Category Archives: christianity

epiclesis at a free church communion table

After taking bread, and before breaking and giving it to the disciples, Jesus blessed it.  We are given no text for his prayer of blessing, but this simple act is the genesis of what is called ‘epiclesis'; where a priest, minister, pastor (or in some traditions anyone) ‘calls down’ the Holy Spirit on the bread (and also the cup) in preparation for receiving Holy Communion (or ‘Eucharist’ or the ‘Lord’s Supper’).

The Roman Catholic liturgy goes (roughly) like this:

PriestBlessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands.
It will become for us the bread of life.
All
:  Blessed be God for ever.

Priest Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink.
All
Blessed be God for ever.

As a pastor in a Baptist (‘free church’) congregation, there are (at least!) two things that will make a ‘free church epiclesis’ look different.  First, we do not follow a ‘set’ liturgy out of a prayer book (Anglican) or ‘missal’ (Catholic), so Baptist prayer at the table will be less uniform and more extempore, even if (as I strongly prefer) it follows a tradition or pattern.  Second, we do not affirm transubstantiation, so the word ‘become’ will seem inappropriate, even if many Baptists have and do affirm a spiritual presence of Christ the Host, amongst the ‘body’ of people gathered, at the table, and even somehow ‘with’ or ‘through’ the elements.

So here’s how I think a ‘baptist epiclesis’ might look like.

Minister (raising the bread or portion of it):
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to share,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
Through this sign, we eat your flesh.

(raising the cup, or a representative cup)
And through your goodness we have the Cup to share,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
Through this sign, we drink your blood.

mary – channel of salvation?

My recent time at Kopua Monastery and my reading this morning of ‘The Church of Mercy‘ (a lovely collection of addresses and ecclesiastical excerpts from Pope Francis) have me pondering the role and place of Mary in Christian faith.  Given that modern protestants say more about the role Mary does not have, than the role she does have, the question arises: What is the most largest role a Protestant could attribute to Mary?

Theologically, there is a bewildering and striking contrast concerning the role of Mary and God the Father in the Incarnation of God the Son.  It goes like this.  In that the Christ the Son was eternally begotten of the Father, he is fully divine; and in that Jesus of Nazareth was temporally begotten of Mary, he is fully human.  What a contrast this is!  The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is one person with two natures, fundamentally depends on both the willful fathering of his divine Father, and the willful mothering of his human mother.  Here we see up close and in focus the gentle omnipotence of God, who would not force Mary to comply; instead she cooperated with the announcement, saying “Let it be unto me according to Your word.”

So we have Mary’s human willingness as a necessary condition for the Incarnation.  That gives her a historical, past-tense, role in the faith.  Way back when, she was willing.  And so, indeed, she said, “Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.”  But what of an ongoing role in the faith?  And not just in the sense of ongoing acknowledgement of her “blessed” state (though could that acknowledgement be more – pardon the pun – pregnant than we Protestants have admitted?), but is there more to Mary?

Two Johannine scenes from Scripture, one from John’s gospel and the other from John’s apocalypse (or the ‘Revelation’), rise to the fore.  John’s gospel (19:26-27) has Jesus declaring a new state of relationship between his mother and the disciple he loved.  The disciple is the ‘son’ of Mary, and Mary is the ‘mother’ of the disciple.  There is an either-or concerning the interpretation of this declaration.  One sees this new state of relationship as restricted to these two humans; Jesus wants them to have support after he departs.  The other extends this to all disciples being ‘son’ (and daughters) of Mary, and Mary being the ‘mother’ of all disciples.  John’s apocalypse (12:17) speaks of her according to the latter interpretation, identifying “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony of Jesus” as “the rest of her offspring”.  Are we therefore intended, biblically, from the lips of Jesus, to view Mary, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Revelation 12:1), as our mother?

