I Met a Saint Today

The first few verses of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews has long held a special place for me. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” is the opening phrase. What does it mean to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses?

I had a thought the other day as I was completing a “wellness assessment” for work. The survey asked if I had people I felt I could turn to in need, if I felt I had enough friends, that sort of thing. I realized that I do; I have a multitude I can turn to anytime I want.

The Church has long held there are three categories of the faithful: the church militant, the church expectant, and the church victorious. The church militant is us, the faithful still “fighting the good fight”. The church expectant are those who have died and are awaiting glorification. And the church victorious are those who have already been glorified.

The amazing thing is, as we say when we confess our faith, we have communion with the whole Church — the communion of saints. What does that mean? It means that because we share one head — Christ — we are one body. Death does not remove us from the Body of Christ.

That means I am surrounded by people I can turn to, both physically living and dead. And I feel like I am meeting new people all the time. I was just telling my wife yesterday that I “met” a new saint. In this case, it was Saint Vincent of Lérins. He was a fifth century monk and writer of whom not a lot is known, but he wrote a work call the Commonitorium, which has been frequently translated and preserved through the ages.

The quote that caught my eye and led me to this particular saint was this:

“Yet teach still the same truths which you have learned,
so that though you speak after a new fashion,
what you speak may not be new.”

Commonitorium, Chapter 22

Good advice, and another way to state Jude verse three, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Our duty is not to be innovators of the faith, but transmitters. I am glad there is a cloud of witnesses so that I don’t have to make things up, but I can largely see what the saints before me have believed and taught. If I can but faithfully echo what they have passed on, I will have been faithful in my duties as a minister of the Gospel.

So I continue to read, study, and pray as I enjoy my ever-widening circle of fellow members of the Body of Christ. I look forward to the day when we can worship God side-by-side in a the great multitude in Heaven. Maybe we’ll get to chat. Or maybe it won’t matter, because we’ll finally be face-to-face with God.

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Filed under Creeds, Saints, The Church

Longing for Singularity

As someone who makes a living as a “provider of religious services” in a “pluralistic environment,” I am tired. The cost of admission to work in this context seems too high. I am tired of freedom, though this has little to do with current social issues regarding homosexuality and transgenderism.

The problem starts with what seems like a good idea. We gather a bunch of pastors / priests / rabbis / imams / etc. to provide religious support to a diverse population made up of all sorts of different religious adherents. In order to serve them all, we provide for their religious preferences. That is where this starts to unravel. Religion is reduced to a preference. Coke or Pepsi, paper or plastic, manual or automatic, Seahawks or Packers. Those are preferences. Choosing any one of those has no lasting impact.

If the claims of any one religion are true, however, then logically, at least some of the others must be false. Furthermore, if the claims of a religion are true, then to choose any other religion has dire eternal consequences. This is error of the most serious sort. I could have wrongly learned, “In 1493 Columbus sailed the deep blue sea” and miss a point on a history exam or in Trivial Pursuit, but to get God wrong is a very grave error.

In our pluralistic environment where we are to “cooperate without compromise,” I find that we are forced to act as if religion is merely a preference. We can promote the overall program and general benefits of religious practice, but we cannot talk about truth and error. This applies not only in chaplaincy settings, but increasingly in our overall western culture. We are committing an error when we allow that which is most dear to us to be reduced to a preference, even though the Church teaches and we believe that it is worth dedicating our lives to and even giving our lives for.

I am not advocating that we cannot or should not be civil to those of different faiths. The sword has historically been a poor evangelistic tool. But we must have the conviction to stand on and for the truth. We must be willing to seek the truth. We must, if we are intent on living in the truth, be willing to step away from error, expose it, and move toward the truth.

This is not a popular stance, especially not in the area of religion. It is seen as elitist, bigoted, and even racist in some cases. However, to seek the truth is not to claim that I am right, but to seek to know and do what is right. It is not to lord it over others, but to live in humble subjection to the truth and encourage others to do the same.

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Filed under Humility, Religion

Familiarity and Novelty

I’ve been reading upcoming texts in the lectionary for Sundays in Lent, and Psalm 23 shows up a few times. It is a very familiar Psalm to many of us. As I read it in the translation we are using for service, though, I had to slow down and read what it actually said instead of what I had memorized in my head. The same happens with the Our Father (aka the Lord’s Prayer) which most people (myself included) instinctively say in the translation in the Book of Common Prayer.

