June 18 – Vernard Eller

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read John 10:14-18

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

More thoughts for meditation about Vernard Eller

Vernard Eller (died this day in 2007) was an Anabaptist scholar, author, and teacher during some of the most trying eras for peacemakers and simplicity practitioners—the latter half of the 20th Century. He was part of the Church of the Brethren (“cousins” to the Brethren in Christ) and most of his presence was on the West Coast part of that family.

His most famous works are The Mad Morality and Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers. He was known as an effective and practical interpreter of radicals like Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Jacques Ellul. Eller was an open critic of materialism and nationalism in the Church as well as a vocal advocate for simplicity, reducing possessions, radical sharing of wealth, and nonviolent conflict resolution.

“The primary thrust of my life has been to try to bring into focus four different elements not often seen as even being compatible: a strong Christian commitment; solid thought and scholarship; clear and powerful communication; and true wit and humor,” Eller in a 1980 issue of Messenger magazine.

“To put the matter simply the problem with today’s congregations is that they are usually far more concerned to ‘be’ somewhere than to ‘get’ somewhere; to establish and consolidate a secure position, rather than to push on toward a goal. But according to the New Testament, stability and security are precisely ‘not’ what God intended for the church. Instead, Eller believes, the church should be a do-it-yourself, de-institutionalized, de-professionalized people in a caravan – a community of the outward bound”—from The Outward Bound: Caravaning as the Style of the Church

Want More?

The MAD Morality: An Expose [link]

A short article “The Lord’s Supper is Not a Sacrament” [link]

Wikipedia article for Christian Anarchism [link]

Suggestions for action

Much of what Eller was pioneering for our age we have have summed up in the word “alternativity.” We are not only opposed to the misguided attachments of the church’s past, we are resisting the “mad” morality of the new world order. Resistance is not enough, of course, we want restoration. It takes some thinking to be a Jesus follower! Take one aspect of this post and write a paragraph about it in your journal. Title it: the gift Vernard Eller gave me. Make sure to add how you expect to use the gift.

June 9 – Columba

Today’s Bible reading

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his splendor is above the earth and the heavens. — Psalm 148:7-13

More thoughts for meditation about Columba

Columba is a “saint” who still, after almost fifteen hundred years, exerts an appeal upon our imaginations. He is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. He was not only a great leader, he had a big imagination that resulted in an outbreak of Celtic art we still celebrate. He also had a big voice and might have sang his own version of today’s psalm, since the Celtic church had a deep respect of God’s presence in creation and Columba, no doubt me the Lord on his many daring sea voyages.

He was born in Ireland, on December 7, 521 A.D. to Fedhlimidh and Eithne in Donegal (Northern Ireland). He was of the blood royal, and might have become High King of Ireland had he not chosen to be a priest.

As a young man, Columba soon took an interest in the church, joined the monastery at Moville, and was ordained a deacon by the famous and influential Finnian. After studying with a bard called Gemman, Columba was ordained a priest, then bishop of Clonfad. Columba entered the monastery of Mobhi Clarainech, one of the twelve apostles of Ireland. When disease forced the disbanding of that monastery, Columba went north and founded the church of Derry.

Tradition has it that after founding several other monasteries, Columba copied Finnian’s psalter (Or was it a precious copy of the Latin Vulgate? Sixth century history was not fastidiously stored) without the permission of Finnian, and thus devalued the book. When Finnian took the matter to High King Dermott for judgement, Dermott judged in favor of Finnian, stating “to every cow its calf; to every book its copy” (the first copyright law!). Columba refused to hand over the copy, claiming that his converts deserved the scripture. King Dermott forced the issue militarily. Columba’s family and clan defeated Dermott at the battle of Cooldrevny in 561.

Tradition further holds that Molaisi of Devenish, Columba’s spiritual father, ordered Columba to bring the same number of souls to Christ that he had caused to die as penance.

For both reasons, Columba ended up in exile from Ireland. Settling at the first place where his homeland could not longer be seen across the sea. He came Scotland, and with twelve companions founded the monastery on Iona in the year 563. These Celtic monks lived in communities of separate cells, but Columba and his companions combined their contemplative life with extraordinary missionary activity.

Among his many accomplishments, Columba was a splendid sailor. He sailed far among the islands and traveled deep inland, making converts and founding little churches. In Ireland he had already, it is said, founded a hundred churches. In Scotland he is credited with converting the Picts, including taking a journey to witness to the King where he thwarted the Loch Ness monster.

Of all the Celtic saints in Scotland, Columba’s life is much the best documented, because manuscripts of his Life, written by Adamnan, one of his early successors as abbot of Iona, have survived.

