Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Personal Reflections: Praying the Hours

While I sat at our small kitchen table with the Celebrating Common Prayer open alongside Lancelot Andrew’s Private Prayers I did not immediately realize that I was participating in something that stretched back to traditions rooted in the Israel’s prayer practices. I’ve been taught, and discipled, to not privilege tradition but theology. I remember being stunned, at William Temple’s suggestion, that all faith and theological teaching stemmed from Christ’s historic teaching from the real tangible boats, mountain tops, and valleys. When I told an old friend he subtly chided me, “Bryan—while I agree—don’t you think that we have a more immediate connection to Christ through His Holy Spirit which is now at work within us and the church bringing us into all truth?” I agreed. He was right—the historic should never be privileged over the spiritual and theological. That, as it seems, leads to the person destroying traditionalism toted around by the Pharisees of Jesus’ own day. Still, when the historic and the spiritual kiss, or at least shake hands—there, I now confidently think, is reason for rejoicing. I don’t think my slow change of perspective has come about because of my own desire to be faddish, or to be cool amidst Regent student’s championing of things ancient and sacramental. No, my embrace of the historic—while certainly informed by my time here at Regent—is rooted in my realizing that God operates in time. As Christ’s hands bear the marks of the cross, so history bears the marks of the Holy Spirit engaging with the great mess we make, working for its redemption. History, in one way or another contains the spiritual—even now. To deny history and the traditions our fathers and mothers give us is to deny how the Holy Spirit has worked in our past—this as it seems is far from gracious.

So I read through Celebrating Common Prayer and Andrew’s Private Prayers with a growing sense that I was surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” My faith, I came to see, wasn’t my own thing. It was God’s thing and because it was God’s it was also the church’s, and because it was the church’s it was historical. And because, in the end, faith wasn’t about me—it wasn’t my thing—I came to experience relief. I didn’t have to forge ahead by my own self-will and spontaneity alone. In this way the prayers I read were like verbal grace—they were not something I did but something I participated in and received.

I read that the offices, though formally implemented with Benedict, were inspired by John Cassian, who was in turn inspired by desert monks, who in turn were inspired by the Psalms. History, I came to see, is like a great scroll that only stops unrolling at the words, “In the beginning God created […].”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Gary Thomas' Beautiful Fight

"Beautiful" and "fight," they're two words you don't see together often. Yet in Gary Thomas' latest book The Beautiful Fight they are strung together most excellently. Thomas, adjunct professor at Western Seminary and award winning author, is drawing his title from the Orthodox Fathers' reading of 2nd Timothy 4:7-8. This text, more commonly translated as "the good fight," is an apt gloss for Thomas' thoughts on the spiritual life.

The Christian spiritual life is the common denominator throughout the three sections and16 chapters. Thomas does this by fusing together the genius and wisdom of biblical passages, church fathers (such as Clement of Alexandria and Athanasius), medieval mystics (Julian of Norwich), Puritan divines (John Flavel), along with contemporary voices like J.I. Packer, N.T. Wright, and John Piper. One thing, that's evident even at a glance, is that Thomas' thoughts on the Christian spiritual life aren't monochrome. He doesn't confine himself to the contemporary--a common error in American evangelicalism--neither does he stick to a particular theological tradition, nor one aspect of the Christian spiritual life. Instead Thomas, with a discerning ecumenism, shows that the essential witness of Christian spirituality is one of harmony. With this in mind, he writes, "Christian Spirituality is all about [...] our Creator and Lord taking ordinary people and making them potent instruments of God."

In Beautiful Fight Thomas answers the call which many Christians are longing for. That is, what does it mean to have an embodied and active faith. He does this by weaving in life-stories from his time at Regent College to his life as a husband and father. Because of his integration of life and thought the reader feels that the book is at least in part an invitation into a dialogue on, about, and over the Christian spiritual life. And it's a conversation that is of the utmost importance; every where we turn, it seems, there is another front page article on `spirituality' or another book on the `spirituality of (fill in the blank).' In a world where everyone from Oprah to your local barista is a `spirituality' expert it is refreshing to hear a voice which articulates a Holy Spirit-uality.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly's terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdson, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn't, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free fringed tangle. Freedom is the world's water and weather, the world's nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.

- Annie Dillard
Teaching a Stone to Talk