Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it,
and whoever loses their life will gain it. Luke 17:33
In a meditation written just thirteen days before he died from pancreatic cancer, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin examined his life-long challenge with abandoning himself to God. The spiritual practice of “letting go” was not a new one for Cardinal Bernardin, but it certainly took on a more profound application as he approached his own end. He wrote,
Throughout my spiritual journey I have struggled to become closer to God. As I prepare now for my passage from this world into the next, I cannot help but reflect on my life and recognize the themes that, like old friends, have been so important to me all these years. One theme that rises to the surface more than any other takes on new meaning for me now—the theme of letting go. By letting go, I mean the ability to release from my grasp those things that inhibit me from developing a more intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus.
We learn best how to let go of ourselves through prayer. Contemplative prayer, in particular, teaches us how to open ourselves up to God so that the Lord might live more fully in us. It encourages and sustains in us the life-long conversion that this spiritual direction implies. And it does so mostly by revealing to us the many ways we hold back from God. Bernardin writes,
I have prayed and struggled constantly to be able to let go of things more willingly, to be free of everything that keeps the Lord from finding greater hospitality in my soul, or interferes with my surrender to what God asks of me. It is clear to me, especially now as I face death, that God wants me to let go. My daily prayer is that I can open wide the doors of my heart to Jesus and to His expectations of me.
William Dyrness writes,
“Evangelicals have claimed since the Reformation that they are simply following Scripture in their understanding of the church. But they have not always seen that hidden in this claim is a particular way of reading these authoritative texts. The way the church lives out its corporate life in the world and the form that life takes constitute a hermeneutical activity — the people of God interpret Scripture by the way they shape their life together. In this sense, there is no timeless or universal essence the church must express; rather, under God it constitutes itself afresh in each generation — it must become, theologically, a real presence.
“The church is what it does — that is, at its heart are certain ritual practices that connect it to God. But what is the public appearance of these practices? What space do they occupy? And what does this look like? In this chapter I will use “space” as a trope for the way the church comes to cultural and social expression — the forms it takes. I want to ask, What are the spaces of these forms? And what theological or symbolic meanings do they have? I want to consider this aspect of space in three ways — socially, historically, and symbolically — as dimensions of place which can counter the docetic tendency of the Protestant church. I want to argue that these dimensions are integrally related; a weakness in one necessarily affects the others.” (Poetic Theology, 224)
This 2011 work by Dyrness is rich with theological reflection, reflection that connects to life and practice. But this second paragraph both helps and hinders the transition he hopes to see. When some of the church Fathers relativized and spiritualized place, and then we later replaced place with “space” through the scientific revolution, we reinforced the dualism of heaven and earth, and the blurring of concrete and ideal, local and non-local. We still privilege space over place, particularly in religious settings, where the Eucharist should call us to embodiment.
Space does indeed have social, historic and symbolic dimensions. Similarly, place has these dimensions. Using space as a trope for the forms our embodiment takes in local expressions is risky, however. It can help us speak of practices, but risks moving us away from the concrete and local, embedded nature of those practices. Practice always occur in a particular local context — a place. And those practices are rich with ethical meaning, meaning that takes up the local even as it transcends it. That’s the nature of the Eucharist, which constitutes its own sacred geography.
* * * * * *
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend,
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend.
It was spring in Winnipeg, and I had moved out of my apartment on Ellice Street and moved in with a friend on River Road. I had finished a year of study at the U of W and was in transition, not sure what was next. But a friend had been talking about Regent College, that graduate school on the west coast, and with most of my family in BC, it was an attractive option.
May was a tough month. Although the snow was gone from yards and streets and the buds were swelling, I felt a chill in my spirit. I had a few options before me, and no sense of certainty as to what was best. A new beginning at a new school in a new city was both attractive, and terrifying. Did I really have the stuff needed for grad school? Would I find a new community of friends? What was I called to do? Who had God made me to be?