Columba was a poet as well as a man of action. Some of his poems in both Latin and Gaelic have come down to us, and they reveal him as a man very sensitive to the beauty of his surroundings, as well as always, in Adamnan’s phrase, “gladdened in his inmost heart by the joy of the Holy Spirit.”

He died on June 9 in the year 597.

More?

Columba the Creative Sufferer [link]

You tube history on Celtic saints [link]

Columba and Loch Ness [link]

Columba (and others) and the Book of Kells [Part 1 link] [Part 2 link]

Suggestions for action

Columba might have been king if he had not been serious about Jesus. He might have been a powerful church man in Ireland if he hadn’t put himself on the wrong side of the law and started a war! Maybe you wish you had never followed Jesus. Maybe you wish you had not done those wrong things. Maybe Jesus can use you anyway, starting on whatever little island you find yourself today, despite the desires that threaten to run your life. Consider what would happen if your future were in God’s hands (since it is).

June 3 — Hudson Taylor

Today’s Bible reading

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. — 1 Corinthians 9:13-17

More thoughts for meditation about Hudson Taylor

In 1853 a small boat left Liverpool with Hudson Taylor on board, a gaunt and wild-eyed 21-year-old missionary. He was headed for a country that was just coming into the European/American Christian consciousness: China. By the time Taylor died a half-century later, China was viewed as the most fertile and challenging of mission fields of all and thousands volunteered annually to serve there.

Taylor was to a Methodist couple fascinated with the Far East who had prayed for their newborn, “Grant that he may work for you in China.” Years later, a teenage Hudson experienced a spiritual birth during an intense time of prayer in which, as he later put it, life stretched out “before Him with unspeakable awe and unspeakable joy.” He spent the next years in frantic preparation, learning the rudiments of medicine, studying Mandarin, and immersing himself ever deeper into the Bible and prayer.

His ship arrived in Shanghai, one of five “treaty ports” China had opened to foreigners following its first Opium War with England. Almost immediately Taylor made a radical decision (as least for Protestant missionaries of the day): he decided to dress in Chinese clothes and grow a pigtail (as Chinese men did). His fellow Protestants were either incredulous or critical.

Taylor, for his part, was not happy with most missionaries he saw: he believed they were “worldly” and spent too much time with English businessmen and diplomats who needed their services as translators. Instead, Taylor wanted the Christian faith taken to the interior of China. So within months of arriving, and the native language still a challenge, Taylor, along with Joseph Edkins, set off for the interior, setting sail down the Huangpu River distributing Chinese Bibles and tracts.

When the Chinese Evangelization Society, which had sponsored Taylor, proved incapable of paying its missionaries in 1857, Taylor resigned and became an independent missionary; trusting God to meet his needs. In 1861, he became seriously ill (probably with hepatitis) and was forced to return to England to recover. In England, the restless Taylor continued translating the Bible into Chinese (a work he’d begun in China), studied to become a midwife, and recruited more missionaries. Troubled that people in England seemed to have little interest in China, he wrote China: Its Spiritual Need and Claims. In one passage, he scolded, “Can all the Christians in England sit still with folded arms while these multitudes [in China] are perishing—perishing for lack of knowledge—for lack of that knowledge which England possesses so richly?”

Taylor became convinced that a special organization was needed to evangelize the interior of China. He made plans to recruit 24 missionaries: two for each of the 11 unreached inland provinces and two for Mongolia. It was a visionary plan that would have left veteran recruiters breathless: it would increase the number of China missionaries by 25 percent. He was wracked with doubt about the dangers his plan presented. But at the same time he despaired for the millions of Chinese who were dying without the hope of the gospel. While walking along the beach on day, his gloom lifted:

“There the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for this service. I told him that all responsibility as to the issues and consequences must rest with him; that as his servant it was mine to obey and to follow him.”

His new mission, which he called the China Inland Mission (CIM), had a number of distinctive features, including this: its missionaries would have no guaranteed salaries nor could they appeal for funds; they would simply trust God to supply their needs; furthermore, its missionaries would adopt Chinese dress and then press the gospel into the China interior. Within a year of his breakthrough, Taylor, his wife and four children, and 16 young missionaries sailed from London to join five others already in China working under Taylor’s direction.

Taylor continued to make enormous demands upon himself. He was accused of being a tyrant and people left for other missions. Yet by 1876, with 52 missionaries, CIM constituted one-fifth of the missionary force in China. Because there continued to be so many Chinese to reach, Taylor instituted another radical policy: he sent unmarried women into the interior, a move criticized by many veterans. But Taylor’s boldness knew no bounds. In 1881, he asked God for another 70 missionaries by the close of 1884: he got 76. In late 1886, Taylor prayed for another 100 within a year: by November 1887, he announced 102 candidates had been accepted for service.

