From my earlier notes from the Celtic anthology I read earlier this year:
What is best in the world? To do the will of it’s maker. What is this will? That we should do what he has ordered, that is, that we should live in righteousness and seek devotedly what is eternal. How do we arrive at this? By study. We must therefore study devotedly and righteously. What is our best help in maintaining this study? The Intellectus, which probes everything and, finding none of the world’s goods in which it can permanently rest, is converted by reason into the one good which is eternal.
-St. Colombanus, an Irish missionary who founded several Celtic rule monastaries in France and Italy in the 7th century
One day Maedoc and another disciple named Molaisse were sitting at the foot of two trees, and they loved each other very dearly. “Ah Jesus,” said they, “is it Thy will that we should part, or that we should remain together to the end?” Then one of the two trees fell to the south, and the other to the north. “By the fall of the trees,” said they, “it has been revealed that we must part.” Maedoc fared south, and built a monasery at Ferns, and Molaisse fared north, and built a monasery at Devenish.
(From the Lives of the Irish Saints)
Two stanzas from the Altus of Columba
Ancient of Days; enthroned on high!
The Father unbegotten He,
Whom space cantaineth not, nor time;
Who was, and is, and aye shall be:
And one-born Son, and Holy Ghost,
Who co-eternal glory share;
One only God of Persons Three,
We praise, acknowledge, and declare.
Day of the king most rightous,
The day is nigh at hand,
The day of wrath and vengeance,
And darkness on the land.
Day of thick clouds and voices,
Of mighty thundering,
A day of narrow anguish
And bitter sorrowing.
The love of women’s over,
And ended is desire,
Men’s strife with men is quit,
And the world lusts no more.
A different translation of the famous poem by St. Patrick here. This is a different version than the one I usually see (the one I am teaching my kids.) This one seems more literal and not quite as good overall, but certain lines are more potent.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate, or “The Deer’s Cry”
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgement of Doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of the Cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of the resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In prediction of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak to me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me,
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From every one who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.
I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ to shield me today,
Against poising, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So there come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye of every one who sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.
(This is an approximate version of the sermon I gave on 10-26-2014).
The scripture passage for today is Acts 3:1-10. Before we read it together, keep in mind that in the early days of the church, no traditions or common practices had been established yet. They didn’t have designated meeting places (church buildings) or a liturgy or new music or guitars or systematic theology tomes or even the New Testament. All they had were some carry-over practices from Judaism. Jesus had ascended, but here we find Peter and John still going to the temple to worship.
Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, “Look at us.” So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them—walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
A few bits of information to fill in about this scene: The beggar wasn’t at the gate of the temple for a spiritual or religious reason. He was there because it was simply a high-traffic area. He had been begging there regularly for many years. Each day, his friends would carry him to his usual spot by the gate and in the evening they would carry him back home. When Peter and John stopped to look at him, he just thought they where going to give him a handout.
Now we live in the rural USA, so do we have anything like this at home? Of course we do. How many of you have ever driven to Spokane for some kind of errand? Everyone of course. And what do you always see on the exit ramp on Division street? Several folks like this guy here:
It’s a good place to camp out because there is so much traffic. The beggar in Acts 3 was just doing the same thing. When I visited Ethiopia and went to church, it was just like this. There were many crippled people by the gate. Yes, some of them were there for the service too, but many of them were just trying to find a busy spot.
The beggar was hitting up the wrong fellows though if he wanted some cash. Peter and John were quite literally couch-surfing Apostles. They had left their day jobs several years ago and were staying with friends in Jerusalem who were giving them food and a place to sleep. They didn’t have a dime on them though they probably owned some property back in Galilee.
Now, I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this passage, and they nearly always fall into one of two categories:
- The cessationist position says, “Well, Peter and John didn’t have any money, but they had miracles! That’s nice, but we don’t have that anymore so all we can do is tell them Jesus loves them and preach at them. If we want to really help people we’re going to need some money. Let’s see if we can figure out how to get some money and buy them food or medicine or get them a job.”
- The Pentecostal/Charismatic position: “So exciting! Let’s all go out and heal people left and right in Jesus name just like Peter and John did. That would rock!”
I’d like to go in a different direction today than either of these. First, let’s look at another passage that I think often has more bearing on our thought these days.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
It’s sometime said that people can’t hear the gospel on an empty stomach. In the past two millennia, Christians have been at the forefront of mercy ministry. Christians built many of the first hospitals all over the world. Who is on the front line fighting Ebola in West Africa right now? Christians. Who runs the food bank in our town? Who operators the hospital where my daughter had her eye surgery last year (and wrote off most of the bill!)? Who ran the orphanage she was from? The State? The Elks club? No. Christians! Christians who are familiar with this passage from James. Go them!
