In commenting on the rigid rules of monastic orders, Erikson comments:

We fail to understand that the indoctrinated individual of another era or country may feel quite at peace and quite free and productive in his ideological captivity, while we being stimulus-slaves, ensnared at all times by a million freely chosen impressions and opportunities, may somehow feel unfree.

-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p.135

“Only a slave can be truly free” Michael Card says when trying to sing about discipleship. Despite being free from sin, we continue to keep up with the Joneses, which is bondage. Speaking for myself here, I think I could stand to hear more admonishment to embrace certain restrains, not just individual moral ones. Learn to love the restraint of marriage or children, not despise it. Just like we can learn to love the restraint of serving Christ.

Finding yourself

I’m reading the Ball and the Cross by Chesterton for the first time for a book club my friend is hosting. I’ve only ever read his nonfiction in the past.

Lots of funny stuff in there:

A great light like dawn came into Mr. Turnbull’s face… He bounded to his feet like a boy; he saw a new youth opening before him And as not infrequently happens to middle-aged gentlemen when they see a new youth opening before them, he found himself in the presence of the police. (Ch.2)


Discovering that we don’t know what we want (Prayer)

Alison’s passage here on prayer is really interesting, though his “symptom” language is a bit confusing:

It is not true that we pray so as to move God. It is truer that in our praying God is moving us. It is truer that we are prayed-in than that we pray. This I take to be absolutely in line with Paul’s teaching in Romans:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

It is also, surely, the point of our Lord’s insistence:

“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows that you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

If it is true that our ‘self’ is a symptom, then prayer is God’s way of getting into the symptom from within and transforming it. This picture of the self does indeed presuppose that we don’t really know what we want, a discovery which may be one of the most important things about learning to pray. And this means not that we can’t make our mind up about this desire or that desire, but that our mind is made up of, constituted by, contradictory desires such that we can’t desire in a healthy way at all. The reason why our Lord insists on prayer is not so as to turn us all into mystics who levitate and float off walls, though that would be fun too, but because it is by agreeing to get in touch with, and not mind sitting with and in the contradictory, somewhat ‘smelly’ desires which move us that we are able to allow our desire to be strengthened, directed, ordered, so that we actually become someone. This is the promise of prayer: don’t be content with to little, dare to be given to become someone. And the promise is realized as a resting in and trusting in one who ‘knows what you need before you ask him’ which means, who is the active subject whose ‘symptom’ you are.

-James Alison, On Being Liked, p.142

Sure, we bring our petitions to God, but I find that during most of our deepest times of prayer, we don’t really know what we are asking. We don’t know what we want, what we expect. But we are still praying. It transforms us. It opens the door for him to transform some part of us. This is good.

Sharing responsibility for church

Alison is not a fan of authoritarian church government. Though I think he takes it a bit far in the other direction, he has some good points.

It is difficult to think of any subject which has been more used and abused than ecclesiastical language about sheep and shepherds – to such an extent that the very language of the Good Shepherd seems coated in kitsch, and, in the light of recent events in the United States and elsewhere, tinged wit a sad, and sometimes appalling, irony.

-James Alison, On Being Liked, p. 114

So what do you do when you don’t agree with your pastor? Church split!? Maybe not.

It means that if we disagree with something, then what we are doing is – disagreeing! Which is what adults do, helpfully, within a project for which they share responsibility. This is not dissenting, which is what subordinates do within a project where the responsibility is always with the higher-ups. And there are as we know, but rarely remember, no subordinates in the shepherding:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. -Matthew 23:8


If we are consumers or just worker bees, then when trouble arises (and it always will, we’re all human), then “fixing” things often involves some form of “stickin’ it to the man”. But if we share responsibility, love the church, then we will always minimize damage. Even if there is a functional church split, we won’t give parting blows on the way out or start up hate-blogs afterwards. Geesh.

The sacraments give life so WE don’t have to

Here, Alison describes a period in his life were he felt absolutely horrible, worthless, useless, and despaired. During this this whole time though, he was still serving as a priest with the Dominicans. He writes this about a surprising aspect:

As a priest I was able, of course, to offer them sacraments and the other gifts of priestly ministry, and I remember even then being struck by how they were able to receive a power and transforming grace from the sacraments, a power and grace which had absolutely nothing to do with my subjectivity, whose eyes were scarcely daring to look at what I was doing. It was if in fact the sign was working quite independently of its minister, who was a sort of Baalam’s ass of ex opere operatio grace.

-James Alison, On Being Liked, p.67

The liturgy and the centrality of the sacraments in worship is a strong glue that can hold together really screwed up people. What a far cry from a setting where the pastor is the center of attention up on the stage. If he doesn’t have all his ducks in a row and bring a smile every day, the magic cannot be worked. If he’s feeling down, his only option is to fake it. And when you’re burned out or having trouble with your (kids, marriage, money, all the usual stuff), you practice getting really good at faking the smile. You are the model for your congregation and they get the message. Fake the smile or it will all fall apart. Our faith is built on the solid rock, but the life of the church community centers around something that is really, really fragile.

This is one of the main reason’s I’m diggin’ on liturgy lately.

Church looks different other places

Reading the Tall Skinny Kiwi is always interesting:

Where are we right now? We have been in Africa for most of the year, in an area where the MAJORITY of believers connect together in simple, non-hierarchical churches that exhibit emergent behavior. In USA, we might call them emerging churches but over here, and also in Asia, they are just the kind of churches that make sense in countries where resources are low and governments are suspicious and locals have less contact with complicated, expensive, non-sustainable Western models of church. And its a good thing.

I confess, I really have no idea what this looks like. I’ve never been outside of the U.S. (not counting Canada) and never been outside of American evangelicism (not counting the RC). I’d love to travel.

