Friday, July 24, 2009


I've been working my way through Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer. I’m nearly finished and hope to post a few reflections on my reading in the near future.

People are receiving the Christian understanding of prayer as “contemplation” in a number of ways. There are some like Concerned Nazarenes and Lighthouse Trails that think it has absolutely no place in the future of the people of God. Others from a variety of traditions think otherwise--Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Robert Benson, Richard Foster, etc. (at least those are some of my favorite contemporaries). There is of course the whole mystic tradition in Christianity--Evagrius Ponticus, Benedict, John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, and Brother Lawrence, to name a few.

I am discouraged by those who cannot see the value of this part of the Christian tradition. I hope someday that they will change there minds. I have less contact with the people involved with Lighthouse Trails than with Concerned Nazarenes. I have deep roots and ties with the Church of the Nazarene and am saddened by the apparent naivety of what they have to say, especially when it seems that the contemplative tradition sounds so much like what Nazarenes and Wesleyans have said about holiness.

Here are a couple of quotes from Thomas Merton that I think are really really good. He emphasizes grace as that which transforms us, something that holiness folk have always talked about but seldom really practiced, save for a few. We talk a lot about receiving the grace of God in such a way that love takes control of our lives in a way that it never had before. And we say that only God can do this. But it seems that we really still try and do this by abiding by a particular form of Christian spirituality that “we” have deemed appropriate. Thus, holiness is about a certain kind of Christianity. Thus, it is at this point where Christians battle over which theology is better than the other rather than conversing about how different theologies can help us pray. We might be surprised to discover that different theological reflections can be in service to one another as they help us practice silence and stillness so that we might encounter God and live lives of love.

Merton suggest that emptiness from all “forms”, all religious “schemes”, all of our “ways” is the goal. True emptiness is a stillness from our efforts to attain stilllness/emptiness. The goal of prayer for the Christian is total emptiness of all our ways so that we can truly encounter God and His way. The practice of prayer is a patient waiting. It is learning true stillness, true silence, true darkness. It is releasing our selves from our own self-deceptions, which is always a terrifying place to be. It is a place where we have let our guard down, where we have said, “it cannot be my way,” where we are truly vulnerable. But it is here where we are always truly able to have faith.

But enough of my take. Here’s Merton.
"The contemplative way is, in fact, not a way. Christ alone is the way, and he is invisible. The 'desert' of contemplation is simply a metaphor to explain the state of emptiness which we experience when we have left all way, forgotten ourselves and taken the invisible Christ as our way."
“In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light.”
“An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself.”
This next quote seems to be a possible point of connection between those holiness folk who fear “contemplation” and those who don’t.
“The character of emptiness, at least, for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom. Love that is free of everything, not determined by any thing, or held down by any special relationship. It is love for love’s sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite charity of God. And so when Jesus told his disciples to love, he told them to love as universally as the Father who sends his rain alike on the just and the unjust. ‘Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ This purity, freedom and indeterminateness of love is the very essence of Christianity, it is to this above all that monastic prayer aspires.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


“John Wesley recognized the ambiguities of Matthew 25:31-46 but did not allow them to deter him from responding to persons in need. To those who wondered ‘what does it avail to feed or clothe men’s bodies, if they are just dropping into everlasting fire?’ Wesley responded, ‘whether they will finally be lost or saved, you are expressly commanded to fee the hungry, and clothe the naked. If you can, and do not, whatever becomes of them, you shall go away into everlasting fire.’ He strongly resisted any attempts to narrow the scope of responsibility or to dull the intensity of the passage.”

(Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Revelation 4

We continue with our ever so brief reflections on the book of Revelation with chapter 4. Really, chapters 4 and 5 are the heart of the book, but we can only tackle one this week. Rev 4:1 says, “after these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven.” When we last left off, Christ was standing at the door and knocking. Now we see that as Christ is asking all of humanity to open their lives to Him, so is He opening His life to all humanity. There is an interesting parallel, or overlap, at work here of God’s call to faithfulness and His initiative in working out His salvation on earth as it is in heaven. The call to faithfulness is grace-ful. God is at work—he is among his people (Rev 1:13)—strengthening and preparing them to follow Him.

The voice of the glorified Christ (“the sound of a trumpet speaking”) then calls John to “come up” and see “what must take place after these things.” What John sees is a scene of the heavenly throne room. Here is a scene of all creation rightly order around God’s rule and reign. This is the “vantage point” for which John wants his readers to makes sense of everything that He is going to say (Koester, 75). It is from this reality that they are to make sense of the world. There is a lot going on in this scene. Notice the rainbow around the throne draws our imaginations to the story of Noah. God is intent on a peaceful creation. We see that humans are not the center of everything. In fact they are sort of ambiguously positioned in terms of the twenty-four elders, which seems to highlight their role as having dominion over creation as God’s image bearers. But they are also positioned as one of the four creatures flying around the throne where they are given equal status with the rest of creation, as these four creatures are symbolic of creation as a whole. There is also mention of the sea. Throughout Scripture the sea is symbolic of chaos. It is symbolic of the collective powers of evil at work in the world that contradict the rule and reign of God. On the one hand we are encouraged by this because the sea is still. God has calmed the waters (Mark 4:35-41). God has overcome the power of evil. God is sovereign over all things. On the other hand we are a big discouraged because the sea is still present. God has over come, but not rid the world of the potential of evil. This is part of what is at work in this revelation. We are going to see God’s subduing and final defeat of every force of evil at work in the world that contradicts His rule and reign.