But, this focus on legitimate material needs can backfire and play into modern materialism. It can lead us to say, “Silver and gold have I not, so sorry man! You’re outta luck!”
What is materialism? It is the current standard, politically correct philosophy of the world. It is the idea that matter – the stuff you can look at under a microscope or a telescope is quite literally ALL there is. Beauty and love are just chemical reactions in your brain. Love is testosterone in your blood. All of that could be accounted for fully if we just had better instruments (coming soon!). There is certainly no God – that is just a social construct. What is real is the material world and there is nothing else.
If you grew up watching Carl Sagan on public television, you probably heard this a lot.
Virtually all modern secular ethics – everything from environmentalism to marriage law to the centrality of money stem from this key idea of materialism.
And we Christians may believe in God, but we can still get caught up in this kind of thinking. One characteristic result of materialism is the desire to quantify everything and convert all meaning into a dollar amount.
This poster is a good example:
Now on one hand, I appreciate what the creator of this infographic is trying to do. A stay-at-home mother does a tremendous amount of skilled work. The idea that they are inferior to their public career counterparts is a load of nonsense. Homeschooling mothers take this another step further. But see what is going on here? Every single minute of the day is given a price tag. The mother’s value doing the laundry is worth a couple dollars less than her work as a teacher. She’s being dehumanized. Her value is being deconstructed like the engine of a car or a substance in a laboratory.
“We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.”
Just this week, my friend Mike dropped everything he was doing to come help me move a broken washing machine out of my house. A couple nights later, my friend Seth drove me to the urgent care clinic when I injured my eye. Now, in theory, I could have paid someone to help me move the washer or I could have called a taxi for the drive across town. But the community that was built by their presence, by the talking that happened in the moments in-between, that was of substantial value and difficult to quantify. Science is bad at picking up that data and accounting for that value – it slips through the cracks.
“The dominant intellectual tradition of the West is one of order which seeks to discern understand, decipher, know, and if possible, master and control. Thus the biblical tradition of hope [for a redeemed future] lives in tension with the dominant intellectual tradition and often has not had its full say.” – Walter Brueggemann
I believe that this sort of eagerness to quantify everything has bled into our Christianity.
You all recognize this guy? It’s Dave Ramsey. He’s on stage cutting up a credit card, which is one of his trademark moves. Now Dave offers excellent advice on how to not go into debt and become a slave to the lender. He has tons of great practical wisdom on managing your money wisely. His “Financial Peace University” seminar is worth attending. I highly recommend it.
BUT, Ramsey is no prophet. No matter how many bible verses he quotes in his talks. Peace is found through… having enough set aside in savings to handle unexpected expense? Or is hope found in Jesus? Is our rest found in having enough of the right insurance if disaster strikes? Or is Jesus our rest? Hope for the future – is it found in having a big fat 401K retirement account, or in Jesus? Watch out. It’s easy to get too caught up in thinking about money in this way.
Moving on though, I’d like to address the chief way that we know materialism has bled into our faith: We suspect that prayer doesn’t actually do anything.
A guy I went to college with (who has since rejected Christianity) posted this on Facebook a few days ago. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s a checklist showing that prayer doesn’t do jack squat whereas getting off your butt actually does. I think that deep down, some of us Christians are suspicious that this might in fact be true.
What is our attitude toward someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta? (These photos are of her working in the slums.)
Now the world things Mother Teresa’s work was just a big fat waste of time and money. She wasn’t a doctor after all. She didn’t actually heal people. She comforted the dying. If she had been a star surgeon, she would have some worldly respect but no – she “just” ran a home for terminal outcasts – you know, people God cares about.
Here’s another example. The wonderful documentary Into Great Silence came out a few years ago. It slowly follows the daily life of some Christian monks living deep in the French alps. Watch it some evening when you have a lot of uninterrupted time. It’s quite long.
Now, we enterprising high-work-ethic Americans can maybe appreciate monks that serve in practical and tangible ways that can measured. But these guys? Their entire ministry is to pray. That’s it. The world just laughs at them. “Bwahahahaha! All they do is pray? What a freakin’ waste.” Do we think the same thing though? Do we think this is an illegitimate ministry?