His leadership style and high ideals created enormous strains between the London and China councils of the CIM. London thought Taylor autocratic; Taylor said he was only doing what he thought was best for the work, and then demanded more commitment from others: “China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women,” he wrote. “The stamp of men and women we need is such as will put Jesus, China, [and] souls first and foremost in everything and at every time—even life itself must be secondary.”

Taylor’s grueling work pace, despite poor health ended in a breakdown in 1900. He also lost a wife and four of his eight children by living like the Chinese. Between his work ethic and his absolute trust in God (despite never soliciting funds, his CIM grew and prospered), he inspired thousands to forsake the comforts of the West to bring the Christian message to the vast and unknown interior of China. Though mission work in China was interrupted by the communist takeover in 1949, the CIM continues to this day under the name Overseas Missionary Fellowship (International).

More?

OMF biography 

Chinese people in Manchester take a Hudson Taylor pilgrimage.

Suggestions for action

What do you think of Taylor’s passion for evangelism? In some ways he was strikingly anticolonial. In some ways he was self-destructively obsessive. What do you do with that? What do you think God thinks of Hudson Taylor?

The Lord’s mission also ended in his untimely death. Do you think we are called to imitate him in some way?

What people group is in your consciousness that needs to hear the truth about Jesus? Are you called to do anything about that?

May 26 – Bede

Today’s Bible reading

Read Philemon 1:4-7

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

More thoughts for meditation about the Venerable Bede

bede“The Venerable Bede” died on this day in 735.  He is widely recognized as one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholars. When he was seven, Bede was sent to Benedict Biscop at the monastery of St. Peter at Wearmouth for his education; when he was nine he moved to Jarrow, Northumbria, where he would live out the rest of his days. Saint Bede became a deacon at age 19 and priest at 30.

Eventually Bede was the first native of the British Isles to be named by the Pope as Doctor of the church (in 1899). His most famous work, which is a key source for understanding early British history and the arrival of Christianity, is Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum or The Ecclesiastical History of the English People which was completed in 731 AD. It is the first work of history in which the AD system of dating is used.

Much of Bede’s observations and writings were focused on the natural world. His scholarship is notably advanced because of his ability to weave together fragments into coherent works with very limited resources.

Here is a bit from his most famous work: “The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”

Try on this quote: “Better a stupid and unlettered brother who, working the good things he knows, merits life in Heaven than one who though being distinguished for his learning in the Scriptures, or even holding the place of a doctor, lacks the bread of love.”

This is also a good image: “Jesus opened the tavern of heaven and poured out the wine of the Holy Ghost.”

More about Bede

Want to read Bede’s groundbreaking book? [link]

More from English people who love him? [link] 

Additions from Orthodox Wiki: [link]

A Channel 4 take in less than 2 minutes. [link]

Suggestions for action

Bede was a writer and researcher. He was a preserver of good things and true things. If you are a writer, too, take your art seriously and tell the truth. Maybe you should write a little history of your cell, or of a person you admire. Bede’s work has made a difference for 1300 years!

May 20 — Pentecost

Image result for pentecost

Today’s Bible reading

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. — Acts 1:14

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. — Acts 2:1-4

More thoughts for meditation about Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday is a commemoration and celebration of the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the early church. It is the birthday of the church.

John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11). Jesus confirmed this prophecy with the promise of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in John 14:26. He showed Himself to his followers after His death on the cross and His resurrection, giving convincing proofs that He was alive. Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit, from whom they would experience His abiding presence and receive power to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:3-8). After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and joined together in prayer in an upper room. During the Jewish festival of Pentecost (Shavuot) just as promised, the sound of a violent wind filled the house and tongues of fire came to rest on each of them and all were filled with the Holy Spirit. They experienced ecstasy and were given the power of communication, which they used to begin the ministry for which Jesus had prepared them. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples burst out of their fear, out of their room to tell the world. This was the beginning of the missional community of Jesus, the church.

Suggestions for action

Christian churches celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, realizing that God’s very life, breath and energy live in believers. John 20:19-23 may be the core of the message about our risen Savior supernaturally appearing to the fear-laden disciples. Their fear gave way to joy when the Lord showed them His hands and side. He assured them peace and repeated the command given in Matthew 28:19-20, saying, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23).

The celebration of Pentecost Sunday reminds us of the reality that we all have the unifying Spirit that was poured out upon the first-century church in Acts 2:1-4. It is a reminder that we are co-heirs with Christ, to suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him; that the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7); that we are all baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13); and that the Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead lives inside believers (Romans 8:9-11). This gift of the Holy Spirit that was promised and given to all believers on the first Pentecost is promised for you and your children and for all who are far off whom the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:39).

