Praying with the Church

Praying w/the ChurchI just received Scot McKnight’s book, Praying with the Church, in the mail yesterday. Scot writes simply and with great clarity, so I finished it over the course of the day. I would highly recommend this for anyone who is considering fixed-hour prayer. McKnight gives a helpful biblical foundation for this practice, and suggests that Jesus himself was a practitioner. The book seems to have been written for a fairly conservative evangelical audience, given the time spent explaining the reasons that this kind of prayer isn’t “vain repetition,” but it is a profitable read for persons of all theological stripes.

The most helpful part for me was McKnight’s approach to the large variety of prayer books and recommendations for where and how to begin this practice. All of this is cast alongside his and his wife’s experience working out the practices of fixed-hour prayer in their own lives.As I said before, this book is written with great simplicity and clarity, so it is laudably approachable by anyone. If you want to tap into this ancient practice and begin a journey into a life of prayer, this book is a terrific place to start.

While I read, I kept thinking and dreaming about instituting these practices in a local Church. What if a large church staff gathered each morning and evening anchoring their lives in common prayer? What if a downtown United Methodist Church offered the morning office for the faithful few who would attend? How could pastors encourage one another in fixed-hour prayer rhythms? Would a bi-yearly retreat where the entire office was prayed communally make a difference? What would district conferences look like if they were determined by prayer rhythms instead of the clock? Could our business meetings come to a halt when the time for prayer rolled around?

Anyone else out there read this or practice fixed-hour prayer? How can you see this implemented in the life of your church?

The Eucharist of Solomon – 1 Kings 4

EucharistI’ve finished Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew and have turned to Peter Leithart’s work on 1 & 2 Kings. So far, so good. Even though I disagree with Leithart on some of the theological implications he draws at a few points, this is still an extremely rich theological commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, a book I’ve never really studied. I highly recommend it.

In chapter 4, we see Israel flourishing under the rule of Solomon, who is a new Adam for the Israelites as well as one who fulfills the rule of Joshua. In verse 4:20, we find the Israelites celebrating this reign, “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy (NRSV).” These activities, “eating, drinking, and rejoicing,” were the activities of the central sanctuary and of worship (p. 51), and they are also the joy we experience in Holy Communion.

In the next verses (4:22-23), we find a list that has no apparent connections with Eucharist on the surface,

“Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl.

Yet Leithart brings out some very fascinating connections,

Solomon’s menu includes meat that is not part of Israel’s sacrificial feasting. Sacrificial animals represent Israel, while clean wild animals symbolize Gentile ‘God-fearers.’ As Gentile nations are incorporated into the body of Solomon’s kingdom, so ‘Gentile’ animals are incorporated into his physical body (p. 51).”

In this passage a simple list of seven animals prepared for Solomon’s table become a portrait of God’s table hospitality. “The Gentiles eat the crumbs that fall from his table, and this typifies the greater Solomon who sets up a table in the center of the world, one so abundant that it feeds humanity (p. 51).”

Next Sunday, most of us will celebrate Holy Communion. As we prepare for this gracious feast, let’s remember the Solomonic feast. It really seems to be a celebration of magnificent proportions. How much more then should those of us who worship the one greater than Solomon be involved in a glorious celebration. Even though we will remember the bitterness of the Passion, we shouldn’t forget the table we set is the table open to all people – a table of forgiveness, joy, hospitality, and grand celebration!

(graphic from adoremus.org) 

Christian Objections to Intelligent Design

Francis Collins, one of our leading geneticists and the longtime head of the Human Genome Project, has a new book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The book gives an interesting account of Collins’ journey to the Christian faith and is an exploration of his thoughts on the interaction between faith and science. He doesn’t offer any revolutionary insights, but does talk about many interesting topics in a manner that is very accessible for the novice who is interested in this field.

One thing Collins describes is very helpful. Many people have asked me why a scientist who is a Christian would ever be opposed to intelligent design, and I haven’t been able to give a concise answer to that question. Collins offers a very helpful chapter on just that, and I’ll summarize some of his points below. All of this information is summarized from Collins’ book (pp. 181-195).