The reason we trip up when using “modern” translations on these two sections of Scripture is because we know them well in the older forms. This obvious bit of information led me to a less obvious hypothesis: If we were immersed deeper in our Bibles, we would be less likely to change translations, and the market for new versions would decline.

220px-english_bible_translations

I’m sure the current glut of versions is being driven by more than just our biblical illiteracy. There is a lot of capitalism-driven profit seeking from publishers; they see a market niche and are trying to exploit it. But it is hard to exploit a niche that doesn’t exist.

Our lack of biblical literacy is certainly an issue. We would do well to internalize the words of Scripture. They certainly have a better chance of being recalled if they are embedded within our minds and hearts. We can’t be formed by that which we are not allowing ourselves to be shaped by.

I stand by my assessment that the prevalence of translations is, in part, a reflection of our lack of engagement with the Bible.

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God’s (un)Awesomeness

…he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:15-1(ESV)

Thus, Paul describes Jesus Christ — awesome in every sense of the word. King of kings and Lord of lords, dwelling in unapproachable light. We sense Isaiah’s vision of the temple in chapter 6 of his book. We see John standing before the throne of God in his Revelation. Mind-blowing, face-melting awesomeness.

This is awe-inducing and inspiring and is certainly a part of God’s revelation of himself to us. But it is not his only means of revelation. This past week, on February second, the church commemorated Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Jesus was 6 weeks old, still an infant. Cute and cuddly perhaps, but not shield-your-eyes amazing.

Yet Simeon and Anna recognized him and said some amazing things.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke 2:29-32 (ESV)

But part of the awesomeness of God (and particularly Jesus) is that he became unawesome.

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

Matthew 13:55-57a (ESV)

God became so “normal” that he was offensive by his claims. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully divine and fully man at the same time. Yet the divine didn’t show all that much, except during his healings and the transfiguration before Peter, James, and John. It is this normalcy that allows us intimacy with God. God thundering from fire and smoke on top of Mount Sinai is scary; the Israelites were terrified and refused to go up. But we can relate to a God we can pray to in our sweatpants on the couch on a snowy Sunday afternoon.

The phenomena is not unlike meeting a popular or powerful person only to discover that they are “down to earth” in real life. In my life I’ve had a few of those encounters. There was the commanding general who attended chapel and would often invite the two chaplains to join him and his wife for lunch after service.

I also remember a Rich Mullins concert where acquaintances had backstage passes for after the show. The passes didn’t do them much good, because Rich was out in the lobby talking to people and signing autographs. I later learned that he was known for not playing the part of pop music star very well.

Jesus also meets us where we are and is not put off by our ordinariness. Yes, he is the Word who is with God and is God. But he is also an itinerant rabbi who led a group of 12 men around the Judean countryside, fishing, boating, walking, and talking. He is with us in just the same sort of run of the mill circumstances today.

That’s pretty awesome.

You Did Not Have a Home by Rich Mullins

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Making the Cut

We’ve been purging a bit around our house lately, clearing out some stuff from our shelves that we no longer need. It’s a fairly common practice for us. We like to keep things down to manageable levels. The less we have, the less there is to clean, store, and move.

It’s a practice that needs to catch on. A new self-storage facility opened recently just down the street from us. According to statistics, we have enough self-storage space in the US for the entire population of the country to comfortably fit inside. (And this while the average size of an American home has tripled in the last 50 years.)¹

But how to decide what to keep and what to get rid of? That is always the question. For my wife and I, sentimentality does not play a very big role in our decisions. While we were in the midst of our latest round, I came across this prayer by the patron saint of Switzerland:

My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.

St. Nicholas of Fluë

That’s a pretty concise prayer, and one that gives us insight into how to decide what stays and what goes, whether we’re discussing our possessions or our pastimes. It’s very similar to the prayer of an earlier saint:

Let me neither rejoice nor grieve at anything, save what either leads to Thee or leads away from Thee.  Let me not desire to please anyone nor fear to displease anyone save only Thee.

Let all things transitory seem vile in my eyes, and all things eternal be dear to me. Let me tire of that joy which is without Thee and to desire nothing that is outside Thee. Let me find joy in the labor that is for Thee; and let all repose that is without Thee be tiresome to me.

St. Thomas Aquinas

These lines from what is reported to be Aquinas’ daily prayer echo the same sentiment. If it draws me to God, keep it. If it does not, get rid of it. This is useful, though it helps more for categories of stuff than individual items. It’s hard to know where a particular T-shirt falls in relation to these questions, but it’s easier to decide if a particular hobby or interest does. So, my hangers are all backwards in my closet again.²

Trying to cut stuff from our lives isn’t just about organization; it is ultimately about focus. The less we have to deal with, the more we can focus on what matters — loving God and loving others.