An online acquaintance of mine, Chaplain Mike, had this to say:
“One must have a specific calling to do this kind of work, for work it is. The Carthusians see themselves as the “heart” of the church and its mission in the world. As our hearts beat steadily, quietly, hidden deep within our chests, so these monks, hidden away in the French Alps, maintain a rhythmic pulse of solitude and community, prayer and work, day after day after day pumping oxygenated (Spirit-filled) life invisibly throughout the world.”
“Who can tell what we owe them?”
But what about all that stuff in James about how we need to minister to man’s physical needs? This does not invalidate prayer. The effectiveness of prayer is reinforced all over scripture:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1 Timothy 2:1-2
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
And even in James, a few paragraphs later:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
So do we, as Christians think that prayer is a legitimate undertaking? If not, we are thinking like a materialist.
Now some of you might remember this hilarious Macguyver MasterCard commercial from a few years ago. Take a look.
Now what actually helps Macguyver escape from all the difficult circumstances he finds himself in? His awesome Swiss army knife? His clever inventiveness? No! It’s the script writers! They make sure that he always saves the day in the nick of time. The script writer in our story is God. He’s in control. How things work out? We call that God’s providence. It can look a lot like luck sometimes. But God is the author of reality, not us. We are not the primary agent at work making the world spin.
So, what do you have? What can you give?
- Your attention. You can listen. You can treat everyone you meet like a valuable human being.
- Your time. You can serve. If you are married you already have practice at this. If you have kids, you already have lots of practice. But the Christian community is a lot bigger than the nuclear family. You can cast a wider net.
- Your prayers. Prayer changes you, but, (and nobody knows quite how this works since God is unchangeable), in it some way it seems to change God too. Our prayers are not just sending messages in a bottle to nobody, but talking to an all-powerful God whose Holy Spirit is actively at work in time right now.
- Yourself. Who you are – what your station is in life. Don’t wish you were someone else or fall into the trap of feeling guilty because you don’t do someone as well as someone else. Love the people you’ve been given to love – your wife, your husband, your children, your friends. You can’t give yourself if you’re trying to be someone else.
- Silver and gold. As Americans in the 21st century, we really do have a ridiculous amount of cash compared to the rest of the world. Peter and John didn’t have any money, but you probably do. What are you doing with it?
Yes, I know it’s a bit ironic to circle back around to money, but I want to talk about a spiritual side-effect of giving for just a second.
If you are not using any of your money for charity right now, or to fund Christian ministry, and you are keeping it all to yourself, then if you were to start giving away, say, 10% of your income, would that lower your standard of living? Almost certainly it would. You’d have less money in the budget for food, or entertainment, or even important stuff like medical bills and tires for the car. So what do you gain? You gain a changed heart – a softer heart that is not QUITE as deeply entwined with the fleeting stuff of this world than it was before. And this is a very healthy thing – for your character, spiritually – for your soul, and quite possibly for your children too. If you don’t give anything, what does that communicate to your children? It says, “Piling up stuff for yourself is super important. Go do likewise.”
Now, rather than try to guilt trip you into giving more money (not what the sermon is actually about if you haven’t noticed), what I would rather you do is ask God to increase your faith so that giving more is something desirable to you.
What can you do?
- Ask the Holy Spirit to make you less selfish.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to give you more faith.
Lord Jesus Christ, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity; and make us love what you command. Make us into less selfish people – willing to give silver and gold, or even better – courageous enough to give our selves. We praise you almighty God, for all you’ve given us. Amen.
Well, a new job and a change of the daily work/family/homeschool dynamic can certainly do a number on writing output. I think it’s been a good four years since things were this quiet around here. Hopefully I’ll get a few pieces out the door here before the end of the year.
I put together (in my opinion) a pretty decent sermon last month but gave it entirely from rough notes instead of composing it verbatim beforehand. That made for a less stilted presentation, but no dense series of posts as a side-effect.
I’m not sure if it was a reaction to the latest round of bickering about atonement theory on the web (blogs, twitter, whatever) the past few months, or something else, but I’ve found myself much more enamored with the second advent of Christ than I have been previously. Not for the sake of some eschatological theory, but just for the raw hope of Him coming back to make everything OK. I recently tweeted a new simplified definition of what a Christian is: Someone who believes Jesus is coming back to fix. every. damn. thing.
