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Archive for the ‘Disciplines’ Category

Constrained by the Word

I had the privilege of preaching at Church of the Savior yesterday morning. We are spending Ordinary Time in an expository series through the Apocalypse (aka, the Revelation of Jesus to John). As we gathered in an area park shelter, the songs of the glory of God and the frailty of our humanity, echoed by the collect led into the letter to the Church in Philadelphia in Revelation 3, which was my assigned portion for the day.

Preparing for that text was difficult. In the wake of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Attorney General’s report about the horrors of child abuse, I was wishing I’d had one of the sterner letters in Revelation to preach and really let some fire out. My sense of justice was inflamed. Christ had been spit upon by men who claimed to minister in His name. These perpetrators had commenced an assault on the Church. Further, I wanted to offer a word of grace to all the hurting. I had already put something out on social media, but that’s not really the same significance as what is preached.

As I was sharing that with Bishop John Rodgers following worship, the comment I had was, “But I was rather constrained by the Scripture assigned.” Prophetic fire and inflamed passion for justice have their place in the words spoken by those called by God to preach. But they only have their place within the constraints of the revelation of God’s Word Incarnate–and because of His authority, in God’s Word written. Speaking to the “church of little power” like Philadelphia, and rebuking those of the synagogue of Satan, Jesus offers grace and comfort and glorious promises to those who were hurting, And he could reveal Himself as the one who gets the last word–who opens, and no one can shut and who shuts, and no one can open. Praise be to the King, forever blessed, who does not leave us to our passions, but guides us by His Spirit through the Word.

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Resting in the Spirit

Today, I finished a weeks-long reading and reflection of The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, which has been on my to-read list since around 2013. I’ve greatly benefitted from the delay, since seminary and the 3 years following graduation gave me the opportunity to find a sense of home and peace about my theology and spirituality as a catholic Pentecostal who is ordained in the Anglican Church.  What I’ve found in these desert fathers, with their wisdom and the content of their prayers, is that Asuza didn’t come to the experience of God’s intimacy before Aleppo. Parham, Tomlinson, and McPherson had much to learn from Babbai, Isaac of Nineveh, and John the Elder.

But equally striking was the way their counsel on prayer affirmed this Pentecostal spirituality. The idea of waiting on God, on being fully focused on him in prayer, on letting the Holy Spirit guide your petitions, and the ecstatic joy of being known and loved by God while in prayer are present, and highly valued in the writings of our ancient brothers in the Syriac tradition. “What time is more holy and more appropriate for sanctification and for the receiving of divine gifts than the time of prayer, when a person is speaking with God?” -Mar Isaac of Nineveh (Discourse XXII on prayer). The very process of the Pentecostal movements origins are prophetically anticipated by the call to prayer in the desert.

But what captured my attention even further was the way that what Pentecostals have often referred to as being “slain in the Spirit” and less commonly, “resting in the Spirit” makes its appearance in the spirituality of the desert fathers. “But beyond the boundary, there exists wonder, not prayer. From that point onwards, the mind ceases from prayer; there is the capacity to see, but the mind is not praying at all.” -Mar Isaac of Nineveh (Discourse XXII on prayer). Isaac refers to what the ancient fathers called “spiritual prayer” (which he believes to be a misnomer) and “contemplation”–when the tongue, the mind, and the physical actions of the one who is praying cease because of entering the presence of the holiness of God. When the Christian ceases to do, but can only be with God. And, accurately, Isaac attributes this to the fullness of God’s grace.

The seed of this is a perpetual commitment to hearing the Scriptures and prayer before God. “Struggling in prayer” is a frequent call in the Syriac fathers–not as a striving of action, but wrestling against our fleshly desires to justify ourselves by action. Resting upon the justification declared over us by Christ in our baptism empowers all prayer. As we continue in that rest, we may come to experience the foretaste of the heavenly rest: resting in the Spirit–where, even for a few moments, we know the joy of justification without our doubts, without our personal efforts for holiness, and without the tempting condemnation of the devil.

