People of the Spirit, worshiping Jesus in all places, at all times

Posts tagged ‘Christianity’

Review: Holy Dark Places by Daniel S. McGregor

One of the insights of Daniel Castelo’s book is that Pentecostalism does not offer a tradition of “the dark night of the soul.” It’s just not something we’ve produced. Implicit in that, I think, is probably a call for Pentecostals to do so. So it was with great interest that I read my friend Daniel McGregor’s book, Holy Dark Places: Wilderness and Exile in the Christian Experience. I got to know McGregor while he was writing and preparing for this work at Trinity School for Ministry. Published this year, it’s still a fresh work waiting more exploration.

Holy Dark Places introduces contemporary Christians to the “problem” of spiritual suffering–of the experience of God’s absence in the midst of brokenness. It calls the bluff of the facades and veneers that American Christianity is insistent upon. Instead, McGregor invites us to journey into the biblical metaphors of wilderness and exile. Both of these are deeply rooted in the history of the people of God, but also find expression in their worship (Psalms) and future hopes (prophets).

As we identify more deeply with the ancient people of God in Israel, McGregor sets us up to walk through Church history–Augustine, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, John Newton, and Henri Nouwen. These theologians, mystics, and pastors engaged deeply with the wilderness and exile of God’s people within their own interior lives and in caring for the communities of which they were part. By their example and wisdom, McGregor crafts a way for us to understand our own experience of God’s absence.

On the whole, this is a solid introduction to the exploration of spiritual suffering. McGregor’s biblical rootedness and overview of historic Christian tradition, even up to the modern era will equip a generation of Christians who are otherwise lost in the midst of brokenness to continue pursuing God and receiving His love.

Specifically as a catholic in the Pentecostal tradition, the one place where I part paths with McGregor is in the separation between the individual’s interior journey and the community’s pilgrimage. In his conclusion, there is an acceptance of the separation of the experience of individual and community that Pentecostal tradition, as well as the monastic tradition of the Church catholic, would challenge. A community experience of interior wilderness and exile is not only possible, but was enjoined upon us by the Desert Fathers and Mothers (as Nouwen sketches in The Way of the Heart). That said, the exploration of such is something that would go beyond the parameters of Holy Dark Places itself. It is well worth your careful consideration and engagement, and as Pentecostals seek to articulate more about the “dark night of the soul,” this provides an invaluable beginning point for us.

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.

Receive the Holy Spirit

On February 4, the Feast of St. Cornelius the Centurion, Bishop Hobby of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh ordained me a Priest in the Church. The worship of God’s people in the liturgy of Ordination and Eucharist was a holy moment– filled with praise, intercession, Scripture, a tender and bold word from my friend Jonathan Martin, and so much more. Dear friends and family, coaches and mentors, and colleagues in ministry gathered to participate in this sacred moment. There is a great deal about this day that is worthy and fruitful for reflection. But as a catholic Pentecostal, I want to hone in on a particular moment: the consecration of the priest.

In the plot of this liturgy (because every liturgy tells a story), this moment comes beyond the presentation and the ministry of the Word. It follows an exhortation by the bishop and the examination of the ordinand, ensuring their commitment to this calling. Then the congregation calls upon the Holy Spirit to come upon the ordinand by praying the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Following that, the bishop prays. Then he– and other priests present– lay hands on the one to be ordained and says the following:

Receive the Holy Spirit for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed to you by the Imposition of our Hands. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven. If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld. Be a faithful minister of God’s holy Word and Sacraments; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

He continues with more prayers for blessing and for effective preaching and teaching. It is a solemn moment, with the Spirit hovering over the people of God to do what the Spirit always does: to give “comfort, life and fire of love.”  The anointing of Priests going all the way back to the apostles, with the imposition of hands calls all the exhortations of the Apostle Paul to Timothy to mind. The charge to announce God’s forgiveness calls to mind John’s picture of the disciples receiving the Spirit after the Resurrection. The Prince of Peace appoints an ambassador.

What mission and ministry look like for this Priest, only God knows, but the need for the ability and willingness given by God alone is evident. Lord, have mercy.

Sacred Time & the End of the World

Advent began on Sunday for most Western Christians (Eastern Christians have already gotten there, but they have a longer Advent). It’s an incredible season–the start of the Church’s calendar. It begins with the end. We come into Advent remembering the Day of Doom–the Lord’s Day, the Day of Judgment, Armageddon. We come remembering that on the heels of our declaration of Christ’s Kingship the week before, that every one of us in the world will have to give an account before the throne of God and His Christ. It’s a portrait of blinding darkness and pitched light. And we are called by the Spirit of Christ to wait in faithfulness and hope, confident that faith in Christ shall stand in the day of judgment.

But we also look back to the season when Christ first came–to the waiting of God’s people, longing for redemption, groaning under oppression and the ignorance of the Gentiles waiting to be enlightened. We prime ourselves for the announcement of Christ’s birth by heeding the call of John the Baptist to repentance, to be ready, and to know for certain that our rescue is close at hand, and when the Savior comes, we will find rest and solace.

It’s a beautiful season. And the Church has its calendar from ancient times as a way of framing our lives, remembering the story of Jesus, and seeing our stories transformed by that grace. But it’s not the only calendar. There are secular calendars that reinforce what James K.A. Smith has referred to as “cultural liturgies.” The day-to-day of American life has its own messages and warnings that it offers, which we could spend a fair amount of time discussing, but what I’m interested in right now, is what has just occurred in the secular calendar. In the past week, the American public has celebrated to one degree or another: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday.