The world is so big and so broken. It’s full of evil and tragedy and sin. And yes, my own sin is very real and not to be discounted, but really, I’m just one finite human. Jesus died for my sins? That’s great, but however you slice it, it’s just a drop in the ocean. Big deal. I don’t care if some imaginary court room drama is an accurate representation of what happened when Jesus died or not. I’m fine with it, but it barely begins to fix anything. This place is a huge mess – tremendously beyond the reach of my own failings or that of all the people I know. Who will save us from this body of death – from this earth of decay? Jesus Christ, the King. He will heal every last thing when he comes back. Amen. Now that’s something I can really look forward too, rather than worrying about if my repentance is 100% real or if I’m “right with God”. The King that comes back is GOOD. We can trust Him and He loves us.
Some theologians and pastors like to talk about the “cross centered life” and that’s fine. But I think I’d rather talk about the “empty tomb centered life”, or maybe even the “second advent centered life”. The cross narrative is always trying to tie everything back to me and my sin, but that only goes so far when you’re talking about the redemption of all creation. I long for the King to come back and fix EVERYTHING (which incidentally includes me).
Articulated below, with reference text. Based on the list Walter Brueggemann gives on p.23 of Hope Within History.
A year of release which would seem to undermine all conventional economies.
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother, except when there may be no poor among you; for the Lord will greatly bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance— only if you carefully obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe with care all these commandments which I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you.
“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’ (Deut. 15:1-11)
A prophetic word instead of religious technique
“When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not appointed such for you.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’
“And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:9-22)
A king, but one who merely reads the torah
“When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,’ you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. But he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, for the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall not return that way again.’ Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself.
“Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel. (Deut. 17:14-20)
Cities of refuge to curb unauthorized violence
“When the Lord your God has cut off the nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess. You shall prepare roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, that any manslayer may flee there.
“And this is the case of the manslayer who flees there, that he may live: Whoever kills his neighbor unintentionally, not having hated him in time past— as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he shall flee to one of these cities and live; lest the avenger of blood, while his anger is hot, pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and kill him, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated the victim in time past. Therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall separate three cities for yourself.’
“Now if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers, and if you keep all these commandments and do them, which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to walk always in His ways, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus guilt of bloodshed be upon you. (Deut. 19:1-10)
Collateral for loans returned to the poor at night
“When you lend your brother anything, you shall not go into his house to get his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you lend shall bring the pledge out to you. And if the man is poor, you shall not keep his pledge overnight. You shall in any case return the pledge to him again when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own garment and bless you; and it shall be righteousness to you before the Lord your God. (Deut. 24:10-13)
Hospitality for runaway slaves
“You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him. (Deut. 23:15-16)
Payments of wages to the poor on the day earned, to prevent exploitative use of the money belonging to another
“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you. (Deut. 24:14-15)
Below, I’ve simply taken a passage from some excellent commentary on Isaiah 54 by Walter Bruegemann and added in the scripture references. A few additional comments are at the bottom.
Then Abram and Nahor took wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai… but Sarai was barren; she had no child.
Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah as wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Syrian. Now Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife, because she was barren.
Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years. When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.
1 Samuel 1:1-2
Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim Zophim, of the mountains of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. And he had two wives: the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.
Sing, O barren,
You who have not borne!
Break forth into singing, and cry aloud,
You who have not labored with child!
For more are the children of the desolate
Than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
And let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings;
Do not spare;
Lengthen your cords,
And strengthen your stakes.
For you shall expand to the right and to the left,
And your descendants will inherit the nations,
And make the desolate cities inhabited.
The barren one will have children. The barren one is Sarah (Gen. 11:30), Rebekah (Gen.25:21), Rachel (Gen. 29:30), and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:2). ours is a community of barren women and unproductive men (Hebrews 11:12) with no possibility of creating a future of their own. The barren one in this poem is exiled Israel as well as the church whenever it reaches the end of its resources, which is often and soon and surely now.
-Walter Brueggemann, Hope Within History, p.94
We often lament that the church is barren – unable to reproduce faith in our own children who are leaving the fold, entranced by the world and uninterested in being a disciple of Jesus. Now, whether this is actually the case is not so clear-cut, but I will save that for others to discuss for now. The point is, when the church is at the end of it’s resources, when it is barren, then we are in good company.
The patriarchs were as good as dead and their wives fruitless wombs. And yet they were given an incredible multitude of children, by the power of God. If we look for renewal within the church, we must look for it in the person of the Holy Spirit, not in our own cleverness or technique or pedagogy or persuasiveness or savvy mobilization of talent.
In an essay titled ‘Love and Need: Is Love a Package or a Message?’, Thomas Merton has the following to say:
Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be fully real until we let ourselves ‘fall’ in love – either with another human person or with God.
