Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category
Henri Nouwen writes about his friend Adam, who had profound physical and mental disabilities:
Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”
The old Methodists had a question; Do you know the one in whom you believe?
For them this was a distinction that made all the difference. It was one thing to know about God. It was one thing to have learned the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. It was one thing to see in the wonders of nature signs of a creating God. It was quite another to know God.
John Wesley taught that we by nature are unable to see or know the invisible God. We can formulate doctrines about God, but we cannot see God any more than we can see the moons of Saturn with our unaided eyes. And if we cannot see (or hear or feel) God, then we cannot really love God. We can make some motions, but we cannot force our hearts to love what remains hidden to us.
It is only by an act of God’s grace that we come to “see” God by the witness of our spiritual senses. We gain eyes to see because God gives them to us. And seeing God, coming to know God, we will not help but love God, who is good and just and loving and beautiful beyond all our words to explain it.
The big problem Wesley saw in the church was that there were lots of people running around who were the blind leading the blind. They did not know God, but they talked a lot about the things of God. They substituted doctrines and liturgy for an experience of God’s grace. And so, they were Christians in name, but were in fact no different in heart from the men and women who remained outside the church. Indeed, Wesley would often write, the heathens outside the church often lived outwardly more like real Christians than most who bear the name.
This doctrine of assurance, then, was far more than just a warm feeling that we are saved. It was really the entire foundation of what Wesley called real Christianity. God reveals Godself to sinners, which allows them to actually perceive the God they had heard about but never known. This is the gift of faith, the evidence of things not seen. In the moment of this faith, we come to see not only the majesty of God, but also the love of God in Jesus Christ who died for us. Our heart is filled by the love of God. We have the witness of the Spirit to our spirit that we are beloved and forgiven.
This is assurance. This is heart religion.
It was uncommon in Wesley’s day. Methodists were always a tiny minority of the Church of England. It is even more uncommon today. But Wesley believed it was the foundation of actual Christianity.
Do we understand it? Do we teach it? Do we believe it? Have we experienced it?
Do you know the God in whom you believe?
Over the summer I read Augustine’s Confessions. One of my many discoveries in its pages was Augustine’s allegorical reading of Scripture. Indeed, he writes at one point that it was an allegorical reading of the Old Testament that freed him from his prejudices against the barbaric and bloody stories in that collection of sacred texts.
We Protestants tend to be wary of allegory. We like our reading plain and our meanings simple. Unless, of course, we were foolish enough to major in English in college. Then we might fall prey to the argument of writers such as Frances Young, who makes the case for figurative readings of Scripture. In her book Brokenness & Blessing, she argues that the early church read the Bible not in the modernist way of fundamentalists and historical-critical scholars but as a source of spiritual types that inform our journey with God.
Young opens the first chapter of the book with a classic 18th century hymn that plays on the images from the Exodus story, which she uses to explain how figurative or typological reading of the Bible works.
In this well-known eighteenth-century hymn, we easily recognize allusions to incidents in the exodus narrative: the manna, the water from the rock, the pillar of fire by night, and the pillar of cloud by day. Here these motifs become metaphors illuminating each person’s life pilgrimage. Thus the hymn provides a telling example of the classic reading of Scripture by which it provides “types” of the life that each one of us has to live. The way that people understood their own lives was once shaped by patterns and models found in Scripture, and, conversely, people read their own lives into Scripture.
Young’s book is interesting to me for a few reasons, but her effort to reclaim an ancient way of reading Scripture is certainly intriguing to me.
Thomas C. Oden on the meaning of “spirituality” in his book Requiem
I intend by spirituality to point to personal life lived in union with Christ — a relationship with the incarnate and risen Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit, where his death is my death, his resurrection, my resurrection. This life expresses itself in praise of God through loving service to the neighbor. Spirituality in the New Testament sense is not a moral program, not a set of rules, not a level of ethical achievement, not a philosophy, not a rhetoric, not an idea, not a strategy, not a theory of meditation, but simply life lived in Christ.
A non-believing anthropologist sees evangelical prayer practice as therapy and explains why mainliners and Roman Catholics don’t get the same benefit from it.