Consideration of Mary’s role as “co-redeemer”, “mediator” or “advocate” will have to wait, and I admit here my skeptical outlook to those considerations.  But for now, it seems, tentatively, that Protestants, theologically and biblically, can see Mary as not only the God-bearer (Theotokos), but also as ‘our mother’.  Thoughts from other Protestants (or Catholics/Orthodox)?

evangelical blessings and curses

David Bebbington described Evangelicalism (as opposed to Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy) as characterised by these four qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.  In this post, I want to reflect on what may be some strengths and weaknesses in these distinctives, as expressed variously throughout Evangelicalism.

Biblicism is a posture that gives priority to Scripture as a guide for Christian faith and practice.  The other sources for theology (from the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’) tend to be Reason, Tradition and Experience.  The central strength of this priority is that without the scriptural story forming our thinking and acting, we can create versions of faith that look suspiciously like us.  The content and themes of the Bible, climaxing in the person of Jesus and his Gospel of the Kingdom of God, keep us from being blown around by current fashions, interests and trends.  The weakness comes when the priority of the Bible is seen to be not only over but against things like Reason, Tradition and Experience.  Systematic theology, for example, uses reason to formulate statements of doctrine that are as logically coherent as possible.  Church tradition keeps us accountable to the insights, interpretations and experience of the past, not so we cannot change, but so that when we do, we are aware of how and how much and in what way we are doing so.  Experience likewise comes to the table, both to call our thinking and acting to be practical and practice-able, but also generates new questions for us to consider.  So the best kind of biblicism is a humble biblicism that is integrated with and draws from Tradition, Reason and Experience.  Evangelicalism can benefit from other traditions here.

Crucicentrism focuces on the Atoning work of Christ on the cross, dying in our place for our sins.  The strength of this is that it prevents Christ from being reduced to a mere moral example.  Luther also saw the cross as normative for all Christian thinking about God, seeing the suffering, forgiving Christ as the perfect revelation of God, as opposed to the high and lofty ‘theologies of glory’ that may be intuitive to reason and imagination, but nonetheless utterly reframed by the Cross.  The weakness comes when the Cross is not only central, but overshadows the birth (Incarnation), ministry, temptation, resurrection, ascension, Spirit and return of Christ.  Overly focusing on the Cross can reduce the gospel to being mainly or only about sin being forgiven, which leaves other themes panned out of frame, such as the cosmic redemption of all creation, Jesus’ identification with our trials and temptations, his wisdom, his victory over death, empowering presence and coming judgment.  So the best kind of crucicentrism will have a Cross that is integrated with the rest of the Gospel story.  Again, other traditions than Evangelicalism have strengths to offer.

Conversionism is characterised by a passion to see as many individuals as possible hear, respond to, and be transformed by the ‘good news’ of Christ.  The strength here is that conversionism guards against Christianity being reduced to effectively a social programme or soup kitchen.  Christians believe that the real way to change society is (as Miroslav Volf has said in sociological language) to create transformed social agents, or (as traditional Christian language would put it) to call people to repent of their sins and join Jesus’ kingdom project to transform the whole world.  The weakness here comes when efforts to convert individuals leads to the neglect of meeting other human needs.  If indeed the kingdom of God is about the healing of the whole creation, then this needs to be an essential part of Christian ‘evangelism’ or ‘mission’.  Once again, evangelicalism will do well to take cues from other traditions here.

Activism is characterised by a passion to bring Christian values and ethics to bear upon actual life.  The strength here is that it guards against Christianity being effectively a set of ideas and beliefs.  Christianity is an active, prophetic faith, that must be courageously acted out in all of life.  The weakness comes when our activism is either impatient or lazy.  Impatiently, we can ‘force’ our views and values upon people, rather than doing the hard intellectual and relational work for our words and actions to be heard or accepted.  Lazily, we can narrowly focus in on or take action about the same issues that we feel most confident or comfortable with.  Evangelicalism has in recent times known for damning, voting, rallying and otherwise acting ‘against’ a few (predictable?) things, and we need the wisdom, passion, breadth, and resources of other traditions to make our activism better.

hegemony, homosexuality & homophobia

(Leftovers from a great and long chat with a good man today.)