Hence, our attitude toward life is also going to be in one way or another an attitude toward love. Our conception of ourselves is bound to be profoundly affected by our conceptions – and our experience – of love. And our love, or our lack of it, our willingness to risk it or our determination to avoid it, will in the end be an expression of ourselves: of who we think we are, of what we want to be, of what we think we are here for. (Love and Living, p.28)
Who we are, what we want to be, what we think we are here for – those things will determine the shape of our love. Who we think God is, who we think we are – these things drive it. And it can take many different shapes. The reverse is true – our idea of loves changes to match our own context. When we hear a love song, we automatically see if we can make it about ourselves. If not, then it can be heard only at a distance.
One of the albums I listen to in the car on occasion is the self-titled 2000 release from Nickel Creek. I was thinking about the beautiful piece “Out of the Woods” and how excellent a love song it is. My oldest daughter likes it too. She was asking me a couple days ago why it’s a good song. It seems that much of the very best song-writing produces something both meaningful enough to be full of power/content, and vague enough to be highly personalized and (through a quick stretch of the imagination) internalized. It’s one reason why many of U2’s songs are so good. Are they about God or about a girl? The answer is sometimes one, sometimes the other, and often the artist himself cannot say where the cut-over is, or if there even is one.
Walker Percy, in his treatise on language (a good summary here), says:
The poet, has a double-edged task: His metaphors must ring true, but they must be flexible enough to reverberate with his audience and for them to gain a new understanding of the things to which they refer. The poet must refer to things we already know, but he must do so in new ways; in this, he gives his audience access to their own private experiences.
So why is Out of the Woods (originally written by Irish singer Sinead Lohan), so good?
I wish you out of the woods
And into the picture with me.
I wish you over the moon,
Come out of the question and be.
If this going to
Run round in my head
I might as well be dreaming.
Run round in my head
I rollercoaster for you.
Time out of mind
Must be heavenly.
It’s all enchanted and wild,
It’s just like my heart said
It was going to be.
If this going to
Run round in my head
I might as well be dreaming.
Run round in my head
I wish you out of the woods, and into the picture with me…
I know it’s dangerous (or even silly) to hold this sort of thing up to analysis, but I’ll briefly give it a shot in defense of my assertion that this is an especially good song.
It works for a young person (a teenager), hoping that the person they love notices them. It works for the young person, in a relationship with someone, but wondering about the future – wishing for commitment and stability. It also works for a couple long married – with one wishing the other out of their stress and trial and maybe disillusionment. The second verse can be about the current excitement of youthful infatuation, or the distant memory of it. What is running round your head? The joy of possibility? Or confusion and uncertainty? It can go many directions, and it DOES, depending on the context of the person listening to it.
The arrangement of the music (it was produced by Alison Krauss) is also especially good. Why not take a listen?
This is not a thorough or careful treatment of this question, but rather a meditation. And by meditation, I’m afraid I mean “steam of consciousness”.
Faithful Roman Catholics pray and ask Mary, the mother of Christ (most likely awaiting the resurrection) to pray for them “now and at the hour of our death”.
Some people even in the modern age will gain audience with a person known to be “close to God” or possibly just “spiritual” and ask them to pray for them.
If the Pope prays for you, that’s good right? But is it any better than your grandma praying for you? If not, then who cares?
Other Christians teach that fasting or unusual persistence will give you “power” with God. How this is different than the prophets of Baal cutting themselves in the showdown with Elijah is unclear, but it’s a fairly prevalent idea, both in modern renewal movements and among some of the church fathers.
In the final chapter of the book of Job, Job’s three friends make sacrifices to God and ask Job to pray for them. In fact, God commands them to do this and ask Job to pray for them, because God is going to listen to Job’s intercession and not theirs. Job is functioning as a priest for them in this case.
And of course the Levitical priests in the Old Testament had a special function. They really did communicate to God in certain ways that the average Joe could not do. Their role was formal, but it was truly priestly. They were gatekeepers to heavenly communication, though they were bound by the law to help facilitate all who approached. They were not supposed to be filters.