Receive the gift. This video suggests a variety of ways you might be touched.

The Wind section in the Way of Jesus is all about taking further steps in the Spirit.

May 16 – Brendan

Today’s Bible reading 

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:14-15

More thoughts for meditation about Brendan the Navigator

Brendan (c. 484 – c. 577) was an Irish monastic called “the Navigator”, “the Voyager”, and “the Bold,” a man who understood his calling to walk in vulnerability in an extreme way. He and some companions went out onto the Atlantic Ocean in search of the Island of Paradise. They searched for 7 years and had many adventures along the way. The chronicle of Brendan’s journey [Navigatio Brendani] became a medieval blockbuster. Much later some decided that Brendan had actually made it to the America’s in his leather bound boat (a “coracle”). Brendan put himself at the mercy of God as a spiritual adventurer. He quested.

Brendan was born in Tralee in southwest of Ireland. His parents were Finnlug and Cara. He was baptized by Saint Erc, and was originally to be called “Mobhí” but signs and portents attending his birth and baptism led to him being christened ‘Broen-finn’ or ‘fair-drop’. For five years he was educated under Saint Ita. When he was six he was sent to Saint Jarlath’s monastery school to further his education. Brendan is one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland”, one of those said to have been tutored by the great teacher, Finnian of Clonard.

At the age of twenty-six, Brendan was ordained a priest by Saint Erc. Afterwards, he founded a number of monasteries. Brendan’s first voyage took him to the Arran Islands, where he founded a monastery. He also visited Hinba (Argyll), an island off Scotland where he is said to have met Columba. On the same voyage he traveled to Wales, and finally to Brittany, on the northern coast of France. Between the years 512 and 530 Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert, and, at the foot of Mount Brandon. From here he is supposed to have set out on his famous seven-year voyage for Paradise.

St. Brendan’s Prayer

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword or shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on?Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help on the wild waves?

Want more?

Launch on St. Brendan’s Day [link to Development]

From St. Brendan’s monastery in Maine [link]

Poem: The Death of St. Brendan by J.R.R. Tolkien. [link]

Frederick Buechner’s Brendan: A Novel.

Revisioning the inspiration for one of the most popular and enduring medieval legends, Frederick Buechner tells the tale of the colorful sixth-century Irish saint Brendan through the eyes of his loyal friend and follower, Finn. This animated vision of Brendan’s dynamic path chronicles the Celtic world of fifteen hundred years ago and contains all the complex moral messages that abound in the best mythology. 

Brendan’s life illustrated by Irish children:

Suggestions for action

May we quest so boldly toward new waters with God. May we face the fears of the deep and unknown so faithfully. See if you can pray Brendan’s prayer for yourself. Maybe you can even envision you and your friends in a coracle, testing your trust on the sea. What kind of “sea” is it for you. How are you called to voyage?

Here is another rendition of his prayer for you to pray:

Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,
and somehow, make my obedience count for You.

May 10 — Ascension Day

Today’s Bible reading

Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11

More thoughts for meditation about Ascension Day

Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter, although some Christian denominations have moved the observance to the following Sunday.

N.T. Wright thinks Ascension Day is important and he suspects you don’t. His theology is so seldom-considered that it might be important for us to study the following section of his book Surprised by Hope. Consider what Luke says happens to Jesus after he rises from the dead and see if it changes how you see the world.

Jesus ascending into heaven

“Many people insist—and I dare say that this is the theology many of my readers have been taught—that the language of Jesus’ “disappearance” is just a way of saying that after his death he became, as it were, spiritually present everywhere, especially with his own followers. This is then often correlated with a nonliteral reading of the resurrection, that is, a denial of its bodily nature: Jesus simply “went to heaven when he died” in a rather special sense that makes him now close to each of us wherever we are. According to this view, Jesus has, as it were, disappeared without remainder. His “spiritual presence” with us is his only identity. In that case, of course, to speak of his second coming is then only a metaphor for his presence, in the same sense, eventually permeating all things.

What happens when people think like this? To answer this, we might ask a further question: why has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular doctrine in the modern Western church? The answer is not just that rationalist skepticism mocks it (a possibility that the church has sometimes invited with those glass windows that show Jesus’s feet sticking downward out of a cloud). It is that the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literalism and skepticism operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view. Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth; the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied, risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge. They discovered through their own various callings how his new way of running things was to be worked out. It wasn’t a matter (as some people anxiously suppose to this day) of Christians simply taking over and giving orders in a kind of theocracy where the church could simply tell everyone what to do. That has some times been tried, of course, and it’s always led to disaster. But neither is it a matter of the church backing off, letting the world go on its sweet way, and worshiping Jesus in a kind of private sphere.