I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
This approach to the age-old problem of theodicy is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person. That may help to explain why it is evangelical Christianity that has grown so much in the last 40 years.
It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people. But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation.
John Wesley wrote two fascinating letters to William Law days before and days after his Aldersgate experience. They reveal some of the spiritual transformation that he went through in the that momentous month of May in 1738.
William Law was a spiritual mentor of Wesley’s. He wrote books of practical theology that Wesley read and recommended to others, although Law’s turn to more mystical themes alienated him from Wesley, which we can see in the two letters.
On May 14, Wesley wrote Law an accusatory letter full of pain. Wesley had been following Law’s advice in his preaching — and own life — for two years. He preached the law of God in great depth and detail. When people found they could not follow the law, he exhorted them and stirred himself up to pray for the grace of God and use the means of grace. But, still, the law was too high for him.
Under this heavy yoke, I might have groaned until death, had not a holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all they heart, and nothing shall be impossible for thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find.
Wesley turns from sharing his great discovery to a pointed question to Law: Why had Law never told him this piece of advice while the young Wesley was groaning in misery?
If Law thought Wesley already had faith or was being prepared for it, Wesley wrote that he was mistaken.
If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all. I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not the heart. But what is this to the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus? the faith that cleanseth from sin; that gives us to have free access to the Father; to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God;” to have “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” which dwelleth in us; and “the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God?”
In this letter and the follow up answering some of Law’s defense of his conduct, I hear the eruption of a spiritual experience that would shape the entire Methodist movement for the next 50 years.
Wesley the serious priest intent on holiness and mindful of hell was groaning under the pains of his own attempts to achieve his salvation by his own work and effort. He strove with sincerity and earnestness that few Christians ever attempt much less attain. And it was all vanity. He groaned still.
It was the doctrine of salvation by grace that unlocked the torture chamber of his soul. It opened his heart and gave him exceeding joy. It burst the bonds of the law with grace.
The Methodist move in those early decades was built, I am hypothesizing, to nurture that same spiritual experience in others. It was an apparatus for helping others find what John and his brother Charles had experienced.
Over time, we have lost that focus. The apparatus broke down or got used for different purposes. More and more of us carried the name of Methodist but without an knowledge of the experience or inkling that it might be the animating purpose of the movement that became a denomination.
And so, now here we sit.
Gustavo Gutierrez in his book We Drink from Our Own Wells argues that every spirituality within the Church remains a resource for Christians today. Of course, he is Roman Catholic. Identity issues are not quite so fraught for him as they are for ever-fracturing Protestants.
But I wonder how we United Methodists cohere and persevere as a church that no longer is defined by its founding spiritual experience and impetus. So many of our pastors and laity have no identification with the groans that tormented Wesley or the joy that met him in the word of grace.
Can we recenter on that spiritual experience? Should we? If we don’t, how do we remain custodians of it in ways that enrich who we are?
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. (Ecclesiastes 1:7, NIV)
The wisdom of Solomon, the teacher.
I don’t think we believe him. We have not tired — as he did — of studying all that is done under the sun. We do not find it meaningless. We believe we will, at last, unlock a secret that eluded him. We will unlock the secret of life and happiness and meaning.
And so, we are perplexed when people who seem to have found the answer — at least the answer our culture provides — put pistols in their mouths or stumble into the street half-naked and raving at the passing traffic.
How could he come to this? He seemed to have all the answers.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:8, NIV)
And yet we live in a world that pours out more and more to fill our eyes and ears. Wise men and women of our age remind us that we live in a visual age. Indeed, we are told that our churches need to muscle their way into the eye- and ear-filling business. We need more, not less.
But is that the truth?
Is our frantic activity the secret of life? Is our endless, ravenous devouring of sights and sounds and experiences what makes our life meaningful? If we keep pressing and going and striving will we at last straighten everything that is crooked in our lives?
Can we, to quote the prophet of our age, make a dent in the universe?
Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope. This hope is not based on any power to solve the problems of those with whom we live, but on the love of God, which becomes visible when we let go of our fears of being out of control and enter into his presence in a shared confession of weakness.