But now, in the New Testament, Post-Jesus, what do we see? Is this still the case? Does it matter at all WHO prays for you? Does God hear the prayers of one person louder than another? The typcical modern Evangelical answer is “OF COURSE NOT!”. What a silly idea. We are all absolutely equal. Men and women. (Imported from the secular feminist movement.) Old and young (Imported from every youth rebellion ever.) Jew and Gentile, Slave and Free, Poor and Billionaire, Israeli and Greek and Roman and Brazillian and Canadian. We all be God’s children and God be everywhere, and He be listening to us, so enough with this nonsense of Him hearing one person more than another, or paying attention to one person more than another. The (gospel?) has leveled the playing field to the consistency of a shiny tabletop. There is a good reason why most post-reformation ministers (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, etc.) were no longer named “priests”. We are all priests, all of us, and only one step away from Jesus, rather than 2 steps. So when we pray, it’s got just as much power or ear as Mother Theresa or Pope Francis, or the holy magical hermit of your choice or even the dead famous saint of your choice. Boom! We’re all equal now ’cause Jesus. Everyone’s cell phone on earth has 4 bars.
But, is this really in line with what we find in scripture? Is it really in line with what we still teach (theologically, implied in catechism, today)? Is it really in line with what we seem to find in reality?
As much as we might profess (or formally “confess”), it seems like the state of the matter is otherwise. God maybe hears some people more than others. Is this just an illusion – projection – our own faulty interpretation of events? Perhaps, but if God listened to Job and NOT to Eliphaz back then, what about now? If Paul’s hankerchief had magic powers, what about my hankerchief? No? Why not!? I thought we were all equal?
Is there any value in having the pastor pray for you, versus having your friend pray for you, OR you just asking yourself? Isn’t God listening equally to all three people? Is any one of them automatically more persuasive?
I don’t have a real solid answer to this, though I can say that I nonetheless lean in an Evangelical (personal) direction on this entire discussion. But this does strike at the heart of what the Christian life and Christian faith look like on the ground level – in the dirt itself. How you answer the question “Does God actually listen to some people more than others?” has real implications in a number of areas of life.
I’ve heard it said by some people attempting to rid prayer of any semblance of magic, that prayer is actually just for US, for the one praying, and not for God. It changes OUR hearts (like cardiovascular exercise) but doesn’t actually move the unmovable, unchangable God. But it doesn’t take a genius or a Ph.D. to scoff at this statement and come to the obvious conclusion of “well, what’s the freakin’ point then?” I don’t think this is a foolish question showing an obvious lack of trust in the Triune God. Maybe it’s just the completely rational response of a very faithful person who suspects he’s being taught a bunch of B.S.
You know what I think might, JUST MIGHT, be a more honest answer to this question? “Yes“. God does actually pay attention to some people more than others. At least sort of. And it’s OK. He can do that if He wants to.
He actually pays special attention to a husband’s prayers about his wife, rather than prayers from some guy about some gal. He actually does pay particular attention to the prayers of a pastor for his flock, rather than the same random guy on the street asking the same thing for the same person. The 12 original Apostles really were special in some sense, though we evangelicals, (especially Pentecostal ones who belong to churches with “Apostolic” in the title) are lothe to admit. And having your father prayer for you just might actually be better than having your buddy pray for you, if possible.
This all sounds crazy, I know. But we live in a universe with rules. Jesus commended the Roman Centurion for his realization that, because of his hierarchical authority over nature and/or demons, Jesus didn’t even have to visit his house to perform a healing. Jesus just had a say the word. The man’s faith was greatly praised. Do we have the same faith? Do we have the same humility? Can we admit that we aren’t “all that”, (despite the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”) and ask for help, but not alone?
I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be alone. Will you pray for me?
I already posted twice about two especially curious passages of demonology in Athanasius’s original hagiography of St. Antony of the Desert. Here are the other most interesting passages I came across, with a few notes. Page numbers are from the Gregg edition, which seemed very readable to me.
A great quote comparing economics and the gospel:
The entire life span of men is very brief when measured against the ages to come, so that all our time is nothing in comparison with eternal life. Everything in the world is sold for what it is worth, and someone trades an item for its equivalent. But the promise of eternal life is purchased for very little.
An interesting passage about worshipping the creature rather than the creator. Great metaphors near the end.
You wish to say that these things are told by you in the manner of myth, and you allegorize the rape of Persephone, referring it to the earth, and the lameness of Hephaestus to fire, and Here to the air, and Apollos to the sun, and Artemis to the moon, and Poseidon to the sea, nonetheless you do not worship God himself – on the contrary, you serve the creature instead of the God who created all things. Perhaps it was because of the creation’s beauty that you composed such tales. Nevertheless it is fitting for you to go only so far as to admire, not to deify, the things created, lest you render the honor due the maker to the things made. Otherwise, the time has come for you to transfer honor due the architect to the house he has made or that due the general to the soldier.
This passage here – if applied to secular humanism and scientism of today – sounds like it could have been written just yesterday rather than in the fourth century. Amazingly timeless!