Somehow there is a third option…We can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one of his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism. This indeed is what twentieth-century English liber­alism always tended toward: by compromising with rationalism and trying to maintain that talk of the ascension is really talk about Je­sus being with us everywhere, the church effectively presented itself (with its structures and hierarchy, its customs and quirks) instead of presenting Jesus as its Lord and itself as the world’s servant, as Paul puts it. And the other side of triumphalism is of course despair. If you put all your eggs into the church-equals-Jesus basket, what are you left with when, as Paul says in the same passage, we ourselves are found to be cracked earthenware vessels?

If the church identifies its structures, its leadership, its liturgy, its buildings, or anything else with its Lord—and that’s what happens if you ignore the ascension or turn it into another way of talking about the Spirit—what do you get? You get, on the one hand, what Shakespeare called “the insolence of office” and, on the other hand, the despair of late middle age, as people realize it doesn’t work. (I see this all too frequently among those who bought heavily into the soggy rationalism of the 1950s and 1960s.) Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church­ when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him— only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Je­sus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…We are also, significantly, rescued from the attempts that have been made to create alternative mediators, and in particular an alternative mediatrix, in his place. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

You could sum all this up by saying that the doctrine of the trinity, which is making quite a come back in current theology, is essential if we are to tell the truth not only about God, and more particularly about Jesus, but also about ourselves. The Trinity is precisely a way of recognizing and celebrating the fact of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as distinct from while still identified with God the Father, on the one hand (he didn’t just “go back to being God again” after his earthy life), and the Spirit, on the other hand (the Jesus who is near us and with us by the Spirit remains the Jesus who is other than us). This places a full stop on all human arrogance, including Christian arrogance. And now we see at last why the Enlightenment world was determined to make the ascension appear ridiculous, using the weapons of rationalism and skepticism to do so: if the ascension is true, then the whole project of human self-aggrandizement represented by eighteenth century European and American thought is rebuked and brought to heel. To embrace the ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.

The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human and hence in an important sense absent from us while in another equally important sense present to us in a new way. At this point the Holy Spirit and the sacraments become enormously important since they are precisely the means by which Jesus is present. Often in the church we have been so keen to stress the presence of Jesus by these means that we have failed to indicate his simultaneous absence and have left people wondering whether this is, so to speak, “all there is to it.” The answer is: no, it isn’t. The lordship of Jesus; the fact that there is already a human at the helm of the world; his present intercession for us—all this is over and above his presence with us. It is even over and above our sense of that presence, which of course comes and goes with our own moods and circumstances.

Now it is of course one thing to say all this, to show how it fits together and sets us free from some of the nonsense we would oth­erwise get into. It’s quite another to be able to envisage or imag­ine it, to know what it is we’re really talking about when we speak of Jesus being still human, still in fact an embodied human—actually, a more solidly embodied human than we are—but absent from this present world. We need, in fact, a new and better cosmology, a new and better way of thinking about the world than the one our culture, not least post-Enlightenment culture, has bequeathed us. The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hell down beneath their feet. When they spoke of up and down like that they, like the Greeks in their different ways, were using metaphors that were so obvious they didn’t need spelling out. As some recent writers have pointed out, when a pupil at school moves “up” a grade, from (say) the tenth grade to the eleventh, it is unlikely that this means relocating to a classroom on the floor above. And though the move “up” from vice chairman of the board to chairman of the board may indeed mean that at last you get an office in the penthouse suite, it would be quite wrong to think that “moving up” in this context meant merely being a few feet farther away from terra firma.

The mystery of the ascension is of course just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment West­erners are such wretched flatlanders. Although New Age thinkers, and indeed quite a lot of contemporary novelists, are quite capable of taking us into other parallel worlds, spaces, and times, we retreat into our rationalistic closed-system universe as soon as we think about Jesus. C. S. Lewis of course did a great job in the Narnia sto­ries and elsewhere of imagining how two worlds could relate and interlock. But the generation that grew up knowing its way around Narnia does not usually know how to make the transition from a children’s story to the real world of grown-up Christian devotion and theology.”

Suggestions for action

What do you think? Can you do some theology with N.T. Wright? 

Pray: Thank you for the living hope you give me—you have gone before me and I will go behind you, you intercede for me and remain present with me, you will come again.

For some of us, Wright’s theology is very hard to understand. He refers to all sorts of thinking we have not studied, past and present: Plato, the Enlightenment, scientific materialism and various breeds of Christian theology. Don’t give up! Try taking the time to slowly move through Wright’s material again and see what begins to come clear to you. If you talk to someone about it, you might understand even more. Let him help you make sense of today’s Bible reading.