Intelligent design (ID), in its current form, is about 15 years old. It appeared in 1991 when Phillip Johnson, a Christian lawyer at UC Berkeley, published Darwin on Trial which first laid out the position. Michael Behe, a biochemist, introduced the idea of irreducible complexity (a key to the ID position) in the book Darwin’s Black Box.

ID has roughly three propositions

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God.
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (e.g. bacterial flagellum, the blood coagulation complex, and the process of vision in the eye).
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necessary components during the course of evolution.

Collins admits these objections appear compelling, but goes on to present scientific objections to ID. First, he suggests ID fails to even qualify as a scientific theory. Theories not only make sense of experimental observations, but look forward as well. ID simply cannot suggest further experimental verification. “Outside the development of a time machine, verification of the ID theory seems profoundly unlikely.”

Second, “ID theory does not provide a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural intervention would give rise to complexity.” Further damaging ID theory is the recent development in cell and molecular biology whereby irreducible complexity is being shown not to be reducible after all. Collins suggests ID proponents have confused the unknown with the unknowable. For instance, the human blood clotting cascade (which I had the privelege of working on during my graduate studies) is slowing becoming understood as a system that has developed incrementally over time.

“So,” Collins concludes, “ID fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity.” For Collins, ID is slowing being revealed to be a complicated “God of Gaps” approach where God is ascribed to various natural phenomena that the science of the day is unable to sort out. Futhermore, he believes that ID,

“portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image (p. 194).”

Collins closes this chapter with admiration for the sincerity and faith of those who endorse and advance intelligent design. He also admits to undertsanding ID as a reaction of those who have faced outspoken evolutionists who portray evolutionary theory as demanding atheism. He then closes the chapter with these words, “To the believer and the scientist alike, I say there is a clear, compelling, and intellectually satisfying solution to this search for truth (p. 195).”  In the following chapter, Collins lays out his understanding of science and faith in harmony – a synthesis known in many circles as Theistic Evolution.  Perhaps I’ll outline that on another day.  What do you think of Collins’ response to ID?

A Good Man is Hard to Find on Ash Wednesday

Flannery O'ConnorOn Ash Wednesday, I’m going to weave my sermon together with Flannery O’Connor’s short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. This story follows an escaped murderer, the Misfit, and his encounter with a family on their way to vacation in Florida. The grandmother of this group is tranformed in a moment at the end of the story as she’s facing death at the hands of the Misfit and reaches out to include him as one of her own children in a moment of sheer grace. The Misfit recoils and shoots her, later saying, ” “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

I believe this is a powerful statement on the way death can tranform our lives. When we are aware of our mortality, it profoundly changes the way we live. I think this is sort of what Ash Wednesday is all about. In the midst of life, we are slowly (or not so slowly) moving closer to death. Let’s hope we don’t need someone there to shoot us every minute to remind of us of this fact and to inspire us to life a life filled with grace, love, joy, and peace. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible

The new theological commentary on the bible by Brazos Press is something I’m incredibly excited about. The first commentary on Acts by Jaroslav Pelikan was good in its own way, but it seemed to use Acts as a springboard for theological exposition more than what I would expect in a theological commentary. Then again, there is no consensus on what theological commentary really is! Don’t misunderstand here, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, just a little different than I expected.

MatthewOn the other hand, Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew is more what I expected from a commentary series from a theological perspective. It is a narrative reading of the gospel that intentionally interacts with theological themes and asks the question, “What kind of theological perspective is Matthew trying to create?” Even though you’ll get a steady dose of SH (depending on your perspective that may be good or bad), you’ll also get an incredibly enriching and fresh reading of Matthew’ Gospel. This is my devotional reading right now as I’m reading it along with the Gospel itself, and I find it challenging and spiritually deep. I look forward to reading the commentary on I & II Kings by Peter Leithart

Breviary Envy

During my Clinical Pastoral Education stint at the University of Kentucky, I had the pleasure of working with three Catholic seminarians. They were great guys and as different as you can possibly imagine. Yet, one thing they held in common was a large black book called a Breviary. As you may know, the Breviary is a book used to pray the Divine Hours. It contains the Psalter, prayers, scripture, excerpts from the lives of Saints, and so on. Well, as a good United Methodist I had what I like to call “Breviary Envy.” We don’t really have something like that, with the exception of the materials from the Order of Saint Luke, and we are certainly under no orders to pray the Divine Hours.