Reading Scripture and the Hope of the Poor

As a Pentecostal, I grew up in a home that emphasized and practiced daily Bible reading–both individually and as a family. I was taught to read and study the Scriptures in a personal “quiet time with God.” Additionally, my mother read to us aloud from the Bible and taught us hymns, some small bits of catechism, and helped us memorize significant and sometimes extensive portions of Scripture. It was life-shaping and it has been effective in my life, as the Holy Spirit prompts remembrance and understanding from that past in my present day-to-day life. Christians are indeed people shaped by the Scriptures that bear witness to Jesus, the Word of God.

But I’ve overheard in various circles–Pentecostal, reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, and others–that the key to discipleship is daily Bible reading. Now, I understand where this comes from. I even understand that Willow Creek’s internal discipleship study some twenty-odd years ago reinforces the importance of the Scriptures in the Christian life. But I want to challenge the idea that it’s private daily Bible reading which is to be credited for deep roots in following Jesus.

First off, to borrow from something adapted from the Rev’d Dr. Amy Schifrin, STS, “Christianity is a deeply personal, but not private, faith.” It’s never been “me and Jesus”. It’s always been a Body, a nation, a community of saints and sinners gathered by the Holy Spirit and united in the blood of Jesus. We experience individual transformation in the midst of that, but we do so together. We cannot be disciples alone, and we are not intended to experience the grace of Christ alone. Even Saul’s conversion cannot happen apart from the Body. Jesus changed everything for this persecutor of the Church, but he sends Ananias to baptize and lay hands on Him–creating a community into which Saul is received.

Second, it’s never been reading. The Scriptures, all through the history of Israel were read aloud in order to be heard by God’s people. That continued in the synagogues, and the Church adopted the same practice in teaching the Old Testament, as well as reading the “memoirs of the apostles” and the apostolic epistles. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to say that faith comes by hearing in Romans 10. For the benefit of faith and the increase of grace, the Church gathers to hear the Word of God proclaimed by the Scriptures being read aloud, preached, and visible displayed in the Sacraments.

I know there’s going to be pushback, but I want you to consider–for 1500 years, before the invention of the printing press, there was little access to the Scriptures for the common Christian. Are we to suggest that the great saints and our forefathers and foremothers in the faith were weak, or malformed as followers of Jesus? Even if we allow that the medieval era had a great deal of this, the fact is that the Gospel spread throughout the world with people who were hearing Scriptures corporately, and deep discipleship came from that formation. The rich were the ones with access to Scriptures, even after the printing press was invented. And while that has shifted over the years, literacy and economics of owning a Bible continue to challenge.

So let’s return to the roots. As the Church, let’s gather together–in homes, in churches, in public–to hear the Scriptures together. Rich or poor, men and women, of every ethnicity, let’s attend to the proclamation of Jesus and hear Him revealed to us in the Scriptures. Let’s not be alone. Let’s not stifle the hope of the poor by telling them to get a Bible and keep it to reading alone. Let’s enter the community of people under the Scriptures, fro all to hear, and be changed as the Spirit stirs our remembrance of who we are as God’s beloved and sets our feet onto the way of Jesus.

Review: Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition

There’s something in the air in the Pentecostal movement these days–theologians, pastor-scholars, and others, within the classical Pentecostal organizations (Church of God, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God, and others) and others like myself in other traditions (Anglican, non-denominational, Baptist, and others) are working out the conviction that in birthing the Pentecostal movement, God intended something for the Church catholic. Daniel Castelo’s Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition is yet another fruit of that conviction.

The book is (appropriately) scholarly and technical in its delivery and orientation. Castelo engages current scholarship in Pentecostalism, as well as the historic mystical tradition of Christianity. He also deals with the challenge of Pentecostalism’s relationship to the evangelical movement in both historical and philosophical senses, and the challenges and gifts of that connection (so you’ll read about Charles Hodge and Carl F. H. Henry, in addition to Charles Parham).

But Castelo’s book is not committed to the “problems” of Pentecostalism as much as it is a prophetic call to recognize the gift of our movement. There are resources in the mystical tradition of the Church the we would greatly benefit from (Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila).* And our doctrine and experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit leads us even intuitively towards this direction. But we also have a role in the Church catholic, commending encounter with God in a way that His love is able to transform our community for the sake of the world. Castelo owns that this is a “working proposal” for the Pentecostal movement, but I would take it a step further: this is a path to global encounter with Christ for the whole Church.