More fundamentally, who was God anyway? I had been a Christian for four years, three of them in Bible College, and though I could not clearly articulate it, there were at least two versions of God and the Gospel offered to me. Which version founded my identity: was I a worthless sinner, or God’s beloved? Asked from the other side, what is God’s primary nature: Judge, or Father?
Roger Olson writes,
“It may sound like a simple question (or two simple questions), but it’s not. I’ve been a “professional theologian” (someone who gets paid for being one) for thirty-one years and before that I was preparing to be one for several years. The dream of being a theologian probably formed in my mind during seminary. I sensed that I would never understand my Christian faith as fully as I wanted to without being a theologian myself. And I desperately wanted to understand my faith.
“My own faith family (broadly defined) rejected my thirst for theology and my calling to become a theologian. Nobody in it had ever done that without “losing the faith.” Seminary was routinely called “cemetery” and my determination to study theology led indirectly, if not directly, to my exclusion from my faith family which was saturated in anti-intellectualism. That I was attending seminary was bad enough, but when I announced my acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Religious Studies (with a concentration in theology) at a secular university my spiritual mentors rejected me entirely.
“All that is to say that my earliest experiences of becoming and then being a theologian, someone who professionally conducts research in and teaches and writes theology, were negative — so far as the people nearest and dearest to me were concerned… I could easily detect a great hesitation and even uneasiness about what I was doing. It was considered dangerous and a waste of time. They all would have preferred I went directly from college into ministry—preferably as a missionary.
“In large segments of American Christianity “theology” is almost a dirty word…”
“The fundamental way in which we humans respond to our cultural situation — and ultimately to God, who comes to us clothed in this situation — is by our doing and making — in other words, by our praxis and poesis (Greek for “doing” and “making”). Humans make themselves and forge their identity through their doing and their making. As Graham Ward puts this, these activities, which are related, are “expressions by which the soul may arrive at truth.” But I want to argue that, spiritually, the category of “making” is more important than “doing” (praxis). We define ourselves not by the ordinary processes of living but by the larger symbolic activities by which we “make something” of ourselves. I want to call this larger sphere of imaginative and affective making our ‘poetics.’”
William Dyrness, Poetic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011) 38
In Poetic Theology, William Dyrness argues that one legacy of the Reformation was the loss of contemplation. We began to privilege the ear over the eye, the head over the heart, and beauty was to be found outside the sanctuary. Calvin was intent on placing “the emphasis on the people and their discipleship in the world and not on the space of worship in the church” (218). Implicitly, the place of gathering was denigrated, and indirectly, place itself suffered.
There are a host of issues that rise from this. First, church buildings became sanitary and dull, no longer evoking the imaginative energy that impels the richness of worship. Second, we lost tough with the power of symbol. Sacraments themselves became almost meaningless. This, combined with the priority of preaching, made it increasingly difficult to justify both the outer and the inner gaze of the soul. It also became difficult to justify an appeal to the affections — yet this is the root of the will, and also the larger part of how we know our world (even if pre-cognitive).
In chapter 8 of Poetic Theology, Dyrness argues that if this is correct then the process of recovery will recover forming objects and practices that spark contemplation. And because we are symbolic beings, the place to start (for believers) is not out on the street but in the sanctuary. (A controversial position in the midst of a Christian culture that is tends to like polarities like “attractional” and “incarnational”). He argues that it is in the gathering that we must be given eyes to see (and not ONLY an imaginative task but critically a SYMBOLIC one), and then we will have eyes that see elsewhere. Dyrness writes,
“While it is certainly true that ‘church’ is not a building, and overemphasis on the scattered nature of the church tended to undercut the value of the gathered nature of the church’s life — as a people gathered in celebration and praise… There are striking signs today that this space of the church — the gathering rather than the scattering — needs fresh attention… ” (219) Read the rest of this entry »
In part 3 I talked about leadership, and our need to recover the biblical frame and practice offered in Ephesians 4. We have tended to recognize only two or three of the five equipping types, rolling roll pastor-teacher into a single gift, and sometimes adding evangelists. Reducing Paul’s equipping frame worked in a stable culture: but apostles and prophets were given to the Church for unstable and changing times, and unless we learn to recognize and equip these gifts again our ability to welcome the work of the Holy Spirit in OUR time will remain limited.