Almost 100 years ago, Antonio Gramsci proposed the idea of “cultural hegemony” where a powerful idea or culture carries immense and controlling force.  One key indicator that a hegemony is at work is when dissenting voices are kept silent out of fear.

A conservative ethic regarding homosexuality – and the homophobia (any level of social discomfort relating to homosexual people) that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in church (sub)cultures, that gay people feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A homophobic hegemony pushing gays into closets.

The irony is this: a liberal/accepting ethic regarding homosexuality – and the angry angst that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in many post-Christian ‘developed’ contexts and culture, that conservatives also feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A liberal hegemony pushing conservatives into cloisters.

Or in other words, for every action there is (often?) an equal-opposite reaction.

  • Action – some conservative Christians heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.
  • Reaction – some liberal Westerners heaped shame on people who heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.

As a Christian with a conservative ethic on homosexuality, rather than defensively fight for my ‘right to be conservative’, I’d rather go to the source, and oppose the homophobia which feeds the shaming and intimidation of people attracted to the same sex.

corporate worship for the catholic corpus

Another way of talking about corporate worship is to say that it is worship that is enacted by the whole body – the catholic (universal) corpus (body).

In an ultimate, truly catholic corporate worship is not possible until the Age to Come, when every tongue, tribe and nation expresses it.  But Jesus’ prayer in John 17 expresses a desire for a kind of catholicity that we should continually strive for.

I’m interested (and just might explore in my Masters Thesis?) in ways that we can express worship that re-unites the Corpus Christi.  I guess that makes me an Ecumenical Baptist.  But isn’t that what Jesus prays for in John 17?  How can the Church worship across all the divides we have?  Across Liturgical and ‘Free’ Church worship frameworks; Across ‘Catholic’, Orthodox and Protestant traditions; Across Episcopal and Congregational (and other) leadership approaches; Across the nasty, embittered Liberal and Conservative ditch; Across painful Charismatic/Pentecostal and Cessationist arguments; Across the separations that split ‘Dying Old Folks Churches’, ‘Family Churches’, ‘Arty-Farty Churches’ and ‘Young Hip Cool Churches'; Across the divisions within a single church that has separate services for Elderly, Families, Singles/Young-Adults, Youth, and Children; and more.

on corporate worship

Two words: corporate and worship.  A few thoughts on each of those words that have been rattling around in my head.

Worship.  Worship is a thoroughly metaphysical and thus qualitative activity – and it is in between the lines of all that we choose to do.  What’s more, what is sometimes called the ‘rule’ of worship, is that “you become like what you worship”.  Keep on worshipping (or ‘giving ultimate worth to’) money (or any idol) and you will become the sort of person who looks at life through the lens of money.  Replace money with ‘x’ – you get the idea.  Worship is formative.  And the more a worship practice ‘seeps into our bones’, the more ‘a part of us’ it becomes, the more formative it is.  Like driving a car or riding a bicycle, you know a practice is ‘a part of you’ when you no longer have to give it much (if any) conscious thought.  The practice becomes automatic.

When it comes to riding bicycles, driving, making coffee or what have you, we appreciate ‘automatic’ practice as a good thing, that shows we have attained a level of maturity, competency or expertise.  You would want at least a few of the operative actions of a doctor to be a least a bit automatic!  (‘Let’s see, do I use the scissors or scalpel here..?’)  For some reason, however, when it comes to ‘worship’, some of us have been conditioned to see  an ‘automatic’ act of worship as being insincere, heartless, ‘dry’, or not genuine.  We call it ‘just going through the motions’ with no emotion.  I certainly do believe that an otherwise good action can be done poorly, and this includes doing it without sincerity.  But I am wondering if we throw out the baby (i.e. a specific type of practice) with the dirty bathwater (i.e. because it can be or has been done with little or no sincerity).