Even though I had this envy, I never purchased any of the Catholic Breviaries. Maybe I felt like it would be too “Catholic,” or some Protestant sentiment like that. However, a few months ago I heard about The Anglican Breviary, and thought that would be something a good Wesley-honoring United Methodist can get a little more excited about! Perhaps having Anglican on the cover would give me a good Protestant excuse to pray the Ave, Maria! So I went to Daniel Lula’s website and began to check it out.

From 1916 to 1955, scholars laboriously translated the Anglican Breviary, but according to Lula, it fell out of favor as early as the 60s due to modernizing trends. As he puts it:

By the early to mid 1990s, the Anglican Breviary was all but extinct. Apart from the quiet recitation of Tridentine Catholic priests and religious, a few devoted Anglo-Catholics, and those students of Gregorian Chant, the historic Daily Office had virtually perished in the Western Church.

Once again citing from Lula’s website, he decided to keep the Breviary in print through organizing a reprint,

In early 1998, I first considered the possibility of organizing a private reprint of the Anglican Breviary. Believing that only such a move could save this great liturgical work for future generations, I commissioned the reprint, taking the example of the Breviary’s original creators in trusting God to bless the enterprise. The response has been overwhelming, and by early 2001 a second reprint was necessary. I am committed to keeping the Breviary in print in perpetuity, and to assisting all those who wish to learn to recite the historic Divine Office to do so.

As formidiable as the Anglican Breviary is, I look forward to using it as a tool to deepen and enrich my prayer life. I don’t plan on using it exclusively at this point, but I do plan on becoming familiar with it and learning from the depth of Christian Tradition that is contained therein.

Christian Preaching as a Traditioned Practice

The third chapter of Christian Preaching: A Trinitarian Theology of Proclamation touches on the importance of seeing preaching as a traditioned practice. According to Pasquarello, our preaching should drink deeply from the wells of Tradition and look to those who have exhibited faithfulness throughout their lives. Here a citation of John Henry Newman summarizes the point, “…we must trust persons, namely those who by long acquaintance with their subject have a right to judge (p. 68).” In other words, we need to look to those who have proven faithful and examine their thought and preaching in order to more fully express the Gospel message. However, while doing this we can’t ignore their context. Preaching, if it is to be faithful, is contextual even when modeling content after those faithful saints who have gone on before. Pasquarello continues,

“Much of the perceived ‘deadness,’ ‘staleness,’ and ‘irrelevance’ of contemporary Christianity is arguable related to a deep loss of memory and constitutive practices, a lack of freshness, vitality, and personal knowledge that is the fruit of a common life shared in God’s presence, shaped by God’s Word, sustained by God’s Spirit (p. 69).”

I would add that this is a great call for those of us who are living ministry within a post-modern paradigm. In a post-Christian world, we don’t need less Scripture a la the pragmatic evangelicals (to us a designation borrowed from Robert Webber) in order to relate to those who are unchurched. Instead, we need more Scripture to resurrect our identity as people of the Story of God. Our preaching will then follow the narrative of God’s Word and be shaped in ways that correspond to the great Christian preaching throughout our common history.

Furthermore, if we are to be the preachers God has called us to be we need to understand the communal aspects of preaching that extend beyond the community of the living,

“To become a preacher of the Word, then, is to be transformed into a certain kind of person for service within a distinctive community. It is to be made part of the history of a practice and a bearer of its tradition. It is to acquire the intellectual and moral skills necessary for stewardship of the gospel and its gifts, which we have received through the work of the Spirit and the witness of the saints.”

If this is true, and I believe it is, we need to immerse ourselves in the great preachers of the Christian Tradition. John Chrysostom, Hildegaard of Bingen, and Augustine should probably occupy a place next to our commentaries and Bibles when preparing sermons. This is a reason I’m so excited about Brazos Press’ new series found here. I have the first release by Jaroslav Pelikan, and look forward to using this as a rich resource for preaching. Through these and similar works, we are able to get a rich sense of the tradition on particular texts and provide a spiritual and theological depth to our preaching that we would otherwise be unable to provide.