May 9 – Nicholaus Zinzendorf

Today’s Bible reading

Read Isaiah 58

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

More thoughts for meditation about Nicolaus Zinzendorf

Nicolaus Zinzendorf died on this day in 1760.

Nicholas Ludwig, Count Zinzendorf, was born in Dresden in 1700. He was very much a part of the Pietist movement in Germany, which emphasized personal piety and an emotional component to the religious life. This was in contrast to the state Lutheran Church of the day, which had grown to symbolize a largely intellectual faith centered on belief in specific doctrines. He believed in “heart religion,” a personal salvation built on the individual’s spiritual relationship with Christ.

Zinzendorf was born into one of the most noble families of Europe. His father died when he was an infant, and he was raised at Gros Hennersdorf, the castle of his influential Pitetistic grandmother. Stories abound of his deep faith during childhood. As a young man he struggled with his desire to study for the ministry and the expectation that he would fulfill his hereditary role as a Count. As a teenager at Halle Academy, he and several other young nobles formed a secret society, The Order of the Grain of Mustard Seed. The stated purpose of this order was that the members would use their position and influence to spread the Gospel. As an adult, Zinzendorf later reactivated this adolescent society, and many influential leades of Europe ended up joining the group. A few included the King of Denmark, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Archbishop of Paris.

Zinzendorf was one of the most controversial figures of the early eighteenth century. The crowned heads of Europe and religious leaders of both Europe and America all knew him — and either loved him or hated him.

Although born to an aristocratic family, Zinzendorf decided to use his wealth to shelter a group of Christian radicals later called the Moravian Brethren on his land during a tumultuous time in Europe when it was unsafe to not be part of the established state church.  In 1722 a small band crossed the border from Moravia to settle in a town they called Herrnhut, or “the Lord’s Watch.”

During its first five years of existence the Herrnhut settlement showed few signs of spiritual power. By the beginning of 1727 the community of about three hundred people was wracked by dissension and bickering. An unlikely site for revival! Zinzendorf and others, however, covenanted to prayer and labor for revival. Largely due to Zinzendorf’s leadership in daily Bible studies, the group came to formulate a unique document, known as the Brotherly Agreement, which set forth basic tenets of Christian behavior. Residents of Herrnhut were required to sign a pledge to abide by these Biblical principals. There followed an intense and powerful experience of renewal, often described as the “Moravian Pentecost.”

On May 12 during a communion service, the entire congregation felt a powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, and felt their previous differences swept away. This experience began the Moravian renewal which led to remarkable ministry. Christians were aglow with new life and power, dissension vanished and unbelievers were converted. Looking back to that day and the four glorious months that followed, Zinzendorf later recalled: “The whole place represented truly a visible habitation of God among men.” A spirit of prayer was immediately evident in the fellowship and continued throughout that “golden summer of 1727,” as the Moravians came to designate the period. On August 27 of that year twenty-four men and twenty-four women covenanted to spend one hour each day in scheduled prayer. Some others enlisted in the “hourly intercession.” “For over a hundred years the members of the Moravian Church all shared in the ‘hourly intercession.’ At home and abroad, on land and sea, this prayer watch ascended unceasingly to the Lord,” stated historian A. J. Lewis.

In 1731, while attending the coronation of Christian VI in Copenhagen, the young Count met a converted slave from the West Indies, Anthony Ulrich. Anthony’s tale of his people’s plight moved Zinzendorf, who brought him back to Herrnhut. As a result, two young men, Leonard Dober and David Nitchmann, were sent to St. Thomas to live among the slaves and preach the Gospel. This was the first organized Protestant mission work, and grew rapidly to Africa, America, Russia, and other parts of the world. By 1791, 65 years after commencement of that prayer vigil, the small Moravian community had placed 300 missionaries from Greenland to South Africa, literally from one end of the earth to the other.

Members of the Mo­ra­vi­an Church helped populate the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. With Brethren in Christ they are known as  an historic Peace Church.

More on Zinzendorf and the Moravians

Suggestions for action

Pray: May our whole church be a truly visible habitation of God among us.

The Pietists wanted heart religion. They used Bible study, prayer and intentional community to grow it. They shared resources and went on mission to show it. What do you want? What yearning in your spirit meets the passion of God’s Spirit?

 

May 8 — Julian of Norwich

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Today’s Bible reading

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. — Ephesians 3:14-19

More thoughts for meditation about Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) is known to us almost only through her book, The Revelations of Divine Love, which is widely acknowledged as one of the great classics of the spiritual life. She is thought to have been the first woman to write a book in English which has survived.