Perspective is central again. Depending on whether or not persecution, accommodation, or complacency characterizes the situation of the seven churches (and we could also say our own) will determine whether or not this vision of the heavenly throne room is a good thing. The one who walks with His people, amidst their life circumstances where persecution, complacency, and accommodation are possibilities, is the one at the center of it all. John draws the imagination of His readers into the reality that from God’s perspective, all of creation is rightly ordered around and is going to finally be right ordered around His rule and reign. The eschatological tension is clear here. God is already sovereign, but there is still work to be done in finally ridding the world of evil and maybe even the potential of evil. This is a vision of the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to the seven churches that those who conquer will sit with Him on his throne (Rev 3:21; Koester, 71).

This is actually a question I am asking of Revelation. What of the absence of the sea in Rev. 21:1? Does this simply mean that evil as been finally overcome or that even the potential of evil is overcome?

One other thing John is doing when he writes this vision of the throne room is calling into question other such displays of praise of earthly rulers. It was common for public appearances of the emperor to resemble the throne room, with the ruler sitting high on the throne accompanied by the praise of those seeking to rise up in social status heaping their praises. John wants his hearer/readers to see that such popular displays of power are really a parody of the true rule and reign of God (Koester, 75). Clearly, the nature of the churches participation in the social order is going to be of great importance throughout the rest of the book. We have already seen this in the seven churches.

It is important to let the book of Revelation stand on its own as a piece of literature. Those in a hurry to discover “what must take place after these things,” as if the bible were a puzzle book of answers such that all we have to do is piece it together, will miss the significance of the vision of the heavenly throne room. Of first importance for faithfulness is not insight into current events in terms of times and place and players, as we see in popular culture and theologies such as Left Behind. Rather, the first thing we need is a vision of the reality of God rule and reign and the understanding that whatever is to unfold is based on the reality of God’s rule and reign. Our first response to God in this world as his followers is not fear and condemnation of others, but worship and submission to a way of being in the world characteristic of Jesus, which leads us nicely into Chapter five where we learn that we are priest, which anticipates also another sustaining vision of the heavenly throne room in Rev 14:4, where we learn that are called to follow the lamb wherever He goes. But I am getting way too ahead of myself. I hope you are beginning to see at the very least how it all connects and overlaps and repeats for the sake of what is actually a very simply revelation in terms of its message. But we’ll get to that also.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

One from Ol' Saint Johnny de la Crucis

"To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you mst go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not."

(quoted in Richard Rohr, Simplicity: The Art of Living, 14)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Revelation 1-3

For a couple of months now I have been thinking about a way to be a better student of the bible. While a better discipline is being formed in me in terms of daily prayer (involves a lot of bible reading; the Psalms particularly), I have not yet found some kind of rhythm in which I can devote serious time to reading good biblical commentaries. It occurred to me that I should make this a part of a blogging discipline in hopes that it becomes something of a help for my church, particularly, with whom I do most of reading, as well as those few who like to pop over to this blog from time to time. Therefore, I hope to offer some weekly thoughts, a chapter (or so) at a time on books of the bible that I am studying. Since I took a class a little while ago on the book of Revelation I thought I would start there. There is no way I will be able to exhaust this baby. What I hope is that these posts are helpful for gaining insight into how this text moves and not necessarily what it says or means, although we certainly cannot avoid this. We’re going to swing on some of major hinges of the book of Revelation for a while and see if we can’t make some sense of it. For this post, I’d like to reflect on Revelation 1-3, with the masterful guidance of Craig Koester’s Revelation and the End of All Things. And so, in the now immortal words (at least to me) of a brilliant new movie I watched this last weekend… away we go!

We might imagine 1:1-8 as John’s voice-over offer some preliminary narration. At 1:9-20 where the curtain first opens in the drama, John meets the glorified Christ. At 2:1-3:22 are the messages to the seven churches. Theses messages are addressed individually, but they are not meant to be private (56). They were meant to be open letters, someone else mail, written to specific contexts but available for others who share a larger socio-politico-economic reality—the Roman Empire. These messages deal with three overarching themes—assimilation, persecution, and complacency (57ff).

Perspective describes the major movement of this section. The placement of 1:9-20 within the text is significant. Before anything happens, John offers his readers a sustaining vision for what is to follow. This is not the only sustaining vision, as we will see. John is given a number of sustaining visions that guide the readers along the way as they encounter the vision. The first thing we read about is not a future event but a present reality (54). The glorified Christ who is to appear again one day is not absent from His people, the lampstands. This is good news! The glorified Christ is present among His people.

The language John uses to describe the voice that he sees is drawn from the Old Testament. He uses this language in such a way so as to remain in continuity with the ancient people of God, namely no idolatry. With masterful prose, John articulates perhaps the most developed Trinitarian theology in the New Testament. This one who is present among His people is none other than the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the cosmos. It is this one who is first and last, who touches John on the shoulder. He is near!

The opening chapters in the book of Revelation set the stage for what is to follow. It remains to be seen whether or not the glorified Christ present among His people and in the world is a good thing. It depends on your perspective. This is where the context offered by the messages to the seven churches is crucial for the text. It provides the context in which to make sense of the presence of Christ and the vision that follows throughout the text. Churches that lend themselves to complacency and/or assimilation with the culture might find the judgment of God rather disconcerting, to put it mildly, if they don’t change their ways. Likewise, those who have been about the love and justice of God and are facing persecution of various kinds will find hope in the presence and judgment of Christ. The major movement of this section challenges our perspective of the world. It challenges us to ask: how do I see the world? What’s the overarching framework in which I make sense of things?

So, there’s the first reflection. It feels very inadequate. Much more could be said, but it is what it’s going to be. But ask questions if you want. Or disagree.