes a natural ability and takes it beyond what one is able to do, or it may offer a means to do something consistent with ones personality but to do something that doesn’t come easy. For instance praying in tongues can be for an extrovert that way to be silent before God and wordless prayer with words, that is a means to meditate for someone who may find regular wordless prayer temperamentally challenging.

3) Paul does connect desire and receiving of gifts.  When in prayer and meditation seeking to know one’s gifting is to seek those places of ones desire.  What do we long for?  Paul seems to even show that in seeking to know the gift one has received that we are to desire certain gifts.  We may find that we aren’t given what we initially desire, again Spiritual gifts do take us beyond ourselves.  Yet, in allowing ourselves to desire good things, which all spiritual gifts are, is key to becoming aware of the gift we have been given by the Spirit.

4) This will require discernment, and talking it out with others whom one trusts.  Spiritual gifts aren’t for our private and personal enrichment, they are how we are to Spiritually relate to other members of the Body of Christ, and the way in which God seeks to bring life to the World.  Therefore the feed back of those close to one: Spiritual counselors and friends are key in discerning what gift one has received.  Again those who are close to us are part of who we are as persons and individuals, they will be able to tell you how they see you fitting together in the Body of Christ.

As I grew in the faith and found my way into the ordered ministry, much of the above discernment happened for me informally and implicitly. Though ordered ministry and office is a different but related thing to the Spiritual gifts, gifting and office also aren’t completely separate.  But that is another post, and a topic that I’m still unclear on myself.  My point though is that this discernment will take time, it also may not always be obvious, or in the moment of a specific conversation where one asks another for feedback on Spiritual gifts.  This process can be those small bits of affirmation, someone  pointing out something one did that one wasn’t even aware one was doing.  There is something organic and fluid to this process, not mechanical or procedural.  And this shouldn’t be surprising because it is about receiving and being the conduit of abundant life, those streams of living water.

 

 

Further reflections on fasting and Lent

As I mentioned in this previous post, I’m a novice when it comes to fasting.  Other spiritual practices I’m much more adept at and find much more congenial.  Since this Lenten fast has been one I’m practicing with the church communities I lead The Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler and the Community of the Holy Trinity  fasting has come up in conversation this Lent.

One common thought I’ve run across in these various conversations is that  the point of fasting is endurance.  Fasting is a contest of ones will, and certainly it is that in part.  One could read certain passages of scripture and the desert fathers that do compare asceticism to a type of athleticism, I’d still argue that the point isn’t the endurance.  More to the point endurance is only part of what ascetic practices are about.

Specifically fasting is about awareness that allows us to strengthen or reorient our relationships.  This isn’t obvious.  I’ve discovered that in fasting I become aware of all sorts of things, some of them trivial, some of them significant.  Having good relationships, with our loved ones, with God, with our bodies and what we eat takes awareness.  In our daily life, our ordinary day in and day out habits can deaden us to certain aspects of our lives and relationships.

Now to gain an awareness of the connections and our good and sinful relationships to things and other, one has to endure.  But if one’s focus is upon enduring the hunger, or the abstinence from certain foods, one misses the opportunity to examine what other hungers and desires are also stirred up in one’s self.  Fasting allows us as I said in that other post at the beginning of Lent, to examine our desires.  This is why fasting should be accompanied with prayer and meditation.

But there is even a more.  Since Lent is a penitential season we can see this asceticism as merely the rooting out of sin or evil.  But again if this is our focus we will be frustrated, and only partly effective. What fasting allows is for us to be aware of what good we desire.  The problem isn’t with desire or hunger but that we sometimes desire or hunger for what is ultimately undesirable.

Here, the current secular practice of a vegetable juice fast brings home this spiritual reality.  Part of the point of the juice fast is not only to detoxify (root out sin by analogy) but also to reset what one desires in food, so that one’s hunger actually will satisfy what your body needs.(by analogy fasting can teach us to desire the Good, and find that we truly desire God.)