Your religion was never persecuted, and in every city it is honored among men, and yet our doctrines flourish and increase beyond yours. Your views perish, though acclaimed and celebrated far and wide. But the faith and teaching of Christ, ridiculed by you and persecuted frequently by rulers, has filled the world. For when did the knowledge of God shine with such brilliance? When did moderation and virtue of virginity so manifest itself? Or when was death so despised, if it was not when the cross of Christ came?
From the Letter to Marcellinus, an excellent description of how the psalms function as a workbook or activity manual for the rest of scripture.
For in other other books one hears only what one must do and what one must not do. And one listens to the Prophets so as solely to have knowledge of the coming Savior. One turns his attention to the histories, on the basis of which he can know the deeds of the kings and saints. But in the Book of Psalms the one who hears, in addition to learning these things, also comprehends and is taught in it the emotions of the soul, and, consequently, on the basis of that which affects him and by which he is constrained, he also is enabled by this book to possess the image deriving from the words. Therefore, through hearing, it teaches not only not to disregard passion, but also how one must heal passion through speaking and acting. Now there certainly are in the other books preventative words that forbid wickedness, but in this book is also prescribed how one must abstain. Of such a sort is the commandment to repent – for to repent is to cease from sin. Herein is prescribed also how to repent and what one must say in the circumstances of repentance. In the Psalms it is written and inscribed how one must bear sufferings, what one must say to one suffering afflictions, what to say after afflictions, how each person is tested, and what the words of those who hope in God are. Furthermore, there is a command to give thanks in all circumstances, but the Psalms also teach what one must say when giving thanks.
And finally, an interesting footnote I came across on how from early on the Christian church put the brakes on zealous young men who were a little too eager to go get themselves killed doing something stupid in the name of God.
From an early point there was suspicion within the Church of those who were too eager for martyrdom. Anthony’s unwillingness “to hand himself over” is more dramatically presented in the nearly ritual attempts of Bishop Polycarp to evade his pursuers in Mart. Polycarp 5-6. The author of the martyrology states clearly in the preceding section: “Therefore brethren, we do not commend those who surrender themselves, for such is not the teaching of the Gospel.” The Council of Elvira in Spain in 305 reached the decision that overzealous Christians whose provocative actions involved the smashing of idols were not to be regarded, if apprehended and punished, as martyrs.
p.139, note 99
Contrast this with how the leaders of Islam over the centuries and recently, have frequently NOT done as much to curtail this sort of thing.
Do demons (or Satan) know the future? “No.” says St. Anthony (or rather says St. Athanasius, his biographer), it’s just that they have very fast communication or movement speed at their disposal. Really. They see events happening very far away – long before any messenger or news can be sent by typical human means. Then they rush off and use their inside information to inform soothsayers, or give their targets the real information in a vision (along with some lies) so that the mixing of real intel with the false will strengthen their control over the hearer.
In a lengthy and fascinating passage that I’ll quote below, Athanasius explains how of course only God can know the future, but that demons can travel far faster than even a man on horseback. Using this knowledge, they twisted it to their advantage in a world were communication was very slow. Though he doesn’t use the phrase “familiar spirit”, this is exactly what Athanasius is describing.
This makes for an interesting shift in just the past couple of decades. We now have global satellite networks hooked into billions of cell phones. Even people in rural Africa and Asia have mobile phones. News travels fast. I can pick up my phone right now and speak, in real time, to someone on the other side of the earth. For the bulk of human history, nothing like this was possible for man, but something like it WAS available to angels, be they light or dark. And so now man’s own ability to communicate surpasses that of the demons.
Many are skeptical of all this old demonology of course, but still, if any of Athanasius’s description of the spirit world is accurate, then this has serious implications. It means that one of the demon’s primary advantages and tools has been neutralized. False prophecy based on the knowledge of distant events is no longer remarkable to man. He has only to watch breaking news on the television. The legit fortune teller or witch doctor USED TO have something really interesting to say on occasion, but no more. Our world is so full of computer magic, that the old “real” magic the demons seemed to have now seems like no big deal. All their many other ways of tempting us and whispering words of despair into our hearts are still available to them and I assume still work to great effect. But their days of controlling people with false knowledge of the future are largely (and recently!) over – at least of the sort that Athanasius describes here.