An example may help here.  Just last Sunday, the sermon was on Psalm 116, and after communion we sang a re-metered version of the Psalm to the tune of Amazing Grace.  The tune is so much ‘a part of us’ that we were able to sing the lyrics – which we had never even seen or read! – with a great deal of both heart and mind.  Because the tune (part of the form of the worship in this case) was ‘automatic’, our hearts and minds were more free to engage with the sentiments being felt and thought as we sung.  This is why when we are learning a new song, a new prayer, or any new form of worship, it is more ‘work’.  Naturally, we cannot join in immediately in a new form of worship that we do not (yet) know.  The more practiced we are, the more automatic the participation becomes, the more free we are to participate in the song, prayer, responsive reading, litany or what have you.

Corporate.  Corporate worship has similarities and differences with private worship.  It is the same God worshipped, and the same Gospel and same Faith that both are an expression of.  However, whilst private worship is primarily a personal, ‘you’-and-God expression of faith, corporate worship is about not just ‘you’ or ‘me’, but first God and second ‘us’.  Individual private worshippers will be able to use whatever words and forms (silence, free prayer, free song, etc.) that are helpful and relevant to them. Corporate worship, however, needs forms (songs, prayers, readings, gestures – even sights and smells!?) that everyone can participate in.  Corporate worship celebrates God, the Gospel, concern for the World, and the identity and mission of the Church in ways that are diverse and creative, but always in a form that the whole gathered congregation can share in.

I wonder if there is a tendency for the same forms that are perhaps most appropriate for all to join in, end up being the forms that are suspected to be the most heartless, insincere and dry?  After all, are we really to believe that every single one of these people singing this song all equally and fully ‘mean it’!!??  It is this concern which sometimes leads song leaders to discourage people from singing ‘if you don’t mean it’.  I’m not wanting to encourage hollow or false worship, but there is a rather obvious question lurking just beneath the surface here.  Do we ever ‘mean it’?  How can we tell, and who gets to say who can participate?  (Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for the exact reason – we must be in a ‘right’ standing.  Who, then, can ever take communion?)

In Christian theology, there is a distinction made between ‘over-realised’ and ‘under-realised’ eschatology.  Eschatology is the study of the ‘last things’ or ‘end’, and it is concerned with Heaven, or the “New Heavens and the New Earth”, and the final “Age to Come”.  Those with an ‘over-realised’ eschatological outlook will tend to be ‘idealistic’ and expect heaven to be ‘realised’ and experienced to a large degree now.  Those with an ‘under-realised’ view will tend to be ‘realistic’ and as a result not expect to see much at all of heaven to be seen in this dark world.  Theologians speak of a healthy ‘now-but-not-yet’ tension between the need to anticipate here and now the love and freedom and life of heaven, even though it will not come until it comes.  This distinction is seen in the topic of physical healing, but also in the question of do we ‘mean it’ when we sing or pray.  We will never ‘mean it’ perfectly, but we should anticipate what it would feel like to ‘mean it’.  We don’t have to ‘mean it’ perfectly to sing it – for who could?  But we also don’t want to slide into a lazy ‘it doesn’t matter if I mean it’ attitude.  Like riding a bike, ‘meaning it’ is a matter of practice.  There will be times where ‘meaning it’ might feel natural and effortless; other times it might feel false and laborious.  This too, is why corporate worship is so important.  Some days, ‘I’ may not ‘mean it’ very well.  At no time will ‘I’ ‘mean it’ perfectly.  Which is why ‘I’ need ‘we’ – ‘us’ – to be a community that seeks to ‘mean it’ together.

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

malleable will

Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.

I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead.  This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers.  Why did my muscles do what they did?  Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function.  What made me think about this?  Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously.  Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger?  Of course not.

I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker.  This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities.  On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable.  I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition.  On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions.  No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.

Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline.  But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly.  (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!)  I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’.  I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.

Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills.  Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.

Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you.  But others are not only realistic, but also freeing.  For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.).  But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.

To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol.  Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices.  Send them to a party with their mates.  Have someone offer them their favourite beer.  Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity.  Yay for technology!  Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you?   Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking.  They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go.  Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun.  And you know what?  If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well.  The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make.  One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).

So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means.  Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals.  It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.

Evolution? Chaplain?

The two word response of my gym trainer at the university gym at which I am a chaplain, in response to an evolution-friendly comment by me. :)

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.