I’ve said the above is an analogy.  Yet, I’d suggest that spiritual and bodily processes aren’t so separate.  What happens in our body when we fast is also happening to us spiritually, in our souls.  We fast and take up ascetic bodily disciplines not because our souls and bodies are who we are.  At times we need recalibration.  Our hungers and desires are a mismatch of good, mediocre, and evil.  Lent becomes a time to realign ourselves and our relationships to food, to things and to each other.  A basic and primordial way to do this is in our relationship to food, and so we fast.  With prayer and meditation such fasting during Lent can truly lead us to a joyful seasons of Easter where we can find our true desires restored, and find that we simply don’t have the appetite for the mediocre and evil.

Why Fast?

Lent is a time of fasting.  The patterns of fasting for most Christians in the united States today aren’t about complete abstinence from food, at least not in Lent.  Thus, “giving something up for Lent.”

I confess that I’m not good at fasting.  The spiritual disciplines I gravitate towards are meditation, solitude, Lectio Divina (alone and in groups), and retreats.  Some of these practices are suited and come easy for an introvert, for instance solitude, and spiritual retreats.  Fasting is just difficult, especially a complete fast from any food. I don’t feel I fast well.  I often just am aware of what I’m not eating. It’s difficult to get to the spiritual benefit of fasting.

Fasting might be that for most people.  This is probably why we seek to fast by refraining from only certain foods or even apply this to refraining from certain activities in Lent.  One can quibble with me about whether giving things up for Lent should be properly understood as fasting, but I would still argue the practice is rooted in seeing Lent as a time for fasting.

But why fast at all?  What are we doing when we abstain from some or all foods or certain activities for a period of time?  

Part of the reason we fast is that orthodox and catholic Christian spirituality is an embodied spirituality.  We fast because we are embodied and our bodies matter for our spirituality.

But one may wonder at this: How is it that refraining from food something we need as bodies, an affirmation of our being bodies?  This touches upon this sermon on desire and temptation.  We can have un-reflective or possibly unhelpful relationship towards what we need to live.  Jesus responds to the temptation to turn rocks into bread with “People don’t live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4b TNIV)  This isn’t a denial of the need for food, but an affirmation of where our sustenance and life truly comes from, God.  Fasting through limiting or abstaining from food altogether is a way to affirm a trust in God, who is the source of all life.

The spiritual discipline of fasting has analogous end to what someone is seeking to do in a vegetable juice fast.  In a vegetable juice fast you are seeking to reboot your body and it’s desire for certain foods and to clean out one’s system.  The idea is that, especially in our context of highly processed foods and high dependence on animal products, dairy, and meat for our sustenance, our desire for certain foods is out of whack and that especially due to processed foods we need to detox ourselves.  For some this is the first step towards a vegan diet for others a means to re-calibrate and detox.  In both cases it is to reorient ones desires towards a more healthy pattern of eating and retrain your body to desire truly health giving foods.  This happens both physically and spiritually when we orient a fast towards our relationship with God.

This can also be the spiritual result of fasting.  Through fasting we become aware of our desires, possibly how they may be misguided, and we can through this bodily discipline let God reorient our desires, taking our hunger or our cravings for certain foods as an opportunity to examine what we desire and why before God.  

Personally, I also find that my compassion for those who may have little to eat around the world and in our midst can increase in  fasting.  When fasting I find myself being keenly aware of all the restaurants and convenience stores, and snack shops that are all around. Things, I often pass by without notice.  Fasting then can lead to a compassionate engagement with food, abundance, and hunger.  Through fasting we can allow our chosen hunger to orient our awareness of hunger in the world.

I know of some who fast who will take the money they did not spend on a particular meal, or on food they would have otherwise purchased and donate the money to a food pantry in their area or to an organization working on addressing hunger and starvation around the world. 

These are just some beginning thoughts on why we fast.  Thoughts from one who is a novice at fasting.

What are your experiences with fasting? Why do you fast?  How have you met God in fasting?  is fasting a spiritual discipline you are drawn towards?

The place of intimacy with God in life and worship

Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz  has recently made a stir admitting he rarely attends church and when he does he doesn’t really get much out of it.

Miller says he can worship God in other ways, and other means of intimacy with God suit him better than the corporate worship of a local congregation on a Sunday (morning).    He assumes a few things about worship:  any form of worship serves the same purpose as any other form of worship. Therefore, as long as you have something in your life you can call worship you are in a spiritually good place.  He assumes worship is about learning about God. He assumes that worship is about intimacy with God.  There are a few of problems with these assumptions.