We do not know Julian’s actual name but her name is taken from St. Julian’s Church in Norwich where she lived as an anchoress for most of her life. We know from the medieval literary work, The Book of Margery Kempe,  that Julian was known as a spiritual counselor. People would come to her cell in Norwich  to seek advice. Considering that, at the time, the citizens of Norwich suffered from plague and poverty, as well as a famine, she must have counseled a lot of people in pain. Yet, her writings are suffused with hope and trust in God’s goodness.

Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is based on a series of sixteen visions she received on the 8th of May 1373. Julian was lying on, what was thought at the time, to be her deathbed when suddenly she saw Christ bleeding in front of her. She received  insight into his sufferings and his love for us. Julian’s message remains one of hope and trust in  God, whose compassionate love is always given to us. In this all-gracious God there can be no element of wrath. The wrath — “all that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s Spirit, is to slake our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.” Julian did not perceive God as blaming or judging us, but as enfolding us in love. Famously, Julian  used women’s experience of motherhood to explore how God loves us, referring to Jesus as our Mother.

The Revelations of Divine Love comes to us in two versions; the first  (the short text) written shortly after the revelation given to Julian , the second  (the long text) written twenty years later.  The long text is greatly expanded to include her meditations on what she had been shown. Today, only seventeenth century copies of earlier manuscripts of the long text, and  fragments from the fifteenth century survive.

Julian recounts that she was thirty and a half years old when she received her visions and this is how we know that she was born in 1342. (A scribe editor to one of the surviving manuscripts speaks of her as a ‘devout woman, who is a recluse at Norwich, and still alive, A.D. 1413’).  There is further evidence to be found in a contemporary will that she was alive in 1416, and that she had a maid who lived in a room next to the cell.   Apart from that, we know  nothing else about Julian’s life. However, reading Revelations of Divine Love, reveals  an intelligent, sensitive and very down-to-earth woman who  maintains her trust in God’s goodness whilst addressing doubt, fear and deep theological questions.

St Julian's Church, Norwich, 2009.jpgInterest in Julian’s writings has grown over recent decades  This has been as more and more people have discovered the significance of her book. Her lyrical language and positive image of God  speak to the modern reader. Her work is well-respected by theologians, historians and literary scholars, and there are now dozens of translations of her Revelations, together with countless commentaries. Modern poets and writers as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Denise Levertov, and Iris Murdoch reference Julian in their writing.

Julian’s Shrine, off Rouen Rd. in Norwich (above), is visited by pilgrims from all over the world.

Quotes:

If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.

And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceeding well.

God, of thy goodness, give me Thyself;
for Thou art enough for me,
and I can ask for nothing less
that can be full honor to Thee.
And if I ask anything that is less,
ever Shall I be in want,
for only in Thee have I all.

Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.

Truth sees God, and wisdom contemplates God, and from these two comes a third, a holy and wonderful delight in God, who is love.

More?

Six minute video bio.

Revelations of Divine Love [audio book]

Robert Fruehwirth’s book that puts Julian into action [Amazon] [lecture]

Suggestions for action

Julian’s revelations are not unattainable to any person who is seeking. maybe we all have some kind of early experience that informs much of our lifelong walk with Jesus. spend some time seeking. Let God clarify for you just what you should be hearing. If you really want to take Julian’s example, you will dare to write it all down and meditate on it another day.

May 2 — Athanasius of Alexandria

Today’s Bible reading

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. — Colossians 2:8-15

More thoughts for meditation about Athanasius of Alexandria

“Those who maintain ‘There was a time when the Son was not’ rob God of his Word, like plunderers.”

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), became the 20th bishop of Alexandria. His on-again-off-again service spanned 45 years (c. 8 June 328 – 2 May 373). 17 of those years were served in exile, when he was replaced on the order of four different Roman emperors. Athanasius was a Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century.

Conflict with Arius and Arianism as well as successive Roman emperors shaped Athanasius’ career. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius began his leading role against the Arians as a deacon and assistant to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria during the First Council of Nicaea. Roman emperor Constantine the Great had convened the council to address the Arian position that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is of a distinct substance from the Father. Three years after that council, Athanasius succeeded his mentor as archbishop of Alexandria. In addition to the conflict with the Arians, he struggled against the Emperors Constantine, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens. He was known as Athanasius Contra Mundum (Latin for Athanasius Against the World). “Black Dwarf” was the tag his enemies gave him — and the short, dark-skinned Egyptian bishop had plenty of enemies. In the end, his theological enemies were “exiled” from the church’s teaching, and it is Athanasius’s writings that shaped the future of the church. Nonetheless, within a few years after his death, Gregory of Nazianzus called him the “Pillar of the Church.”

Most his enemies were earned by his stubborn insistence that Arianism, the reigning “orthodoxy” of the day, was in fact a heresy. The dispute began when Athanasius was the chief deacon in Alexandria. While his mentor, Alexander preached with philosophical minuteness on the Trinity, Arius, a presbyter from Libya announced, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.” The argument caught on, but Alexander and Athanasius fought against Arius, arguing that it denied the Trinity. Christ is not of a like substance to God, they argued, but the same substance.