The free gift of grace (seriously)

So today was my monthly turn to teach Sunday school to the 2nd-4th grade class. I was supposed to talk about the book of Romans.

Despite my skepticism of using the “Roman’s Road” for cold-call evangelism, I think its actually a good teaching tool and decided to take them through it. I ended up talking for a while on Romans 6:23 (which is step 2/5).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

-Romans 6:23 (ESV)

The FREE gift of God. You got that? Did you do anything to deserve it? This is Sunday school of course, so they all nod their heads. Most of the kids are nine years old. They’ve heard this a hundred times already. Grace has really been buggin’ me lately though, so I decided to press the issue. I told them that from now until the day they grow old and die, at every turn, someone is going to come along and try to tack on extra requirements to receive God’s grace. On paper there may be no prerequisites, but you’ll find that practically, socially, there is always a stack. I used an example that seemed to get their attention:

What if a guy was an abortion doctor? It’s his job every day to kill babies. Seriously. Now, say he decides to follow Jesus and confesses that he is Lord. Great! Now what if then he goes back to work on Monday? What if he doesn’t quit his job? Is he still going to hell? Is God’s gift really FREE or not, eh? Are there still prereqs of our own good works to receive it?

(We stopped shortly after, had cookies and played hangman for the last 10 minutes)

Well yes, it would be a good thing if he quit his job. Yes, we think he probably will. He might not right away though. Does that make him any less a recipient of the grace of God? Did Jesus not die for him until he’s cleaned up his act to a “reasonable” level?

An abortion doctor is an easy target of course. What about a gossip? Do you have a bad habit of talking trash behind people’s backs? Say then you come to Jesus and declare him as Lord. Say you’re baptized. But then back at the office on Monday, there you are dishin’ the dirt on your rival down the hall. Are you not really a Christian? But of course you are. And so is the abortion doctor.

(And if the last part wasn’t uncomfortable, the next part probably will be.)

And so is the homosexual who comes to Jesus and STAYS GAY. Yes, it’s true. Yes, for whatever reason (the genetics of the fall, abuse, circumstances) he’s gay. Maybe following Jesus will “cure” him of his feelings. Great. Happens all the time. Maybe he is really hoping it would! Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe he gives up sexual promiscuity (assuming his life was characterized by it before) but never feels particularly “less gay” for the rest of his life. Anyone along this continuum, at what point are they receiving the grace of Jesus? THE WHOLE TIME.

Do some people really reject Jesus? Do some profess his name but continue to live in blatant disobedience, showing little or no tangible evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit? Yes. We all know them. We ARE them sometimes. I am not in a position to judge their eternal state. I admit, sometimes it looks grim. However, it is my place encourage their being conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. Some people in their life may be granted a place of exhortation too.

Side note: I believe the idea that “all sin is equal” in the eyes of God is a fallacy. On a practical, physical level, the abortion doctor is causing destruction and evil on a much greater capacity than the gossip. The consequences of actions vary widely. Murder is worse in a hundred ways that shoplifting a candy bar isn’t. They are the same though in that they both equally disqualify us from perfection.

Someone living in homosexual promiscuity (for example a man who makes the rounds at the gay bar) is no more a sinner than the guy playing house with his girlfriend. The former may be more exposed to disease. He may (or may not) experience greater consequences for his actions eventually, but I think the two are essentially just different varieties of common sexual sin. The rub is that the gay man doesn’t dare step foot in most churches, and if he does he has to hide out. The other guy – our churches are filled with them right now. I sincerely hope they both grow. I hope I grow too. So I have a pretty wife and a nice looking family. That’s wonderful! At the same time, big freakin’ deal.

I will not, in my declaration of the gospel, declare one of them justified and the other not, or myself justified and them not. Jesus gave his life for all three of us, and more.

I think this IS the good news. Everything else is pretty much crappy news. I’m not coming to this from a position of theological liberalism. Quite the opposite in fact.

“If you are not regularly accused of being antinomian, you probably haven’t preached the gospel.

-Martin Lloyd Jones

Michael Spencer’s classic essay Our Problem with Grace (reposted today) is much more worth your time.

Photo credit

Remembering iMonk

Someone suggested checking chat and email logs to look for gems from the iMonk.

I once emailed him about a particular church-related frustration. Part of his reply:

I try to think of it this way. Evangelicalism is like a crowded football stadium. I need to not worry about the drunks peeing out in the parking lot.

Turning worship on its head

How do you get people to come to church that don’t really think they need to? Give away free cars? Maybe just free pizza. Have a kickin’ worship band? Photos of smiling eligible bachelorettes on your website? And what is the fellowship like once they get there? Warm? Contrived?

When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long-term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbor, but which increases our attention, our presence, and our appreciation for what is around us.

-James Alison, Worship in a Violent World, Undergoing God, p.?

Christopher Rudy further comments:

This rather monastic vision of liturgy challenges Pelagian conceptions that emphasize stimulation, performance, and orchestrated community. Neither God nor humanity needs to be manipulated or bribed. God is already present, and the sacrifice already complete in Christ, so true worship should lead believers into the deliberate peacefulness of the forgiving victim.

You’re like Job

A good idea about how to fix this or that thing wrong with the world is not enough. Our motives and humbleness before God matters too.

Our choice is not that of being pure and whole at the mere cost of formulating a just and honest opinion. Mere commitment to a decent program of action does not life the curse. Our real choice is between being like Job, who KNEW he was stricken, and Job’s friends who did not know they were stricken too – though less obviously than he. (So they had answers!) To justify ourselves is to justify our sin and to call God a liar.

-Thomas Merton, Events and Pseudo-Events, p.?