In recent weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to engage the monastic tradition, and the ascetically tradition of the Church, and as I’ve talked with Protestant and evangelical friends about their experiences of it together with me, there is an intense desire to translate those experiences and disciplines into the 21st century context. As I look at the timing (kairos and chronos) of the Pentecostal movement, and of the move in our teaching, preaching, and theologizing as a movement, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is answering that desire for the Protestant movement: Pentecostalism provides a path toward present day, contextualized ascetic life in the Spirit. So, for all you would-be monastics, ascetics, and those who hunger for encounter with God, press in to receive the Baptism of the Spirit, to be a community that experiences and hungers for Christ–taste and see that the Lord is good. For Pentecostals, press in to the resources of the Church catholic.

And for those who want to study and consider this issue more intellectually, read this book. I highly recommend it.

Keep the Traditions

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth….

The Great Litany begins with a blaring, intoned address to the Almighty God.

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world…

It’s staunch orthodoxy refuses to bend to contemporary innovations.

O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful…

It’s movement of penitent supplication and confident faith embraces the totality of Christian life and discipline.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God….

But it continues to draw more and more of me into prayer and intimacy with God. It reshapes my mind, my heart, my body in a way that is oriented toward God, that advocates for my enemies and friends, and somehow lets me pray for the life of the world and the life of the Church at the same time.

Liturgical prayer is anything but dead. I can feel the cloud of witnesses join with me. I know in my bones that my ancestors prayed these same prayers, responding to the officiant’s supplications with “Good Lord, deliver us” and “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” In the United States, and in England and Wales, and in Ireland. I know my brothers and sisters pray these prayers– in Nigeria, in Australia, and in other parts of the globe. It’s tremendous. It’s a prayer that is larger than me.

And, oddly, it’s the reality of the life-giving nature of liturgical prayer that helps us guard against our own liturgical eclecticism. As Pentecostals, we should be in tune with the Spirit’s guiding the prayers of the Church through the ages and around the world. And if we are embracing that path, and giving the Spirit room to reshape us, change how we pray, and enter into words that have been handed down from one generation of apostolic faith to the next, then we will find that we are not doing anything strange at all. Instead, we are being formed into the people of Pentecost, devoted to the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. And in that, we will see the release of God’s work among us in great acts of love and stunning signs and wonders — all to authenticate and draw attention to the great love Jesus has shown us.

The Fast and the Fury

One thing that the Pentecostal and catholic traditions have in common is an undistracted devotion to the spiritual discipline of fasting. The catholic tradition’s practice of regular fasting–days from the early church for each week, each season of the year, and guidelines for the faithful– and the Pentecostal’s warlike ethos of fasting for the sake of spiritual breakthrough come together in some unique ways in my life. As someone raised in the Pentecostal tradition, I do believe fasting is an act of war–not only against the indwelling sinner, but also against the powers and principalities who are arrayed against the people of God and His Christ. It’s a heritage that has taken the words of Jesus to heart: “this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29).

Much has been written by pastors and practitioners over the years of the impact of fasting. The practical results, the typical psychological and physical effects, and the “pro tips” for holding up your commitment. Those may well have their place, but if the Pentecostal experience–and the stories of great ascetics like St. Antony of Egypt, St. John Climacus, or St. Colum Cille– bears out, then the spiritual battle that we enter in fasting is of far greater import and impact than any of the practical tips offered by these leaders.

Tradition tells of St. Antony being attacked by demons when he retreated to the desert for prayer and fasting, and how the Lord strengthened him in the face of those assaults. St. Patrick recounts an assault by the devil while fasting in the wilderness of Gaul that prevented him from moving, and how he cried out to the Lord, and the weight was lifted. St. Moses the Ethiopian, St. John Damascus, St. John of the Cross, and many others throughout our history have other testimonies. Fasting puts a target on your back–but the Lord Jesus already has the victory, and communicates that grace to us through the Holy Spirit at work within us.

So, when you fast, fast in full confidence that God is already present, already speaking, and already giving grace to you. But also fast in the full knowledge that you have personally declared war on the world, the flesh, and the devil, and their wrath will be focused on you. But as Martin Luther wrote so many years ago: “The Prince of darkness grim; we tremble not for him! His rage we can endure for, lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”