To Athanasius this was no splitting of theological hairs. Salvation was at issue: only one who was fully human could atone for human sin; only one who was fully divine could have the power to save us. To Athanasius, the logic of New Testament doctrine of salvation assumed the dual nature of Christ.  Alexander’s encyclical letter, signed by Athanasius (and possibly written by him), attacked the consequences of the Arians’ heresy: “The Son [then,] is a creature and a work; neither is he like in essence to the Father; neither is he the true and natural Word of the Father; neither is he his true wisdom; but he is one of the things made and created and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms… Wherefore he is by nature subject to change and variation, as are all rational creatures.”

The controversy spread, and all over the empire, Christians could be heard singing a catchy tune that championed the Arian view: “There was a time when the Son was not.” In every city, wrote a historian, “bishop was contending against bishop, and the people were contending against one another, like swarms of gnats fighting in the air.”

Word of the dispute made it to the newly converted Emperor Constantine the Great, who was more concerned with seeing church unity than theological truth. “Division in the church,” he told the bishops, “is worse than war.” To settle the matter, he called a council of bishops.

Of the 1,800 bishops invited to Nicea, about 300 came—and argued, fought, and eventually fleshed out an early version of the Nicene Creed. The council, led by Alexander, condemned Arius as a heretic, exiled him, and made it a capital offense to possess his writings. Constantine was pleased that peace had been restored to the church. Athanasius, whose treatise On the Incarnation laid the foundation for the orthodox party at Nicea, was hailed as “the noble champion of Christ.”

But the Arian heresy did not die out. Within a few months, supporters of Arius talked Constantine into ending Arius’s exile. With a few private additions, Arius even signed the Nicene Creed, and the emperor ordered Athanasius, who had recently succeeded Alexander as bishop, to restore the heretic to fellowship. When Athanasius refused, his enemies spread false charges against him. He was accused of murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason—the last of which led Constantine to exile him to Trier, now a German city near Luxembourg.

Constantine died two years later, and Athanasius returned to Alexandria. But in his absence, Arianism had gained the upper hand. Now church leaders were against him, and they banished him again. Athanasius fled to Pope Julius I in Rome. He returned in 346, but in the mercurial politics of the day, was banished three more times before he came home to stay in 366. By then he was about 70 years old.

While in exile, Athanasius spent most of his time writing, mostly to defend orthodoxy, but he took on pagan and Jewish opposition as well. One of his most lasting contributions is his Life of St. Antony, which helped to shape the Christian ideal of monasticism. The book is filled with tales of Antony’s encounters with the devil, yet Athanasius wrote, “Do not be incredulous about what you hear of him… Consider, rather that from them only a few of his feats have been learned.” In fact, the bishop knew the monk personally, and this saint’s biography is one of the most historically reliable. It became an early “best-seller” and made a deep impression on many people, even helping lead pagans to conversion: Augustine is the most famous example.

During Athanasius’s first year permanently back in Alexandria, he sent his annual letter to the churches in his diocese, called a festal letter. Such letters were used to fix the dates of festivals such as Lent and Easter, and to discuss matters of general interest. In this letter, Athanasius listed what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament: “In these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed,” he wrote. “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.” Though other such lists had been and would still be proposed, it is Athanasius’s list that the church eventually adopted, and it is the one we use to this day.

Quotes:

  • “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
  • “The holy and inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth.”
  • “Jesus became what we are that he might make us what he is.”
  • “You cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.”
  • “Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.”
  • “For, indeed, everything about is marvelous, and wherever a man turns his gaze he sees the Godhead of the Word and is smitten with awe.”
  • “The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”
  • “For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?”
  • “The Greek philosophers have compiled many works with persuasiveness and much skill in words; but what fruit have they to show for this such as has the cross of Christ? Their wise thoughts were persuasive enough until they died.”
  • “Even on the cross he did not hide himself from sight; rather, he made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker.”

More?

Development of New Testament canon

The Incarnation from the Coptics.

Video bio and Arian controversy

Catholic history 

Controversy about “deification

Suggestions for action

Athanasius is also known as the “father of orthodoxy.” He helped refine doctrines that set the baseline for true faith and set the final parameters on the New Testament. He was fighting for the church’s life in a time when the government wanted to exploit it and society was absorbing it according to its own image. Nothing is new under the sun.

What do you think the Lord would like you to fight for in this era? What truth is threatened? What necessity is being watered down or lost? If we want to leave a coherent faith for the next generation, what  should we do?