We began Thursday with the expectation of feasting with family or close friends, in a cadre of delightful culinary traditions. We have some vague notion that we are commemorating the first Thanksgiving held by Non-conformist Christian settlers at Plymouth Colony and indigenous American tribes who helped them to survive. The more learned and attentive might even be able to say how “abundance” was not really the thing that was being celebrated by the community so much as “survival.” But, whatever. We’re Americans. We’ll supersize it to something worth eating. At any rate, it’s supposed to be a happy time, filled with sentimental traditions and our favorite nostalgic games and memories. The media even plays along by replaying old holiday movies in marathon format to be carried throughout the weekend.

But early or not, Black Friday comes quickly on the heels of the tryptophan engorgement. The idea of extreme savings in a consumer mob across stories that mythically places companies from being in the “red” of loss into the “black” of profit has driven a number of experiments and loud arguments that would embarrass most liturgists and worship leaders. But the fanfare of buying things for loved ones (including oneself) at heavily discounted prices has motivated a nationwide pastime and the creation of “traditions” for families. Even those who refuse to participate in the rush are defined by it, as they intentionally determine to not shop on Black Friday.

Newer additions in recent years have joined Black Friday’s corporate bailout by the American people. One is Small Business Saturday–where we are encouraged to remember our local sellers, crafters, artisans, and others, and to offer them our patronage. The other is Cyber Monday, where we are reminded that no matter the deals of Friday, the internet always has a better offer (and one wonders how many spent money on Friday to repent of not waiting for Monday…). These activities are certainly more “minor” by comparison to Thanksgiving and Black Friday but they still consume a great deal of attention and investment, and they will probably grow in importance. The American people, after all, have little to say about themselves that doesn’t involve the purchase and consumption of goods to be enjoyed. If you want to read more on that, I’ll refer you to James K.A. Smith’s description of “the liturgy of the mall” in Desiring the Kingdom.

Finally, the parade of secular feasts ends with “Giving Tuesday.” With the rise of social media, this one has gotten very big, very fast. Yesterday, I saw some dozen or so charities and non-profit fundraisers being hosted by personal friends. Philanthropic organizations were giving out matching grants like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Colleges and seminaries, social service groups and advocacy agencies, and more, were raising money. More than that, they were getting it (and as a church planter trying to find funds and grants, let me tell you it burned a bit!).

But now it’s over. Today is Wednesday. Just Wednesday after Thanksgiving on the secular calendar. But what story have we heard? What does it compare to Advent?

Oddly enough, gratitude, judgment, hope, and repentance are themes in both stories. But the way they play out is very different. In Thanksgiving, we demonstrate gratitude with incredible consumption. In Black Friday, we demonstrate hope in continued luxury by encouraging all income brackets to join in the American dream’s promise that we can all have good, enjoyable and often unnecessary things. In Small Business Saturday, we offer some repentance to our local businesses by doing penance and purchasing their goods and services. Because while we may have sold our soul to Wal-mart, there’s still just enough left to benefit them. And in Cyber Monday, we are reminded that the physical constraints of our geography and schedules do not overcome our fundamental identity as consumers. The barriers will and must be overcome.  Finally, we have Giving Tuesday, because at the end of the day, we do realize it’s not only about us, and that others should be empowered, enabled, and embraced as part of this great American vision to consume. That we should be so privileged to give excesses in order for the do-gooders to have some resources with which to be a part of the community.

So, this American Thanksgiving season is very powerfully insistent as Advent breaks. Because it declares a different kingdom: where consumption is king, and our identity and rights are oriented around the hope for the things we have yet to get. It stands, silently enough, in defiance of the announcement of the Kingdom of God in Advent: where the waiting are blessed, the ready are repentant, and the haughty establishment is cast down. This is no condemnation of our various family traditions in and of themselves, but let’s be wise and make sure that story of our feasts and fasts is the story of Jesus, to whom we give thanks, and who is always present to us in the gift of Himself– in waters of baptism, in the Spirit’s outpouring, in the common meal of bread and wine (Eucharist–the true Thanksgiving feast), and in the loving fellowship of Jesus’ people in all times and all places.

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.”

Review: Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense

I ordered this book at the recommendation of a dear friend. And started it twice. When I was too busy with ordination process details to even think about reading. But somehow an immersion experience in mission here in Germany has opened doors for time to finish it.

All I can say is: wow. Wow, such raw honesty about the absence and presence of God. Wow, such clarity about the questions we get from friends and acquaintances every day about faith and Christianity. Wow, such effective truth-telling about how much we as human beings suck (with our “Human Propensity to F*** things Up” as Spufford puts it). Wow, such compassion and tenderness for fellow human beings in our suffering and being weighed down by the realities of the world.

But above all, WOW. WOW, SUCH GRACE. Such an impressive grasp of the overwhelming, constant, annoying, enjoying, transforming and failure-ignoring forgiveness and love of God brought to us by Jesus. We can breathe fresh Gospel air reading Unapologetic.

But Spufford’s purpose isn’t immediately obvious from the title. So, Christians these days sometimes engage in apologetics: defending the faith. It’s a noble and necessary task. Most apologetics, however, is aimed at the teaching and ideas that we as Christians confess in creeds and affirm in other statements that we hopefully receive from the Scriptures. This book, uniquely, is a defense of Christian sanity–that we are not wrong to feel as we do about God, the world, Jesus and the Church. And he does it masterfully.

Definitely give this one a read.