— Henri Nouwen, ¡Gracias!
Henri Nouwen keeps talking to me.
His gentleness and his earnest and lovely writing always charm me. I cannot help but like him when I read his books. I cannot help but find myself underlining sentences and marking paragraphs for later reference. He writes words that cause my soul to take notice.
His writing, I suspect, is not that valuable to non-Christians or even, perhaps, Christians who do not share his educated and Western affluence. He never quite escapes his own paternalistic attitude toward the poor and the disabled. They are always in some ways “others” that he must cross gulfs to understand. They are often — even when he tries to avoid it — objects of his affection or compassion. Their existence often appears to be most cherished by Nouwen when they help him understand himself better.
To his credit, Nouwen knows this about himself. He sees his own need to control and his own reliance on his education and social position. He understands his own consuming desire for praise and admiration. He feels them as burdens in some ways, but burdens he never completely lays down. His participation with the poor or disabled always has the quality of a voluntary act, one he could walk away from. His choice to be among them always has a whiff of noblesse oblige about it, even as he writes of the gifts they give him.
I find Nouwen so constantly intriguing, though, because I believe he knew this about himself. I don’t think he was falsely humble or hypocritical. He knew his soul was divided against itself in many ways. He did not pretend to has escaped the fallen nature — what he called brokenness — of humanity, even as he sought healing.
He remains for me a testimony about how hard we recoil against true Christ-like humility and how powerful are the temptations that lure us to pride and self-justification.
As a United Methodist who values John Wesley’s teachings, I am troubled by some aspects of his testimony, though. Nouwen often seems to me to embrace his brokenness to such a degree that he cannot imagine being truly healthy. He hopes to become slowly more mature in his thinking and spirituality. With the help of good therapy, he learns to put away childish things, but he does not appear to expect to be renewed.
Perhaps this is a sign that I read Wesley too strongly or Nouwen too weakly, but I do hear something incompatible in their voices. Even though both would affirm that life in the body will always be a life of temptation and a life subject to frailty and error, Wesley sounds more optimistic about the power of grace to heal brokenness (break the power of sin) than Nouwen does. Nouwen feels resolved to a life without the possibility of victory over sin. Wesley is not.
I am not certain what to make of this incompatibility. But I take note of its presence. It calls me to further reflection and prayer.
Rob Rynders has written about ministry in downtown Phoenix and the meaning of the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”
The post wrestles with some important and interesting questions. I am going to post some questions to Rob on his blog, but I thought the subject matter was important enough to share with you.
A woman who has no faith in God writes in the New York Times about God and marriage.
I don’t have time today to engage in a careful reading and reaction, but I was struck by the way the writer struggled when her husband abandoned his Deism.
Christians and religious zealots might say that deep down I was searching for a sense of peace that only the Lord can provide. Maybe, but I doubt it. I know myself enough to know that I can’t fuse my intellectual knowledge with a blind faith in a supreme deity. It just won’t ever happen.
But I did realize I liked the comfort of other people believing, especially my other half. It made me feel safe. Not believing in something, or not being steadfast in what you’re told to believe, can be frightening. It makes those pesky existential questions in life more difficult to answer, particularly when you wake up at 4 a.m., short of breath from contemplating the finality of death.
Fred’s faith was my safety net, just in case this whole God thing really was the way. With him, there was always the chance that when I got to the bouncer at Heaven’s door and my name wasn’t on the list, I could say, “Hey! I know someone inside.”
I’m struck by how the “cosmic fire insurance” view of faith can be held so firmly by those inside and outside the church. Many in the pews on Sunday would argue the best reason to be in church is to get exactly the kind of ticket to heaven’s gate that she makes a bit of a nervous joke about.
By the end of the article, her doubts are settled down by the realization that she and her husband have a common bond in their disbelief.
It sounds like she would not be much up for talking to a pastor, but I do find myself wondering how I would respond to her thoughts and questions if she came to my church one day with her son, as the article ponders at one point, looking to give him some grounding in spirituality and religion.