Is preaching this way difficult? Yes, it’s a vocation. I pray we can press on toward the goal to be faithful stewards of God’s Word.

Christian Preaching as a Theological Practice

In the second chapter of Christian Preaching: A Trinitarian Theology of Proclamation Pasquarello speaks of preaching as a practice (in the McIntyrian sense) that is theological. He borrows heavily from Augustine’s De doctrina christiana and suggests that preaching is a theological and spiritual journey for the preacher. Preaching is therefore an act that begins in prayer and ends in praise (p. 39). In spite of modernity’s push to seperate the two, Pasquarello sees preaching being a central point where the theological disciplines can be reconnected with the study of doctrine and Scripture all in the ecclesial setting from which they should naturally arise.

Pasquarello exhorts the preacher to reject forms of preaching and teaching that reduce the message of Scripture to rules, ideals, and points. Instead, he argues for a very Barthian reclamation of a full-bodied expression of the mystery of Christ narrated from the overarching story of Scripture. “Christian speech must resist the urge to close and finish what is said (p. 47).” This makes me think of a post by Beth Quick, a MethoBlogger, some time ago. She said she often failed to follow Adam Hamilton’s advice on giving concrete actions during the sermon. Perhaps Beth is more faithful to the theological vision of Scripture that Pasquarello offers and is more responsive to God’s ongoing narrative of grace in the world. Then again, I struggle too with appealing to popular sensibilities and would prefer giving more pragmatic sermons. Yet, Pasquarello goes on to quote Willimon who wrote, “To use the church’s worship for any purpose other than the glorification of God is to abuse worship…Utilitarianism remains the greatest temptation in American Christian worship… (p. 48).” Preaching as a theological practice means moving away from human-centered activity to preaching as a God-centered activity.

This is a challenging vision and gives us much to think about prayerfully.

Christian Preaching

PasquarelloI just recieved a new book that I’m very excited about. Christian Preaching: A Trinitarian Theology of Proclamation, written by my preaching professor Dr. Mike Pasquarello, is an attempt to change the subject of preaching from ourselves to the Triune God (p. 10). Pasquarello believes that, “…much popular, pragmatic preaching reduces the church’s affirmation of the creating and redeeming activity of the Trinity to manageable size by focusing on and offering principles to apply, rules to follow, and things to do.” He continues, “This approach is essentially a form of ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ that places the sovereign self at the center of salvation, church, and world rather than the Triune God (p. 9).”

Pasquarello believes that many of the technique oriented approaches to preaching puts the emphasis on the wrong subject. Instead of new ideas and pragmatic methods, he suggests we preachers need, “for our lives and the lives of those to whom we preach to be more truthfully located within the gospel – the life, work, and speech of the Triune God (pp. 10-11).”

These points do not make one the most popular preaching professor when facing a bunch of folks training for the weekly grind of a ministry involving preaching! Most of my classes with Dr. Pasquarello had at least a student or two who were pretty frustrated because they wanted techniques, methods, and “stuff” that works. If it’s technique you want, there is no shortage of books out there for you to read, but there are very few modern works that seek to ground preaching in the Triune life of God. I really am looking forward to reading this book, and hope to interact with it here on the blog as I read along.

Advent with Robert Jenson

Robert W. Jenson - Systematic Theology For Advent, I am reading Robert W. Jenson’s Systematic Theology. What better way to prepare for our Lord’s arrival! So far, I am floored by Jenson’s breadth, depth, and at times…clarity. He is a terrific writer and the only reason there aren’t more of these crystalline moments is my own lack of breadth and depth theologically and philosophically. There is something powerful about reading first rate theology such as this as you prepare week-in and week-out to preach to a congregation hungry for God. It seems to me that our quest to communicate the mystery of faith is aided insofar as we are willing to passionately pursue answers to our own questions about the faith. That’s why I read folks like Jenson. He’s willing to face the tough questions. For instance, like Pannenberg, he believes Feuerbach’s assertion that “God” is simply human interest writ large is an important assertion to interact with and question. I’m about half-way through this now, and I look forward to delving further into the mystery of our Triune God.