There is a deficient ecclesiology that underlies these assumptions, which isn’t the focus of this post but will eventually post something here.

 Another problem is that “worship” is a catch-all term for anything that brings you close to God, or provides you with an intimacy with God.  A view of worship that focuses on  intimacy with God, does not jive easily with images of heavenly worship of God found in Isaiah and Apocalypse/Revelation of St John, nor does it easily jive with Ezekiel’s Vision of God on the move with the four living creatures.  These biblical descriptions of worshipful meeting God aren’t intimate affairs.   To be fair, the worship that Donald miller is talking about hardly if at all reflects these biblical accounts of heavenly worship at the throne. I dare say few if any in these churches think that in their worship they are before God at the Throne with the twenty-four Elder’s and the four living creatures, and the seraphim and cherubim, but maybe they should.

I don’t mean to say that intimacy with God is unimportant or that all “worship” must be earthshaking, psyche rending, overwhelming with mind bending beauty and awe described by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Saint John the Apostle (though we probably need more of that kind of worship than current American Christianity offers).   There are ways to develop intimacy with God, I just am not convinced the worship of the gathered people of God is the best place to foster that intimacy.

I believe we should cultivate intimacy with God and I agree with Donald Miller that the corporate worship of the church isn’t the place to do it, though we may experience intimacy with God in “church”.  I would argue a more proper place for fostering intimacy with God is in the work of the Church known as the cure of souls, or in more contemporary parlance – in spiritual direction and the spiritual disciplines.

When Miller talks about worshiping God in his work, I say well yes I’m glad you are preaching what Benedictine Monasticism has known for centuries and what a particular monk, Brother Lawrence, taught in a collection of sayings The Practice of  the Presence of God.  And there is also the Apostle Paul as well saying do your work as unto the Lord.  But strictly speaking having a worshipful and prayerful attitude in ones work is a spiritual discipline of  a member of Christ’s body the Church, who is also to have the spiritual discipline of gathering with other members of that body.  So, yes we find God in our work and find it to be worshipful (even if our work isn’t as fulfilling as Donald Miller’s work is, though I’m sure there is drudgery in what he does as well.).  Finding God in our work doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to find God in the gathered people of God.  The practicing the presence of God in all things and in all times is a key and important discipline for maintaining and developing intimacy with God, but it doesn’t replace being the ecclesia.

 If  I say I find God in the world it doesn’t mean I won’t find God in Christ’s body the Church. (I seem unable to avoid ecclesiology).

There are many ways through which one can develop intimacy with God: Spiritual journaling, painting icons,  centering prayer, etc.  What does or doesn’t foster intimacy with God will (as Miller points out) vary from person to person.  You should work with a spiritual companion or spiritual mother or father (that is a spiritual director) and work out what will foster such intimate worship and relationship.  Such practices and awareness should eventually permeate your life (though it probably will take your entire life time).

If you think that  going to church once a week will bring you closer to God, well…, you are fooling yourself.  What happens on the day members of the Body of Christ gather together to worship God should certainly permeate one’s life, and one should find ways to carry that corporate encounter with God and God’s saving work and intention for the world into ones daily life.  Yet, that hour on a Sunday morning isn’t going to (on it’s own) provide you with intimacy with God, or really much of anything else.  It’s just an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most, out of all the many hours in a week with which we occupy ourselves in other myriad of things.

Certainly there are intimate moments in a worship service, when one receives the bread and wine, or when one is anointed with oil, or when hands laid upon.  There is an intimacy in a number of liturgical, symbolic and ritual acts in worship, but that intimacy might be missed if one isn’t’ practicing the presence of God in one’s daily life.

All in all the point of corporate worship isn’t intimacy.  Corporate worship with God is perhaps actually distancing, and this is as good and true as good and true as the experience of intimacy.  God is after all totally other than we are and is incomprehensible, unknown, and unknowable.  We come together and we are to realize that God isn’t like us at all, and we are reminded that we’ve done somethings were not proud of during the week.  God is confounding, refuses to be controlled by us, and that’s kind of off-putting, even scary.    Being in relationship with God is at times raw and unnerving and a disintegrating encounter with that which is other than we are.   This, perhaps is what corporate worship  is about, and it is out of that experience that we can have true intimacy with God.