Furthermore, should [demons] pretend to prophesy, let no one be won over. It frequently happens that they tell us days in advance about brothers who are to travel our way some days later – and these people do arrive. The demons do this not out of any concern for their hearers, but in order to persuade them to trust them, and after that, having brought them under control, to destroy them. Therefore we must not pay attention to them, but overthrow them even while they are speaking, since we have no need of them. For what is so marvelous, if they who use bodies thinner in substance than those of humans, spying those who begin their journey, get a head start in the running and announce their arrival? This sort of thing someone riding a horse also foretells, preceding those who journey on foot. So it is not necessary to marvel at them in this case. They have no foreknowledge of things that have not yet occurred; God is the only one who knows all things before their birth. But these, like thieves, run ahead and report what they see. To how many do they right now give signs regarding our affairs – that we are gathered together and that we are speaking against them – before someone could leave from among us and make a report! But some boy swift of foot could do this, outrunning one who is slower.
What I am saying is this. Should someone begin to travel from the Thebaid, or from some other place, they do not know before he begins to walk if he will walk. But after they see him walking, they run ahead, and before he comes they announce him. And so it is that these travelers arrive after a few days. But often, when people on a journey turn back, the demons are caught in a lie.
So, too, there are times when they talk nonsense about the water of the River. For when they observe numerous rains occurring in parts of Ethiopia, knowing how the flooding of the River originates there, before the water enters Egypt the rush ahead and report it. But even men could have told this, if they were able to run as fast these [demons]. In just that way these demons also choose to hurry ahead and declare signs to others for the sole purpose of deceiving.
So it was that the oracles of the Greeks arose and they were led astray in the former times by the demons. But so also has this deceit been brought to an end from this time forward, for the Lord came, who reduced to impotency not only their villainy, but the demons themselves. For they know nothing by their own power, but like thieves they pass along what they pick up from others, and they are more nearly speculators than prognosticators. If, therefore, they sometimes speak the truth, do not let anyone marvel at them for this. It happens also that physicians who deal with illness, observing the same disease in different people, offer a prognosis, frequently conjecturing from what is familiar to them. And again, ships’ helmsmen and farmers, looking at the weather conditions with practiced eyes, can predict if it will be stormy or fair. Now someone would not say on this account that they are foretelling through divine inspiration, but rather, on the basis of experience and practice. So if the demons also sometimes say these same things by conjecture, let no one, for this reason, be amazed at them or pay attention to them.
What is the purpose of the enthusiasm for knowing such things, even if one could, in truth, know them? This does not produce virtue, nor represent any evidence at all of good character. None of us is judged for what he does not know, any more than one is counted blessed because he is learned and possesses knowledge. It is rather in regard to these questions that each faces judgement: whether he has kept the faith and sincerely observed the commandments.
Therefore we are not to attach much importance to these other things, and not for the purpose of gaining foreknowledge are we to train ourselves and labor – but rather in order that we may please God in the way we lead our lives. And we ought neither to pray that we might have the power to know things before they occur, nor ought we to ask this as a reward for our discipline – but rather that the Lord may be our fellow worker for the conquest of the devil. But if sometime the capacity for foreknowledge matters to us, let us be pure in understanding. For I believe that when a soul is pure in every way and in its natural state, it is able, having become clearsighted, to see more and farther than the demons, since it has the Lord who reveals things to it.
(Gregg ed. p.55-56)
I wonder what other implications this has.
From St. Athanasius’s Life of Anthony:
It is possible, then [the demons] model themselves after the form of monks, for them to pretend to speak like the devout, so that by means of the similarity of form they deceive, and then drag those whom they have beguiled wherever they wish. Nevertheless it is unnecessary to heed them, even if they awaken you for prayer, or counsel you to eat nothing tat all, or pretend to level accusations and reproaches concerning actions for which, at another time, they excused us. They do not do these things for the sake of piety or truth, but so that they might bring the simple to despair, and declare [spiritual discipline] useless, and make men sick of the solitary life as something burdensome and very oppressive, and trip up those who, opposing them, lead it. (Gregg ed., p.50)
It is interesting here that in this description from St. Anthony, the demons do not appear in a form tempting one to sin outright, but rather to place a heavy burden on the victim to do good works, that they might be driven to despair at their failure. The guise here is demon as Puritan – urging you to always be praying and fasting and doing good, beyond what your own psyche and body can handle. Throwing your hands up in the air, you (quite rightly in one sense) declare the whole thing to be an impossible task and give up. But the Lord’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. (Matthew 11:30) Therefore, when we preach a heavy burden of spiritual discipline to our flock or to our children, we must be sure we are not doing the work of demons who would break their spirits and make the Way of Christ seem discouraging and cruel to them. In our present age, this is likely to be a more potent weapon of theirs than nightmares.