In this article I want to talk about the way we see the Gospel itself. There isn’t really a more basic question we can ask: what is the Gospel? A friend of mine is fond of asking this question in the first year bible class he teaches in a west coast college, and his discovery is that few can define it, and if they do, it’s usually a short-hand, reduced version of the biblical gospel. But a reduced, boiled-down version is the only version many live into, and like a bowl of oatmeal compared to a full feast, it’s not very satisfying. So before you read any further, write down your answer to this question: what is the Gospel?
More – PDF
I’ve seen a high cairn kissed by holy wind
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity
I’ve stood in airports guarded glass and chrome
Walked rifled roads and landmined loam
Seen a forest in flames right down to the road
Burned in love till I’ve seen my heart explode
You’ve been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?
Bruce Cockburn, Strange Waters
“New forms of the church are diverse, they reveal common genres and patterns of practice. They include intentional communities, colonizing churches, social enterprise churches, and third space churches.
“First, intentional communities or new monastic communities are an important form of the church for emerging Christians. Matthew 25 House is an intentional community in East Hamilton. A group of seminary students and university students, with the financial support of a couple from the Maritimes, started Matthew 25 House. The group consists of single young adults and a married couple. They live according to a covenant of community life. They pool and share resources.
“Second, colonizing churches enter once thriving middle class communities and Christendom churches. Eucharist in East Hamilton represents this form of emerging church — a congregation of young professionals colonizing a dilapidated neighborhood in downtown Hamilton. The church meets in a United Church. Central to the vision of Eucharist is living and working in the neighborhood of the church. Suburban evangelical churches are often commuter churches… In contrast, the members of Eucharist believe that being a part of the local community is essential. Many of the members have relocated [and] by doing so, they participate in the revitalization of the neighborhood.
“Third, social enterprise churches endeavor to enhance community life. The Story in Sarnia … inhabits two storefront spaces in the old downtown center. The Story preaches the gospel [through action], and most of the activities that take place in the church have nothing to do with common assumptions about church life. During the week the church office is an incubator space for a fledgling micro businesses. The Story is part of the town’s effort to revitalize its urban core.
“Fourth, third space churches meet in non-church venues such as community centers, coffee shops, and youth centers. Their goal is to reach people who are unlikely to enter a traditional evangelical church. Café Church in Kingston (Ontario) is a third space church. Kingston is a professional and university town. The church meets in a coffee shop in the business district of Kingston. Their goal is to provide a church for unchurched professionals in the center of a university town.”
“Emerging Churches in Post-Christian Canada.” Steven Studebaker and Lee Beach. More at MDPI – Open Access journals
See also the earlier post.
“In his instructions on church order, John Calvin includes a detail that is often overlooked: he insists that outside of regular worship hours, the church building should be locked. I find that besides explaining why Protestant sanctuaries always seem closed during the week, this detail illuminates much of my Protestant tradition, and I want to take it as a kind of central metaphor here. Calvin gave these instructions so that “no one outside the hours may enter for superstitious reasons.
“Both sides of Calvin’s theological program are implied in these instructions. On the one hand Calvin was convinced that too much of what went on inside the church—the novenas, the penances, the paternosters—since it was not founded on genuine faith, was not conducive to true spirituality. He wanted to clear out this thicket of superstition so that nothing would distract worshipers from the preaching of the word — he wanted to empty this space so it could be filled with God’s word. On the other hand, he was deeply concerned about what went on outside the church; he believed that worship need not be confined to church buildings, but that the believer could pray at home, at work, or while lying in bed. Indeed for Calvin, the focus of Christian worship and discipleship was not on the space of the church but on life in the world, what he called a theater for the glory of God.
“What happened to contemplation at the Reformation? Here is what I think: in recovering at least the possibility for personal spirituality and opening up the inner life for development, Calvin appeared at times to open this inner door of worship by closing an outer one—unnecessarily privileging the ear over the eye in worship.”