¹ Statistics from http://www.becomingminimalist.com/clutter-stats/

² The closet trick is to turn all of your hangers around backwards. When you wear an item, turn the hanger back around. After a few months, the hangers that are still backwards give you a pretty good indication of what you could get rid of.

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Filed under Priorities, Simplicity

No Place to Aspire to

desert-island

It is startling how often desert (or deserted) islands come into play in questions of theology and ethics. How many times have you heard the desert island scenario proclaimed as a possible counter-example against some doctrine or practice?

There are two significant issues with the desert island trope. First, it tries to establish normal practice by means of an exceptional one. None of us live on desert islands. We live on continents with millions of other people. We have resources of family, friends, church, healthcare, education, and much more. It may be an interesting thought experiment to consider some situation in light of a desert island scenario, but we should be careful drawing any sweeping conclusions from such.

The second, and more distressing, issue with desert islands is that they reveal who we are and what we value as westerners, particularly Americans.

Self.

When we place ourselves on a desert island for the sake of argument, we are revealing that not only are we supremely interested in ourselves, but that we also see ourselves as the ultimate authority in our lives as we alone make our own decisions. These scenarios reveal how we really think. They strip away the distractions and isolates what we see as the crucial variables in the discussion.

A problem this can cause, however, is that the desert island can serve as a distraction. By eliminating so much from the discussion, we can cut out inconvenient (to our cause) factors. Consider a classic example: “If you were alone on a desert island with only a Bible, is it possible to be saved?” For much of the Protestant world, the foregone answer would be, “Of course.” And therefore, we see church as an aid, not as an essential. But there is a serious problem with this line of reasoning.

We are not alone on desert islands. We are on continents, and those continents have churches — even Antarctica. We must factor the church into our questions on faith because it is a significant variable which exists in our set of things to consider.

A more accurate phrasing of the question above would be, “Can we ignore the church and be saved by our own efforts?” I daresay we may garner a different answer if we posed that query to a selection of theologians.

Some would still affirm that yes, we can. Some would not. The Church Fathers would certainly look askance at such a stance. Cyprian of Carthage argued this point by writing, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”

A desert island is no place to seek to dwell. It is to be alone and left solely to our own devices. We should seek to live in community with our fellow man and in submission to the authorities which God has established. To seek to be our own supreme ruler is to place ourselves in bad company. Lucifer was cast out of heaven for such action.

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Filed under Authority, Questions, The Church

Take and Read

Sola Scriptura folks like to point to Augustine of Hippo’s experience in a garden in Milan as an example of the power of Scripture. He heard what sounded to him like a child chanting, “Take and read; take and read.” He picked up a copy of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans he had with him and read:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:13-14 (ESV)

These folks, however, forget that this is the climax of the story. Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions tells the whole story — about 20 pages in my edition. Augustine did not just hang out in a garden, hear a voice, read, and become converted. It was a much longer road than that. Indeed, the entire book of Confessions up to this point chronicles the long, twisting road he had been traveling to true faith.

It was not merely two verses of Scripture that worked such an effect on his life. He knew saints and he knew of saints — Ambrose, Anthony, and Victorinus among others. He had at least some of the Scriptures available to him and he studied them. He resisted the drawing of the Holy Spirit but eventually came to surrender. His story reveals that he had already surrendered before he heard, “Take and read,” and repented in tears before God in the garden. The passage he read in Romans was more of a confirmation than a call.

Scripture is important — vitally so — in the life of the believer and the church. But it is not magical. It is not a spell book to read incantations out of in order to command the divine to our will. It is a gift of God, by the Holy Spirit, through the church.

There is benefit in taking and reading, but just as with prayer, humility is crucial. If we come to the pages of Scripture seeking support for what we think, we are on dangerous ground. We should come asking what we ought to think. What we ought to believe. What we ought to do. We should listen to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit, and to the Church.

As Americans, we get excited when we hear stories of someone opening a Bible for the first time and being converted. This demonstrates our individualism more than our reverence for God’s Word. We are a nation of individuals who value doing things our own way. Our patron saints, from a cultural perspective, are John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and do it your way. But this is not the way of Christ or his church.

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:17, 20-21 (ESV)

We should hold up stories of those who come to Scripture and then walk into a church, saying, “Help me understand.” This, if we read the story, is much closer to Augustine’s actual experience than merely the “take and read” snippet at the end of the chapter.

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